Lucy stroked the sleeping lion’s mane through the bars of his enclosure. Opportunities to be this close to the big cat were rare, and she wanted to take full advantage of it. She scratched his ear and noted how unusually warm it was. It would be a shame if he died now from an abscessed tooth after all that he’d been through. “How’s Ani doing?”
“The same as when you asked me twenty minutes ago,” Jace barked, but he softened his tone when he saw the concerned look on her face. “He’s a fighter. I’m sure he’ll pull through.”
“I’m worried that his fever hasn’t broken yet,” said Lucy.
Jace scratched his gray beard. “Give it some more time. If he doesn’t improve soon there are still some other antibiotics to try. The good news is the surgery went well, and his heart is in excellent shape. I expect him to be around for many years yet.” He crouched beside her and rested his hand on her shoulder. “I know he’s like family, but you need to go home and get some rest. I’ll call you if there’s any change.”
“It’d kill me if anything happened to him,”said Lucy. “In some ways, animals are more real to me than people. More honest, anyway.”
“You have a natural talent with them,” said Jace. “A real gift one might say. At least, I’ve always thought so. I still think you should have become a vet like me. It’s not too late, you know. If it’s about the money, I’m sure we could work something out.”
“Hmm, I don’t know,” said Lucy. “When you’re a vet, you only see the animals at their worst, when they’re sick or hurt. It always breaks my heart to see them like that. I prefer working with them everyday, feeding them, taking care of them,…”
“…shoveling their shit.”
“Well, that comes with the territory,” said Lucy. She shrugged. “Everyone has to deal with crap in their jobs. Mine is just more literal. Besides, being a vet isn’t any better. I’ve seen you get pissed on a dozen times.”
“Occupational hazard,” said Jace, “but I have assistants and you keepers to do the day-to-day chores. As senior vet, I only get called for all the really interesting stuff. Plus people call me doctor. Don’t underestimate the ego boost you can get from that.”
“My self-esteem is just fine, doctor,” said Lucy. “I love my job. I’m not sure I would want to do anything else. And I won’t always be on the bottom of the totem pole. Someday, I’ll have minions of my own.”
“Of that, I have no doubt,” said Jace, standing up with a groan. He watched her for a moment as she continued to stroke the cat’s shoulder before adding, “Can I leave you two alone, or do you need a chaperone?”
“What?” she asked, pulling her hand back from the cage.
“I need to give him his reversal shot, so unless you want to see how well he still bites, I suggest you take a step back.” He already had the needle ready, so it only took him a few seconds to inject the drugs that would bring the cat out of his deep sleep. “I know you’re beat, but if you wouldn’t mind staying for a few more minutes, I’ve got other patients before I go home for the day. Peter will be in to watch over him as soon as he’s done with the koala.”
“All right,” said Lucy. “I was on my way out, but I’m off for the next two days. It’ll give me a chance to say goodbye.” She gave the cat a couple more quick pats before standing up to face the doctor.
“Okay, but just until Peter comes back,” said Jace. “then you’re gone.”
“Take good care of him.”
“I always do,” he said and started walking toward the door.
“You’ve got my number?”
“Yes,” said Jace. “I’ll see you next week, bunny hugger.”
“Grouch!” she called after him and smiled.
He didn’t even bother to turn around, but dismissed the taunt with a wave as he walked out of the door. He had been like a surrogate father to Lucy since she had met him, but his manners were sometimes as lacking as the chimpanzees.
Ani was already beginning to show signs of waking up. Despite being trapped within a cage, the power and beauty of the big cat was impossible to deny. In the wild, he’d been the dominant predator of the Serengeti, but here he was reduced to lounging around posing for tourist’s snapshots. It was always a trade-off – the freedom to roam where you wanted for the security of walls and a steady diet. In his case, however, the choice had been taken away from Anastasios in the most violent way possible.
While still at university, Lucy had lucked into an invitation to join a UNEP-WCMC survey of West African biodiversity. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study her chosen field in its natural environment, all expenses paid. Naturally, she had jumped at the chance. The three-week tour dovetailed nicely with her master’s thesis on the ecology and conservation of large cats, so with her professor’s blessings, she had hopped on a plane to Mombasa.
Once in Africa, she’d been faced with the dire reality of the situation. The constantly growing population of humans in Ani’s former habitat was driving all of his kind to extinction. Soon, like his tiger cousins, there would be more lions behind bars than roaming in the wild. Some were still killed for sport, as though a wild animal with only teeth and claws was somehow an even match to a trophy hunter with a high-powered rifle hundreds of yards away. More often nowadays, however, big cats were killed for doing what they did naturally, thinning the herds of their weakest members. Unfortunately, those herds now belonged to humans, and those people were afraid, desperate, and well armed.
That was the story of Anastasios. Lucy’s group had been only an hour away when the attack had occurred, so they climbed in their Land Rover and headed over to see the damage for themselves. Ani had been found by the game wardens, his entire pride slaughtered by poachers. The bastards had butchered many of his kin for their meat and pelts, but had been caught before they could get to him. Regardless, Anastasios had been left for dead with four bullet wounds, including one that had gone through his cheek and into his skull.
Like everyone else, Jace had assumed that their were no survivors and had casually walked up to inspect the animals. Ani surprised them all by lifting his head and growling at them. One of the wardens who was escorting them raised his rifle and pointed it at the lion, but the doctor grabbed the barrel and pushed it away before he could shoot.
Lucy did not have a lot of heroes growing up, but she always counted Jace Gata among them for what he did that day. Being a veterinarian, he wouldn’t allow an animal to die if there was a chance that it could be saved. He managed to stabilize Ani until they could arrange for a helicopter to airlift him to the nearest veterinary hospital capable of handling the large cat, more than a hundred and fifty miles away.
Together she and Jace spent hours on the phone, trying to place him into a facility that could manage his long-term care. He would need months or possibly years of rehabilitation from his injuries, but they both believed that he was worth the effort. After talking at length with one of his connections in Los Angeles, Jace finally found a compassionate ear to sponsor Ani and they made the arrangements to ship him to the California County Zoo where he worked. Ani was not expected to survive the journey, but once again, the lion surprised them all by not only surviving but flourishing.
It was Jace who had called the lion Anastasios. Lucy probably would have gone with something lame like Aslan, but she was happy to let Jace have the honor for all he had done. He’d said it was the name of a Byzantine Emperor, and in Greek it meant reborn. Also, like his namesake, Ani had heterochromia – one eye was amber, but the other was blue.
When Lucy had completed her Masters, she applied to the zoo and was accepted into an entry-level keeper position. Her supervisor, realizing Lucy’s expertise and education was going to waste, quickly reassigned her to the big cat pavilion where she was reunited with Ani. It was going on three years now that she had cared for him. She was hoping Jace was right and there would be many more.
She had practically stood over her old friend for two days now, leaving only to do her job, and for bathroom and meal breaks. The lack of sleep was starting to catch up with her, but she didn’t want to leave until she knew that he was going to be all right. She closed her eyes and leaned back to let her head rest against the cold cinder block wall across from the cage, finally letting herself relax.
The sound of movement from behind the bars forced her to open her eyelids again, but to Lucy’s surprise the lion was gone. In his place was a man with long sandy brown hair, the color of the lion’s mane. He lay naked on his side in the same pose that Anastasios had been in, with his arms and legs stretched out from his body.
Stunned, Lucy was not sure what she was seeing. Her heart was pounding and her eyes opened wide. Her instincts told her that the man didn’t belong in there, that he was in danger. She rushed to the door, her hands shaking as she wrestled with the keys, desperate to get him out of there before Ani woke up. She was about to turn the lock when she realized that her lion was nowhere to be found. All the slides were closed and locked. There was no way he could have gotten out, but clearly Ani was gone. Strangely, the man in the cage seemed to be as surprised as she was.
He rolled over and sat up slowly. “Who are you?”
A missing lion and a strange man locked in his exhibit was more than Lucy could handle on her own. A little overwhelmed and not knowing what else to do, Lucy ran out and called for Jace, hoping that he was still within earshot. His van was just starting to pull away, but stopped short when he heard her calling. He jumped out of the van and rushed toward her in a panic. “What is it?” he demanded. “What’s wrong?”
She didn’t answer; the words just stuck in her throat. Instead, she pulled him back inside the lion house with her. She pointed at the cage, but the man was gone. It was just Ani staring back at her through half-glazed eyes as though nothing had happened. It seemed silly to even mention what she had seen now. She shook her head to clear out the cobwebs and decided that she must be even more tired than she realized. "Nothing, I guess" she said. “I thought I saw someone in the exhibit, but I guess I only imagined it.”
“Well, what are you screaming for?” he asked. “You scared the crap out of me.”
“Sorry,” she said. “I guess you were right. I need to get some rest.”
“Do you want me to find someone to drive you home?”
“No, I’ll be all right. I just need a shower and a good night’s sleep. Besides don’t you have patients waiting?”
“They’re not going anywhere,” said Jace. “At least let me walk you to your car.”
“No really, I’m fine,” she said.
“Then at least will you call me and tell me you got home safely?”
“Okay, I’ll text you. Now go on.” Still upset, she shook her head and stormed away from the exhibit toward her car leaving a troubled Jace behind. She wanted to get out of there before anything else happened.
Lucy took a deep breath. The air helped clear her head and she thought about the man she had seen in the cage. He’d been handsome, almost too handsome to be real. In truth, she had been spending too much time at work and needed to unwind. Sleep, she decided, wasn’t the only thing she’d been missing lately.