Cooley’s Panther

Cooley's PantherCOOLEY’S PANTHER (Book 1, Felidae Series)
by Jody Wallace
Ebook Re-release: Mar 2011
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Length: Short Story (7.5K)
Rating: PG-13
From: Meankitty Publishing
Cover: Laideebug Digital
Buy Links (FREE!): Amazon, Apple/iTunes, B&N, KoboSmashwords
Add it to your Goodreads!

Is that a really big kitty in Cooley’s suburban back yard…or a new way of looking at the world?

Miss Nicola Johansen, otherwise known as Cooley, relies on the predictability of her suburban subdivision to keep her feeling safe. When she spies a black panther slinking along her back fence in the wee hours of the morning, her comfortable life is shaken like a maraca. Repeated calls to the cops result in an investigation, and a finger of blame gets pointed at the mysterious man who lives in 2201 down the street. Like the fact his yard is a disgrace wasn’t enough reason to suspect that man of nefarious dealings–the animal pens behind his house are the clincher.

But what happens when Cooley finds out the mysterious man isn’t quite the scofflaw she assumed? What happens when she finds out he’s absolutely…magnetic?

Notes: “Cooley’s Panther” was originally published in Sum3: The Zircon Anthology of Speculative Fiction. The anthology was comprised of nine stories on the cutting edge of speculative romance, edited by yours truly. If you didn’t get a copy, you missed out!

Book 2 of the Felidae Series: STALKING EVAN


***** EXCERPT FROM COOLEY’S PANTHER *****

Chapter One

The police were first to arrive, some twenty minutes after she called. Cooley had just finished printing out the digital photo of the panther she’d spotted in her back yard. It was about six thirty in the morning, and the day wasn’t yet as muggy and hot as it would get this afternoon.

“Look here.” She met Officer Mofield on her flagstone porch and shoved the print-out into the uniformed woman’s hands. “Tell me that’s not a panther. Well, really, a leopard, but panther’s the most common name for the black ones.”

“Cooley, you have to quit making prank… Holy moly! That’s some alley cat. When did you take this?” The officer dropped one hand to her hip and unsnapped her weapon holster, eyeing the neat hedge that lined Cooley’s front porch with suspicious eyes.

“About five this morning, right before sunrise.” Cooley’s heart raced with the excitement of the finally vindicated. “The zoo denies it, but after they misplaced those gazelles last year they probably don’t want to publicize another escapee.”

Officer Mofield shook her head. “They’d be legally obligated to report something like that.”

The officer’s doubt didn’t change the fact the animal had been caught in the crosshairs of Cooley’s digital camera. “I had to lighten the image to reveal the cat’s silhouette. If I could get a better shot in sunlight, you could see the rosette markings underneath all that melanin. Beautiful animal, but he’s out of his element.” Cooley’s finger traced the sleek, black body of the loping panther in the photo.

Officer Mofield looked up from the paper. “Can you show me this location?” “It’s in the back. We’ll go through the house.”

Before the policewoman entered, she flicked on her radio and muttered something to dispatch telling animal control to get their hind ends up here after all.

“Coffee or ice tea?” Cooley offered. She didn’t want to delay the search, but her grandmother, a firm advocate of Southern hospitality, taught her she’d catch more rabbits with a carrot than a snare. Cooley was only thirty, but that was no reason to disdain good old-fashioned manners.

“Maybe later,” the officer said. “Right now let’s check this animal sighting.”

Cooley allowed Officer Mofield to precede her to the screened back porch and the freshly mown yard. Good thing she’d just cut the grass or no telling what her guest would think. Sometimes she let it go two, three weeks since her privacy fence concealed it from the neighbors. Everybody needed a secret, and that was one of hers.

Aside from that, she had the greenest lawn on the block—not like 2201, two doors down. That yard was half crabgrass and the other half dirt. Some guy had moved in months ago, and she rarely saw him, despite being just a little nosey. The least he could do was pay a lawn service to keep up appearances. She’d even circulated a petition which she’d handed over personally, but it hadn’t made an impact on the horrible man.

What was a mean-faced single guy like that doing in a quiet suburb like this anyway? Same as her, maybe. Keeping secrets. But still. He ought to keep his secrets and his yard.

She and Officer Mofield descended the porch steps into the yard. “The panther was near the birdbath.” Cooley pointed. “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen him.”

“I know that, Cooley. You always call it in.” Officer Mofield strode across grass and held up the photo, comparing it to the view. The privacy fence hid the yard from the front and sides. The back, however, was woven wire, which surrounded a large pasture. Beyond that was a heavily wooded park. Nice panorama. Cooley always sent Mrs. Grinfeld, who owned the acreage, thank-you notes on appropriate holidays, like Arbor Day, for keeping it green instead of selling out to developers.

The spot where Cooley had captured her nocturnal passerby on film was a gap in the small trees that had grown next to the wire fence. Officer Mofield handed the photo to Cooley and eyeballed the scene.

“Mighty big stray cat,” she said finally. She knelt by the fence and scanned the ground, then walked the fencerow, gaze on the grass. “From the photo, looks like the animal was outside your yard.”

“There’s no tracks.” Cooley watched Officer Mofield search the area. “The fescue I planted in my lawn is too healthy to hold a print.”

“How many times have you seen the animal?”

“Five.” Cooley ticked off her fingers. “My cats woke me the first time—I usually get up when my clients start calling at seven—and there he was. He does the same thing each time. He slinks along the fence, always from the right to left, like he’s headed for the road. I would think he’d be headed for the park.”

“He probably left the scene, but we’ll check anyway.” Officer Mofield re-snapped her holster and clambered over the fence. Cooley was ready for this, in a jogging outfit with her long black hair braided, so she climbed over, too. They paced along the perimeter in the opposite direction of the cat’s path. They went a quarter mile before the subdivision ended in a dogleg of Mrs. Grinfeld’s pasture. Beyond that, the park, with its trees and quiet river.

At least to Cooley’s assessment, there were no traces of the cat’s passage. No scat, no prints, no rabbit heads. Officer Mofield probably wasn’t trained for this particular duty, but Cooley gave her points for effort.

“We should search the park.” Cooley peered across the uncut hay in the pasture to the distant tree line. She could picture the animal perched in a tall pine while the cops below searched in vain. “I bet he’s denned up somewhere there.”

“I need to concentrate on the area of the sighting,” Officer Mofield said. They returned to the house, halting briefly to acknowledge Cooley’s neighbor Mr. Cooper watering his tomatoes.

The policewoman bypassed Cooley’s yard. “It was headed this way, Cooley? East?”

“Right along the fence.” Cooley tilted her head toward her neighbor’s house. “The same direction. Roughly the same time of day, too.”

“Then let’s see what we find,” Office Mofield said, and they paced beside the fence along the same path Cooley had seen the panther take.

They soon reached the back yard of the mean-faced man in 2201. It was even more disgraceful than the front. A rusty garden shed, a shabby gas grill on a cement porch—no screen, no furniture, no flowers—a tipped-over garbage can and, interestingly, two large animal pens. A tire swing hung from a tall oak; the swing was left over from the family who lived here first.

There was hardly any grass. Guess he didn’t need to mow back here. Which meant hiring a lawn service would only cost half as much.

Cheapskate.

“Who lives here?” Officer Mofield asked.

Cooley absorbed information about the people around her like a sponge but rarely offered it, when it harmed no one. Telling Officer Mofield what she’d concluded about her neighbor served him right for slamming the door in her face after she’d explained about the state of his grass and their subdivision standards.

Besides, she’d never been asked questions by the police when she was actually involved in the investigation. She had a moral and legal obligation, and didn’t that trump her “Listen, learn, but don’t repeat” policy?

“He’s new,” Cooley said. “He drives a black van and never comes to block parties. You can tell by his yard he’s not the best housekeeper. He didn’t even put a wreath out at Christmas. Say, would you be able to enforce a petition for him to clean up his yard?”

“No.” Officer Mofield studied 2201 intently.

“He handed out pencils at Halloween. Anyone knows kids want candy. I’m guessing single, mid-thirties, no children.” She recalled the scruff of whiskers on his chin, black as coffee, and the irritation in his eyes when he’d looked her over, in her flattering pink church dress and holding out the paper with all the signatures. “Maybe a painful divorce, too.”

“You turning detective on me, Cooley?” Officer Mofield flipped out a notebook and jotted down a few words. The woman wasn’t one of Cooley’s usual contacts on the force, but that didn’t mean she never would be.

“What are you writing?”

“Never you mind. Well, well. What have we here?”

There, in the dusty, tan soil of 2201’s unkempt yard, next to the garden shed, was a perfect panther paw print.

© 2011 Jody Wallace

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