Awakened from a cryogenic sleep deep in the cold, dark caves of Southern California, a carnivorous, prehistoric terror emerges. Authorities believe its victims were targets of a serial killer. Anthropologist Jim Grand knows the truth-it is "fatalis", the saber-toothed cat, that has returned with only one purpose: to eat.
The bobcat moved slowly through the cool, shallow mountain stream. His stocky torso swayed easily between four heavily muscled limbs, his head slung low between powerful shoulders. The cat's large paws didn't so much rise as slide forward as he followed the westward flow of the stream.
The cat liked moving through water. Unlike the boulders and trees on either bank, water did not retain traces of the cat, odors that another predator could track to his den. Far more important than his own safety were the lives of the cats he had left behind.
When the stream finally disappeared beneath the large rocks and mossy, fallen trees of a wide ravine, the cat vaulted to the largest of the boulders. He took a moment to sniff the air. Then, with a great, sure-footed leap, he set out for the hills and valleys below.
The muddy earth was cool beneath the cat's thick footpads. A stiff wind blew up along the weatherworn crags and tangled scrub of the steep mountaintop. The wind ruffled the cat's reddish-brown coat and carried smells from the distant foothills. His flesh-colored nose wrinkled from left to right as it searched for the familiar scent of a cottontail or wild turkey. Since leaving its small cave the cat had smelled nothing but damp earth, vegetation, and the distant sea.
The cat's short, black-tipped tail swayed stiffly behind it, a sign to other cats that he was hunting. Ordinarily, a rigid tail would have been sufficient to drive rival predators from the territory, both bobcats and coyotes. But tonight was different. Tonight there was hunger in the mountains. If it met another predator he might have to fight for the mountain pass.
The cat's large, rigid ears resembled tawny rose petals. Topped with short black tufts, the ears moved independently of one another as the cat listened for blats from a litter, the crack of a twig, a stone clattering down the slope-anything that might indicate the presence of prey.
But there was no sound. Since the coming of the rains, many of the smaller animals had been washed from their burrows and nests. Even the field mice were gone. Two or three would have been enough to calm his raging belly and a few more would have fed his mate and her litter.
The flooding had forced the cat to venture farther down the mountain each night, closer to bright lights and to strident, unfamiliar sounds. But at least the grass was higher here and there were deep ditches and gullies, both caused by heavy runoff from the peaks. Ground fog was also thicker because of the rains. That made it easier for the cat to hide.
As he neared a long, level patch of stone, the cat suddenly smelled something musky. He stopped and crouched down on his lean, powerful legs. His white underbelly nearly touched the ground as he settled into a springing stance. The smell rose and fell, moved from side to side, grew weaker and stronger. But it always came from the same place on the mountainside. Pinpointing the scent, the cat turned his ears in the direction of the spoor. His luminous golden eyes peered through the mist. Silently he crept forward.
And then he saw it. His prey was a shaggy creature moving at a slow, uncaring pace. The animal was slightly smaller than himself though not close enough to attack with a leap. Not yet. It would have to be stalked.
The cat ignored the loud sound coming from somewhere beyond the prey. Still crouched low, the hunter moved forward swiftly and confidently.
Heather Jackson stood in the open doorway of the small foyer shaking a half-empty box of dog biscuits. Dressed in jeans and a University of California, Santa Barbara, sweatshirt, she shivered as the uncommonly cold fall night wind stirred her long, black hair and brushed her cheek.
"Ruthie, please! Don't make me have to come and get you!"
The tall, twenty-seven-year-old actress and her six-year-old springer spaniel shared a large, storybook log cabin three thousand feet up in the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains north of Santa Barbara. Except for the security bars on the windows, rooftop satellite dish, electric wires strung to a pole high up the hill, and an attached garage-some mornings it was just too cold to go outside, and lately it had rained every damn day-except for all that, the cabin was straight from a fairy tale. There was a glorious vegetable garden, hardwood floors nearly half-a-century old, a stone fireplace in every room, and an epic view of cliffs, valleys, and ocean that stretched clear out to the Channel Islands. Even on dreary La Nina-bad nights like this, the thick rolling clouds that covered the mountaintops were spectacular.
Heather stopped shaking the box and listened. The only sounds were the rustling of the two-foot-high blackberry hedges that lined the short stone walkway and the muted
of the spaniel. The little barks were coming from somewhere beyond the driveway, past the white glow of a spotlight mounted above the front door.
Ruthie never went far but Heather didn't want to go out looking for the dog. She was exhausted. And since La Nina had spent the last week slamming the Southern California coast, dog-fetching meant getting a flashlight to pick through the heavy fog, pulling on boots to slog through the mud, and wearing a heavy coat and gloves to deal with the wind-whipped cold.
Not that Heather blamed Ruthie for blowing her off. They'd moved here three months before, from a tiny Tarzana rental. A hit series and a mortgage were wonderful new experiences for the young woman. And for Ruthie, instead of the same old same old-running back and forth on a fenced-in sixth-of-an-acre, barking at dogs she never got to see, napping, and napping some more-the dog now spent the day chasing scavengers from the compost heap and exploring her little corner of several thousand wild acres.
Heather implored. "I can't let you stay outside, it's too cold!"
Something crunched at the end of the long gravel driveway, just beyond the edge of the spotlight. Heather's spirits perked.
"Come on, Ruthie! Come on, girl!"
The crunching stopped.
Heather gave the box of biscuits another shake. "Come on, La Roo, be nice to Mommy. She's got an early call tomorrow."
A moment later the crunching started again. Heather watched for the familiar hangdog eyes, the droopy smile, and the white-and-brown coat which often came home tangled with burrs.
After a few seconds Ruthie strutted into the spotlight as if she were the star. Her tail wagged in big, sweeping strokes and her license jangled like a diamond from her flea-and-tick collar.
"There's my girl!" Heather said sweetly.
Ruthie didn't hurry and Heather didn't take that personally. The days of being greeted with puppylike leaps and yips were long gone. They'd been replaced with a dignified saunter and a perfunctory kiss-before-biscuiting.
But that was okay. Ruthie still cuddled close to her at night and was more honestly affectionate than any man Heather had ever known.
Ruthie was on the walkway, just a few feet from the door, when the tan streak shot over the hedges. The bobcat landed less than a yard behind her, turned ninety degrees without stopping, and charged the dog.
Heather screamed when she saw the animal. As Ruthie turned to see what was behind her. Heather threw the box of biscuits at the predator. The carton struck his head and caused him to break his stride. Taking a long step out, Heather grabbed the spaniel by the tail and pulled her back. Ruthie barked but Heather got the dog inside and threw her shoulder against the door.
The bobcat hit the door before the latch caught. The impact bumped Heather back and opened the door a crack. The bobcat pushed its muzzle and right forefoot through the opening before Heather could close it. Releasing the dog, she threw both hands and her full weight against the door. Growling and turning her head this way and that, the spaniel tried to bite the bobcat.
!" Heather cried.
The door jumped and shuddered as the cat clawed at the spaniel. Heather kicked awkwardly at Ruthie, who continued to snap at the attacker.
"Ruthie, go away! Now! "
Suddenly, the bobcat's leg and muzzle pulled back so quickly they seemed to vanish. The door slammed shut and Heather stumbled against it. The latch clicked. Acting quickly, the young woman threw the deadbolt, pushed herself off the door, and stood back. She was panting, her heart slapping against her ribs.
"We did it," she muttered breathlessly.
Ruthie continued to bark.
"It's okay, Roo," Heather said, only half believing it.
Ruthie stopped barking and Heather listened. The silence seemed thicker than before, perhaps because of all the snarling and hissing that had just gone on. Heather didn't know and she didn't care. She stepped over to the window on the side of the foyer, looked out, saw nothing.
As soon as Heather calmed down a little she'd call the Santa Barbara sheriff's department, ask someone to come up and have a look around. Heather had never even seen a bobcat in the hills and was afraid that this one might be rabid. She had visions of being told that she'd have to ring her mountain retreat with leghold traps, poisoned meat, and barbed wire.
End of fairy tale. Next stop: Brentwood.
Heather walked over to where Ruthie was standing, sniffing the air. The dog's tail had drooped and she was shaking. The young woman picked Ruthie up and kissed her nose.
"You can stop now," Heather said. "You won. The cat's gone. Let's just call the sheriff and go to bed."
Cradling the dog under her chin, Heather shut the outside light and headed up the dark staircase to the bedroom. She put the dog on the bed while she went to the phone on the nightstand.
Ruthie hopped off the covers and slid beneath the bed.