The New Exhibit
(c)1996 by Daniel Craven
"Goddamn place is falling apart." Rollins was a dour man pushing sixty-three from the wrong side. His hair was a shocking white; his eyes a watery but brightly observant blue; his cheeks and nose the color of blossoming roses. All in all, Vanessa thought him the very model of an Irish grandfather. From what she had seen and heard of him so far, he was a pretty amusing character, but she had wisely did her best to avoid even the smallest laugh. She needed the money too badly to risk not getting this job because of an ill-timed giggle.
The huge ring of keys that depended from Rollins' belt jingled merrily as he unlocked the door to the gift shop and let her in. She was a tall girl, around 5'8", athletically built from eight years of dance school, and had a quite lovely fall of auburn hair that reached to the middle of her back. Her inquisitive hazel eyes scanned the gift shop as she circled around the battered wooden shelves and the positively antique counter. Atop the counter was the cash register: an iron monster that dated back to the Depression at the very latest. The place was falling apart, and it was really pretty sad: the four windows that looked onto the main courtyard were dirty and flyspecked (one had an ugly crack running right down the middle of it); most of the shelves were sagging and mostly empty, the scratched wood lying under a scrim of dust; and the merchandise of plush animals, books, posters, and chintzy plastic toys were jumbled and badly organized.
"I guess it isn't surprising," Rollins sighed as he maneuvered himself behind the counter. "Folks just don't come out here anymore. Place is ugly, especially compared to the new places. And everything's so run down and in such bad need of repair..." He trailed off with a shrug, slammed the side of the cash register, and caught the money drawer as it shot out before it could collide with his considerable belly. "You sure you want to work the summer here, Miss Schrader? It's a dead end job, if you ask me. And boring, to boot. You'll clear a little over two grand if you work the whole summer, I guess, but with so few people coming out here it'll be lonely." She smiled winningly. "I'll be all right. This is a fun place to work no matter what. I have the animals to keep me company, if no one else." Rollins grinned back at her. "I guess you do, at that. Speakin' of which, I ought to show you around, just in case anyone's got any questions for you. Or if you have to fill in as a tourguide. That happens, you know. We get these young kids in here who don't give a crap about their work ethic, slack off at the end of the summer, don't come in without even calling in sick. It used to drive Billy crazy, God rest 'im. Karen told me you're gonna major in this stuff when you start school next year?" She nodded. "Well, I'm sorry I couldn't get you a guide job -- that gets filled pretty quickly -- but I'll see what I can do if someone doesn't work out."
"That'd be great, Mr. Rollins. What do you think chances of that happening are?" He sighed and slammed the cash drawer shut. "Pretty damn good, actually. From my standpoint I wish that weren't so...but it is. Let's get going." Templeton Zoological Gardens had been built in 1876 as part of the New Orleans Centennial celebration. At the time it had no doubt been considered state-of-the- art, but by today's standards it was really not much more than a damp and crumbling prison for wild animals. The industrial green paint did very little to hide the pitted holes of rust that festooned the bars of the cages, and in more than a few places the dull maroon bricks were powdered at the corners, giving the various animal areas a queerly rounded look. Rollins dutifully showed her around the Arctic World (penguins and polar bears living side by side, God praise the clever mind o' man), the African Steppes, and the Himalayas -- all fairly run down, only filled to half capacity at best (except for the monkey house, which was thriving as usual) and on the whole rather bleak. Vanessa thought it likely this might be the last summer the zoo management would be taking on temporary help ... assuming it survived into the next year at all.
"Now this," Rollins said with a touch of pride as they circled their way back to the gift shop, "was the pride an' joy of the place for a while -- I guess til '67 or so, when they built the big Davis Zoological Gardens over t' Shreveport. It's still a sight better than most of the place, but it's day is pretty much past." With an almost comical bow, Rollins guided her between the weathered stone pillars, one topped with a lion's head; the other with a tiger's.
The cat enclosure was perhaps three-quarters full -- but here was something quite different, for each big cat had, in addition to its classification and a miniature map of their natural habitat, a gracefully stencilled plaque with a name on it. The panther "Blaque Claw"; the lion "Kingfisher"; the tiger "Lady Xeno" (making her a tigress, Vanessa supposed with a grin.) She was in seventh heaven. Ever since she had been a girl she had admired the big cats: their grace, thier power, their beauty, and more than anything else, their mystery. She had in some way dealt with animals nearly her whole life -- she had been everything from a stablehand at the age of twelve to a receptionist in a veterinarian's office just this past school year -- but it was only in the luminous feline eyes that she had seen anything approaching a human soul ... and in quite a few instances, something exceeding that.
She paused by the leopard's cage. According to the plaque he was known as "King Tut." Tut paced back and forth in his confines, scenting the air as she stopped, then sauntering casually over to her. He sat on his haunches, his amber eyes peering down at her like a haughty monarch reviewing his subjects. He's perfectly named, she thought, leaning against the bars on her elbows. Tut crouched down, his tail switching lazily.
She looked over her shoulder at Rollins. "This one is beautiful! He looks so young -- when did the zoo get him?" He did look quite young in comparison to the other cats: Kingfisher was fat and deep in a torpid doze; and she swore she could see tufts of grey in Blaque Claw's velvety fur.
Rollins ambled over to the cage, looking a tad confused. "Well yeah, Tut was probably the best cat we had in our collection. I guess you must have read about him. He's been dead ... oh, nine or ten years now." Vanessa blinked and looked back to the cage. It was not only empty, but a gaping hole in its red brick roof let streams of June sunlight in. The stencilling that named the Leopard was badly worn and nearly illegible. But that isn't possible, she thought wonderingly, peering at the ancient and disused straw lining the floor of the cage. I saw the leopard in there. I know I did.
"Come on," Rollins said, now sounding a bit exasperated. "Gates open at ten -- you got maybe twenty minutes to set the shop up. Let's move." It was, as Rollins had indicated, a boring job. She wished for a paperback to read most of the time, and the odd customer was usually some eight year old brat screaming for a coloring book. God knew she wanted to have children some day (she even had a candidate for the father in mind, though thinking of that particular act, even with Bill, brought a wild blush to her cheeks), but at this point in her life she found them something less than a joy and something more than a nuisance.
Much of her thoughts during the many slow parts of the day focused on King Tut. She was positive she had seen him -- or was she? She had never hallucinated before, but maybe her wish to see a leopard (they were her favorite of all the big cats) was so strong her mind had granted it by warping duty sunlight and old straw into a spotted vision. She resolved to return to Tut's cage before she went home tonight, just to make sure her eyes wouldn't play any more tricks on her.
The summer dusk had faded to a nightfall dimly lit by a thin sliver of the waning moon. The bars threw oddly disturbing shadows across the cobbled path of the cat enclosure, shadows that were made even more eerie by the pacing cats, who were now quite a bit more restless than they had been this morning. Kingfisher's eyes followed her across the compound. Blaque Claw's glittered playfilly as he pounced back and forth from the branch that he usually slept on. Lady Xeno endlessly rubbed against the bars, sometimes baring her still- impressive fangs. Usually Vanessa would have leapt at a chance to see them behave this way, but for some odd reason it merely set her nerves on edge tonight.
It's just because you were seeing things this morning, she told herself. You're worried you'll see something else tonight, and it'll be a whole lot spookier than what you saw earlier. Once you see Tut's cage is empty, it'll pass. This thought buoyed her as she approached Tut's cage.
Tut was back....
Vanessa looked at the regal cat with unbelieving eyes, her jaw agape, Rollins' words of that morning ringing in her head: He's been dead nine or ten years. Yet here he was, his glowing eyes focusing on her and following her every movement, his tail again twitching lazily. In the dim moonlight his spots looked the very essence of darkness; his twitching whiskers and partially exposed incisors were the epitome of the predator ... and he was beautiful. Vanessa swung one leg over the wrought-iron fence, an expression of frank astonishment on her face. The weathering of King Tut's cage was no longer apparent -- the gaping hole she had noted this afternoon was now solid brick once more, though it was difficult to make out in the darkness. As she straddled the fence Tut rose to all fours and approached the bars of his cage, rubbing his flanks against them, flaring his nostrils as he drank in her scent.
For Vanessa, that was when the lingering idea that this was some kind of hallucination vanished. She would lie to herself afterward, tell her it was nothing more than an imagination supercharged by the presence of the cats and the weird half-light that illuminated the enclosure, but in her heart she knew from that moment that Tut was as real as the ground she stood on. For as he moved sinuously against the bars, flakes of that ugly industrial paint fell to the grount with minute pattering sounds, not unlike the sounds small hailstones might make.
She knelt as she cleared the fence, and gently picked up one of the paint flakes. She held it up as she looked back into Tut's eyes, almost as if she were accusing him with it. Tut stood silently, his jet pupils dilated to their fullest. She smiled wryly at him, holding the paint flake up ... and dropped it as she stared more deeply into his eyes, suddenly feeling an air of thickness around her. She was not a swimmer, but she had of course been in deep waters on a few occasions in her life, and the similarity to that sensation was unmistakable. She drifted, floated closer to Tut's cage, raising her hands to the bars like a convict as she edged as close to the old brick foundation as was possible.
Tut's gaze intensified, drinking her eyes in as deeply as his muzzle had drunk her unique scent. She felt an odd thrill sneak up her spine, then spread into the rest of her body; a quiver of excitement she had never known before, not even during her more intimate moments with Bill. This thrummed through her whole body, beginning in her face as Tut transfixed her with his eyes, and spreading warmly through the rest of her being. She was so enthralled she was utterly unaware as Tut casually slipped one foreleg through the bars and rested his paw on the back of her hand.
Vanessa gasped as a flare of agony shot through her hand and she felt a warm drizzle patter down her forearm. She tore her gaze away from Tut and wrenched her hand away just as she saw his rather frighteningly large claws tear themselves from her flesh. She gasped, unable to look at anything other than the bloody wound on the back of her hand, unable to think of anything other than the throbbing pain. She backed away from the cage, slamming her lower back into the fence and landing on her backside. Terrified, she darted her eyes upward, thinking wildly that Tut would be able to reach her through the bars if she was this close to the cage.
The leopard had disappeared again. She was positive this was no hallucination; the still-bleeding wound on her hand was more proof than she'd ever need. But his cage was empty. The crescent moon shone wanly through the ragged hole in the cage's ceiling. Clutching her hand, doing her best to put pressure on it, she scanned the cage as best she could through the haze of pain.
There, she thought, that's the culprit. The lower end of one of the bars had been sheared off, exposing a wickedly sharp fragment of metal. A few errant drops of blood had pooled beneath it. Oh Jesus, she thought dismally, if that was it, I'm in the running for lockjaw. What a wonderful way to begin my new job. She hurried back to the gift shop, hoping Rollins or Karen McElwain would be there to help her take care of her injury, sparing only one glance back at Tut's cage as she departed the cat enclosure. It stood forlornly empty.
Ed Rollins and Karen were nowhere to be found. She fumbled her way into the First Aid station at the rear of the gift shop and turned on the buzzing fluorescent. Her blouse was navy blue, at least, so the blood didn't show up very well, but her tan slacks were a mess and would have to be thrown away when she got home. She held her hand under the faucet, scrounging through the wall cabinet for peroxide and bandages -- and as she did so felt a surge of relief flood her thoughts. She'd had a tetanus shot not more than eight months ago, when she'd had her last physical, so at least she would be all right on that front. Still, it wouldn't do to let some other infection creep in.
Oddly, the pain in her hand was subsiding rapidly. The feel of peroxide on it as she doused it was impossibly soothing. She looked at the cut as she washed the blood away and as the bleeding slowed and noticed that it was actually not one but four separate wounds: long shallow scratches, parallel to each other, the middle two longer than the outer two. It looks like a claw mark, she thought uneasily, beginning to tremble, That bar couldn't have done this, and you KNOW it, Vanessa.
She didn't quite dare think about that. She wrapped a Band-Aid around her right hand as tightly as she could stand (briefly thanking whatever force had decided to cripple her stupid hand instead of the one she was going to need every day on the job) and covered that with an Ace bandage. She flexed her hand, tapped the tip of each finger, and was somewhat relieved to see that there was feeling in all of them. As far as she could tell (which wasn't very far, she was willing to grant), there was no nerve or tendon damage. It was just a bad scrape that had bled a lot ... and had just happened to accompany a really bizarre hallucination. That was all. She tried not to think of the flaking paint chips, or the sound they'd made as they hit the ground. She locked up the gift shop, slipped out the one way door at the main gate guardhouse, and caught the first bus she could. She was in bed before ten, and asleep before a quarter after, having disposed of her slacks and firmly deciding she would not go near King Tut's cage ever again.
She even managed to forget about her injured hand for two whole days. When Karen and Rollins asked about it at work the next day, she gave them a quite fictional story about having slopped some hot water on it while she was making herself a cup of tea. She was quite surprised at how easily this lie flowed from her lips, but she supposed it was convenient. Admitting she had managed to cut herself up her very first day on the job would have been both embarrasing and more trouble than it was worth, causing the zoo staff to worry whether or not she would sue them (she had no intention of doing so; it was her own fault for zoning out in front of a dilapidated and dangerous exhibit) and, worse, regard her as a klutz. She also held to her promise not to go near Tut's cage anymore. In fact, she never even left the gift shop that day, firmly burrowing her nose into a copy of "The Client" she had picked up at the corner drugstore that morning.
Wednesday was an entirely different matter. She thought neither about her hand nor the ephemeral King Tut at all that whole day, her thoughts wholly concerned with the fact Bill Gautier would be arriving home from the camping trip he had gone on with his cousins. They would be going out to the movies that night, then to dinner at the local Friendly's, then back to her place for .... well, who knew? Her parents would be at a friend's house that night and wouldn't be back to one at the earliest. Even better, they thought Bill was coming home on Thursday. She doubted she would go all the way with Bill tonight, even if he was her first real boyfriend and it was close to their six month anniversary, but it would certainly be somewhat heavier petting than it had been prior to that. They had been apart for a week and a half and, after all, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Later she would think it rather ironic, that in a way it was Bill who had started it all. They had been on her couch, and Bill's hands were running their way under her shirt and across the material of her bra. She moaned softly, holding him a bit tighter to her, and leaned back as she felt him subtly increase the pressure of his upper body against hers. As she did so, her injured hand, which had been pain free all day, became caught under her back (the couch was a bit too small for this kind of play) and flared up into a state close to its original agony. She cried out sharply.
Bill looked up, his hands suddenly back at his sides. "What is it, Ness?" His voice was strained and a bit frantic.
She clutched her hand. "I'm sorry, honey. This cut I got -- it really hurts. I thought I was over it." She frowned at him with honest disappointment in her eyes.
He grinned that grin she had fallen for in the first place, and brushed an errant lock of blond hair away from his forehead. She felt his fingers skating across her chin. "Not putting you out of the mood, is it?" Normally she would have been quite charmed and too flustered to protest his advances by this little remark. Perhaps it was the pain in her hand, perhaps something else, but for some reason tonight it struck her as being two steps away from imbecilic. His grin seemed to her to be a laughable parody of its former self, and that doused whatever remaining passion she was feeling. "I'm afraid it does," she sighed, and surprised herself by feeling a bit of glee at the way his face fell. She stroked his chin. "My folks'll be home soon anyway, hon, and we do have the rest of the summer..." Bill protested good-naturedly for a bit, they made out for a few more minutes (though there was no more of the touchy-feely that had been going on before her hand started to sing again), but by quarter of midnight, he was gone. She sighed with relief, and wondered if she was perhaps not in love with Bill at all but in lust with him ... and getting ready to fall out of lust. It made her a bit sad, that something she had felt so powerfully could be so fleeting, but she supposed that was just life. She would sleep on it for a few days ... but until she was sure, there would be no more intense dates with him if she could help it.
In the meantime though, as she hustled herself into the upstairs bathroom, she was far more concerned about her hand. It was time to change the dressing anyway, so it would be no problem to see if there were any telltale signs of infection: swelling, red lines, anything ugly, whatever. She swore under her breath as she got a look at her hand once the bandages were removed. The wounds were very tender, sure, but there were no signs of infection. There were, however, find strands of cotton caught in each scratch.
Last time I use band-aids from the first aid kit, she grumbled to herself. She had liberated a half dozen of them the night she first cut her hand, thinking that would be enough to see her through until she felt okay wearing plain store-bought bandages. She took her tweezers from the medicine cabinet and went about plucking the cotton from the scratch closest to her index finger.
It would not come out. And when, after nearly a minute and a half of tugging, it did come out, it hurt. Not a little, but a lot -- like hair being yanked out from the roots. She had to stifle a little scream. She peered at the cotton under the bathroom light and realized it wasn't cotton at all, but a strand of hair. Peering even more closely, now beyond confused, she saw it wasn't hair at all, but a single strand of white fur.
She stared at her hand, suddenly trembling, her legs hot and loose and threatening to unlock and dump her to the floor. There were perhaps another dozen strands of white fur, and she saw now they weren't stuck in the wounds at all. They were growing out of the follicles that surrounded the cuts.
She looked up to the mirror, pale as a ghost, holding her hand in front of her. "Oh, God," she whispered aloud, staring hard into the mirror. Something else now, something even more profound, disturbing, and, if followed to its logical conclusion, terrifying. She moaned aloud and clutched herself around her stomach. She felt she might vomit very soon, but she could not look away from her reflection.
In her hazel eyes, almost too small to notice, were flecks of amber.
She woke up hungry. Not all that unusual; she usually woke up feeling at least a bit peckish and ready for breakfast. But this was a ravenous hunger deep in her gut, totally unlike anything she had felt before, at least in her memory. She stretched luxuriously on the covers, relishing the feel of the morning sunrise gleaming through her bedroom window. Then she remembered last night, and her hunger, her pleasant morning stretch, and the delicious feel of the sunlight were quite forgotten.
Vanessa held her hand close to her eyes, hoping against hope that she had been seeing things last night; that it was merely stray cotton caught in the scratches. Slowly she peeled back the new bandage, her hands unsteady as she did so. Her chest heaved in a hoarse sob as she saw that the dozen or so strands of fur had become something like a thin pelt that covered the back of her hand from her knuckles to her wrist. The wounds, oddly enough, were completely healed, the only sign of their existence being that the fur that had grown from them was thicker than on the rest of her hand.
Somehow she made it to the bathroom, managed to keep on her feet without collapsing. It's an infection, her wheeling mind told her. An infection, that's all. It's got to be an unusual one, maybe even downright exotic, but there's nothing wrong with you that some high-toned antibiotics won't take care of. So don't freak out, kid -- it'll be okay. It has too. Absolutely has to. Letting this thought, however implausible it may have been, comfort her, she gripped the porcelain sink and peered deeply into the mirror. The tiny amber dots in her irises had not departed. In fact, it looked as though some of them had joined and were now a fraction larger than they had been the night before.
Clutching her stomach, Vanessa returned to her bedroom. It was only 7:08 according to her clock, and though her parents would have left for work almost ten minutes ago, she herself did not have to be at the zoo for nearly two hours. That should be plenty of time to get her thoughts in order, maybe call the doctor, set up an appointment, get this thing checked out. She wracked her brains, trying to think if she had ever heard of anything that caused spontaneous hair growth and eye discoloration ... and this gnawing hunger that was rapidly returning to her stomach.
She held the back of her uninjured (Unfurred, you mean, rose disquietingly to her mind before she could push it away) hand to her forehead, but was completely unable to tell if her temperature was any higher than normal. She returned to her bedroom, stripped her nightgown, and checked the rest of her body for anything unusual. Just because whatever this was had started where she had been cut did not mean it hadn't spread anywhere else -- after all, it had done something to her eyes as well. Her vision did not seem affected, though. Better than usual, actually.
With a resigned sigh she sat on her bed, legs tucked under her, and made a morethorough examination of her hand. The fur, for lack of a better word, was pure white and rather silky, though as she examined it under the light she could detect the briefest hints of some yellowish hue in that pure whiteness. It thinned as it reached her wrist and the lowest joint of her fingers, and, as she had noticed before, was thickest in the middle of her hand where she had been cut: four vertical lines of thicker hair. Along the center two lines of fur she thought she saw one or two strand that were black, but that was probably just her eyes playing tricks on her. God knew they had been doing enough of that lately.
She sighed deeply and curled her strange hand against her stomach. Perhaps she could shave the stuff off and that would be the end of it. The only thing stopping her from doing so was what she had seen in her eyes. That made it obvious to her that whatever this thing was, it was internal, and if she didn't get herself to the doctor as soon as possible she was going to be in serious trouble.
I'll make the appointment right away, she thought, leaning back against the wall. As soon as I have breakfast and get my shower. It would do no good to take off from work today, not so soon after starting there. She supposed if Dr. Lewton gave her an appointment during the week she'd have no choice -- she worked from nine thirty to seven thirty, and he didn't keep late hours -- but honestly, she wouldn't mind a bit if that happened. This stuff she had must be nasty for it to act so quickly -- she'd only been scratched a few days ago, which was probably more than enough time for the whatever-it-was to incubate. Meningitis could set in and kill you in a matter of hours. At least it didn't seem to be that potent. She vastly preferred having to risk razor burn on her hand to spending months in the hospital on an IV drip.
She took one last look at her hand before she got ready to get her shower. She frowned. An errant scrap of dust had settled in right below the first two knuckles of her hand. It wasn't much, barely visible, actually, but it bothered her. It irritated her for reasons she couldn't possibly explain nor even fathom. Now how to clean this stuff? she thought idly. Shampoo? That seemed a bit silly. Soap would probably flake in it. She didn't know if that posed any more threat to her health, but decided she'd better not risk it.
Why does it have to be clean at all? a worried voice asked her. Let it be, Vanessa. Rinse it off under the tap, rebandage it, and get your butt over to the doctor. This is beyond anything you can judge. But the very thought of getting the back of her hand wet made her shudder. She suddenly realized she had very little desire to climb into the shower this morning.
Hardly aware she was doing it, she raised her hand to her face, slowly running the tip of her nose along the perimiter of the furred area. She closed her eyes, her mind still wandering among thoughts of doctors and appointments and injections.
Her tongue eased out over her lips and ran its tip across the fur. Two more slow strokes and she had caught the offending piece of dust. She sneezed and opened her eyes wide. What on earth was she doing? Well, she thought, scanning the pristine area her tongue had touched, it seems to be working. She began to run her nose across the fur again, her tongue barely contained behind her quivering lips. Something inside her, that worried voice, told her she shouldn't do this, that she ought to stop right this very second before things got any worse. How licking her hand could worsen the situation was beyond her -- the wounds were closed up; she certainly couldn't infect herself. Besides, it seemed to be helping her think -- she had hit upon the perfect appointment to set up with Dr. Lewton as she had been licking her hand. Also, it felt ... sort of nice.
That worried voice seemed to groan aloud as she resumed licking, but it was quickly doused by an eager pleasure that bloomed in her hand and her mouth. She sat there for nearly fifteen minutes, curled naked on her bed, eyes heavily closed, head nodding methodically as her tongue stroked every bit of fur on the back of her hand.
When she felt she was done, she half opened her eyes to assess the situation. The growth was perfectly clean, smoothed even, and it actually looked quite lovely. It was a very odd thought to be having, but there it was. The fur she seemed to have sprouted was aesthetically pleasing. It was also now much thicker.
She peered closer at her hand, jaw slowly falling agape. The fur was a definite white-gold now, with a more pronounced dark area in the middle of her hand. The thick places she had been scratched were no longer distinguishable from the rest of her hand, and thin white fur had spread to her lowest knuckles and slightly across her wrist. Closer examination also revealed that her neatly trimmed fingernails appeared to have sunk deeper into her flesh. The cuticles were nearly half again as thick as they had been ... well, before she had started licking her hand. She began to shudder uncontrollably.
Oh, Vanessa, what have you gotten yourself into? She rose from the bed, staring at her deformed hand. But deformed really wasn't the right word. It didn't look ugly, or unusable. Merely different, and, unwillign as she was to admit it, a good kind of different. There was something enticing about the shining addition to her hand, and something ominously thrilling about the strangeness that was affecting her fingernails. But because it was different, and because it happened in the wake of hallucinations and a nasty cut on her hand, she was determined to go the doctor and get it taken care of at once. Forget about work for the day. She idly thought about just borrowing her mom's car and speeding over to Mercy Hospital.
The hunger cramps struck her again, and she paused by the window, her face pulled into a grimace. There was movement in the backyard. She darted her gaze upward as it struck the corner of her vision. There was some vague grey hump moving through the tall grass near the edge of the kudzu-infested forest at the far end of their unmown lawn. Curiously, she raised the window and leaned out over the sill, unaware of her own nakedness, concerned with nothing other than the slow yet deliberate movement of the little grey blur at the end of the yard. Squinting, she saw from its upraised proboscis-like nose and naked tail that it was a small opossum. Eyes trained on it, determined not to let it get out of her sight, she straddled the windowsill and gently sank to all fours in the grass, thoughts of the doctor, her strange hand, and even her modesty a million miles away. All that mattered at this moment in time was the 'possum, and that she move quickly yet quietly enough to reach it without frightening it away.
She was successful in this, creeping through the increasingly high grass as silently as a ninja. Only where it was at its tallest, high enough to reach her elbows and midthighs did she need to slow down for fear of causing the leaves to rustle. Her house was somewhat isolated, so there was little fear of a neighbor looking into her yard and wondering if the Schrader girl had decided to take up nude sunbathing in her spare time, but even were that a concern Vanessa would not have heeded it. All that mattered was the 'possum, which was now only a little over a yard in front of her.
What happened next she never quite remembered. She leapt upon the rodent, remembered seeing its terrified beady eyes dart up to her and the unadulterated glee she had felt at seeing that terror, and the next thing she knew she was crounched in her back yard, covered with blood and with a ruined mess in front of her that had once been a 'possum. She rose to her feet, not quite steadily, and, shaking, made her way back to the house through her window, one arm across her breasts, the other covering between her legs. She got into the shower, not looking in the mirror, already knowing her chin and breasts were covere with blood, and well aware that the hunger in her stomach had subsided considerably. She spent nearly half an hour in the shower, eyes wide, wondering how what it was she had caught could be causing her to lose her mind. It was only when she got out of the shower that she began to suspect that something far more sinister was at work ... and something, on some primal, fundamental level she dared not recognize, that was more exciting.
The fur of her hand had thickened once more. It felt miserably cold once she left the shower, but some idle licking took care of that in short order. She had a lot to think about as she groomed it with her tongue. For one thing, her fingernails were now almost entirely covered by her cuticles, and the thumb of her right hand was uncomfortably stiff. For another, the thin white fur that had made its appearance last night had begun to appear on her left hand as well.
For a third, the darkened area on the back of her hand had resolved itself into an imperfect spot, identical to a leopard's.
Her tongue caught suddenly on the back of her hand. She ceased licking, realizing that in the space of an hour this had become the most bizarre nervous habit she had ever heard of. She ran her tongue across her palm, and was astounded at how rough it felt. Dehydration? she wondered numbly. She felt the inside of her mouth with her fingertips, and felt something odd along the roof of her mouth. It felt like a perfect series of ridges, perfectly parallell in the middle of her palate but ill defined as it reached to her molars. She stuck her tongue out and looked into the mirror.
For the second time that morning the isolation of her house came in handy. Because when she saw the whiteless amber eyes reflected in the mirror, the amber eyes with the weirdly small pupils, she let out a piercing scream that surely would have awoken anyone who lived nearby.
Somehow, the zoo was as eerie when it was empty during the morning hours as it was during the evening. Granted, the animals were for the most part quietly asleep, and there were no shadows skulking in the corners, but the silence of the place was overwhelming. It set Vanessa's nerves badly on edge, and she jumped skittishly more than once at something as unthreatening as a page of newsprint fluttering across her feet like an urban tumbleweed. She felt uncomfortably warm in her sweater, but she thought it a necessary evil. It had been the only thing she could find with sleeves long enough to conceal her wrists. Her right hand was once again bound in an Ace bandage, and the fur inside it itched horribly. She peered this way and that as she made her way across the zoo, her strange eyes concealed by a pair of Ray-Bans. She didn't need to look where she was going, though; she knew the way more than well enough. The cat enclosure was not locked, of course. She knew this had begun with King Tut, and suspected it could only be over if she tried to see him again. She was also certain he wanted her to come to him again, though for what reasons she couldn't possibly imagine any more than she could imagine why this thing was happening to her. And if Tut wanted to see her, locked gates would not present an obstacle to his will. She passed between the pillars, hurrying past the cats' cages, anxious and terrified to see what would be awaiting her in Tut's cage. The leopard was lounging on its side, its white-furred belly exposed. It was already staring at her, its eyes half-lidded, its teeth bared as it scented her again. The cage was once again in fine repair, and she was struck with a fleeting, dizzying feeling of deja vu. She clutched the fence, looking deeply into Tut's eyes. She removed her sunglasses, and was amazed at the clarity with which she could see the world about her. The leopard's eyes and spots seemed to glow, and for a brief second her heart was wrenched with his beauty and his splendor. Then she remembered what he was doing to her and expelled those thoughts as best she could. It wasn't easy.
"What are you doing, Tut?" she asked aloud. "Why are you doing this?" The leopard only continued to stare. Its tongue flicked out across its whiskers. Vanessa sighed and dropped her gaze to the ground. If Tut was capable of communicating with her, he was keeping quiet. She felt a horrible chill well up in her gut at the thought that he might remain silent until this ... change she was undergoing was complete. Whenever that might be. Her musings were interrupted by a heavy thunk. She darted her head up, swearing that as she did so she felt some odd muscle spasm in her ears, as if they were moving toward the unexpected sound. That was crazy, though. She saw that the dull crash had been made by a padlock that had rusted through and fallen to the ground. Padlock? she thought incredulously. But the cages don't open from the front! There's a corridor behind the sleeping pens ... I know, Rollins walked me through it the first day! As if to contradict her, the bars of the cage swung outward with a rusty squeal. Tut rose to his paws, almost as if to greet her. She found herself straddling the fence again, completely and utterly drawn toward the cat without knowing why. The sunglasses fell from her hand with a clatter. That voice, the voice which had first spoken in mild fear when she began to lick her hand now quailed in mindless terror.Don't you dare go in there! There's still time, time to get this undone ... you go to him and I don't think there's any going back! Oddly, this thought did not frighten her. Indeed, she felt a warm thrill rush through her, and her underthings suddenly felt too tight. She rubbed herself against the fence as she cleared it, producing a delicious friction, and moved toward the brick foundation, her hands on the cement floor in front of Tut's paws. She smiled up at him. Tut crouched low, becoming almost sphinx-like, and lowered his muzzle to her face. She closed her eyes, feeling his moist nose upon her forehead, then his tongue gently grooming her hair. She moaned softly as she felt his teeth, his so sharp teeth, graze down her throat to her shoulder, then along her arm (she cursed the sweater for dampening the feeling of him on her skin) to her wrist ... and with a sudden violent snarl he tore the Ace bandage from her, exposing her furred hand. She moved it up to his chest, then along his flanks, feeling the ripple of powerful muscles under his pelt. Unconsciously, her hand pressed against his shoulder and relaxed, pressed and relaxed, repeating this over and over again in an impossibly sensual kneading gesture. She was aware of strange twinges in her fingertips and an itch in her palm as she did this ... but before she could even begin to consider what this might mean, all worries were lost in ecstasy as she felt his black lips upon hers, his sandpapery tongue emerge and caress her chin and lips in a kiss that affected her far more deeply than anything she had experienced with Bill. She lifted herself up with her hands until she was sitting next to Tut, her legs curled under her. Her kneading became a slow stroking back and forth along his spine, his tail twitching slightly in obvious approval. She gave herself over to the intense pleasure that was rising in her from feeling him bathe her throat and face, and his nuzzles upon the clothed parts of her body. As suddenly as Tut had begun, he stopped. She opened her eyes blearliy, scratching behind his ears.
"What's wrong?" she asked thickly. "What are you waiting for?" The answer came as a distant yet affectionate voice in her head. Reciprocation. "Oh, I couldn't," Vanessa whispered. Tut firmly braced his skull against her chin. You're very capable of it ... I insist. You'll like it. The worried voice groaned again, but this time she gave it not an instant's thought. Tentatively she ran her tongue across Tut's ear. The leopard growled softly in what could only be his approximation of a purr. Pleased with this reaction, Vanessa fell to the grooming with gusto. In a few short minutes she felt she had adequately covered his head, and she moved downward to his muzzle. As she did so, Tut licked back, his tongue again rasping against her face and then her throat. It was at that point the leopard rose to its paws. It rubbed against Vanessa, circling her body, its tail standing out behind it, its head nuzzling her sides. She found herself rising slightly, unknowing why she was doing so, only that it felt right. She stood firmly on all fours, eyes lidded, breath slowed, waiting for whatever Tut was planning. She felt his paws on her back and moaned softly, suddenly aware. She felt her thighs spread slightly, felt the leopard push forward, felt his hardness rubbing against her jeans. Her whole body was quivering, her skin gooseflesh and even warmer than the summer morning. She felt his teeth against the back of her neck, felt his jaws open wide and clamp around it, and in that instant knew he had claimed her. He snarled around her skin, frustrated by her clothing. Her hair had fallen into her face, matted with perspiration. She braced herself on one hand and swept her hair aside with the other ... and stopped dead, the bizarre passion the leopard had fueled in her suddenly quelled. She had felt her ear as she brushed her hair aside, and knew that it had become sharply pointed and covered with light fuzz. In a frenzy she pulled herself out from under the leopard. Tut made no protest, only gazed at her with eyes that glittered with what she swore was amusement. She felt her other ear as she slid to the cobbles, and whispered, "No," as she felt it identical to the other one. She held her hands in front of her. They were equals now, their nails covered with the cuticles, leopard spotted fur covering their backs, their thumbs stiff. She turned them over, and gasped: there were black blotches at the center of her palms. The blotches looked like they had a leathery consistency .. . and as she looked at them, unbelieving, unnerved, she could actually see them growing, slowly consuming her pale skin. She felt other things too. There was an unbearable itch settling in all across her body. Her mouth felt too small; she could feel her teeth slowly bulging, and the feeling was not pleasant at all. She felt her mouth with her hands and quickly withdrew them, shocked at the feel of stiff bristles sprouting upon her cheeks. Sobbing, she snatched the Ray-Bans and put them back on her face. She did not run to the bus stop but sprinted, jamming her hands into her armpits, hoping her hair covered her ears, and trying to ignore the horribly alien yet compelling sensations coursing through her body. Her stop was only three away, and the bus was empty except for the driver and an old black woman in an unseasonably long coat, but Vanessa felt exposed all the same. She felt herself a freak, and wanted to get into her bedroom as soon as possible. She knew things were happening to her, could feel them, could almost intuit what they were, but for the moment she couldn't guess the extent of what had happened. The uncertainty terrified her. As she rose to leave the bus as it roared to a stop, the black woman spoke to her.
"Honey, you feelin' okay?"
"Do I look okay?" she replied hoarsely. "No, hon. You look like you spent the night in the gutter," the woman answered, not unkindly. "You gotta get yourself some sleep." Vanessa nodded and left the bus as quickly as her legs could carry her. As she approached her house, the itch she had been trying to ignore flared up worse than it had been at first; trebled in power. She ran all the way to her house, and did not stop running until she was in her parents' bedroom, their full-length mirror in front of her. She stripped her clothes at roughly the speed of light, until she was standing there in nothing but her pale blue cotton panties. Almost to afraid to do it, she looked into the mirror. It wasn't as bad as she had thought. There were those bristles on her cheeks, but they were barely noticable. Her ears were covered at the tips with a light black fuzz, and yes, they were slightly pointed, but beyond that she saw nothing different ... except her eyes, of course. And her hands. But there was something, wasn't there? Slowly she lowered her panties. When they were at her ankles she looked down, and broke into harsh, horrified sobs. Her pubic hair, once the color of the hair on her head, had been replaced with a downy white fur. She touched it, hoping it was some kinf of illusion, that this at least was not real. But it was. And as she touched herself, she felt the hot ecstasy she had felt under Tut rush through her again. She lowered herself to the floor, on her back, stroking the fur, her eyes slipping closed, all at once feeling more relaxed than she had since she had first seen the leopard. Idly, she wondered what was more troubling: that she was undergoing some sort of freakish metamorphosis, or that she had very nearly surrendered her virginity to an animal. She felt her throat begin to vibrate as she stroked a little faster. The fears of her transformation, and of her encounter with the leopard, faded as she felt her consciousness transported to a state of near-serenity. She did not masturbate often, had not done so in months, actually, but if those rare previous times had made her feel as she did now, she suspected she would have done so at every opportunity. She was aware of a sudden sharpness between her thighs. She held up her hand, and saw her nails had returned ... except now they were a full inch long, curved, and wickedly sharp. She ran her new claws down her belly, that serenity unperturbed by their appearance. As she did so, the downy white fur between her legs began to spread upward to her belly. She recognized her thrumming larynx as a purr, and that seemed right as rain, too. She continued to stroke herself in a mild daze, aware of other sensations, but accepting each of them, until she came, uttering what sounded very like a yowl. She dozed for long minutes. When she awoke, she stretched her every muscle luxuriously, relishing their taut and powerful feel. Nonchalantly she looked in the mirror, and that brought her out of the trancelike doze she had been in. She knew it had gone too far, now. Whatever was to be the end, she could not escape it. The thought brought tears to her eyes, which were now almond-shaped... perhaps to accomadate the spotted muzzle her lower face had grown into. Her ears were black furred and rounded now, and seemed to sit higher on her head. Whole patches of leopard fur covered her skin along her thighs, her feet, and her arms, though everywhere else she still had fine unblemished skin. The change-into-claws that had begun on her fingertips now was fast at work on her toes. She stood up, frightened but calm, and craned her neck around to get a look at her back. It was a much easier movement than it should have been. A line of leopard fur ran down her spine ... and ended in a disquieting lump. She held her hands up once more to her face. The palms had become completely black and leathery, and her thumbs were definitely shorter. All right, she thought to herself, staring at those weirdly pawlike hands, there may still be a chance, just maybe, please God please Jesus let there be a chance if I don't go near the leopard any more, if I don't act like a cat or touch myself anymore maybe it'll stop oh please God -- She cried out in mortal agony. The bud at the base of her spine broke open, spilling some clear liquid across the floor. She craned her neck around again, much more quickly this time, and saw a slickly glistening growth, perhaps six inches long, unfurling behind her. As she watched, she could see it lengthening and sprouting lustrous black and gold fur, and knew this was her tail. Licking her whiskers, she ran her claws across the white fur of her belly, then up to her breasts. She was sure her breasts were smaller ... and there were four buds down her belly, the beginnings of nipples. Her mind flashed briefly on the idea of babies ... then fixed more firmly on the idea of cubs. She walked around her house in a queer calm that was actually shock. No more changes occured, though her tail was a full foot long before it stopped growing. She could not stop thinking of the image of a leopard cub suckling at her stomach. Vanessa stopped dead in her tracks. That was it. She remembered Tut's actions toward her and her responses, how she had advanced the change when she was in the bedroom, and knew what had to be done. She didn't like it, but it was surely better than changing into a leopard woman -- or even a complete leopard. She ran to the phone, desperate to reach the one person who could help her.
Bill Sayer was in a madman's rush as he sped his '91 Stanza pell mell across town. He had never heard Vanessa sound like she had on the phone today, never. Her voice had been full of a large species of fear as she told him how sick she was, and how badly she needed to see him. When he had said he could be at her place in ten minutes, he could actually feel her relief swell through the phone. She had sounded ill, too. Her voice had been very husky, not exactly hoarse but a near thing. No matter how hard he pressed, though, he couldn't get her to reveal exactly what it was that was wrong with her. That had surprised him. Before today Vanessa had told him everything. Maybe it was some weird female thing. If that was the case, he foresaw himself being both baffled and frustrated -- he tended to tune out the physical ailments that troubled women, whether it was menopause or that monthly visitor. (He even found the whole mystique about it a bit amusing -- he'd once read a cartoon that asked the question, "What's 'feminine protection'? A chartreuse flamethrower?" and had been unable to stop laughing for whole minutes.) Still, being available for comfort now would definitely score him some points ... and maybe they'd be able to finish what they'd started on their last date. He felt a little bit of shame at this. He suspected Vanessa loved him, and while he did care for her, it was nothing near real love. Oh, he'd thought he'd been in love with her once or twice, and he supposed that, given time, it might actually happen; he might actually feel that indescribable spark inside him. For the present, and for the last six months, he'd really been more concerned with getting her in bed. He knew he'd be her first. This thought was always blackly exciting to him. Even now he could feel a not-uncomfortable twinge along his thigh as the idea of deflowering her occured to him. It was time to assume a more romantic facade, though -- the neat Cape Cod style house (a bit out of of place in New Orleans, Bill thought, but who was he to judge?) that belonged to the Schrader family made its appearance as he rounded the bend in Simone Road. Putting on his best compassionate face, Bill got out of the car and mounted the walk. He raised his hand to knock on the door, but as he struck it the polished mahogany portal swung inward. He was for a moment nonplussed. The normally bright Schrader living room was exceedingly dim. He took a step inside, calling out Vanessa's name. Upon entering he saw that every curtain in the place was drawn tight. "In here," came the response from within the shrouded darkness that was the inner hallway, "I'm in my bedroom." Bill frowned. Her voice sounded even worse in person, almost a growl. He wondered if there was something really wrong with her. "I'm coming, Ness," he called back, picking his way carefully through the darkened room. "Just gimme a second; it's like a damn cave in here."
"I'm sorry about that," she answered as he finally made his way into the hall, barking his shin on what was probably the TV table. He grimaced painfully. "My -- my eyes are very sensitive. They feel better with less light." Limping a bit, Bill very nearly replied Well then you should just wear a damn mask but he decided that would not be very politic. He found his way to Vanessa's room without further incident. He knew his way there well enough, having studied with her in there in the months before school let out, though, tragically, he had never spent the night. Smiling softly, he opened her door. The dimness of the rest of the house was like daylight compared to Vanessa's room. It was dark as night in here -- darker, even: from the square lines of late morning sunshine at the left hand side of the room, he judged she had hung blankets or something like them across the windows. A feeling of genuine unease and worry welled up in him, and he had to control a sudden urge to just get the hell out and leave. "Vanessa?" he called. "You in here?" His voice was not quite steady. "Yes," replied that husky voice. It was barely recognizable as Vanessa. Besides the fact it was so dissonant, there was something, well, sultry about it. Almost seductive. Bill would have laughed out loud if you had ever told him Vanessa could be seductive, but, now faced with the real thing, he found it not at all amusing, and more worrisome than arousing. That worry amplified as the darkness deepened and the door snicked shut behind him. "Bill," she said from behind him. He yelped as he felt hands slipping up his back, but his fear quickly subsided as he gave himself over to the gentle massage. He couldn't be sure, but through the thin material of his t-shirt it felt as though she were wearing some kind of silk gloves. The sensation was absolutely delicious, and he found his arousal was beginning to overcome his anxiety. "I lied, Bill, luv," she whispered as he felt a silk-clad finger trace the nape of his neck. "I'm not sick at all. I just wanted to surprise you."
"Well," he replied in a voice that was shaky due to a number of things, "you surprised me all right." She laughed then, and that thread of worry reared its head again. There was some odd undercurrent to her laughter; some subtle vibrato that had not been there before. It reminded him of something, but he could not say exactly what. He felt her hands become firmly insistent, pushing him forward. His knees bumped the bed. "Turn around, luv." He did so, unable to take any initiative at all for the moment. Her manner had completely disconcerted him. He felt her silken fingers trace his lips, then curl around his head. Whatever she was wearing, it went at least up to her forearms. Above her wrist it felt like some kind of velvet, impossibly warm velvet. There was something that was both exciting and repulsive about it at the same time: it was as though a pulse beat within it, and it was a living thing. Christ, he almost asked, what cut-rate Frederick's of Hollywood did you get this from? but he held his tongue. Insulting her now was out of the question. He reminded himself that this was a virgin acting this boldly, and that thought quickly expunged whatever worry remained within him. He lay back on the bed, letting her hands slip under his shirt, then pull it over his head. His chest was smooth. He groaned softly as she played briefly with his nipples. She removed his jeans with excruciating slowness, teasingly running one finger along his inner thighs. She cupped his testicles briefly, and he found himself unable to restrain himself. His hands began to caress her legs, her upper thighs, which were as far as he could tell clad in nylon stockings. Oh, she knew how much those turned him on ... but he'd never dreamed she would wear them for him on her own. He slipped his fingertips under the tops of her left stocking.
Her reaction puzzled him. She slapped his hand away, making some sort of noise -- a weird noise; he would have sworn she actually hissed at him -- and said softly, "Don't touch until I say. I'm in control her, Bill, and if you don't like it you can leave." He only nodded in the dark, his throat too dry to make any noise other than a dry croak. Ecstasy then, as she slipped his shorts down to his ankles and straddled him, slowly lowering her crotch to his. She was wearing panties as silky as her gloves, and the feel of the taut, delectably moist material against his erection was indescribable. His hands clutched her sheets futilely, wanting to touch her all over, wanting to make her his. Her hands stroked his thighs as she pressed herself tightly against him, her secret hot against him. He felt he breath hot on his face as she bent over him, gently sliding down his length. He sensed in her posture that one hand was moving down her side, preparing to remove her panties. He could bear no more. His arms, as if of their own will, shot upward, embracing her close to him as he rolled on top of her. She went electric in his grip, writhing, beating at him with her hands and making that weird hissing noise again. This did not deter him: he was well beyond the point of caring about either his own safety or what she really wanted. It was only when he tried to kiss her that he realized something was quite dreadfully wrong with her. Her lips were wrong. They were too big, it felt like she had a harelip, and, most revolting, they were hairy. He slowly became aware than in some other places on her body he felt this same silken hair, identical to what he had thought had been velvet on her arms. He jerked away from her, one hand pressed against her face, his other scrambling for the table lamp. She bit at him, her incisors far too sharp, and she beat at him, her blows far too strong for her size. Grunting, he managed to get the light on. That was when he screamed. She was wearing a black silk teddy, gloves, and panties and black nylon stockings, but this was not quite as exciting to him as it should have been. Too much else was wrong. There were blotches of leopard spotted fur, God help him, fur in spots across her body, especially along her arms and, though only vaguely visible, along her thighs under her stockings. A splash of whitish fur puffed out along her cleavage. But her face -- it was her face that came close to breaking his sanity in that flash of light. It was not human. Below the nose it was leopard furred; the mouth a muzzle with vestigal fangs; the nose flattened and black; the jowls sporting prominent whiskers; the ears black-furred and rounded, and too high on her head, nearly on the top of her skull as they poked through her hair; and her eyes ... her eyes simply inhuman. As he knelt on top of her writhing form, screaming, she snarled at him. Snarled at him just like an animal, and then batted at his face with a hand that was clearly misshapen under the glove. That was it for Bill Sayer. Naked, his erection rapidly wilting, he fled the house, barely remembering to grab his pants before he left her room so he would have his car keys. She followed him, running, shrieking "No! No! No!" in that husky voice which presently fell into growls. He looked back only once, as he sprinted down the walk, only to see her retreating into the house, sobbing and snarling all at once. It was then he saw her tail.
...It was then, not incoincidentally, that he decided to get the righteous hell out of New Orleans, possibly for good. Vanessa fell to the floor of the living room, curled into a ball, weeping, snarling, her foot long tail tightened around her waist in abject humiliation. She had tried so hard, tapping into the agressiveness that was slowly blooming inside her, tried so hard to get Bill to do the one thing that could save her. And he had fled -- he had fled because she was a monster. She had felt ridiculous, plundering her mother's lingerie for something to wear, but she had to cover herself. Even if she did attempt to get Bill in utter darkness, he would still have felt what she was. And now he knew. In spite of her planning, he knew, and he was terrified of her. She stood up, whiskers trembling. Her hands curled into fists as best they could. Then they spread, her claws popping out and shredding the fingertips of the gloves. The claws of her feet opened the toes of the stockings. She roared, let her rage and frustration and terror out in a shattering sound that she would not have believed possible only a few days ago. It seemed so pointless to fight it. Besides, a silky voice whispered within her, it can be so much nicer if you don't fight, so much more pleasant. She could not smile, not anymore, but her throat began to thrum with a purr. Her eyes slitted in obvious satisfaction. Why fight it indeed? She was aware of Bill's smell on her, a yellow smell of fear and sweat and general unpleasantness. A disgustingly human smell. Snarling, she clawed the lingerie away, scrap by scrap, until she stood naked in the center of the living room. She lay down, stretching out on one side. There was a particular concentration of him on her thigh, where he had touched her. She craned her upper body toward it and gently began to lick. She pulled her head back, feline pupils growing as she saw the reaction of her flesh. It was working much faster in her now. Even as she watched, fine white fur sprouted, only to be overgrown by golden-black fur. She licked again, slightly above it, this time closing her eyes and simply letting herself feel it. It was heavenly. Her changing flesh was as sensitvely charged as her secret, and it was far more fulfilling than Bill's fumbling had been. It's happening so fast, she thought with dismay. Then she purred again. It's happening fast because you WANT it to happen now. And why not? It hurts to fight it. And this...this is wonderful. She groomed herself dutifully, aware how radically she was forcing herself to change, aware of the sprouting fur and the lengthening muscles, aware of the erotic thrill her entire body had become charged with, aware how far she was driving herself from her humanity ... and loving every second of it. She curled her tail to her front and nipped at it, licking its tip, growling with soft delight as it doubled in length. She touched her hands (Paws, she amended, they're a lot closer to paws now; not totally, I can still hold things, but they're far from hands now.) to her forehead and realized this was the only place she could not reach. But she knew how. She had seen enough alleycats do it. She licked her forearm thoroughly, moistening it, then ran it across her head. She continued to do this even as she felt her skull elongating, her muzzle lengthening, her smooth forehead sprouting fur and flattening out as her head became sleeker and more streamlined. She finished with her feet, delighted at the way her toes shortened in her mouth and how she could feel her insteps expanding into leathery pads. It was only then that she stretched out on the floor on her belly and dozed, her tail twitching as strange dreams of a future she dared not contemplate danced through her mind. She awoke perhaps a half hour later. She stretched langorously, jaws wide. Her changes were not done: as she yawned, catlike, her teeth bulged and lengthened into dangerous fangs. She stood, gracefully bathing one shoulder, then cocking her ears forward as she felt something drift down her body. She looked down, and with some surprise saw her hair had fallen out, and was now sitting in an untidy drift around her feet-paws. Curious as to her new appearance, she left the living room for the master bedroom, not so much walking as sauntering, her muscles rippling under her shining coat, her tail snaking out behind her.
I'm still on two feet, she thought groggily, still on two feet, so maybe it's not so bad. Except it was. She knew it would be, because she knew she had given in. She wondered if perhaps it was too late to not give in, because merely thinking of letting it run its course without a struggle was still terifically exciting to her. She cleared her head as best she could and studied the mirror. "Oh," she purred softly, touching the glass with her paw. There was nothing else to say. She was little more than an upright leopard. She was still walking on flat feet, and her hand-paws still had the vestiges of thumbs, but beyond that she was unrecognizable as human. Her pelt was complete, covering her entire body in lustrous spotted fur. A two-and-a-half foot tail curled around her body. Her head was a leopard's, stuck on a humanoid body at a 90 degree angle. She still had very feminine curves, but she could see they were filling out a bit, her body becoming more streamlined. The nipples of her belly were fully formed now, and only the smallest rise gave a hint that she had ever had breasts. She looked at this leopard woman in the mirror, and knew, instinctively knew that there was yet more before Tut would be done with her. Could she still stop it? Did she even want it to anymore? She did. And she thought she knew how it could be done. Tut wanted something from her. She had tried to givr it to Bill, and perhaps that would have worked. She wished suddenly that they had made love the night he returned from his camping trip. Then maybe none of this would have happened. But it had. And now the only way to stop Tut was to give him what he wanted before he fully claimed her. Night had fallen on Templeton Zoological Gardens. The figure moved silently across the cat enclosure, slinking purposefully to the cage that had once housed a leopard named King Tut. The figure stopped in front of the cage, meeting the leopard's eyes. Vanessa threw off her father's trenchcoat; slinked her jeans down her legs, allowing her tail, uncomfortably bound, to unfurl; threw the fedora she had liberated from the basement across the enclosure. She climbed gracefully over the fence and stood in front of Tut's cage, clutching his bars with her paws, aware she was purring, aware her body was emitting chemicals which had aroused Tut's interest; she could see his red penis extending from the furry sheath under his tail. She backed away. The cage swung open as it had the other night. Never breaking her gaze from Tut's eyes she slinked into the cage. Tut backed away, his eyes glowing in the darkness. She dropped to all fours. Turned round, her ass in the air, her tail raised. Unknowing she would do so, she yowled, inviting him. His paws on her shoulders again. His fangs at her neck, now biting at the loose nap of flesh that had grown there during her last bath. She gasped as he did this, amazed that such an action could be so powerfully stimulating. There were no pants to stop him this time. His paws clutched at her chest and he thrust into her. She felt him in her, felt a knot slip inside her, then screamed as her hymen burst. But it was not a human hymen: hers was feline now, and its bursting sent her into heat. The feelings of the transformation had been nothing compared to this. Her every nerve stood on edge, she felt herself growing slick around Tut; felt herself responding to him in ways she never imagined: her feline/human body wriggling under his, craning her head around to bite and lick at him, he paws digging into the ground as she kneaded. It continued for what felt like hours, him growing inside her, biting at her, clawing at each other. She came at least twice, the second time bringing her to such a plateau that she'd no idea if she'd ever quite come down from it. Tut yowled. She felt his seed in her, hot and filling, and then he was gone, his disengagement tearing her horribly. She snarled at him and clawed at his face, drawing blood. He did not seem to mind. He only licked at her face. She returned the gesture. In seconds they were grooming each other, and in minutes they were curled asleep around each other. She woke with the dawn to an empty cage. Blinking, she stood up, looking down at herself. Still on two legs. Still a leopard woman. But nothing further. She stretched, feeling more alive than she had ever felt before; more aware of everything: the old straw, the smell of the other cats, the warmth of the sunlight.
He got his wish, she thought with relief. He mated with me... and now I can go. I bet once I get out of this cage I'll start to change back. Her parents would give her holy hell for being gone for a day and a night, but she thought that a small price. She went to open the bars. There was no lock. Well, that's ok. The cage was just looking as it did when Tut was in it. They must have changed the bars after he died. She slinked over to the rear exit. It was not locked, but there was a rusty iron doorknob. She fumbled with it for almost thirty seconds before realizing why she could not open it. She had no thumbs. And looking down, she saw she was walking on her toes. No she tried to scream, but all that came out was a snarl. She scrabbled at the door, vaguely aware that the knob was getting higher as she sank first to a crouch ... then to all fours. She gnawed at the doorknob. Paced to the bars and scratched and gnawed at them. She cocked her head back and forth, looking for Tut. But he was not there. She stood up, or tried to, before falling back down to her four legs. There's still a leopard in here, she realized, ...but it's me. She yowled in terror. Looked up for the hole, looking for escape -- but it had been covered with a piece of corrugated steel. I still have my mind, at least there's that. Then the smell of raw meat assaulted her, overpowering her, awakening hungers she'd not known she had. She sauntered over to the bars, looking at the pile of bloody beef that had appeared there as if by magic. She was drooling. Epilogue It looked so sweet ... and she was so hungry. She licked at it. Enticed by the blood, she gnawed, and then she was devouring, pausing only to lick her chops. As she fed, the worries of her change, how to reverse it, how to explain to her parents where she had been, how to explain to Bill, how to cope with the fact she had made love to a leopard -- these all faded, to slowly be replaced by greater concerns: where to sleep to soak up the most sun? How to lick strongly enough to get rid of the smell of straw? When would food be arriving again? How to talk to the other inmates of the enclosure? Would she know the pleasure of mating again, and of giving suck to cubs? And oh, how her loins ached at those wistful thoughts... The she-leopard ate heartily, groomed herself thoroughly, and settled down for a morning nap.
Rollins approached the cage with a frown on his face and a satchel under his arm. He was wearing heavy work gloves, mainly so he wouldn't get paint on his hands. He threw the satchel down in front of the leopard's cage. She looked up briefly from her nap, but quietly set her head down again. Rollins thought she looked very comfortable, and very content. He procured the stencil and white paint. The stencil had been ready for a few weeks now. It read, very simply, "Cleopatra." He applied it to the bottom of the cage with care so delicate it was nearly absurd. When this was done, he painted out the remaining traces of "King Tut." He stood back to admire his handiwork. The leopard was really quite beautiful. He put one hand through the cage and scratched behind its ears. It purred softly but stirred only slightly. Rollins was sure to keep his gloves on when he did this. It would not do at all for the cat to scratch him. She was a gorgeous specimen. He thought the folks up at the Bronx or over in San Diego would be eager to include her in a breeding program. And if that were the case, Templeton's renewed reputation would be enough to secure more exhibits. He scratched the leopard's ears again, smiling brightly now. "You'll work out just fine, Cleo. I knew you would." With that, Rollins picked up his satchel, the stencil, and the odd assortment of clothes that had been sitting outside the wrought-iron fence, and ambled out of the cat enclosure, preparing to open the zoo for the day. He made a mental note to put a new Help Wanted sign in the gift shop's window. Cleopatra looked up as the human left. She felt a vague sense of unease about him, as if she should be angered or frightened at his presence, but this was surely a mistake. He was the one who borught her food, he was the one who gave her this warm home. He must be good. She set her head on her paws, licking them idly, waiting for her fellow cats to awaken. She had much to tell them.
Vanessa Schrader was reported missing by her parents the evening she failed to come home. She remains missing to this date. The missing clothing, shredded lingerie, and, most damning, the hair that appeared to have been ripped from her head, has led authorities to believe she was taken from her own home and very possibly murdered.
William Sayer has not been seen in New Orleans since Miss Schrader's disappearance. Police and FBI officials consider him a suspect and are very anxious to speak with him.
Six months after Miss Schrader vanished, Templeton Zoological Gardens' financial status was in the black for the first time in seventeen years. The administration attributed this success to the new Great Cat exhibit, a fine young she-leopard, and the subsequent additions to the collection she merited after being entered into a breeding program with one of the leopards from the Smithsonian Institute. This leopard, known affectionately as Cleopatra, still draws a crowd and likely will draw crowds for a long time to come. On her cage is this plaque:
Donated by an Anonymous Collector