I look up from the book I'm reading when the phone buzzes on the table beside me. It's the first call I've received on this new phone that Sanchez had someone sneak to me last week — that someone being Officer Wright and not Pablo this time. Wright might have actually been annoyed when he handed it to me. He might have only been feigning annoyance. Sometimes, it's hard to tell with Wright, even when I'm looking at his aura.

I found this in my locker before shift with a note from the head of Homicide. Do not get me involved in any of Sanchez's schemes, Ninja.

I'd chuckled at Wright at the time. If the good Captain wanted someone involved in his schemes, that someone would somehow manage to get sucked in. There wasn't anything I could say or do that would change that.

I tuck a bookmark between the pages, then reach over to pick up the phone and check the caller ID. Jeffco Sheriff's Dept?

Well, that's new. I flip open the phone. "Ninja."

"This is Captain Baker of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. Rodrigo Sanchez at DPD said you might be able to help us out with a problem of missing hikers. Can you come by our offices this afternoon?"

I glance over at the clock on the way. Wow, Grafton's alphabet series might be a bit dated, but her books sure keep me reading — morning turned to afternoon without me even noticing. Fortunately, I don't have class until Tuesday, my last class before finals. After that, I get to defend my thesis. My advisor tells me that could be as early as September. Anyway, I'm ready for class and finals, so it would give me three full days plus whatever remains of today to track down missing hikers. I just wonder why the Jeffco folks need my help.

"I can be there in an hour. I assume that will give you enough time to concoct a plausible reason for needing a Super's help to find missing persons."

The man on the other end of the line chuckles warmly. "More than enough time, yes. Sanchez warned me you have a peculiar sense of humor."

I smile to myself. It's nice that someone — and the right someone, at that! — has noticed my efforts to make Ninja distinct from Andrea.

"A girl's gotta have fun, Captain. I'll see you in an hour."

I don't hurry today, mostly because I need to eat before heading out to Jeffco, and I've long since realized the wisdom Mama and Tita imparted to me. Not only is scarfing down a meal impolite, it generally leads to a tummy ache, even in a person whose body has the nifty ability to heal faster than anyone would consider normal. Besides, if I'm going to be out in the mountains for more than a few hours, I should prepare for it.

I'm not sure how I'd have managed to turn the black Yamaha YZF600 into something usable without my cousin Charlie's help. He'd found it at a more than reasonable price: a cousin of a friend of someone's coworker needed some extra cash. Charlie's web of contacts is impressive for a kid who won't turn nineteen for another month. He and I spent most of last summer tweaking the bike within an inch of its life to make it as fast and quiet as possible. It's still louder than I'd like, but he says it's pretty darn stealthy to normal ears. It had been harder to rig up a holster for my staff, but Charlie's a bit of a genius, and he's been thrilled to help me do this weird job I took up a few years back.

Mama and Aunt Alicia got together and made a fantastic leather vest for me, including discrete inner pockets, that match my riding leathers. I'm still wearing a black turtleneck under it, mainly because they're easy to find . . . but I also like the look. I shrug the vest on near the end of my preparations: a backpack filled with water, trail food, a first aid kit, and a small tool wallet; hair braided; call to Mama and Dad made to warn them I might not be around on Sunday. Today, over the vest, I add my leather jacket. I only wear it when I'm going out on my bike or sneaking out of my apartment building when one of my neighbors might see me. I really need to find better arrangements. I don't like keeping my staff in the tiny garage allocated for this apartment, but I suppose it's better than being seen carrying it around. At least leaving my helmet in the garage is normal. And Pablo was kind enough to ensure I have the best possible locks available. I suspect they're better than anything I'd find at the hardware store.

I check to be sure the braids are tucked inside the jacket before settling the backpack over my shoulders. I'm not as used to the pack as I could be: I usually only need it when I ride out to Flagstaff to visit family.

Fortunately, this four-apartment building has no other students living in it. All the other residents are at work on a Friday afternoon. However, Jerry, who lives above me, will probably get home fairly soon, so I'd better skedaddle.

With the helmet on and staff in the makeshift holster, I roll the bike out of the garage before locking up again. It takes less than ten minutes to get out to Golden, where I park the bike in the lower lot, close to the Sheriff's Department entrance and not the fancier Detention Center entrance. I take off the helmet and jacket, leaving them on the bike. After a moment's hesitation, I leave the backpack there, too, and take my staff with me. I have one of the special Federal Supers license plates on the bike, at least when I'm not using my personal plate and heading out of town. I'm not a massive fan of the Federal one, but it gives my personal property some protection. I figure it's just part of the political package of apologies for making us all register as . . . well, criminals might be too harsh a word to use for some of us, but political prisoner sure works in my not-so-humble opinion. And the ghettos still exist, so I'll take advantage of whatever the government offers. They still piss me off as much as they did when I first registered. Maybe one of these days, I'll get over that.

Speeding on the highway is something I really enjoy doing, no matter which plate I have on the bike. Someday, some smart cop is going to figure that out. Fortunately, Pablo and Wright don't spend time on the highways.

Unlike many places I find myself, the metal detectors aren't front and center in Jefferson County. Oh, maybe things are different in the Detention Center section of the complex. Still, here in the Sheriff's offices, one has the opportunity to speak to an actual human being before being subjected to an involuntary search and seizure of things the cops don't like. Those machines don't like me. I figure it has something to do with my Curse and the fact that metal detectors interpret qi as metal or the qi messes with their sensitive circuitry. You'd think they'd see me as any random normal human when I'm not actively manipulating qi, but . . . no. It makes flying an exciting challenge, which is why I tend to ride my bike down to Flagstaff instead of jumping on a plane.

The young woman, whose name tag reads Davis, smiles pleasantly as I approach.

"I'm here to see Baker," I say, leaning the staff against my shoulder.

"You're Ninja, right? I figured you probably were. He'll be out in a minute."

"With deductive skills like that, Davis, you'll be a detective by next year."

"No, she won't," says a handsome man as he comes around the corner. He looks to be about my cousin Sam's age. "First, we have investigators out here and not detectives. Second, Davis needs to be here for five years before she can even take the exam, which won't be for another three years." He smiles at both of us as he crosses his arms and leans against the counter Davis sits behind. Sanchez must have also mentioned my aversion to the niceties of handshakes and other forms of getting zapped by other people's auras. "I'm Joe Baker, Chief of the Patrol Division, which includes such exciting things as suspiciously missing hikers."

"Suspiciously missing, eh?" I raise an eyebrow. "How so?"

"The whole thing is suspicious, really . . . why they're out here hiking, how they've managed to go missing. Davis?"

When he nods to her, she produces a manila file folder and slides it across the counter to him. He, in turn, opens it to reveal a single sheet of paper and a photograph of a young couple . . . early- to mid-twenties, I'd guess.

"JJ and Tara Clark. Last seen there days ago here in Golden. I got a call this morning from the young woman's aunt in Massachusetts. According to her, the two of them have been on a cross-country driving vacation, generally staying in small B&Bs or camping out."

I look up from the photo. "That's a strange combination. The target audiences for B&Bs don't usually include either the pack-it-all-in or the RV camper set."

Baker nods. "The aunt mentioned she'd brought that up with Tara before they left. But she also admitted she and her niece haven't been getting along very well since the girl took up with Clark a few years back. Their marriage last month didn't do much to make the relationship better."

"Hmm. Well, it's a weird honeymoon, but to each their own. Any other family, especially in the area?"

He shakes his head. "The girl's father ran off when she was young, her mother is in prison for armed robbery, and she's an only child. The aunt is her only known relative. The boy has an older brother in the Marines, stationed in San Diego. After I talked with the aunt and checked out a few things, I chatted with him. Their folks died in a car accident about the time he met Tara. The brother believes she's a grifter and hastened to inform me that it's only a matter of time before his brother winds up in jail for some reason. He's had, and I quote, a troubled childhood."

"But the brother didn't?" Let's just say I'm skeptical.

"Oh, he did and didn't pull any punches about the scrapes he got himself into either. Says joining the Marines was the best thing he could have done with his life. He's hoping his orders come through before his brother shows up down there."

"Lovely. While it's gratifying to know that women have equal opportunities to be criminals, I'm going to go out on a limb and say Auntie doesn't know her niece very well and likely hasn't for quite some time."

"The aunt might argue the point, but I won't. Here's the really interesting thing, though: PFC Clark reported that his brother is an avid hunter, and again I quote, in places where there aren't many rules and regulations. He couldn't say with certainty that JJ was out here to do some hunting. He also wouldn't rule out the possibility."

I look from one to the other, definitely not liking the thoughts going through my head right now, before settling my gaze on Baker. "I'm not much of a hunter, Chief, but other than some random birds, I'm pretty sure this is either way too early or far too late for hunting season."

"Except for the mountain lions," Davis says quietly. "It's still past the end of the season, but by less time than any other animals." She doesn't sound happy, which is perfect because I'm not thrilled either.

Baker nods. "We had a short season this year, so we closed things down in Jefferson County earlier than Clear Creek County did. If you're not a hunter, you might now know that there's a very short window for the big cats — the State runs the season from April 1 to April 30, although each county has the option to shorten it or opt out entirely, depending on the cat population in the area. I know Clear Creek ran the full month; Jeffco opted out this year."

I nod. "Helpful. I had no idea people hunted the big cats out here."

"Some people are vehemently opposed to it—"

"Like me," Davis interrupts.

"Some people understand the occasional necessity," Baker continues. "It's hard to relocate wildlife when the human population makes it too enticing to stick around, and we need to keep a balance in the ecosystem. Those same humans are terrified of them: the people who live in or too close to the animals' natural habitats and can't remember to keep their trash containers inaccessible, their pets indoors, and watchful eyes on their children."

"I understand the necessity. Sometimes I think that the wildlife is smart than the human population, though."

"No argument from me," Baker says, then taps the sheet of paper in the folder. "The girl's aunt had expected a call from them yesterday when they should have reached Glenwood Springs. She called the number she had for the B&B; the owner said they hadn't arrived. She called the place in Silverthorn where they'd supposedly stayed — same story. After she called The Dove Inn here in Golden and found out they'd stayed there, she called me. I talked to Liz, the owner of the Inn, who said they looked well-equipped for roughing it and assumed they were heading out to Clear Creek or maybe Summit County. I asked about weapons. She didn't see any guns but thought there was a compound bow on top of one of the packs."

"Bowhunters?" I raise both eyebrows. "Granted, that's my preferred method, but I just pick off relatively inoffensive jackrabbits when I'm out in New Mexico. I'm not sure I'd hunt anything bigger."

"Jackrabbits?" Davis asks, somewhat hesitantly . . . as though she really doesn't want to know. I wonder if she's a vegetarian.

I shrug. "They don't take like chicken, but cooked up right, they're pretty good in a stew."

"But aren't rabbits fast?"

I waggle my hand back and forth. "Depends on the rabbit. Depends on the hunter's reflexes."

Baker shakes his head, and Davis just stares at me. I look over at the large topographical map of Jefferson County on the wall to the left of the front counter and smile so they can't see it. I've discovered that I enjoy throwing people for a loop. Or even six loops.

"Well, it was nice of the aunt to do half your work for you. Now, if they were going out toward Glenwood Springs, taking I-70 is about the only way a rational person would go, at least in a car."

"Or, in their case, a pickup truck," Baker says. "But I agree."

I nod again. "The problem is that they could head up Six through Clear Creek Canyon before coming back to the Interstate. I'd go that way if I wasn't in a hurry, but that's mostly because I enjoy the views. So my two questions would be: One, do you think I'm looking for injured hikers . . . or poachers? And two, what's your best guess at a location?" I turn back to look at Baker. "You have a lot of wilderness in Jeffco, Chief, and I don't have infinite time. Your suspiciously missing hikers may have a lot less time."

"It's Captain, Ninja."

"Yep. I've discovered that it's part of my idiom to call the senior cop on the scene 'Chief.' You'll get used to it. The boys and girls in Denver have." I chuckled. "Hmm, well, except for Officer Wright. He looks a little too gleeful when he threatens to shoot me."

Baker looks at me with an unreadable expression. I like this guy; he's a damn good cop. Davis has her mouth hanging open.

"You're catching flies there, Davis," I say without looking at her. I merely continue looking at Baker until he's ready to get to my questions . . . or starts threatening to shoot me like Wright does.

"Sanchez warned me. I guess I'll have to put up with you." He smiled slightly and shook his head. "About your first question, it's possibly both. However, if they really are going after a big cat, there's a higher probability that they'll be injured."

He focuses his attention on the map. "Other than Ken Caryl — home to some of the less brilliant human specimens with more money than sense — most sightings come from the sparsely populated area west of the Nature Center. The folks out there call us when the cats start rattling around their trash sheds. That thing only happens when winters get bad, and the larger animals don't have enough food."

"Those folks understand they're living in someone else's territory," Davis adds. "We get reports of sightings from tourists, visitors, renters. The people who own their property just let the cats be cats."

Baker nods. "My wife and I had a couple of friends who used to live up that way. We'll see one of the big cats every now and again when we check on their place."

I tuck that piece of information into the back of my mind for further contemplation later as I turn to study the map again. "Okay, so if we're looking for a couple of sketchy characters who are suspiciously well-equipped for the outdoors and illegal hunting, I should start at the Nature Center and head west? Do you have a general idea of where the cats like to stake out their territories?"

"Pretty much any of the uninhabited or sparsely inhabited areas south of Six and west of Colorow, in Jefferson, Clear Creek, and for all I know, Summit Counties," Baker says.

"Hmm. Well, technically, I can invade Clear Creek, I suppose." I sigh. That's a lot of area to cover. "I'm going to have to hope they haven't made it that far."

I get the sense that they're exchanging a glance behind my back.

"Sanchez said you have some sort of Doctor Doolittle powers," Baker says.

I turn and look at him again. "Sort of? I mean, yes . . . but . . ." I tilt my head and close my eyes. "No cats, large or small, in the building, and you might want to get some because you have . . . mice? Yeah, they seem too small to be rats. There are prairie dogs galore outside."

I open my eyes again and look at him, smiling wryly. "But my range isn't much more than a half-mile, even for something as big as a mountain lion. Also, I can't pick out individuals, human or otherwise, that I don't already know. If either of you gets lost, sure, maybe I could find you. I could definitely find family members. But it's still a matter of range."

I smile grimly and hook my thumb over my shoulder in the direction of the map. "I'm going to be looking for smug, entitled white kids near our protected wildlife. Sure, they'll leave a trail of ugly behind them, but on top of the problem with range, you've got the issue of time. Everyone is running out of it in this scenario, and they've got a head start.

"Show me the most likely place where these kids could have started, and I'll work from there. Cell phones aren't going to work in the backcountry, though, so if they're in trouble, I'm not sure how you'll know about it without me coming back here."

"I can give you one of our sat phones," Baker offers.

I nod and drum my fingers along my staff. "That should work."

Baker nods to Davis, who gets up and heads into the office area before he reaches over the counter and retrieves a laminated map of Jefferson County.

"It depends on how far out they decided to take the truck before starting their hike. You can check for the truck in three spots: Ballantine, Aspen, and Spruce." He points to each street in turn. Ballantine is on the east of a large swath of forest and open space; Aspen and Spruce are on the south. "Ballantine isn't likely even though the Jacobs no longer live up there. The trailhead is still easily accessible on foot, but there are enough people along these roads here that they'd probably need to leave their vehicle a fair way downhill so it won't be seen." He taps a spot on the map halfway up Ballantine between the ribbon of power lines and the fork of Ballantine and Golden Point. "If you don't see it before here, you probably won't. Enough folks are living up there year-round that I'd have gotten a call by now if they saw an abandoned truck.

"Aspen is the least developed area out there and your best bet, in my opinion." Baker points to another spot on the map. "They could conceivably park the truck downhill from the trailhead, and even the folks at the end of Aspen would never see it. They'd be damn fools to try, but I don't have much confidence they're particularly brilliant. On the other hand, the Federovs aren't coming back into town for another couple of weeks. The place practically looks deserted, although I know their neighbors over on Coleman keep an eye on it.

"However, if they pass up the Aspen trailhead and head out to Spruce, there isn't really anywhere they can leave their vehicle where it won't be seen."

I nod, estimating distances from one trailhead to the next.

"I've called the residents in the area who are around at this time of the year," Baker continues. "Figured I might jog a memory from someone. Unfortunately, no one has seen a pickup matching the descriptions of the kids' vehicle."

"Given that your roads out here look more like a drunken Rorschach scribble than a proper way to get from one location to another," I say with a grin, "I'd rule out Spruce. If Ballantine didn't work for them, it's going to annoy the shit out of them to get over to Aspen. I've learned in the past few years that mischief-makers tend to have even less patience in general than I have with them specifically. They won't backtrack that far just to risk the same problem farther west. And if they have the same map you do, they're not going to want to tangle with rich folks and their country club, who may or may not have additional security."

Baker looks at me for a second or two before he smiles. "Maybe you should be a detective."

I merely stare at him, silently counting to ten in Mandarin.

"Haha. You're hilarious, Baker. I have a friend who's been trying to talk my alter ego into joining DPD for longer than I've been doing this job. This friend doesn't know about this job but is smart enough to realize that even my mild-mannered alter ego has a breaking point. You law enforcement types ought to know better." I grin at him wickedly, some might say. "I recognize the existence of rules and follow them when they make sense in the context of what I'm trying to achieve when I put this outfit on. Otherwise?"

I just shrug, and Baker frowns slightly.

"I was given to believe that Supers followed the same law, all the same rules and regulations that law enforcement does."

"I'm the only Super I know. If there's an official handbook, I haven't seen it. That said, I do try to walk the same line you do. But I come up against people and find myself in situations that don't translate well to the everyday work of law enforcement professionals. How much force is excessive when I'm trying to take down an Eater? Should I have to worry about pulling my punches when fighting someone who's trying to shoot me? Sure, my training would keep me from intentionally killing anyone, but even disabling someone will cause more damage than it would if either of you used the same takedown techniques. I don't have a siren or flashing light on my bike, so am I breaking the law when I ride like a bat out of hell to meet one of my DPD contacts?"

I shrug again. "It's all relative. But it means I'm an abysmal candidate for the structure and chain of command of any police department because I can do things you folks can't. That's why you called me, right?"

Davis comes back with their sat phone during my explanation and looks thoughtful as she hands it to me.

"I think . . ." She pauses, looking at Baker before continuing. "I think it might take some adjustment to get used to your unorthodox methods. Well, maybe it's more like getting used to working with someone who's a Super."

I smile; it's one of my more pleasant smiles, the one I'd use with my friends. "I think the latter is spot-on. Sanchez isn't used to it yet, and he's been dealing with me for a couple of years now. Maybe it's because he doesn't often deal with me directly." I chuckle. "He phones or texts. Every few months, one of the folks in Patrol will hand me a package and say, 'I found this in my locker with a note to get it to you.' It's worked out pretty well. The full force of my personality is spread across Sanchez's little network, and no one person is tearing their hair out or turning prematurely gray because of me. Yet."

Baker regards me with an intensity that I'd finding unnerving if I wasn't used to that sort of thing. Besides, I can sense something like mirth in his aura.

"Davis, I'm going to make you our liaison with Ninja here," he says.

"ME?? " she squeaks.

"You, Davis. I don't need the gray hair, loss of hair, or ulcers. Not that I don't find you delightfully intelligent, Ninja. You're fully cognizant of where your job ends and mine begins, which the State and Federal law enforcement folks sometimes seem to forget. And you're right: We called you because you have a better chance of finding these two kids than we do."

I check the phone over and determine that it's as simple to use as the first cell phone my family bought me, and the main Jeffco Sheriff's Department number is already programmed in.

"I assume that calling at some ungodly hour will still get a quick response if I find them?"

"You assume correctly," Baker replies. "Anything else you need?"

I shake my head. "I have my gear and enough food for a few days. If I don't find them before the weekend, you'll probably have to call in a lot more people to cover a lot more ground. And you're probably going to be looking for bodies at that point."

He nods. "Understood. Good luck."

I sketch a jaunty salute to both of them before turning and heading back out to my bike. It's a good sign that they don't start talking about me before I leave the building. I assume they will because, well, who wouldn't? I've been told I'm the subject of gossip among the Patrol folks in Denver. Why should the Jeffco sheriffs be any different?

After tucking the sat phone in my backpack and shouldering it, then sliding my staff in its holster, I snake my way over to the first trailhead: south, west, and generally north. Baker had mentioned that some friends of his had lived out this way at one point; as I walk the last half-mile from the westernmost house on Ballentine to the trailhead, I wonder why they'd ever leave. I suspect it would be possible to see most of these homes when the aspens drop their leaves, but driveways are the only thing that gives them away in the full bloom of spring. I didn't see the truck Baker had described, so I don't expect any sign of hikers at this trailhead. It's worth the ride and the walk, though. This would be a peaceful bicycle ride. And by peaceful, I mean I could ride out here alone without any of my friends, particularly Pablo, threatening to come along.

I chuckle to myself as I turn and walk back to my bike. I really like Pablo, though I suspect he will drive me completely bonkers someday.

Although it's barely a third of a mile between the two trailheads as the crow flies, it's over a mile to go back down Ballantine to Colorow and Lookout Mountain Road, then up Krestview and Aspen Lanes. I don't see the truck as I drive up to the northernmost point of Aspen, and I wonder if the two missing hikers actually did head out to the farthest trailhead on Spruce. However, as I turn around to look at the view, I notice a hint of chrome under one of the trees downhill and maybe a hundred yards back.

Well. If the two idiots are alive, they're going to have a hell of a time getting that truck out of there. Because it's well-hidden — backed in between two conifers and covered with fallen branches — I wonder what they were thinking before deciding they couldn't have been thinking.

Baker is definitely going to need to send a tow truck out here.

I walk my bike over to the driveway of the Federovs' house, pull out the laminated card I'd made identifying the bike as mine and me as law enforcement, and tuck the card against the bike's insignificant windscreen. Then I pull out my staff and start hiking.

I start near the truck. I can see the damage to the shrubs and grasses on the drop-off from the road. The only reason I'm sure they didn't break an axle is that they managed to back the truck in between the trees, and that would have entailed some fancy three-point turns to accomplish it. The truck itself doesn't interest me; I look it over from a distance only to make sure there aren't any dead bodies over there stinking up the place.

The kids did make it easy to follow them, though. I'm not the world's most fantastic tracker, that's for sure. Plus, the light of day is fading steadily. But I learned how to follow a person's qi from Grandmaster Chen. And even if I hadn't, the footprints from the truck to the trail are more than obvious. A person would have to be blind, or nearly so, to miss their trail. I'm pretty sure I could follow it in the middle of the night as long as the moon sheds a bit of light.

Once under cover of the trees, it's just a matter of following the peculiar ribbon of qi that lingers after their passage and checking the undergrowth to verify I'm still heading in the right direction. They can't be all that far ahead of me, time-wise, if the qi is still distinctive enough for me to be able to pick it up this easily . . . less than twenty-four hours, I'd say. Maybe they did stop long enough at the Ballantine trailhead to check things out.

On the other hand, they might not have the same map Baker did. They could have driven around the Rorshach roads off Colorow looking for another trailhead closer in. As pretty as the neighborhood is, I suspect I'd only want to live up here if I were interested in a lot of privacy. I can't even imagine trying to give directions to someone to help them find a few of those roads.

These lost hikers don't seem to know much about the mountain, either. There are plenty of gullies they could have followed to get down into the valley between two ridges where their trail hooks westward and nearly parallel to Route Six. I suspect the only reason I can hear the faint sound of the occasional passing car is my enhanced hearing.

As I crest over the last ridge, I see something colorfully out of place on the rocks below. The neon yellow and green rectangular lumps about forty feet below me aren't exactly natural colors around here. Neither is what looks like a stripe of blue, although maybe it's black. This late in the afternoon, colors get a little funky. I can see footprints along the ridge and deep gashes that could be claw marks.

The qi traces are fading, but I can see fear, excitement, anger . . . a different scent of fear, a different flavor of anger.

I'm agile, but I'm not going to head straight down from here. There's a somewhat more gradual drop into the valley below off to my left about fifteen feet. I frown as I pick my way over to it. No one else came down this way. If one person fell, would the other scramble down the same way? Wouldn't they be more cautious?

Oh, wait. Never mind. I am dealing with idiots, after all.

Climbing down into the little valley, I can see the evidence of runoff from the winter's melted snow. There must have been quite a lot up here — the vegetation hasn't completely overgrown the outcroppings of rocks. It's stark, and it's beautiful . . . at least until I get all the way down to the bottom of this little V-shaped valley.

At this distance, the yellow and green neon is a windbreaker over a heavier navy blue coat. I thought hunters were into the multi-toned green camouflage garb, but apparently not. I ought to be close enough to sense something of their qi, at least in relation to the earth, but either they're too injured or already dead. And from this angle, I can see another neon-clad body lying on a ledge under one of the outcroppings. That one's still alive, with an aura flaring in pain.

What concerns me more are the qi emanations just above and to the side of the possibly dead body coming from a small cave. It, too, is full of pain . . . but there's also anger and longing and fear.

As I make my way closer, I note the mains of the person on the ledge. Okay, one idiot is alive.

To reach the probably dead idiot, I have to pass the mouth of the cave. Whatever is inside makes a sound that's part growl, part scream, sending shivers down my spine. Any same person would just turn around and go back the way they came. Hmm. What does that say about me?

Oh. Right. I'm the local Super. Much as I do when patrolling the Denver alleys, I project my intention toward the cat in pain. Rather than wouldn't it be fun to try tripping the running person? I attempt to convey the idea that I'm a friend, here to help, and angry at the people who tried to hurt Cat.

I'm not sure it helps, but as I cross in front of the cave, the big cat merely growls.

The body sprawled on a collection of sharp rocks is definitely not alive. A compound bow has fallen a few feet away; an arrow protrudes from what looks, from this angle, to be the groin. The body is lying in a circle of blood.

It's the male idiot.

Had he tried climbing down here without putting that arrow in his quiver? It doesn't make sense, but it's about the only thing that would explain his injury. He slipped and managed to impale himself? Hmm, unless his girlfriend shot him, which may or may not be the case . . . but she's nominally alive, and he's clearly dead. Well, I'm not the detective here. I'll let the Jeffco investigators figure it out.

Looking up at the ledge where the female idiot is moaning, it seems to be a reasonably easy climb up. Getting back down here will take some dexterity; good thing I've got plenty of that. I shuck the backpack and leave my staff beside it. I make my way up to a smaller ledge that's nearly parallel to her.

"Hey. Idiot. How badly are you hurt?"

She doesn't bother to quell her scream, which surprises me a little. I thought I was making plenty of noise.


"Yes, well, that would be why I'm here. Can you move?"

She shakes her head, which means she isn't completely paralyzed. At this point, given the fear and pain boiling out of the cave below, I'm not sure I care. I guess that makes me a bad person.

"Well, I can call for help. There's not much I can do from here. Not sure how long it'll take them to get here."

"JJ . . ."

"Your boyfriend?"

"Husband . . ."

"Right. Potato, potato, succotash. He's dead. Did he fall?"

She shook her head again. From her breathing pattern or lack thereof, it sounds like she's in even more pain than the cat. I'm definitely a bad person because I can't find it in me to care.

"Pushed. JJ . . . shot . . . lion." She struggles to breathe. I think she might be trying to sob. "Another . . . lion . . . attacked. Knocked him . . . over."

Ah. That's a much more logical explanation for his current position and condition. Explains the claw marks up there, too.

"And you? Did the big cat knock you off the edge up there, too?" She doesn't say anything for a while. I can still hear her ragged breathing, so she's not dead. "You might as well tell me. I already think you're a couple of idiots coming out here to hunt the cats . . . after the season closed, although it never officially opened."

"Lion . . . ran off. I . . . I tried . . . to climb . . . down. Slipped."

I sigh. The distance wasn't all that far from the top of the drop-off to the ledge, assuming one was climbing down. A fall? Well, broken bones seemed likely. Maybe a punctured lung? That could explain the ragged breathing. If I'm going to keep doing search and rescue, perhaps I should take some first aid classes.

"Yeah, okay, I'll call the sheriff and have him arrange to get you and what's left of your husband out of here."

I really don't see any point in being nice to idiotic poachers. I should probably head out to Flagstaff so Tita can talk some sense into me.

"If you want, you can stay alive until they get here."


I pause . . . not because I care, but because I'm curious about what she has to say. This attitude worries me a little. Usually, I'm just a stone-hearted bitch when it comes to Eaters. And the Friends of Jesus who make trouble for my friends at Charlie's and Ms. C's. It's a bit disconcerting that I'm adding another category to the list.

"Talk fast, kid. We're burning daylight here." Hmm. I need to look up which movie I've quoted this time.

"Need painkiller."

"Yeah, I'm sure you do. The best I've got in my pack down there is some Tylenol. Not sure what that does to folks all banged up like you are. Cold rupture your liver, for all I know. I'm sure the paramedics who show up will have something stronger."

It's a lot easier to climb back up to the ridge than it would be to climb down. I'm not sure I'd save any time heading down rather than up. After all, it'll take less than two minutes to get back to my pack.

Okay, well, it would have taken only a couple of minutes if an uninjured mountain lion wasn't standing between me and my backpack.

"Hi," I say softly while crouching and trying to convey the idea that I'm not a threat to either of the lions. As with the feral cats down in Denver, I waft a breeze of qi toward the cat in a manner I've come to think of as 'I come in peace,' or at least the feline equivalent. "I'm not going to hurt you, I swear. If I can help your friend, I will. If you let me."

The cat's ears and tail twitch. If I were to anthropomorphize, I'd say the cat was surprised . . . maybe even shocked. It stretches its neck out a few inches and makes cat-chittering noise. I hope that doesn't mean I'm the bird on today's dinner special.

I have a lot of patience when I need to use it — Grandmaster Chen made sure of that. I'm happy to say here until the cat makes up its mind. The idiot up on the ledge, however? I can hear her making noise: groaning, asking what's taking me so long, whining. Yep. Entitled asshole. I make a point of looking up at her, then do my best to growl.

The cat whips around and looks up the steep incline to the ledge and growls, then bounds up to the cave before turning back and staring at me for a few seconds. Then it lies down on the tiny shelf outside the cave mouth. When I don't move, it chitters at me again.

Okay . . . so . . . not an invitation to become dinner? I fetch my backpack and climb back up to the cave.

"How can I help?"

It's somewhat disconcerting to be less than a foot away from a mountain lion's very sharp teeth and claws. The cat stands up, cuffs me on the shoulder, then jumps back down to the floor of the little valley. This time, it only opens its mouth silently before taking off like a bat out of hell down the small valley.

I shake my head. Cats. They're all weird.

Then I peek into the cave to take a good look at the injured cat — a mama cat with a hunting arrow protruding from one of her paws. I wonder how the idiot had managed that shot. I wonder where her kits are. Mostly, I wonder how I'm going to get that arrow out of her paw. I sit down on the ledge and swing my pack around, so it hangs against my chest rather than my back. It's not exceptionally comfortable, but there's less chance of it tumbling down and spilling the contents everywhere.

The day is nearly finished up here in the mountains. I hadn't been keeping track of how much time I was using up. I start digging through the pack, looking for my toolkit and a glow stick, keeping up a one-sided running conversation as I work.

"Some people are idiots, as you've sadly discovered. Come to think of it, most people are idiots when it comes to living with the wildlife around here. But I'm going to do my best to fix you up. The first problem is getting that arrow out.

Now, it doesn't look like wood, which would have been relatively simple to break off. Okay, sure, not exactly simple, but I'm stronger than I look, so not as difficult as it would be for a normal human. Looks like it might be aluminum . . . that's a better option than carbon fiber, that's for sure. I can probably get aluminum to break with the help of my tin snips.

"You know, my cousin makes fun of me for carrying these things. 'Wouldn't wire cutters make more sense, Andi?' he says. And sure, for him, wire cutters would make sense. He's the mechanic in the family. I'm the superhero. I'll be sure to tell him how they came in handy. He'll be impressed, I'm sure.

"Okay, now . . . I want you to hold still, okay? I need to clip this off close to your paw and then pull it through. It's going to hurt, I'm not gonna lie, but it'll be out . . . and you'll heal . . . and you can go back to your kits, right?"

Quick reflexes make the snipping and grasping fast enough that she misses my arm when she tries to latch on with those sharp teeth.

"Hey, now, Mama Cat, I did warn you. Now, I'm just going to put some water over it to clean it up a little, okay?"

She drinks nearly as much water as I use to clean her paw. Poor thing. I bet she's hungry, too. I can sense the presence of the other cat right below me. At first, I think it has a squirrel or something similar in its mouth — until I hear the thing mewling.

"Are you kidding me?" I sigh but smile at the sight of the kitten. "Yes, yes . . . baby needs Mama and all that, but seriously? Is there enough room here for a kitten? Fine, I guess there is. But understand that I need to call the loud machines of the people in the city to come and take the idiots away from here."

The cat clearly doesn't understand — or maybe it does and simply doesn't care — because it climbs up the incline, dumps the kit in my lap, then runs off.

"Hey!" Then I look at the little thing . . . it can't be more than a week or two old. It flops in my lap like a boneless thing, staring up at me and pawing the air. Mama reaches out her good paw, grabs my arm with her claws — rather gently, I have to say — and pulls it toward her. I don't want a shredded shirt, so I twist enough to put the silly little thing beside her.

"There. I don't know where your friend went, and I have no idea what you folks eat up here . . ." I dig into my pack again and pull out a zippy bag of buffalo jerky. ". . . but I'm happy to share if you'd like some." I pull out a piece and offer it to her.

After sniffing it, she decides it's acceptable, which makes me worry a bit less about her and the little one nuzzling at her.

Shaking my head, I pull out my cell phone to check the time, then dig the sat phone from my pack. Davis has probably gone home for the day; Baker is an unknown. I shrug as I dial the Sheriff's Department.

"Jeffco One, go ahead."

I don't recognize the voice.

"Found your missing hikers. One's dead. One's in bad shape. You can track my location, right?"

"Roger that. Keep the phone on. We'll call you back when we're close."

"Sure. You folks are going to have to do aerial acrobats in the dark to get these people out of here, so . . . good luck."

There's a smile in the voice at the other end. "We do this more than most people realize. Don't worry about us. Thanks for the assist, Ninja. Jeffco Base out."

I disconnect and put the phone back in my pack. And I hear feet scrambling up the incline and another mewling kit.

"The whole lot of you are nuts, you know that? Is this the last one? How many kits do you have in a year, anyway? I should probably look that up when I get home. You know, I probably could have carted Mama down to her babes. Okay, sure, that's assuming she'd let me."

The other kit is dropped in my lap.

"Oh, come on!"

The adult dashes off again. I look at Mama Cat while the naughty little bit in my lap tries to crawl into my backpack. "Hey, hey, hey! No, you don't! Here, your Mama has food for you."

I look at the elder cat. "Okay, so that's clearly a friend, maybe a relative? Smaller than you are, so probably not male. More protective than I suppose male cats are, but seriously, what do I know, right? Sister? Daughter? Why am I even asking you? Fine. I'll call her Auntie."

I grin as I watch her groom the kittens.

"Lady! Who . . . you . . . talking to?"

I look up at the ledge with the still-alive idiot. "The cats."

I don't bother mentioning that the cats are far better company because . . . eh, I might be over being thoroughly pissed off at her and her dead husband.

"The sheriff's folks will be here when they get here. I let them know where to look."

Mama Cat is watching me. It's a bit eerie. It's almost as if she knows what I'm saying, what I've been doing here. I pull out another strip of jerky for her. I'm not spending the weekend out here, so I can afford to share.

The other adult brings a third kitten up the incline, dropping it in my lap as she did with the other two. This one seems like a sensible kitten that just looks at me for a few seconds with big eyes before trying to climb over to its mother. I pick it up and place it beside the other two.

Auntie sits herself down and regards me, looking pointedly at my bag — or at least, she seems to look pointedly. I roll my eyes and pull out a piece of jerky for her, too, which she accepts daintily.

Cats are so freaking weird.

We sit there long enough for the sun to completely set. The idiot calls out every once in a while, wondering where the paramedics are, where I am, sharing with all of us her opinions of Jefferson County, her pain levels, and, eventually, her plan to "get even" with the mountain lions for hurting her.

"Clearly, she has issues," I murmur to the cats. "First, you were only protecting your family here when you knocked the male idiot off the ridge. And she put herself into her current predicament. Don't worry. I'm on your side."

Not that they seem worried about anything. Mama and her babies are dozing. Auntie flicks her ears whenever the idiot says anything and swishes her tail when I speak.

I hear the helicopter at about the same time Auntie does.

"Yeah, people from the city are coming to fetch the idiots. It's gonna be noisy. I'll make sure they leave Mama and the kits alone, though. I've got this . . . you want to run off for a while."

Here I go anthropomorphizing again, but she seems to consider my words and, as the helicopter comes into view, jumps down to the valley floor and speeds off toward . . . Ah, who knows? The sat phone is making noise now, so I pull it out of the backpack again.


"You would be able to see us now; we've got a fix on your location."

"Sure do. I'm sitting in front of a cave with an injured mountain lion and her kits. The dead idiot is on a pile of rocks near the valley floor to my right, your left. The other idiot, alive as far as I know, is on a ledge maybe fifteen feet above me and somewhat farther to my right, your left."

The copter's searchlight plays over the incline. "Roger that. You planning to stay where you are?"

"I am. I'll wait until you're gone before I move."

"Copy. This shouldn't take too long."

Mama growls softly, and I look at her as I put the phone away. "It's fine. I'll stay here. They're just going to come down and fetch the idiots, then they'll be gone again."

She probably doesn't understand me. Actually, I'm pretty sure she doesn't. Why would a cat understand human speech? Even with my so-called Doctor Doolittle powers, that's not going to convey the nuance of the English language . . . and none of the other languages I speak would be any better. I smile to myself at that.

Twenty minutes later — after fetching both idiots and locating their vehicle, and letting me know that they were taking them to St. Anthony's — the light and noise and idiots are gone. I breathe a sigh of relief.

"It was nice meeting you, Mama Cat. Maybe I'll see you again someday."

I flip the backpack around and settle it on my shoulders before climbing down to the small valley. But then I drop it to the ground again before doing a series of qigong stretches and running through a short taiji form. I need to loosen up after sitting on that ledge for a couple of hours.

As I finish, I notice Auntie watching my every move, so I keep my eyes on her as I pick up my back and sling it over my shoulders. I tense a bit as she walks up to me, but she just nudges my hand with her head, chitters again, and heads up to the cave.

I just shake my head. Cats are seriously weird creatures.

It takes another hour to get home, as riding faster than the speed limit on the Rorschach roads of Jefferson County isn't something I'm willing to do, at least not until I get to know them better. I'd dropped the sat phone off at the Sheriff's Department; they updated me on the idiot's condition: critical and, frankly, not expected to live to see another sunrise. Again, my conscious twinges at how little I care.

My landline phone blinks merrily when I get into the apartment, indicating that I have voicemail. I listen to the message as I put my Ninja outfit away. It's just Pablo wondering where I am.

I sigh. He can wait for tomorrow. Tonight, I need a hot shower and some good sleep.

© Kelly Naylor