I put my iPhone back in my purse and take another sip from my Berry Delight. This wasn’t such a good idea after all.
You should get out more, my admin Jenny told me. And here I am, out, an attractive woman in her early thirties — very early thirties! —, and nobody’s looking. Twenty-seven minutes in, and I’m still sitting alone at my table.
Then again, perhaps going out on a Tuesday evening wasn’t the best idea.
The place is dead. A dozen people in total, most of them sitting alone and sipping quietly from their drinks. The only place with some action is the table in the corner, where two men and a woman are smiling, laughing, and talking in loud voices.
The men seem to be roughly my age. One is tall, dark-haired, with a perfect haircut, a penetrating gaze, and well-developed pecs. With that body, he must have been an athlete in college, but today he’s dressed sharp. Business casual. Perhaps he’s in Marketing or something.
The other man looks vaguely Asian, and while he is slimmer, he seems to be in great shape as well. And the woman…
She wears a simple black dress that ends above the knee. It compliments her body perfectly. Her back is turned to me, but I’ve seen her walk to the bar to get a drink; she moves like a cat. And I’ve seen her face when she returned to the table. If I was into women, I’d definitely be into her.
The cool kids. And I’m not part of the group. Then again, I never was; I was always the one with a thing for books. It did pay off in the end; I had nine job offers before I finished Harvard Law, and it only went up from there. But a mid-six-figure income doesn’t keep you warm at night.
I take another sip of my Berry Delight. I’ll just finish it and go home. I have the Perkins hearing in the morning.
As I lift my eyes from my glass, the tall, dark-haired man rises from his seat. He starts walking towards me.
No, it can’t be. He’s just going to the restroom; I know it.
He passes the door to the men’s room and keeps walking. For an instant, our eyes meet.
His gaze is… intense, and somehow… strange. I can’t put my finger on it.
There’s no doubt about it now; he’s coming to my table.
Okay, Alice, now what?
I’m not ready for this. My last date was six months ago, and it was a disaster. And I might be looking sharp on the outside, but inside I am still the tall, awkward girl with the glasses, trying to find her place in the world.
Wait a moment. What would Jenny say?
Relax, Alice. Be natural. Smile. Encourage him, but not too much. Remember that men are supposed to be doing the chasing.
Fine. I can do that.
He smiles, showing me a perfect set of teeth. Then he pulls up a chair and sits down. “A pretty woman like you shouldn’t be sitting alone.”
OK, not the most original pickup line, but I’ll take what I can get. “I’m Alice.”
“I’m Jason. But you can call me the Black Panther.”
Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no.
Just what I needed. Another weirdo.
I give him my icy stare. “I’m not interested.”
He smiles again. “Perhaps later?”
“Yeah. Later. Much, much later.”
“Fine.” He rises from his chair and walks back to his table, not bothering to look behind. Not that I’d want him to.
A dare, then. Perhaps his friends made him do it. Looks like, even now, the cool kids are making fun of poor Alice. I guess some things never change.
I down the rest of my drink, leave the money (and a generous tip) on the table, and walk towards the door to the underground parking lot. Besides keeping my head clear, a Berry Delight means that I can drive.
The garage is dimly lit, with only three cars inside; my five-year-old Honda, a beat-up SUV parked three spaces closer to me, and, further to the left, a red four-seater Ferrari.
I guess the cool kids didn’t come with the SUV. Somehow I’m not surprised.
I walk past the SUV and fumble in my purse for my car keys when the door opens again, and who do I see there? None other than mister Black Panther. He heads straight towards me.
If he’s coming to apologize, I’m not in the mood. “I said I’m not interested.”
He stops on the other side of the SUV and places his hands on the hood. “I thought you said ‘later’. This is ‘later’.”
I shake my head vigorously as I finally get my keys out. “Stay away from me.”
Of course, I might be overreacting; there’s a big SUV between us, and he’s not threatening me. Not directly. But I’ve heard of things going from bad to worse in a blink of an eye. Then again, he won’t try anything here; there’s a camera facing straight towards us, and another one in the corner.
“Oh, those are fake,” he says, pointing at the closest camera. “They sell them at Walmart, sixty bucks for a twelve-pack.” He leaps over the hood of the SUV; he’s only ten feet away now. “I want to show you something.”
I grab my car keys tightly; if things turn sour, I can use them as a weapon. “Stay back.” Out of nowhere, he pulls out a gun and points it straight at my face. I freeze.
“In less than twenty seconds,” he says, “you will take this gun from me. Or I will pull the trigger.”
My heart stops. “No… Please, don’t do this.”
“Take my gun or die.” His voice is cold, hard steel.
My vision becomes clear now, as it has never been before. I can see everything, from the tiny speck of dirt on the barrel of the gun, to every single one of his eyelashes. Perhaps this is what you get when faced with your immediate extinction.
I don’t know what happens next, but I slam into him and throw him against the side of the SUV, and a moment later the gun is in my hand and I am six feet away from him. We are both standing.
I aim the gun at his left eye. “You sick bastard. I should just pull the trigger.” I’ve never fired a gun before.
He spreads his arms. “Relax, Alice. I wasn’t going to hurt you. Besides, it’s not even loaded.”
“Liar,” I hear myself say. Without thinking, I point the gun to a place three inches above his head, and fire. Sure enough, all I get is an empty click.
He smiles and looks me in the eye. “I said I wanted to show you something, Alice, and I did. So tell me now. How the hell were you able to take my gun like that?”
I’m speechless; I shouldn’t have been able to do it. The only encounter I had with martial arts was watching a bunch of Jackie Chan movies with my kid brother, and even that was ages ago.
The door creaks open again, and as I look over his shoulder, I see Catwoman and the Asian-looking guy coming towards us. She’s wearing a long coat now, and they hold hands, their fingers intertwined.
The woman is the first to speak. “Did you show her, Jay?”
“Only the thing with the gun,” Jason says. “I leave the rest to you.”
“Fine,” she says. She lets go of her companion’s hand, unfastens her coat in a fluid move, and drops it to the floor. Underneath, she’s naked.
My mouth flies open and my eyes travel up and down her body. Yes, if I was into women, I’d definitely be into her.
“And now, for the best part,” Jason announces.
The woman kicks off her shoes and stands, completely naked. She takes a step forward, and suddenly…
She shifts. I don’t know how else to say this, but strange things start happening to her body, right in front of my eyes. Her limbs become longer, fur sprouts from her skin, a tail emerges from her backside, and before I know it, I am faced with…
A lion. A real freakin’ female lion, straight out of the Serengeti. Walking slowly towards me.
The empty gun in my hand is useless. I toss it to the side. Then, driven by instincts I didn’t know I had, I shift my body into a low stance, my hands slightly forward, ready to spring into action. Ready to defend myself.
The Asian-looking guy grabs the beast by the tail. “I think she’s seen enough for now.”
The lion nods its head. It rises on its hind legs, strange things start happening to its body, and in moments the beast turns back into the beautiful woman. She is standing, glorious in all her naked beauty, her eyes meeting mine.
She licks her lips, and my heart starts beating faster. Who am I kidding? I really am into her.
No. Wait a minute. She’s not even human!
“This is Eve,” Jason says. He’s moved to my side, and I haven’t even noticed. “But we mostly call her Lioness. And now you know why.”
Finally reality catches up with me. “What… what was that? Did you put something in my drink?”
“Oh come on, Alice,” Eve the Lioness says. “You can do better than that. Tell her, Jay.”
Jason turns to me. “Yeah. When I saw her shift for the first time, I was like: ‘What’s this, the freakin’ circus?’ But you get used to it, after a while.”
So this was actually real, at least if I am to believe mister take-my-gun-or-die. I’m still having a hard time coming to grips with it. Then another thought hits me.
“Why did you show me this?”
The Asian-looking man smiles, and I notice that his teeth are perfect as well. “It is always special, finding another one of us.”
“Wait. You mean…”
“Not yet,” Jason says. “But in time, with lots of patience and lots of practice, you’ll be able to shift as well.” He sniffs me. “A cougar, I’d say.”
Strangely enough, the Urban Dictionary meaning of the word pops into my mind. An older woman who frequents clubs in order to score with a much younger man.
“Hey! I’m not that old!” I say. Nor that socially active, either.
“That’s not what he meant,” Eve says. Next to her, her male companion snickers. “It’s what we think you will shift into. But we’ve been wrong at times. I knew little kitten over there,” she points at Jason, who shrugs, “was going to shift into a panther, but I didn’t expect him to be black.”
“As if it had anything to do with race, Eve.”
“Cut it out, the two of you,” the Asian-looking man says. “I’m sure our new friend has many questions. Go ahead, Alice.”
“Well… I… how is this possible?”
Jason shrugs. “Magic, or something. No one knows. But it’s very rare. Less than one in a million, I’d say.”
“It gives us formidable strength, even in our human form,” Eve’s companion says. “And lightning-fast reflexes, as I’m sure Jay has shown you already. I’m afraid it does take a life-threatening event to trigger it, though.”
“Like, say, having a gun pointed at your face,” Jason adds. As if he needed to.
“And… what do you do with it?”
“We are vigilantes,” he says. Even with his perfect posture, he seems to stand even taller as he speaks. “We prowl the streets at night and protect the innocent. We keep the city safe.”
The Lioness smiles. “Oh, stop with that nonsense, Jay.” She looks at me again. “We rob banks. There, I said it. We are one person short for our next job, and we need your help. Are you in, or out?”
Oh, no. Bank robbers? What have I gotten myself into?
I can’t join them, and I don’t want to. It’s not a good life, and my friends in the DA’s office put people like them behind bars all the time. Then again, I can’t say I’m out; not when one of them is a freakin’ lioness, and another just pointed a gun at my face. Admittedly, an empty gun, but still.
Jason places a hand on my shoulder. “Relax, Alice. She’s just playing with you.” He winks at me. “We’re not bad people, not at all.” His smile is reassuring, and for some reason I believe him.
“You’ll get to know us better soon,” he continues. He points to the Ferrari. “Come. Let’s go for a ride, the four of us.”
My eyes follow Eve as she bends down and picks up her coat from the floor, giving me a delicious view. I’m not going to say goodbye to her, not yet.
“Yes,” I say. “I will come with you.”
I have the Perkins hearing in the morning, but I’m sure I’ll do just fine. I’ll prepare for it on the cab ride to the courtroom. It wouldn’t be the first time, and I’ve never had a better excuse.
Jason takes my right arm, and I let him. We walk slowly towards the car, giving the others time to catch up with us.
In moments, Eve is at my side. She walks barefoot, holding her shoes in her left hand.
I turn towards her. “Are there any others?”
“Yes,” she says. “Two more, both of them girls. You’ll meet them soon.”
She takes my other arm. “We call ourselves shapeshifters. Werecats just didn’t have the ring to it. And, here’s the best thing about us.” She whispers in my ear, and the warmth of her breath against my skin gives me tingles. “We are not possessive, in our little pack. Everyone mates with everyone.” The Asian-looking guy clears his throat.
“Except for the men,” Eve continues. “Sven is pretty sensitive about that. Of course, that won’t stop me from teasing him.”
“Sven?” I ask. He looks like a taller, younger Jet Li.
“Oh, his mother’s Swedish.” She’s probably playing with me again, but I don’t care.
We get to the Ferrari. Jason pushes a button on the remote, and I get my first glimpse of the inside.
It’s a gorgeous car. I’ve seen my share of fancy rides when meeting with some of my more lucrative clients, but this one tops them all.
“I’ll drive,” Eve says. She hands her shoes to the guy whose name might be Sven, and turns towards me. “For your first ride with us, you get to sit next to me. I hope you don’t mind a bit of speed.”
Even if I did, I wasn’t going to admit it. “I’ll be fine. Shall we?”
I climb into the car, and smile. I guess Jenny was right; I did need to get out more. And now I’m hanging with the cool kids, and I am actually one of them. A shapeshifter.
We drive into the night. I don’t know where we’re going, but it’s going to be an adventure.
With Eve at my side, I am sure of it.