The trail of the cat

(German title: Die Spur der Katze)

Following a traumatic experience that has left her career in tatters, investigative reporter Marisa Pérèz has moved from the Big Apple to rural California in an attempt to put the past behind her and get her life back on track.

Means, a stark-naked stranger bleeding heavily on her porch in the middle of the night hasn't been part of the plan. And Marisa soon begins to wonder whether there is more to her nocturnal visitor than meets the eye. The way he moves, his ability to appear and vanish like a ghost, his extraordinary perceptual capabilities. His eyes, mysterious, hypnotic and captivating, sometimes changing into the eyes of – something else.

And when a dead body turns up in the neighborhood Marisa realizes that the stranger keeps even more secrets. Dark secrets that put her and him in mortal danger.

To save his life and her own, Marisa has no choice but to investigate once more – and she discovers a world far beyond her imagination.


Chapter 1

The Foothills. Mariposa County, California.

Marisa looked up from her book. Angus had left his place at her feet, heading straight towards the door. With the head held alert and the nostrils wide open he stared at the wooden panel, growling deeply in his throat.

Her eyes followed him. This was strange. Usually, there was hardly anything that the old bloodhound would let come between him and his sleep. Besides, moving let alone exercise in any shape or form had never been high on his priority list. Whatever it was, it must have been quite something to make him give up cherished old habits.

 The growling grew louder, his blunt claws started scratching at the bottom rail.

"Angus, stop it!"

She didn't really care about the woodwork. It was just that, not too long ago, Angus had somehow managed to rip out one of his claws and she had to take him to the vet clinic in town. As far as she was concerned there wasn't a more sobering sight on this planet than a deeply suffering bloodhound. Apart from a rather hefty vet bill, that is.

Bleary dog eyes gave her the briefest of looks. After which the concerto went on. Barking. Whining. Yelping. Whatever canine cords could produce. Marisa put her book aside and pressed both hands on her ears.

"Shut up!" she ordered sharply. For Christ's sake, what was wrong with this dog?

With a deep sigh Marisa hauled herself out of her chair, planted herself in front of the dog in what she hoped was at least somewhat resembling a posture of authority. Looking straight back at her, Angus produced another blood-curdling howl reverberating through the house.

Marisa started to feel nervous. She had never seen him acting like this during the three months she'd been taking care of the dog. Sure, no one should speak ill of the dead. But once more she was asking herself what the heck Juan Pérèz had been thinking by assuming that she of all people was the appropriate person to look after Angus. She'd never owned a pet in her life, not even a Goldfish. And with good reason.

And to be entirely honest, as soon as she'd received the letter from the administrators of the estate of her late great uncle she'd considered giving him to an animal shelter. The only thing that had kept her from doing so was because she knew that Angus would have been put down within a couple of weeks. And she certainly didn't want to have this on her conscience.

Great. Why didn't dogs come with a user manual? Or a main switch?

 

She put her hand on his massive head. "Calm down, old boy. There's nothing to get excited about!" It was like talking to one of the stuffed animals they sold in Jack's Superstore in town. And the response was pretty much the same.

"Angus! Food!" Resorting to bribery might just do the trick. Under normal circumstances she would have found herself on the ground, run over by Angus on his way into the kitchen.

Not this time. His eyes stayed firmly fixed on the door, the hair in his neck bristled.

Very well. If he wanted to play hardball, fine with her. She could play that way, too. Marisa slid her hand under his collar, trying to pull him away from the door. In vain. 110 pounds of canine stubbornness didn't move an inch. Angus gave her a look, his eyes almost mocking her. Don't even try it, old girl, they seemed to say, you won't stand a chance.

She sighed. Time to put a stop to these shenanigans and get a good night's sleep.

"For heaven's sake, Angus!" she snapped. "If you don't..."

She was cut short by a loud rumbling noise on the porch. Her gaze riveted on the door panel as if she had some sort of X-ray vision, enabling her to the pinpoint the source through three fingers of solid wood. Angus was at her side, his body tense, his long ears tilted, his head up in alert. Something was out there on the porch.

Fear took hold of her, running like ice-water through her veins. She listened intensely. Instead of scolding Angus for his behavior she should have been asking herself all along why her dog was making such a fuss in the first place. She startled when Angus started barking again. One hand pressed on her pounding heart, she tried to calm him down. How was she supposed to keep an ear out if he was making such a racket?

Furthermore, and considering that Angus had been in full flow for quite a while, shouldn't any intruder have legged it by now? So, why didn't Angus stop? Every fiber of his powerful body was still tense, his flanks trembling in agitation as if he was ready to strike.

Once more, all this made her aware of the fact that she was living in a rather remote rural location despite it was only a couple of miles to the outskirts of Mariposa. There were only a few and far between settlements in this part of the district. If something should happen to her, no one would notice.

Marisa straightened. No time for regrets. She had made her bed and now had to lay in it. It was her who, in an attempt to put as much distance between her and everything that had taken place in New York, had chosen to move to the middle of nowhere, to find privacy, tranquility and peace. And she had succeeded, didn't she? After all, California was as far away from New York as it gets.

Memories of her life in the metropolis flashed through her mind - the buzz in the newsroom, the excitement after seeing her byline below yet another 40 point header on the front page - and, of course, Ben. She shook off the thought, frowning. Ben. That lousy, cheating son of a b...

Another deafening howl of her canine companion brought her back to the present. She had to take action. Ringing 911, for example. However, calling the cops and subsequently everything turning out to be a false alarm would make her look like a city slicker. She would be the laughing stock of the entire district. Besides, when it came to law enforcement as a whole she'd pretty much made up her mind. Especially after the circumstances surrounding Ben.

No. The cops weren't an option. She would try to be a big girl now. And big girls took care of themselves. After all, she'd spent her whole life in New York City.

Marisa stepped to the window. Slowly pulling the curtain aside, she peeked out, giving her eyes time to adjust to the pallid light. As far as she was aware, nobody was there. Just when she was about to turn away from the window, she noticed that something had moved in one of the darkest corners of the porch. She looked again. Yes, there was definitely something hiding there. Judging from the size of what she could see it must be an animal. A rather large animal, almost the size of a child. She paused and considered for a moment. Then, and with rather unsteady hands, she opened the drawer of a pinewood chest and took out the stun gun - a remnant of her days in the Big Apple.

Back at the door, she grabbed Angus tightly by the collar. If somebody out there should indeed be up to no good, she would set him free. What she didn't want though was letting him get into any kind of dog fight, or worse, allowing him to go after an innocent human.

Taking a deep breath, she quickly opened the door whilst desperately trying to hold back Angus who was pulling frantically towards the part of the porch where she had noticed the movement. In an attempt to regain control, Marisa planted her feet firmly on the polished floor panels. As she was wearing her slippers, she didn't stand a chance. Angus who'd caught the scent of, well, whatever it was, was simply dragging her with him. She nearly dropped the gun. Against the dark wooden background of the floor, her eyes were able to make out something lighter - the silhouette she had observed through the window.

After a couple of steps, Angus stopped and started growling warningly. His reaction frightened her deeply and she had to try hard to steady her nerves.

Angus kept his nose close to the ground but then turned his head, looking at her almost bewilderedly, as if the scent he'd been tracking just a second ago had suddenly vanished. Marisa used the opportunity to step in front of him. Slowly, and step by step, she moved toward the shape in the shadow.

She noticed small puddles of dark fluid on the floor. Something told her not to step into them.

What the heck was going on?

She narrowed her eyes and stepped closer. Whatever it was, it didn't move. Keeping a safe distance between her and this thing, she crouched to have a closer look.

She gasped. The contorted silhouette was human - the light coming through the window from inside revealed the bare skin of an arm.

Putting all caution aside, Marisa approached the body, went down on her knees, stretching out her hand. And stopped abruptly.

What if this was a corpse? A cold shiver went down her spine. She had a vivid recollection of how a dead body felt. Something she would never forget. The skin still warm but already turned pale, the twisted limbs...

"For goodness' sake, Pérèz, don't be such a pathetic wimp!" she mumbled to herself. After all, this wasn't New York. Out here, homicides were an exception, not the rule. So, a dead body turning up on her porch wasn't very likely, was it?

Nevertheless, she felt the urge to simply hurry back inside and bolt the door firmly behind her. However, she knew perfectly well that this wasn't an option.

The chilly night breeze made her shiver.

Hesitantly, she put her hand on the arm. To her relief, she felt a tiny movement. She straightened, sitting on her heels. Now what? Wrap whoever it was in blankets and call an ambulance? Or even the cops? Marisa grimaced. Certainly not the cops. Not if she could help it. Which inevitably meant that she had to somehow revive the corp...well, him. Or her.

Marisa grabbed the shoulder and shook it lightly. "Are you okay?"

The response was a deep groan, muscles twitching under her hand. Alright. Definitely male - although all she could see at the moment was an arm, the rest was still hidden in the shadows.

Something was touching her from behind, giving her almost a heart attack. She jumped.

Angus! She should have guessed. Marisa pushed his head away.

"Back inside. I'll be with you in a sec."

As usual, the bloodhound took his time to consider her order, eventually deciding to retreat a couple of steps and lay down beside the door step. For once, his disobedience didn't bother her at all. It was reassuring that he was close by. Just in case.

Her attention turned back to the human body on the porch. Her lips one tight line, she stretched out her hand again, her fingers felt their way along his shoulder until they reached something that felt like stubble.

 "Wake up!" she urged him, patting his cheek, although less gently than during her previous attempt.

The stranger turned over at lightning speed. Frightened to the core, Marisa backed off, lost her balance and landed on her rear side, staring at him incredulously. He was stark naked.

[...] 

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Blurb and English Translation of chapter 1 by H Fischer, NetWords Unlimited, Cambridge, UK
Deutscher Text: © EGMONT Verlagsgesellschaften mbH, LYX 2010