NEKOBE: At The Gym

© 1999 Rogue (

"I'm going to get a membership to the gym," Nekobe announced as he licked the blood from his muzzle.

I sat dumbfounded across the dinner table. "What are you talking about?" I said. "You don't need any gym. You're already in better shape than most humans I know."

"Maybe," he said, pausing to gnaw some more at the chunk of meat on his plate. Blood dripped down from his lips and he licked it away once again with a flash of his tongue. "But how long will I stay that way? I don't get to exercise at all any more. Most of my day is spent sitting at a desk. I can feel my muscles turning into jelly."

That was crap. I happened to have a hobby of feeling Nekobe's muscles every night, and to me they felt like carved stone covered with fur. "I don't think you have anything to worry about, Nekobe."

"Like I said, I don't have anything to worry about now, but I'll lose my muscle tone if I don't exercise. You don't want to be stuck living with a fat lion, do you?"

I watched him eat in silence for a while, the raw meat vanishing in great chunks from between his hands. It was like watching a nature special on television, except for an occasional pause as he shook a little pepper onto his meal. I knew that arguing with him would not do me much good. When Nekobe got an idea into his head it was very hard to get it out again. Even so, the very thought of him needing a gym was ludicrous.

"You should go, too," he said after gobbling the last of his dinner. "We could both go and exercise together."

That made me cringe. "I don't know about that," I said weakly. I knew deep down that he had a point. My own body was starting to get a little soft from many hours spent in front of a computer. Working out just wasn't my style, though. I never could stand the thought of people smirking at my feeble efforts to lift even the lightest weights. I would be far too self-conscious to even show me face in the gym.

It wasn't just that, though. At the time I didn't realize why, but somehow the thought of Nekobe going to the gym filled me with dread. Maybe I was afraid he'd get his mane caught in a barbell or something. I didn't understand it, but it just didn't seem like a good idea to me. Of course, I could hardly offer that up as an excuse to keep him from going.

"Well, I do," he persisted. "It would do us both good. I've already looked into it, and it will only cost us each forty dollars a month."

"Forty dollars! I have to pay them to go in and sweat for an hour?"

"Oh, we spend that much on the cable television, don't we? If we didn't have that, then maybe we wouldn't need to pay someone to let us exercise, hm?"

"Don't start. You like to watch TV as much as I do."

He stood up and wiped a few splashes of blood from his bare chest. He always took his shirt off to eat; otherwise, our laundry bills would go through the roof. "Maybe I do. But you are changing the subject. We both really need to exercise, if only for our general health, and we're going to start tomorrow night."

"Do I have to?" I said in my best whine.

"No, you don't." He stood up and slipped around to my side of the table. He loomed over me, the ripples of his perfect abdomen hovering teasingly close to my face. "But you don't want me to go all by myself, do you?"

I felt a little cold in my stomach. That was precisely what I didn't want. I told myself that it was silly, but that nagging voice deep inside me would not keep quiet. "No, I don't," I muttered, and turned to press my cheek against his furry belly. "Of course I'll go with you."

"Good!" He stroked my hair fondly. "You won't regret it. I promise."

For some strange reason I found that hard to believe.

The next day Nekobe came home early, eager to head out to the gym. "It will feel wonderful when you are done," he assured me. "Remember, I spent a summer at the YMCA in Nairobi, and nothing felt better than when I was finished a good workout."

"You're just a masochist," I grunted. "Here, I bought you something."

He took the bag from me. "What is this?"

"It's a sweatsuit. Go ahead, put it on."

He unfolded the fabric and peered at it. "What do I need this for? I thought I would just wear the running shorts you bought for me."

I shivered a little at the thought. I had bought him the shorts because I liked the way he looked in them. They were meant do show off more than they covered. Letting him wear them to the gym just seemed...dangerous. "This is traditional. Everyone wears them. I got one for myself so we'll match, see?"

Nekobe shrugged. "All right. Whatever you say." He stepped into the bedroom to get out of his work clothes, while I sat in the living room and kicked myself for having agreed to go with him.

The gym was a huge affair, housed in what looked like an old airplane hangar. We entered on the bottom floor and walked past glass-walled rooms filled with people cavorting about in spandex while bad music thumped from the speakers. A set of stairs (along with an elevator for people who found the stairs to be too much exercise) led up into the center of a vast, echoing room. An oval track ran around its perimeter, with lanes marked off like a high school varsity field. The interior of the oval was dotted with assorted sadistic-looking machines with weights and cables on them. One end of the field was enclosed by a wall, and through a window in it I could see gigantic men huffing and straining beneath barbells that looked heavier than I was. Ahead of us was a veritable freak show of jiggling buttocks bouncing upon stair-climbing machines. I wondered how many of those had taken the elevator up here. Suddenly, one of the blobs of flesh detached itself from a machine and came waddling over toward us.

"Well hello there, Kitten!"

"Miss Eva!" Nekobe mewled in surprise as the woman flung her arms around his waist. "I wasn't expecting to see you here!"

"I didn't know you boys came here, too," she said in delight and turned to smother me in a hug as well. "It's so good to see you! You don't come to visit me nearly enough."

I smiled. She had a point. We owed Miss Eva a lot, since she had been the one who had gotten Nekobe's scholarship worked out so that he could stay in the country. Seeing her at the gym help to make me feel a little less self-conscious about working out. Surely I had to look better than that. Someone should have told Miss Eva that spandex wasn't becoming to her.

"But I gotta get back," she sighed. "Gotta keep this ol' fat movin' around so it don't all settle in one spot, you know?" She hugged us both once more and then pulled herself back onto the stair climber, whose gears groaned in protest beneath her.

"She's such a sweet woman," Nekobe purred.

"She's a lot of woman," I added. "Now let's get started. The faster this is over with the happier I'll be."

"Oh, stop it." He nudged me playfully and started off toward the treadmills. I wanted to join him, but I did not like the idea of running if I was not on my way to put out a fire or fleeing from gun-toting assassins. Instead I climbed up onto a monstrous device that was supposed to simulate cross-country skiing by jerking your body in many directions at once and then probably slamming you into a simulated tree. There was an elderly man on an adjacent machine who looked to be quite fit for his age. I figured that if it worked for him, maybe it could work for me as well.

I watched Nekobe fiddling with the treadmill controls while my body flailed about on the simulated skis. He started to trot, and then broke into a run as the treadmill gained speed. He held his finger on the button, the belt beneath him whining as it spun faster and faster. I saw him frown, stare at the console and jab several times at the button, but the belt had reached its maximum speed, and from the scream it was making it wasn't designed to maintain that pace for very long. Nekobe pouted and stopped the belt, then hopped off and wandered onto the big oval track.

To my dismay he began to pull his sweatsuit off. He folded it and set it carefully aside, and then stood up tall, his body clothed only in his skimpy running shorts. He flexed his muscles fluidly and then crouched into a ready position. Behind him his tail reared up, tugging the fabric of his shorts even higher so that the curves of his rump were plainly visible. I felt a chill in my gut, almost like panic.

Nekobe tensed, and then leaped powerfully forward. Around me those people who had already been staring at his statuesque form let out a collective gasp as Nekobe picked up his pace. He tore along the track at blinding speed. His muscular legs became a blur as he sprinted through the curves, shooting past other runners as though they weren't moving at all. The old man on the machine beside me stopped and stared in disbelief, then fumbled for his sport watch and punched a few buttons. "Good God almighty," he breathed. "It's not possible. Where could he have come from?"

"Um...he's from Africa," I offered.

The man turned to face me. "You know him?"

"Yes. Well, we live together. He's my roommate."

"Really. Well, you ought to put him in the Olympics. According to this he's doing about a three minute mile."

I just smiled and shrugged. The old man started his machine up again but kept his eye on the racing lion. Nekobe dashed by us, his mane blowing back and his tail standing stiffly out behind him like an airplane's rudder. It was an awesome spectacle, but one that made me squirm. Already I could see two young women eyeing him and whispering eagerly to one another. I began to feel angry. Piss off, I wanted to say. Stop staring at him. He's not a mutant. Let him be.

Nekobe circled the track several times, then slowed to a walk and padded over to the water fountain. He lowered his head and lapped daintily at the stream for a moment, then stood and shook out his mane. He caught sight of me and gave me a little wave, then weaved his way through the machines and the astonished onlookers and disappeared into the free-weight room.

"Man, he sure is a fast cat, ain't he?" Miss Eva had appeared beside me, her brow pebbled with perspiration. Then she must have noticed the frown on my face. "What's wrong, Shawn?"

"Look at that. Everyone's gawking at him," I said bitterly.

"Oh, don't worry about them. He's used to it. Folks that's different, they get used to other folks staring at'em. It don't bother him none."

"Well, it bothers me."

She chuckled. "You're just jealous."

That caught me off guard. I turned to stare at her.

"Yeah," she continued, "you're jealous 'cause they all starin' at him, and not at you. Give you a few months lifting weights, though, and you'll look just as good. It takes a lotta work to build yourself up like that."

My shoulders sagged a little. She was right about one thing. I realized that I was indeed jealous, though not the way Miss Eva thought. I began to feel angry with myself for what I knew was a selfish and irrational reaction, but I couldn't make the feeling go away. Having Nekobe around, being close to him, being able to see and to touch him was a remarkable privilege that I was not eager to share with anyone else. The more I watched the spectacle he was making of himself the more uneasy, the more possessive I began to feel. I wanted to leave. I wanted to take him home where I could have him all to myself, without worrying about other people wanting him as well.

I moved onto a weight machine that allowed me a view through the doorway of the free-weight room. Nekobe was lying on a bench, legs spread, his arms supporting a barbell with a tremendous number of discs on it. Its ends sagged from the weight, but Nekobe's powerful arms pumped it smoothly up and down with ease. From where I was sitting I could see the muscles of his chest bulging beneath the fur and flowing smoothly with the motion of the bar. Several big men were standing nearby and staring. I imagined that one or more of them might be enjoying sights that were usually reserved for me, and my heart grew even heavier. Then I saw Nekobe stand up and move behind the bar to assist another man who took his place on the bench. The man stretched out on his back, his head very close to Nekobe's thighs and staring straight upward. I had to look away.

The night at the gym seemed to last for hours. I halfheartedly moved from one piece of equipment to another, always keeping Nekobe in sight, watching sourly as he made friends with the hulking giants in the free-weight room. After what seemed like eons he said his good-byes to them and padded out to where I was sitting, pumping a few meager weights on a cable machine and moping. "Are you just about done?" he said cheerily.

"Yeah. You could say that." Without looking at him I stood up from the machine and headed for the stairs, ignoring his questioning mewl as he followed behind me.

We drove home in silence, and when we arrived I snapped on the television and slumped down on the sofa in front of it. Nekobe sat down beside me, his tail curling around his leg, his arm resting on the sofa back behind my head. His tailtuft thumped uneasily against the cushions for a while. "Is something wrong?" he asked softly.

"No," I muttered. "Nothing. Don't mind me. Just worn out."

"Want me to rub your back for you?"

"That's ok. I just gotta relax for a bit."

Nekobe chewed his lip and nodded. His tail continued to wriggle uncomfortably as we stared at the screen, and it was not long before he stood up and stretched. "Well, I'm going to head off to bed."

"OK. I'll join you in a bit."

He paused, disconcerted, then simply turned and disappeared into the bedroom. I felt like hell.

Soon afterward I turned the television off -- I hadn't been paying attention to it anyway -- and followed him into the bedroom. I could hear him breathing in the darkness, and as I lay down beside him he rolled over to face me. "You're mad at me."

"No, I'm..."

His fingerpad touched my lips. "No, don't lie. I can tell that you are mad. Please tell me what I did."

I sighed bitterly. "It's not something you did. It's not even you. It's me. Just watching all those people at the gym staring at you, and the guys in the weight room...I just felt...I don't know. I just wasn't comfortable about it."

He moved his head closer. A few strands of his mane tickled my nose. "You're jealous?"

"No. I'm not jealous. I'm...something else. I don't know the word."

"It's supposed to be your language. If you don't know the word, how do you expect me to know it?"

I thought about it for a while. "OK. Maybe it's jealousy. I know it's wrong, and I know it's selfish, but somehow I can't stop feeling...that..."

"...that you are going to lose me?"

I felt my breath catch, and finally I had to say, "Yes."

Nekobe chuckled. "Oh, Shawn," he purred lovingly. "Do you really think that I am going to dump you and run off with someone else I met at the gym?"

I felt tears of frustration burning behind my eyes. "I don't want to think that. And I know that it's unfair of me to suspect that you would. But those guys at the gym, they're so much...more...hell, they're more worth your time than a skinny geek like me."

"Ah, so that's it." He brushed his whiskers against my cheek and exhaled softly. "You are worried that if I meet someone who is more handsome or stronger than you, then I'll walk off and forget all about you?"

"I can't help it," I said weakly.

"I met a lot of very strong men at the gym today. I found some of them attractive. I could even smell arousal on a couple of them. But tell me: who is lying in bed with me now?"

"I am," I said softly.

"And who will be lying next to me in bed tomorrow night? You will," he said without giving me a chance to offer any stupid answers. "Not anyone else. Those men are very appealing, but they are not you."

I swallowed. There was a lump forming in my throat that was making it hard to talk. "I don't understand what you see in me," I said at last. "I think that's the problem. I just can't understand why you would want me."

"You are a human. I don't expect you to be able to sense the things I can sense."

"But what are those? What is it you sense?"

He chuckled, and rolled heavily on top of me, his weight making me wheeze. In the darkness a soft, warm tongue caressed my face. "How can I explain something that there are no words for, in your language or in mine?"

There was a long silence. "I feel stupid." I said at last.

"Because you can't understand?"

"No. For everything."

He chuckled again. "Let me describe it this way. When you go hunting, you first circle the herd, and then you pick the one that is right." His hands slowly closed around my wrists and pressed them down to the mattress on either side of my head. "You don't know what makes it right. You don't say, 'I am going to pick the one that looks like this.' Your instincts alone tell you which is the one." His muzzle nudged my chin back, and I felt his long fangs brushing against my throat. "Then, when your inner voice tells you that you have chosen the right one, you cut it out from the herd. You chase only that one -- you never let it go in order to chase another. You follow it because you know it is the right one, and you run it down, and you make it yours."

His jaws opened wide as he uttered the final word. Huge teeth clamped around my throat, his rumbling growl quivering through their tips and into my flesh. I sucked in my breath and shivered. Nekobe knew exactly how to get to me.

For a long time he just held me helpless in his jaws, his body pressing down against mine and holding me firm, and then finally he released me and lapped at my throat. "So it is that simple. I chose you because millions of years of instinct told me that I should."

I nodded, panting a bit. "I...guess so."

Nekobe rose up to his knees and sat astride my pelvis. "So no more worrying about other people at the gym. Let them dream all they want to. It's still going to be you that I go home with at the end of the night."

I said nothing. There was nothing to say.

Nekobe's weight shifted, and I heard something being lifted from the nightstand. "Maybe I still need to convince you," he said, rising up higher on his knees. I heard a cap being flipped from a tube, and then felt cold moisture upon my malehood as his hand closed around it. The touch sent jolts of pleasure through my loins; I grew hard almost instantly, and then groaned as Nekobe carefully began to settle himself down. There was pressure against my glans, and then a tight warmth slowly engulfing me, until at last Nekobe's fur settled once again onto my hips.

My eyes were adjusting to the darkness. I could now make out his silhouette towering over me, his mane a black cloud behind his head and shoulders. He purred thunderously and stroked at my belly with his clawtips. I reached up to caress his chest, fingers lovingly tracing the contours of his body downward until they encountered the slick warmth of his own erection. I grasped it softly, feeling it throb in my fist, then tightened my grip slowly. Nekobe's purr grew louder, stirring the air around us both. I felt him tighten around me, and slowly, very slowly he began to rise up. Silken flesh dragged upward along my length, paused and then then slid downward again as Nekobe settled onto my lap.

I was quickly lost in the sheer joy of lying with him. I grew lightheaded as multiple sensations assailed my being. The soft brush of his furry thighs against my flanks, the flick of his tail over my legs, the gentle tug and squeeze along my length as he rose and fell in rhythmic waves above me -- all jealousy, all pain and fear melted away. The throbbing flesh in my hand grew steadily warmer, the pulse within it strengthening as I began to caress, its natural lubrication easing its passage through my fingers. Soon Nekobe was panting, his massive torso flexing over me as he met my thrusts, muscles tensing and relaxing in an ever-quickening tempo. Heat was beginning to build in my cheeks as the heavy shaft pulsed in my hand and waves of warm moisture splashed onto my chest and chin, and moments later my own shuddering release burst forth into him.

We remained motionless afterward for a long time, the sound of our ragged breathing growing clearer as the pounding of my heartbeat gradually subsided in my ears. At last Nekobe rose off of me, squeezing a final shiver out of me before my body sagged onto the mattress. "Now do you believe that I love you?" he whispered.

"I never doubted that," I managed to say after I caught my breath again. "I just worry about losing you."

"You won't. We always trust our instincts." I felt his breath upon my chest, and then warm sweeps of his tongue as he carefully licked away the mess he'd made. "You should trust them, too."

"I do. I'm sorry."

"Don't be." He rose up to his knees again and brushed his fingers along my thigh. "Do you feel better now?"


"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I really do feel better."

"Good," he said huskily, "because now it's my turn."

He was upon me in a flash, his teeth engulfing my throat, a low growl rumbling in his chest. His powerful thighs forced mine to spread wide. There was nothing I could do but submit as I felt his familiar warmth pressing against me, harder and harder until I yielded, and then he was deep inside of me. I was his and his alone, and throughout the remainder of the night he reinforced that fact quite thoroughly, again and again.

The following day I was quite sore, as much from the effects of sudden exercise on my poor untrained muscles as from Nekobe's finally having managed to wring his eighth climax out of me. I stubbornly announced that going to the gym was not for me. "I get enough exercise from you every night anyway," I told Nekobe.

"No, that's exercise for me," he said, ruffling my hair. "You only go off twice, three times at most, and then you barely move afterward."

"Don't rub it in."

He laughed and hugged me, making me wince as he squeezed my stiff and protesting torso. "It's my fault you're so sore today."

"I know." I reached back and gingerly rubbed at my rear.

Nekobe dipped his head and nipped playfully at my nose. "I meant that you are sore from exercising. I should have given you a bit more guidance. You need to start out on lighter weights, and you need to stretch yourself."

"Like you didn't stretch me enough last night?"

"I only stretched one part. We need to stretch the rest of you."

"Now that brings up some interesting images."

He laughed. "Stop that. You'll feel better tomorrow, and when we go to the gym I'll show you what to do so you don't feel so sore."

"If I go. I don't think I'm cut out for this."

"Sure you are. Once you get into the habit you'll find out how easy it is to stay in shape." He silenced my protests with a soft kiss on the lips, and then grinned enormously, the light glinting off of his finger-long fangs. "Trust me."

As mentioned before, it was almost impossible to change Nekobe's mind once it was made up, so I grudgingly allowed myself to be dragged to the gym the following evening. It was as big a circus as ever, a mixture of freakish, grunting bodybuilders and sweatsoaked flab- factories trying to look like them. I didn't see anyone there who looked to be in proper shape save for Nekobe and the old man I'd met the first night. He waved to me as he set down his oversized gym bag and climbed up onto the cross-torture machine. Miss Eva was there, too, huffing away on her favorite stairclimber.

I think Nekobe understood my self-consciousness. "You don't need to put on much mass," he told me. "You already have a good muscle structure. All you need to do is tone it up a little." He patted my belly. "You want to do that before gravity catches up to you, and your chest starts to slip down here." He was being kind, I knew, but it was still encouraging to hear it.

First he laid me on the ground and had me draw my knees up to my chest -- not unusual for us. "Hold this for about half a minute," he said. That was easy, but then he began to bend my body into various pretzel-shapes that I had never imagined possible. "Do you feel the stretching in the muscle?" he would say. Did I ever! More than once I thought the muscles were going to rip free from the bone.

After thoroughly stretching me he led me to one of the cable machines and sat me down. "You want to start small," he said patiently. "Thirty pounds, maybe forty. You want to be able to do just ten repetitions before you can't do any more. When that gets easy, you add more weight. See how simple it is?"

He left me there with a pat on the back and then padded over to the track. Once again he stripped down to his shorts, and once again he was off like a bullet. I heard a murmur rise from the other members, Flabbio and Freakybig alike. It still gave me a tiny pang, but this time I was able to beat it down. I trusted Nekobe.

The old man finished his time on the ski machine and dragged his bulky gym bag over to where I was working. "I hate to leave my stuff in the locker room," he said casually. "I had someone make off with my umbrella on a rainy day. Can you imagine it?"

"Yeah." It was about all I could manage to say, as I struggled to push the bar up over my head. The small stack of weights at the other end of the cable looked embarrassingly tiny.

The man sighed, and we both watched as Nekobe darted past us on another loop "He sure is something, isn't he?" He turned to face me with a smile. "You're a lucky young fellow to have someone like him as a trainer. Everyone else here would kill to be in your position."

"Let's hope they don't." My arms were starting to quiver from the strain. Eight repetitions. That was close enough to ten.

The old man shrugged, looking a little disappointed that I wasn't more conversational. "Well, keep at it. It won't be long before you look just like him. Except you won't have a mane, of course."

I laughed politely, and stopped as soon as the old man got up and left. I didn't mean to be rude, but I still felt self-conscious at the modest amount of weight that I was able to press. The last thing I wanted was someone sitting and chatting with me when I just wanted to blend into the background.

Nekobe had finished his run and was on his way into the free-weight room. It annoyed me that the old man chose to sit at a machine that blocked my view into the room. Not that Nekobe needed me staring at him through his workout -- enough other people were doing that all around the gym. I just liked looking at him, watching his magnificent body flex as he pumped the weights. Lots of other people were gawking as well, little sounds of admiration whispering here and there. Even the old man was watching as Nekobe crouched beneath a barbell and smoothly raised it up on the back of his neck, his mighty legs bulging as they took the weight. The old man shook his head with a smile, then opened his gym bag just enough to pull out a hand towel. He fussed with the bag's other contents for a moment, then closed it and set to work.

"Hey, Buddy -- can I work in with you?"

I jumped a little. Behind me was an ogre of a man in a camouflage shirt. I remembered seeing him in the first night at the gym. The name stenciled on his shirt was DaBella, but I decided right away that "DaBelly" was a lot closer to the mark. He had enormous shoulders, a powerful chest and great ape-like arms, but his gut still bulged obscenely like a beachball tucked beneath his shirt. The man must have spent hours working on his chest and arms, and was then too tired to do any situps. "Uh, no problem," I said, standing sheepishly. "I'm done anyway."

"Good deal." DaBelly settled himself onto the seat and gave a scornful sniff at the miniscule weight I had been lifting. "I like to use this machine to warm up," he bragged, and dropped the pin on the weight stack down to two hundred pounds. His chest swelled as he powered the bar upward, the weights rising smoothly with it. He held it aloft for a second, and then let the weights come crashing back down again. For a moment he looked thoughtful, and then added another twenty pounds to the stack.

I decided it was time to work on one of the leg machines.

The evening passed a little more quickly this time. I remembered to stretch when I was finished as Nekobe had instructed, and was surprised to discover that I felt rather good afterward. My muscles felt loose and warm, weary but not spent. Maybe there was something to this exercising thing after all.

I saw Nekobe through the window in the weight room and waved to him. He smiled and stepped out to meet me. "All done?"

I nodded.

"Good. How do you feel?"

"Well...a little beat."

He smiled. "You feel good, don't you?"

I only grunted an answer.

"Told you so." He cupped my chin in his hand and touched his nose briefly to mine. "When we get home I'll give you a nice rubdown. You've earned it." His other hand snuck behind me and gave me a quick squeeze on the rump. With a wink he turned and headed for the track. "I'm going to do a few laps to cool down, and then we'll go," he called over his shoulder. Then he was off and running, leaving everyone else on the track far behind.

Smiling, I turned to get a drink of water. As I drank, I caught sight of DaBelly through the window of the weight room. He was staring fixedly, glowering at me. His face was hard, his eyes filled with disgust. I realized with a momentary panic that he had seen Nekobe's little display of affection. I felt a knot form in my stomach and turned away, but I could still feel the man's hateful gaze on my back.

I said nothing to Nekobe about it on the way home. Such things were a fact of life. There would always be narrow-minded people to deal with. I tried not to let it bother me, although it was hard to get the image of the man's icy expression out of my head.

The incident was nearly forgotten by the time we arrived home; there were better things to think about. I hurried to strip out of my workout clothes and flopped face-down on the bed. Nekobe was undressing behind me and gave a questioning little mewl. "What's this?"

"Rubdown, remember?" I said into the mattress.

He chuckled. "You don't want a shower first?"

I shook my head. "Shower tomorrow. Rubdown now."

"My, aren't we the demanding one?" I heard the quiet thump of his sweatpants landing in the hamper, then the hiss of the elastic band of his running shorts sliding over his furry legs. A moment later I felt his warm fingertips resting on my back. "Mmm. Are you sure you need one?"

I whimpered in reply and squirmed eagerly, which made Nekobe laugh. "All right, all right. Stay still."

The bed creaked. Soft fur settled down onto my rump as he sat astride me, and I felt warm hands pressing firmly down onto my back. Instantly I was in Heaven. Purring quietly, Nekobe spent the next hour -- or maybe it was only five minutes -- kneading my muscles like bread dough, leaving them soft and floppy and barely functional. His hands gripped at my arms, squeezing the strength right out of them, all the way down to my fingers. He slid backward and massaged my thighs, then my calves, his talented fingers working away all tension as well as any ability or willingness on my part to move.

When he was finished he lay himself out upon me, his torso pressing down on my back, his purring muzzle brushing the side of my cheek. I was ecstatic, my body utterly relaxed and warm beneath the heavy lion-blanket. I wanted to thank him, to tell him I loved him, but I hadn't the energy to summon even the smallest sound.

Nekobe licked delicately at my cheek, then at the back of my neck. His tongue pressed harder with each stroke, and finally his teeth gathered up the flesh of my nape and gripped it tightly. His body shifted atop mine; I could feel the warmth of bare flesh swelling rapidly against my buttocks and working its way purposefully between my cheeks. I let out a small groan as I wondered how many times Nekobe would go that evening, but I did not resist him. I could not, even if I had wanted to.

I never thought it would happen, but I was actually looking forward to our next visit to the gym, although it was arguably because I was hoping for some other nice reward from Nekobe for my efforts. Even so, I had come to realize that exercise wasn't such a living hell after all. My body felt loose and energized. I began to believe that I might actually develop some noticeable muscle after all.

As soon as we arrived we noticed that one wall of the weight room had been removed. I couldn't help wondering if that was because the owners wanted more people to see Nekobe working out so they could draw more members in, but I kept that thought to myself. I started off immediately with my stretching while Nekobe thrilled his growing fan club with his speed on the track. Miss Eva was there as well, plodding away determinedly on her stairclimber. I could hear her talking with the woman beside her and bragging about how Nekobe used to live in the same building as her and how she used to take care of him.

With my stretching done I once again joined the old man with the gym bag on the cable machines. At least with the wall gone we could both watch Nekobe at work within. Something seemed amiss that evening, though. Nekobe and the apish DaBelly were talking to one another, and neither looked happy. I suddenly recalled the look that the big man had given me during our last visit and felt a chill. Worried, I slid off of the machine I was working on and approached the two. "Is something wrong?" I said, trying to sound nonchalant.

Nekobe's face was grim. "This gentlemen doesn't seem to think we should be here at the same time he is."

DaBelly scowled at me. "You're damn right I don't," he rumbled. "You got no business being here at all, in my opinion. I get sick just thinking of you two staring at decent men."

I knew exactly what he meant. Don't flatter yourself, Fatso, I said to myself.

Nekobe turned away from him. "I'm sorry if you feel that way."

DaBelly laid a hand on the bench Nekobe was approaching. "Sorry. I'm using this one."

"You can work on this one, Nekobe," I offered, my voice sounding more feeble than I wanted it to.

"I'm using that one, too."

Nekobe growled and drew himself up. "Are you also paying for two memberships so you can use two benches at once?"

The situation was getting uncomfortable. From the corner of my eye I saw Miss Eva walking toward us, a curious expression on her face. DaBelly chose that moment to say the wrong thing. "I'm telling you to shove off. Your kind have no business being in here when real men are working out."

Miss Eva heard that and I saw her eyes flare up ferociously. If you ever see that happen, watch out! "Now, just who in the hell do you think you are?" she shrieked as she stalked toward DaBelly."

"This doesn't concern you, lady. This is between me and that." He spat the last word out with obvious disdain. I felt myself taking a step back. DaBelly was imposing, but not at all as terrifying as the little firebrand whose ire he had just ignited.

"Lady? Lady? Are you talkin' to me? I ain't no lady, Buster, 'cause I'll whup your ass up one side of this room and right on down the other! You ain't got no right telling this young man what he can and can't do!"

DaBelly sneered. "I wouldn't say 'man'."

"You got a problem, you sorry, fat mother? I think you oughta get your ass back home 'fore someone hands it to you on a plate. I'll have you up on charges. I'm gonna call the SPCA and the NAACP and sic them on you so fast..."

"I'm telling you, Lady, this ain't any of your affair."

"Well, I'm making it my affair. I don't take no shit from big apes like you!"

"I'm warning you." DaBelly's face was reddening. "Get outta my hair, now."

"Miss Eva," I squeaked, "we'll just go."

Da Belly smirked rudely. "Yeah, Tinkerbell. That's a good idea."

"You ain't goin' nowhere, Shawn," Miss Eva bellowed. "It's this sorry-assed slob that oughta be goin'."

"Look, Lady, one more word outta you..."

"You stop calling me Lady, Tubby! You oughta be ashamed of yourself, a man your age actin' like..."

I never really saw what happened next. In the blink of an eye I saw Miss Eva falling backwards, DaBelly stumbling against her. Nekobe was on top of him and blood was flying in all directions as though a lawn sprinkler had been turned on. Nekobe's angry roar echoed through the gym. I saw his arms slashing furiously, DaBelly writhing on the floor as dozens of vicious gashes opened up in his flesh.

It was all over as quickly as it had begun. Miss Eva was sitting against the weight bench and holding the back of her head, dazed. Nekobe was standing over DaBelly's quivering form, his chest heaving, hands and muzzle soaked with blood. His lips were drawn back in a savage snarl, his teeth glistening red. For the first time since I had met Nekobe, his appearance frightened me.

The people in the gym stood in shocked silence. The buzzing of the fluorescent lights high overhead was almost deafening. DaBelly began to groan.

Nekobe said nothing. His lips very slowly relaxed over his reddened fangs. He stood up straight and shook out his mane, then stepped over DaBelly and strode regally toward the stairs. All eyes were upon him. I stood trembling for a moment and then stumbled after him. "Oh my God. Nekobe?"

I caught up with him at the bottom of the stairway. Behind me I could hear the commotion rising as people recovered from the shock. "What were you doing?" I panted. "You could have killed him."

"I should have."

The words hit me like an icy hammer. "He was just blowing steam, Nekobe. We could have just come down here and gotten him thrown out."

He turned to face me. A drop of DaBelly's blood dripped from his chin and splashed softly onto the floor. "Didn't you see what he did?"

"See what?"

"He hit Miss Eva. I couldn't just stand there and let him do that."

I was stunned. All I had seen was Nekobe leaping onto DaBelly's back, and DaBelly knocking Miss Eva down as he fell. ", I didn't see that."

"Well, I did." He strode down the hall, passed the horrified receptionist, and out the door. I followed him, sputtering helplessly.

Outside, he stopped long enough to examine his hands. "I should have brought a towel," he said casually. "I don't want to have to lick that bastard's blood off."

My stomach lurched. I could still not believe what I had seen, or what I was seeing now. I could only stare at him with my mouth open. In the distance I heard sirens wailing. They grew steadily louder, and then two police cars careened into sight. Nekobe watched them calmly.

"We should get out of here," I said, taking his arm and trying to pull him away.

Nekobe shook his head. "No. That will just make it worse."

Two police offers leaped out of the first car and dropped to their knees, their guns drawn and trained on us. "Get away from him!"

I stood confused, and pointed questioningly at myself. One cop made a frantic sweeping motion with his free hand. "Get away from the lion," he shouted.

I held my hands up. ", wait. You don't understand. Let..."

"Get away!"

"I said, let me explain."

A policeman suddenly appeared beside me and seized my arm. He yanked me away so violently that I thought my arm would be pulled right off. I fell to the ground yelling. "Stop! It wasn't his fault!"

They ignored me. One officer appeared with a long pole with a loop of rope at the end. He swung it through the air and caught Nekobe around the neck with it, then drew the loop tight. Nekobe did not move as two officers seized his arms and pulled them behind his back. I heard handcuffs click.

"What the hell are you doing? Let him go!" I scrambled to my feet, but then felt another hand grasping my collar. I fought against it, trying to pull free. "Nekobe!"

"Don't do it, Shawn!" It was Miss Eva's voice close behind me. She hauled me back further. "Don't do it. I used to deal with these fellows back in Alabama, and I know when they mean business. When they get like this, you leave it be."

"But I can't! Nekobe!" He was being led to one of the cars. He looked up at me mournfully for a brief instant before the police pushed him inside.

"Let him go," Miss Eva was saying urgently. "We can't do nothing about it tonight. He'll be fine. Believe me. We'll take care of him in the morning."

I watched helplessly as the police car sped away and another arrived, followed by an ambulance. A crowd was gathering and the police were starting to take statements. "I should have gone with him," I whispered.

"No. Trust me, Honey, I been where you are. You come home with me tonight. We'll go tomorrow and get him out. OK?"

I nodded weakly, then collapsed against her and started to sob.

I spent the worst night of my life on Miss Eva's sofa. Every time I closed my eyes all I could see was DaBelly's bleeding body, and Nekobe's agonized face as he was led away. He wanted me to help him, but there was nothing I could do. Now he was sitting alone in a cold jail cell -- or worse, not alone. I had never before felt so powerless, nor so frightened.

Even worse was the memory of Nekobe's features in the split second that he attacked DaBelly. He had appeared savage and murderous, a terrifying sight. I had never seen that side of him before. Painful doubt crept relentlessly into my thoughts. I had never thought of Nekobe as a predator. How many times had I felt his teeth around my throat? I couldn't begin to count them. He was sometimes rough with me, but never had I imagined that he would be capable of hurting me. It just did not seem possible. In the blink of an eye, though, I had seen him turn from warmhearted lover to savage animal. DaBelly had been torn to shreds in less than a second. What if Nekobe someday lost his temper with me? Could I really ever trust him again, having seen what he could become?

I was still awake and brooding the next morning when Miss Eva waddled in. "I got my checkbook here," she said. "Let's go bring him home first, and then I got some folks to call that maybe can help us out."

"What happened, Miss Eva? He said that the guy hit you."

She was quiet for a moment. "I don't know. All I know is something hit me, and I wound up with a big bump on my head." She lowered her voice and looked at me almost guiltily. "Near as I can tell, Nekobe bowled him over and knocked him into me."

"That's what I saw, too. I never saw him that angry."

"Well, if he thought he was protecting me, I guess I can understand him going crazy like that. I wish he hadn't, much as that big bruiser deserved it."

I buried my face in my hands. The image of the savage, snarling beast would not go away. What if that was how the police saw him as well? "What are they going to do to him?"

"One thing at a time." She put her arm over my shoulders. "We gotta get him out first, and that means paying his bail. They oughta've set that by about now."

"I don't have that kind of..."

"I do." She waved her checkbook. "And not one word outta you about it, y'hear? Not one word."

It seemed to take forever to get to the police station. At the front desk Miss Eva pressed the duty sergeant for information. DaBelly was hospitalized, having been through a serious mauling. His condition was stable, however, and he was expected to recover. None of the wounds had been critical; even in his fury Nekobe had managed to pull his punches. That should have comforted me. I knew what sort of power Nekobe had, and DaBelly could just as easily have been torn limb from limb. DaBelly, naturally, was pressing charges, and Nekobe was to be arraigned for "assault with a deadly weapon," and possibly, once the judge finished mulling it over, "assault with intent to kill."

At last the steel door was opened and I was escorted into the lockup area. I saw Nekobe sitting forlornly on a hard concrete bench inside a tiny cell. He raised his head when I called his name and jumped to his feet excitedly, but then his shoulders sagged and his gaze fell. "I'm sorry, Shawn," he whispered.

"It's all right." The door was opened, and I reached in and grasped his hand tightly. "It's all right," I said again. "Let's go home."

Miss Eva took us back to our apartment and left us there with the promise to find a good lawyer for us. Nekobe trudged inside, his head lowered, his face miserable. I hugged him nervously once the door was closed. "I missed you," I said weakly.

"I missed you, too."

We said nothing for a while. I held him, and tried to dispel the image of his bloodsoaked jaws. Somewhere in the dark, primeval corners of my mind I wanted to push him away, to flee for my life. What had been my greatest comfort and joy now seemed uncertain and perilous. I had never before even imagined that Nekobe might harm me. Now I could think of nothing else than him losing his temper, this time with me as his target. I squeezed him tighter, as though my arms could somehow hold onto the trust for him that I could feel was slipping away.

Then Nekobe said, "What happens now?"

I tried to sound brave. "Well...I don't know. This DaBella person wants to press charges."

"But he started it."

"I know. But...the law doesn't see it that way."

"I'm not allowed to defend a friend if someone attacks her?"

I bit my lip and looked around the room, then took a deep breath. "Nekobe," I said gently, "Nobody else saw him hit her. According to what they saw, you hit him from behind and he got knocked into her."

His tail began to lash angrily. "But I saw him hit her."

Without meaning to, I took a half step backward. "I...yes, you did," I stammered nervously, "but nobody else did."

Nekobe stared at me, bewildered by my reaction. His voice softened. "But he did! Why won't anyone believe me? What about Miss Eva?"

I shrugged helplessly. "She didn't see what hit her."

He sat down hard on the sofa and covered his eyes with his hand. "This can't be happening," he moaned. "I saw him hit her, and I...just..."

"I know," I said, sitting down at the opposite end of the sofa and keeping a wary eye on him. "It's just that nobody else saw it happen. Without another witness, even Miss Eva, there's not much to go on."

Nekobe clenched his jaw tightly. I stiffened instinctively, but then he sat forward and squeezed his eyes shut. Tears began to trickle down his cheeks and leave little trails in the fur. "What am I going to do?" he whimpered, his voice breaking. "I don't want to go to jail."

I felt my heart break. The sight of my powerful lion reduced to tears jolted me back to reality. Nekobe's words floated back to me: "We always trust our instincts." In my callous paranoia I had forgotten mine, and I felt ashamed. Deep down I knew that Nekobe would never let any harm come to me. A million years of instinct tried to tell me that, and I had not been listening. This was no savage beast. This was someone who would fight just as savagely to protect me as he had fought the day before.

Because he loved me.

Sliding closer, I put my arms around his neck, hugged him tightly and began to cry along with him. We held each other for a long time, letting the tears wash away some of the anguish and the fear. "Maybe you won't go to jail," I said shakily. "Miss Eva's going to get you a lawyer. Maybe we can get you off lightly."

"Maybe." His voice sounded hollow. "I just don't want to be taken away from you."

I choked. "I don't want you to be taken away." Swallowing, I tried to sound brave. "There's a lot of ways this can go, though. Let's see what the lawyer can come up with first before we panic."

He nodded, and held me tightly. For that whole day and well into the night we simply sat together on the sofa in each other's arms, crying now and then, worrying, and hoping desperately.

Miss Eva arrived the following afternoon with two well-dressed gentlemen. One of them was a short, slender fellow who was introduced to us as Mr. Harron, an attorney. The other had to stoop when he stepped through the door, and when I saw his mammoth silhouette against the sunlight outside I almost fainted. It was one of Nekobe's people.

"This is Mr. M'gando," Harron said. "He is from the Kenyan Consulate. I asked him if he would fly out this morning and give us some assistance with this case."

M'gando smiled and nodded down at me. "Good morning," he said in the same smooth, golden accent that Nekobe used. Nekobe suddenly appeared behind me, his ears standing straight up and his tail lashing excitedly. M'gando narrowed his eyes and made a groaning sound deep in his chest. Nekobe answered it happily. The light fixture overhead rattled with the thunder of their greeting.

Then the huge lion turned to me. "May we sit down? I want to hear his side of the story."

I stood like an idiot for several seconds, staring up at him the way a shy little boy stares at an unfamiliar adult. Harron nudged me gently. "Oh! Yes, please, " I blurted. "Come in, yes. Sit. Right here. I'm sorry -- still not quite awake today."

Nekobe and M'gando sat together on the sofa and began to converse. Every window in the house quivered in its pane, and we humans could not help but fidget as our bones reverberated within our bodies. I recognized the language even if I understood very little of it. It was something akin to Swahili, but punctuated with deep growls and snarls and groans that defied human comprehension. I knew that Nekobe was relating the story of what happened between him and DaBelly. Now and then he would nod to either me or Miss Eva, and then he raised his hand and bared his claws, miming a swipe through the air. M'gando questioned him several times, and began to look grave. "You say there are no witnesses who can corroborate your story?" he said, turning to me.

Nekobe shook his head, his tail flipping about nervously. I gave a feeble shrug. "Nobody else saw anything. We just saw Nekobe jump on the guy."

Harron took a deep breath and glanced over at M'gando, who nodded. "I believe you, " Harron said earnestly. "The problem is going to be to get a judge or a jury to believe you, too. Without any witnesses who can say for certain that Mr. DaBella attacked the lady first, we won't have much of a defense. " He rubbed his hands together and pondered. "I think that after consideration, I would recommend that we attempt to bargain a guilty plea for simple assault, and agree to deportation in lieu of prison time. Mr. M'gando here can assist with the details."

Nekobe looked crushed. Miss Eva and I both jumped up in alarm. "You can't deport him!" we said simulataneously.

"We may not have a choice," Mr. M'gando said softly as he laid a consoling hand on Nekobe's shoulder. "If he stays, he will almost certainly face a jail sentence. He would lose his visa and be returned to Kenya afterward anyway. It is a choice between going home now or going home after years in prison."

"Don't he have no rights?" Miss Eva interrupted.

Harron shook his head. "He is not a citizen."

"And his appearance, sadly, may cause difficulty in the court room," M'gando added. "There was a similar case in France where a student from our tribe attacked a man who had tried to steal his bicycle. The prosecutors painted him as a dangerous animal and quickly won a guilty verdict. He spent four years in a French prison before the Kenyan government's petition to have him returned home was approved. It was a tragic, tragic case, one that I do not want to see repeated."

Nekobe hung his head sadly. "It looks like I have no choice."

I knew that M'gando was right. I had seen for myself how terrifying an angry lion could be. We might never convince a jury that he was only trying to defend someone else, especially with DaBelly's wounds attesting to the savagery of the attack. I was not going to stand idly by and let Nekobe be taken away from me, though. "Fine," I said. "If you have to go, fine. But I'll go with you."

Nekobe raised his head but I did not give him time to object. "I lost you once before, remember? It was a living hell. I'm not going to go through it again." I managed to smile. "Besides, I like the idea of living in Kenya. You've taught me a little bit of the language. I can get by. Mr. M'gando, how difficult is it to get set up over there?"

M'gando opened his mouth and then closed it again. I suppose the desperation in my voice touched a soft spot in him. Or maybe he could tell how much Nekobe and I meant to one another. "I will see what I can do," he said simply.

"Then it's decided," Harron said as he stood up. "I'll meet with the DA tomorrow." He picked up his briefcase and shook my hand. "Don't worry about anything. I'll take care of it. I'm just sorry there isn't anything more we can do."

"Sure," I said, and watched as he and M'gando disappeared through the door. "Sure," I said bitterly once they'd left. "Don't worry about anything. Just start packing."

"What if they don't accept the plea bargain?" Nekobe said softly.

I put my finger to his lips. "Hush. One thing at a time. Right, Miss Eva?"

"That's right." She leaned over and gave Nekobe a hug. "If you gotta go back to Kenya, you'll be sure to write me all the time, right?"

Nekobe smiled a little. "Of course we will."

"That's good." She stood up and smoothed out her dress. "Now I oughta be getting back. If you boys need anything at all you give me a call at work, y'hear? Shawn, do you think you could run me out there real quick? I came over with those two fellows, so I don't have my car."

"Sure, Miss Eva. We...uh-oh."

"What's wrong?"

"The car. You know, it's still down at the parking lot at the gym. We never brought it home after..." I didn't want to finish the sentence.

"Oh. Well, I guess the walk'll do me good."

"No, no. You stay here and keep Nekobe company a little while. I can walk down and get the car. It isn't that far away."

She nodded and sat back down. Obviously she hadn't been looking forward to the walk. "Well, I appreciate it."

"It's the least we can do. Thanks for all you've done, Miss Eva." I fished the keys out of the pocket of my sweat pants and headed off, thinking of what life in Africa would be like. As long as I had Nekobe, I thought, it would not matter where I lived. I would just keep telling myself that over and over.

It was sunset when I arrived at the gym. I gave it a wide berth and slipped into the parking lot from behind the building. I did not want to encounter anyone who might recognize me and start asking questions. It wasn't something I wanted to talk about. Worst of all would be if I were to run into one of DaBelly's musclebound friends.

The thought of going to the gym now almost made me nauseous. How could not a single person have seen what Nekobe believed he saw? Someone probably had, I thought, but didn't want to get involved. Typical Americans. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to leave them behind after all, I thought bitterly.

I cranked the engine and shifted the car into neutral to give it time to warm up, and to give myself time to collect my thoughts. I watched idly as a few other cars turned into the parking lot. The old man that was always sharing the cable machines with me got out of one of them. He heaved his ever-present gym bag from the back seat and laid it down on the hood in order to rummage through it. That stupid gym bag always looked like it weighed a ton, and I had wondered more than once what all he kept in there.

At that very moment I found out.

I felt my heart skip two or three beats. Fumbling for the door handle, I scrambled out of the car and raced toward him. "Hey! Hey, Mister!"

The old man started guiltily and quickly closed up the bag. "Yes?" he said in obvious irritation.

"That bag! I saw what you have in it. I need your help."

He blanched and moved to put the bag back into his car. "I can't help you," he said in a voice that had gotten strangely shrill. "I already told the police that I didn't see anything."

I reached his car and desperately seized the bag before he could close the door. "Maybe you didn't. But you did have this with you the night it happened, didn't you?"

"Let go!" He pulled back frantically. "This is my property. I'll call the police!"

"You've got a camera in there," I yelled. "I saw it! You've been in there taking pictures of people, haven't you?"

He jerked the bag out of my grip and backed away. "You're crazy! Leave me alone!"

"You have, haven't you?" I shouted, nearly frantic. "You've been taking pictures of people in the gym and taking them home for whacking material, right? How about I go inside and ask if you got their permission first?"

"Be quiet!" The old man clutched the bag tightly to his body, his gaze darting around like a cornered animal. "All right, I've got a small camera in here. It's nothing harmful, though. I'm just a people-watcher. I like making films of people going about their everyday lives. It's my hobby."

"Yeah, right. Do you have any film from two nights ago?"

He thrust his jaw out indignantly. "That's none of your business."

"Yes it is." My heart was racing wildly. I felt my hands flexing at my sides, as though I was about to pounce on him the way Nekobe had pounced on DaBelly. "That's evidence you have in there. What're you going to do when my lawyer subpoenas your videotape collection? They might have to look at all your tapes. What do you suppose they'll find? Anything the six o'clock news might be interested in? 'Sick pervert sneaks pictures in gym -- film at eleven.'"

The old man clenched his teeth and glanced around self-conscious. "What do you want?" he snarled.

I tried to calm down. "Look," I said softly, "I don't want to give you any trouble. What you do at home is your business, but if you've got what happened with my friend the other night, I want that tape. Nobody's got to know where it came from. I can say someone dropped it off anonymously." I saw him fidget uncertainly, and pressed the point. "If I can't have it, then I'll have to have the cops come get it. I don't want to put you through that."

He looked stricken. He stood quivering, indecisive, and then he tugged open the bag. I could now clearly see the camera with its tiny fiber-optic lens peering through a hidden opening in the fabric. He thumbed the catch on the camera, yanked the tape from it, and thrust it into my hands. "I never saw it," he grumbled. "I never saw you, I never saw this. Now go away and leave me alone." He threw the bag into the back of his car and slammed the door.

I did not waste time thanking him. In seconds I was back in my car and tearing for home. Without turning off the engine I charged for the front door and burst inside like a madman, startling Nekobe and Miss Eva. "Don't ask," I panted, jamming the tape into the VCR and turning on the television."I don't know for sure. I need to find out."

"Shawn, what...?"

"I said don't ask! Let me rewind it."

They both sat down with puzzled expressions as the tape hissed back to its beginning. "Someone just left it outside," I mumbled. "I think it might have what we need on it."

The first images that flickered onto the screen were taken in the locker room. Miss Eva gasped a little. "What the hell...? Shawn, what're you doing with a video like that?"

I jabbed the fast forward button and cursed the dirty old man under my breath. "Never mind. I just want to get to the part from two nights ago."

Nekobe's ears pricked up. "This was taken at the gym?"

"Yes. Here -- look!"

The image on the screen showed Nekobe sauntering into the weight room and disappearing through the doorway. It cut to another point of view, this time close to the ground. The camera slowly zoomed in on the lion as he lay down on the weight bench, his legs spread, his shorts hiding very little from the viewer. "This is the first night we were there."

Nekobe's groin filled the screen. Miss Eva had her hand in front of her mouth. "Uh, boys, I don't know if I oughta be lookin'...oh!" She sat forward suddenly. "Wait, do you think it has...?"


"Well, forget this part! Go on forward!"

I hit the fast forward button again. Nekobe raced jerkily through his workout, the camera leaping from one angle to another to keep him in view. Next were more scandalous images from the locker room, then more shots of Nekobe. Finally, there was a view of the weight room with its wall removed. There was Nekobe with DaBelly. I saw myself step into the frame, and then Miss Eva. "Here. Watch."

It was a disappointment. It happened just as fast on camera as it had in real life. One moment we saw DaBelly wagging his finger threateningly in Miss Eva's face, and in the next instant Nekobe was on top of him, and then the camera was jostling around wildly.

"Back it up," Nekobe said tensely. "Go slow."

I did as he said. On the screen Miss Eva's mouth worked in comic slow motion as she berated the man. DaBelly's finger hovered in her face. There as a blur of mane and tail. "Wait...back it up again...there it is."

The quality of the image was poor, but to the three of us it was as clear as a spring morning. It was only a single frame but it plainly showed DaBelly's hand shoved against Miss Eva's face, her head snapping backward. Nekobe was already in midair behind him, his feline instincts reacting immediately to the threat. The camera lens and his sharp senses had registered in that split second what no human eye could.

Miss Eva stared in amazement at the image. "Why...look at that...I never knew...why...that...that rotten, sorry-assed..." She was on her feet in a flash and hurrying to the telephone, all the while fumbling in her pocket for the lawyer's card. "Yes, this is Eva MacIntyre," she said breathlessly. "You gotta get me Mr. Harron right away. Get him on his pager or his cell phone or whatever, but get him back right now to where he was today, and tell him to bring that other cat, that Mr. Magumbo with him. We got an emergency!"

The videotape accompanied Harron and M'gando to the District Attorney's office the following day. Nekobe and I waited for several anxious hours until the phone rang, and then we nearly crashed into one another to grab it. Naturally, Nekobe won the race. "Hello?" he said, and then began to rumble loudly. I heard "M'gando" intermingled with the cacophony, and then he went silent, listening. Every few moments he would grunt softly and nod his head. His tail writhed. He was panting a little, his tonguetip bobbing between his front teeth, and then at last he growled a good-bye and hung up. When he turned toward me he was smiling. "The charges are being dropped. Mr. DaBella has decided that it is not worth his time to pursue the matter any further. He insists that I pay his insurance deductible for his hospital treatment, but then he will consider the matter closed."

"In other words, he didn't want the evening news showing him putting his hand in a little old lady's face and shoving her."

"Probably. Although his lawyer did want to know who made the tape and how we got our hands on it."

"I already told you. Someone left it sitting outside. No note, no explanation."

"And no label. So how did you know what was going to be on it?"

I shuffled my feet, and then shrugged. "Call it a hunch."

Nekobe smiled and leaned down to kiss me. "Bless your hunches. Thank you, Shawn."

"Anytime." Relieved, I sank back onto the sofa. "What a week. I suppose I should go into work. They haven't seen me there for days."

"No. Why don't you call them up and tell them you'll be back tomorrow? You might as well take the rest of the day off."

"And do what?"

He smiled and licked his whiskers.

I reached eagerly for the phone.

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