Authors: Scarlett Grove
Copyright © 2016 by Scarlett Grove
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he jaguar prowled
on silent feet through the dense, misty forest. The moonless sky was covered in a haze of clouds, blocking out even the light from the stars. The jaguar sniffed the air as she approached the mansion grounds. She’d studied the security system and knew that there were no alarms that could detect her movements.
As she emerged from the forest and took her first delicate steps into the dew-covered lawn, her ears pricked at the sound of an owl hooting behind her from the wood. She paused, standing still as a statue in the inky darkness. Her feline eyes made out the back entrance of the mansion across the expansive lawn. Knowing she was undetected, she picked up the pace, trotting over at the damp grass until she came to the back porch of the mansion.
Examining the balcony above the back exit, the jaguar stopped again, opening her senses to any change in her environment. All was still and silent. It was safe to proceed. Her body tensed, her muscles coiling as she prepared to launch herself up the vine-covered lattice. With an explosive jump, she flew up the lattice and was soon on top of the balcony. She stopped again, her feline senses taking in every chirp of a grasshopper and vibrating leaf in the wind.
This rural mansion had very little security. Being so deep in the mountains, the owners believed they were safe from predators like her. But they couldn’t be more wrong. The jaguar tasted the air with her tongue, panting silently in the cool night air. She prowled around the balcony until she came to a side window that led into an empty room in the mansion.
Over the last six months, she had studied everything she could find about the owner, the grounds, and the security of the mansion. As much as the jaguar wanted out of her life as a thief, she knew she had to do this one last job. If she could pay back Dima for her mistake, she could finally be free of him and everything he represented.
She peered through the dark glass into the empty room, ensuring that it was safe to continue. When she was satisfied, she pressed her sharp claws against the windowpane and began to rotate her paw in a perfect circle. When she had scratched through the glass, she carefully extended her claws around the circle and pulled it silently out of the window. After setting it on the floor at her feet, she reached in through the window and flicked open the lock.
With the window unlocked and her route into the mansion clear, the jaguar sat back on her hind legs. In a silent scream of contorting muscles and ripping tendons, the jaguar shifted. Her body lost its fur. Her limbs lengthened and her skin grew smooth and tan. A mane of long black hair framed her curves. Her animal eyes and senses on high alert, she checked her surroundings. She was still alone and undetected.
Pressing her hands to the glass, making sure that the pads of her fingers were shifted so as not to leave any detectable fingerprints, she pushed the window open. The naked woman slipped into the dark room and took several long breaths to calm herself. She was so tired of doing this. Becoming a jewel thief had never been part of the plan. She had just wanted to feel the excitement of being with a man like him.
She knew he wasn’t her fated mate, but that didn’t mean anything to her young woman’s heart. All she had known was that Dima was the most powerful, sexy man she’d ever met. When he had asked her to join his entourage, she had gladly agreed. It hadn’t taken long for them to end up in bed together. But soon after that, he had started asking her to do things for him she never should have agreed to.
It wasn’t that she didn’t know he was a criminal. But she had been naïve enough to believe that his criminal activity wouldn’t affect her. She couldn’t have been more wrong.
And now, here she was, breaking into this house in the middle of the night like a dyed-in-the-wool criminal herself. She couldn’t allow her shame to get in the way of the job she had to do. It was the only way she could buy her freedom and move on with her life.
Once inside the empty room, she padded across the antique Oriental rug and came to the chest of drawers that was her target. She’d been studying this chest since she’d arrived on Fate Mountain. This chest was the entire reason she had come here in the first place. Or rather, its contents were.
Seven months ago, the owner of the mansion had bought this antique Louis the Fifteenth chest at a Sotheby’s auction in San Francisco. At that very same auction, Dima had overheard the mansion owner saying she would use the chest for her jewelry collection when she arrived in Oregon this month. That’s when he had sent her to Fate Mountain to study how to get into the secret compartment and steal the woman’s jewels.
Most people in this day and age put their valuables in safes. But Caitlin Somerset was not an ordinary billionaire heiress. She lived in a world of fantasy where it was still the 18th-century and she was some kind of European aristocrat.
However, Caitlin Somerset was actually a retired swimsuit model. She had inherited her money from her elderly oil tycoon husband who had passed away only three years ago. The mansion in the Oregon mountains was a vacation home for Caitlin, but it was also the place where the heiress stored most of her antiques. Namely the secret compartment Louis the Fifteenth chest of drawers.
The woman pulled the bottom drawer out of the chest and silently set it on the floor. It was pitch black inside the room so she had to shift her eyes into their feline form to allow her to see. Under the drawer was the metal-plated compartment. It looked like an ordinary shelf to an untrained eye, but the woman knew it was much more than that.
She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. This was what she had been studying and training to do for the last six months. The chest was the eighteenth century equivalent of a secured safe. The compartment had a keyhole that took an old fashioned key. Caitlin obviously had it hidden somewhere within the mansion. But the woman didn’t need the key, not with the knowledge she had acquired during her time on Fate Mountain. If she used her claw to bust the lock, it would just trigger a mechanism that made it impossible to get inside the chest.
She studied the angles and joints of the wood, looking for the exact groove she needed to begin opening the compartment. Once she had located the correct spot, she extended one claw and pressed it to the groove. Nothing happened. She cursed internally and pressed harder. Finally, she heard a faint pop and let out the breath she was holding. Once she had one side loosened, she was able to do the same thing on the three other corners.
Getting into the safe wasn’t that easy. Even with a jaguar’s sharp claws and superhuman strength, she still had more work to do. Extending her claws from both hands, she pressed them into the seam between the wood and the metal, slowly removing it from the chest. With the metal piece free, she pulled it out and set it on the floor beside her. Now all that was left was wood that her claws could easily scratch.
The woman pulled her hands out of the chest of drawers and slid one under the bottom, pressing up against the secret compartment from below. She heard another faint pop and the entire compartment was freed from the chest. She slowly pulled it out and tapped at the side that had once been against the back of the chest. It fell open and she was able to get inside. She reached in, not feeling anything. She cursed silently.
Dima had been so sure that Caitlin Somerset was storing jewels in this chest. She could not fail this mission. If she did, the consequences would be dire. She knew what Dima did to people who failed him, and he had already given her a second chance. She doubted he would give her a third.
Just when she was about to go into panic mode, she felt a soft velvety bag in the corner of the box. She pulled it out, not stopping to check the contents. Once she had what she’d come for, she hurried out the window, clutched the bag in her teeth, and silently shifted into her animal form.
Within seconds she was down to the ground level, trotting off through the misty, damp lawn and into the forest. The owl hooted again as she passed, the yellow light of dawn slowly turning the inky blackness into a hazy gray.
With her trophy in her mouth, the jaguar galloped through the brightening forest, praying that this one last job would be enough to buy her freedom.
olice Commander Rollo Morris
stood over remains of the Louis the Fifteenth chest and cupped his clean shaven chin in his hand. His forensics specialist, Damien Fellows, otherwise known as Tech Bear to his crew, snapped photographs of the crime scene.
As soon as he’d entered the room, Rollo had picked up the faintest scent that had made his inner bear rumble with need. He took a long pull of the dissipating scent, and his bear grumbled. It didn’t make any sense why his bear would be growing excited in the middle of a crime scene so Rollo put it out of his mind.
“I just can’t believe this happened,” whimpered the homeowner Caitlin Somerset.
She stood in the middle of the room wearing a frilly yellow house robe that looked like it belonged in Edwardian times. Her bleached blonde hair was piled up in a messy bun on top of her head and her brown eyes looked watery as if she had just been crying.
Rollo groaned inwardly, wondering why the woman had placed her valuables in an antique rather than in a safe like a normal person. But he had heard plenty of stories about the eccentric heiress and already knew the answer to that question. As the Fate Mountain police commander, Rollo Morris would do his utmost to recover her jewels and close this case.
“Who knew that you stored your jewels in this chest of drawers?” Rollo asked.
“No one,” Caitlin said, putting her hand to her heart.
“Are you sure about that?” Rollo asked, crossing his arms over his muscled chest.
Damien continued snapping photographs, looking more like a photographer in his black, hipster street clothes than the police officer he was. Damien then pulled on a pair of purple rubber gloves up to his tattooed arm, and began dusting for prints.
Rollo removed a notebook from the back pocket of his dark blue police uniform to take down notes on his interview with the shaken homeowner.
“Okay, maybe some people know that I like using my antiques for their original purposes. But we’re in the middle of nowhere. How could I have anticipated I would be robbed? My property is surrounded by a fifty miles of wilderness on every side. The front of the property has six-foot-tall electric fencing all around the perimeter. And the chest was in a second story bedroom. Who could possibly have gotten in here?”
“We’ll find out soon,” Damien said, kneeling beside the chest where he dusted for prints.
“Have you found anything?” Rollo asked.
“I haven’t found any prints yet, but I’ll take everything back to the lab and get a closer look,” Damien said.
“Is there anything else you can tell me about last night. Did you hear any noises? Are there any unusual guests in the house? Any new staff members?” Rollo asked.
“No, nothing like that. Last night was a perfectly ordinary night. I came in from New York and landed my private jet at the Portland airport before taking the helicopter up to my landing pad on the property. When I arrived, I stored my favorite jewels in the chest before bed and then went to sleep like any other night. I don’t know how anyone would even know that I had done that. Do you think someone is watching me?”
“Obviously, someone is studying your movements. That seems to be clear. Whoever stole your jewels knew exactly how to get into a secret compartment in an antique chest of drawers. We aren’t dealing with an ordinary low-level criminal here. This heist was well-planned. If you have any insight into who might be stalking you, then please let me know. It would be very helpful to getting to the bottom of this case and retrieving your stolen items.”
“Well it may be nothing but…”
“Anything is going to help, ma’am,” Rollo said, beginning to grow irritated.
Caitlin had insisted from the beginning that nobody would know anything about her movements, her jewels, or her chest. Obviously she had not been forthcoming.
“When I bought this chest at the Sotheby’s auction, I did mention that I wanted to use it for its original purpose. Come to think of it, I had purchased the black diamond necklace at the same auction. Do you think someone might have overheard me?”
“It’s very possible. Damien, when we get back to the station I want you to look into the registered attendance at that particular Sotheby’s auction.”
“You got it, commander,” Damien said.
“Ms. Somerset, I need a list of every item that was stolen and its approximate value.”
As Damien finished up gathering evidence from the crime scene, Rollo took statements from the staff, hoping to rule them out as suspects. The expertly carved hole in the window glass suggested that the mansion had been broken into the night before. The staff who lived and worked at the mansion would not need to break in from the outside. However, stranger things had been known to happen when employees decided to rob their employers.
Rollo questioned the cook, the maids, the housekeeper, and the groundskeeper. When he had all of their statements he met Damien back out at his police SUV as the Tech Bear was loading his equipment in the back.
“What do you make of this?” Damien asked.
“Loose lips sink ships,” Rollo said.
Caitlin was a notorious blabbermouth who gave interviews and constantly talked about her extravagant lifestyle. Rollo had done the briefest amount of research into the heiress before coming up to investigate the crime scene. Any number of criminals could have known exactly where to find her jewelry.
“She had reason to believe she was safe though,” Damien said, opening the passenger seat of the black SUV with ‘Fate Mountain police’ emblazoned in yellow across the side.
“Whoever stole the jewelry was either an employee or hiked in through the wilderness,” Rollo said, climbing behind the wheel.
“That’s an awfully long hike for an ordinary person,” Damien said.
“A fifty-mile hike is a short distance for a million dollars-worth of jewelry,” Rollo said.
“So we’re looking for somebody who can hike fifty miles in the dark, climb up to a second-story window, and silently slice a perfect hole into glass. Not to mention expertly removing items from a piece of antique furniture.”
“That about sums it up,” Rollo said.
“We’ll have more information once I get this evidence back to the lab.”
Rollo turned around in the circular drive and made his way out towards the main road that would lead him back down into Fate Mountain Village. The Douglas fir trees passed by outside the black tinted windows of the SUV.
“I have to say, this is a first for me as police commander,” Rollo said.
“That isn’t saying much,” Damien said as he stared at his laptop and clicked away on the keyboard. “You’ve only been commander for two years.”
“And ever since I took the position, crime rates have been increasing,” Rollo said, gripping the steering wheel.
“You can’t blame yourself for that, Commander. Since shifters returned from the war and began settling on Fate Mountain, everything is different. Some humans are uncomfortable with shifters taking positions of power now; that’s all it is.”
“It doesn’t help that the police chief and most of the police department is run by shifters,” Rollo said.
“The world is changing, Commander,” Damien said. “The humans will have to get used to us being on equal terms with them eventually.”
“The Shifter Equality Act was supposed to take care of that, but we all know that human prejudice runs much deeper than any act of Congress.”
The Shifter Equality Act had guaranteed shifters the same rights and privileges as humans. It also protected them from harassment and persecution. Before the war, the world had been much different for shifters. They’d suffered for years after the Great Shifter Council announced their existence to humans. Shifters suffered everything from segregation to police brutality. Life had been hard for Rollo’s generation, growing up.
“But things are getting better,” Damien said. “Just look at all the guys who are mating with human women nowadays. You know Corey Bright started that shifter/human dating website called Mate.com, right?”
“I’ve heard of it.”
“Have you signed up yet?”
Rollo took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He had signed up for Mate.com over two years ago when the site had been released. That was when he had first come back to Fate Mountain and was then appointed police commander. But over the last two years, no matter how many times Rollo checked the app on his phone, he still hadn’t been matched with his fated mates.
“I signed up a long time ago. Hasn’t done me any good,” Rollo said.
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir.”
“Have you signed up?” Rollo asked.
“No. I don’t think I’m so ready for a mate. I’ve got a lot of things going on in my life right now, and I just don’t think that a mate would mesh with my private work.”
“Private work?” Rollo asked.
Rollo knew that Damien was a tech whiz and a bit of a hacker. Those skills proved valuable for the police department. But Damien was secretive about what he did in his free time. Rollo suspected that it wasn’t one hundred percent above board. But he and Damien and the rest of the Bear Patrol had been a crew for a long time.
They had all served in special forces during the war. Rollo had led them back then and led them again now after they’d settled on Fate Mountain. He would not question Damien’s ‘hobbies’. He owed his friend that much respect.
“I can’t really talk about it. But I have important work that requires privacy and focus. A mate would just get in the way of that.”
“We all have important work to do. We’re the police department,” Rollo said.
When shifter draft required all male shifters between the ages of eighteen and forty to join the military, Rollo had gone off to war to fight for his country and left behind his career as a police detective in San Francisco. After the war, he and his crew settled at on Fate Mountain and got jobs at the police department. Rollo had not expected to be appointed police commander only a few months after joining the force. But that’s the way things had worked out.
Now, instead of being a detective, he was in charge of the whole department. But Rollo was used to leadership. He’d been the commander in his crew’s special forces unit in the Marines. When they had all been discharged after the war, they’d decided to settle in the burgeoning new shifter community in Fate Mountain Village.
Rollo pulled up to the police department, and he and Damien got out of the SUV. Damien grabbed his forensics case from the back of the car and carried it into the police department behind Rollo. The dispatcher greeted him from the front desk as he and Damien made their way into the back offices of the police station. There was a wide open room where his crew each had their own desks.
“I’m going to get this evidence to the lab,” Damien said lifting his forensics case as he continued through the offices towards the small forensics laboratory.
“Let me know as soon as you find anything,” Rollo said.
Rollo saw movement out of the corner of his eye from behind the glass door of his office. He turned toward his office door, tilting his head curiously when he found his deputy inside with a young man Rollo had never seen before.
“Commander,” Deputy Knox Carter said as Rollo entered the office.
Knox was giving Rollo one of his shit eating grins that told Rollo his second in command was up to something. Rollo circled around to sit behind his desk and regarded the two men in front of him.
“What is it, Knox?” Rollo asked. “Who is your friend?”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Commander Morris,” the young man said, standing to shake Rollo’s hand.
“Sir, this is Heath Reynolds. He’s just finished up his high school diploma and initial law enforcement training at the Bright Institute for Shifters,” Knox explained.
“And let me guess, you want to join the police department,” Rollo said, bringing his hands up together in front of him to form a triangle.
“It’s all I’ve wanted to do as long as I can remember, sir,” Heath said, his youthful face full of youthful enthusiasm.
Heath was a young man, but far too mature looking to be a high school student. The man had the hardened muscle and the square jaw of a man who’d seen more of life than a teenager possibly could.
“You don’t look like a high school student,” Rollo said, inspecting the young man’s face. He looked as if he was at least twenty-five. “What were you doing getting a high school diploma at the Bright Institute?”
“I had to drop out of school before the war to take care of my mother. After she died, I’d planned to go back and get my GED. But then the war broke out and the shifter draft was instated. The military didn’t care that I didn’t have a diploma since I am a shifter. I served my country for four years. When I came back home, I couldn’t get a job in law enforcement because I didn’t have a high school diploma. I spent a few years doing odd jobs and trying to recover from my experiences overseas. That’s when I heard about the Bright Institute for Shifters. I signed up and was accepted to the first class six months ago. I’ve since completed my high school education and the initial law enforcement training. I have official certifications of each. I came in here today to speak with you about joining the force.”
“Well, it looks like you have all of the primary requirements to become a member of the Fate Mountain Police Department,” Rollo said.
“Otherwise affectionately known as Bear patrol,” Deputy Knox said.
“It’s true, most of the officers on the force our bears. We served together as a special forces unit in the Marines during the war. It sounds like you will fit right in here.”
“Thank you, sir,” he said.
Rollo sniffed the air, trying to make out what kind of bear Heath was behind his human façade. “Grizzly or polar?” Rollo asked.
“Grizzly,” Heath said.
“So Gauge is still going to be the only polar bear on the crew,” Knox said.
“Where is Gauge anyway?” Rollo asked Knox. “He hasn’t reported in today.”
“You know Gauge,” Knox said.
Rollo did know Gauge. Detective Gauge Stockwell had been the loose cannon of the bunch ever since their early days in the Marines. Now, as a gifted detective for the Fate Mountain Police Department, Gauge still played by his own rules. But that wasn’t something that Rollo wanted to talk about in front of a new recruit. He had to project an air of absolute authority to the new guy. Rollo couldn’t have a cadet questioning his status as alpha of the Bear Patrol.