Ann Gora, a pretty young she-kat, was buying Chinese food from a vendor. She was a young field reporter for Kat’s Eye News, the biggest news company in the city.
Short and thin, with a neatly-trimmed bob haircut and clothing that tended towards various shades of blues and greens, Ann’s nickname around the station was “Annbitious,” because of her dedication to going all-out. She had a tendency to put her own life on the line in pursuit of a story. If she had one flaw, it was that she tended to insist those working with her have the same level of fearless commitment that she had, and as a result, she tended to endanger others as often as she endangered herself. As a result, although her superiors loved her, her co-workers didn’t, and she had gone through a grand total of twelve different cameramen since joining the outfit three years before.
Still, she always got her story, and so her bosses tolerated her reckless behavior as long as she kept getting results. And, she intended to. As much as she loved the thrill of the chase.
Nearby, her latest cameraman was sitting in their news van listening to the Enforcer band through a scanner sitting on the dashboard, idly drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. Jonny K. – as he’d styled himself – was a scruffy, compact, muscular young fellow wearing a purple turtleneck sweater and a red baseball cap turned backwards in the current popular style. Mirrored sunglasses were perched up on the cap, leaving his eyes free to see for night driving.
Something on the radio caught his attention, and, leaning out the open window of the driver’s side door, he called over to Ann as she approached with their dinner.
“Hey, Annie, c’mere and listen to this!”
Walking over with two boxes of takeout, Ann got into the passenger’s seat of the van. “What is it, Jonny?” she asked eagerly.
“Check this out,” Jonny said, twiddling the dial on the radio.
They heard an Enforcer’s voice coming in through the static. “-repeat, the road’s been blocked by flaming wreckage, but the thieves are headed south on Old Megakat Bridge! Driving a silver sport utility vehicle, I repeat, a silver sport utility vehicle! Be advised-”
He broke up before they could hear any more, but it was enough to whet Ann’s appetite. She smelled a story, and she and Jonny could easily get a head start on any of their rivals if they got moving now! “That’s less than a mile from here!” she gushed. “Whaddaya say, Jonny?”
By way of answering, Jonny started the engine and sped off. A little while later, they came onto an old country road a few miles from Old Megakat Bridge amidst some slow-moving, sparse late night traffic. All of a sudden, a silver-colored SUV, horn blaring, roared into viewed, weaving in and out of the sparse traffic, passing the news van. From where she sat, Ann could make out at least three people inside of it.
“There, Jonny,” she cried excitedly, “that’s them!”
Her cameraman frowned. “All right, so now what?” he asked.
“Follow them!” Ann urged him, as though it were the most obvious answer in the world. “Hundred to one they lead us right to their hideout!”
That was what Jonny was afraid of. “All right, all right, I know better than to argue with you…”
He shook his head. Out of Ann’s cameramen, he’d been with her the longest. He’d been a thrill seeker once. Before coming to work for the news outfit, he’d been a professional skateboarder for whom an eye for photography and a knack for video cameras had been a mere hobby. When not competing, he often photographed or filmed his fellow athletes, and always got great shots. But, following a catastrophic accident during a particularly daring stunt which had all but ruined Jonny’s left leg and several months of recovery, Jonny stopped competing and turned instead to making a living off of his natural eye and his nearly savant-like abilities with a camera.
Ann’s enthusiasm made him nervous, but the two had come out of tons of scrapes together none the worse for wear, and so generally he trusted her. If nothing else, he stayed with her because he felt as though he were looking out for her. He felt as though his naturally cautious nature since his accident balanced out Ann’s more headstrong instincts quite well.
Following a group of armed and dangerous criminals wasn’t exactly his idea of a good idea, but she’d never steered him wrong before. And so, he shook his head and turned off his headlights, then dropped in speed so that the van fell behind the SUV until he held at a steady twenty, keeping the SUV’s tail lights in sight ahead of him at all times.
Claude Balcus wasn’t just big. He was a titan of a feline. A colossus. Any room he entered, even at his family’s ancestral home Darkhaven, seemed too small to properly contain him.
He was old, but had aged well, being roughly sixty, but appearing in his mid-fifties, with an immense chest and shoulders so broad that it always seemed like a miracle that he fit through anything less than double doors. Everything from his suits to his shoes had to be tailor made for his enormous frame. He was a very dark feline, with charcoal gray fur. His facial features were deeply lined but still handsome, with strangely luminous eyes that stood out in stark contrast to his dark fur. Of equal notability was his light gray, almost white, hair, neatly coifed and arranged up, back and away from his face. He’d gone gray in his hair prematurely, and it gave him a very distinguished appearance he quite liked. He thought he photographed well.
He stood in the Deputy Mayor’s office at City Hall, arms folded behind him, hands clasped together, looking out upon the city. His city. Manx’s name was on everything, of course, but it was Balcus’ city and had been for the past decade or so. Only a few people realized it, though, and he aimed to keep it that way. Annoying, blustering old fool though he was, Manx was a perfect figurehead for diverting attention away from Megakat City’s true master: Deputy Mayor Balcus. And, best of all, he didn’t even know it! Balcus had a way of coming up with brilliant ideas and selling them to Manx in such a way that the fat, bespectacled old curmudgeon in the world’s most obvious toupee would think HE had come up with them. So, Manx had his uses.
The intercom on Balcus’ desk buzzed. A thickly accented voice that was neither Scottish nor Irish but something in-between came through the tiny speaker. “Claude? Claude! Are you there?”
Balcus’ proud smile faded slightly. Yes, Manx had his uses. But, he was still annoying.
But, they were fast approaching the phase of his plan wherein that usefulness would finally run out, and Balcus could finally be rid of him, freeing himself to pursue… other projects. Then, slowly, his smile returned.
He turned and approached his desk. An enormous hand, gold and jewel-encrusted rings on his very thick fingers, giving him a slightly affluent appearance more befitting royalty than a humble civil servant, came up and with his ringed index finger he pressed the “talk” button on the intercom after making a point of making Manx wait a few moments longer than was necessary. It amused him to make Manx wait.
“Yes, sir?” he said in a rich, deep baritone.
“Get in here!” snapped Manx. “I want to finish going over those decorations!”
Balcus took his finger off of the button and sighed. Duty called. His plan was close… but still far enough away he had to keep playing yes-man and errand boy to the entitled buffoon he’d worked hard to keep in office for nine terms. But, first, he’d let Manx wait just a little longer. He wasn’t done with his nightly gaze upon Megakat City, and so he returned to the window and gazed out upon the vast coastal cityscape that was his from the tallest building to the smallest apartment slum. He felt above the world, a god, and he took a deep breath in through his nose, nostrils flaring, and then slowly exhaled.
A god. What a wonderful thought! Maybe not this time, but soon he fancied he’d be the next best thing. Soon, if all went well, and he had no reason to think it wouldn’t, Megakat City would be fully within his dark embrace and the citizens would tremble in awed worship as they fell at the feet of their new king.
A few minutes later, Balcus was speaking with Mayor Manx and going over decorations with him. They two stood in Manx’s enormous, high-ceilinged office on the tenth floor of City Hall, one of the few rooms in Megakat City outside of his personal apartment that was large enough that Balcus felt relatively comfortable in it.
Manx, short, overweight and wearing a dark gray toupee that didn’t even remotely match what little hair he had left, stood squinting intently through a delicate pince-nez perched on his muzzle, studying a green and blue banner that said “400th Anniversary” on it.
Balcus was sitting on the edge of the Mayor’s desk, hands folded in his lap, his face the very picture of patience. Despite being the one who considered this a chore, Manx was the one acting angry and impatient. Balcus knew why. He had a golf game tomorrow that he didn’t want to miss, and he wanted to hurry up and get the decorations for the party chosen.
As he watched the little Mayor doing the closest thing to work he’d seen him do in at least four years, Balcus couldn’t help but marvel at Manx’s ego. Generally, Manx preferred to let someone else, usually him, handle anything having to do with the day to day running of Megakat City, but he was so filled with unfounded pride at “his” city that rather than leave the task of decoration-picking up to his event planners, Manx insisted on micro-managing every aspect of the upcoming anniversary celebration. It amused Balcus to see Manx care about things that ultimately didn’t matter, while pawning other, more important tasks off on underlings.
But it seemed that after several hours of going over decoration after decoration, the novelty of feeling like he was doing something actually worthwhile was beginning to wear thin for Manx, and he was getting extremely annoyed and impatient.
“I think the green and blue looks best, don’t you, Claude?” Manx said at last, holding up a banner that said “400th Anniversary” in blue lettering on a green background. It matched the colors of his suit, Balcus noticed.
“I actually prefer the, uh, purple and red color scheme, Mr. Mayor,” Balcus said, pointing with a clawed finger to a version that had red lettering on a dark purple background, one he’d designed himself. Purple and red was a color scheme he’d always liked, in part because it was the theme of the Darkhaven crest – a dark red “D” on a purple background which the Balcus family had adopted as the symbol of their ancestral home, which currently sat dormant and unused in the countryside, or so everyone thought.
Manx frowned and picked the purple and red banner up, scrutinizing it. He clearly didn’t like it. “I don’t know,” he said doubtfully. “Seems a bit… imperious, don’t you think? I’m still not entirely sure we ought to host the big bash at that drafty old mansion anyway.”
Balcus smiled and got off of the desk to stand at his full height over Manx. “Why, that’s the idea, sir. To show the people of Megakat City, not to mention the world, that after four-hundred years as a modern metropolis we’re still the most powerful city in the country.”
So saying, he made a fist. Manx still looked a little uncertain but shrugged, tossing the banner down. His patience had finally run out. Good, thought Balcus, that meant he was that much closer to being done. “Eh, whatever,” Manx said. “Just as long as we get this over with. I’m tired, and I need to be up early for tee-off in the morning.”
“Relax, Mayor,” Balcus assured him, “you won’t miss a wink of sleep.”
“Now, as for the dinnerware-”
Manx was in the middle of picking up a catalogue of expensive plates and glasses when suddenly the phone rang. He answered it.
“Manx,” he said into the phone. There was a pause. He looked disappointed, then turned and handed the phone to Balcus. “It’s for your,” he said glumly.
Balcus took the phone and brought it to his ear, listening. A moment later, he heard the silky voice of Todfeld slither through the earpiece, speaking rapidly, his voice a little tinny due to the unreliable quality of the SUV’s car phone.
“It’s me, sir,” he said. “The mission was a success. Despite some complications courtesy of the Enforcers, we managed to get in and get out without losing anybody. Except for Reno, of course. As ordered, he’s been taken care of.”
Balcus smiled. “Good,” he said, feeling overwhelming pride and satisfaction at Todfeld’s report. Mention of the Enforcers interfering annoyed him. He could’ve sworn he’d told Ashland there were to be no Enforcers anywhere near that area. He’d need to discuss it with him later, but, for the time being, the success of the mission kept his temper in check. “I knew I could depend on you.”
“Thank you, sir,” Todfeld replied proudly. As far as most people in Megakat City were concerned, Mayor Manx included, Todfeld was merely the Deputy Mayor’s personal assistant and valet, but to Balcus, the thin, dark-haired Todfeld was so much more than that. “And, as for the gold, I’m in the process of delivering it to the designated location.”
“Good!” Balcus said. “I’ll see you tonight, then.”
“Goodbye,” Todfeld said and hung up.
Balcus handed the phone back to Manx, who brought it to his ear, but heard only the dial tone. He hung up, looking annoyed as Balcus went to the door. On the way, he scooped up his black wide-brimmed fedora and matching overcoat, which were draped over a chair.
“Where are you going?” Manx demanded in a petulant tone.
“Sorry, sir,” Balcus replied, doing his best to sound like he really was sorry, “but some important business came up that I need to attend to. I’m sure you understand.”
The Mayor looked sullen as Balcus put his fedora on and threw on his coat and walked out of the office confidently, not feeling the need to explain himself any further to his employer.
“We’ll finish going over the decorations tomorrow,” Balcus said over his shoulder.
“Welp, there goes my golf game tomorrow…” Manx said with a sigh as the door slammed behind Balcus.
The news van drove along a two-lane blacktop. There wasn’t another car visible for miles in either directions. No houses, either. Just endless trees. Inside, Ann and Jonny scanned the lonely, desolate road. Ann was annoyed. Jonny’s cautious driving had resulted in the SUV pulling away from them and disappearing, and it seemed as though they’d lost it. They were nearing the bridge spanning Megakat Canyon, and, beyond that, the highway just wound aimlessly through undeveloped rocky woodland on its way around the mountains to the Megakat Desert. Past that point, the escaped thieves could be anywhere. If they didn’t find where they’d went soon, Ann realized, they might have to give up the chase.
It wouldn’t be a total loss. The least she could do was inform the Enforcers of where the fugitives had gone so they had some idea of where to look for them. When suddenly, up ahead on their left, she saw a dark wrought-iron gate with a “D” insignia.
Jonny saw it too. He slowed the van to a stop at the gate. Beyond it was a tree-lined gravel road leading up to a very large mansion, barely visible in the darkness.
“What’s this place?” Jonny asked.
Ann recognized it after a moment. “Darkhaven Manor,” she said. Admittedly, she’d never seen it in person, but given its location near Megakat Canyon, it couldn’t be anything else, unless there was some other giant country mansion she didn’t know about. “It used to be some big mansion that the Deputy Mayor’s family lived in, but it’s been closed up for years.”
“Sounds like a good place for these guys to have their hideout, huh?” Jonny observed. “And, I’ll bet the Deputy Mayor would love to know whose occupyin’ his house while he lives in the city!”
Ann nodded, liking the cameraman’s instincts. The Balcus family hadn’t lived in the house for at least a generation. Certainly, the Deputy Mayor had never lived in it as far as she was aware. And, like Jonny suggested, a place like Darkhaven, closed down and unlived in, would present an opportunity too tempting to pass up from a group of thieves in need of a hideout.
“Take us around the side,” Ann said.
Jonny drove down the road a ways. Ahead, they could see the bridge going across Megakat Canyon. Darkhaven was closer to the canyon than Ann had thought. Jonny turned left and drove into the woods a ways, stopping as he came to the fence marking off the edge of the mansion’s property. He shut off the engine, but left the keys in the ignition, turning and regarding Ann a little nervously.
“Want me to go in with you…?” he asked.
“No,” Ann said, thinking. She too had been reflecting over how dangerous their current undertaking was. She wanted someone on the outside in case something befell her, and she told Jonny as much. “It might be dangerous, and, if I don’t come back, I need you here to call for help.”
Jonny nodded, still looking extremely worried. Taking a small camera, Ann got out of the van. Running over, she paused at the fence, frowning, then nimbly scrambled over the top, dropping down to the overgrown lawn on the other side.
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