“Head for the hills, ‘cos I’m looking for thrills …,” sang Hamish, his Scottish burr prolonging ‘thrills.’
“I could use some of those,” laughed Julia, a short, stocky woman in her sixties.
I hoped she didn’t have me in mind.
The sun was sinking, lengthening the shadows of saguaro cacti, towering here and there along our way. Ahead, in the distance, across miles of flat, arid, semi-desert scrubland, lay a low range of hills, our destination.
Normally we’d have had a bumpy journey in an SUV but the prof’s plan had us dropped off on this side of the centre, giving us a chance to ‘acclimatise’ before our two-week residence, by plodding through the hot desert for hours. Every few minutes he’d take out a notebook and write mysterious observations, sometimes pulling out a tape measure and gauging the length of a cactus arm or the height of an inconspicuous shrivelled brown plant.
It was still warm, the motionless dry air oppressive, and I was hot and sweaty. Damn Hamish! I shifted my backpack into a more comfortable position – this gear weighed a ton – and assessed the party. There was Professor Hamish McPherson, our erstwhile leader, then Julia Surey, a paramedic – no stranger to carrying defibrillators up flights of stairs, judging by her calves and biceps. Then Valencia Lopez, a slight, brown, forty-something scientist from Paraguay, John ‘Garry’ Garau and myself, Sam Piccarreta, both in our thirties and qualified animal psychologists.
“I saw something move!” exclaimed Valencia, pointing across the endless flat dry scrub that stretched to the distant horizon.
“Could be a coyote,” said Hamish.
She took out some binoculars, scanning the desert. “No, it looked bigger, more upright.”
After a minute Hamish spoke. “Come on, we should get to the centre before dark.” As always he spoke quietly, insistently. A kind, easy-going man who preferred to lead by example, he nevertheless had an unstoppable drive when it came to getting what he, or the team, wanted or needed.
I looked at Val, wondering. I’d never heard her mention a husband, or a partner of any kind come to think of it. She wasn’t bad looking. I watched the sway of her narrow hips as we started again, imagining running my hands over her naked thighs. Come on Sam, snap out of it! The desert was getting to me and I’d only been here five minutes!
It was almost dusk when we reached the high wire fence surrounding the centre, a network of squat concrete buildings, set against a deepening turquoise sky. Soon stars would begin to peek through the dwindling light, preparing for their lonely, cold sojourn. A large sign stated Big Cat Conservation Trust. Hamish rang a bell, a gate opened and a man appeared.
Hamish greeted him without introduction. “How are the animals tonight?”
“They seem restless, very restless. It’s strange. I’ve never seen them quite like this.”
“Huh, that’s odd.”
We peered down into a sunken enclosure where a pair of Lynx lived. They were both patrolling the walls, agitatedly, but in opposite directions, rubbing their faces together briefly on each pass.
There were forty big cats here – lynx, cougars, bobcats, ocelots and jaguars, mainly in high-walled outside pens, furnished with platforms and shelters. Some had lived here since the centre was built seven years ago, but mainly they were released back into the wild after a year or two.
An enormous crack of thunder startled me awake in my small room. That was unusual. Then another crash, almost overhead, made my heart pound. Outside, the cats were yowling. Then, a sound we didn’t often hear – heavy pouring rain crashing down on the roof and outside, turning the dust into mud. I could smell the scent of it through the air conditioning and knew it would wash the world outside clean. The plants would be grateful, I thought. No, that’s silly, plants can’t think. Not as we know it, anyway. I drifted back to sleep to the rhythm of the rain.
The next thing I knew was a frantic pounding on my door. My clock said 06.42. What the hell?
“Sam, Sam, something awful’s happened!” It was Valencia. Her face was streaked with tears and she could hardly speak.
The others were gathered on the veranda. The sun was up and the heat of the day was already building. She led me down some steps and hit a number pad. The door into the jaguar enclosure opened. There they were, or what was left of them, Maia and Gaia. Their eyes were missing and their bodies had been stripped of flesh in places. Neatly incised down to the bone. “They’ve had their blood taken.”
“What!” I could see the remaining flesh was whitish. “Are there any others?”
“They’re all like this, except for the ocelots.”
They were kept indoors at present. “Oh, my God!”
Back on the veranda, the professor spoke. “I’ve radioed it in. The police will come out later this morning.”
“I don’t understand.” Valencia was crying. “Who would do this?”
“Whoever, or … whatever did this, they weren’t from … from around here,” said Hamish.
“What’ll happen?” I asked.
Hamish smiled wryly, “They’ll say it’s natural causes … or cults.”
I gazed out across the desert and gasped at a purple bloom. As if the life taken from the cats had been transferred into the normally drab and desolate vegetation, a sea of flowers was springing into existence.