“What can you tell me about the victim?” she asked.
“Your DB?” James chewed on his thoughts for a moment. “Not
to speak ill of the dead, but the guy was a real dirtbag. Rap sheet longer than
my arm, mostly drugs and burglary. I only got a chance to look at the top page,
but this guy lived on the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks.
Whatever killed him did the rest of us a service.”
“Did you verify how he died?”
James nodded. “You were right. The coroner explained that
he exsanguinated from ‘numerous puncture wounds and deep lacerations about the
throat and chest.’ Certainly, an animal attack, probably a cougar or lynx. Case
closed. One of the ghouls down in the morgue decided to keep that—” He gestured
to the paper bag, “—as a souvenir, but as you can see, I managed to charm it out
Vex peeled the bag open and peered inside. At the bottom,
enshrined in a plastic baggy, was something ivory colored, five inches long, an
inch wide at one end, tapering to a point at the other. It could have been a
tooth or a curved bone. James had told her that he managed to procure her a
gift, possibly a piece of the animal that attacked the dead man, but this was
more impressive than she’d expected.
“The coroner thinks it’s a claw,” James said. “I’m no
veterinarian, but it looks like one to me. Chipped off when it hit the bone in
the DB’s neck. I saw some photographs, the blow that broke that claw nearly took
the guy’s spine out.”
The sphinx would be shaped and sized like a normal
housecat most of the time, but when startled or hungry would grow to a much
larger size and could possibly be confused for a cougar or much larger big cat
by people not paying close attention. A claw would go a long way to containing
the animal if she went up against it face-to-face—which seemed to be the
direction things were heading. Much like hair could be used to direct curses at
a person by a practitioner, a bit of nail, hair—or in this case, a claw—could
be used to bind or repel the creature. She’d have things under control even if Augustus
Caesar did change from a “harmless” kitten into a ravenous cougar on her.
If Holly’s picture of him was accurate, the sphinx was
extremely young, but that didn’t make it any less dangerous. The lost and found
posters might help Vex track him down if random citizens saw him in housecat
form and called it in, but if people saw Augustus in big cat form they wouldn’t
think of the poster. They’d run for their lives or their cameras, and call the
police or Animal Control. Vex hoped that Animal Control didn’t get to him
before she did. Putting a sphinx in a cage wouldn’t end well for anyone
She looked up at James. “Do you still have that contact at
“Melinda? Yeah. You want to talk to her?”
“Yes. Could you have her call my company? They can patch
her through to the radio in my cab.”
James checked his watch. “It’s almost seven now. Mel generally
works until nine at the latest. You—”
“If you can get me an appointment this evening, I’ll owe
you a second favor.”
Vex laid down a five dollar bill for tab plus tip. She grabbed
the claw bag along with her keys and thanked James for his help.
“As for your favor,” she said, “what can I do for you, Mr.
“About that,” James said. “What are you doing tomorrow
* * *
Melinda was a harried-looking woman in her late thirties; the
humidity had done horrible things to her curly black hair, it escaped in all
directions in spite of a vain attempt to control it with dozens of barrettes
with the faces of cats and dogs. She looked solidly middle management in a
government facility, except for the layers of different types of animal hair
that clung to the hem of her dress and the cuffs of her shirt.
She met Vex at the front door of the Maricopa Animal Care
and Control building and let her inside. In the distance, gentle woofs and yips
echoed off of the plain walls.
“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.” Vex
glanced down at the gunge dripping from her own boots and lifted them from the
marbled floor with an apologetic expression. “Uh.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Melinda said, waving her hand
dismissively. “The janitorial staff will be here at six a.m. Not like everyone hasn’t been tracking in mud all day.”
Some of the prints tracked in the mud on the floor had distinctly
animal forms, Vex noticed. Several dogs had walked through under their own
power out of the rain.
“What can I do for you? James was rather vague on the
“I have a young friend named Holly. She lost her cat.” Vex
peeled her coat off and shook it slightly before tucking it over her arm. From
an inside pocket she teased the edge of a photograph of Augustus out and showed
it to Melinda.