Southern California was showing off her natural beauty as only she could as Josh and Rosemaria drove up the coast past Montecito and Santa Barbara. Josh was behind the wheel of his classic blue-gray Mustang convertible that was barely hanging on to life. The ocean was on the left, the hills of Santa Barbara on the right. Palm trees, beaches, and blue skies with a hint of fluffy white clouds completed the picture postcard.
“We live in paradise, my friend,” Rosemaria announced. The top was down, and a warm breeze ruffled their hair.
“And it’s for sale at a million dollars per square inch.” Josh patted her knee. “We can look but not touch.”
“Oh, pshaw, we’re a year away from a house on a cliff overlooking the ocean.”
“That’s a lot of faith you have in this ol’ guitar plucker, ma’am.”
“Just keep pluckin’. We’ll get there.”
They drove through Santa Barbara, past Lompoc, and toward San Louis Obispo. Then, they took an exit toward the ocean. A road on their right, unmarked, led them to the Second Chance Sanctuary, where panthers, mountain lions, and other big cats could roam free, surrounded by tall fences that kept them in and people out. These cats had grown up in captivity and were unfit to be released in the wild, so the sanctuary was the next best thing to real freedom. They drove through the entrance and parked next to the office in the main building.
Jason Ruesch—a t hin, wiry, thirty-two-year-old man with limitless energy—ran the place with the help of several volunteers and a visiting veterinarian. He had worked at the zoo with Josh, also as a caretaker, and now had a new job more to his liking. He loved animals, but in a short time, he had concluded that the zoo was nothing but a prison. He felt guilty leaving the animals he had grown to love at the zoo but was happy he could now oversee the amazing transformation of cats who had been abused by zoos, circuses, and private owners. He enjoyed observing them as they slowly learned to trust, made friends, and reveled in their freedom. He was at his desk, working on his endless grant proposals, when Josh and Rosemaria came through the door. He leaped to his feet. “Hey, you two! Good to see you!”
They shook hands. “We came to see our kids,” Josh said. “They in the closed area?”
“I just coaxed them in there. They know that means you’re coming.”
Josh was eager to get going. “Let’s go then.”
Josh and Rosemaria followed Jason out of the office and sat in the back seat of his golf cart while he drove them down a dusty road for half a mile. Jason stopped in front of a gate attached on both sides to a high, smooth fence topped with barbed wire and cameras every 10 feet. The fence kept the animals safe and rendered escape and the invasion of intruders impossible. He unlocked the gate and invited them in.
“Enjoy your time.”
“Always,” Rosemaria said.
Jason handed Josh a key card. “I had this made for you.”
Josh took it and smiled. “I owe you.”
They went through the gate, and Jason locked it behind them and headed back to the golf cart. Josh and Rosemaria walked a few feet to another gate, manually unhooked it, then walked quickly to their usual meeting place by a large flat-topped rock surrounded by brush and a few small trees. Josh didn’t bother to call out. Noor and Gilbert would know they were there. They sat down, side by side, on a tree stump to wait, smiling wide and barely breathing.
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