The female liger was named Kali. In Kiswahili, an African language rooted in Arabic, Kali means fierce, while the Hindu goddess, Kali, is the lord of death. Of course, Kali was unaware of her name or even that she was special.
The offspring of a male lion and a female tiger, Kali’s skin was tawny but overlaid with stripes. A tiger’s stripes are usually black, but apart from the tip of her tail and an oval on each ear, Kali’s stripes were orangey-brown. This same hue dotted her face, while her muzzle and underbelly were white and her legs two-toned: the insides white and the outsides golden-tan. Even so, it was not her color that set Kali apart. It was her size.
A male lion mating with a female tiger creates a genetic abnormality – an exotic cat fifty percent larger than either parent. Instead of a standard length of six to eight feet, Kali was more than twelve feet long, and while a lion can top five hundred pounds and a tiger six, Kali weighed nine hundred pounds. Even without a mane, her head was much larger than a lion’s. Huge incisors were deeply embedded and designed to crack bone, and her four inches of sharp, pointed fangs were perfect for ripping and tearing raw meat. Her diurnal claws, over five inches long when extended, were the envy of any German cutlery manufacturer.
In all, Kali was the most powerful and deadly feline ever to walk the planet. Fortunately for the creatures of eastern Idaho, Kali did not yet know how deadly she was. Like the few other ligers in the world, Kali had been born and bred in captivity. But unlike them, Kali was now free.
The Saturday morning in mid-September when Kali appeared at the Placett’s farm was the second day of her three-year life that she had not been caged. It also was the second day she had to hunt and to kill in order to eat, and she was hungry. Kali had reached the barnyard and was approaching a coop of fluttering chickens when the sudden, startling shriek of a smoke alarm in the farmhouse kitchen sent her bounding through the open door of a shed. Minutes later, Wade Placett came outside and called for his two black Labs, who had been missing since dawn, walked past the old smokehouse, kicked the door shut, and latched it.
The barnyard remained quiet except for the chickens until mid-morning, when Mandy Placett brought out the laundry. She was pinning the last of four sets of sheets to the clothesline when her five-year-old daughter cried out. “Ouch!” Tammy said.
“What’d you do now?”
She pouted. “I didn’t do nothing.”
“Anything. And I saw you pestering Muggles.”
Tammy was swinging a ball on a string, keeping it barely out of the reach of a tan-and-white tabby boxing at it with her paws. Muggles was a two-year-old barn cat, although not a good mouser yet.
“Look! See what she did.” Tammy showed her mother a thin red claw-mark on the underside of her right forearm.
“Well, I think you’ll live,” Mandy said.
The screendoor banged and ten-year-old Josh hopped down the porch steps, saying, “My bike’s broke again, Mom.” Without saying more, he trotted across the backyard to the tool shed attached to the barn. Other buildings included the chicken coop, an old smokehouse used to store feed, a wood shed, and a long, open-faced building for machinery.
“Josh knows where daddy hid the firecrackers.”
“And he knows better than to mess with them too,” Mandy said, while on her way to the glassed-in porch where the washer, thumping away on the spin cycle, and the dryer, used only in the winter, squatted along the interior wall.
Outside, Muggles suddenly hissed and arched her back. Her hair shot up like she had been zapped by electricity. “Bad, bad kitty,” Tammy said, thumping the cat in the face with the swinging ball. Muggles leaped a foot in the air and the instant she landed darted across the dusty earth and spotty grass toward the old smokehouse.
“Don’t let her in my chicken feed again,” Mandy called from the porch. Although they piled rocks and firewood chunks to plug the holes where the gray planks had rotted away, the cat somehow managed to slip into the shed.
“Come back kitty,” Tammy pleaded as Muggles squeezed through an impossibly small opening. “Stupid cat.”
“Go get her, Tammy.” A minute later when the washer stopped, Mandy heard the chickens flap and screech as Tammy ran past their coop, calling for Muggles. “Josh, come help your sister,” Mandy shouted. “Cat’s in the feed shed.”
“Okay, Mom,” he yelled back. Josh pulled a string of firecrackers out of a wooden box that set beside a wrench on the old plank workbench. “Cool,” he said to himself.
“Here kitty, kitty,” Tammy said when she reached a wooden shed that had been built for curing meats but now smelled like dry corn and manure. “Come’re, kitty.”
Even from the back porch, Mandy heard the sound – a loud and painful meow suddenly cut short by – by what?
“Mug-gles.” Tammy tiptoed to reach the latch that secured the plank door and nudged it open. “Here kitty.”
“Tammy, wait!” Mandy hollered as she slammed open the screendoor and in her hurry only toe-tapped the steps.
“I can do it, Momma. I’m a big girl now.” Tammy peered inside the shed. “Here kitty, kitty.” From out of the dark she heard a deep, guttural sound. “Kitty?”
“Tammy! No!” Mandy yelled, rushing to her daughter.
Josh opened the tool-shed door and slid a wood match across the striker of the red matchbox.
“Kitty? Where are you?” Tammy said in a near-whisper, opening the smokehouse door wider. “C’mere, kitty.”
Kali’s head appeared out of shadows. Her head was a hundred times larger than the tabby’s. Her huge amber eyes glowed. Her white muzzle and long whiskers were smeared with fresh blood. She flashed red-stained teeth and loosed a spine shivering sound. Tammy screamed and Josh, at the same moment, lit the fuse and tossed out the firecrackers.
“Tammy!” cried Mandy.
Tammy screamed again as a stream of urine ran down her legs.
POW-POW-POW! The exploding firecrackers danced across the ground, while Kali sprang straight toward Tammy.