The attack of a tiger nearly killed vet Grant Hayden as a child, and only the strength of the big cat saved him. But the ritual performed by an African medicine man also left him with the side effect of taking on a tiger’s form. Guarding his secret has necessitated he not get too close to any woman. That proves difficult when Dr. Zinsa Senghor takes up temporary residence in his clinic to escape the nearby fighting of the civil war ravaging Mekimba. Zinsa is more temptation than he can withstand, but Grant fears her reaction when she discovers the nature of the beast locked inside him.
Thirty years ago
Grant knew his mother wouldn’t approve of him investigating, but he pushed on anyway, ignoring the blades of stinging grass that slapped against his bare legs. Absently, he lifted a leg to scratch a mosquito bite irritated by the dying vegetation, his eyes never wavering from the two frolicking tiger cubs in the grass ahead of him. The contrast of black stripes against their pure white fur enthralled him, making his fingers itch to touch them.
He briefly wondered where their mother was, taking time to scan the area surrounding them. When he didn’t see her, he moved forward until he was within a few feet of the babies. The larger of the two cubs pounced on its sibling, issuing a growl that was probably meant to be ferocious. A giggle escaped Grant as they rolled together, yowling at each other in playful outrage.
He stepped closer, pushing aside vegetation reaching his waist, to get to the cubs. Fingers extended, he clicked his tongue at them. The cubs broke apart, watching him warily. He dropped to his knees, inching forward. The smaller cub backed away, hissing at him, but the larger cub stood its ground, growling. When he scooted closer still, the cub’s bravery fled, and its eyes widened while it backed way.
They were about to flee. In his eagerness to pet them, Grant abandoned caution and lunged forward, catching the hind leg of the larger cub as it turned to flee. A piteous cry escaped it as he dragged it toward him, escalating in pitch as he wrestled with the cub, trying to pull it into his arms. Although only a baby, it put up a good fight, raking his arms with its razor-like claws.
Muttering words he knew his parents wouldn’t approve of, Grant finally succeeded in pinning the cub to the ground. He stroked it with a gentle hand, trying to reassure it.
He just wanted to pet it, but the wild racing of its heart made him realize he was frightening the cub. With a sigh of regret, he released the cub and watched it bound away.
As he started to rise to his feet, a sound behind him made him freeze. It was now his heart racing wildly as the roar of the tiger repeated. Mouth dry, Grant turned his head to see the angry mother emerging from the dry grass of the veld. His knees trembled when she rushed him, and although he was only six, he suddenly confronted his own mortality as the white tiger leapt at him. Angie Hayden called her son’s name again, ignoring her scratchy throat, worn raw. She walked a few steps farther, paused to scan the veld in the twilight, and screamed, “Grant, answer me.” He didn’t reply, just as he hadn’t for the last hour she and the rest of the village had been searching for him. She prayed Roman would have better luck with his group, which had gone in the opposite direction. Thank goodness the men of the village, and several of the women, had immediately volunteered to help them search for Grant when Angie grew worried he hadn’t returned.
To her left, she saw Dobi pushing through the high grass. His body language conveyed a sense of urgency, and she broke into a run to cover the three hundred yards separating them. Her feet crunched through the grass with moderate resistance, and she didn’t allow the higher vegetation to slow her down, pushing it aside impatiently.
Even before reaching Dobi, who knelt on the ground, she knew she would find her son injured. Deep down, she had known that from the moment he didn’t come back when expected, hours earlier. At first, she had dismissed it as overreacting, but when the village children began returning, and he wasn’t in any of those groups, she had listened to the voice in her head telling her to be proactive.
It wasn’t a surprise to know something had happened to him, but Angie was unprepared for the shock of seeing him torn and mangled. So much blood had splattered the ground that she didn’t think he could be alive. She was kneeling and reaching for him at the same time, even as Dobi lifted the boy. Her heart stuttered, igniting a spark of hope, when Grant moaned.
“He’s alive?” she asked in English. At his puzzled look, she repeated the question in Kimbu. In her state of panic, she had slipped into her native tongue, forgetting the language she had spoken almost exclusively for the past two years.
“Yes.” His dark eyes reflected his sadness. “Barely.”
On autopilot, Angie rose to her feet, extending her arms for her son. Dobi looked like he wanted to protest, but her firm stance must have convinced him she could bear the weight of the boy. In the back of her mind, she knew it would be better to let Dobi carry him. With his muscular build, he could ferry Grant to the village at a run, while she would have to walk. She ignored the voice of reason and took her son, needing to hold him, fearing it wouldn’t matter how quickly he reached the village. With no doctor in attendance, and him so injured, what difference did it make? It was better to hold her son while she still could.
As quickly as she could, flanked by Dobi and the other villagers in their search party, all maintaining silence, Angie returned to the village. Tears coursed down her cheeks, but she pressed on, knowing she couldn’t fall apart just yet.
To her relief, Roman and his group were returning as they entered the small clearing with its round huts, thatched with grass from the veld. Her husband’s posture of frustration changed to horror when she drew nearer and his eyes fell on their son. He rushed toward her, and she was finally able to relinquish Grant, knowing Roman deserved to hold him too in these last precious minutes.
“My God.” He cradled the boy against his broad chest, his face pale even in the fading light. “What happened to him, Angie?”
Dobi was the one to answer. “I think a tiger mauled him.”
Roman’s face contorted with grief. “He is so still.” His blue eyes were haunted when he met Angie’s. “There’s a Red Cross unit two days away, in the Natunde Valley,
dispensing vaccinations to the surrounding villages. They have nurses and probably a doctor or two.”
She shook her head. “Grant can’t ride in the Jeep for two days over that terrain.
He’d never survive.”
“Then I’ll bring a doctor back here,” he said stridently.
“Four days…the boy will not survive that long.” Dobi touched Grant’s cheek, his dark skin a marked contrast to the boy’s pallid complexion.
“What the hell are we supposed to do? Just let him die?”
Angie stepped forward, hugging her husband and child. The tears poured from her, and she barely stifled the escaping sobs.
“Come, friend. Bring him to your hut, and we will sit with him.”
It remained unspoken, but Angie knew Dobi was talking about the traditional seteki, the vigil maintained for the dying. Chants and prayers would be on the lips of every villager who passed through their dwelling, but they wouldn’t be for his recovery. No, the prayers would be for him to find his way in the afterlife, for a safe journey there, and admonishments not to be drawn into the darkness, where he would lose his soul forever.
In a daze, the same state Roman seemed to be in, she allowed Dobi to usher them to the small hut the villagers had built for them when they’d come to stay as Roman helped them build an irrigation system, while Angie taught the children. The place had sheltered them for two years, but now looked threatening due to the shadows shrouding the corners of the room. In that darkness lurked demons trying to steal her son.
The thought was irrational, but she found herself hurriedly lighting the kerosene lamps as Roman laid Grant on the grass mat in the corner, where the boy usually slept. He moved like an old man, his actions stiff and jerky. He seemed to have trouble letting go of his son for a long moment, and when his arms finally released, his legs gave out. As he collapsed to the floor, sobs shook his body, and he buried his face in his hands.
Angie’s heart broke at the sounds of Roman’s suffering, but she couldn’t join him. Right then, she could spare no comfort for him, focused as she was on her son’s needs.
As quickly as possible, Angie gathered up the basic medical supplies she had on hand and knelt beside Grant. Dobi filled a basin with water, inferring her intent by her activity. She dabbed a square of linen inside the cool liquid, rung it out, and began cleansing her son’s wounds. The cloth turned red in seconds, and she accomplished little more than wetting the blood and smearing it around his skin. Still, she kept at the task, working her way through Roman’s entire collection of handkerchiefs. It was clearly a losing battle she waged, but what else could she do? Stand by without trying to help her son at all? Time passed, although Angie didn’t know how much. Contrary to the usual custom of the villagers to visit the dying person, most of the members had maintained a respectful distance. The only constant presence besides Roman had been Dobi, who’d hovered behind them, his eyes wavering between Grant’s still form and the open door of the hut. He had seemed to be waiting for something.
The air of anticipation fled from the hut when the medicine man entered, arriving so quickly he appeared to have materialized inside the small room. As always, his presence made Angie uncomfortable. There was an aloof manner about the man that made him unapproachable. Although she didn’t believe in his practices, he carried himself with an air of mystery and intensity that suggested he dwelt in two worlds— this one, and a spiritual plane others couldn’t even imagine.
Without speaking a word, Kafiri walked over to the grass mat and knelt beside Roman and Angie. She watched with pensive eyes as he examined her son, chanting quietly as he did so. When his dark gaze suddenly turned fully on her, she gasped with shock at the confrontation. It took every ounce of strength not to look away from his compelling gaze.
“There is not much time,” he said in Kimbu.
Roman nodded. “Anytime now, he’ll…” He trailed off, sobs shaking his shoulders, although not a sound emerged from him to betray his outburst.
“You can save him, Kafiri?” Dobi asked as he took up a kneeling position on the other side of Angie.
His words stirred hope in Angie and she brushed aside the voice of doubt, the one that had always privately dismissed the services the medicine man provided for the villagers. “How?”
“By drawing the strength of the tiger.” A frown rearranged the deep grooves on Kafiri’s face, making him look years older than he was. Even his shock of white hair didn’t age him as much as that expression. “It is dangerous, and there will be…side effects.”
“I don’t care. Do what you can.” Angie ignored Roman’s shocked expression, just as she ignored her own reservations. He was as logical as she was. No doubt he found the concept crazy. Her rational side shared the view, but her maternal side found the small hope the shaman offered ridiculously easy to cling to.
“But you must understand—”
“Do it,” she said in a hard voice. There was nothing to lose by allowing the old man to practice his superstitions on Grant. With no doctor available, and her son dying faster with each passing second, she was willing to try anything.
After a second’s hesitation, Kafiri nodded. “I will do what I can, regardless of the consequences.”
“Just save my son.” Angie gripped Roman’s hand as she uttered the request, needing his strength to get through what was coming. The slight optimism she felt was bound to abandon her, leaving her completely despondent when the medicine man’s treatment failed. She would need her husband more than she ever had before to get through the trial of burying her only child in a foreign land.
Natunde Valley Nature
Preserve Present Day
Rage swept through Grant, as did stomach-twisting nausea, when he saw the full extent of the wildebeest’s fatal injuries. He carefully pushed aside the tarp Manu had wrapped the calf in upon discovering its grisly remains on his rounds through the preserve. The exam table, although to its full height, was just low enough to require Grant to either stoop or sit on a stool during exams. This time, he chose to stoop, knowing there would be no need for full mobility since the poor calf was dead.
“Those goddamned soldiers used this baby for target practice, didn’t they?” Manu asked, his rage clearly matching Grant’s.
“It looks that way.”
“You’re the vet. Did they, or didn’t they? Was there any possible justification for this?” He waved a hand at the ragged carcass.
Grant looked up, taking a moment to breathe deeply in hopes of controlling his emotions. “Could there ever be justification for this? The bullets are large caliber, probably from a machine gun. They didn’t kill it for food, because there isn’t enough left to salvage anything. Whoever did this was sadistic.”
“I’d like to get my hands on them.”
The disturbing glint in his friend’s eyes made Grant swallow. He closed his eyes for a second, focusing on remaining in control. Any lapse could lead to disaster. The beast was always threatening to break through his veneer of humanity with the slightest provocation. “I share your sentiments, Manu.” The cool calm in his voice helped him rein in the anger, and the urge to shift gradually faded.
“They’re tearing our country apart. Is it not enough to force Mekimban men into their militia, to rape the women, and leave countless children orphaned?” He shook his head, his disgust clear. “Are there not enough human targets to satisfy them? Now they come onto our protected lands to kill this baby.”
“Considering the other atrocities the army commits daily against humans, this is nothing for them, Manu.” Grant covered the calf with the tarp again, knowing there was no further need for examination. It hadn’t died from disease or normal injury, so he had no need to monitor the herd for health issues.
“Animals,” Manu muttered.
“No,” Grant said in a soft voice. “Animals act on instinct. When they kill, it is not for pleasure.” His nature gave him a unique perspective on the animal condition.
Manu sighed. “True, my friend. To call those cretins animals is to insult every creature living on this preserve.”
When the silence lengthened, Grant stood up straight, moving to the drawer where he kept his nonmedical paraphernalia to retrieve a roll of tape. Working without speaking, the two of them wrapped the wildebeest in the tarp and taped it closed. Later that night, one of the rangers would see to its cremation. In the interim, they carried the body behind the clinic, leaving it wrapped tightly to protect the corpse from scavengers before it could be disposed of.
After Manu preceded him, Grant shut the door to the freezer and leaned against it. The work of moving the calf hadn’t been exhausting. It was the emotional torment associated with the situation that left him with a sensation of full-body fatigue.
It took a second, but he managed to stand up straight and follow Manu back into the exam room of the clinic. He expected the director of the preserve to keep going, so it was with surprise that Grant watched him eyeing the room.
Appearing uncomfortable, Manu cleared his throat. “You have enough space here, don’t you?”
He nodded. “Most of the time, the other table is free, as you know.” To Grant’s relief, most of the animals on the preserve rarely required transport to the clinic itself. Ninety percent of the time, he took a vehicle out whenever there was an injured or ill animal.
“Good, that’s good.” Manu stroked his goatee, his fingers rustling the crisp curls. “I have done something spontaneously, Grant. I should have discussed it with you first, but I acted without thought.”
His eyebrow quirked. “I work for you, Manu. Why would you need to consult me?” “Because the clinic is your domain, and I have offered its resources to another.”
Grant frowned. “You’re hiring a second vet?” That made no sense. There were days when he himself had little to do on the medical side of things and spent his time like the rangers, patrolling the preserve for poachers and other problems.
“No. Do you know the clinic two miles from here? Dr. Senghor runs it.” “I know of her.”
“The fighting is much too close to her clinic now. She needed a place to bring her practice so she could continue seeing patients.” Manu ducked his head, looking like an embarrassed child. “I offered her space here at the clinic.”
Grant inclined his head. “That was a logical thing to do.”
Manu appeared relieved. “I had hoped you would not mind.” He stroked his goatee. “I don’t know how I ended up making the offer when I ran into her at the store in Natunde.”
“It’s fine.” Grant’s voice emerged steadily, hiding his anxiety. The clinic was his haven, where he could retreat from stimuli that might trigger a transformation. With the doctor infringing on his space, he wouldn’t have anywhere he could withdraw to. But Manu didn’t know how important his sanctuary was to him, and it was too late to protest. Besides, how could he, in good conscience? The people Dr. Senghor helped were more important than infringement on his private refuge.
A grin split Manu’s face, revealing shining teeth. “I am happy to hear that, my friend, because Dr. Senghor will be here within the hour.”
Biting back a groan, Grant managed to nod again, while wondering what tasks he could undertake to keep himself away from the doctor. He had to establish a routine that would minimize time spent with her, lest he accidentally reveal the nature of the beast trapped within.