To Catch A Cheetah
Chase crept through the apartment, his boots soundless against the plush grey carpet, as he ghosted through the living room, and down the hallway, following the scent of the intruder. His heart was heavy as he recognized the scent, it was Dean, a panther shifter that Chase had known for many years. He remembered when Dean had first joined the Guild ten years ago, a rookie fresh out of the army with a serious chip on his shoulder. It had taken a long time for him to acknowledge that Chase, who was ten years younger and half a foot shorter, was head and shoulders above him, but by the time he’d done so the two had formed a bond of mutual respect. Hell, Chase had even taught him a few of his tricks.
And now he was going to have to kill the bastard.
“It doesn’t have to be this way, Chase.” Dean’s gravelly voice rumbled from the room on his left – Chase’s office. Chase cursed, knowing that Dean was onto him – his passports were hidden in that room, so there was no chance of him simply grabbing them and getting out to avoid a confrontation. “You can still complete the mission, and we can both return to the Guild with no one being the wiser.
Chase opened the door to see Dean sitting in his black leather office chair, his booted feet propped up against the corner of Chase’s oak desk. He held up one hand, and Chase’s stomach fluttered uneasily at the sight of the two passports held between two fingers, so close, and yet so far away. Though Dean’s posture was relaxed, Chase knew the six-foot-six black man could move incredibly fast when the situation warranted, and that even though Chase was the better fighter, he wasn’t going to get those passports out of Dean’s hands without a fight.
“You know I can’t do that,” Chase said, stopping just on the other side of the desk. This was going to be a nasty fight, he thought sadly. Taking out an old friend wasn’t what he wanted to do, but he had no choice. He knew that Dean would never let him leave alive.
Dean stared at him for a long moment, and then slowly nodded. He shifted, sliding his boots from the desk so he could get to his feet. “I can see that,” he said, tucking the passports into his inside jacket pocket. “Which is a real shame.”
Chase frowned. “Have you told the Guild about those?” he asked, suddenly worried that his new identities had been rendered completely useless.”
Dean shook his head. “Not yet,” he said, and Chase believed him – Dean had never been a good enough liar to fool any shifter assassin worth his salt. “I wanted to give you the opportunity to change your mind first. I figured these were something you were saving for a rainy day.” He sighed. “You’re attached to the girl for some reason, and that’s a shame. We’ve both seen many guild members fall for similar reasons, but I never thought you were going to be one of them.”
“I’m not going to be one of them,” Chase said, and that was all the warning he gave before he shifted, bones stretching, fur rippling, fangs extending, as he morphed into his cheetah form. He sprang over the desk, tackling Dean into the wall, but the panther had nearly finished changing shape already, and he twisted out of the way, preventing Chase from sinking his fangs into his friend’s jugular. The two cats rolled around on the floor for a few moments, both fighting for the upper hand, and then sprang apart again, crouching on opposite sides of the room. Chase had a large scratch that burned fire across his upper chest, and Dean’s front paw was injured, but neither of them was even remotely down for the count.
You could just give me a head start, Chase spoke into Dean’s mind. Tell them that I wasn’t here, and give me enough time to at least get the woman to safety.
Dean paused. That’s risky, he said, but clearly, he was considering the possibility. You would probably have to…
Chase pounced; taking advantage of the distraction he created to tackle Dean again. The panther roared, outraged at the betrayal, but Chase showed no mercy as the two cats rolled around again, fighting for dominance. Dean was stronger, but Chase was quicker and more flexible, and within seconds he sank his fangs into Dean’s throat again, piercing the jugular and driving straight through the esophagus. Dean let out a strangled cry as blood gushed from his throat, his claws ineffectually scraping against Chase’s hide, but Chase held on, his jaw clamped down as he shook Dean by the neck, draining the life force out of him. Eventually, the panther went limp in his jaws, but he made sure not to let go until his enemy’s heartbeat had stopped completely.
Sadness quickly engulfed him, as well as more than a little bit of guilt, as Chase stepped back and surveyed his friend. He knew it had been a low blow to appeal to Dean’s honor, but the truth of the matter was that Dean would have ended up coming after them anyway, and Chase wasn’t interested in being a martyr.
Turning, he met Delilah’s brown eyes with his own yellow ones, knowing that she’d come to stand in the door sometime during the last fifteen seconds of the fight. He stood stock still for a moment, allowing her to see him for what he really was, a feral beast, his lower jaw covered in blood, his inches-long fangs ready, and willing to shed more, if necessary. After a moment, he shifted back again, then wiped the blood from his mouth and chin with the back of his hand. “I thought I told you to wait outside.”
“Sorry,” Delilah said flatly, not sounding contrite in the least. “Just the sound of you fighting…” Her eyes were hard, her voice nonchalant, but Chase could tell that the fight had unsettled her – her heart rate was elevated and her knuckles were white as they gripped the hilt of the dagger, he gave her. He noticed with relief that it appeared unused.
“I’m guessing there was no trouble outside?” he asked, tossing the napkin into the trash and crouching down beside Dean’s prone form. He’d shifted back to a human sometime in the last few seconds, so Chase was able to reach into his inside jacket pocket and retrieve the passports.
“No.” Delilah watched as Chase stood up, walked over to a painting on the wall and pushed it to the side to reveal a safe. “That’s a pretty cliché location.”
Chase grinned. “Maybe, but this isn’t.” He flipped the heavy painting around then pulled off the false backing to reveal another safe behind it. Chuckling at Delilah’s wide eyes, he quickly spun the combination, then opened the small door and retrieved one of several syringes from the safe, then placed the painting carefully on the floor and returned to Dean’s prone body.
“What the hell are you doing?” Delilah stepped forward, her voice shrilled with alarm. “Isn’t he already…”
“Dead?” Chase nodded as he lifted one of Dean’s arms, then injected him with the bright blue solution inside the glass vial. “Yes, so I wouldn’t worry about what’s in the solution; it’s not going to hurt him.” He sat back on his haunches and watched as Dean’s body slowly transformed back into a panther.
“Wow,” Delilah breathed. “That’s insane.”
Chase nodded. “The guild developed these as a way to cover up shifter murders.” He gave Delilah a humorless grin. “They come in pretty handy not only in assassinations but when we have to get rid of our own. The authorities never know what to make of the dead animals, and the murder can’t be traced back to anyone.”
Delilah’s eyes were round as saucers as she stared at Dean. “That’s fucking crazy,” she breathed. “What happens if you inject that into a regular human?”
“Not sure, but it can’t be good,” Chase said as he got to his feet. “Now come on, let’s get to work.”
* * *
They ended up taking two duffle bags worth of stuff from Chase’s place; one bag filled with basic living essentials, and one filled with what he called ‘extras’, guns, knives, money, more of those syringes, and other things that Delilah dubbed as ‘tools of the trade’. I mean really, it was much easier to say than stunners, poisons, surveillance equipment, and other stuff that Delilah wasn’t totally sure about. She didn’t ask questions either; she figured the less she knew about what was in that second bag, the better.
“Don’t act as if you’re above all this,” Chase said, giving her an arch look as she carefully handled a hand grenade. “You’re going to be learning how to use all this stuff.”
Delilah nearly dropped the explosive. “I am?”
“Hell, yeah.” Chase zipped up the bag, then hoisted both over one shoulder. Delilah had to admit he cut a dashing figure, standing there in his boots, jeans, and leather jacket, looking as if he were ready to take on the world. “I can’t have you playing the part of the damsel in distress forever. You’re going to have to learn to handle yourself during the off-chance that I’m not around when a threat catches up to us.”
Delilah gulped. “I’m not sure I’m ready for that.”
Chase smiled. “Don’t worry. Training doesn’t start tonight.” He glanced in the full-length mirror next to his dresser, then frowned. “Oh, right, I nearly forgot.” He grimaced.
“What?” Delilah said, anxiety filling her, anything that caused Chase to grimace couldn’t possibly be a good thing.
“We’re going to have to change a few things before we hit the road.”
* * *
An hour later, which in Chase’s opinion was fifty-nine minutes too long, Chase and Delilah walked out of the apartment complex as vastly different people from the ones who’d entered. Delilah was now a brunette, with a dagger strapped to her hip, tucked neatly under her jeans, and a small gun strapped to the left side of her ribs, concealed by the denim jacket she wore.
Chase was dressed in a black leather jacket, a distressed tee, black jeans, and combat boots, and had hidden so many weapons on his body that Delilah had lost count.
“Are they going to let us on the train like this?” Delilah asked as they got back into the car.
Chase nodded, starting the car up. “It’s not like the airport,” he told her. “There’s no TSA checkpoint or anything, and as long as we don’t check our bags, we should be fine.”
They left the car a few blocks from Penn Station and hoofed their way up the rest of the way on 7th avenue. Chase bought their tickets at the booth, and Delilah frowned as she heard him specify Philadelphia as their destination.
“Pennsylvania?” she asked as they trotted down the steps toward their platform. Throngs of people swarmed all around them, men and women dressed in suits and carrying briefcases, teens carrying backpacks and laptop cases, and yet others who were lugging duffle bags, or small rolling suitcases just like them. “That doesn’t seem nearly far away enough.”
“It’s not,” Chase agreed.
“Then why are we going there?”
“It’s just a pit stop,” Chase explained. “In case someone’s following us.”
They boarded the train, slid their duffle bags in the wire compartment racks overhead, then squeezed into two seats near the back and settled in. This close, Delilah could feel the warmth radiating from Chase’s body, and she suddenly realized just how cold she herself was. Her body started shaking as his warmth seeped into her, and she wasn’t entirely sure if it was because her nerve endings were suddenly coming alive, or if she was simply going into shock after all that had happened.
“You okay?” Chase asked, looked down at her in concern.
“I’m just cold, I guess.” Delilah’s cheeks colored as she realized her teeth were chattering, and she wrapped her arms around herself to try and get warm.
“Here,” Chase said softly, looping an arm around Delilah’s shoulder and drawing her against his hard body. “Let’s get you warm.” Instantly a cloud of warmth and spicy, masculine scent surrounded her, and the shivers gradually eased as she relaxed into him. The last dregs of adrenaline in her bloodstream dissipated, leaving her with profound exhaustion that made her lids feel as if they were made of lead, and she clenched her jaw, fighting a yawn.
“It’s okay,” Chase soothed as he rubbed her shoulder gently. “Just close your eyes and get some sleep. I’ll wake you up when we get there.”
“Mm-hmm.” She was out before the last syllable had left her lips, falling down, down, down into a dreamless sleep, where nothing existed except warmth, and darkness and a spicy, masculine scent that she wrapped around her like a comforting blanket.