Mr. Luck has been neglected this week in favor of VOTS stuff, but Pas de Chat has been longer neglected in favor of Mr. Luck. The following is a semi-stand-alone except from Ch. 15 of Pas de Chat which will be posted on Sunday, Aug. 29th. So, this is a sneak peek/tease of sorts.
Joanne and the Jaguar
"What kind of kitty-cat are we going to see?" Joanne asked. "A lion or a tiger?"
"I think your daddy said it was a jaguar," said her mother.
"A jaguar?" said Joanne. The word was hard to get her tongue around. "Jaguar," she repeated. "Do they have stripes?" She liked tigers better than lions because of their stripes. And because they were orange. Orange was good, there weren’t too many things that had the same color as Joanne’s hair.
"I think they have spots," said Mom.
Spots. Once again the day held promise and not even a shush from her father could squelch that.
They were standing in front of an area cordoned off by thick red velvet ropes. Beyond the rope there was a podium and a large cage that was covered by a beige sheet. The edge of the sheet moved as though a breath of wind was blowing against it from within. Joanne felt her heart beat a little faster. "Jaguar," she whispered once again to confirm the word.
A man stood next to the cage. He was taller than Joanne’s father, and lean. His face was especially long. His nose came to a hook and it seemed to twitch in time with the movement of the covering sheet. His ears stood out from his face in a way that would have made Billy Walters from school make fun of him. The tall man laid a protective hand on the top of the covered cage as the man with the red flower in his pocket walked up to the podium.
He made a speech, but Joanne ignored him. Outside the sky gave way, and the rain poured against the complex’s roof with a boom of thunder. The man at the podium made some sort of joke that the grow-ups laughed at. The tall man standing by the cage didn’t crack a smile. His eyes roamed the crowd and finally fell on Joanne. Joanne smiled at him. To her surprise the edges of his thin lips raised ever-so-slightly. His eyes shifted to the podium and Joanne decided that she’d pay attention too.
"But we wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for all of you and your generosity. And therefore, each of you primary docents will get the chance to meet the first resident of the Harris-Ellison Cat Complex, face to face."
The weather complemented the man’s words and lightning crashed outside. Thunder never scared Joanne. She knew it was just what happened when it rained sometimes. It was nothing to worry about, her mother had told her, even when the lights went out during a storm. The only thing that Joanne was scared of was the dark thing in the back of her closet and she even doubted that was real sometimes.
The tall man slowly drew off the beige sheet. The cat was smaller than the tigers that Joanne had seen. More like the size of a lion. Maybe smaller. The cat’s fur was beautiful. The markings on the thick orange fur looked like dark flowers to Joanne. One rosette surrounded another; each spot was distinct and dark. It might have been that because Joanne was small that the jaguar stopped and met Joanne’s eyes. The cat’s eyes were pale yellow and glowed in the low light of the complex hallway. Joanne’s heart sped up, and she clutched her mother’s hand tighter, but she didn’t make any effort to hide.
"This is one of the oldest jaguars in captivity. She was captured in the jungles of the Yucatan nearly ten years ago, already an adult," the man with the rose was saying.
After a moment, the jaguar began to move again, pacing around the cage, panting with her pink tongue hanging out. The jaguar’s teeth were a pale yellow color and long.
"And this is Howard Devlin, her caretaker. Howard?" Joanne was vaguely aware that the tall man with the hooked nose, Howard, had taken a step closer, placing himself between the crowd and the jaguar. Her eyes stayed fixed upon the cat.
"I need everyone to do as I say," said Howard Delvin. His voice was rich and accented. He spoke softly, with more authority than Joanne’s father ever brought to bear. "I’m going to open the cage up and lead her out. Then you all may, one by one, have a picture taken. No more than one person at a time. I will be at her side at all times."
Now Joanne’s mom’s hand tightened. "I don’t think this is a good idea," she whispered to her father.
Howard slipped a rope strung through a pole between the bars of the cage. Quickly and easily, he looped the rope around the jaguar’s neck. The cat halted her pace, but otherwise didn’t seem to notice. Howard held on to the pole and slowly opened the cage door. The jaguar paused and then stepped out. She laid her ears flat and surveyed the crowd one more time.
"Well, if you don’t like it you can always leave," said Joanne’s father. His smirk didn’t leave his face. For a moment, Joanne feared that her mother would actually leave.
"I want to see the jaguar," she said. Her mom’s eyes were worried, and Joanne immediately regretted making the statement.
"See," said Father. "My little Jo isn’t afraid." He took Joanne’s other hand and her mother let go reluctantly.
"But he said only one at a time," said her mother.
Her father didn’t hear. He led Joanne to a gap in the velvet cordon. Howard shook his head slightly before they stepped through. "I said one at a time only."
"She’s just a little girl," said her father. "There’s no harm in both of us, together…" His voice lost power under Howard’s head shake.
"One at a time or not at all, sir. She’ll be perfectly safe." Howard leaned down and let his hand rest against the jaguar’s back though he managed to keep the rope and pole taut. The jaguar rested back on her haunches and regarded Mr. Ellison and his daughter.
Her father bent down, but not far enough to look Joanne in the eye. "You want to be the first one to have your picture taken with the kitty, Jo?"
Joanne knew her father wanted her to say yes and her mother wanted her to say no. One of them would be unhappy with her when they returned home. In the end, it was the thick spotted fur of the jaguar that made Joanne’s decision easy. She nodded. "Yes."
"That’s my brave girl," said her father. He patted her cheek and ruffled her hair. From nearby, she heard someone cheer her, ‘That-a-girl!’
"Come here slowly," said Howard. Joanne still found his nose entrancing, but it was the jaguar that she concentrated on. The cat panted again with her tongue out and, like Joanne, seemed oblivious of the thunderous storm that had hit outside. Joanne walked carefully to a spot beside Howard Devlin on the far side from the jaguar. She stopped when Howard held up his hand. "Let her get used to you a little," said Howard, "and be very quiet."
Joanne nodded. Her right foot ached to make the squeaking noise again, but she knew that wouldn’t be a good idea. A short distance away, a man with a large fancy camera knelt down and angled his camera so the red velvet cordon wouldn’t be in the way.
"Alright, come forward. Keep your arms at your sides," said Howard.
Joanne walked forward. Her eyes only strayed from the jaguar long enough to see the muscles in Howard’s arms tense as he held the rope and pole. "You can come a little closer."
The jaguar was sitting, but Joanne was barely taller than the animal. Joanne could see the details of the fur on the cat’s face and the wiry whiskers that surrounded her nose. The patterns of light and dark were delicate and more intricate than the stripes Joanne had seen on a zebra. She desperately wanted to touch the jaguar’s fur. Joanne just knew that it would thick and soft, softer than any stuffed toy she owned. She remembered Howard’s warning though and clutched at her skirt to keep her hands at her side.
The jaguar’s whiskers twitched as they took in Joanne’s scent. There was a low rumble from deep within the cat. "And now turn around for your picture," said Howard.
Joanne slowly turned to face the crowd and her father, but kept the jaguar and Howard in the corner of her eye. She smiled. Thunder rolled over the building as the camera clicked its picture.
Then the lights went out.
Startled sounds came from the crowd, but Joanne stood absolutely still. She could see the slivers of light from the outward facing windows reflected in the jaguar’s eyes. She knew the cat was much closer than when the picture was snapped. Joanne breathed in the heavy smell of jaguar. She reached out her hand and touched fur that was every bit as Joanne thought it would be. Joanne felt the jaguar bump into her and leave a ghost of warmth against her chest and legs. The cat knocked her off-balance and Joanne landed solidly on her butt as though she had abruptly sat down. She was surprised when she felt hot breath against her face and the top of her head.
She stayed very still.