A/N: Stories are beginning to pile up in my files. *grin* So I'm starting this one early, before I finish posting Finding Mikey.
It's a bit darker in spots than my previous stories, and does include an OC character death, but as previous readers know, all my fics have happy endings.
Another big Thank You!! to Raphfreak, my beta-reader, and constant source of ideas for tormenting the guys and near-miss rescues. So, when you're ready to strangle me for what I've done to Leo and the others in this fic, just remember It's all her fault.
And go read her fics, Believe, No Matter What, and Combined Terror, and harass her umercifully to update faster. ;-)
Like the many other authors here, I own nothing of value. No turtles of any description. *sigh* But I am grateful to those who do own the characters for the pleasure they've brought through their creations.
Reviews are welcome as always, and I always respond to signed reviews. :)
Chapter 1 -Purchased-
Justin Thomas Keagan watched the huge, blond, tattooed man approach with unruffled calm. This had better be worth my time, he thought. His buyer's agent, John Densin had set up this meeting, assuring him that the man, Hun, had something special that Keagan would be interested in seeing for himself.
"I hear you're a collector of rare reptiles." The man's voice was deep, and smooth for such a rough-looking character.
"Yes." Justin didn't even try to keep the boredom out of his voice. What would it be this time? A new color morph? Heaven forbid, a "rare" two headed turtle or snake? Some other mutation, which held no interest beyond the oddity of its existence? Justin had seen it all. He was only interested in the truly rare, the unique, perfect specimen.
"How about turtles?"
Justin sighed. "What species?" He was certain now the man was wasting his time. He made a mental note to have a sharp word with John about this later.
"It's unique," said Hun. "Endangered. There are only four in the world."
"I'm listening." Justin barely contained a yawn.
Hun's eyes narrowed. "I don't think you understand, Mr. Keagan. This isn't an ordinary turtle. It's extremely intelligent, strong and violent. You're going to need restraints, and a cage that will take some abuse. Are you sure you can handle it?"
Justin's eyebrow rose at the implied insult. "Do you have something to show me, or not?"
"This way, Mr. Keagan."
Justin followed the man to the back of the warehouse, where a large area had been walled off into offices. Hun made his way down a row of doors, stopping at the last one on the left. Keagan noticed the heavy lock and the sturdy construction of the newly installed steel door. Hun twisted the key, opening the lock, and swung the door open.
Inside the office was a roughly eight-foot square cage, the type used by circuses to contain lions or bears for transport. It had no bottom, but Keagan noticed it had been firmly fastened to the concrete floor using inch-thick bolts.
Keagan drew a sharp breath in spite of himself. The creature was kneeling in a corner. Its shell was easily two feet wide. Its front legs were pulled behind its back in a position impossible for a normal turtle to obtain without injury. Its feet looked oddly deformed, too long, with two actual toes, rather than the stumpy, clawed pad of a normal turtle. Justin's breath caught in his throat.
After all this time, could it be?
"Would you like a closer look?" Hun was barely containing a triumphant smirk.
Keagan nodded. "Yes."
Hun unlocked the door, and preceded Keagan into the enclosure. He re-locked the door behind them with a sharp click.
The creature responded to the sound, picking up its head and scrambling to get its feet under it. Justin watched in amazement as the creature rose, balancing on its rear limbs.
It's bipedal! The realization hit Justin like a pile driver. He felt his hands shaking. Unique? This is the very creature I spotted in Mongolia. I missed an opportunity to capture it then. It seems like fate that I've been given a second chance at owning it.
"You say it's one of four?"
"The others are still… wild."
"Are they all like this?"
Amazing. It resembles a trachemys scripta elegans, but I've never seen a slider, or any turtle, which was bipedal, or that reached this magnificent size. The bone structure, and musculature, it's almost…human. Justin shook his head. He'd never been one to anthropomorphize.
The creature had managed to stand up, but it was forced to keep its knees slightly bent because of a length of chain running from its shackled wrists to a ring bolted to the floor.
"Are the chains necessary?" asked Justin, noticing with irritation the raw marks on the creature's wrists. If it were allowed to continue struggling against the restraints, its skin would be marred, perhaps permanently.
"Yes," said Hun shortly.
The creature stirred. It had not lifted its head, but there was an intensity in the way it stood, orienting on Hun's voice. Justin moved closer, observing the wide mouth and the rounded beak. His eyes narrowed as he saw the leather muzzle fitted over the creature's face, clamping its beak closed.
"It bites," said Hun, seeing the direction of his gaze.
Justin reached out, fascinated by the leathery green skin, and stroked his finger along the creature's bicep, tracing the clearly defined muscle. The creature jerked away, much more agile than Keagan had expected. For the first time he saw why Hun had the thing chained. The shackles at its feet kept it from moving far, but it seemed to have no trouble keeping its balance, despite the restraints. A low growl escaped its throat.
The creature lifted its head, orienting on Keagan as if it would look at him.
"It's blind!" Keagan's disgust and disappointment made his voice sharp.
"It's temporary," said Hun. "An unfortunate result of his capture. The creatures are incredibly difficult to capture and control. My men used blinding powder so it could be subdued."
Fools! It could be permanently damaged.
"I've been assured that its eyesight will return, in time."
"The physical injuries do affect the price." Keagan stood back, examining the creature critically. He would have preferred the creature in top condition, but it was clearly the same animal he'd seen in Mongolia, several years ago. He could not allow this opportunity to pass him by.
Hun mentioned a sum that had Keagan shaking his head.
"It's damaged," he said flatly. "However, if you were able to acquire others of its kind, I would consider purchasing undamaged specimens at that price."
Keagan's eyes never left the turtle. It was staring toward him with those sightless eyes now. Its hands twisted against the restraints, its knuckles going pale under its green skin as he and Hun dickered over the price.
Justin was struck anew by the almost-human expression of frustration the creature's expression seemed to take on. Something akin to a mix of fury and desperation clouded its features. Finally satisfied with the price, Hun turned to unlock the cage. While he waited, Justin flipped open his cell phone and dialed John Densin's number.
"John? I've made a rather large purchase. I'll need your help in transporting it. Yes, today. It will need to be removed as soon as possible. And contact Greg Matthews. I'll need a specialized containment unit until something suitable can be built."
Keagan leaned toward the creature, feeling slightly foolish, but unable to resist the impulse.
"Don't worry," he said softly. "We'll have you out of here soon."
Justin Keagan brushed his hand over the glass-fronted enclosure, smiling as the three-foot long blood python struck viciously, stopped by the thin glass separating him from his owner. Such spirit! Such patterns. Yes, the young python would grow into a fine specimen. He reached up and unlatched the lid, noticing the way the snake's eyes followed his movements, its tongue flickering out like a flame.
"Here you are. That's it, eat, and grow strong." He dropped the rat into the tank. It never even hit the carpet. Justin smiled. Some herp collectors fed live prey to their animals. Not him. He knew how easily a rat's teeth could scissor through scales, muscle and bone. He would not risk his prime specimens being damaged, their color patterns ruined by scars. No, his snakes were all fed on pre-killed prey. No one took better care of their collections than Justin Keagan.
"Greg Matthews is on line two, Sir. He says it's about the special enclosure you've ordered."
"I'll take it in my office."
Justin grimaced, imagining Greg's buzzed-short crew cut and the five-o-clock shadow that seemed to always adorn the man's face. His too-wide grin would be flashing his yellowing teeth as he practically shouted down the line. Justin sometimes wondered why Greg bothered with a telephone. With his lung capacity, he could just as easily shout from across town and be clearly heard.
"What is it, Greg? I have specimens to feed."
"This enclosure you've ordered, Justin, are you sure this is right? Fifteen by thirty feet, with a fifteen-foot ceiling? And are you sure about the set up of the cage? You don't want the built-in branches, or the basking lights?
"No, those items won't be necessary. I have special plans for customizing the interior."
Justin could almost see Greg's frown of irritation. Greg liked to customize his own cages. It added to the prestige he carried as a dealer when people saw his enclosures housing a collection as fine as Justin's. Not to mention the additional profit customization added to the build.
"The dimensions are huge, even for an anaconda. Are you sure it needs to be this tall? The expense of the glass alone…"
"I'm positive, Greg. It's going to be a special holding cage. Don't worry, I'm aware of the cost."
"But, Justin, are you sure you want the bullet proof safety-glass? What do you plan on keeping, a komodo dragon? Even that wouldn't need glass this thick. A rhino couldn't break this stuff."
"Only the best is good enough for my collection, Greg." Justin forced a jovial note into his voice. This particular specimen had proven difficult to contain in the few days it had been in his possession. He'd already had to install a specialized cage to hold it temporarily. Justin hoped the bulletproof glass would be enough.
"All right, Justin, if you're sure you need this much cage. It must be quite an animal. When will you need the enclosure ready? I can have it delivered and set up for you in say, a week? There will be the extra handling costs, of course, but you've always wanted your enclosures installed as quickly as possible."
"That will be fine." Justin ignored the implied questions- what was he adding to his collection, and when would it arrive?
Sorry, Greg. This specimen is too special to put on display for everyone to see. He is the crowning glory of my private collection, the first in a set. I do plan to collect them all, but I must be patient. Yes, patience is the key. I've waited this long. I can wait a little longer to achieve a goal this important.
Greg made more noises about the cost, and what on earth a cage like this could hold. Justin ignored him, deflecting his questions with evasive answers. Finally, frustrated but cordial, Greg rang off.
Justin set the phone down with a smile. I know you too well, Greg. You never could keep anything to yourself. It's a pity, really, that my newest specimen must be kept secret, but I've spent so much time seeking it, hunting it through the deserts and the jungles after that first sighting three years ago in Mongolia. Ironic that the prize was brought to my hand through an ignorant gorilla like Hun.
Justin wandered down the hallway, past the many glass-fronted enclosures. Each had its own independent ventilation system, constantly circulating fresh air and just the right humidity for the inhabitant.
Lizards basked on branches, specifically designed for their comfort. Snakes coiled in specially designed caves, or on thick layers of substrate, the material as close to their native habitat as could be found. Justin fingered the key hanging from his belt. He allowed himself the smallest of smiles as he slipped it into the concealed hole, and gave it a twist. The hidden door slid silently back, and in, an opening appearing out of what had seemed a solid wall.
Justin entered, pushing the button that sealed the door once again behind him. His eyes adjusted quickly to the dim light. He approached the recently installed cell slowly, giving the creature contained within plenty of time to hear his approach. Undue stress was not good for the animal's health, and it had reacted violently in the past to being startled, though now it seemed calm, almost to the point of indifference.
"It's nearly feeding time," Justin said soothingly. "What would you like today? Perhaps some fresh fruit?" The creature ignored him, turning its back to him and sitting facing the corner. Justin shook his head. "You'll be moved into better quarters as soon as possible," he said softly. Still no reaction.
Justin sighed. The creature was taking longer than he'd anticipated to adjust to his new surroundings. Justin had provided him plenty of quality food, water, the best medical attention, and stimulation, but the creature seemed to prefer solitude to any diversion.
It's almost as if its sulking, thought Justin. Of course, who knows what kind of abuse it suffered at the hands of Hun and his goons. I suppose I should be glad its eyesight will return.
Doctor Johansson was the best of the best, that's why Justin trusted her with his most unique specimen. She'd been intrigued by the creature, and had taken blood samples, with Justin's permission, to study further.
She was nearly as angry as Justin himself over the damage to its eyes, but she assured him that, if the creature left the bandages alone, the eye-patches could be removed in as little as two weeks. His eyesight should be fully restored. Justin hoped she was right. The specimen was too rare, too unique, to risk having damaged. He shook his head, and sighed.
That Hun is an idiot. Still, if he can get me more specimens like this one, he's worth his bulk in gold.