The Calling Page 71

The van was still there. I lowered myself to my belly and crept through the undergrowth.

“—really have to get going,” Dr. Inglis was saying. “I don’t want those boys waking up.”

“Let me check in with the team one more time.”

I reached the tree line and looked out. How was I going to rescue anyone now? I couldn’t open the van door. I couldn’t slash the van’s tires—

I stopped and lifted a paw. My claws shot out. I let out a soft chuff.

That made it easy.

I started forward, gaze fixed on the rear tire, farthest from where Dr. Inglis and the man stood—

I stopped. So I slash the tires and then what? Fight them all? Including the team out in the woods?

Time to reconsider.

I retreated to a tree, dug in my claws, and started to climb. I got about five feet off the ground before realizing I was forgetting something.

I headed back into the woods to get what I needed, then I came out and climbed the tree. There was a branch a few feet from the top of the van, but I went higher, so I’d be hidden. I stretched out on the limb to wait.

“They’re still looking,” the man said as he signed off the radio.

“The boys are going to wake up any second—”

“I know. I told them we’re leaving. They can keep looking for the skin-walker girl.”

“Her name is Maya,” Dr. Inglis said.

The man shrugged. As they got into the van, I crouched on the branch, tail behind me like a tightrope walker’s pole. When my balance was right, I leaped, aiming for the limb overhanging the van, but I wasn’t that agile yet. I caught the branch, slipped, and struck the roof with a bang as the van started backing up.

The driver hit the brakes. I flattened myself on the roof.

The man rolled down the driver’s window and peered into the side mirror. Dr. Inglis did the same on the passenger’s side.

“Looks like you hit a fallen branch,” Dr. Inglis said. “Just back over it.”

The van continued down the lane. Then it turned left, heading back to town. Another turn, onto a dirt road so narrow that evergreen branches steepled over it and I had to flatten out again to avoid getting poked in the eye.

I waited until we’d left the other road behind. Then I lifted my big front paw and brought it down on the roof with a thump. When the van didn’t slow, I did it again, twice in succession, pounding hard.

The driver eased off the gas. Dr. Inglis’s window was still cracked open, and her voice came through it.

“It’s the boys waking up,” she said. “Hit the gas, not the brakes.”

The driver did, the van sailing over the rutted road, me clinging to the top.

I thought of another way to get their attention. But could I do it? I wasn’t even sure I knew how.

I closed my eyes, focused all my energy deep inmy gut and then—

I let out a scream. A true cougar scream, the nails-down-a-chalkboard wail that sends campers fleeing their tents in the middle of the night.

The driver hit the brakes. And I went sailing along the roof, my claws scraping uselessly across the metal, the clothing I’d retrieved fluttering around me, blocking my vision as I tumbled over the front of the van and hit the hard-packed dirt.

I lifted my head, dazed, and found myself staring into the grille. The driver slammed the van into reverse and the vehicle jumped back, ready to make a fast getaway.

“No!” Dr. Inglis shouted. “It could be Maya.”

The van stopped. It idled there as they argued inside. I heard the word gun but that was all I caught because as they talked, I was creeping past the van.

When I reached the back, I started to run. Dr. Inglis shouted. The doors opened as they leaped out.

I didn’t go far before I swerved, then ran full tilt at the van, back legs propelling me so fast the road sped by in a blur. Then I launched myself.

I didn’t think I could make it. Leaping hurdles was one thing. But jumping high enough to land on a van roof?

I actually went too high and landed so hard the whole van quaked under me. I planted my paws, lowered my head, looked at the driver, and let out a snarl that sent him stumbling backward. Silver flashed in his hand, but as he raised it, I saw it was just the keys. His other hand was empty.

“Don’t startle her,” Dr. Inglis said.

“Don’t startle—?” he squeaked. “That—that’s a mountain lion.”

“She has the birthmark. It’s Maya.”

“I don’t care. It’s a goddamned mountain lion.”

“I know. Isn’t she beautiful? A young cougar in perfect physical condition. Did you see that leap? She must have been riding on the roof earlier. She climbed the tree to get on it. Do you know what that means?”

“Do I care what that—?”

“She planned this. There’s no loss of cognitive function. She’s an intelligent young woman in the body of one of the world’s finest predators. This is what we’ve been working toward. This is everything we’ve dreamed—”

I pounced. I hit the driver in the chest and he went down, keys sailing from his hand and landing in the weeds alongside the road. He punched me in the nose. As a human, that would sting. As a cat, it was like a pile-drive straight to the brain.

I fell back. He started to scramble away. I managed to recover in time to grab his leg and pulled him up short. His hands dug into the dirt as he struggled to get free. Then he lifted a handful of that dirt and tried to throw it in my eyes. I chomped down on his foot. He let out a scream as loud as a cougar’s. Blood filled my mouth, rich and coppery and hot.

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