The Cage: Kali's Voyage

By Andrew Anzur Clement, PhD

 

Harare, Zimbabwe

April 2003

“Congratulations.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Kali retracted his hand from where the aging government official who’d just offered him his first job had finished shaking it. The young man’s features projected an air of eager confidence.

The deputy minister for Lands and Land Reform continued to look at Kali, who’d just become his auditing assistant. “You’ve come a long way, getting to this position. Tomorrow, though, your real work begins.”

The minister reached into his desk as he spoke. He extracted a thick file folder and handed it to the dark-skinned young man.

“You’d do well to have a look at these. I need the redistribution reports audited and filed by noon tomorrow. And make sure you take out that piercing when you’re at the office. It isn’t professional. I’ll see you at nine sharp tomorrow morning.”

Kali made a show of sighing earnestly as he squirmed in the suit he wore. I haven’t even had the job for five minutes and that damn thing is already causing me grief,he thought, knowing he’d have to disobey his new boss’s request. The bone carving that protruded from his left nostril was part of who he was; he couldn’t take it out.

“Thank you again, sir.”

He forced as much of a smile onto his face as he could. After a moment, his supervisor returned to work as if his new assistant were no longer there. Kali began to leave the older man’s office. There was a knock on the door.

“Come in.”

As the door swung open, the young Zimbabwean’s eyes took in a couple of other ministry workers, along with a trolley. Ten or twelve ratty cardboard boxes rested upon it.

“Excuse me, sir, but the files you asked to be brought from the acquisition and transfers department warehouse have arrived,” the one who was pushing the cart explained.

Kali turned back to the minister, mindful to keep his movements slow enough to prevent anyone from becoming suspicious about his nature. The minister stood behind his desk. He gave the two functionaries his undivided attention.

“Please, put them anywhere.”

He gestured to the office space with his right hand. The two men offloaded the boxes to the right of the minister’s desk, evidently assuming his gesture to mean that was really where the man wanted them to be.

“Will that be all, sir?”

“Yes. Please make sure to shut the door on your way out.”

As soon as the sound of the latch clicking into place reached his ears, the deputy minister walked toward the nearest of the boxes. He opened it, extracting what Kali could identify as a ream of U.S. hundred-dollar bills. The man flipped through them with his right thumb. Kali’s eyes widened.

“Sir, if I may ask, why did all this money get delivered to your office?”

The minister smiled cryptically.

“We do great work here at the ministry. Have a look at that folder. You’ll see.”

Kali hefted the folder under his right arm. He didn’t know much about the minutiae of the land redistribution policy he now had to get familiar with, nor did he really have much of an opinion about what the ministry or his boss did with the farms they acquired by mandatory sale. Those things had nothing to do with the predicament that required him to be there.

“Yes, sir. I’ll do that. See you tomorrow.”

Kali turned and left the minister’s office, dreading the task he’d now have to perform for the rest of the evening. He made his way down two flights of stairs and reached the ministry’s main entrance. As he exited into the balmy weather of late afternoon in Zimbabwe’s capital, Kali’s brown eyes spotted exactly what he knew would be there.

A black Mercedes SUV, all of its windows tinted, sat parked directly in front of the ministry’s main entrance. It was positioned so that Kali would have to spend the shortest possible amount of time on a public street. This was the latest element in the deception his entire life had become since he had been allowed to leave his family’s compound. He approached the car, finding that he wanted nothing more than to get back to the compound now.

At least inside, he could exist as himself.

The SUV’s back-left door shot open as Kali reached for the handle. He almost dropped the file folder in his hand. Kali’s sensitive ears registered a familiar voice, though not one he’d expected to emanate from inside the vehicle’s cabin.

“Hey, Kali. It’s just me. What’s got you so jumpy all of a sudden?”

“What are you doing here, M’Rua?” Kali growled. “There’s no way Dad gave you permission to leave the compound. What if someone sees you?”

“Oh, come on. I hitched a ride. You know Tobias is cool with it.” Kali’s younger sibling cocked his head to indicate the car’s driver. “Besides, since when did you get so worked up about this stuff?”

“It’s not worth the risk. What if there’s an accident and you’re injured? You could lose consciousness. Then where would we be?”

“The same thing could happen to you on the way home. Mom and Dad said you were ready to leave.”

The older of the two siblings shook his head. “They also only started telling people you were born a couple of years ago. What you’re doing isn’t responsible.”

“Not responsible?” M’Rua, who looked about twelve, jerked his head back. “Kali, what’s with you? It’s like you finally get to leave home and all of a sudden you’re more stodgy than Dad.”

“It’s the way we have to live. There’s no choice. You’ve been taught that from as young of an age as I have.”

“And you know how much we both wanted out anyway. I’m almost glad for you; you’re finally old enough.”

“Yeah, being out of the compound’s great. Absolutely wonderful.” Kali rolled his eyes and moved to enter the car’s interior.

His brother’s slight frame stopped him. M’Rua placed his left hand on Kali’s shoulder. He stared quizzically into his older sibling’s eyes, both concern and confusion evident in his features.

“Hey, what’s eating at you?” M’Rua’s voice kept its customary cheer.

Kali tried to push past him. “How about an irritating little brother?”

M’Rua didn’t budge.

“Come on, so I hitched a ride. We used to pull this stuff all the time.”

Kali frowned in nostalgic disappointment.

He’s right. We did, the older of the two reflected, recalling the various shenanigans he’d gotten into with his little brother over their decades-long childhoods.

“Dad is right. It’s not worth the…”

M’Rua pushed past him. He leapt a good meter onto the steps of the ministry, sticking the landing with both feet. He took a few steps, then turned back to look at his older brother.

Kali took a few steps toward him.

“M’Rua, get back in the car.”

“C’mon.”

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“On a walk.”

Kali stepped in front of him, speaking in a low tone. “M’Rua, that’s a bad idea.”

“What? We did this a couple of times before.”

“And got our TV privileges revoked. Besides, this city’s even more of a trash-choked mess now than it was then.”

Kali’s little brother smirked, tossing his dark red hair around him. Both his unusually light skin tone, and the fact that he’d exited the SUV by jumping over a meter onto the pavement, made him stand out in the busy chaos of the street around them, in ways Kali was now aware M’Rua didn’t realize.

“Oh, come on, you know our adventures were worth it,” M’Rua taunted after a moment.

He turned, pointing to the dusty slew of rickshaws, cars, and animal carts that defined the trash-strewn street below.

“Yeah, they totally were. Now get back in the car.”

Instead of listening, M’Rua turned and began walking in the opposite direction. The plain T-shirt and sweatpants Kali knew to be a part of his brother’s humanoid form seemed to flutter in the slight breeze. Not knowing what else to do, Kali followed.

“M’Rua, I mean it.”

“It’ll be fine, Kali. What are you so worried about?”

M’Rua leapt back towards his brother in one lightning-fast gesture. He tugged on Kali’s left arm.

“M’Rua…”

“Come on, Kali. If I don’t listen, what are you going to do? Change forms and tackle me in the middle of Harare?”

“Come on, Kali. If I don’t listen, what are you going to do? Change forms and tackle me in the middle of Harare?”

Kali sighed in resignation. “Just quit moving so fast. It looks unnatural.”

M’Rua rolled his eyes. “God, will you lighten up, already? Nobody noticed. Let’s go.”

Kali hesitated for a moment. Eventually, Kali gave a wave to the driver and mouthed the words “train station.” Like the rest of the compound’s help, the man came from a family that had been trusted to keep the secret of Kali’s family for over four decades.

“M’Rua, why can’t you listen?” Kali asked, catching up to him.

“Me? We’re ‘irrepressible little scamps,’ remember?”

Kali’s brother used a phrase initially coined by their rapidly aging human mother, in a way she hadn’t intended. He smiled up hopefully at his older sibling.

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

The two kept walking briskly past the Harare Gardens, taking in the world around them. After four more cross streets, they turned on another wide thoroughfare that passed the bus station and eventually led near the rail station’s cargo yard, before turning toward the passenger terminal. As their walk drew to a close, Kali felt a tug on his left hand.

“Come on. You’ve been able to live out here for the past four months. Show me around a little?”

Kali looked at the ground.

“Yeah, sure,” he whispered eventually, fully intending to walk his brother the rest of the way to the train station and reload him into the Mercedes.

M’Rua stopped, causing Kali to do so as well. The young boy moved to stand in front of his sibling. His eyes narrowed.

“Seriously, Kali, what’s the matter with…?”

Both of their heads snapped to the left at the sound of a muffled explosion, followed by the sound of gunfire emanating from the dark aperture of an alleyway across the street. The din of Harare’s center kept on around them; no one else cast a look in the alleyway’s direction. Only Kali’s and M’Rua’s sensitive hearing had distinguished the sound from the surrounding commotion. M’Rua began to cross the street. His older brother grabbed for his shoulder.

“It’s nothing. Just keep walking,” Kali snapped, still hefting the file folder from the ministry under his other arm.

His brother looked up at him for a moment. An expression of mischievous excitement played across his features. He turned and leapt clear across the street, in the direction of the dark alleyway. Kali noticed some people down the block staring at his brother’s unnatural action. Thankfully, none moved in M’Rua’s direction. They’d gotten lucky. Kali crossed the street at a normal pace, catching up with his sibling. He bent down slightly so that they stood face-to-face.

“Running towards the explosion is quite possibly the dumbest thing you could do in this situation. And what did I say about moving like that?”

M’Rua smiled and leapt again, sticking his landing just inside the alleyway. He turned. “Relax, nobody’s coming after me. Besides, sounds like there’s something going on.”

“Dammit, M’Rua. This is life, not your own personal movie.”

M’Rua turned again. He ran down the alley in a blur of motion. Kali noticed that it was thankfully—if weirdly—empty.

Kali sighed, this time discovering that he was smiling in spite of himself. He hesitated for a few seconds and then broke into a run, following his brother down the pathway.

The entrance of the darkened alleyway fell behind him; Kali choked on dust as he ran. The place was even more cluttered with trash than the rest of the city. It stank. But he felt exhilarated. His chest began to heave. The pile of files chafed under his right arm.

His ears tensed. The sounds of gunfire and exploding munitions grew louder. Kali and M’Rua rounded a bend and then ran through a field next to the train tracks, before arriving at a cluster of warehouses. They entered, turning corner after corner, nearing the sounds’ source.

As they ran along the side of a one-story warehouse near the train station’s cargo yard, Kali again noticed that the area was oddly deserted for the time of day. It was as if the vicinity surrounding the building they were passing had been evacuated but not cordoned off. The lack of people had worked in their favor up until now, allowing Kali and his brother to utilize the full extent of their speed and strength. It also made Kali worry about what kind of trouble they could be getting involved in, despite his excitement.

M’Rua was about to round another corner, but he came up short just before doing so. Kali caught up to him. His brother peeked around the corner.

“What is it?” Kali whispered in a tone soft enough to ensure that only his brother’s sensitive ears could hear.

“Cops, I think.”

Kali hesitated. “M’Rua, we’re going back.”

“Come on, Kali. We’re this close.”

“Messing with the police is a bad idea, particularly in our case.”

“Really? You think I’m that stupid?” M’Rua looked at him sardonically. Then he shrugged, smiling. “If we jump up on top of that building, we can look down on the whole fight.”

M’Rua directed his left hand to the warehouse, which had a decaying section of scaffolding attached to it, a few meters behind their current location.

“What if someone sees us? We’ll get in trouble. We could even betray our natures.”

“They can’t see us if we get up there fast enough. Besides, nobody’s here.”

“I’m here. And there’s no way you’re changing forms in public.”

“Who said anything about that?”

Before Kali could stop him, M’Rua crouched. In one motion, he leapt onto the edge of the warehouse’s roof, as the sound of another small explosion made his older brother cringe.

“We’ve never gotten into anything like this before on any of our escapades. The smart thing is for you to come down from there, walk away, and try to blend in.”

“Maybe, but then we wouldn’t find out who the police are shooting at. Come on, you know you’re curious.”

“Yeah, well, do I really have to repeat that cliché Mom always says about curiosity and cats?”

M’Rua rolled his eyes and then disappeared from the warehouse’s roofline.

Kali stood in the alleyway for a few seconds. The sound of gunfire, interspersed with a few screams and intermittent profanity, came from around the corner. Eventually, Kali decided he’d have to follow, if for no other reason than to ensure his brother’s safety. He threw the file folder up onto the warehouse’s roof. Rather than ascending in one leap like his brother, the dark-skinned youth climbed the adjacent scaffolding in his human form.

Upon cresting the top, Kali took in his little brother. Instead of watching the battle below, M’Rua knelt over where the file folder had landed. An expression of shock was on his face; his mouth formed the letter “O.” The force of the folder’s impact had caused a good number of its papers to spill out onto the warehouse’s distressed concrete roof. M’Rua reached down, retrieving one of them.

“Kali, what’s this?”

“A ledger about land redistribution or something.”

Kali made no move to take it.

“What does it have to do with our family?”

“Nothing.”

“Then why is our name written on it?”

“What?”

Crouching, Kali snatched the paper from his younger brother’s left hand. Most of the form seemed to be standard enough. It had the details and acreage of a farm in the northeast of the country, along with the deed of mandatory sale and the list price of the farm. The next page delineated the manner in which the lands were to be redistributed to local farmers. He noticed the section of the form that would require his auditing and approval via the required confirmation stamps.

Then he noticed what had piqued M’Rua’s interest. Kali’s level of trepidation shot up tenfold. His family’s surname was written in blue pen in the middle of the right margin. It was followed by the amount of 2 million U.S. dollars as well as the words “payment received.” The current date and a time not long before he’d left the ministry were accompanied by the phrases “Public funds requisition sent” and “Full amount of mandatory sale price.”

Kali had never looked at one of these forms before, but he could guess at two things from the scrawling in the margins: that the cash-filled boxes sent to the minister’s office were the “public funds” that had been “requisitioned,” and that his family was also paying off the deputy minister in a somewhat shady manner.

Yeah, but for what? Does someone in the ministry suspect what we are? What would that have to do with land redistribution, anyway? None of the answers that came to Kali’s head was all too enthusing.

“It’s nothing, M’Rua,” he insisted softly, handing back the document. “Nothing at all.”

Further shouts and cursing emanated from below. The sounds came from two voices located at the far end of a blind alley. M’Rua smiled at his brother. He walked over to the edge of the warehouse and knelt. He gestured for Kali to come closer.

The scene that Kali took in was grave for the two individuals, who crouched with their backs to the alley’s far wall. One, a darker-skinned male, looked a bit older than Kali’s appearance of seventeen. He was armed with a sniper rifle. The other, who looked a few years younger than her partner in crime, appeared to be of East Asian origin. With a semiautomatic pistol and the occasional lobbing of small grenades, she defended herself from the onslaught of five policemen at the alley’s opposite end. The two were concealed behind a steel container about the size of a large file cabinet. It bore an official seal.

Kali heard M’Rua’s voice in his ear. “It’s nothing that our family name and today’s date are written on that paper, while those two are trying to steal something from the Ministry of Lands and Land-whatever you work at? Yeah, right.”

Hearing the last bit of information, Kali did a double take. Sure enough, the seal on the container’s top bore the insignia of the ministry he now worked for. Underneath, it was stamped with the same file number as had been written on the form he and M’Rua had been looking at.

He sighed. “Yes. It’s nothing. We still have no idea what’s in that container. Let’s get out of here. Who cares about some stupid land stuff anyway?”

“Um, those two apparently? The ministry? Our parents? And isn’t that kind of a weird attitude for someone with a job in the land ministry?”

“It’s none of our business. We’re going home. Now.”

Kali tugged on his brother’s shoulder.

M’Rua didn’t budge.

“Doesn’t it at least bother you that the cops are shooting at whoever it is down there, when it looks like it’s the ministry that’s involved in shady business? We could do something about this. Help our family out of whatever they’ve gotten into.”

“Do something? Like what?” Kali found himself snapping. “Don’t you get it? With what we are, there’s nothing we can do. Even if that box is really connected with our family, we’ve got to keep our true identities hidden. For all we know, the whole problem could be that they’ve been discovered. Doing anything that could betray our natures is out of the question, especially now. There’s no other choice.”

M’Rua jerked his head back at his brother’s tirade. After a moment’s thought, he shook his head. “Actually there is, Kali. Look, if we attack the cops, surprise them from above, then we could use our fangs to incapacitate them. Figure out what’s going on—who these people are, what’s in that container, and how exactly our parents are involved. We won’t even get caught, because the cops will never have seen our human forms.”

“What about the other two?”

“What are they going to do? File a police report?”

“M’Rua, remember what I said about life not being a movie you’re the star of?”

“Yep, except you didn’t really say the star part before. We jump on three.”

Kali snorted in spite of himself. Every gram of logic in his head reasoned that his brother’s plan was an unnecessary risk. Yet, if he was honest with himself, the exhilaration of racing through a maze of alleyways bound for some adventure into the unknown had already caused him to feel more like himself than he had at any point in the four months since being allowed out of the family compound.

Kali turned to look at his brother. He offered a broad smile and a nod.

M’Rua nodded back. “Now there’s the brother I know.”

The smiles widened. The two of them leapt.

Kali changed form in midair. His dark-skinned figure grew and morphed into that of a well-conditioned wildcat. Golden-black fur became apparent as he transformed, freeing him from the confines of the suit he’d donned that morning. Kali’s true form descended towards the policemen. The brown feline eyes of a cheetah took in what happened with the detachment of a hunter. At first, the attention of Harare’s constabulary remained focused exclusively on the two other individuals at the end of the alley. The five lawmen began to look up only once the shadow of Kali’s feline form, followed by M’Rua’s, passed over them.

The lawmen’s mouths had enough time only to drop open before Kali was upon them. He let out a deep roar, landing on the policeman nearest him. The man fell to the ground. Kali sunk his sharp incisors directly into the man’s neck, cutting deep enough to cause massive blood loss but not enough to kill him. The deed completed, Kali leapt for the next officer in a blur of motion. His new opponent brought his gun toward the attacking feline. The cheetah tackled the man before his gesture was complete, causing him to fall backward into his third counterpart. Amid the confusion of tangled limbs, Kali sank his teeth into their flesh, slightly mauling their necks. They flailed on the ground as blood gushed from their wounds.

Kali looked over his shoulder to ascertain the status of his brother, who’d leapt for the other two officers. The figure of an adolescent-looking cheetah stood over the prone form of the last of the officers, its muzzle drenched in blood. M’Rua had apparently encountered no problems despite his younger age.

The safety of his brother accounted for, Kali returned to his human form. He now appeared as he naturally did, bearing only ragged-looking shorts and a textured tattooed chest, which heaved at the exertion he’d just put forth. Like M’Rua, his face, including the bone piercing in his nostril, was covered in blood. Kali reached down. He picked up a gun that had belonged to one of the policemen, who now was only twitching slightly on the ground with the others. Seeing this, M’Rua also returned to his human form and copied the gesture. The two of them pointed their weapons at where the ones who’d apparently tried to make off with the container were hiding behind it.

Nodding once at his sibling, Kali spoke. “All right, we got those guys off your tail. We don’t want to hurt you. But don’t try anything. Shoot and we’ll defend ourselves. All we want are the answers to a few questions.”

Kali waited. Nothing happened. He elected to try a more direct query: “Who are you and what are you up to?”

“Yeah, and what’s this got to do with our family?” M’Rua added, standing beside his brother. For whatever reason, his question earned a response.

“Who are we? What in hell are you things, and what do you want with us?”

The young man’s voice carried a distinctly South Asian accent. Its owner made no move to come out from behind his cover, nor did the gun barrel Kali could see poking around the container’s side move one iota.

Kali found himself rolling his eyes as he opened his mouth to respond. “Hey, we’re the guys who just saved your butts. You’re welcome. I mean, seriously. Why can’t you just leave me and my brother’s abilities at the door? We’re just two kids with a couple of questions.”

“Well, that and we can turn into cheetahs.”

Kali favored his brother with a sidelong glare.

“What?” M’Rua hunched his shoulders. “It probably is kind of weird to them.”

Kali redirected his full attention to a movement from near the container. Another figure stood from behind the metal object. She did so in a deliberate manner, dropping the hand that held her sidearm so as to make it clear that she meant no immediate harm. Unlike her counterpart, her features indicated that she was completely unfazed by the true nature of the brothers and by the fact that both of them were still pointing semiautomatic pistols in her direction. The girl stopped when only about half a meter separated her from Kali. Now able to view her more closely, he was able to verify that she appeared quite young—no older than sixteen or seventeen—for the larcenous activities she was involved in.

She seemed to regard him for a moment through slanted brown eyes that indicated East Asian origin. Her slender fingers massaged a chainmail-like lanyard that disappeared down her black jumpsuit.

“He doesn’t realize it yet, but Jad is correct,” she said, apparently referring to her counterpart. “Who we are depends on who is asking the question.” She cast a glance at M’Rua. “And I am not referring to the fact that you’re felinoids. What do you think is in that box, and what is your business with it?”

The girl’s statement prompted two responses.

“You…you know what we are?” Kali asked.

The other response came from the far side of the metal container. “Wait, you mean you know what those things are?”

“Yes and yes.” The girl rolled her eyes. “All of that is much less interesting to me than why you and your family are interested in that object’s contents,” the girl said as she pointed to the metal box that her counterpart was hiding behind.

Kali shrugged, blood still covering his mouth.

“We aren’t, really. My brother and I just heard you fighting and came to investigate. We aren’t even totally sure what’s in it. I just got these documents at the land ministry, where I work now. They show my family may have something to do with it. One form says they paid lots of money to the ministry. It might be extorting them. We just wanted to find out what’s going on.”

The girl’s features darkened as Kali finished his explanation.

“If you’re part of that ministry, then you already know.” The girl’s voice turned violent. Her fingers tensed around her sidearm as she brought it up again. “You’re here to stop us.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa…” Kali put up a hand and jerked his head backward. “I was only hired today. Couldn’t care less about it. I had no idea about any of this, until basically now. Just tell me how my family’s involved.”

“Yeah, and if you’re too afraid of him, you can talk to me. I’m not old enough to work anywhere.”

The girl ignored M’Rua, who now swiveled his gun back and forth between the metal container and where Kali found himself at gunpoint. “If you really don’t care, why do you work there?”

“Look, if you know what I am, you know I’ve got to keep it hidden. I’ve got no choice. Now please, put down the gun.”

The girl kept her firearm at the ready for a few more seconds. A melancholy sympathy crossed her features. Her free hand fingered the chain she wore around her neck. She lowered her weapon. Her demeanor changed completely, almost jarringly so.

“Thanks for saving us. Jennifer Zhang. Call me Jenn.”

The girl extended a hand.

After a moment of hesitation, Kali accepted. “Kali. That’s M’Rua.”

Kali’s little brother offered a casual wave.

She turned and called over her shoulder. “These two aren’t a threat to us, Jad. You can come out now.”

Slowly the one who remained crouched behind the metal container stepped into full view. He looked about nineteen or twenty; he was also in search of his own set of answers.

“Jenn, what’s going on?” he asked. “How do you know what those things are, and more to the point, what are they?”

“Um, hi?” M’Rua rolled his eyes. “Pleased to meet you too.”

Kali found himself laughing and doing the same. “Seriously? Didn’t they teach you human manners back in wherever you’re from? I mean, I’m standing right here. If you wanted to bother actually talking to my face, I could tell you that my brother and I are a species of feline that can manifest as human,” Kali finished, figuring that if Jenn already knew about the existence of his species and was fine with it, there was little harm in disclosing it to her compatriot.

The South Asian stared at him for a moment. “That has got to be the largest load of crap I’ve ever heard.”

Kali rolled his eyes again. “For the sake of…”

He didn’t bother to finish his sentence before transforming. Where the bare-chested youth had stood, a cheetah now crouched. It jumped to the top of the warehouse wall with lightning-fast speed, roared once, and leapt back down before returning to the form of a dark-skinned youth, who looked about seventeen years old.

The South Asian’s mouth fell open. “That’s imposs—”

“Impossible? Really? Still?”

“It’s true, Jad. Just accept it like you did with the ship and the hold. Move on.”

“How do you know that information, Jenn?”

The girl shrugged. Her voice again carried an undercurrent of threat. “I thought we agreed when we founded the outfit that what I did before coming to the ship was my business.”

Jad sighed. “Fine. Whatever.”

He walked to where the police officers lay on the ground and retrieved a police radio. The South Asian held it to his ear before looking directly at Jenn.

“Good news. The police don’t suspect their squad got taken out—yet. Let’s get this mission done.”

He backtracked toward the metal container as Kali mulled over what had just been said. A flurry of questions tumbled from his mouth at once.

“Wait. Hold on a minute. The outfit? The ship? What mission? And what does that giant file cabinet–looking thing you’re stealing have to do with my family?”

“First of all, this isn’t theft. It’s claiming someone’s rightful compensation,” Jad called over his shoulder as he began to fiddle with the lock.

“That is the kind of thing we do.” Kali noticed that Jenn smiled at him with a cold ruthlessness, as if she wanted something. “When someone must acquire something under the radar, they can ask us to do so for them. For a fee, of course. Jad and I started what we refer to as ‘the outfit’ after we both wound up on a ship we found on a deserted island in the Maldives. Does that answer your questions?”

“Not all of them. Such as—” M’Rua started in.

“Right. How this cabinet is connected with your family.” Jenn began walking slowly toward the container. “This box contains government funds that the ministry you work for should have given to a landowning farmer, as compensation for dispossessing him of his estate. But, the ministry refuses to deliver the funds to him. Nor has it actually distributed the land it took from him to the sharecroppers living there. The ministry will not give the landowner in question any reason for these so-called oversights, and the government refuses to allow the courts to rule on any issue related to land reform. So, he is giving us a twenty percent cut if we appropriate his money for him.”

Kali hunched his shoulders. “So the ministry is either wholly incompetent or brazenly corrupt. That still has nothing to do with my family.”

Jenn shrugged. “Actually, it might. Think about it. Effectively, the document you have connects your family’s payment to the minister and the land in question; your cover involves working in the land ministry. You see, if the ministry dispossessed our client but failed to pay him, or parcel out the land like it’s supposed to, both the land and the government money must illegally be going to somebody else. Someone has got to cover that up.”

“You’re saying…”

“That your family is involved in a land grab, and the person expected to handle the official cover-up is you? It certainly looks that way.”

Jenn brushed Jad out of the way. In one motion, she ripped the steel padlock from the bullet-pitted container door. Kali’s and M’Rua’s eyebrows shot upward. The girl had done so with a speed and strength that rivaled their own.

“Forget what we are. What about you?” Kali asked.

“Yeah.” M’Rua took a step towards her. “You’re a felinoid too?”

“No.” Jenn snapped at them, her demeanor changing suddenly again. “And as for the first question, that is none of your business.”

Kali shrugged as Jenn opened the container’s lid. All crowded around to see.

The inside was empty except for one crumpled piece of paper that lay in the far bottom corner. Jad leaned forward and snatched it up.

He swore softly. “This lovely receipt kindly records that this container’s contents have been, and I quote, ‘transferred to the remit of the deputy minister for lands and land  reform’ earlier today. Dammit. We lost another one.”

“Lost what?” Kali asked before Jenn let out a wordless scream of rage. She punched the container’s side, denting the metal.

“Mission. We haven’t had one go right since we started this outfit.”

“That…sucks?” M’Rua screwed up his face.

“Yes. Yes, it certainly does.”

Jad handed the paper to the girl, who raised both of her eyebrows.

Jenn shoved the carbon-paper copy into Kali’s hands. “There’s something here that could prove of interest to you, as well.”

Kali inhaled sharply. In the right margin of the paper, his father’s full name was written in the same blue pen, followed by the words “Summary title issued. Entire plot. Case settled.”

Taking in his brother’s reaction, M’Rua crowded by Kali’s left side. He looked at what was written there, furrowing his brow.

“Kali, why is Dad’s name there?”

Kali sighed. He turned to glower at his little brother. There was an increasing timbre of resentment in his tone. “Because what Jenn said is true. Our family was never being blackmailed. It looks like they bribed the deputy minister to get the farm. The minister is also embezzling the public money for land redistribution that’s supposed to go to the original landowner. Hiring me to audit the official paperwork was probably part of the deal. Our parents and the minister were just expecting me to help cover up the whole thing.”

“Why would our parents do that?”

“Because, if they hold title to the land, they can charge rents to the people who actually live on it,” Kali fumed at his brother. “It’s another source of passive income that lets us keep up a lifestyle where we can conceal what we are.” Kali threw the paper to the ground. He stamped his left foot on top of it. “It’s all so stupid! My whole life is just one giant, endless, pointless cover-up,” he yelled, speaking no longer to his sibling but to the increasingly dark sky.

“Gosh, Kali. Calm down.” M’Rua took a step toward him.

Find more stories by Andrew on Amazon.

Kali whirled on his brother. “Don’t tell me to calm down. You’re not the one who’s had to hide who he is every day for the past four months and hates every moment of it. You don’t have to pretend you’re something you’re not, so you can do whatever asinine, pointless, and horrible thing you’ve got to, just so you can do it all again the next day. You want out of our compound? Well, I have news: that’s the life waiting for you out here. None of it is an adventure, or fun and games. It’s a lie. And you’ll have to live it, because there simply isn’t any other choice.”

Silence reigned in the space for a full moment. M’Rua stood, sobered by his brother’s tirade. A slight breeze blew through the blind alleyway. Both his and Kali’s heads snapped around at a voice neither had expected to hear.

“What if I could give you that choice?”

Jenn stared at Kali, that almost hungry smile back on her features.

“What?” Kali croaked.

Her smile widened. “The choice you say doesn’t exist. What if I could give it to you?”

“What are you talking about, Jenn? Don’t you think we should focus on getting out of here, rather than on some cat-demon’s personal issues?” Jad held the police radio to his ear and then frowned. “I mean it. The police are sending another squad right now. From the sound of things, we have five minutes at most before they get here.”

The cold smile remained on Jenn’s face. “No, Jad. I do not, in fact, think that. Because I do think this ‘cat-demon’ would make an excellent addition to the outfit.”

“What?”

What!

“Cool.”

M’Rua’s judgment followed on his brother’s question and Jad’s exclamation.

“Why would you want me to join you?” Kali ventured.

“Are you truly suggesting we take that thingwith us? You cannot be serious.”

“If you knew anything about me, Jad, you’d know I am deadly serious. His abilities would improve our odds of success. Which, in case I need to remind you, require improvement.”

Jenn addressed the bare-chested felinoid. “And you appear quite discontent with having to be a felinoid living caged up in the middle of downtown Harare. I’m offering you a way out. I am already aware of your nature; I am fine with it. I even consider it an asset. I dare to predict that Jad will become at least somewhat accustomed to its reality. This is a win-win for all of us. But as my lieutenant said, we must get out of here. I’m afraid I’ll require your decision immediately.”

Kali stood there for a few seconds. Thoughts and arguments raced through his head. He looked over at M’Rua and was surprised to see his little brother nodding at him. The decision he was about to make may not have been the safest or the most logical. But, it was Kali.

When he turned back to Jenn, it was with a broad smile on his face.

“You can count me in. I’ll join you. And I think I already have an idea for our first mission together.”

“By all means, tell us.”

“It looks like my parents already have title to the land, but I’m pretty sure the deputy minister had all the government cash that’s supposed to go to the original landowner brought to his office just before I left today. I say we go get it, before he moves it to wherever he hides his stash.”

“If you help us do that, whatever you are, you’ll be fine by me.” Jad held up the police radio. “But really, ‘go’ is what we need to do. Right now.”

With Jenn in the lead, the three of them moved toward the intersecting alleyway. Jad sped up to walk beside Jenn.

The felinoid’s sensitive ears made out what Jad whispered to her: “First, I find the ship. Then you. And now one of my coworkers is a large predatory cat? This isn’t bizarre at all.”

“If I were in your position, Jad, I would plan to get used to this sort of thing being an ordinary day in the life.”

Kali smirked. It may have been bizarre, but his decision felt right. He felt a slight tug on his left arm. There was only one thing remaining before he left his old life behind him.

“Hey, guys. Can we spare a minute before the cops get here?”

Jad and Jenn stopped. The former held up the radio again. “One minute. Absolutely no longer.”

“Got it.”

Kali turned to see his little brother staring up at him. They remained that way for a few seconds before M’Rua spoke. “Can I come with you?”

“I wish. Maybe in a decade or two. You still need to find what you want from life. Besides, I need you to tell Mom and Dad goodbye for me.”

“You know they’re going to be pissed.”

“Yeah, I know. Don’t worry. It’s not like the deputy minister can do anything to them that won’t get him in trouble, too. Everything’s going to be okay.”

“Will we see each other again?”

Kali knelt slightly, wrapping his little brother in a bear hug. M’Rua returned the gesture.

“Yeah. I hope we will.”

M’Rua smirked, almost knowingly.

Kali stood up. He backed away from his little brother.

“You know the way back to the train station?”

“Don’t worry about me. We’re both ‘irrepressible little scamps,’ remember?”

M’Rua winked and began to walk away from the remaining trio. Kali headed towards Jad and Jenn. He heard his brother’s voice once more and paused to look over his shoulder.

“Kali?”

“Yeah, M’Rua?”

“Nothing. It’s just great to have you back.”

Kali regarded his little brother. A broad smile remained on his face.

“Thanks, M’Rua. For everything.”

M’Rua only laughed and offered a two-finger mock salute before turning to walk back in the direction from which they’d come.

Kali followed his new family. He morphed, transforming into the well-muscled cheetah he was. Jad and Jenn indicated a truck parked at the far end of the path they were now on. The feline broke into a run. The two started as he sped past them, enjoying the pure exhilaration of what he was meant to do.

After the ministry’s service entrance, Kali had no idea where his future would lead. He let out a triumphant roar in the otherwise empty alleyway. For the first time in his life, he was running towards a future he wanted.

Andrew Anzur Clement, PhD. left his native Los Angeles to see the world at the ripe old age of nineteen. After living in ten countries and traveling to more than sixty he settled in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where his experiences continue to inspire his fiction. Find his self-published works on Amazon.

 

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