“Selective Breeding” by Bart R. Leib
This story is posted online for free as part of Post A Story For Haiti.
“I just don’t get this,” some rookie cop said right behind Detective Winslow. “I thought the cats were all held by the United Nations!”
Winslow gave up trying to reach the other precinct (it had rung fourteen times but no one had answered) and hung up the phone. He turned to face the rookie, but it was Carter who answered with a derisive snarl; “There are six hundred cats under private ownership all over the world, and two hundred in North America. But if what we’re hearing and seeing is true, there are hundreds of these things! And as of a few months ago there were only five thousand cats in the world, including the ones in the breeding programs!”
Winslow raised his eyebrow at his partner. “How do you know all that? I mean, I know about most of the history and everything, but…”
“What?” Carter said defensively. “I like cats! I even petitioned to get one as a pet, but they said I didn’t earn enough to support it,” she grumbled.
“Bet you’re glad about that now,” Detective Matthews commented jokingly from across the room.
“Those things out on the streets are not normal cats,” Carter snapped.
Over the past few hours the precinct had been fielding dozens of phone calls about the sudden appearance of killer cats on the streets of Washington, DC. Quick checks of the media found no evidence that the cats were appearing anywhere else in the world, but there was no questioning that DC was under siege. There were over two hundred deaths reported already. Almost no wounded, which was not altogether good; it meant that the animals went straight for the kill.
The hospitals were still filling up, and people had begun barricading themselves in their homes. Unfortunately, the cats proved to be extremely clever, and had found ways into houses no one would have thought of; they’d even broken through windows to get at a few hapless people. They were roaming the streets, sometimes alone but more frequently in packs.
“Wait a minute,” said the rookie. “I remember learning in grade school that when they collected all the cats there were two thousand of them. But you said there’s only five thousand now? How come in nineteen years they only got the population up to five thousand?”
“Don’t you remember what it was like then?” Carter scoffed, and then rolled her eyes at the man who was roughly two thirds her age. “No, of course you don’t. At the time, because of all the hunting, the cats had been driven to fend for themselves. Out on their own, without us taking them to veterinarians, they developed all kinds of new and exciting diseases. Of the two thousand cats they finally caught, only three hundred thirty- six of them were viable for the breeding program. And they had to strictly monitor and regulate every birth, and carefully match the best pairings to get the healthiest and most diverse genetic makeup.”
Carter paused and sighed at the various glazed looks the other officers were giving her. Winslow gave her a sympathetic look which clearly said Philistines, the lot of them. “So you’re such an expert on cats, what can we do to stop them?” Matthews asked. “Tranquilizers?”
Carter scowled at Matthews, but since most of the officers in the precinct had paused in their frantic activity to listen she answered anyway. “Tranquilizers are fine if you can get your hands on them, but they’re in short supply. The department’s already almost used up everything it had. With little luck, apparently, since no one can fire the damn things to save their lives.”
“What about tasers?” one uniformed officer called out.
Carter shook her head. “Since we don’t know anything about these cats, we don’t know what it would do to them, and have to go by what we know from the cats in captivity. The tranqs have been tested on cats and found to be harmless in small doses, but tasers have been known to kill them, so it’d be a felony equal to attempted murder to use one.”
“A felony?” One of the others squeaked indignantly. “What about self-defense?”
Winslow fielded that one. “You know perfectly well that even defending yourself, if you kill you can still be tried for manslaughter. The same thing applies to cats.”
“But you can be exonerated for self-defense,” Matthews pointed out, “and no one will question that these cats are a lethal threat.”
“If you want to take your chances arguing the Feline Protection Act, go ahead,” Carter shot back, “but shoot or taser one of these cats and you won’t find much sympathy!”
“We just have to wait a bit,” said Winslow soothingly, having spent most of his forty-four years as a mediator, starting with his two older brothers. “I think, given the circumstances, that the President will push the UN for an exemption to the Act.”
“Yeah, and we all know how much sway the President has with the UN after the African Union fiasco,” the rookie muttered.
As everyone went back to what they’d been doing, Winslow leaned across the desk toward Carter. “So seriously,” he asked quietly, “do you have any ideas where these things come from or what they are, and more importantly, what we should be doing? This doesn’t exactly fall into the purview of normal Detective work.”
Carter paused to consider. She wasn’t angry – four years of partnering with Winslow had earned mutual respect, and she knew he wasn’t being condescending – but she was a bit disconcerted to be put on the spot. Winslow was her senior as a Detective by eight years, and seeing him at a loss was unsettling.
“Where they come from – no idea,” she started. “I’m pretty sure that we can rule out evolution or migration. The thing is, no one’s seen one of these cats before, and there’s never been any feline that was so insanely aggressive, at least not sharing the planet with homo sapiens. At this point I’m willing to consider mutation from nuclear radiation.” Winslow snorted in amusement, and Carter grinned slightly.
“As for what they are…from the photos I’ve seen, they seem like a cross between a regular housecat, a bobcat and maybe a cheetah. You have that picture of the feral?” Winslow nodded, tapping a photo in front of him. Carter pulled a file open and handed a scan across to Winslow. “That’s a domestic housecat. See the similarities?”
Winslow studied the images. The housecat had a long, slim body, just like the cats wandering the streets, although the housecat was maybe half the size. But Winslow had an eye for detail: “I see five differences,” he concluded; Carter raised a questioning eyebrow. “One, the hind legs on the feral ones are a lot larger.”
“That’s right, the ferals have powerful hind legs, like bobcats,” Carter said, placing a photo over the housecat. “That’s a bobcat.”
The bobcat certainly seemed to have legs like the ferals. “All right…and also the feet. The ferals have very large feet; kind of like the bobcat’s, actually.”
“Paws,” Carter corrected. She took the photo from Carter and studied it. “Huh. You’re right, I missed that,” she decided, and handed back the photo with a grimace. “Cats with larger paws usually have larger and stronger claws.”
“Oh, wonderful.” Winslow scowled at the photo. “Well, there’s also the head. It’s larger than the domestic ones.”
“Yeah, which could mean a lot or nothing,” Carter said helpfully. “It could mean they’re exceptionally smart – which might account for their aggressiveness – or it could mean they’ve got thick skulls.”
“Then they’ll find plenty of kindred spirit in D.C.,” Winslow quipped; Carter’s lip twitched. “Also, the mouth is wider on the ferals.”
“Like a cheetah,” Carter agreed, producing another photo. “The wide mouth means a more powerful jaw than what the domestics have.”
“Hmm.” Carter studied the new image and concluded that Carter was right. “And the last thing is the coloration.”
“Yeah,” agreed Carter, “the cats out there are colored unlike anything I’ve seen outside of domestics. Black panthers are really all black, but these ferals, or whatever they are, are mottled.”
“So the coloration isn’t normal for any known big cat?”
“No, but that doesn’t really mean anything,” said Carter, rubbing her eyes tiredly. “I mean, anyone could breed for a particular coloration, people used to do it all the time.” It was a moment before she realized that Winslow hadn’t responded; she raised her head to find him peering at her intently. “What?”
“Are you suggesting that someone bred these things?”
“Uhh…” Carter considered quickly. “Right now it’s the only thing I can think of to explain the similar colorations on all these photos,” she said cautiously. “They’re all almost identical, and the only ways to get that is either from a species that evolved to only have one particular pattern type, or from selective breeding. Domestics used to throw litters where every kitten would have a different coloration, and sometimes none would match either parent. That was before the breeding program, though.” She pointed at the photo of the feral again. “There is nothing like this anywhere in our knowledge, I mean that. All these features together…my nuclear radiation comment wasn’t far off the mark.”
“Could we just have never heard of this species before, and some of them got transferred here?”
“It’s possible; there are thousands, maybe millions of species of animals we don’t know about. But it’s incredibly unlikely. An unheard of species would have to come from somewhere isolated – not the U.S., definitely. When the U.N. instituted the Feline Protection Act, expeditions were sent all over the world to try to discover any species that could theoretically be cross-bred with the domestics to bolster the population; they sent parties into rainforests, deserts, isolated valleys and even islands. I think it’s likely that any species of feline that’s out there, we’d know about now.”
Winslow smiled. “Who knew it would be so useful to be partnered with a cat fanatic?”
“And to think my sister likes dogs.”
“I’ll bet she’s happy she lives in Oregon now, then.”
“I’m happy,” Carter grumbled. “I love the flaky ditz, but she’d have been eaten alive if she’d stayed, and I don’t mean by these cats.” She froze and stared at the stack of pictures on her desk. “Have these ferals eaten anyone?”
Winslow wrinkled his nose. “Is that important?”
“It might be,” Carted replied, flipping through the images again. “Some of the large cats like lions will eat humans, but domestics don’t, obviously. And the medium-sized cats, like the ocelots or lynxes are usually wary because of their size.” She paused in her flipping. “Actually, these things almost have the personality of wolves; intelligent and cautious, but vicious when necessary. And some of them have been seen in packs.”
“Well, the answer is yes,” Winslow said, looking over some papers. “According to this report, one attack occurred when a man stumbled on one of the ferals eating someone else, and it didn’t like being disturbed.” He flipped a couple more sheets of paper. “Actually there are several reports of the ferals eating the people they kill.”
“Lovely.” Carter tapped her fingers on her desk while considering. “We should really talk to an expert about this.”
“Sounds like I am.”
Carter snorted. “I’m not an expert, just a fanatic.”
“What exactly would you like to ask an expert about?”
“Everything we’ve been talking about. Where these things came from, and most importantly, what the hell do we do about them?”
“What we do is being dealt with. I’m sure that the President will give permission to deal with the ferals, with or without the approval of the U.N. In the meantime, when the Captain gets here I’m going to suggest we board up all the entrances except the doors so we don’t have to choose what to do beforehand.”
“Good idea. But…”
“Well, is it really our responsibility to figure out where they came from? Like you said, this isn’t exactly normal Detective work. I think it’s more the job of the President to set a committee to figure this out.”
“What else are we going to do right now, track down muggers?”
“Yeah, good point.”
“Besides, we’re Detectives; it’s our job to solve riddles. We have a better chance of solving this than a committee would.”
“All right, I bow to your superior logic. Where should we start?”
“An expert sounded like a good idea. Do you know of anyone?”
Carter tapped her fingers again, a habit that no number of ironic comments had been able to break her of. “Well, there’s Felix Barrington, if he’d talk to us.”
“The billionaire? He’s a cat expert?”
“Of course, you didn’t know that?”
Winslow shook his head. “I’ve never been much of an animal person.”
“Barrington was the one the UN had design and direct the capture and breeding programs,” Carter explained. “It’s his talent, selective breeding. He started his fortune by breeding healthy exotic animals for zoos all over the world. And of the two hundred privately-owned cats in North America, Barrington has over one hundred.”
“Jesus! That must cost a fortune!”
“Well, he’s a billionaire, isn’t he?” Carter said sourly. “He can afford it!”
“Hey, if we solve this thing then you’ll end up a hero to cat lovers everywhere,” Winslow said, his face perfectly blank. “I bet they’d give you a whole litter!”
“Oh, lay off,” Carter muttered.
A few quick phone calls tracked down a number at Barrington’s estate in Virginia. Barrington had bought up a number of small national parks when the government had been strapped for cash, and turned the parks into an enormous private habitat for the preservation of big cats, which he kept sealed from the world.
The phone was answered by a secretary. “May I speak with Mr. Barrington, please?” Carter asked. “This is Detective Carter of the Washington DC police department.”
“I’m sorry, but Mr. Barrington isn’t in at the moment. He’ll be back soon, would you care to leave a number?”
“Doesn’t he have a cell phone I could reach him on?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have leave to reveal that. It’s an unlisted number.”
Carter stared at the phone for a moment before answering. “Listen, Ms…?”
“Listen, Ms. Lacey, I am a Detective doing an investigation. I am completely capable of finding Mr. Barrington’s cell number on my own if he has one, and if he does and you didn’t tell me it constitutes obstruction.”
There was silence from the other end for a moment. “Ms. Carter, Mr. Barrington does have a cell phone number, and I will provide it if you insist. However, Mr. Barrington is out doing an inspection of his preserve, and there are no cell phone towers anywhere near where he is.”
“I see. So I couldn’t reach him anyway.”
“That’s right. In fact, his cell phone had choppy reception even here in his home since it’s removed from the edges of his property. He really only has it for when he goes on business trips. It’s possible he didn’t even take it with him on his inspection.”
“Well, please give me the number anyway just in case we need to reach him later. And I’d like to leave a message for him to call me as soon as possible.”
Carter took down Barrington’s cell phone number, and gave the secretary her number at the station, insisting that Barrington call the moment he got back. “It’s really very crucial we speak with him,” she insisted.
“I’ll be sure to relay the importance of your message,” the secretary assured. “Good day.”
Carter gave the cell number a try, but as the secretary had warned, the call was transferred straight into voicemail. Carter left a message, and then hung up and looked at her partner. “Well, that was a waste of time. He’s out inspecting his riches.”
“That estate you told me about? Hmm.” Winslow thought for a moment. “If what you said is true, Barrington’s the best choice to talk to. I’m not sure what to do at this point.”
“Give up and go get a beer?”
Winslow smiled. “After you,” he said, indicating the door.
“Damn. Good point.” Carter sighed.
“You know, I don’t envy us when this is over.”
Carter looked quizzically at her partner. “You mean the department in general, or the two of us?”
“Either, but especially the two of us. Out there somewhere, you know there’ve been at least a few instances of people reacting to being attacked by these things. So they defended themselves, and there’s got to be several ferals injured or dead. Which means those people have technically, according to the Act, committed crimes. Some of those will be inside our jurisdiction, and when this is all over, what does that mean?”
“A criminal investigation,” Carter groaned, holding her head in her hands. “And since I decided to shoot my mouth off and make it obvious I’m a cat nut, guess who gets assigned the cases?”
“Bingo.” Carter smiled sympathetically at the top of Carter’s head. “And it’ll probably be high profile, since there haven’t been charges filed for injuring a cat since I don’t know when.”
“Fourteen years,” Carter moaned, banging her head lightly but repeatedly on her desk.
“And that means people who don’t like or care about cats will vilify us for condemning a human, and cat lovers will glorify us for defending the cats.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Forget it. You can apologize with many beers once this is over.”
“You got it. So did the Captain like your suggestion?”
“He’s not here yet,” Winslow told her with a frown. “You know, Matthews said he called an hour ago saying he was on his way, and he was only twenty minutes away.”
That’s not like him,” Carter said, matching Winslow’s frown. “Maybe we should…”
“You try to call him, I’m going to talk to Matthews,” Winslow said, getting up.
Ten minutes later they’d been unable to reach the Captain, and Winslow decided to exert his seniority and insist that squad cars be given a description of the Captain’s car and start looking for him. In just fifteen minutes they got a call that the car had been found…but not the Captain.
“It’s been totaled,” Riley, the cop on the scene, told them over radio. “It slammed into a lamppost, and two of the tires are blown.”
“Two?” Winslow asked.
“Yeah. They look…shredded.”
Winslow looked up at Carter, startled. “You don’t think the ferals would attack cars, do you?”
“I have no idea,” Carter answered, clearly disturbed. “Sometimes packs attack animals a lot bigger than them.”
“The driver’s window has been smashed,” Riley relayed.
Carter raised her eyebrows. “Was it broken in or out, Riley?”
There was silence from the other end. “What do you mean?” Riley asked eventually.
“I mean, is there more glass inside the car, or outside?”
“Uh…” there was a pause. “Inside. Almost all of it.”
Winslow felt a chill creep over him. “Is the passenger door open?”
“Yeah, it is! How did you know that?”
“It sounds like a pack of ferals did attack the Captain,” Carter said in horror. “They took out his tires, and then somehow smashed in the window he was closest to. And he got out the passenger door.”
“Jesus, are you serious?” The cop’s voice said shrilly.
“Listen, Riley, are you in your car?”
“Get in right now, and start driving. Keep your eyes open for the Captain, but don’t stop unless you find him, and if you see one of the ferals, drive like hell the other way and head back here.”
“Wait a minute,” Matthews hissed. “You’re telling him to leave the scene? What about the Captain?”
“Shut up, Matthews,” Winslow said in an uncharacteristically angry voice. “If you’re in the field and you think there’s an imminent threat to your safety, what’s the first thing you do?”
“Call for backup,” Matthews responded instantly, “and if that’s not an option, get away and then call for backup.”
There was silence again, and then Riley came back. “Okay, I’m in and moving. Do- do you really think they got the Captain?”
Winslow glanced at Carter, who bit her lip and nodded. Winslow hesitated a moment before answering. “No idea,” he said finally. “But the Captain had his gun and he’s smart, he’s got as much chance as anyone.”
“Not very comforting, Detective Winslow,” Riley said with morbid humor. “I’ll radio again if I see anything else.”
“What do you think the Captain’s chances are?” Matthews asked Carter.
“I’m not sure. We’re inferring an awful lot from what Riley described. The ferals would have to have absurdly strong claws and teeth to rip out a tire while the car was moving.”
“So if it was a feral, it might have gotten hurt in the process?” Matthews said hopefully. “That might have given the Captain the chance to get away!”
“You’re forgetting the smashed window,” Winslow pointed out. “It’s looking more and more like these things travel mostly in packs. Even if one was hurt, there’s a good chance there were more.”
Matthews paled. “I’m calling my wife,” he murmured, turning away, “and telling her to pack up and get the hell out of the house. Maybe head to her brother’s place in Baltimore.”
As Matthews ran off, Carter sighed. “Running away is starting to sound better to me, too.”
Over the next few hours the senior members of the department, Winslow included, spoke to several other precincts and made some decisions. Any ways the ferals could get inside were all boarded up, and all the doors were locked except the front ones which swung outward. All police out on the streets were to be in radio contact every fifteen minutes, and if any of them saw a feral they were to drive away and head back to the station. Unless the feral was attacking a civilian, in which case the policeman was to attempt to lure it away.
“You know, I’m starting to think we should take our chances with the UN, and recommend our boys use tasers,” Winslow said to Carter.
“No!” Carter shot back vehemently, half-rising. “Haven’t you been listening? The UN laws are less flexible than Death Row in Texas! Do you really want to tell the men and women out there to commit crimes that could get them life in prison? The UN won’t care about extenuating circumstances, they’ll toss you in jail and assign muscular cat lovers as your guards!”
“What the hell else are we supposed to do?” Winslow growled in frustration. “Our patrolmen are completely useless if they can’t even help civilians under attack!”
“It can’t be much longer until the President gets an emergency law passed,” Carter said, collapsing back into her chair. “At the very least we’ll be able to use tasers, or maybe we’ll get more tranq guns.”
“Well they better hurry the hell up,” Winslow said, waving a paper at Carter. “According to this tally from all the precincts, there’s been over four thousand reported fatalities!”
“What?” Carter hurried around the desk and read the report over Winslow’s shoulder. “There have to be more ferals than we’d thought,” she said faintly, shaking her head. “There’s no way that just a few hundred could do that much damage…”
“It’s not possible?” Winslow asked. “Or not probable?”
“Cats just don’t kill more than they need,” Carter answered, sitting back down. “At least not as a species. Sometimes you get a deviant, but that’s just one or two individuals with-”
“With extra-aggressive tendencies.”
The phone rang, causing them both to jump. Winslow picked up. “Detective Winslow.”
“I was given this number for a Detective Carter,” the voice on the other end enquired. “Might you be her partner?”
“Ah, excellent. My name is Felix Barrington, my secretary told me Detective Carter was quite insistent on speaking with me; I assume it has something to do with the reports of violent cats in Washington DC.”
“That’s correct, Mr. Barrington,” Winslow said, causing Carter to sit up alertly. “I’m going to transfer your call into a more private room so we won’t be disturbed.”
They settled into the captain’s office and shut the door. “I’m going to put him on speakerphone,” Winslow told Carter, “and since you know a bit more than me about cats, why don’t you take the lead.”
“Right,” Carter answered, and waited for Winslow to hit the button. “Mr. Barrington, this is Detective Carter. Thank you for getting back to us.”
“Not at all, Detective,” Barrington said. His voice held the refined edge of the well-educated. “I must say I’m rather fascinated with what I’ve heard. This sort of instant appearance of a species is unprecedented.”
“So you think it’s a new species?”
“Well, I couldn’t really say. The news reports are unfortunately scant in details about the felines; they seem more interested in telling people to avoid the animals at all costs.” He sounded somewhat disappointed.
“Well, we’ve been able to put together a bit more information,” Carter offered.
Quickly and efficiently, Carter outlined what they’d learned about the ferals, along with her own observations. After a brief pause, Barrington’s voice came back: “I must say I’m impressed with your deductions, Detective. It’s unusual to find a cat expert in such a profession.”
Carter reddened slightly. “I’m just a fanatic, that’s all.”
“Do you have a cat living with you?”
“No, I was denied my application,” Carter answered pointedly.
“How unfortunate. I’ll talk to a few people and pull some strings, Detective. No one who’s such a true cat lover should be denied the pleasure of having one for company.”
“I- th-thank you!” Carter stammered.
“As to your conclusions, I definitely agree that it’s unlikely your ferals are an undiscovered species. It seems much more likely they were bred. And of course, their behavior could have been trained.”
“Trained?” Winslow spoke up.
There was silence for a moment. “Ah, I’m on speakerphone. Yes, Detective Winslow. It is possible to train a cat.”
“I’m aware of that,” Winslow replied, sounding slightly annoyed. “Are you suggesting someone trained these ferals to attack humans?”
“I’m simply pointing out the possibility. Certainly their aggressive behavior is in keeping with such training.”
“But they’ve attacked vehicles as well.”
“Also a trainable behavior. It could be they were simply trained to attack anything that moves, or anything that runs away from them.”
“Why on earth would anyone train an animal like that?”
“It is done frequently, of course, for guard dogs and the like. And aggressive tendencies can be bred into any species, as can size, intelligence and so on.”
“But these things have been eating people,” Winslow put in.
“Also a trainable act. The big cats such as lions can be switched from one diet to another via a gradual process; first you douse their current food with blood of the new food, to get them used to the taste and smell. Then you mix their foods, and gradually raise the percentage of the new food until you phase out the old food altogether. Simple and effective.”
Carter wrinkled her nose at the thought of someone dousing anything with human blood. “These ferals clearly haven’t been trained for guard purposes. If they were trained, it was simply to kill anything and everything. Why would anyone do that, and then dump them in a major city?”
She’d meant it rhetorically, but Barrington answered anyway. “Perhaps someone wished to send a message.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, although I’m hardly an expert on the criminal mind, an attack as violent as this could easily be construed as a sign. Perhaps someone wants the world to think that humanity doesn’t have as firm a grasp on the earth as it thinks.”
“So you’re suggesting that this is…some form of ecological terrorism?” Winslow asked skeptically.
“Ah. Ecological terrorism, very good. And I suggest nothing, Detective, I simply present an idea. Just suppose that some…ecological terrorist wished to cause violent upheaval within our country. This man or woman could secretly acquire a number of cats and breed them, as I said, for size, intelligence and aggressiveness, and once a hardy breed had been achieved, gradually accustom them to eating humans—perhaps even going as far as to kidnap people and feed them to the cats. Once the cats were ready, they could tranquilize the animals and send fleets of trucks into the city, to distribute and release the animals while still anesthetized. Then they could simply sit back and watch their…act of terrorism unfold.”
Carter’s eyes narrowed. “It sounds like you’ve given a lot of thought to this scenario.”
“Well it is a very intriguing idea.”
“They’d need a lot of money,” Carter pointed out; beads of sweat were appearing on her forehead. “And a large, private location as well. Like your estate.”
“It is not an estate, Detective,” Barrington admonished. “It is a preserve. And something very similar to my preserve would be necessary, yes. And a laboratory and kennel, for the breeding.”
“Which you also have,” Winslow said, his voice tight with accusation. “On your…preserve, from what I understand.”
“Of course. I am the one the UN saddled with the responsibility of resurrecting the domesticated cat. It’s not conceit to say that I am personally responsible for saving them from extinction.”
“And during the process,” Carter said, “You’ve had access to all the cats and their records.”
“Of course. How else could I regulate the breeding program?”
“Breeding program,” Carter whispered. Her eyes met Winslow’s, who looked just as dumbfounded. Barrington was all but admitting…
“Winslow! Carter!” Matthews pounded on the door, making them jump. “Get out here, quick!”
Carter flung the door open. “We’re in the middle of questioning someone, Matthews!” She hissed furiously. But Winslow noticed the panicked movements outside the office…
“It’s the President!” Matthews said, pulling at Carter’s arm. “He’s been killed! Some of those damn cats got inside the White House! And somehow they got to the President’s rooms, and…”
Carter studied Matthews’ face for any sign he was joking, and found none. “Mr. Barrington, we’ll call you back,” she said, and hit the disconnect button.
Barrington returned the dead phone to its cradle. He sat still in his office for a moment, calmly stroking a large cat that was draped across his lap purring.
Finally he reached out, careful not to upset the cat, and pressed the intercom button. “Ms. Lacey.”
“Please contact the United Nations Feline Ownership Committee, and inform them that Detective Carter of the Washington DC police department has my personal backing for approval of ownership of a domestic.”
There was a pause from the other end, and then Ms. Lacey’s voice came back. “Yes, sir, right away.”
“But before you do that, radio the preserve supervisor and tell him I want to speak with him in person. Immediately.”
The President and the First Lady had been killed in their own bedroom by one of the ferals. The four ferals that had gained access to the White House also killed six Secret Service agents and two aides before being shot to death under direct orders from the Vice President (now the President). The White House had been locked down and the new President was making frantic phone calls to the United Nations, trying to acquire temporary amnesty from the Feline Protection Act; until he was able to convince them of the severity of the situation, orders were to avoid harming the animals if at all possible, since technically anyone could be prosecuted for any act of violence up until the moment the law was changed.
“So basically,” Matthews said after this information was relayed to the department, “we’re fucked!”
“Matthews, we’ll be fine-”
“Don’t give me that shit! The President’s dead and we still can’t touch these things! Screw this,” Matthews said, grabbing his coat. “I’m going home.”
Most of the precinct immediately followed Matthews’ lead. “Don’t be stupid!” Carter shouted over the noise. “You’ll all be fired!”
“Let’s see, which is worse?” said one uniformed officer, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Death or unemployment?”
“Come off it, we haven’t seen any ferals within ten blocks of the precinct!” Winslow exclaimed. “This is probably one of the safest places in the city!”
“That isn’t comforting, Winslow,” said another Detective on his way past. “My wife and son are three blocks from a reported killing.”
There was nothing Winslow could say to that. He and Carter watched helplessly as the station cleared out in a matter of minutes, leaving just the two of them.
Winslow sighed. “Where’s a truckload of bread crumbs when you need it?”
Carter frowned. “What the hell does that mean?”
“The wise fool,” Winslow answered with a wry look. “One day some villagers saw the local fool spreading bread crumbs on the ground. When they asked him what he was doing he said it was to keep tigers away. And when they told him there were no tigers in their area, he said ‘Exactly!’.”
Carter snorted. “I should’ve saved my morning toast.”
Winslow collapsed into his chair. “I guess we’d better try to call the other precincts and tell them what happened, and radio the patrol cars and tell them to go home, or to another precinct if they’d rather.”
“I’ll radio the squad cars,” Carter said, heading for another room.
After she’d reached all the patrols, Carter returned to her desk; Winslow had finished calling the other precincts and was studying his computer intently. “What’re you doing?”
“Searching for disappearances around Barrington’s estate,” Winslow answered without looking up.
“Preserve,” Carter corrected sardonically. “Why?”
“He mentioned kidnapping people and feeding them to cats to train them on human meat,” Winslow replied. “If there’s a number of missing persons reports around his preserve that never got solved…”
“I can’t believe he would make it so obvious,” Carter said. “He’s not stupid.”
“Maybe he thought it couldn’t be proven.” Winslow looked up. “You don’t have to stay if you don’t want, Sarah,” he said. “One or two makes no difference.”
“What else am I gonna do, Eric? Go home and pet my cat? Oh wait, I don’t have one.” Carter smiled at Winslow’s weak chuckle. “Don’t worry about it. I have a bit more faith in the system than those cowards.”
Winslow nodded gratefully, and then sighed as his phone rang. “Ten bucks says that’s the Captain of another precinct calling to tell us off for not stopping those idiots from leaving.”
“I’m not taking that bet,” Carter replied, shoving the phone towards Winslow. “Answer it.”
Winslow sighed again and picked up the receiver. “Detective Winslow.”
Winslow was right about the caller, and about the next three after that. He told each of them there wasn’t anything he could have done to stop the rest of the precinct from leaving, and pointed out that the situation was unprecedented. “Most of the officers have families,” he reminded them. “They were scared. What was I supposed to do, throw them in the cells?” Fortunately there wasn’t anyone being detained in the station’s cell; the last of their prisoners had been transferred to another precinct that morning.
Two hours later Winslow and Carter were still poring over missing persons records. “Dale City had eleven reports of missing persons that weren’t solved within the last year and a half,” Winslow said grimly.
“Newington had another eight,” Carter replied, peering at her screen, and then glancing down at her notes. “All in the last two years. Not that that proves anything,” she added. “Even if Barrington was actually kidnapping people, nineteen or so wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to train up all these ferals. You’d need…well, hundreds of people.”
Winslow stared at his notes for a moment. Then he began typing rapidly. “I’m pulling up the numbers for disappearances on the entire East Coast for the last two years,” he told Carter. “Barrington has the resources to reach that far, or even farther.” He peered at his screen. “Hmm. Three hundred twenty-seven cases in New England.”
“He could also pick up homeless people,” Carter pointed out. “Or prostitutes, or illegal immigrants.”
“Good point; there’d be no reports.”
“You do realize that he probably had nothing to do with the ferals, right?”
“Yeah, of course I do,” Winslow said, knuckling an eye. “It’s just that he’s the only one I can think of who could have pulled it off.”
“I think it’s a long shot that this was intentional,” Carter responded. “If anything, maybe someone was breeding them in secret and they accidentally got loose.”
“But who besides Barrington has the means?” Winslow argued. “Private location, access to hundreds of cats, financial resources…”
“I know,” Carter said. “But even if he did it, it still sounds like a crackpot theory at best. We’d never prove it.”
“I know.” Winslow picked up his phone. “I’m going to find out if the President’s had any luck with the UN.”
He hadn’t. The UN was “reviewing the situation to determine necessity”. The official word was to attempt to capture as many of the ferals as possible to help in determining where they came from. “Capture them,” Carter said furiously. “With what? We can’t even use stun guns! And even if we did catch them, what would we do, throw them in the cells?”
“They’d fit between the bars anyway,” Winslow answered.
Carter threw herself down into her seat with disgust. “What are we still doing here, Eric? The phones have even stopped ringing; the public has realized we’re as helpless as they are. There’s no purpose to staying.”
“Well, I don’t have anywhere else to be,” Winslow pointed out. “Except in a pub for you to buy me those drinks.” Carter grinned. “But we’re probably safer here than anywhere else, and there’s plenty to eat in the break room, I checked. This is as good a place to wait it out as any. I know I’m not so anxious to head back to my apartment.”
“Me either, especially not knowing if I’d make it there,” Carter agreed.
Another two hours passed; Carter and Winslow, having almost nothing to do, both started to feel a little wound up. The sounds of the city, usually an omnipresent background, had faded away, and the emptiness of the station was eerie and disturbing for the Detectives, who’d both grown up in urban areas. Even more disturbing was the distant sound of ferals yowling; if they were close enough to be heard, then in the Detectives’ opinion they were too close.
As Carter was in the process of finishing off her eighth cup of coffee, Winslow sat bolt upright from where he’d been slouched in his chair. “Do you hear that?” he asked quickly.
About to make a sarcastic retort, Carter stopped herself and listened. “I don’t hear anything,” she said eventually.
“Outside,” Winslow muttered, getting up and heading for one of the boarded-up windows at the back. “Sounds like a car.”
“A car?” Carter exclaimed, leaping to her feet and following him. “No one’s stupid enough to drive right now, are they?”
Winslow pulled aside a small board that had been intentionally left loose for a peephole. He peered through it, looking every way. “I might’ve been wrong.”
“Well, when you’re right let me know, and we’ll invite them in for tea,” Carter snapped.
Winslow looked around at her. “That’s it, no more coffee for you.” Carter rolled her eyes and headed back to her desk. Winslow was about to replace the board when he glanced out the window and gasped. “There he is!”
“What?” Carter scrabbled back and looked out where Winslow was pointing, and sure enough, there was a van barreling down the road in their direction. It was moving very erratically, and it looked like- “The ferals are after it!”
Winslow was yanking open a storage chest. He shoved something at Carter. “Take this flare gun and shoot it out one of the upstairs windows,” he ordered as he continued to dig. “I’m going to throw on a flak jacket and be ready to wave him down if it’s possible.”
Carter disappeared up the stairs; Winslow watched through the window, and within thirty seconds he saw the red flare launch up into the sky. When his eyes returned to the street he saw with alarm that the car was far closer than he’d expected. “Did he see it?” Carter shouted as she came back down.
“I think so; he’s got it floored, he’ll be here any time,” Winslow said. He pulled the locks off the door. “Get ready to shut it.”
“Not with you out there!” Carter protested.
“Damn straight not with me out there! Slam it shut as soon as we’re in!”
Winslow pulled one of the double doors open just enough to slip through, and Carter positioned herself by it so she could see clearly. The van was close enough to make out, and there were definitely at least three or four of the ferals on its tail. Carter marveled for a moment at the animals; they moved the way packs should, driving the prey before them, not giving it any choice but to run itself out…
Winslow pulled out two glow-rods. He slammed them together and they lit up a bright fluorescent green. He began waving them to attract the driver’s attention, but wisely didn’t waste his breath shouting.
Clearly the driver saw the signal, because the van put on a burst of speed, putting some distance between it and the pack of ferals. But as it approached it didn’t decelerate; “Winslow-?” Carter yelled.
“Fuck!” Winslow shouted. The van was bearing down on the station and it didn’t look like the driver was going to stop. Winslow turned and ran toward the door just as the driver twisted the wheel and applied the brakes; the van spun, nearly flipping on its side, and the back of the van slammed into the precinct doors two seconds after Winslow dove through them.
“Eric!” Carter cried, running over to help, but he waved her off and scrambled to his feet. “That psycho-”
“No, I get it,” Winslow said, shoving aside detritus that had gotten in the way. “He’s going to come through the back of the van.”
Sure enough, the back door of the van unlocked and tried to open, but it hit up against the precinct door. The driver began slamming the van door, trying to force his way in. “Open the door!” he screamed. Carter pulled down the bolt at the top of the door, releasing it; the van driver, who couldn’t have been older than 20, threw both doors open. “Help me with this!” he shouted, trying to heave a large wooden crate out of the van.
“What the hell? Leave that shit-” Carter growled, but broke off at the sound of glass shattering. “Oh for god’s sake,” she muttered, and the three of them manhandled the box into the room—carefully, since it had Fragile and This Side Up stamped all over it. The second it was out of the way, Carter slammed the precinct doors shut and locked them; fortunately, the doors were basically intact. “This enough, you think?”
“No way,” the young man said. He was shaking, and drenched in sweat. “Put something in front of it!”
Carter hustled to the other side of a big set of shelves, and with a bit of shoving managed to tip the entire thing over in front of the door. “If anyone asks how that happened, you don’t know anything,” she said to Winslow.
“Mum’s the word.” Winslow turned his attention to the young man. “What’s your name?”
And what the hell made you decide to play Chicken with our precinct?”
“Wh- the big fucking cats, that’s what!” Steve yelled. “Or didn’t you notice?!”
“I mean, why were you out driving when those things are on the loose? Everyone else had the sense to stay indoors!”
“I didn’t know about them!” Steve sounded ready to crack up. “All I know is I got paid a hundred bucks to drive this thing here-” he pointed at the crate- “and within ten minutes of getting into DC I’ve got a herd of extinct fucking animals trying to kill me!”
“All right, just calm down,” Winslow said soothingly. “You’re safe now, we’ve barricaded the place pretty well.”
Steve closed his eyes and took several long, deep breaths. “Where am I, anyway?” he asked.
“Precinct Seven,” Winslow answered. “We’re a few blocks from Garfield Park.”
“No shit?” Steve opened his eyes and stared. “Are you Carter?”
“I’m Carter,” Carter said sharply. “How do you know me?”
“Uh, that’s for you,” Steve said, again pointing at the box. “Some guy paid me a hundred bucks to drive it up here.”
“Who?” Winslow asked as Carter eyed the box warily. It was a good thirty by thirty, and two feet high.
“I dunno. He just stopped me on the road and asked if I wanted to make a hundred. Fucker could’ve told me about the cats.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“Down near Occoquan…”
Winslow caught Carter’s eye. “You know anyone down that way?”
“No,” Carter replied slowly. “But that’s right near Barrington’s preserve.” She turned to Steve. “What did the guy look like?”
“Uh…he was big, strong…had a thick beard. He was wearing one of those hats with the edge all around, like on those jungle shows. And he was wearing a t-shirt, and he had scars all up and down his arms.”
Carter shook her head. “Barrington’s in his mid-sixties. So this guy didn’t say anything else?” she asked.
“Oh yeah…he gave me this too,” Steve said. He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, which he handed to Carter. “Hey, what are those things out there?” he asked Winslow as Carter read the note. “And why the hell aren’t you on the roof with a rifle or something?”
“We don’t know yet,” Winslow answered vaguely; his eyes were on Carter. “What is it?”
“It just says, ‘This may help you solve the riddle’,” Carter said, turning the paper over to make sure there was nothing on the back. “It’s not signed, but it’s got to be from Barrington. What do you think?”
“I think we should open it,” Winslow said, walking over to a locker and pulling out a crowbar. He handed the crowbar to Steve. “Come on, earn your hundred bucks.”
“I almost fucking died out there, I think the guy owes me another few hundred,” Steve muttered, but he took the crowbar.
“What do you think’s in it?” Winslow asked Carter as Steve pried the lid loose.
“One of the ferals; Barrington sent it to off us,” Carter answered with a grin.
“Very amusing,” Winslow answered sardonically. “Come on, put your back into it,” he added to Steve.
“Oh, blow me,” Steve mumbled, and then quickly added “Sir.” He gave a last heave and the lid flew up and off the box.
For a second, the three of them stared in horror at the feral, which was crouched in the box ready to pounce. “Oh, shit,” Carter gasped.
The cat launched itself at Steve, going right for the kill; his throat was ripped out in a heartbeat. Carter and Winslow darted back, both reaching for their weapons. The cat pushed off of Steve’s body and flew at Winslow—”Eric!” Carter shouted—but he was still wearing his protective gear; the animal ricocheted off his chest, knocking him down, and sprang for Carter. Carter, still trying to draw her gun, threw her left arm over her neck so the cat couldn’t get it, and screamed when the cat’s teeth sank into her tricep.
Winslow scrambled to his feet; without a second’s hesitation he trained his gun and fired three times. The force of the shots blew the cat right off Carter; Winslow stepped forward and let off one last shot to finish the animal off.
Tossing aside his gun, Winslow dropped to his knees next to Carter. Her arm was a mess of ripped muscles and tendons, and her stomach had been partially shredded by the cat’s hind claws. “Carter! Oh shit, Sarah!”
It was taking everything Carter had not to scream, and she was clenching her jaw so hard several teeth were going to crack. Winslow yanked out his wallet; “Sarah! Sarah, bite on this!” he shouted at her, holding the wallet to her lips. Carter opened her eyes slightly, and the fierce look of intense pain made Winslow’s heart leap into his throat. Carter managed to get enough self-control to open her mouth; Winslow shoved his wallet in sideways and Carter bit down hard. “I’m going to get the med kits,” Winslow declared, shoving himself to his feet. “Focus on biting that wallet!” And he turned and sprinted away.
It was about three hours later that the Acting President, unable to make any headway with the United Nations, gave orders to send the National Guard into Washington, DC with orders to drive off any of the feral cats they saw. At dawn, one thousand National Guardsmen drove into Washington, DC, set up a base of operations, and sent out patrols in groups of five.
An hour and a half later, with three hundred fifty of the guardsmen either dead or injured and their base practically under siege, the commanding officer placed a desperate phone call for further troops and permission to use tougher measures. One hour after that a further five thousand national Guardsmen arrived to find the five hundred remaining guardsmen barricaded in.
The Acting President had signed a law granting temporary amnesty under US law for anyone who, from that moment on, harmed or killed one of the feral cats in self-defense. The new Guardsmen used tasers and eventually began seeing progress in clearing out the cats; temporary caging was erected for any of the animals caught alive.
The Guardsmen made their way across the city slowly, starting around the White House and working their way out; over the course of the next several hours they caught or killed over three thousand of the cats.
The fifty Guardsmen who reached the Seventh Precinct were exhausted and extremely jumpy; every one of them had seen at least one of their fellow Guards attacked, or been attacked themselves. Deciding they needed a temporary break, the officer in charge led the unit to the doors of the precinct to knock. “Hey, anyone in there?” he called.
After a minute there was some shuffling, and then the sound of the lock being opened. The door swung out and an exhausted-looking man peered out at the officer. Then he nodded. “About fucking time,” he said mildly.
“It’s not completely safe, sir,” the officer said. “We need to come in for a rest and to use your facilities before we keep making our push.”
The man turned away without a word. A bit unnerved by the man’s attitude, the officer stepped inside and motioned for his men to follow. As they began to enter and spread out, the officer walked over to a desk, where the man had collapsed into the seat. “Anyone else here with you…Detective?” he asked, noting the nameplate on the desk.
“Not any longer,” the Detective said dully. “If you’d gotten here about six hours ago, maybe.”
“Sir, you should come see this,” one of the men called, and the officer left the man alone for a moment; he took one look and hurried back to the desk. “Detective Winslow?” Winslow looked up. “What happened here?”
“What does it look like? A feral got in.”
“I can see that; it’s dead,” the officer said. “Did you shoot it?”
Winslow stared, his disbelief the first emotion he’d displayed. “Of course I did, what do you think? It killed my partner!”
“When did you shoot it?”
“When it attacked my partner!”
“No, I mean what time of day?”
Winslow looked as if he couldn’t believe he was being asked that. “I- it was around eleven last night…”
The officer pursed his lips. “Detective Winslow, that was before the Acting President’s amnesty.” Winslow looked blank, so the officer elaborated; “The Acting President signed a law granting temporary amnesty to anyone who harmed or killed one of the feral cats-”
“And a damn good thing-”
“-but the law only grants amnesty for any acts following the signing of the law into effect,” the officer interrupted. “You killed the feline three hours before the amnesty became law, which means it was still protected by the Feline Protection Act.”
Winslow went a bit pale. “You’re going to arrest me for murder,” he stated flatly.
“Given the circumstances, I’m confident that the charges will be thrown out eventually—if this isn’t self-defense, I don’t know what is,” the officer said with obvious sympathy. “But I have no choice, Detective—this has to be done by the book. Please turn over your firearm,” he added, signaling to two of the Guards. The silent Winslow stood and handed his gun to the officer, who said “Read Mr. Winslow his rights.”
In the middle of the recitation of his Miranda Rights, Winslow interrupted; “Listen, I know who did this!”
“Did what, Mr. Winslow?” the officer asked.
“These fucking cats, that’s what! Felix Barrington, he sent these things here! He told me and Carter that on the phone!”
“Barrington?” The officer’s brow wrinkled. “Who’s that?”
“Do you mean that billionaire?” one of the Guards asked confusedly. When Winslow nodded, the Guard shook his head. “Felix Barrington, who basically saved cats from extinction, released a shit-load of killer cats in Washington DC? Oh, yeah. I’m sure he had a lot to do with it.”
“He sent that cat-” Winslow pointed at the dead cat- “in that crate!” he pointed to an empty crate by the back door, with the lid off. “He hired that dead guy over there, Steve, to drive the thing up here, and when we got the lid off it jumped out and killed Steve and Sarah!”
“Detective Winslow, I think you’re a bit distraught-”
“Of course I’m fucking distraught!” Winslow shouted furiously. “Because that bastard killed Sarah!”
The officer frowned at Winslow’s eruption. “Now I remember. Barrington’s that billionaire philanthropist. You’re saying he set more than three thousand killer cats on Washington DC—personally murdering thousands of people—and then put a cat in the mail to assassinate you.” When Winslow just glowered silently, the officer sighed. “Okay. Repeat this man’s Miranda Rights, and then put him in one of the cells here for now. Mr. Winslow… I’m very sorry about your partner. But I hope you understand that your story—well, you’ll have every chance to tell your story to an impartial jury. In the meantime, you are under arrest for murder in the first degree.”
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