RELEASE THE FLYING MONKEYS
Hello, all – newbie scribe Sarah Combs here with my first contribution to the archive. Since, in an intriguing bit of synchronicity, this takes place in a world I created a bit prior to running into the Kats, I felt I should describe it here for you first. Get a comfy chair; it’ll take a while…
On a Jupiter-sized planet named Terra Felidae, there lives an entire race of intelligent, humanoid cat-creatures. They were alone on their planet and were quite happy by themselves, but (as there always is a but) that changed abruptly one century when humans came to Terra Felidae.
The humans were led by a dissatisfied group of neo-Druids who, contrary to their pacifist cousins, were totally disgusted with the state of Earth, mostly because of the acts of invaders of their own. The neo-Druids decided to tap into the more arcane lore of astral teleportation to find a new home – guess who they found? – and took along with them some hundred farmers and peasants to begin a new colony. Once on Felidae, the Druids set about establishing human superiority from the get-go: the colonists were employed to subjugate all felids, take all land available, and set up strongholds near the landing area. This all happened circa 900 A.D (Terran and Felid years are the same).
In the millennium following, cat-human relations cooled off to the point where the species can civilly coexist. Magicks and eldritch knowledge still exist, but only barely: only a handful of dying humans and small clutches of cats uphold magick today. To the less exclusive, technology blossomed early on from advanced native culture and knowledge of the Druids, and so is vastly superior to Earth’s (isn’t that always the way?). All Felid governments know of Earth, as they have been watching over us since the first Terrans described it. Among the civvies, Earth lives only in folklore passed down from the original colonists, and those legends are dim at best.
Still there? Over the first years, the Druids still in practice continued ‘porting over colonists, but this time chose candidates from all over the world. The human population, to the cats’ dismay, grew more diverse, and from this came new countries named for the humans’ old homes. Two such countries – the Japanese floating continent Tensaku and the country of New America – are also the most influential on modern Felidae.
In New America and its protectorates, the cats are colloquially called “kats”, and the largest concentration of kats in the country happens to live in the nation’s financial capital: MegaKat City. This lovely concrete jungle is situated on the east coast, near the equator, and in addition to being a tourist trap, it’s a paranoid’s nightmare. With the city’s immense worth, security can and often does probe as far as hotel rooms and even public bathrooms to make sure no one tries anything funny. As if that weren’t enough, the local police, called the Enforcers, resembles a militia, using heavy artillery that would intimidate a small nation to keep the peace. While this “Big Brother from Hades” approach works on the local yokels, the underground is a whole different issue.
Last notes for the day: Kats are evidently the largest portion of Felidae’s sentient population at about 75%, and the migrant humans number a somewhat noteworthy 13%. So who’s the final 12%? Hybrids.
Hybrids – or halfbreeds, or half-kats, or taints, as they’re sometimes called – are the usually-female offspring of a kat/human cross. They exhibit physical features of both species, but for biological reasons, they are not considered a species in and of themselves. In MegaKat City, hybrids occupy a dis-proportionately large quarter of the populus, with two varieties: those with white ear tufts (like Felina and Turmoil), the result of a male kat/female human mix, and those without (like Callie, Dr. Sinian, and Ann Gora), the result of a female kat/male human mix.
That’s about all the explurfation you’ll need for my more esoteric ramblings. My address is email@example.com, so please e-mail me with your comments and criticism when you’ve finished, and awaaaayyy we go.
About four months ago, he remembered, there was nothing remarkable about the garage, nor the concealed hangar beneath it – that was just one of several relics of the half-century-past New American/Tanabrian cold war. The unglamorous facility had since festered until he stumbled down its poorly-lit stairway that short time back. Its existence underwhelmed him terribly, but it nearly gave his friend Jake a coronary.
“Look at all this!” Jake gushed once he’d seen the annex. “Chance, don’t you *see*? It would work so perfectly, it isn’t even funny.”
“It’s crusty, it’s moldy, and I nearly paralyzed myself finding it,” Chance sullenly replied. For some odd reason, Jake had fallen headfirst into love with the idea of becoming a vigilante duo the moment he saw the military salvage above. Chance, on the other hand, was hardly in the right mood to hear about it, and having hurtled down fifty feet of stairway hadn’t helped his attitude any, either. “And we’re supposed to be working off a debt, not playing superheroes.”
Jake ignored him. “It’ll get paid, it’ll get paid. But *think*…we have more than enough material up in that yard to make our own jet, and we can fix this place up. C’mon, whaddaya say?”
Chance just stood, disbelieving, by the stairwell. His hyperventilating friend seemed to have lost his mind, probably due to their recent sudden expulsion. Jake had a forceful streak of eccentricity anyway, Chance acknowledged, but it wasn’t so severe as to make him accept wholeheartedly the idea of vigilanteism. He hoped.
“A year,” the kat across the way muttered. “A year, and we could have our jet, if we start right now. I’ll see what we have up there, and then we’ll come up with our plan. You’ll help me build it, of course…”
It was as useful as yelling at a deaf person in a foreign language. Chance shook his head. “You’re serious. Do you *really* want to bring another load on us?” Jake instantly affirmed the question.
“Oh, all right. I’ll see what I can do,” Chance relented with a heavy sigh. “But don’t expect me to actually go through with it.”
Currently, Chance and Jake had an alloyed frame enclosing a set of rebuilt turbojets – two jump jets and a souped-up straight jet – and most of the defense system wired. Chance was still skeptical of the notion of being freelance heroes, but in certain moments, it could look pretty good. When he really considered it, it even seemed weirdly rational: Rather than leave delicate situations to the heavy-footed, red-taped Enforcers, the two of them could fly in and neatly resolve any conflict, using their own methods, completely free of federal regs. The idea was appealing, but the means made his law-abiding side shiver. Could they really afford to do this, he wondered, given their current standing with the police? The yellow kat looked up from the soldering iron as Jake materialized next to him.
Jake was wiping his hands with a blue rag and looked anticipatory, like a young kid an hour before a birthday party. “I’ve got it to where the engines are functional. Once we get the weapons system on line and clothe it, we can get up in the air.”
Chance first regarded Jake, and then the would-be jet. “That’s good. But how do we know where to begin? I mean, we need to know where to go first, not just fly out and start blowing up jaywalkers.”
“Oh.” The brown kat gazed at the unfinished craft. “I just figured we’d tune into the Enforcer band – I found a receiver for it – and then we’ll step in when we’re needed. Could you help me with that Vulcan cannon over there?”
The armament in question dangled from the left of the jet’s nose. Chance obediently walked under it and up onto a platform to hand Jake, who had leaped inside the plane, what he ordered. “Need a Philips,” Jake called. Chance searched among the array and found one.
“Have you any idea how much this’ll rearrange everything?” asked Chance. “If it works, we’ll be solely responsible for the *entire* city…and we don’t have any teammates to fall back on, either.”
“We’ll be enough.”
“If we screw up, it’s all on us.”
“I know that. Pliers.”
“Having a city-state’s lives in your paws doesn’t faze you at all.”
“Yeah it does. We’ve done it before, remember?”
“You’re awfully cool about all this,” Chance snorted. “Why are you so intent on being a maskeed guy in a costume, anyway? Not like we’ll get anything back out of it.”
“The safety of millions of people is nothing?”
“Nothing we can use *here*, I meant.”
Jake quietly sat up and faced the other kat. “We need to do this because it needs to be done,” he softly replied. “MegaKat City needs decent law enforcers. It doesn’t have any because its police – well, the chief of police – is absolutely clueless. But if someone had the proper knowledge of the city – we do – and the right equipment – us again – then the city might have a chance for a decent night’s sleep. I don’t know. I’ve always been taught that if you have something somebody else needs, you should give it to them. Maybe I’m wrong.” The words floated for a bit.
Chance gave a slight nod. “I see,” he said. He flicked an ear forward, and after a time, he asked, “So how long ’til this heap’s in the air?”
Jake, engrossed in his work, replied, “A good six months, most likely. But I thought you weren’t into the superhero gig, Chance.”
“If you want to fly this thing, I am,” the striped one explained. “MegaKat City won’t be able to enjoy its ‘new law enforcement’ if he keeps running into radio towers.”
“That’s better,” Jake cheerfully answered.
The pair worked silently, musing over what was happening. Neither considered the risk to their lives, as it had yet to occur to them. An instinctive duty, bred from their former lives as Enforcers, saturated all the thoughts spinning in Jake’s head. Chance still had his reservations, but his friend’s mentality could be awfully infective. Finally, he resolved to let the whole thing happen before he passed any total judgment. Jake *could* be right.
Dominica le Normand really, really wanted to fling someone out a window, but since not only was that illegal but that particular someone also controlled her paycheck, she would have to settle for a punching bag as a weak substitute. There weren’t any windows in the gym, anyway.
Not that the soft-spoken lady kat was given to spontaneous acts of violence, but recently she had undergone a load of personal injury, and so she was rather touchy: A few months back, her fiance and a close mutual friend both had been unceremoniously dropped from the Enforcers, deposited on the other side of the city, and forced to work off a debt they didn’t even earn. She had not heard from either since. Dominica bandaged her wrists, and her little fist hit the bag with a muffled *thwumpf* as she recalled the parting.
“Maybe he’ll lessen the charge as time passes,” Dominica offered as she helped carry their luggage to their car. “He has to realize it couldn’t be all your fault. Doesn’t he?”
“You mean Mr. Anal-Retentive? I wouldn’t bet on it. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t start charging us for maintenance payments while he’s at it,” muttered Chance.
“He’s got a point,” Jake agreed. He opened the trunk for her, and she unloaded the baggage. She hoisted another bag in, then looked at her boyfriend. He was staring pensively at the asphalt, motionless except for the slight movements of his breathing. She looked for Chance and found him checking the engine, mumbling something half-vindictively about Spam and steak knives. When he came around, she afforded him a wan smile.
“Don’t hurt yourself doing that,” he responded. “I’ve got another bag up there – I’ll run and get it.”
Once Chance had ducked back into the building, Dominica scanned the smoldering remains of the newly-built control tower; three years and twelve million dollars’ work, all blasted away in ten seconds. She flitted her eyes to the ground and wondered what to think.
“There’s no way we can defend ourselves, either. The only witness other than us is Feral, and he won’t accuse himself.”
Jake shuffled next to her, and they surveyed the scene together. He placed an arm about her shoulder, and the two watched the last entrails of smoke twist up and away into nothingness. “At least that smell of burnt oil’s gone now,” he drily observed.
“When do you think I can see you?” she asked, subdued.
“Well…” her companion sighed, “it depends. We’re going to be clear out in the boonies at about twenty-five or so miles from here, so either way it’s a long drive. Your presence is demanded here, so for sake of convenience, I’d have to come and meet you somewhere. Even then it’d have to be when work is slow, but…” He paused, realization having just come to him then, and continued, “In other words, not all that soon, Nicka.”
“Let’s not think about that now, okay?”
“Is under a year too soon? You can’t be very busy in your first year out there, and-”
“I said let’s not think about that now.”
“But I want to know now! When-”
She stopped, and leaned against the car. “Please.”
“I’ll call you.”
Chance emerged from the dorms and joined them. “Ready to go,” he reported. “You wanna go now, or do you wanna wait a little bit?”
“No, let’s go,” Jake answered. He edged away to let Chance say goodbye and watched placidly as Chance picked the petite woman up off the ground in a bear hug. She hugged him back as best as she could, and he replaced her next to Jake, ruffling her dark brunette hair. After Chance climbed into the car, Jake embraced her. He crushed her against himself, his arms tightened around her, and one hand grasped her waist as the other stroked her right shoulder. She held on to him as long as he would let her, but finally he had to leave.
“The one on the other side of the city?” she asked them as Chance put the car into gear.
“Yeah, past the bridge,” Chance called from the window. “Thinking of coming down later?”
“If I’m allowed.”
“All right, then. See you around, Nicka.” The car pulled out of the lot and eased into the busy street, where they were whisked away by the morning traffic. She watched them move downstream and disappear around a corner.
“Major le Normand.”
In the present, Dominica nonchalantly drew her arm back out of the punching bag, then brushed the filling out of her white fur. She blandly regarded the deflating bag, then turned around to the voice. “Yes, sir.”
The commander gave his subordinate a disconcerted expression, then informed her, “Shays has a new hybrid recruit. I want you to keep an eye on her and report if any change in her rank is necessary.”
Commander Feral brusquely about-faced and departed.
That was the man whom Dominica absolutely, positively despised. Long before he had ejected Chance and Jake, he spooked her from the first time she saw him. He had the uncanny knack of finding her, wherever she was, at any given moment – like now – and then bother her with some request or another. Why would *she* need to watch some rookie when Shays could do it fine by himself? She wondered if Feral did this to anybody else, even though when she asked several other officers, they couldn’t relate to her problem. She would have loved a resignation just to escape the scuffle her situation might raise, and she considered it constantly, but quitting would jeopardize the life of her last bit of family in New America: her mother. If her father hadn’t… “left” right when they arrived, Dominica might have had an opportunity to relax, maybe enroll in college and then find a comfortable job. But that was not a choice now. It wasn’t her father’s fault that he passed on, her mother told her, and so Dominica was the one on whom their lives depended, being the most able and capable of English speech. Yet Dominica often regretted being forced to stay in the Enforcers, at times even subconsciously blaming her father for her lot.
Dominica shook her head to bring herself to the present again. *Papa’, your little girl is becoming nothing like the officer you were, and now she threw herself a fit,* she scolded herself, frowning at the pitiful punching bag. She examined the gym for an assistant, located one, and tossed her towel around her shoulders. “Floyd, could you clean that up for me? Thanks,” she called before her target could reply. She toed out the door and hurried to her dorm down the stairs, shifting her mind to her daily schedule.
*The foreign girl’s a terrific officer,* thought Feral while marching up to his office, *but she’s awfully tense.* Whenever he tried to talk to her, she rarely responded in more than two syllables at a time. Perhaps it was her upbringing – her hometown *had* been in the middle of the Cosa Nostra’s Nitalianese stronghold, as he found while reading her application. Or maybe it was culture shock. Either way, he regularly checked up on her, partially to see if she was performing her job properly, mostly out of concern for the reticent woman. She was an otherwise noteworthy pilot and officer, and so he wanted to make sure she stayed in line. That was why he nearly took personal offense when she began to associate with Clawson and Furlong.
Jake Clawson and Chance Furlong, possibly his least favorite pilots in years, were only the most belligerent, sophomoric pilots on the roster. Neither respected authority, both seemed to go out of their way to destroy public property, and their flying was disgustingly flamboyant. They twisted his words, they frequently insubordinated, and generally they tried endlessly to aggravate him. That was also why they *were* the most belligerent, sophomoric pilots on the roster; he had discharged them both not long ago. Even if it was an unfair charge, it did not begin to pay them back for what they did.
The chase involved unusually high stakes: an extortionist who claimed invulnerability (and proved it well), carrying with him heavy artillery to rival the Enforcers’ own and the mental imbalance to level MegaKat City in one stroke. On the Enforcers’ side, three squadrons had been erased, and the final pilots were Clawson, Furlong, and himself. Feral joined the chase late, though, and seeing the two officers tailing their prey convinced him that he had to intervene. He swept in, one jet-length behind the officers, and prepared for lock-on.
“Sir, we already have a lock. We don’t need your assistance,” came Furlong’s voice, a moment later.
“Return to base. There’s been enough collateral damage,” Feral ordered. “I’ll handle this.”
“That’s a negative, sir. We’re locked on!” Clawson added with a tone that told Feral it was spoken through clenched teeth. The extortionist’s path ahead wavered imperceptibly.
“I repeat, return to base. This is not an argument.”
“No, we HAVE a LOCK! What’s your problem?!”
“Shut up, you insufferable morons! I ordered you to return to base twice already!” hissed an incensed Feral. He attempted to pass the recruits’ jet and continued, “You won’t blow this mission like the last fifty, and if I have to shoot you down with this freak, then I gladly will, by G-”
The extortionist’s craft had blinked out of exis- tence. He was nowhere: not on radar, not on radio, nor in plain sight. Mystified, Feral double-checked his jet’s instruments while maintaining his course, wondering if he was reading them incorrectly. His own two pilots then shot out and up ahead of him and arcked overhead as the extortionist reappeared in their place and mimicked their action. The two repeat- ed the pattern in a loop, descending as they went, still spiralling up and over the other, as if attached by a fulcrum, carrying each other lower into the city levels.
Feral predicted the outcomes if they were left to themselves: some way or another, one or both would end up slamming either into buildings or the street below, and very soon, given their rate. He dove for speed, and then rocketed to the pair of jets, concerned less with saving his two young charges than with merely stopping the escapee. The three were a mile from the Enforcer Headquarters.
Feral took aim on the extortionist’s craft and followed its trail spinning downward with the crosshairs on the HUD; the lock confirmed, and he squeezed off one round as soon as his nerves picked up their command. The shots successfully punctured a fuel line and marred an intake on the way, but not on the enemy plane. The criminal, freed of his stalemate, veered off between a row of buildings and soared happily out of sight. Meanwhile, the injured Enforcer jet rolled on its side and bore rapidly toward the HQ’s control tower. Its nose snapped a transmitter and sheared the roof from an observation tower, then bounced off the smashed tower onto the runway, where it stood up on end for a second, then crashed pain- fully down onto the scarred strip.
The commander swung by to amass the damage and felt his heart fall into his stomach. The top of the HQ was burning fiercely, even though emergency attendants were vainly trying to extinguish the fire, and as Feral summed up the cost, he inwardly muttered an embarrassed “oops.” Instantly, he began to devise a possible coverup for the disaster. It would have been easier if the two had been in the wreckage, but, as he spitefully noted, they had ejected and landed safely much earlier.
He nervously checked around the clock before he landed atop an office complex – fortunately, no witnesses in sight. At least he had that relief. He jumped from the plane and made his way into the building to emerge on the street, where he would take advantage of this prime opportunity.
The two were speechlessly observing the decimated headquarters when he met them. They noticed his arrival immediately and turned to him, looking more accusatory than apologetic. Feral disregarded that and readied himself for his moment of glory.
“Are you two finally proud of yourselves?” he growled. “Look at that – is this what you wanted when you came here?”
“It was our tag, and we told you that several times,” Clawson placidly replied. “You interfered.”
“Really,” Furlong readily added. “So don’t give us your little patronizing spiel, ’cause we were there first. If you hadn’t been so hot to take over and steal the spotlight or whatever it is you wanted, we-”
“I DON’T have to listen to YOU!” Feral exploded, having lost all his composure at that remark. The two cringed a bit, visibly surprised, but Feral did not care just then. “I am the COMMANDER! I don’t take orders from lesser men, and what *I* say is gospel around here! Do you understand that?! You obey ME whether it suits you or not, you stupid kid!”
This was really gratifying, he would admit to himself later, and for the time he would keep his edge over the helpless pilots as long as he could. Their angered silence alone pleased him greatly, and when Furlong tried to say something, Feral cut him off sharply. “You’ve gutted our new control tower, ripped up the runway, no doubt damaged the neighboring buil- dings with all the fire and debris, and we’ll be for- tunate if no one was killed.” No one was yet employed in the new building, as it still had some interior work to be finished, but to let that on was to moot his point. “I would love to stick the entire tab on your heads and draw it out of your pay, maybe out of your pensions…” he paused dramatically, “…but that would take longer than you have to live. Instead, I’ll have to settle for kicking you off the force and sparing the rest of us your demolitionist habits…”
“That’s fine with us,” sniffed Furlong, who shoved his helmet at the commander and turned to leave. “C’mon, Jake. Or do you wanna stay and listen to this?” Clawson followed the other with a quick, unsteady glance back at Feral.
But this affair was much too fun to end just then. “JUST a minute,” he snapped. The ex-pilots jerked to a halt as if he had stepped on their tails. “I said you two were off the force, but not off the hook.”
Both were wordless, and finally Clawson asked, “Whaddaya mean by that?”
“I *mean*,” Feral mocked, “you won’t be leaving without a sentence.”
“Since when are you a judge, Fer-”
“Thirty-five years’ labor at a designated position of my choice,” he pronounced. “You’ll only be working off a fraction of the total debt, but, for those thirty-five years…” He dropped his voice to a whisper as he stood right behind the twwo defiants, “…I will make you regret ever joining the Enforcers.” Feral straightened, backed away a bit from the recruits, and resumed a normal authoritarian monotone. “Take your belongings out and I’ll give you directions in my office exactly forty-five minutes from now. You will leave in one hour.”
The miscreants remained there, their ears pinned to their skulls, without so much as a disgruntled growl between them. Eventually, they began their walk to the dormitory complex, still quiet. The seven-year struggle was over, and Feral had won.
Feral smiled in the now, too. The best thing was that he had found a loophole in Enforcer protocol that made his actions unquestionably and pristinely legal, so no one really could come after him for his deci- sion. He stepped into the office and gave a satisfied sigh while musing over the quietude that had replaced the rogues…and then he remembered le Normand. Feral had expected her to improve once their influence was exterminated, but the only change she exhibited was a rather moody one. If possible, the major had grown even more withdrawn than when she came, but this did not seem to affect her performance. He decided to wait it out. She would improve, gradually. But still, he could not take too many precautions with someone like her. His niece might be able to help him out on this one.
That evening, an anonymous tip came in through a local payphone. A beat cop in the area received the subsequent dispatch: “Disturbance reported at Eigh- teenth, Servales; possible domestic violence. Imme- diate investigation requested.”
The young cop who happened to receive the call eagerly twisted his keys in the ignition and revved up the cruiser, all the while straining to recall where exactly Eighteenth and Servales met. But the location didn’t matter quite so much as the fact that this was going to be his first call! He tore his street map from the glovebox and looked up Servales, then con- sulted the index for Eighteenth. They converged at the Noriberg Hotel, and he knew where that was. The intre- pid young rookie threw the car into gear and zoomed off to duty.
The black-and-white shrieked conspicuously onto the curb in front of the hotel, and the boy strutted out the door onto the sidewalk. Two other cruisers approached with less fanfare, and before he had graced the portico with his stride, a gigantic orange paw landed on his shoulder. He jolted with a sharp intake of breath, his entrance ruined.
“Reid, where’re you going?” the kat officer inquired. The rookie whirled and stopped before the huge felid’s amused face. By now thoroughly purged of his hubris, Reid attempted to recover it with an indignant, “Huh?”
“You didn’t hear the second dispatch, did you?” The kat’s compatriot, a middle-aged human woman, started for the hotel door. “Ailuros – I’ll radio when I’m done,” she informed him.
“Right,” Ailuros acknowledged. “Reid – my car.”
Deglorified Reid did as he was bade and followed Ailuros into one of the cruisers. He slumped into the passenger seat and waited for the other cop’s update. Ailuros himself at length sat behind the steering wheel and turned the ignition. The cops eased into the opposite lane and started toward an intersection at the corner.
“So, ah…Just what was that dispatch again?” Reid began, staring in an aloof manner out the windshield. “I may or may not have heard all of it.”
“Don’t b.s. me – you didn’t hear *any* of it,” Ailuros stated flatly. “Right after that nameless tip, a few more calls came from the hotel. They all confir- med the disturbance: Seems there was a nasty argument that got started while two or three guys were having a meeting or something, and it was loud enough that people on the floors above and below it could hear. Even people on the street could hear it – take our mystery tip, here.” He took a breath and continued, “Ross is gonna question the manager and the witnesses, and we’re supposed to be looking for a green Yamada, license 583-ATL9. You hear me, Reid?”
The rookie, whose gaze had shifted from windshield to side window, nodded slightly. “Yeah, got it.” He continued to stare out the window. It was a start, anyhow.
*Well, I’m never visiting _this_ hotel,* thought Ross as she leaned against the receptionist’s desk. She had asked the manager ten minutes ago to come and talk to her, and the most she had seen of him was a blur as he scurried through the lobby between angry patrons and harried staff. Some of the witnesses had taken the initiative and given her evidence, but they were all vague, piecemeal little details that could lead anywhere. However, one had managed to describe reasonably usefully the kat seen leaving the room in which the argument took place, and she kept the des- cription in mind for her interview with the manager… if she could persuade him to stay in one place long enough for it. Ross spied him entering full tilt, and she readied herself to snare him on the next pass.
*Here he comes…* she thought as he ran. She threw out one restraining arm and snatched the frantic director by the tail before he made it to the other side of the desk. “Police, sir,” she introduced her- self. “We received several calls a few minutes ago about a disturbance here, second floor, Room 212. There have been reports of a tallish Maine Coon kat wearing khakis and a blue dress shirt having left briefly after the altercation.”
The manager flicked one ear backward as he processed the account. “Oh, my. Yes…yes, that’s true,” he agreed in a tired sigh. “Erm…he did leave a little bit ago – his sign out’s right by your elbow over there – and his friends left right before you all came, ma’am. There were three kats altogether, the first and then the last two, but…besides the Maine Coon, I can’t tell you what the others look like, as I didn’t see them out.” He drew a deep breath and stam- mered, “What…what I *did* hear up there sounded kind of like a financial discussion. I was talking to the janitor at the time, so I didn’t hear any real helpful details, but I heard them talking about money, and something like a merger…”
“A merger? With whom?”
“I don’t know. But they said they wanted to work with somebody, and they named off different figures that went with different names, like a payroll. Then one of ’em got mad and started yelling at the one who was talking, and then he yelled back, and that’s how the fight started. It was a lot of insults, mostly, and there was no more talk of money or anything else that was mentioned. Then the guy in the blue shirt stomped out of here like a thunderhead.”
“This just sounds like a business deal gone bad, though why they would carry on in a hotel room is beyond me,” Ross interjected.
“They sure didn’t sound like any business *I* know,” the manager replied. “They were all casually dressed, and there were only three of them. We would’ve had a reservation for a plan like they were talking about, with a business and all. One of them carried a brief- case, and not one reported anything he was doing there. Just three kats signing in, talking money, creating a big mess, and scaring all my customers. No business I ever would’ve known of.”
Ross scratched the information down on a small note- pad. The manager swallowed. “I think…one was gray- ish-furred.”
“You think or you know?”
“Uh…I know,” he answered. He watched Ross scribble down the notes and shove them into her pants pocket, then nervously met her eyes. “Um, you won’t be coming back here, will you?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Well…will you be sending, uh, backup and making searches, or something?” The manager clasped his hands together. “Now I’m not hiding anything, mind you, but I’m just worried about my business. It’s been pretty awful these past months, and if people see the police and everything coming around here on a regular basis with their investigative work, well, I’ll be flat out of work. Please…you know what I mean…”
Ross breathed forcefully out of her nose. Obviously, she had to placate this poor guy, which was always annoying, before she could do anything else. This in- vestigation would be a lot more trouble than it was worth if a civilian started crying that normal police protocol was robbing him of his bread.
“Don’t worry, sir. We’ll try our best not to impli- cate you too heavily, but you realize we have our work to do, too.”
To her relief, the manager lightened considerably. “Oh, thank you so much,” he sighed. “I just hope this won’t get too big.”
Ross nodded and pushed through the crowd to the door. “Thanks for your help,” she called back to him.
Her cruiser waited at the curb. Ross plunked herself into the cold vinyl driver’s seat and swung the door shut. Street lamps winked on in sequence behind her on the blackening sidewalk as she clicked on her radio.
“Base, this is Car 84 on Eighteenth and Servales. Citizens report movements of suspects away from buil- ding, particularly a Maine Coon, tall, wearing khaki slacks and a blue dress shirt. Possibly is the driver of the green Yamada, license 583-ATL9. He may be tailed by two other kats, one a gray. All suspects were allegedly involved in a financial discussion at time of disturbance. Out.”
Ross replaced the transmitter and drove off in the direction her fellows had taken. Evening traffic had become the lighter night traffic, and so she had to try to blend in more than usual, in case the suspects were still there. She had to wonder, though, what that whole discussion was about, if the manager’s story were true. It *was* highly questionable; why would three apparently nondescript men go into a hotel room and talk of money and mergers where anybody could hear them? And then why go the extra mile of stupidity and start fighting in a little hotel, of all places? The story was bizarre in the highest degree, but Ross, remembering the discombobulated manager, asked herself if it was any less bizarre than what the city usually witnessed. After a while, Ross found an alley and decided to pull in while she waited for the situation to pick up; as big as the city was, it would be wise to save her gas until she had a real lead. She cut the engine and the lights, and sat back to watch the night life.
For almost three hours they had been sitting and doing nothing on the side of Interstate 52. Reid fidgeted, his watch flying antsily from windshield to passenger window to the back, and he finally settled upon the few stars peeking from the polluted skyline. Ailuros perched patiently at his window and concentrated on the autos travelling from one side of MegaKat City to the other, his posture still as only a cat can manage. Reid stared at Ailuros for a little while, then asked, “Are all assignments this boring?”
“If you don’t like it, you can go stand out in the middle and look for our friend from there,” Ailuros replied, not moving from his vigil.
“No thanks,” grumbled Reid. “How long ago was that APB?”
“As long as we’ve been here.”
“Great!” Reid threw himself against the seat, which squeaked plaintively against the assault. “So there’s probably no chance he’s anywhere *we* know, then.” He whined, “Can’t we just check into base to make sure no one repor-”
“Quiet!” The behemoth kat’s spine straightened and his ears pricked up, which startled Reid into silen- cing himself. “I think it’s him!”
A green foreign car bearing the Yamada logo on its grille sped along an unpopulated stretch of the inter- state, twenty yards from the cruiser and closing. His ears and eyes trained on the car, Ailuros whispered the license numbers to himself as it passed, oblivi- ous. “Five…eighty-three, ay-tee-ell-nine! All right!” The car rolled by as the kat cranked the igni- tion. “Sounds like some overconfident amateur without a clue…and we got him speeding on top of it,” he diagnosed as he put the black-and-white into drive.
The cruiser thrummed directly behind the Yamada, free from obstruction by other cars. The siren blared on, and Ailuros glared at the rookie. “C’mon, we’re westbound on I-52! What’re you waiting for?”
“Oh, oops,” stuttered Reid. He blundered the radio from its cradle and opened the channel. “Suspect in green Yamada, license 583-ATL9, sighted, heading west- bound on I-52. We’re, um, Car 07, tailing.”
Ahead, the green car slowed and politely bore right, then stopped pertly off the side. Reid watched it, then reported, “Uh, suspect has just pulled over and stopped. We’re going to follow.”
“Right,” okayed the dispatch. “Proceed with cau- tion.”
The cruiser glided after the foreign car and stopped, its siren cut. “You stay here and cover, all right?” commanded Ailuros.
Ailuros lowered himself from the car and placed a hand over the semiauto holstered at his side. His pupils squeezed to slits despite the lightlessness; his breath began to hiss through a tightening throat. The kat tread on leaden toes toward the green car.
He admonished himself for the unsolicited intensity. The guy probably had nothing to use threaten him, any- way, if he was as green as he sounded, yet there was something about the whole eerie setup that made his system shriek “Watch out!” Ailuros prodded himself, unwillingly, to the smoky window of the Yamada.
A second before the orange kat could put his knuckle to the window, the same window rolled down to uncover the kittenish face of a Maine Coon kat. He was wearing a nice powder-blue shirt, and below that, a well- pressed pair of khakis. The amber eyes appeared genu- inely fretted as he inquired, “Is anything the matter?”
Nauseous, Ailuros returned a metallic stare. “Out of the car.”
The darkly-striped kat civilly swung the door open and stepped up next to the cop.
“All right, then. Reports say you and two other men were indiscreetly discussing monetary matters in a hotel, and the meeting ended violently, which disturb- ed several patrons and passersby. Now,” Ailuros questioned, “just what exactly were you guys talking about?”
“What were we talking about?” the khaki-clad felid parroted, innocuously. “Oh, nothing – just this.”
The enormous orange kat suddenly tasted blood, and felt a cutting pain run from above his navel through his chest. He slipped, then bent, agonizing, to the road.
The Maine Coon stepped gingerly over the cooling Ailuros and moved for the cruiser.
Reid struggled with himself, back-pedalling in trying to get out of the car while pushing himself into the seat, whimpering all the while. Then he stopped his whining, stopped flailing, and realized he didn’t have to act like this. He was a cop, and fur- thermore, he had a gun. He grabbed for the pistol pinned beneath him, found it, and seized the handle of the door one fraction before the black and brown kat flung the driver’s side door open; with the kat in a vulnerable position, Reid whipped the pistol out and took instantaneous, albeit jittery, aim. “FREEZE!” he yelped.
The dress-shirted one cocked a fuzzy black eyebrow and twitched a whisker, still bent in a quarter-sit- ting posture. Reid caught his breath and continued, “I mean it! Get outta the car or I’ll shoot!”
The kat shrugged and put his white paws up as a surrender, then started to back out of the car. *Oh, well, that was easy,* thought a loosening Reid, and with confidence thus boosted, redistributed his weight onto the leg outside the cruiser. A paw zipped invisi- bly toward the foot left on the seat, wrapped its wraithish fingers about the ankle, and jerked the hapless rookie back into a pathetic sprawl under the kat before Reid could register what happened. Reid’s gun clattered uselessly on the outside pavement.
“What the-” A .38, augmented with a silencer and still warm, burrowed into the soft spot under Reid’s jaw, endangering his lifeblood. The Maine Coon insinu- ated the rest of himself into the car and indicated Reid to sit next to him.
“Shut that door.”
Reid shuddered and held the door.
“NOW!” The pistol jabbed into his side, and the door slammed home.
Reid sat bolt upright as the kat nodded, then gently closed his own door. The pistol stayed in Reid’s side.
“Ailuros, Reid, pick up! It’s Ross,” radioed the officer from her hidey-hole. “Reid, are you there? It’s Ross. Pick up!” No one.
“Rrrgh!” She slammed the receiver into its place. Over an hour since their last broadcast, and no answer from either of them. Ross started up her cruiser and called base. “Base, this is car 84 in an alley on Mills. I’m going to I-52 to find car 07; I’ll contact again when I’ve reached them or in an hour, whichever comes first. Over.”
“Affirmative. If you don’t respond then, we’ll send out reinforcements.”
The moon watched over Ross’s right while its sister hovered by the western horizon, behind her. Ross snorted. *This is taking WAY too long to catch a newbie. I bet Reid got ’em shot…another reason to be embarrassed to be human in this place.* She and the car flew over another six black miles.
In the next mile, Ross noticed a huge something-or- other lying on the road about fifty yards ahead of her. Closer, she reasoned it must be large roadkill: a cow that wandered
from a nearby farm, perhaps, or a deer. Closer still, she saw a vague humanoid form to the mass, clad in blue. Now almost upon it, its iden- tity clicked in Ross’s memory as she stood on the brakes and shrieked, “MATT!”
The black-and-white spun on its left foretire ten yards past the lump and tossed its driver out upon stopping. The woman sprinted the gap, then knelt by the deceased’s side. He lay folded in half, one leg outstretched, the knees supporting the torso’s weight, the tail draped over the calves like an old rope.
Ross tugged helplessly at her graying locks. She held a hand slightly above a mammoth shoulder, then drew the hand back to the ground. Picking it back up and the other joining it, she painstakingly rolled the body away from the sideline, to keep it safe from traffic. It flopped out of the road, and its head lolled on a limp neck. From a middle-sized puncture rip in the shirt, above the navel, a dried, brownish- red rivulet slithered down the belly and disappeared on the navy trousers.
“Oh…” Ross breathed lightly and touched the deli- cate nose. She clutched the walkie slung on her belt, fumbled it out of its loop, and monotonously announ- ced, “Base, this is Ross again on I-52, sect Beta, westbound side…Officer Ailuros is dead by gun wound.”
The incoming voice crackled, “Understood. We’re sending a crew down. Any indication of where the suspect went?”
Ross scanned the vicinity perfunctorily. “No,” she listlessly returned.
She took to her feet again to stand waiting by him for the clean-up people to arrive. She folded her arms across her stomach, peering down at her kat friend and feeling a painful knot in her throat. She looked away and began to amble toward the guard rail, examining it to pass the time. Nothing too special. She gazed on down the line to her left. Nothing more, except for a bit of warp. Out of boredom, she followed the warp to where the bend began, where she found the aluminum freckled with green paint chips. *That looks kinda new,* she thought. Her curiosity piqued, she unfolded her arms and studied the ground below the bend. There were more green flakes, accompanied by some black and silver. Finally, in the guard rail’s basin, a wide green swath covered the aluminum, and just beyond that was a small ditch. *Perhaps _someone_ was a little spooked – he messed up and drove off the side.* Ross paused. *But there’s no glass…* She leaned over the rail and saw the green Yamada the police had been af- ter lying belly-up. *It wasn’t driven off, then. More like thrown off.* The black and silver chips waited patiently on the asphalt. Ross concentrated on them for a solid minute, then speculated: *Sideswiped? By Reid, maybe?* she wondered with crinkled brows. She envisioned what might have passed here: Reid, either in the car or waiting near it at the time of the shooting – assuming this happened after it – watched Ailuros be shot. Too far to shoot effectively (Reid’s aim was awful) and too cautious to rush the perp himself, he climbed into the car and drove it off toward the shooter, avoiding the body as he went, if the tire tracks on the road were any indication. An overzealous Reid may have physically tried to stop the escaping car and ended up shoving it off into the ditch. From there, another mini-station was off the next exit, so maybe Reid went there to report. But, given the amount of time that had passed since the presumed fight, she seriously doubted it. So where was the rookie?
The staccato *whup-whup-whup* of Enforcer helis grabbed her attention from the scene. A small one touched down beside her cruiser and produced two technicians armed with a body bag. While they remorse- lessly and efficiently slopped Ailuros into the sack, another larger heli lit, and from it poured eight bulletproofed Enforcers. They dispersed along the roadway to survey the scape, followed by their dun- coated leader. Ross jogged eagerly to meet him, and they converged by the final two hovercraft.
“Sir,” she addressed him. He nodded. “Have your officers tried looking over at that bend yet?” She indicated with stretched arm the crooked guard rail.
The tawny kat craned his neck to see over her shoulder. “I don’t think so. What’s over there?”
“Here, look!” She trotted urgently for the inden- tation, with the Enforcer captain running close after. “You two, come over here!” he summoned a pair of officers.
The groupling reached the dip in the rail, then Ross disconnected from them and showcased the warp. “Now, the suspect’s car is lying belly-up in that ditch. I think it’s been sideswiped by one of our own, as indicated by the black and silver paint chips that were over by the bend.”
One of the Enforcers stooped low to the road and scooped up the paint flakelets. As he stood back up, the other leapt over the rail and inched toward the car.
“Captain, these look like the chips that were over by the body,” the first stated.
“There were paint chips by the body?” Ross put in.
“Yeah, didn’t you see?” the captain asked. “So there are flakes of black, white and green here and by the body, and a lot of green on the rail. What’ve you got down there, officer?”
“Not a thing!”
“There’s nobody in here!” repeated the Enforcer.
“Aren’t there any tracks in the grass, where he left?” Ross added.
“Lady, the doors aren’t even *open*. The windows are intact, too, except for a little crushing.”
The Enforcer marched up the ditch to join his com- rade and awaited the captain’s next order. *Paint chips by his body…I must’ve been too spaced out to have noticed,* Ross pondered. *But that still doesn’t explain why they’re there. They couldn’t have started car-fighting right by the body, since it isn’t run over…* She shivered from the chilly air and observed two of the Enforcer run spontaneously into one of their helis. Ross turned her face to the captain behind her, who was supervising by the rail and giving orders by radio to one of the choppers.
“Feral,” the captain said, “you lead two of yours west along the rest of I-52. When you reach the branch-off up in Gamma, you continue up it and have the other two split. Got it?”
“Roger,” answered an alto female voice. The third heli sluggishly picked itself up and waited up off the ground for its partners, and when the three assembled, they took off, parallel to the interstate, toward the gaggle of buildings standing farther along. The fourth glided in the opposite direction, toward the heart of the city, leaving the trenchcoated captain with Ross.
“Take me to your station,” the kat commanded.
“No problem,” agreed Ross. “But what’ll you do there? How come all the other Enforcers left you here?”
“The Yamada guy set us up.” The captain sidled into the passenger’s seat of Ross’s cruiser. “Either he wanted us to think he was caught in that ditch, or he simply wanted to buy time for himself by making us look at the wreck. Maybe he’s a little more seasoned than we thought.”
“Or just plain lucky,” Ross contributed. She dropped in behind the wheel and turned the engine over, then let it idle. “And why do you want to go to my station, again?”
“I want to stay in one place, close to the action, so it’ll be easier for my people to reach me during this thing. Are you going to drive, or will I have to find your base myself?”
The solitary black-and-white fishtailed into the eastbound lane, soon on its way home. The first moon bowed west while its sister paced near its older sib- ling’s first post.
A square-jawed hybrid leisurely piloted her chopper with one hand while the other lazily wound and unwound its fingers in a faded turquoise tuft of furlike hair. That particular ear tuft of hers used to be a bril- liant cerulean, but sadly enough, she had to let it disintegrate back into white at the demands of her un- cle. Normally, she would have ignored such a silly request, but this situation was not quite normal: her uncle was also her employer, the commander of the Enforcers. He demanded she get rid of the dye job upon her enlistment, which was a shame – it contrasted so nicely with her black hair and the other tuft. “Ah well,” she sighed at her reflection in the windshield. Being the chief of police in a place as big as this would make anyone ultra-uptight, she figured.
“Hey, Felina, the fork’s comin’ up,” another pilot buzzed in her helmet. “Remember where you’re supposed to go?”
“Up the middle, I know, I know,” she responded. “Thanks anyway, Ron.”
“I just don’t want you running off on your own again, babe. There’re only so many times a guy can stick up for you, y’know,” her fellow pilot admonished her.
Felina lowered her helicopter’s blade speed and plummeted toward the skyscraper tops, travelling at a terrific rate, then levelled out just before she would have been impaled. “What are you doing? C’mon, we’re almost there!”
“I *really* wish you wouldn’t do that,” Ron com- plained. Presently, all three copters were buzzing low over the rooftops.
Felina led her followers between mountainesque offi- ces, navigating at a height that cleared antennae but was conspicuous enough to flush a perp from civvie traffic. She pitched the heli just so to give her a better vantage point on the streets. Myriad vehicles – station wagons, sports cars, vans, minivans, garbage trucks – streamed underneath without a sign of the renegade patrol car. The tan girl concentrated first on the westbound lane, then the east. She contacted her teammates.
“Seen anything yet, Ron?” she chirped.
“Nope, not yet.”
“How ’bout you, Jeff?”
“Sorry, me too.”
Felina snarled to herself and sulkingly returned to her guard. As if some rinky-dink old cop car could give them this much trouble! Even though it had been a while since the police lady’s base had called them, there was no way for a slow old cruiser to outrun them, she thought. The half-kat’s coarse eyebrows con- verged.
“Waitaminnit!” Jeff’s voice interrupted. “I’ve got a possible sighting of the suspect – he’s up ahead about a mile and a half, heading southeast at a hundred and ten miles an hour, and he’s weaving lanes. Doesn’t look like he’s chasing anybody down there – everyone’s getting out of the way instead.”
“That doesn’t sound like a regular patrol,” Felina commented. “Let’s -”
“He just ran behind us!”
“He what?! Aw, *frack!* Get out of the way!”
Felina dove steeply under her tails and buzzed furi- ously after the fleeing black-and-white, forcing the throttle until it spasmed in her hand, but not releas- ing it as the heli ate up the distance between them. While concentrating on the prey, she gruffly ordered, “The two of you pincer inward above me, then delta out and follow once we’re all out in the open air, and then-”
“Have you asked Shays if you could do this yet, Felina?” asked Ron, simply.
“YOU can ask Shays, but as long as we’ve got this guy here, I’m not going to let him just run off again, all right?” growled Felina. “Now, we’re over the split! Tell the captain what’s going on and come on!”
The cluster of choppers coasted after the cruiser as if tethered to it, and closed in, foot by foot, over the long stretch of the road.
A mute and wholly terrified Reid darted his eyes from his tense captor to the rearview mirror and won- dered if he was hallucinating. He was unarmed, his side was bruising miserably from that .38’s silencer, and he had just witnessed his senior officer sucker- shot, plus he had some demented kat tooling him all around MegaKat City in a stolen police car. Figuring all this in, Reid told himself that the sound of whipping rotors overhead was only a result of trauma and paid little attention to it, as he wanted to focus more on living. But then, he noted curiously, the Maine Coon seemed to have noticed the sound, too, although much later than he had. The kat swivelled an ear toward the noise, then squinted to analyze it. Then he glared at the rearview, where a flash and a silhouette appeared, and he cranked it almost to the roof. His eyes sprang open, then screwed shut, and the firearm yanked out from Reid’s side.
“I *told* them this’d happen!” the feline spat, and he urged the engine even harder. The cruiser began to gain ground by inches ahead of the aerial shadows, which brought them in turn lower and faster on his trail.
“Feral, status report.”
“We’re in pursuit as we speak, sir,” Felina hurried- ly reported. “He should be apprehended in about thirty seconds.” She leaned forward and changed the channel to her flying partners’. “All right, you two, speed up a little more now, and when I get behind him, fan out by me.”
The play would have worked, had the cruiser stayed on course, but instead it squealed and spun skittishly to its right, radically inverting its course. It hurl- ed a navy-uniformed shape through the driver’s side to the ground before it screeched a second time and flew back toward the citylet.
“I’m going after him!” Felina reflexively called.
She swung, like the car, completely around to pursue it, but her teammate had not heard her announcement soon enough. While the turncoat police car zipped into hiding, the three helis were trapped in midair as the rotors of one halved the other, catching and entan- gling the third in the process. The trio clattered spectacularly to the ground in a heap of scrap, then released their living cargo before the mess exploded into a useless pyre.
“Be thinking of a good ‘thank-you’ speech now, kid,” muttered Ron as he watched the hovercraft burn.
“Hey, I *told* you I was going after him, so how come Jeff just sat there? What, do I have to tell you t’move, too?” she snapped.
“I didn’t realize you were doing it THEN!” Jeff de- fensively explained.
“You thought I was going to do it tomorrow?”
“Guys, SHUT UP ALREADY!” roared Ron, which imme- diately silenced the two. He wiped his forehead with the back of one hand, considered the wreckage, and lectured, “The whole reason any of this happened was because nobody was thinking, okay? You weren’t think- ing, and you weren’t thinking. We lost the perp, our choppers are all diced up, and you two are acting like morons about it!” The two officers glared at him, but said nothing. “Now just be quiet long enough for me to call in for pick-up, and then you can go back to your little fight.”
As Ron spoke with the Enforcer HQ, Jeff picked at Felina again. “It’s still your fault.”
“Oh, bite me.”
“I said shut up back there!” Ron warned. He pocketed his walkie and turned about to the milling Enforcers, the tip of his tail twitching introspectively. As much as she professed to hate it, Felina seemed to like ta- king advantage of her position as the boss’s niece. Ron knew that she would get away with a slap on the wrist with or without his excuse for her – if she were to be punished at all, which was unlikely. Since he had taken her under his wing when she came, he was well aware of how she worked and of her level of pro- gress, and even though she was good at what she did, he often wondered if her attitude was going to help or harm her in the long term. However, with her “advan- tage”, he figured that was pointless to ask. Ron and the other Enforcers looked up to see three new helis lower toward them, and they boarded within five minutes to head home.
“Authorities report the discovery of a stolen police car lost two months ago during a chase. The car, num- ber 07 of the Enforcers’ fourth northwestern ground patrol unit, was found run into the side of Nelson’s Deli outside Chinatown yesterday, abandoned. The thief is reportedly a tall Maine Coon kat, about six and a half to seven feet tall with amber eyes and medium build. He was last seen wearing a light blue dress shirt and khaki slacks. Any updates as to his where- abouts should be given directly to the Enforcers’ main office, as the thief is armed and considered a serious threat. In other news…”
“Should I change it?”
“No, I think it should be coming up again later.”
Jake ducked back into the cockpit, listening only halfway to the TV’s white noise as he connected the remaining loose wires in the weapons panel. He plugged the last wire into its socket with a flourish, sat up, and bolted the cover over the exposed circuitry. The russet kat grinned to himself as he leaned back into the newly-polished gunman’s seat. Their jet’s con- struction had taken up far less time than he had initially thought, thanks mostly to their good fortune in finding all their parts, from engines to altimeter, complete or needing just a little fixing up. Both he and Chance only had a bit more to go on the bird, and then their “ingression into heroism,” as Chance had facetiously termed it once, would proceed ahead of schedule. They would swoop off dramatically, neatly untangle the stolen-police-car-chase thing, and esta- blish themselves as the new protectors of the city. And, to make the affair even more pleasant, they would be one-upping that Feral guy, incognito.
“Back on the police car theft case, Kats’ Eye News follows as the search moves up the chain of command.
“Earlier in the day, we talked with Captain Felina Feral and her former superior, Captain Daniel Shays. This evening, we’ll be joining Major Dominica le Nor- mand to discuss how she’s going to contribute to the search.”
“Hey, look!” Chance alerted his friend. The tabby jumped from his workplace among the engines and landed four-footed by the nose. “Don’t you want to see Nicka, Jake?”
“Yes, yes, I heard it – I’m coming, hold on.” Jake sprang from the cockpit and lit beside the larger kat. The two brushed the clutter off a bench and seated themselves while they waited for the news recap to end.
Settling, Jake’s mind twinged regretfully on thoughts less related to the topic at hand than to those of the upcoming interviewee. Here she was, his own fiancee, and for the six months since his exile, he hadn’t thought of her once. How faithful was *that*? He had immersed himself so deeply into build- ing and designing the jet for the half-a-year, not allowing his mind to drift to things that mattered but on how to improve mileage, or how to make the aircraft more agile, that he never even bothered to call her. Maybe Chance had…well, no, he had been just as ab- sorbed as Jake. Great. Jake supported his head with one tired hand as the news report returned.
“Here we are outside one of the Enforcers’ lesser war rooms, where we should meet the latest officer to organize the police car manhunt, Major le Normand.”
On the television, an obviously-veneered door screaked outward and pushed out into the crowd a familiar white-furred brunette in formal military dress. The dainty cat face with the umber spot ringing her left eye was shaken off her guard by the surprise horde that greeted her, but quickly cooled into pro- fessional straightface when a newscaster approached.
“Major,” began the microphone-wielder, “this case has changed hands upward pretty quickly since it be- gan. Why won’t it stay at one level?”
“As we’ve gone along and discovered new things, we’ve realized each time that we need a bigger base of information to use in investigation,” Dominica ex- plained. “I just happen to have the right number of resources for what we need right now. Earlier, we thought Captain Shays’s crew and connections were enough, then Captain Feral’s, and so on.”
“Mm-hmm,” punctuated the newscaster. “And, since this man you’re looking for has been classified as a threat to society, just _how_ big is the danger, so our citizens will know?”
The interviewee exhaled slowly. “I’m not authorized to disclose that at the moment.”
“All right. So what do you suggest civilians do in the meantime?”
“Go about your business, and if you see anything, call.”
“Thank you, major.” The point of interest padded off the screen. “Again, the description of the thief is:”
“Turn it. We know all of that already,” Jake ordered as he slunk away.
Chance left the station where it was. “Weren’t they going to say something else?”
“Someone else might actually have something *new* on,” Jake extrapolated from the plane’s viscera. “Keep an eye out for anything spiffy, s’aright?”
“S’aright.” Blips and squawks from passing channels flew by Jake’s triangular ears as Chance engaged in light-speed channel surfing. Jake ignored the noise and re-released his mind on a new look: maybe Chance had been right. He hadn’t taken his relationship with Dominica into account at all when they began, and now he could not believe he could have ignored something so significant as that. Now he wouldn’t have *any* time to give her with this new “career” of his. But maybe…no, half the time, he’d be mechanicking, the other half he’d be gallivanting about MegaKat City like a delusional, AND there was the important matter of eating and sleeping, which already were being cut thinner and thinner. He couldn’t take her out in those times, either, because he might be needed at any time. So, yes, he had truly gypped himself out of a life of his own, just as Chance had warned six months ago. And that was not good.
Jake’s mind stumbled onto another disturbing thought: What if Nicka thought he was blowing her off, and so she decided to run off with some other young stud…where would he be, then? Even if she hadn’t, she definitely wouldn’t want to marry some guy who continuously ignored her. But he didn’t mean to ignore her…but she wouldn’t buy that. Why hadn’t he thought of this EARLIER?! Because he was too wrapped up in his vendetta-induced pipe dream, that was why.
To try to console himself, with it being far too late to burn the tapes at this stage, Jake attuned his ears to the ever-numbing television, which incidental- ly was blirping at a much slower rate. He pushed aside the console he had been muddling with and leaned out of the belly to watch, upside-down. “Hey Chance, seen anything yet?” he called.
The yellow tabby twitched his whiskers, still flip- ping. “Nope. Same stuff everywhere.” He raced through a few more, passed two that displayed the recognizable face, and whizzed by some more.
“No, wait! Go back! Stop, there! That’s good!” Jake wildly yelped. “Yes! Good! There!”
Chance eyed the flailing kat, then nodded. He saun- tered to the gravitationally-inverted Jake and handed him the remote. “Here,” he said. “Entertain yourself. I have to go refine the flight plans, anyway.”
Chance then crept under the jet and made his way into the darkened far side of the hangar. Jake watched him go, thinking, *How odd…* It *was* rather odd, the way they had interchanged poles like that for whatever reasons, that Chance was now gung-ho for su- perheroism and that Jake was growing cold to the idea. This would certainly add an interesting wang to their exploits, he thought. Whether that was favorable or a flaw was indeterminate, though, but instead of search- ing for the answer, Jake focused on the flickering box, where he could at least be with his ladylove vicariously. Wistful, he took in a draught of breath. The meditative kat curled up again inside the jet, and brought out the console.
“Newscasters ask THE dumbest questions.”
Dominica flopped, spent, onto her less-than comfort- able bed in her less-than-comfortable dormitory. She tugged off the awkward shoes that distributed all her weight to her ankles; freed, she spread her aching toes, winced as she unsheathed her claws, then sheath- ed them and lifted them onto the bed. The kat girl stretched herself out until she heard her vertebrae pop, then relaxed and flipped on her stomach. She thought of nothing to attempt to ready her brain for tomorrow’s onslaught of paperwork, red tape, nasal secretaries, and ignored orders: another fun day on the job. The concept wrinkled her nose. *Ah well…the way things are running, I might not even have to bother with it come morning,* she reasoned. A very so- porific Dominica debated whether or not she should un- dress, as it was becoming exceedingly late. “Sleeping in one’s clothes is bad for the circulation,” her mother often advised, and cleaning those formal uni- forms was always a big hassle…but whatever…
A woodpeckerish series of knocks frightened the light doze that had settled on her, though, and in reaction, Dominica hid in her blanket.
“Whatever it is, NO,” she growled, drowsily.
“I need to ask you about the meeting!” came the beseeching response. “I was filing reports and I missed it, and you’re the only person who isn’t asleep yet.”
The lady kat burrowed further into the bedclothes. It was that goofy half-kat kid Feral wanted her to watch. Not that Dominica actually held anything against her, just that, sometimes, she could be dread- fully imposing…like now. “Come in.”
The muscular hybrid ducked in and slowly shut the door behind her. She gave the obligatory salute, then assumed a pole-stiff stance.
“What do you need, captain?” Dominica asked as she sat up in bed.
“I wanted to know what happened in the meeting, ma’am,” the young captain restated.
“Oh yes…that. Well, you didn’t miss anything, since they just rehashed what we already know. Need anything else?”
Felina’s dark eyes glanced upward, contemplatively. “Uh, no. Thanks, ma’am.” She nodded in lieu of another salute and whirled around to the door. She grasped the knob in an audible death-grip, and when Dominica heard it, something that had been bothering her since she met Felina surfaced. Dominica squinted to see the halfbreed’s rangy outline as she hulked out the door, and she voiced her hypothesis:
“Captain, are you related in any way to the command- er?”
Interestingly enough, Felina flinched at the ques- tion, as if some dire secret had been exposed. “I’m surprised you didn’t know, the way everyone’s been acting like it’s some big deal. But, yeah, we’re re- lated,” she mumbled. “I’m his niece.”
So *that* explained quite a bit! That was why Feral wanted Dominica to babysit her, and why she got away with slicing up three helicopters, and why she had ascended in rank so quickly…pure and simple nepotism! “I was just wondering. I see a lot of resem- blance,” Dominica told her.
“Please don’t say that,” sighed Felina. “I…well, I’m not particularly too fond of…um…” She held her breath as she tried to piece together the next phrase. “Well, he’s…kind of the black sheep of the family, y’see?”
“Oh?” Something else of interest. One would think that having as successful a man as that in one’s gene pool would be a definite plus. “May I ask why?”
“He just is. May I go now?”
Apparently, that was all Dominica would be able to wring out of her. “All right. Get some sleep; you’ll be on duty tomorrow.”
The black-haired girl nodded curtly, then swept ostentatiously out the door and down the barely-lit hall.
Dominica studied her as she dissipated into the building’s dismal recesses. What a confusing child. She had the gall to mutilate company aircraft, fly far too low inside city limits, and generally do whatever it required to accomplish what she needed, even if it meant destroying sizeable plots of real estate – not too terribly unlike two people she dearly loved, she noticed – yet when casually asked something, she transmogrified into a brick wall, incapable of a straight answer.
Or was it just that particular ques- tion that ruffled Felina’s coat? Dominica had not talked to her long enough really to psychoanalyze her. Still, what little she did know intrigued her. Her unwillingness to admit bloodties to the commander, despite the inherent benefits, had Dominica specu- lating and theorizing and re-formulating until her head ached. Perhaps watching Felina could answer some of her questions more completely, she thought, a mite wickedly. But then, she would be reduced to a petty old gossip’s level, and that thought chilled the young lady kat. Besides, as confusing as she was, the barely-drinking-age captain was a nice kid – she might as well leave her alone.
*Pity’s sake, look how late it is,* Dominica scolded herself. *If I don’t get to sleep now, I’ll be an ani- mated corpse come daytime. So…should I or shouldn’t I change..?*
She supposed she would sleep in her clothes that night.
A Maine Coon trudged on all fours through thick, mucid sludge in the back alleys of Chinatown’s Restau- rant Row. His striped sides labored with minimal re- ward to the rest of his ragged body, and the funk that substituted the air stung all the slow-to-heal claw lacerations that bedecked his chest and shoulders. Three strands of burgundy maypoled a dingy gray fing- er, followed by another anemic trickle inside his elbow, and the ribbons coalesced in the viscous slop gushing underneath him. He chuffed, annoyed, and look- ed for a secluded sinkhole in which to hide. Finding one, the battered kat pawed gingerly toward respite and seated himself in a soggy cardboard box.
He sat upright in cat-form, haunches tucked closely by his sides, tail wrapped around feet and hands. The Maine Coon, though revolted by it as he was, picked up his arm, and gently began to lick the open wounds. He twitched as his rough tongue scraped against the sore cut, but he reassured himself it was leagues better than letting it run. If he were lucky, the coagulants in his saliva might help him this time, but with his health, they most likely would not.
While he lapped the gash, the kat pondered his cur- rent state of being. That couple of months back, he had had to put up with the replacements for the former capo, whom he had the utter misfortune of supervising during the boss’s absence. There could not have been a denser set of people in the state, and now their stu- pid “let’s go to a hotel to discuss matters further!” idea had left him hiding in the stinking back alleys of Chinatown, beaten, scratched, and fading fast. He tried to protest, but no – their orders were orders from the capo, and unless he wanted to learn the con- sequences, then he’d better do what they say. “I just don’t know why they would have picked somebody so stupid to take over for something this delicate,” he had admitted to a coworker before he left. And then there was the argument. Why hadn’t he gone along with it and just fixed it after they were dismissed? Why did he have to start anything, and furthermore, why did he decide to leave at all, knowing full well his boss would have him snuffed out even if he were only going to refill the parking meter? As if that weren’t something, he then panicked and landed himself in deeper muck than he ever had, and he knew so much bet- ter than that. The Maine Coon reviewed all this with concentrated embarrassment and wondered what would become of him, whether or not they caught him. The board was thorough, and the people they had hired for him were like machines, precise to the last detail. Even if he faked his death before he was found and fooled them, they would still stick around to make sure he was dead, in a way that was fool*proof*. He had to keep weaving, he resolved, and stay safe and moving until they gave up for real. Hey, if he could keep them off for *this* long…
He examined himself. The white fur of his palms and fingers glistened a slime gray-green; his plumey tail was losing fur in a few places and had congealed into a matted, goopy mess. His ruff was saturated and clung to his throat, and it distributed dirty water and sweat under his pelt, giving him a rash; he was almost naked and definitely dehydrated, starved, and shiver- ing. Still, they hadn’t found him yet. Just as long as they couldn’t see him. That fact was becoming less and less a plausible reason for him, and lately he thought more about giving up than running away: He should ac- cept that he was losing and stop, and stay in this dank pothole, since it was nowhere near worth it anymore.
Airy footfalls whispered on the planks above him.
Yes it *was* worth it! The kat burst from the heap and darted fluidly between, over, under, around sinis- ter refuse, re-energized by his instincts. They had seen him now, and clearly! He shot by five more res- taurants with claws extended and tail flagging while the sparrowy shapes that were sent for men like him trailed nearby.
The path pronged right after the eighth restaurant, and they could have caught up to him there. Running, the kat skidded a half-circle as he went, using his knee to control the slide, and launched himself back in the other direction: a bootleg here might help him as well as the J-turn he used in the cop car had. The Maine Coon then crazed his trail to throw them off, to leave his scent in a confusing muddle and buy him time. In the middle of his pattern, he stopped. He bunched himself up, gathering the strength to leap, and suddenly his torso was curved over top of the chainlink fence, his legs behind and his fingers gras- ping the other side. He hoisted himself over and scrabbled against the aluminum, and then fell to the ground. The kat lay there for a moment and gazed vapidly at the fence, which separated him from a river of glop. He then noticed grass mingling with his fur, and when he turned his head to the right, he saw clean, flat pavement. A rush overcame him. Now he could quit.
The Maine Coon then recalled with a jolt that they never stopped searching, and as he righted himself for another bolt, he sensed someone’s hand clamp fiercely onto the base of his tail. The feline hissed shrilly and threw one leg out at the attacker, and when the hand loosened to the sound of a full *thump*, he sprang across the pavement and into another, though drier, alleyway.
The alleyway was a better hiding place for them than him, and so the kat peeked from the space to the out- side. Luckily for him, a row of junked cars stood sen- tinel by the wall to his left – perfect for him. He inched between them, and, certain that the night had ended well, he leaned his weight against the solid brick. A pair of serpentine arms wound about his hips and took the weight for him, and another pair encir- cled his heaving chest, their spidery fingers pressed between the slat ribs. He mewled inquisitively, and then knew them. Two had him already, and the last strode smoothly around the opposite corner, then perched daintily in front of his face. She drew ele- gant hands from black, obscure gloves, then insinuated those hands into his hair, cradling his head. The Maine Coon looked at her pathetically.
“Er, Major le Normand?”
“I’m fine, ma’am.”
That is, if a spine kinked in twenty-three places was considered fine. It was too early in the morning to explain to the disconcerted receptionist, and so Dominica only politely nodded as she cracked toward the elevator.
Once inside, Dominica hesitated at the button panel, her hand poised as she scouted for the elusive button that would take her to her office. She squinted when she found its neighbors and began to home in, counting them off. “Cinqua-ses, cinqua-sette…” She pinpointed the target and poked it triumphantly. “Cinqua-otche!” The elevator doors hummed in response, and as Dominica settled against the back, the back stirred. She issued a tiny startled purrling, then looked behind her to find her fellow occupant, or rather his midsection. Without having to look any further, she guessed who it was and muttered, “Sorry, sir.”
Feral made no response. Instead, he reached out one long arm and effortlessly tapped the 60 button, then retracted that arm with the same laconism. Dominica edged further into the rear corner. *However on this earth did he do that?* she thought, resentfully. *I think I would at least have sensed him come in. Now what does he want? Aren’t I bothered enough in the day without…* The slight kat interrupted herself, and her mode of thinking shifted to another point of view. *I’m being paranoid. I don’t think he’s here just for me…he’s the commander, for heaven’s sake! What woul- dn’t he be doing here? And what wouldn’t he be double- checking and overseeing? That’s the problem: I’ve been so absorbed in this case that I’ve grown hypersensi- tive to everything here. I need to stop worrying, that’s what.* She leaned more toward the rising sun, then relaxed against the pane. *So what if that’s not what he’s here for? He has as much right to be here as me, and it’s not as if he totally controls my life…* She paused and concentrated on her last thought. *Where did that come from?* The white kat lady mulled some more. *Well, whatever that meant, I still don’t see why I’m being so ridiculous about him being in hhere alone with me. I should have gotten over that fear…no, that intimidation…when I graduated from the academy. He’s not a god, right? He’s not out to destroy me, right? Right. So I should just stay calm and remember that he really can’t scare me.* She nod- ded with the resolution. *I wonder if he’s moved any since he came on?* Dominica tilted her face upward to glance at Feral, who was staring straight into her eyes. Everything she had just thought flung itself screaming out the window.
“Your floor is coming up,” he quietly informed her.
She stiffened. “Thank you, sir.”
He likewise assumed his original state as a pillar, and Dominica sighed, nauseous.
At long, long length, the elevator delivered its declarative *ping*, and the doors dilated at Domini- ca’s destination. She hurried through to leave that episode as far behind as she could manage and to settle into her office, and she didn’t look when the doors shuddered shut, and the elevator hummed benignly up another two floors. Dominica inhaled slowly, then let the air out when she eventually found her door.
Her sanctuary, however, was not intact: From inside the office came the dry rustle of papers being rear- ranged, accompanied by a low female voice murmuring to herself. There was a louder rustle, and the voice brightened, then resumed her mumbling in the higher timbre. Infuriated that someone would dare intrude upon her sanctum, Dominica clenched her teeth and the doorknob – which was unlocked – and placed her hand above the Magnum that she carried, just in case the situation was even worse than trespassers. She forced herself against the wall, gripped the gun, and dove through the opening, withdrawing her weapon and rol- ling upright as she yelled, “*Freeze!*”
The office appeared the same way she left it, unlit and orderly, save a few shuffled papers strewn on her desk. *I must have made some entrance,* she thought as she eased her aim. *She may still be here, though.* She was shifting the balance from her rear leg to the fore when she zeroed in on a smudge of movement from behind her desk, and instantly she acknowledged it. She cocked the gun, which gave a solid *clackt!* as a warning.
The motion – a hand, as the kat saw – hovered above the threadbare carpet. Its owner asked, “Is that you, major?”
Dominica glared at the hand, the gun still trained. “Which major do you mean?”
“You’re the one,” the hand-owner replied. “Hold on, I’m standing up.”
From behind the desk chair rose the intruder, whose dark hair, sharp eyes, and stark cheekbones made her more identifiable to the squatting Dominica. “Captain, what do you think you’re doing here?”
“I was just dropping something off here,” Felina easily replied.
“Like what?” Dominica asked, accusingly.
“Sheez, will you lighten up? You’re a little uptight this morning. Didn’t get enough sleep?”
“Well, what seems so dire that you couldn’t have gi- ven it to me when I arrived?” She stood and holstered the Magnum when another oddity struck her. “And how did you manage to get in here, anyway?”
“I had a key. Well, my uncle had a key, really,” an- swered Felina. “Y’see, I was in his office the other day, and he was giving one of his lectures, so when he wasn’t looking, I -”
“He has a key to *my* office?” Dominica asked, loud- er than she intended.
“Yeah, he has one to everyone’s. Don’t sweat it,” Felina added. “So anyway, I was up late writing up these suggestions,” she waved at the desk, “and it would’ve been too late to give them to you after your assembly-thing. Are you okay with that?”
Dominica, her fury lessened to peevedness, folded her arms across her chest. “I’m not ‘okay’ with the fact that you sneaked in here without telling me…”
“…but, I suppose I’ll look them over before I go down, all right?”
“All right. Thanks, ma’am,” Felina accepted. The Amazonian hybrid plucked her gloves from Dominica’s intercom and yanked them over her thinly-furred fing- ers. “Oh, by the way, you haven’t seen my uncle around, have you?”
“Yes, he was going to his office just a little while ago,” Dominica answered as she watched Felina twitch.
“Well, this is going to be just *scads* of fun, then,” remarked Felina. “I gotta go. ‘Bye, and nice being almost shot by you!” The girl brought the door clamorously shut behind her.
“Next time you want to give me something, find me first!” Dominica called after the retreating captain.
The episode ended, Dominica tugged on the desk lamp’s old bead cord and was rewarded with a discon- certing sizzle. She jerked it a bit more angrily, and finally the lamp winked into begrudged light. *You would think a place that eats as many taxes as this would at least have decent electricity,* she grumbled inwardly, then plunked into her seat. From her lap drawer, Dominica withdrew a nondescript manila folder, and with lack of enthusiasm, she cast it onto the desktop. She considered the mass on her desk careful- ly: there were Felina’s notes, bound in a thin yellow envelope, and there were her notes, neat, clean, and adequate, given the case evidence. Her hand stretched toward the yellow envelope without her even thinking of it, and reluctantly she stopped herself. Probably, the neophyte captain’s notes were standard rookie hodge-podge, scribbled over and splashed much too generously with neon highlighter to the point of being an illegible, Rorschachian mess, Dominica told herself, and she moved toward her own writings. *Yet I wonder…*
The yellow envelope soon lay empty on the desk, and Dominica was studying its contents seriously. Felina had provided four maps of the search area – the entire city, its western half, Chinatown, and the west-north- western quarter – and each was clearly notated with case developments and analyses. At the bottoms of the xeroxed maps were footnotes which indicated various passages, presumably from the report underneath them. Dominica examined those with even more curiosity. *Maybe she has something here, even if she is just new,* she mused, and ruffled the papers off the re- port. After several minutes, the petite kat glanced at her wristwatch, then gathered her reading into a semi- ordered pile. She integrated the sheets into her ini- tial folder, had a thought, scribbled it onto a sheet of legal pad, and clicked off the light.
At that second, booted footsteps clomped out in the hallway, sounding like they were barrelling toward Dominica’s door, and as she hopped back in preparation for impact, the doorknob rattled as if suffering con- vulsions. From the door burst Felina, who looked first at the dumbfounded kitten, then at the stand beside the doorway. She snatched a small item from it, con- firmed it, and briefly explained, “Forgot the key.” She slammed the door and thundered back down the corridor.
*What an odd girl, indeed,* thought Dominica.
The general auditorium vibrated with the conversa- tions, laughter, and coughs of ten thousand impatient Enforcers, nearly all of which barely awake, and some who had nodded off while they still had the opportu- nity. One portion, seated in the easternmost division, was wondering where one of its majors was. She was the organizer of this caucus, and as such, she would be leading everyone in the mass debriefing. Still, she should have arrived by then, and each member of the units in turn swept the great hall searching for her.
Felina, seated where Dominica would be were she not presenting, anxiously checked her watch. *Five after seven…where the heck is she?* she asked in her mind. *She should at least show up on time for her own pre- sentation. Maybe those suggestions I left were a lit- tle hard to understand,* she hypothesized. The hybrid leaned back into the stadium chair and stared at the ceiling, waiting for the telltale hush that would sig- nify when to look forward. Instead, the seat next to her creaked blatantly and her own rose a few centime- ters, and she shot an unsettled look at Feral, who was easing his tremendous frame in next to her. Felina bit her lip and stared at the back of the auditorium, pre- tending to ignore the kat at her elbow.
There was another creak, which Felina knew was his leaning toward her. *Oh, he’s going to make me talk to him…and it’s too late to get away,* she thought in dread. She didn’t give him more than a sidelong eye as he began to speak.
“Felina, has le Normand ever noticeably watched you at work in the past couple of months?” he asked.
“Maybe once or twice,” she quickly returned.
He mm-hmmed, then asked, in a lower tone, “Has she ever personally spoken to you? Just casual talking, about her personal life, maybe about friends of hers?”
“No,” replied Felina, drawing away from her uncle. “Why? Is there some reason she would want to tell *me* about that?”
“Never mind,” said Feral, and pulled back into him- self. Felina glowered at him for several more moments, still not sure what to make of his queer inquiry, be- fore she also returned her attentions to the speaker’s floor. The auditorium quieted presently as the center of the meeting paced onto the floor.
Taking the lectern, Dominica estimated her audience and, pleased with the number, organized her notes, ad- justed the microphone, and began:
“I trust you all have become familiar with the Car 07 case, whether by direct involvement or bulletins and such, so I will not waste time reviewing it here. However, you may or may not be entirely up-to-date on the most recent findings, so I will describe those be- fore I go into the deployment plans: Subsequent to the thief’s getaway, substation officer Chris Reid, who was a hostage, identified the thief as Arthur Ramirez, who, among other things, is wanted on ten counts of arson, three on murder, and fifteen on racketeering. Ramirez was last seen fleeing into Chinatown by way of I-52.
“There were no trails found where the stolen cruiser was confiscated. All following searches were inconclu- sive as well. In the months that followed, only three sightings – all in the same area and in the same 24- hour period – were reported. Those all reputed him to be wandering in the back streets of the Huang quarter late in the evening of July thirteenth without a vehi- cle, and one reported him as appearing disoriented. When officials searched the area, he was nowhere to be found, and no further reports have been filed. We do not know whether he is alive or dead, and due to his threat, there must be a final, thorough sweep through Chinatown, the rest of MegaKat City, and all its sub- urbs and surrounding areas. It is in the citizens’ best interest that we locate Ramirez as soon as possi- ble.”
While Dominica paused to ask for a map display, Fe- lina poked the captain at her left. He turned and faced her, a bit irritated, as the lights snuffed themselves out.
“Weren’t there two other guys?” she whispered.
“Yeah, but we never heard any more about ’em,” he answered. “My team and I had to check out the hotel’s records, but those guys were registered under generic pseudonyms – y’know, ‘John Doe’ and the like.”
“Didn’t the security tapes have anything?”
“Oh, sure, but they were so grainy that we couldn’t figure out who was what. There was, like, one report out on ’em, and that wasn’t any help. We got switched to the Car 07 case before we could look into it, though, and the guys they replaced us with only did it halfway,” the captain grumbled. “Y’think this chick’s gonna do any better?”
“If she does it right,” Felina rejoined. “Thanks.” Her fellow captain nodded and watched the floor as she did the same.
“The last place Ramirez was seen was the seventh in- tersection of the Huang quarter,” Dominica indicated on the webbish map display. “At oh-nine-hundred, I want half of Kohlenberg’s teams in plainclothes in that neighborhood, and I want the other half eaves- dropping. Half of Lang’s teams should also be eaves- dropping throughout Chinatown with Lang and Rourke supervising…”
Dominica spent the next half-hour giving a litany of names and posts. When she had finished assigning each Enforcer a role in the search, she ordered the lights back on, and the map winked out of sight.
“Dismissed,” she announced. “I want the plainclothes dispersed in half an hour, and the eavesdroppers and supervisors should gather in the tech room in ten minutes. I’ll be joining you shortly.”
The white lady kat ushered herself off the floor to follow her cohorts while the contents of the auditor- ium streamed like a swarm toward the exits, generating a steady hum as it went. One dun-coated man stayed be- hind, still seated, but not particularly watching the disseminating crowd. He remained until the auditorium was completely lifeless, when the drone of thousands of small-talkers had migrated elsewhere; when he was finally alone, he rose soundlessly to his full height and surveyed the scape. Finding an exit, he moved into the aisle and trod deliberately where the rest of the populus had gone.
The cavernous tech room hosted a pack of impatient, would-be spies, ambling to and fro while they waited for their superiors to organize them accordingly. Some made last-minute adjustments to the screen setups im- bedded in the far wall, while others fine-tuned the sound boards. In the stygian room, only the light from the working monitors provided any illumination for the officers, and so the unoccupied were kept sedate while the more important work was finished.
“Turn on a light or something, will you?” Dominica batted the heavy door open and fumbled for a switch. “There, that’s better. All right!” At an authoritative mewl, the flock congealed in a semicircle around the entering major, who drifted to a stop at another dis- play of the city. She beckoned for her own headset, then fastened its power source around her svelte waist as she introduced her stratagem.
“Okay, we’ll divide into two subgroups and follow our leaders out to the helipads, where we’ll go out to the Board of City Maintenance building. Once we’re there, hop off immediately and start spreading out like I explained earlier. Everybody have it?”
“I thought you were staying here,” someone protest- ed.
She tipped an ear confusedly. “No, I said I would join you.”
“But I heard you were supposed to…oh, never mind,” the questioner mumbled. “Sorry, ma’am.”
Dominica creased her eyebrows at the inquisitor. “No, not ‘never mind’. What was it I was supposed to do?”
“Well, the commander said he didn’t want you to get -”
“The commander says lots of things,” another Enfor- cer huffed. “Can we PLEASE get on with this?”
The kat girl averted her preoccupied stare to the open door, her ears keened forward. “Let’s go then, everyone. You have your orders.”
The equipped herd marched speedily out of the tech room, leaving its correspondents behind and hustling out for the helipads. The last one out – the inquirer – caught the lady kat’s absent look. “Sorry again, ma’am,” he offered. She lifted a paw to say “That’s all right,” then followed him down the hall.
Dominica upheld the tail end of the march, where she could let her mind become blank in preparation for the excursion. In her lucid state, she could pick up snip- pets of conversation rippling throughout the crowd, fluctuating syllables rather than intelligible words, and they joined the flow of her stream of conscious- ness. The babbling, the steady march, and the unifor- mity of the utilitarian hallway all mixed into an *ohm* of sorts, and, for the first time in months, Do- minica was at perfect, serene ease. Her tranquillity was suddenly jerked away, however, when her subconsci- ous recognized the calling of her name.
“Dominica! About time,” declared Felina as Dominica turned to see the tall girl catch up to the group. “Were we off in la-la land?”
“You might say that, captain,” Dominica sighed. *For a second, anyway…*
“Just call me Felina, okay?” she replied. “Hey, thanks for looking over my suggestions. I really ap- preciate it.”
“No trouble at all. You covered a lot of things I hadn’t thought of.”
The group strode in cadence onto the open helipad. “Oh, and before I forget – how did the thing with the key go? Did you make it in time?”
“What key – oh, *that*,” Felina recalled, lowering her voice. “Um, it wasn’t very pretty…Say, we’re at the helipad already! How about that? See you in China- town!” And the hybrid was first to board, despite her position at the end.
ONE WEEK LATER
The sun levitated, half-asleep, only slightly above Chinatown’s symmetrical skyline. Its morning colors glimmered behind gauzy stratocumuli, and wisps of it carried with them a cool rain. The shower helped to abate at least some of the oppressive mugginess from the earlier nights, but only for the morning. Come af- ternoon, it would return, with humidity from the cur- rently helpful rain tacked onto it, Felina dismally figured. She guessed she should enjoy the weather while she could, though, since her shift would defini- tely outlive the niceness. She tugged the hood of her poncho down over her brows to shield her headset. In a few minutes, she would be on the air, so she prepared to become invisible. Felina flattened herself along the tenement roof and propped her upper half on her elbows to peek over and into the narrow roads while staying as inconspicuous as possible. She marked the time and brushed her side to locate her binoculars.
“–ome in, Feral,” the transmitter rasped in her ear.
She pressed one finger to her headset’s mike. “Feral here.”
“Start adjusting your cam magnification. We’ve got you switched on.”
Felina flipped open a tiny box slung around her mid- dle and twisted a minute knob her unseen correspon- dent okayed the view. She resumed her covert pose and studiously surveyed the scene.
While she watched assorted species people the streets, Felina reviewed the events of the past week to see if she might be able to pluck anything useful from her memories. There had been countless false leads early on from the plainclothes, but as they nar- rowed their own criteria, word fell flat, and no-thing new came since. None of the eavesdroppers struck gold, either. No body nor suspect had been uncovered, even though the entire city had been coated with po- lice for fully seven days. Felina knew Ramirez should have been apprehended by then, if the major’s – and, unofficially, her – scheme had worked as it should have. So why wasn’t he in custody? As Felina thought of it, she realized that with the particular arrange- ment of Enforcers, a hub in Chinatown with close spokes radiating into the suburbs, there was some spacing. Had Ramirez slipped through them while they weren’t looking? Or, if he were dead, his killers? *Naw, he couldn’t’ve,* Felina denied. *The civvies woulda seen him on the way out, or at least some of the media.* However, those reasons did little to convince Felina of their validity. Her tail lashed across her legs under the poncho.
One half-hour later, the rain thinned, and then stopped abruptly. The air was clear of its film, and the dingy signs and buildings seemed to brighten with the mid-morning sun. Sharp breezes now replaced the sighs that came with the shower and knifed up and across the tenement roofs, whisking paper scraps from below to zing by Felina’s head. She unhooded herself when the wind blew it rudely into her eyes. *Hope- fully,* she thought sulkingly, *it’s not going to be like this all day…or at least through _my_ shift. The last thing I want besides a crick in the neck is pneumonia.* She sniffed, bored…then gagged.
The slower winds sent a putrid stench wafting up to Felina’s level. It was a dense, ill, cloying stink that corrupted her stomach and the little bit in it. The hybrid suppressed her rising gorge and twisted herself in the effluvium’s perceived direction, appa- rently just behind her. She took it in whiffs, concen- trating on the strength, and thereby the origin, rather than the disgustingness. The thickest concen- tration hung almost in a straight line to the opposite corner of the next tenement, and watching it as if it would run away if she didn’t, she depressed the head- set mike. “Base, this is Feral.”
“Base here. Go ahead, Feral.”
“I’ve picked up a scent over here that smells kind of like decaying flesh. Requesting permission to drop surveillance and investigate.”
There were a few staticky seconds between her ques- tion and its answer. “Chances are it’s just takeout in the humidity. Permission denied.”
“I know what is and isn’t plain old garbage, sir – again, requesting permission to drop post and investi- gate!” she repeated, this time with a growl edging her speech.
“Granted,” a woman’s voice interceded. “I had that post last, but I was pulled off before I could go look.”
Felina, after a second of joy at getting her way, asked, “Did the guy after you look into it?”
“He says he couldn’t smell anything. I think that’s because it was getting colder and windier, which must have dampened the smell. Go find it, already.”
“Right. Thanks, Dominica.” Felina crept gingerly toward the roof edge, lest she be spotted. There, she eyeballed the gap between her ledge and the neighbor, approved, and rose to a crouch while backing away. She secured her binoculars to her belt and tucked her pon- cho out of the way, looked up, then leaned into a runner’s position. At once she sprinted back to the ledge and pushed herself thoughtlessly off the con- crete lip, stretched mid-air to grab at the next buil- ding as she flew. She readied herself to catch the coming edge, but as it sped under her, she realized she had made a slight error in her estimation. Felina bashed into the rooftop and rolled with leftover mo- mentum into the center of the gravelled surface, then picked herself up, mortified. She perfunctorily checked her equipment, which had survived better than she had. She rubbed a skinned elbow as the base asked, “Are you okay over there?”
“Fine, fine, fine,” retorted Felina. “I’ve got the scent again, so keep watching.”
The stink was now waiting only steps ahead. *The first really interesting thing all day,* she remarked as she sank to all fours. She stole toward the ledge, her skinned elbow shuffling in the dirty gravel, her shoulders starting to burn with her weight foisted on them as they pulled her front end along to the nasty yet intriguing stench, and when finally she arrived, she lobbed one sore arm over the edge. The girl drag- ged herself up to the brick brim, but didn’t bother to look over it. Instead, she threw a leg over to begin her descent, peered down, and
“All units, return to base. All units, return. The mission has been aborted, repeat: the mission has been aborted.”
Felina, stuck straddling the rough and very cold cement ledge, was definitely not amused. She plopped down onto the rooftop, then fumbled for the mike.
“Base, Feral here again,” the half-kat snipped. “Excuse me, but was the search just cancelled?”
“Yep. We’re sending pickup vehicles now, so stand by.”
“No, you *can’t!*” she complained, her voice keying up higher. “Here, where am I now – I’m on upper Cul- len. I may have found something solid pertaining to this case! Come ON! You can’t call it off *yet!* Is anybody listening over there?!”
Sirens wailed *en masse* in the heart of Chinatown and headed a swarm of Enforcer helicopters from the city, which caused a small-scale riot in the street below Felina, as well, as she listened, as in others. “This is _so_ undermining what we did,” she hissed, disgusted. “Listen, who gave this command?”
“I did,” her uncle coolly replied.
Her cover had been stomped flat by the raid, so Felina stood up, uselessly, on the tenement roof. Feral, her uncle, the commander, the man who had per- sonally approved the search and prepared the press re- lease about its significance in finding a deadly threat, had arbitrarily abandoned it. As if it had no importance in the world. As if it were a bother. Well, she had no use for *that.* That was just too wrong for her, and he would hear about it as soon as she saw him. A heli hovered about twelve feet overhead and dropped a rope ladder to the seething woman, who seized it and somewhat gladly pounced up into the chopper.
“‘Djou hear that, Jake?”
“All of it.”
“They’ve got some coordination, haven’t they? Can’t beat a time like that for an entrance with a stick,” he commented while emptying an aerosol can into an oil drum.
The rebuilt CB they had salvaged, mounted on the wall and tuned to the Enforcer band, ceased its patter for a time. Chance used the break to consult the quilt of air maps splattered on the hangar floor.
“Yeah, but we can’t leave quite yet,” Jake called from the tail of the jet. “We’ll have to watch the evening news to make sure they’re really quitting – it wouldn’t be too smart to run out without enough infor- mation.”
“There’s that, I guess.”
“And on top of that…” Jake tossed his used aerosol can aside and ambled toward a pair of lockers leaning by the television set, “…we have to see if these costumes fit us.”
The lank brown kat tiptoed over the smear of chartts and past Chance, who was pondering over two crumpled in his fists. “What? Oh, those.” The yellow tabby set the maps side-by-side on top of a tool drawer and rooted for a T-square and a pencil. “I still say they shoulda been black.”
“Yeah, but black looks too evil. Blue’s better.”
“Black’s more imposing.”
“Exactly, which is why blue’s better.”
“But blue’s such a sissy-mary color!”
“It is not. Take your costume.”
“Black is better, so there,” Chance mumbled, accep- ting the wad of blue and red fabric Jake handed him, then returning to his work.
“How’s it look, Chance?” Jake asked, holding his arms out while Chance wasn’t looking.
“‘T’s okay,” he replied. “Is it me, or was that con- versation just a little too…”
“Don’t say it, I know,” admitted Jake as he hastily pulled the costume off. “Maybe this superhero thing is getting more to us than I thought.”
“Yeah, well…” Chance selected another map from the floor. “Hey, about secret identities and things of that nature, Jake…”
“Since MegaKat City is, like, the loosest place in the world in terms of security leaks, we’re really go- ing to have to be super-careful about how we do stuff. Take this, f’r instance:” Chance turned around and presented the route he had diagrammed on one of the air graphs. “The quickest way to the Huang quarter is also an Enforcer air beat. Now, if we were only wor- ried about getting there, period, we could take that path. But we also don’t want to be seen, got me?”
Jake, by the lockers, twitched an ear. “Why do we have to worry about that? They’re not going to see *us* us.”
“Yeah, but with us being in a never-before-seen as well as an unregistered aircraft, we’ll just be asking for trouble,” Chance explained. “Like driving without plates. And if they try to make radio contact, they might recognize our voices.”
“I don’t think they would,” defended Jake.
“It hasn’t been all that long since we left, so I wouldn’t be surprised,” Chance countered. “So they hear us, recognize us, and BAM! We’re busted.”
“All right,” Jake accepted. “Well, this is a ‘might’ if ever I heard one, but how about this: We head out during changeover, and while everything’s down, we duck through the path and miss ’em right as they’re coming back. How’s that?”
“Good, but also really iffy. We’d have to time it to the millisecond, since you know how fast changeover is.”
“Yeah. So…what do you have in mind?”
“Well…” The striped kat stared at the map in his hands for a bit while the brown one peeked over his shoulder.
“Can’t we go above range?” suggested Jake.
“Eh…much as I’d like to, I’m not entirely sure the engines will handle very thin-air flight, even with your adjustments. I want to test that out while we’re not on a serious mission before I can push the jet -”
“The Turbokat,” Jake corrected, grinning.
“I thought of it while we were painting it,” Jake extrapolated. “Isn’t it cool?”
“Um, yeah,” Chance diplomatically agreed. “Sure. Anyway, I’d wanna know how well the…Turbokat can handle high-altitude flight before we go zippin’ around up there too much. Okay!” Chance handed the map to Jake and snatched the neatly-folded costume from the tool drawer. “Tell me if you have any alternatives t’that.”
“All right.” Jake studied the pencilled diagram while Chance unzipped his mechanic’s overalls. After the passing of a handful of seconds, Jake asked, “A big crescent inside the city, Chance? You aren’t going out over the wa – jeez, you’re dressed already?!”
“Yeah, all of ’em,” the costumed Chance answered. “I didn’t want to risk conking out over MegaKat Bay in case those engines weren’t up to snuff yet. Besides, I planned to weave in between overpasses and low places where those fat old helicopters can’t reach. That should be good enough, shouldn’t it?”
“And scare all the civvies in the process?”
“They’ll love it. I did that every day when we were in the Enforcers, remember?”
“And got lectured every time, too. But I can’t real- ly think of another route, and you’re right in assu- ming there might be problems with the engines.” The smaller kat folded the map and tossed it casually onto the drawer. “It all sounds good to me.”
“Great!” Chance disrobed and re-dressed in the over- alls.
Jake glanced at a wall clock near the stairwell. Eleven twenty-eight in the morning. His ears pricked toward the ceiling. “We’ve got a customer up there. Review the case after closing time?”
The two made their way up the staircase to begin their normal day, as if nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened.
Finished scattering fresh rose petals around the inner perimeter, Dominica, still in uniform, slumped onto her bed. If the holistic remedy worked as it should, she should be relaxed in a few hours. She lay belly-down on the mattress for a quick catnap, trying to remove the morning’s fiasco from her memory…
Felina Feral, a rookie-captain who evidently comman- ded more intellect than Dominica initially credited her, had had the nasty misfortune of stumbling onto what could have been a key piece of evidence at the exact time the search had been cut. She had protested over the radio, angrier than a wet kitten, but in the end she was hauled off and ignored. Dominica herself was infuriated past coherence by the time the troops returned.
The commander had barged into the tech room three quarters of an hour before Felina encountered the strange smell. He stood, separated from the white lady kat and her panel of supervisors, watching wordlessly. Then, without any warning whatsoever, he ordered the search closed. He simply stepped forward, plucked up a transmitter, and dispelled her carefully-orchestrated hard work as indifferently as if he were changing his shorts. Adding insult to injury, he wrecked her per- fect secrecy by casting out a legion of hovercraft to retrieve the soldiers when an ordinary pick-up would have sufficed. She was now amazed that the ensuing pa- nic hadn’t inflated into a melee. After the monitors and the headphones died, Dominica stared at him, her mouth gaping, unable to grasp just quite what had hap- pened.
“You…you called off my search!” she eventually said in an incredulous, airy voice. “You just called it off!”
He gazed down his nose at her and replied, “Yes I did. Nothing conclusive has come from this, and though I admire your faith, this search has been as much of a waste as the others. The case is dead, major.” He watched the other officers and aides collect the records of the past week. “I’ll expect a short report to be filed by tomorrow.”
“Sir,” she hissed, her accent surfacing in her rage, “jou realise this has been only *one* week, haven’tchou? I had so many things planned for bejond this week, and countermeasures in case this one did not work! *No* case ever turns anything up in jast one week!” Feral continued to regard her blandly, and now that she recalled the scene, Dominica feared her speech may have made her more amusing than convincing. “I had efrything under control, and so I want that sairch put back on the top priority!”
“I already told you, major – the case is dead.”
“It is not! How can jou espect good, solid results in seven days?! Sairches take lots of time – I thought jou, of all people, should realise that, comandante!”
“That is not the point, Major le Normand. If, at the end of two and a half months, nothing has turned up, we’re wasting our time and money. If Ramirez were still at large in MegaKat City, then we undoubtedly would have found something before now. The search is off, so deal with it. Any questions?”
The commander had his back to her, but Dominica knew he was smirking at her. She began to doubt whether he had listened to a word she had shouted, and her hack- les, though blanketed by her long, dark hair, stood fully upright as she seethed at him; her eyes fixed venomously on the center of his back. Then Dominica’s little muscles became rigid when her fury moved past the screaming point. She stiffened, and stated, with clear, sterile inflection, “I do not see the logic be- hind your claim. Two months of slipshod detective work is wholly inadequate for a city this size, and fur- thermo-”
“Le Normand…” Patronizingly, Feral clapped a weighty hand on one of her fragile shoulders and kept it there. “That’s enough. Now, you file that report and get some rest. Dismissed.” The appendage dropped from her shoulder, and Feral left the tech room with- out saying anything more.
As it turned out, the commander planned on remaining aloof on the subject regardless of who asked about it. Even Felina was left out of the loop. When she had consulted him to try to cajole the motives out of him (“He wouldn’t dare keep anything from his sweet little niece,” she explained), she was ushered out three sec- onds later, apparently no more educated, as her stormy expression announced, than anyone else. “That man…is in serious need…of an enema,” was what she grumbled when Dominica asked.
Dominica docilely filed the post-op report later on, and now, having reached the present in her reverie, rested alone in the blase’ dorm. She flipped onto her back as she attempted to find comfort in the bed, but sleep remained elusive. Finally, Dominica sat up and braced herself with her arms against the bedframe. Those rose petals sure weren’t holding up their end of the bargain very well. She decided it would help if she weren’t wearing her uniform, and so she hoisted herself out of bed onto perilously weak legs. *Am I really that out of condition?* she wondered. The five hours, total, of sleep in the past week were probably responsible for that. But even so, she knew she could tolerate that much and still perform in peak conditi- on. Maybe more was getting to her than usual…
Undressed, Dominica cast the dun uniform off to the side, along with her bulletproof vest. At last, she collapsed into bed and drew the chilly covers around herself in hopes that she might find sleep. Before she drifted away, she let her eyes rove the room one last time. Her nightstand, the only thing in the room, be- sides her discarded clothing, that indicated life, sat blithely in front of her pillow. Among the sundries piled on its top, one small thing jolted her brain out of a sleep-deprived stupor – her engagement ring. Do- minica snatched it from the stand and stared at it as it rested in her palm, gawking at it like she had ne- ver seen such a thing. She clasped her hand over the ring and fell over into her pillow with a groan. *I haven’t spoken to poor Jake for the better part of a year!* she remembered. *All that stupid casework and internal affairs…I hadn’t given him a second of my spare thought. I wonder what he would say if I checked up on him right now?* She picked her head up and look- ed hopefully at the telephone on the nightstand. *Would he be glad that I called, or would he be re- sentful that I forgot him? What if he thinks I’ve left him? What if he’s gotten sick over worrying that…* But she gazed again into the pillow and reassured her- self, *He has to realize I’ve been busy. He was an Enforcer, too, so he knows how much time a case like this would take from me.* That didn’t cut it when one had been forcibly separated from one’s significant other for half a year, her subconscious noted. Domini- ca breathed out forcefully and fingered the ring for another few moments when another thought landed: What if he had given up on her and was out carousing with some other woman? Of course…why would he wait forev- er for Dominica to call him when he was perfectly able to pick up a different, closer woman who would be there when he wanted her, and not ignore him for months at a time? She shuddered and threw the idea to a remote corner of her mind. Jake loved her, and she loved him just as much. He would never do something like that to her. But would he try, though?
“That,” Dominica said aloud, “is enough of that, al- ready.” She made a mental note to look up the number of that salvage yard when she awoke, provided she ever get to sleep. She tenderly replaced the ring to its place on the nightstand, then considered it a bit lon- ger. The white lady kat curled up between the sheets, draped her tail tip over her nose, and sighed softly.
“You’re absolutely positive that he’s gone?”
“A’course. As much as you said you were paying for us, it’d be pretty unprofessional to leave it open.”
“Well, you are far from immortal, even with those special, um, ‘talents’ you say you have. There is al- ways a margin of error, even for you.”
“Albeit a very slim one.” The redheaded hybrid with the small black spot to the right of her nose primly crossed her legs. Another hybrid, the first’s exact copy, but with the spot to the left of her nose, stood before a graying man who seemed bored with their pre- sence. Her arms were folded threateningly across her chest, and she glared at the man, but offered nothing in response to her sister’s words.
“Y’know, there was a time over in Tensaku when a guy hired us an’ then said -” a third copy, spotted below the lip, began.
“Shut up, Marina.”
“But I was just gonna say that he -”
“Let’s not annoy Mr. Gabelloto any more than we already have, okay?”
The third hybrid rolled her eyes. “Oh, all right. So, then, dear,” she said, addressing the one-man audience, “I don’t think you should be too worried about our job.”
“What can you show me to prove otherwise?” he asked.
“Check in with your men, Gabelloto, and ask if they’ve seen Ramirez at all,” the first suggested. “They should say no.”
“Because you paid them to?”
“Oh, goodness, no,” she laughed. “What kind of char- latan do you take me for? Well, don’t answer that. Ei- ther way, everything is taken care of. Where’s the check?”
“Not until you’ve proven to me that Hicks and Romaine have been dealt with similarly.”
“We have men out erasing that slip-up right now.”
“I see,” said Gabelloto, folding his hands on the lacquered desk top. “Well, what about that body out there? *Somebody’s* going to find it.”
The first snorted. “It’s not gonna matter. How’d you get to be where you’re at, with you worrying so much? Ramirez has been scratched out, nobody cares, life goes on as usual. He’s out of everybody’s hair, isn’t he? Even the police have given up looking for him.”
“If you say so.”
She held out an elegant hand. “The money?”
“I told you, none until I see you’ve held up your end of the bargain.”
“But we just told you that we have!”
“Katrina,” Gabelloto soothed. “I merely want to make sure all my bases are covered before I put in that big an amount.” He leaned forward and patted her apricot- fuzzed hands, which were resting well inside her lap. She suppressed an aggravated growl at the intrusion and instead smiled pleasantly at the old cheapskate. “Now you three aren’t convincing me too well by sit- ting here, even though you’re nice to look at. Get going.”
“And the check?”
“In the mail, if you do a good job.”
Katrina turned up a corner of her mouth. “Yes, sir.”
Once the sun had set and the “closed” sign posted on the garage’s glass door, Chance and Jake bolted like overexcited schoolchildren down the foyer and into a concealed stairwell.
“Remember you said you were going to go the short way I drew up! No civvie-clipping, you hear?” Jake called as he vaulted nimblely over the handrail. He landed behind his loping partner, who responded, “I suppose. That just takes all the fun out of it, though –!”
“Fine. Here, catch!”
Chance pitched Jake his costume from the lockers, then wrestled with his own. “Y’know, Jake,” he began, pulling the dark blue kid leather about his broad shoulders, “part of me feels like this is the coolest thing I’m ever going to do in my entire life, but part of me feels incredibly stupid, too.”
“How so?” asked Jake.
“Well, look at this – here we are, a couple of grown men, getting dressed up in costumes to go flitting around the town like renegade comic book characters. I mean, that’s not exactly sane, Jake,” Chance expounded as he tugged on a fingerless glove.
“Is that all that’s bothering you?” Jake answered, surprised. “Then think about the favor we’re doing for the city, Chance. Just don’t mind the costume, and you’ll be fine.”
“Whaddaya mean, ‘is that all that’s bothering me?’ Is there something else that I should keep in mind?”
“Well, there’s…nothing,” Jake replied. “Never mind.”
The earlier fervor fizzled into a frustrated si- lence. “Hey, Jake?” Chance tried, once he was in full costume. “Jake, what were you going to say?”
Across the room, Jake, also fully dressed, glanced up at the second call. “What’re you looking at? We’ve got a debut to make!”
The costumed reddish-brown kat dashed by the tabby and toward the awaiting jet without looking back at him. Chance watched him run by himself, attempting to figure out what happened, then joined him.
The two kats bounded up on the jet via a series of well-placed leaps that carried them eventually on top of the bird and into their respective seats. Inside and at the controls, the yellow tabby commenced the ignition sequence as the ruddy kat activated the han- gar’s takeoff mechanisms. “Let’s hope it works this time,” Chance heard him mumble. Unsurety thus reinfor- ced, Chance squirmed a little in the pilot’s seat as the jet descended to the second sublevel.
In the dim takeoff area, Chance’s old training arou- sed itself in the familiar pre-flight environment. He moved fluidly through all the mandatory panel checks, passed his hand over a multitude of switches and gauges quickly but attentively; when his pilot mind affirmed the system’s state, he readied the throttle with his left hand. His eyes, opaqued by the mask Jake had devised, darted to the red light hovering off to the right side of the hangar, waiting for the next step in the old, familiar routine.
The striped arm immediately cranked the throttle forward, and the bird keened and jumped underneath him in reply. It started up the phosphorescent runway, first at a crawl, but constantly gaining more ground as it pulled itself along. The pilot’s fur raised as he reexperienced the addictive rush of a good craft’s takeoff, denied to him for half a year. On the way, however, the thrill slipped, and queasiness replaced it.
“The door. It’s not open.”
“It isn’t? That’s odd. I just oiled it.”
“*Do* something…we’re almost there…”
“I can’t! If I do anything, it’ll shut!”
The jet hurtled along the runway at an ever-growing pace while the thin opening ahead took its sweet time to clear. A turn would worsen the situation, Chance frenetically reasoned, and even if he cut the engines, they would still crumple against the doorway…
“WE’RE GONNA DIIIIEEEEEEEEE!!!”
A labored groan fell out of the decrepit servos and retracted the door with an oxidized *skreeee*, and the craft zoomed cleanly into the sky with only a nick on its vertical stabilizers from the passage.
“Hmph,” Jake grunted as they coursed up into the evening air. “I guess I’ll have to work on that when we get back, then.”
“I guess,” Chance sniffed, his voice small.
Behind the satellite dish on the front lawn, Ann Gora found a little reprieve from the unusually sultry late sun. The newscaster had come outside for a change in scenery after being forced to spend the slow news day spectating the Kats’ Eye News crew’s long-distance foosball tourneys. Out on the grass, she could at least enjoy the quasi-fresh air while waiting for a call. She watched cars thread themselves in and out of the lanes as they battled to be the first home in the rush hour. Ann plopped herself down on the satellite dish’s pedestal and sipped at a lukewarm iced cappuci- no.
“Hey, there, Annie.”
Without looking up, she returned, “Who’s winning, Johnny?”
A blue-jean-clad yellow kat hunkered down next to her, removing his red baseball cap. “I wasn’t paying attention. I was getting hit an awful lot, so I deci- ded to come out here and look for you.”
Ann nodded absently. “Hasn’t anybody found anything yet?”
“Not that I know of.”
“I know whatcha mean,” Johnny lamentingly agreed. “You don’t suppose the cops’ve slipped up on anything else in that case they quit, do you? Maybe we could go do a little eavesdropping there. *That’d* be fun.”
“Thank you, no – we’re not a tabloid. We’re desper- ate, but not that much so.”
“Yeah, well…” Ann shifted her weight as one foot fell asleep, then stood. “This is MegaKat City, for heaven’s sake! Something is always happening! The noise here is always so thick, you can’t hear yourself yelling at everybody else!”
“What?! Is it so unreasonable to ask for one story in an entire day here? I don’t care how picayune it is! This is pathetic!” The suddenly enraged half-kat crushed the styrofoam cup in her tightening fist as Johnny scooted further and further behind the dish. “It’s never even this dead in Katalpa Hills. Look, even the cars’ve stopped!”
Literally out of the blue, a black streak shrieked deafeningly close to the station’s dish and scythed into the air again, sending the pair into the grass and leaving behind the bittery-acrid smell of jet fuel. The two stared at it as it constricted into a dot, far away. Once the capacity for speech returned, Ann slowly ordered, “Get the camera.”
In the drab Enforcer dorm, a knotty lump of linen twitched on the bed, bunched into itself, and then lengthened until a pair of padded feet and furry hands poked out at either end. The mass lifted itself, using the fine hands for support, and withdrew the appenda- ges when it reached its full height. The cloth dropped away from the creature inside, and the newly-hatched lady kat slouched groggily in the middle of her cocoon. The overwhelmingly perfumey scent of heat- wilted rose petals welcomed her to the living, and she wrinkled her pink nose at the assault. They would be fun to clean up, too, she mused as she stood up off the bed.
Some straining, diluted light dribbled through the barred window. Dominica tilted her head quizzically; she was convinced she had slept at least four hours, so the light coming in should have been afternoon- strength. As she peered over the sill, she realized, to her chagrin, that she had slept longer than her es- timate. The sun was losing its hold in the eastern atmosphere, and already the first moon was mounted on the western skyline. *Apparently, those petals worked after all,* she thought drily.
Dominica caught a keen just before a superheated blast blew her delicate frame three feet from the spot. She clambered to the window while shielding her nose from the smell of exhaust, then swept the outside to find a huge black jet diminishing toward the moon.
“Hnn? I’ve never seen *that* jet before,” the kat- ling noted aloud. “And no standard Enforcer jets are in that make or color.”
The dorm room door swung into the hallway, and from it emerged a fully-uniformed Dominica. She forged the empty hall to the elevator far down, her steps echoing against the polished floor.
Up on Cullen, a salient black fighter streaked only barely above the eventide traffic. It turned on its side to fit between the claustrophobic streets of Chinatown and cleft the tiny airspace until it found a suitable landing area, then winged up over the build- ings. It launched itself farther away from the cars and entered a long bank toward a rooftop. As it pre- pared to land, jump jets kicked on in conjunction with the wing flaps and let the jet settle gently onto the roof.
As soon as the engines ceased, a pair of obscured figures leapt from the cockpit, highlighted by the pink-orange glow of the setting sun. One turned to the other.
“This is where that captain said she was. So, to re- trace her steps, we…”
“It must’ve been right there.” The slender one indi- cated the southern ledge.
“Let’s go.” The taller, more muscular one jogged to the edge, followed by the leaner.
The two kats peeked over the ledge. Directly under- neath them, below the iron ladders, sat a despondent line of crusty cars, propped up against the wall. On the updraft, there was a peculiar, ickily sweetish smell that clung loosely to that of rusting metal.
“D’you smell that, Jake?”
“Shh! You can’t call me that out here!” Jake lightly admonished. “And no, all I can smell is our jet.”
“Weren’t you supposed to come up with some names by now? We can’t go by ‘Hey, you!’ all the time. Try lea- ning over the ledge a bit,” Chance replied.
“When you think of some, tell me. I smell it now – eww, what the heck’s down there?”
“‘When *I* think of some’?!”
“Let’s go check that out.”
“That’s what we’re here for,” said the costumed Chance.
The steel scaffolding screakily gasped and groaned as the large kat dropped onto its struts; it issued a smaller pang when his lesser comrade alighted beside him. The two dismounted in tandem and landed on a less-than-trustworthy car roof. It gave a little under Chance’s haunches and threatened to dump him into the molding interior. He minced toward the trunk while gesturing to his partner. “Get off there before it breaks and come down here – I think we’ve found what we’re looking for!”
“Where?” Jake asked. “Ohh…now *that* is just sick.”
Between the wall and the old car lay a prone and festering somebody. It stank ruthlessly, making both kats’ blank eyes water and moving Jake to shut his hands over his nose. Its mottled brown and black fur was molting, hairs of it decorating the pavement, and completely missing in some places. The pale skin that was open to the air was blotched, bruised, and covered with tiny scratches that were left unhealed. The corpse’s eyes were tightly sealed, as was its mouth, though the black tear ducts and lip were rotted. Its arms rested beside it, strangely crooked so the palms faced upward and sat in the small of its back. The sparsely-furred tail lay weakly between outward-bent legs.
Chance regarded the other as old deductive training set in. “This must’ve been Ramirez.”
“It looks like he’s been dead a while, though,” Jake answered, muffled by his hands. “But the face, the po- sition – it looks like someone killed him, and then set him up in that position after he died. But why would they? And why’s he here?”
“Set him up after he died, or before? Could it’ve been during?”
“Mmf. Rigor mortis would’ve opened his eyes, though, Cha – uh, you – so unless whoever killed him *tended* him…but he looks undisturbed.” Jake rocked onto his haunches. “It doesn’t seem like a murder, or at least a violent one, since there’re no major injuries or signs of trauma. Could be drugs.”
The bigger kat flicked back his ears. “Are you say- ing he was *on* drugs, or he *was* drugged? If he *was* drugged, then someone left him here and made sure he looked like this after he cacked. The thing is, why would somebody want him to be in this positi- on? I thought it didn’t matter what the stiff looks like, as long as he’s dead. Now if he was *on* drugs…”
“Nope. There’s no paraphernalia around – I looked.”
“Well, what if someone ran off with them?”
“With the disease scare going around? I wouldn’t think so. But even if somebody made off with the evi- dence, or even if he drugged himself somewhere else and came here, *no* drug makes a guy die with his eyes and mouth shut. Drugs are out, anyway; his tail’s straight.”
“And if he was OD’d, it’d be all kinked and contor- ted. I gotcha.” The leather-wearing Chance paused. “Think that’s linked to the cause of death, though?”
“Oh, sure. It *has* to be.”
“Think it happened *during* death?”
Jake squinted a pupilless eye. “Huh?”
“Okay, listen,” Chance began as he settled between the car and Jake. “Remember the Benenati case?”
“How ’bout the Sheffield one?”
“Fitzroy, Cougar, Montinelli?”
“Yes, yes, but those were all Cosa Nostra guys,” chuffed Jake. “Ramirez was just a freelancer.”
“What else did the Nostra deaths have in common?”
“The Mendozas got ’em,” stated Jake.
“Precisely. Aaaaand, how did they look when we found ’em?”
“Well, kinda unnatural…”
“Like they were stuck in the position they could’ve been killed in?”
“Suppose they could’ve gotten him like this: Say he was running and trying to hide – fear’s a big role in their method – but they caught him here anyway. He’s trapped. They pin him with his hands behind his back, then fry him however they do so there’s no evidence leaked out. They think they’re untraceable this way, so they leave him for the cops to throw away for them.”
“Sure, that’s how it was in all those other cases, but that’s because the Mendozas were supposed to take out weak links in the family. All they are is a waste management crew, pretty much. They get paid to take out the loose ends and the leaks in the system. There’ve been rats who admitted this to the police, and they’re kaput, too.”
“We know that, but it doesn’t matter what they’re *for*,” Chance explained. “What we need to know is why they went after him at all, plus why he went on the run from the mystery meeting.”
“Well…” stalled the slighter kat, “…it *does* seem likely that it was them, but Ramirez wasn’t part of the Nostra. It’s still too random.”
“There’s only one way to find out if it’s right, then, and it starts with the letter ‘I’,” Chance an- nounced as he rose.
“‘Incantations’?” guessed Jake.
“‘Interrogation,’” corrected Chance. “We’ll ask around that cop station where Car 07 came from, and we’ll also have access to criminal records while we’re there.”
“Hokay,” sighed Jake as he followed Chance up to the roof. “But I still think it’s wrong.”
Valerie Ross sat mutely at her desk in the sub- station’s miniscule office annex. The fortyish woman rested her elbows wearily upon the bare surface and stared into space. Over two months…The length of time had both flown and dragged. Her job had grown less and less interesting with her coworker and best friend’s loss, and the drop in enthusiasm showed. Her superiors not-so-quietly wondered if they should put her on a paid vacation for a few weeks to let her gather her wits, but work had been so light lately that she protested, preferring to stay and do nothing. She refused maudlin attempts at sympathy and slumped lamely through the interviews, the written statements, the redundant files and reports.
A whine like the one earlier lazed overhead. *Must be another Enforcer,* Ross thought as it sounded on top of the substation. In a few seconds, she overheard a scuffle at the front desk. It sounded as though some man had wandered in and claimed he had a new lead on the Car 07 case, but no one was buying it. Ross, her curiosity piqued, scooted out of her chair and padded toward the stairway.
In the first floor lobby, two kats – a large yellow and tan tabby and a smaller rust-colored feline, both dressed in matching fighter pilot outfits – were ner- vously poised in the middle of a semicircle of cops. The corral was gradually closing in on the costumed pair, aand the small kat muttered, “I *told* you we shoulda called first…”
“Wellll, we didn’t, so now we know,” the striped one hissed.
“Okay, guys,” condescended an approaching, bearded officer. “We’re not going to do anything to you, so settle down.” The two eyed him cagily. “It’s just that, whatever you two are up to, it’s time to turn around and go home. Is that all right?”
Ross rolled her eyes. Larson was painfully bad at psychology – it was an in-house wonder that he hadn’t been found strung up on a light pole by now. If the two were indeed off-kilter, Ross realized she would have to step in before the situation worsened.
“Larson, step aside before you hurt yourself,” she huffed as she entered the inner space.
The living bullpen parted for the newcomer. Its in- habitants, baffled but comfortable with having atten- tion drawn away from them, also edged back with the group, which left the shoddy psychologist standing ayawp in the center.
“V…Val…*Val?!* Val, what’re you doing up here?” Larson stuttered as the middle-aged woman stopped in front of him.
“I work here,” she tartly replied. “Now go away and let me handle this, all right?”
“W-*Well*,” he staggeredly protested, “how…*what* are you going to do with these…these people here?”
“I’m going to hear them out.” Ross folded her arms and gestured to the two kats to begin.
“‘Bout time. Thanks, lady,” the bigger kat acknow- ledged. He set himself solidly in the center of the ring and launched into a debriefing.
“About ten minutes ago, we found the body of Arthur Ramirez outside a tenement on upper Cullen Street in- side the Huang quarter. We estimated he’s been there about three or four weeks, and we also think we know who the killers might be. The body’s going pretty bad- ly, so you probably would want to get a clean-up crew down there ASAP.”
“While we’re here, could we use your database, ma’am?” the smaller inserted.
“Val, they’re lunatics. Why don’t you -”
“Shut up, Larson.”
The two patiently anticipated Ross’s judgment of their requests. Finally, she pronounced, “Fine. Doug- las, you heard ’em. Get a mort team down to upper Cullen right now, and the rest of you stay here and listen to what these kats have to ask.”
The neglected Larson sulked and joined the remaining officers. “I still say this is an exercise in futili- ty, Val…”
She ignored him. Instead, she carried herself over to the outlandishly-dressed kats, who in turn watched her advance. “The computers are this way.”
“Thanks again, ma’am. We won’t take too long,” the thinner one said.
“Oh, take all the time you need,” Ross replied. “If what you say is true, I don’t want any slipshod crud going on. I’m just glad *somebody*’s finally taking this seriously,” she added, under her breath.
“Right. Er, hey…” The larger dropped behind and tapped his partner’s shoulder. “You stay and do the research; I want to head back out to the scene, okay?”
“What for?” the slighter inquired.
“The magic ‘I’ word, ‘v course,” he cryptically answered.
“Oh, that. Okay, just remember to stay in touch.”
The striped kat jogged out through the great veneer- ed doorway while his compatriot and the entourage swept away into a mortar stairwell. As the mass poured down the steps, a wispy white lady kat in Enforcer flight gear elbowed her way upstream, but did not con- tinue without stopping to catch a second look at a strangely-attired member of the herd.
In less than five minutes, the fighter had perched atop a discreet bookstore on the Restaurant Row of Chinatown. Chance, pleasantly surprised that that lady officer had supported them, first checked on the crew down the street, then set about his business on the roof. He skulked across to the lip of the roof and ob- served the nightlife. From what he could see, the ground was about a hundred feet down from the ledge. He frowned; it had been a good long while since he was last required to perform acrobatics on the job, and at that height, he would make an unlovely splat if he made any mistake. He needed interviewees, though, and so he would have to think of something quickly. He didn’t feel like doing that, so he backed for the jump and guessed the restaurant was about fifteen feet from the bookstore. It would be a press…
Chance shot across the roof and caught up to himself midway between the bookstore and the restaurant, then wondered what he should do next. While he tried to re- member, the restaurant roof rushed up to meet him and sent the kat cartwheeling onto the asphalt surface, his shoulder acting as the axis as he whirled bruised- ly to a stop.
“Just like the captain,” mused Chance, and, with his right arm in pins and needles, lifted himself to his haunches. The costumed kat checked to see if anyone was watching, saw none, and silently descended via the building’s side wall.
He came upon a wicket at the restaurant’s back. Through it, he observed five or six dark-haired humans race precariously between hissing ovens, hanging uten- sils, and themselves. He judged a less conspicuous en- try would better serve him, and so slunk on all fours to a wooden door. When he pressed his ear to it, it gave a little way under the pressure. No protests came from the inside – what he wanted to hear – and no lights flashed on in response. Satisfied, Chance crept through the opening.
As soon as he had shut the door behind him, the room inflated into illumination, and the masked kat flailed backwards into a rack of pots and pans as a result. He slipped on the clattering kitchenware in attempting to stand, but one of the darkhairs from the window clamp- ed onto his collar before he could regain his stance. The captor babbled at his arriving companions while maintaining a stiff grip on Chance, the leather squin- ching in his hand.
“Hey, listen to me – *listen!*” Chance hushedly demanded. The restaurant employee allowed the felid some reluctant heed. “I’m here to ask a few questions about someone you might have seen or served recently, that’s all. Is that all right?”
The kat received the same unflinching stare. He then remembered that not all humans spoke his language. “Do you speak English?” he asked slowly.
“Of course I speak English,” the warden evenly re- plied. He released the kat a bit roughly. “This is New America. Now, what is it about this customer that’s so important you would force entry to know?”
Three more people joined the first and assembled a miniature jury. They looked expectantly upon the tab- by.
“Okay, then: In the past two weeks, have any of you served a tall Maine Coon kat who had amber eyes and was wearing maybe a blue dress shirt and a pair of khakis?” he began.
The four regarded each other inquisitively. The one who had grabbed Chance’s collar answered, “Maybe if you gave us his name, we could check.”
“Well, I don’t expect he would’ve used checks or credit cards…” Chance gazed at the ceiling and pon- dered the probability. “It’s worth a shot, though. His name’s Arthur Ramirez, but you should look for ana- grams of that, like Merzira or Zemarri. He might also be under A-something Raymond, or maybe Ira Zimmer. Do you see any of those?”
“Just a minute, we’re looking!” one called from the front end of the hidden section. “How do you know all these names for just one man, anyway?”
“I just remember them. Found anything yet?”
“No!” He heard more gibberish and caught one worker giving him a disparaging look, but turned away as he noticed Chance had seen him. He disregarded that and calmly awaited their findings – nil.
The next two hours were spent interviewing all the restaurant workers on the Row without more than the list of aliases and descriptions. None had ever seen the kat in question, not even passing by, and Chance encountered nothing but apologies and dirty looks wherever he tried. He began to ask himself if this was worth the effort, and if he should accept that what he was doing was legally insane and bury it while he still could. He remembered Jake’s case, the one about helping others who didn’t have what they did, and won- dered if they really had anything more than the suppo- sed people. The kat persisted in his inquiries despite his reservations. His instincts directed him, and he recognized that what Jake had told him was at least valid. It would be unfair to give up now.
The slender ruddy kat leaned back into the desk chair at the substation’s computer terminal, more per- plexed than when he began. He had combed through Rami- rez’s criminal record eight times already, and nothing indicated that he had done anything to warrant the Mendozas’ attentions. The body *did* display the same post-mortem signs as previous victims of the assas- sins, which was the most confusing of all the clues Jake had. *Could somebody have hired them to take him out as part of a vendetta?* Jake logged on to the da- tabase again and reaccessed Ramirez’s file. Through the next ten minutes, he meticulously cross-referenced names sprinkled throughout the file in the hope that he might solidify that premise. Ramirez had indeed ac- quired a terrific amount of enemies in his career, but they were all on his level: either too poor, too low, or too stupid to have connections with the Nostra. The most affluent one on the list couldn’t even afford to hire one Mendoza. *Or could he?* Jake asked, fingers poised above the keys.
A barely noticeable weight depressed his shoulder before he entered the command. A sheet of notepad pa- per, scrawled in shorthand, manifested itself at his elbow.
“This may help somewhat,” murmured a very recogniza- ble feminine voice. “The coroner wrote this up for me once the autopsy was finished, and if you’re doing what I think you’re doing, you’ll probably want it, too.”
The brownish kat’s entire body petrified, unable to continue the slightest movement. His mind tripped, and, after considerable effort, he formulated one sim- ple but arresting thought: *It’s her!*
In a feeble attempt to appear neutral, Jake, without allowing himself to look away from the screen, shakily removed the paper from the presenter’s gloved hand. “Er, thank you,” he acknowledged as his voice cracked. He cringed, and cursed his inability to control his reactions to her presence.
He strove to erase her from his thoughts and focused on the notepad paper in his hand, but as hard as he concentrated, the writing kept blurring into nonsense. She wound into his head, and with her came a mesh of assorted emotions. *I can’t believe she’s here!* Jake thought, incredulous. *She must be continuing the case behind Feral’s back. I just hope she can’t recognize me, or else things might get a bit messy. ‘Course, it’s not like I’m doing the world’s best job hiding myself, either…I’ll have to work on that, too.* He slumped while pretending to read the notes. *Poor Do- minica. After all this time, and I have to see her like this. I finally get the chance to talk to her, but I can’t because I’d blow my cover! But…guess I deserve it after ignoring her for so long. Ah well… even if I can’t really speak to her, it’s still good just to see her.* He felt the pixielike hand on his shoulder again – apparently, she was still there.
“May I speak with you a moment, sir?” asked the lady kat.
Jake hesitated. “Um, okay.”
Dominica gently took him by the arm and led him to a plain-looking door in the far wall. She briefly inspected the room – presumably for other people, he supposed – and then opened the door, which led into a supply closet. She gestured for him to enter.
“Ma’am, this…this is a supply closet,” he observed with an apprehensively-tilted ear.
“It’s the only place they won’t hear us. Now get in!”
She sighed noisily. “Here,” she huffed, shoving the kat into the cramped closet. She followed and closed the door behind her.
Inside the closet, Jake’s eyes momentarily accustom- ed themselves to the tenebrous quarters. Frustrated with both the lack of free space and the schizophrenia of the lady kat with him, he stared down at where she might be, and in a few seconds distinguished her face. He tried not to react to her quizzical expression. She folded her arms, partly amused, partly angry.
“Jake, what are you doing?” she whispered, half- smiling and cocking an eyebrow.
*She DOES know! _Now_ I’m screwed!* he panicked. *Maybe I can throw her off…* “‘Jake,’ miss? I think you have me confused with somebody else.” *Oh, yeah, THAT was clever, Clawson,* he thought.
“Jake,” admonished Dominica, hooking her thumb under the mask and pulling it up far enough to gaze into his uncovered eyes, “this is *me* you’re talking to.” She let the mask snap down onto his face.
“Do you mind? I’m glad you didn’t pull that stunt outside,” the rufous kat loudly whispered. He straigh- tened the mask inside his helmet, and when he finish- ed, he let his arms drop to his sides. “So you know.”
“Mm-hmm,” she replied.
“About when did you guess it was me?”
“When you and Chance came in,” Dominica answered simply. “I heard the argument downstairs – the floors here are very thin, you know.”
“You mean you didn’t even have to see me to guess who it was?”
“Well, what kind of a girlfriend would I be if I couldn’t even recognize my own fiance’s voice?” she grinned, wrapping her arms about his waist. “To tell you the truth, though, I thought I was hallucinating at first, since we haven’t seen each other for a while…”
“Yeah, I know,” he softly apologized.
“…so I went upstairs to see who was talking. You were leaving right as I came up, so you passed me. I saw you then, and I could just tell from your sight and smell.”
“You did, huh? So Chance was right,” Jake said. “Is it *that* obvious?”
“Not to someone who doesn’t intimately know you. But if I were you, I’d at least buy some scent concealer – the stuff they sell in drug stores works fine. You can’t be too careful when you want to keep a secret.” She watched him shift his weight. “So is that what you’ve been doing this past half-a-year? Dressing up and perusing police stations?”
“We built a jet, too!” he pointed out. “That’s what took so long.”
“Built a jet, eh-heh,” she echoed. “Out of what?”
“The salvage yard has a lot of military scrap. We just used that to make our own jet and a few other things.”
“We’ve also been listening in on the Car 07 case. Y’see, we thought we could take over where the Enfor- cers left off, and that’s why I’m here. We didn’t know that they’d started up again.”
“We haven’t. A few recruits and I are continuing this alone, without the commander’s approval, so if anyone important asks, you didn’t see me, all right?”
“Ditto for me,” he responded. “Oh, speaking of the Car 07 case, have you found any leads yet?”
“You’re stuck in a closet with me, and all your thoughts are professional?” she teased. “But, if that’s what you want…We think we know what killed Ramirez.”
“The Mendoza Sisters?” interjected the costumed kat.
Dominica stared at him blankly. “The Mendozas? But in the coroner’s notes, he said Ramirez’s system look- ed as if it had been overloaded, perhaps with stimu- lants.”
“Then he didn’t look very well,” said Jake. “At the scene, there was nothing that pointed to drugs. It looked more like a murder.”
“Well, he *did* say he couldn’t immediately see any physical effects,” mused Dominica. “They’re conducting blood tests now.”
“Can you get me the results?”
“Of course. Are you going to look at the blood your- self?”
“No, I just want to compare something.” He paused. “I just realized – it’s a good thing no one needed supplies while we were in here.”
“Indeed.” The lady kat gave the masked kat a playful hug and planted a kiss between the white eyes. “I sup- pose we really should be getting back to work.”
“You suppose.” He purred softly and ran his fingers through her hair for a few moments longer.
“Maybe later, we can do something?”
“Later?” His hand stopped on top of her head, then continued, awkwardly. “Um…I’ll have to see.”
“Oh. I see…” She disengaged herself from his arms and fumbled for the doorknob. “Seriously, we really should get back to work. Someone’s going to catch us.”
Jake sensed something unpleasant. “You aren’t mad at me, are you, Nicka?”
“No, of course not. It’s clear – let’s go.”
The felids emerged from the supply closet into a conveniently empty room. The masked kat tenderly rest- ed a hand on the lady’s arm. “It was good seeing you again.”
She thanked him with a shy smile, then departed into the dim corridor. He sighed, wishing he could have made her stay just a little bit more. Jake then reali- zed that he missed her a lot more than he thought he would at first, and, seating himself listlessly at the terminal, questioned himself if he really should keep up the costumes-and-bravado gig, or if he should drop it all and assume a steady, mundane life. He looked at the notepad paper again, picked it up, and stared at it with the same predicament he had faced earlier. “Ah, what have I gotten myself into?” He braced the sheet against the monitor and continued his research.
Dominica leaned against the wall outside the compu- ter room and simply stood, silent. As she rested there, she suddenly remembered she had disconnected her radio while she was talking with Jake, and hastily switched it on in the middle of the broadcaster’s sen- tence.
“–or le Normand, come in! Are you there?” called an alarmed female voice as soon as Dominica had turned the knob.
“Here,” she responded.
“There you are. It’s about time; I’ve been trying to call you for five minutes, and you wouldn’t answer – hey, are you all right over there? You sound tired.”
“It’s nothing, I’m all right. I think I’ve found another clue as to the cause of Ramirez’s death.”
“An anonymous informant’s told me that he and an acquaintance of his have a hypothesis: they think it was the Mendoza Sisters.”
“The hitmen?” Felina’s voice darkened. “Who told you that?”
“Don’t worry, the source is very reliable. I know him, and he’s asked that his identity remain secret.” Dominica carried the invisible speaker with her in the direction of the biological facility. “I’m going to read the final autopsy, and then we’ll see how valid his claim is.”
“If you say so,” Felina’s voice accepted, tinged with obvious disagreement. “Keep in touch, then.”
At the sole glowing terminal in a minor tech room, Felina, fully outfitted in field gear, monitored Domi- nica’s progress. She kept her ears swivelled forward to the five open channels, so engrossed in what she was doing that she didn’t register the blot obscuring the shaft of light from the slightly open door. The blot, which occupied almost all of the fissure’s height, remained there, unnoticed, for an indetermina- tely long time before it spirited itself away, letting the shaft resume its place.
“I’m telling you, I can’t find a thing down here. It’s as if Ramirez never existed!”
Jake depressed his helmet’s hidden mike. “Keep look- ing. He has to’ve stumbled into a restaurant or some- thing at *some*time. Found anything relevant where you *have* been?”
“Not a thing.”
While the two kats questioned and answered over their own band, Ross minced watchfully toward the sea- ted participant. She stopped behind the chair to listen in on the exchange.
“You did say someone served a grey kat and a male calico?”
“Yeah, but that was all they said. The guy told me he didn’t hear them talk, nor did any of the waitres- ses. That, and the kats in question used generic pseu- donyms, again.”
“Did he say anything else?”
“No, that’s all he knew. I don’t know what else I should do over here! Nobody knows *any*thing.”
“How about going back to where it began?”
The ruddy kat mewled and whirled about to discover the greying woman standing behind him. She patiently explained, “Why not ask the manager of the Noriberg Hotel? He might tell you something he could’ve kept from me.”
Jake realized the logic of the simplistic statement, and staggeredly replied, “Yeah…thanks, ma’am…You still there?” What seemed like an aura of calmed re- lief settled on her as the kat’s partner responded. Jake reported, “One of the original officers just suggested that we interview the guy who runs the Nori- berg Hotel. Remember where it was?”
“Affirmative. I’m heading out now.”
Ross serenely placed a hand on the desk chair. “Thank you for doing this.”
“‘T’s what we’re here for, ma’am,” he answered.
The officer moved soundlessly out of the room, and the kat was again left alone.
A news chopper buzzed overzealously above China- town’s Restaurant Row, following a composite route patched together from various calls. Its game, the elusive fighter jet that had been haunting the city skyways all evening, slept on top of a barely-notice- able shop. The heli whizzed absently by before its occupants sighted the craft.
“There it is! Take us down!”
Someone obscure was bolting toward the jet as the heli’s skis brushed cement. The apparition vaulted first onto the intake, then to the wing itself, and there pulled a latch to open the canopy. As Ann Gora and her shadowing cameraman popped out of the chopper, the personage hesitated, then sealed himself inside the jet.
“Wait! Just a minute of your time! Please! HEY!” The newscaster gesticulated frantically as the engines vi- brated the air above the roof. The plane’s jump jets engaged and added their thrum to the jet’s overall voice and levitated the craft over the news team, then, when it gained the proper altitude, tore off in- to the northeast.
Ann let her shoulders drop. “Well, how lovely. No good story ever comes easy, though, right?” She wheel- ed smartly toward the heli, almost into her cameraman, and started for the door at an urgent trot. “Follow that jet!”
“Captain? Do you read?”
Felina scrabbled the wheeled chair from the back of the room to the radio panel, realigning her path as she zoomed. She viciously snatched up a receiver upon arrival and barked, “Yes, major – what is it?”
“I want you to join two other officers at the Nori- berg Hotel to conduct another search and interrogati- on. We might find something new there.”
The central communications department hummed with the monotonous chatter of dispatchers, occasionally spiking in inflection. The humming dissolved, however, as a series of determined bootsteps barged in upon the conversations from the outside. Their owner, Feral himself, pushed in and tramped down the middle aisle of the room, startling a few operators as he went. He selected an unused panel in the room’s center and took up the transmitter.
“All units in Sector Three, coordinates echo-three- six to delta-four-niner and foxtrot-five, this is Fe- ral. Set up a search web immediately to gather infor- mation and, if possible, physical evidence of the Mendoza Sisters’ whereabouts. Report back every one and a half hours. Out.”
That niece of his may be on to something, even if she was working behind his back…a side effect of her father’s upbringing, he thought. Either way, her per- severance in the case and the discovery of a new lead – bizarre though it may be – would be a great way for him to save face with the press after he had given up the first time. As he took the seat to the terminal, he debated whether another promotion was in order…
Chance, having landed on another close-by edifice, prepared to make another vault, this time to the ho- tel’s roof. “Hope this goes better than the last one,” he muttered while hurtling to the edge. He leapt, for- ming a parabola, and impacted on all feet, but he did not stay to relish the success. The kat loped for an elevator shaft, pried open a loose panel, and disappe- ared just as a helicopter bearing the police insignia curiously touched down beside the jet.
On the elevator cables, Chance prepared for his descent to the carriage. As he clung to the cords, he listened for a moment to his surroundings, because when he had entered, he heard a helicopter land, not too terribly far from his jet, but now, all he heard was the wind over the service hatch and the science- fiction twanging of the cables. He let it off as a false warning and began to lower himself, feet at a time, to the elevator carriage.
Felina would have liked to examine the black and red jet in more detail, but she had been dispatched for a different reason. She located the entrance to the in- side stairway and ran to it, trying to make up for time lost for curiosity.
“Katrina? Katrina, answer! Please!”
The redheaded hybrid, the right side of her nose bridge marked with a dainty spot, growled, muted by hot water. She slashed a bay of clear water among the foamy bubbles and forged her way to the edge of the extravagant bath, then ungracefully hauled her trim body up and out onto the Prussian blue tiling. She dripped all the way to the wall intercom between a pair of Ionic columns, musing that her cosca was a good lot, but they all had horrid timing.
“What now?” she demanded.
“Miss, there’s been a development around the hotel,” replied the nervous informant. “Some guy in a jet we’ve never seen before’s snooping around inside, and the Enforcers have restarted the case.”
Katrina’s face bleached, her apricot fur lightening to almost white as a result. “The guy in the jet – he could be one of us, can you tell?”
“Nobody *I* know can afford his own fighter jet, Miss Mendoza.”
The half-kat, immersed in thought, wrung out her black-tipped tail, then flicked her similarly-marked cat ears. Gabelloto had yet to give up the money, and he most definitely wouldn’t if he heard of this. She shivered as her wet fur cooled in a breeze from the skylight and looked desirously at the bath; it had to wait, for now. Katrina wrapped an arm around herself and held down the speaker button.
“Stay there. Summon the rest of your group and make sure the manager doesn’t leak. I’ll get my sisters to- gether, and we’ll see what we can do about it.”
“Right, Miss Mendoza,” closed the lackey.
Katrina, her cold fur plastered irritatingly to her skin, plucked a fluffy towel from a tableau near the bath-pool and remedied her chills. She slunk past pot- ted ferns and into a stately Victorian hallway, obliv- ious to the garish collection of fine art. Instead she schemed the long way to her bedroom, wondering how she would correct this curveball.
Chance, after a tormenting eternity, at last plunked lightly atop the elevator carriage, about thirteen floors down inside the hotel. He collected his new en- vironment: the elevator, at least now, was unmoving, and the next highest door was only about five feet above him. A little jump, then he could pry the doors open from there. He gathered himself for the leap.
Felina, panting and overheated, dismounted the inef- ficient stairway at the seventeenth floor. Skittering down the stairs ate up too much time, time that she could have used already. The elevators, if they were not crowded, seemed the better choice in her situati- on. She jogged briskly through the threadbare corridor to a solitary door.
Directly underneath him, Chance heard a tinny *ping!*. He froze, clinging to the upper floor’s door, and listened to someone’s boots clomp into the carri- age. The doors, first on the inside, then on the out- side, shuffled shut, and the cables’ alien twangs mix- ed with the exhaling hum of the carriage as it slid down the shaft.
“Uh-oh,” Chance called after it. Depending on wheth- er it continued down, he could be stuck hanging on to the wall. If it went too far and he jumped for it, he would go “squish” and thereby generate bad press for Jake and himself, if and when someone found him: “MASKED KAT FOUND DECORATING ELEVATOR SHAFT – ‘And I just had it cleaned!’ laments owner.” The carriage had already passed two floors and was falling at a clip, so, with a grunt, he let himself fly.
The elevator reported a percussive slam from above at about the fourteenth floor. Felina jerked her head upward, but the plain metal ceiling revealed nothing. She backed against the wall, slowly, and gripped the handrail, just in case.
*Classy,* thought Chance, sprawled across the top of the elevator. At least he was still breathing. Noise- lessly, he opened the latch into the carriage and took a peek. There was someone in Enforcer garb riding in- side, either kat or hybrid, who stood rigidly and clutched a brass handrail. He – or she, he had diffi- culty deciding – was facing the middle of the carri- age, so it was unsafe for him to drop in just then. He watched and waited for another nine floors.
At the third floor, the androgynous officer detached from the handrail and addressed the door. Chance took it as his cue, steadied his arms on either side of the latch, and lowered himself painstakingly into the car- riage. He set down perfectly, making no sound whatsoe- ver.
The door retracted with another tinny *ping!*, and the Enforcer, who had taken no notice of the tabby, galumphed into the cheap, peeling passageway. The kat slunk after the officer and concealed himself behind an artificial plant, where he surveyed the territory: all clear. Secure, Chance liquidly swept out of hiding and toed down the hall in search of Room 212.
The manager had heard two aircraft touch down near- by, and now he doddered around the brink of apoplexy. He fretted about his office and wondered if he should go out to meet them, whoever they were, and pour ever- ything out to them, or if he should hide and lie like he had been ordered. He did not worry about it for long, though, as someone kindly relieved him with a quick snap of his neck.
After forcing the lock to give with his claw, Chance sneaked into the uninhabited room with overex- aggerated stealth. He purposefully left the door open, a wee crack to alert him to intruders, and set about his spelunking.
He produced a penlight from an inner pocket and shone a pale light on the contents of the room. It all appeared normal; the management must have changed the room’s furnishings as per routine, despite the police investigation. He growled frustratedly, then decided to check the bureau.
As he rifled through brochures, menus, and question- naires inside the drawers, a soft bump sounded in the adjacent bedroom. The kat twisted, ears forward and eyes wide open, in the noise’s direction in order to track the enemy. Another bump came, followed by a se- ries of scrapes – someone else must have been looking in a set of drawers – warned him of a possible tail. He doused the penlight and slithered into pursuit.
A light in the bathroom instantly vanished once Chance had poked into the bedroom. His tagalong had evidently detected him, too, and he prepared to take extra precaution. The dark, luckily, would help him remain unseen. He slitted his white eyes to reduce their glare, then rose from all fours to a crouch and tracked the bathroom door, but did not travel much be- fore the vague shuffle of a holster and a subsequent sharp click of a gun off its safety halted him. He tensed every muscle of his body, effectively freezing at the spot at the foot of the bed. Without moving his head, he sought the hidden adversary in the abyss. The shadows concealed the whoever well, and it required several more seconds to sight a muddy silhouette right across from him, pointing a firearm between his parti- ally-closed eyes. The figure was approximately the size and shape of the elevator hermaphrodite; recal- ling the ambiguity of its species, the kat figured he had a fifty-fifty chance of his being seen. He decided to conduct a little experiment to determine the odds: he flicked an arm out behind him and brought it imme- diately back to his side. The gunman traced his move- ment flawlessly after he performed it, and therein was his key. Chance straightened up an inch, still under the gun, and then faked a start to his right. The gunman jerked in the false direction, and with his nemesis off guard, the kat rocketed into the inky body and fiercely slammed the both of them into the wall. They slid to the floor, where Chance immobilized his unarmed victim in a half-nelson to a hail of effemi- nate snarls. The quarry squirmed vigorously until one of her arms escaped and cuffed his jaw with her hard fist. The shock loosened his hold long enough for the other fist to lash mercilessly into his gut.
While Chance was debilitated, the Enforcer scuttled away from him and tried to find her gun. She found it, grabbed it, but could not stand up with it because the kat on the floor sent a foot in the back of her knee and toppled her before she gained the advantage. As she fell back on him, he seized her throat and held her at arm’s length, and she jammed the barrel of her semiauto into his Adam’s apple. The two crouched that way, catching their breath and waiting for the other to flinch.
“Stand up,” spat the now visible halfbreed.
Chance did as he was told, since a bullet through the windpipe caused a lot more damage than a hand around a throat. He brought her up with him until they were on their feet, eye to eye. She swallowed against his palm. “Let go of me, and I’ll take this off you,” she proposed. “Then we can explain.”
He obediently released her, and she lowered her wea- pon. She perfunctorily withdrew a wallet, presented a badge, then curtly introduced, “Captain Felina Feral, Enforcer Aerial Division, Company Alfa-Twelve. I’m here to look for evidence on the Car 07 case – you here to help or hinder, freak?”
“Continuing the case, punk,” the tabby responded. “‘Djou say your name was Feral?”
“Yeah. Something wrong with it?”
“No, not at all – in fact, I think it’ll help,” he lightly explained. “Are you the same captain who dis- covered the smell on upper Cullen?”
“That was Ramirez’s body, you’ve heard.”
“Then let me make a proposition. From what I’ve gathered, we can help each other out. My partner and I have hypothesized that the Mendozas are the ones who killed Ramirez.”
“Wait a second!” interrupted Felina. “You mean *you’re* Major le Normand’s informant?”
“‘Informant’? Possibly,” he replied, puzzled. “She might have overheard my partner and me talk, or he might’ve told her what we were doing. I dunno.”
“Now this is funny,” she laughed cynically. “She says *you’re* her ‘very reliable source’ – some psycho in a costume! Heh,” she snorted, “and I thought my un- cle was the only lunatic on the force. Looks like I’m on my ow-”
“You just better *watch* what you say about Major le Normand around me, kid,” Chance snarled, grabbing her collar. “She doesn’t need some backstabbing, snot- nosed monkey-child ragging on her on top of…” He realized what he was indirectly disclosing and cut himself off mid-sentence. Neutrally, he finished, “…on top of the stress she’s had lately.” He unhand- ed the stunned Enforcer’s collar and backed away from her. Felina glared at him as he awkwardly shifted his weight.
“Have a *herd,* already,” she grumbled.
“Shyeah, well…” He rocked back on one foot and stared blankly out the picture window across the bed. He petrified again, still as when he was at gunpoint, then stole the semiauto from Felina’s lax grip and fired two rounds through the glass, shattering it to the open air. He flung the twice-stunned girl onto the ratty carpeting and belatedly yelled, “Get down!”
“Why?!” She snaked under the bed and emerged by the windowpane, where the crazed kat poised for attack. “Gimme back my gun!! What’re you doing?!”
“Sniper!” he retorted. “Saw him out there -” he threw another round out the hole in the glass, “-just a second ago! He’s gone now, though. Maybe the Mendo- zas sent him out.”
“And how do we know it was them?” Felina snatched her gun from the vigilante and holstered it.
“It makes sense, doesn’t it? They hate it when some- body starts to figure out what they’ve done. Like any- one in the Nostra, they’ll cover their tracks any way they can, but sending a sniper *before* making a bribe’s pretty extreme for them. They must really be worried.”
Felina’s walkie rasped to life on her belt. She picked it out of its loop and answered, “Yes?”
“The manager’s dead. Somebody broke his neck.”
She stood, loosely holding the walkie, in a stupor. Where’d *this* come from? “Is there anybody there? Any clues as to where the killer’s gone, or who he is?”
“None, s’far as I can…” The officer’s voice gave out with a sharp bang in the background, and the radio delivered a crunch, then muteness. Both Felina and Chance bolted for the door.
“Now this is really klutzy for them, so we must really be on to something,” supplied the kat as they rounded into the stairwell.
“Quit with the criminology lesson, I know who they are! Let’s just get down there fast!” Felina snapped, jumping off the steps to a landing. She sprinted the next floor ahead of Chance, who contacted his partner.
“Been a new development, ace: now we’re chasing someone,” he reported.
“Where should I meet you, then?”
“Just look for the Turbokat, or whatever. I should be out by then.”
“Affirmative. See you in a few!”
The striped kat one-eightied and bounded back up the stairwell, from railing to railing.
“Hey! Where’re you going?” shouted Felina.
“Up!” Chance replied. “Be a good girl and keep us posted on your band, all right?”
“If that’s what you want,” she grudgingly agreed. “Dork,” she added. As she thought about it, though, both she and he acted in very similar ways, whether or not she appreciated it. She frowned at that, and mull- ed over it between leaps.
Gabelloto, not forced to hide behind false composure in his own home, smashed his meaty fists against the television box like an infuriated, albeit aged, deity. “How stupid ARE they?! They *told* me this wouldn’t happen!” He trudged to an easy chair and picked up a phone. “Glad I didn’t pay up front, though…and there are other ventures I can look into.” While the phone rang, Gabelloto stared at the set, which only returned a pixelly image of a blue-green coated lady in front of a hotel. The lady-picture told:
“Enforcers have surrounded the Noriberg Hotel out- side Chinatown in the latest development in the renew- ed Car 07 case. We’ve learned from inside sources that there may be a tie between the original offenders – a recently-murdered felon named Arthur Ramirez and two other unidentified accomplices – and the hitmen/don- nas, the Mendoza Sisters. The police are still unclear as to what the connection itself is, but they tell us that newly-discovered evidence points to them as Rami- rez’s killers. Kats’ Eye News will follow as the situation progresses.”
The image flicked her head upward, watching the off- screen source of a dull roar. She faced the screen again and delivered, “And something else that has cap- tured the city’s curiosity is here: the strange black jet that has been seen flying around this area since about eight this evening has just taken off from a building near the hotel. We’ll also keep up on this mystery as it unfolds, and this is Ann Gora, Kats’ Eye News.”
<You didn’t HAVE to kill him, you idiot! What have I told you about breaking the bottle? Well, never mind that – what possessed you to off that Enforcer?!>
Salvatore rooted briskly between buildings, search- ing for a path that would let him evade the police until he was at home. As he ran, his pace tottered off beat as the demand battered him from the inside. *I… I’m sorry, Miss Mendoza – I thought I should eliminate him in case he told!* He hurdled a drunken homeless.
<We have money for that. What about the cop?>
*More extermination of potential harm, since we haven’t been able to bargain with them in the past. Don’t I get a little recognition for foresight?*
The mental voice, cutting and feminine, snarled, <Well, here it is.> Salvatore felt a turban of ice picks drive themselves into his very mind, and he dropped among the discarded newspaper ads.
<Bring him in. It’s bad enough he went and ran all the way here,> the disembodied commander ordered a set of lackeys posted at a loading door, yards ahead of Salvatore. The automatons thoughtlessly pawed through the waste for Salvatore’s form, found it, and carried it dishonorably between them like a sack of oatmeal to the door’s opened maw. They slung it in and lumbered behind, then threw the sliding door back in place af- ter them.
Katrina pulled her cloth belt tighter across her stomach and buttoned it off at her side. She glared, unseeing but at the same time supervising, into the middle of an empty board room. She called with her in- ner voice, <That’s good. Very good. Now I want you all to go back home; I hear the cops already. Sabrina?>
*Here,* an identical voice from elsewhere returned.
<Know where you’re going, dear?>
*Floorboards, between the first and second floors, right?*
*Whut? Oh, yeah – here!*
Katrina waited a moment, then deliberately continu- ed, <Stay where you are, and be ready for anything. You got that?>
<You’ll know it when you see it,> she finished. Her polished jade eyes refocused on the outer world. She sauntered to a panel window, through which she monito- red the buzzing of the Enforcers, only a block away from her. The redheaded halfbreed gave the command to her own mind that would mask her from everyone’s sight but her own, then headed for the stairs. She hiked to join her sisters, not with her characteristic self-im- portant leer, but with the grim atmosphere of a woman about to lose a bet.
An Enforcer jet swooped, dovelike, over a degenera- ting cache of buildings and motels, searching for a particular but elusive traveller in the sky. The pilot consorted her passenger.
“Whoever-you-are, did Chance tell you where he’d be?”
Jake consulted first a panel of electronic readouts, then the glass canopy. “Nope, but he said to look for the Turbokat – our jet,” he answered.
“He couldn’t have gone too far in three minutes, es- pecially if everything is happening over here,” she mumbled, also checking the canopy.
“Everything’s *not* happening over here, it’s a block down,” rejoined Chance’s voice over her radio. “Don’t sit there with your heads in your instruments, follow me! That other Enforcer chick’s on her way there, too.”
“All right, then. Lead on, I’m right behind,” con- firmed Dominica.
Below the two aircraft, Felina, who had opted to borrow a waiting cruiser on the ground, sped through tight alleys to avoid the media and police congestion. She listened in on the overhead conversation, but maintained a watch on the road. She decelerated the car upon finding an array of strewn boxes and garbage cans decorating an otherwise tidy backlot.
“You two up there! I’ve found where the trail ends. It’s behind Mien, Incorporated’s office,” she report- ed, unholstering her gun and leaving the car. Above, the black plane banked and swerved toward a glassy monolith of a building, followed by the thinner crui- ser jet.
The lock of the loading door refused to let Felina in, even after ten minutes of delicate picking. Final- ly, she planted her semiauto against the hand lever and fired. With a soft grunt, she jerked the door up off the ground and up into its track.
Inside, the dock was abysmally dark, even with the door open. There was one little orange mechanic’s lamp glowing in the center of the dock, but its light was limited to a pallid halo, and so its presence was pointless. The remainder of the dock hid shyly from Felina, though her eyes had adjusted as much as possi- ble to the drear. Places like this made her long for her father’s feline sight, rather than her mother’s. She blew out and overconsciously felt her way to the other end of the space.
“Yes, ma’am?” Felina hoarsely answered after jumping five feet.
“The two kats and I have landed, and we’re now in the penthouse.” Slight pause. “They say they’re going to go down another floor and then split up, so I’ll go between and work my way down. Where are you?”
“I’m in a freight loading dock looking for a way in- side. I’ll be in any time now, ma’am.”
“Sure thing. You know where to reach me.”
And so again Felina was left to herself in the pro- found murkiness. She continued to feel along the wall with her left hand, her gun clenched in her right, until, at the end of a hundred years, her fingers bumped into a hinge. She squinched a little more by way of the wall to locate a hidden knob. Urging it forward, she leaned into a new door.
Chance scented the stuffy air of the boardroom in whiffs, standing fixedly at the head of an oaken table. One of them had been there. He followed the scent trail to a different door at the end of the room, and through it, a different set of stairs. He stalked down along those as well, and presently, the kat found himself puzzling before three sets of double doors.
Hanging spider plants grazed Jake as he crept under them and between filing cabinets, trying to ferret out a certain target. In the office’s chasm, cubicles hud- dled with their own kind as the costumed red felid approached them. He heard a sigh, but recognized it as the thermostat offering its own comments. He entered the cubicle labyrinth, padding on all fours and carry- ing all his weight off his feet and hands, his jaw a little slack from disregard. From the other side of an upholstered partition, Jake heard the pressed carpet- ing betrayed the pussyfooting of slippered feet, which were traipsing rapidly up the row to his hiding place. He gasped, then backpedalled under the computer shelf, dodging wires and power strips, and covered himself with the desk chair. He constricted into a tight ball behind it, so tight that his costume pinched his belly and strained along his back and thighs, making the ma- terial squeak faintly on every other breath. The pussyfeet passed him and came to rest at the partiti- on’s end, three inches from the chair’s outermost wheel. His lungs froze inside his ribs.
The feet, slippered in black cloth, first glided suavely from the partition to the plastic-sheeted are- na in front of the hidden kat, then, curiously, they kind of pigeon-toed, and shuffled haltingly past him. There came from above an annoying, pathetic whiny whimper, much like that of a four-year-old, which travelled with the feet to the end of the cubicle. They stopped at the other partition, where the whining mewls hovered and fluctuated.
Jake poked his face, little by little, into the open as his lungs began to ease. *Chance has to be wrong… this _can’t_ be a Mendoza!* he thought with a chuff. Still, his blank eyes beheld the stature documented in law enforcement records worldwide: the shoulder-length auburn coif, the ink-tipped triangular ears, pierced with hoops of platinum, the narrow shoulders that flowed into a lithe waist and graceful hips, and, lastly, the whiplike black-ended tail curling down around the supple legs. However, those legs were inse- curely crossed, and the shoulders rolled into their whimpering owner at the end of the cubicle rather than thrown out in posture.
By then, Jake had crawled all the way out from under the deskette to confirm the paradoxical creature and rose behind her back. She sensed his presence and spun to meet him, but she tripped backward as she turned and, as a result, fell flat on her rear. The ethereal kat grinned at her with edged teeth and stood motion- lessly over her. Her almond-shaped, peacock eyes widened nearly to circles, and she uttered another babyish whine before promptly scooting into the neigh- boring cubicle’s partition with an unintentional *thump*. While she tried to find her feet again, Jake grasped her tail and trapped her against the partiti- on. She squealed shrilly at the assault, which was not very powerful in reality, and mewed, “Lemme *go!* Giddoffame!!”
He recognized the exquisite face down to the signa- ture spot of darkened fur, placed coquettishly beneath the left corner of her mouth, and shook his head. “Some donna.” He repositioned his hand to restrain one of her shoulders, then asked, “Tell me where your sis- ters are, Marina.”
“Screw off!” she hissed. Both her manicured hands pressed against the veins of Jake’s neck, and for a queer fraction of a second, the kat’s blood reversed its course through his body. The sheer weirdness of the sensation crippled him long enough to allow Marina to skitter out from under him to the exit.
The russet kat managed to lift his head to catch a glimpse of her escaping as he lay crumpled, his heart, veins, and arteries reaccustoming themselves to their normal functions. He dragged himself arduously up onto his legs and sluggishly leaned against the partition. “Come in!”
His other half returned, “Here. What’s up?”
“Marina Mendoza just ran away from here, and she looks like she’s headed your way.”
“Marina Mendoza? Ha! I was right! Wasn’t I right?” Chance crooned.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re great,” Jake hurriedly acquiesced. “Get ready, okay? I’m on my way.”
While his insides’ tingling lessened, Jake sturdied himself, bracing his arm against a pliant wall. He looked ahead, then, at a jerky gait, lurched toward the Mendoza’s escape route.
At least the lobby had fluorescent lights, but af- ter the dock, Felina’s then-aching eyes snapped shut at the change. She rubbed them, and when she opened them, she wondered what kind of business this was, and why it wasn’t doing very well. Cut-rate polyester chairs leaned tiredly against the stucco wall, indif- ferent to Felina and her semiauto. There was an equal- ly unimpressed plexiglass screen to her left, and be- hind it was a padded receptionist’s desk, cluttered, but as boring as the rest of the square space.
Despite the sleepiness, Felina decided she should continue to take extreme care. She dashed, close to the ground, to the stucco facing her and brought the gun to her chest. Her tail out for balance, her ears primed for any rustle, any noise out of the ordinary, she skulked through the opening in the plexiglass.
The desk was no more entertaining than the outside, claustrophobic and papered with cheesy art deco. At the desk’s foot, there was a strongbox labelled “Petty Cash,” and around it lay withering carbon copies of receipts of indeterminate origin. As she surveyed the squeeze, she noticed that she alone pretty much filled up the room, and she arose, doubting anyone could be inside the room with her.
*Tappity tappa tap.*
Was someone drumming her claws?
*Tappity tap-tappita tap.*
Felina whirled and had her gun at the ready for who- ever was producing that drumming, but no one appeared in the lobby, and especially not in the stuffy recep- tionist’s pit. *Tappita tippy tap.* Above. *Tippita tap.* She fixed her eyes on the center of the ceiling, gripped the firearm in both hands, and inched precau- tiously up the set of steps beside her.
*Tippa tippa tap.*
*That’s it, babe.*
She passed from the first floor to the next, but at the point where she expected the drummer to be, there was bare tile.
She neared the drumming’s origin at an even more careful pace, circumventing it, aiming at it in the middle light.
*Closer, come on!*
She advanced, one guarded foot in front of the other.
*Tap tap tap.*
She bent her elbows away from the taps and craned her neck to search the floor.
The tiles erupted and spewed themselves like lava around Felina in a plaster spray. Riding the blast, a solid bolt clipped the half-kat on the way out and punched her from the crater onto littered tile. She still had the semiauto choked in her fist, but it did her no good as the bolt pitched into her and ensnared the girl in a spider-like grip. The arms constricted her like twin pythons, squeezing the breath out of her and stealing the control of her muscles. Felina defied the ringing in her ears and the octopus ink seeping in at the borders of her vision, even as the luminous em- erald orbs over her slitted to mimic the compression.
Felina’s captor saw she was accomplishing nothing and freed the gasping Enforcer. As the attacker laid hold of Felina’s ankles, Felina muzzily discovered that that costumed psycho’s claims were true, and if she didn’t do something about it but fast, she wouldn’t be able to tell him about it. The Mendoza had already lugged her most of the way to a window. Reach- ing it, she hoisted Felina off the ground like a slab of meat and held her over her head. As the cat woman wound up for the heave, Felina hooked her long claws into the redhead’s biceps. The Mendoza did not scream, but her elbow buckled in shock, and she glared, flus- tered, at Felina, who plummeted limply to the tiling. Felina queasily pulled herself to her knees and drew a wobbly bead on the mute assassin. The Mendoza remained upright, a hand closing the wet wound as vermillion welled and plopped to the gleaming linoleum. She gave a short nod, then shot through the ceiling without saying anything more, leaving to mark her passage a shower of powdered crossbeams.
Felina coughed and waved the dandruffy cloud away. *What a cute trick,* she thought, her brow creased. She fumbled for her walkie.
“Feral to base, we have a positive ID on the Mendo- zas inside Mien, Inc. Requesting backup to be dis- patched immediately to the third floor. Out.”
The striped one had decided to go straight up the middle shortly after his partner’s last transmission, and now he wondered for whom he should be looking. He jogged the perimeter of the ritzy conference room, evading the lounge-caliber vases and lamps as he went. The twin moons coasted high, he observed, and their silver-yellow phosphorescence streamed in from the enormous windows. At that hour, the moons’ brilliance clearly detailed all the room’s features, diminishing in brightness toward the door from which he had come. He skulked to the door and pressed his back to the wall, beside the door. Until his partner joined him, he could at least wait to jump one of the assassins. He settled against the wall and trained his ears to the staircase.
Standing there, Chance felt something akin to a wrecking ball fly into his stomach. He cried out, his composure escaped him, and he sank along the wall, his arms wrapped protectively around himself as he strove to breathe. Something else snatched his undershirt and yanked him back up to his feet. A stinging blow whip- ped across his cheek, and before he could recover, the invisible assailant cast him bodily through the air. He flailed helplessly into a glass coffee table, which his speeding weight pulverized into crystalline shrap- nel.
“Tch, what a waste,” he heard somewhere to his left. Chance strained to lift himself from the prickling shards, but soon saw his right arm was wedged under an overturned sofa. He rowled agitatedly, wrenching his arm underneath the boulderlike sofa but succeeding on- ly in grinding more crushed glass into his triceps. The kat sensed an arm snake between his back and the bejewelled carpet and tow him up toward an unseeable face, whose hot breath puffed featherlike against his nose.
Dominica pranced down to the third floor, not only at the request of her captain, but also in response to an instinctive tug. She detected an inner flux pulsa- ting from the third floor, something like the one she and her mother shared, but this one fibrillated with the strength of breakers, underscored with a caustic accent, and receiving it hurt her entire being. Recal- ling the planned route of her masked friends, she des- perately hoped she had beaten them to the energy’s nexus. As her feet touched upon the last landing, though, she noticed her lover bulleting toward the set of double doors. She ran the rest of the way down and partly-called, partly-hissed, “*Stop!*”
The trim russet kat skidded short of the doors and gazed at her, confused. His tail twitched spastically as he waited for her to patter down to his level.
“What?” he inquired when she reached him.
“Wait just a little,” she answered, *sotto voce*. Taking him by the cuff of his sleeve, she led him to the middle set of doors and tiptoed to one side of the way, beckoning for him to take the other. She drew her Magnum and held it, cocked, close to her. One boot planted in front of her, the rear holding her steady, she watched the kat, who was likewise poised. She chirped at him, and when she had his attention, she whispered, “On three. One…two…”
“Shoulda known better than to trust a bunch of girls who pass themselves off as both donnas *and* hitmen,” Gabelloto ruefully sighed as he closed a briefcase full of bills. “But those’re redheads for you. Water under the bridge and all that. Ready to clear out?”
Another man who stood woodenly at the embellished teak doorframe nodded curtly. “Ready, sir.”
One of the not-there hands of Chance’s pursuer cra- dled his head as she cooed to him softly. “You see,” she said, “I have a lot of money riding on this, and already I feel our paycheck’s getting ready to skip town. You weren’t supposed to carry on like this, my dear boy – I don’t mean finding out that it was us, ’cause that was plain as day.” He perceived a shift in her weight. “It’s just that no one wanted Ramirez’s bond with us out in the open just yet, and, frankly, your little expose` cramps my style.”
“What ‘bond’?” Chance echoed, one ear flat.
“Hey, you’ve got the cliched response down, too! That’s just too cute,” she exclaimed, pulling him more into her grip. His trapped arm refused to follow. “But yes, there was a bond. He was overseeing some new guys for Joe Gabelloto – who hasn’t paid us, so I don’t feel restricted by *omerta`* – since he thought Rami- rez’s experience would help them make a wise agree- ment, which, if you’re interested, concerned a few deals in the black market. Gabelloto thought Ramirez’d make a smarter choice than a hotel room for their pro- ceedings, though, and when he got angry, that’s where we came in.”
“So he was an escort for your guys.”
“His guys, but yes. Good boy. When he bailed, Joe offered us Ramirez’s share in the family if we offed him quick, and the rest is in the can. How’s that for you, sweetheart?”
He detected the phantom weight relegating itself to his hips. In the momentary freedom from the Mendoza’s domination, the kat attempted to twist out of her hold, but his body refused to obey him. He willed his pinned arm to move out from under the sofa, but it too lay uselessly beneath the furniture. The weight retur- ned and held him down, and with them came the invisi- ble hands. They flowed evenly up his neck, pushing his fur the wrong way, and ten spidery fingers insinuated themselves under his mask, where they affixed themsel- ves to his throbbing temples.
“Oh, by the way, do me a favor and go quietly, will you? I’d like to keep the DOAs to a bare minimum, so if you don’t scream, you’ll be the only one I have to kill, okay?”
A softened but audible thud brought an appalled Ka- trina Mendoza into obvious sight. With a low bleat, she collapsed onto the supine kat and ripped her hands from his helmet to clutch at the small of her back. Past her, Chance saw his partner Jake standing over the both of them with his hands clenched together, ap- parently from the strike. By the door, Dominica marked the fallen mafiosa. As she kept her gun trained on Katrina, her shoulders drooped, and she leaned into the doorjamb. Above Chance, Jake caught his bewildered gaze.
“What *would* you do without me?” he sighed as he heaved the sofa off Chance’s abused arm.
“Don’t be *too* egotistical. The way I see it, you didn’t make this daring rescue all by yourself,” Chance commented. He hauled Katrina up with him by the scruff of her neck, and she regarded him coolly through a lock of auburn. “Not so feisty now, is she? How’d you see her, anyway?”
Jake stared at him. “How could I see her? How *couldn’t* I see her? She was sitting right on top of you.”
Now Chance stared at him. “But she made herself in- visible! You couldn’a seen her…_I_ couldn’t.”
“I think you must’ve been inhaling jet fuel, but that’s just me. She was there in plain sight.”
“Well, whatever.” The tabby strengthened his hold on the murderess’s collar. An out-of-synch shuffle of multiple boots interrupted in the lull and increased in volume outside the boardroom door. “That must be the Enforcers. You wanna leave Red Sonja here with Nicka while we go find the other two?”
“Sounds good to me – the last I saw, Marina came running this way, but Sabrina could be anywhere.”
Armed Enforcers, including Felina, congregated at the passageway while the two kats ran through, and Felina exchanged a sphinxian glance with the burly member of the pair.
“Still think we’re costumed weirdos?” he asked as he presented her with his catch.
“That goes without saying. One of the others is on the floor, and she has a thing for busting out of the floor,” she reported.
“Thanks. Here, take this.” He shoved Katrina toward the Enforcer clot, and the two proceeded to weave through coming and going officers on their way to the stairway’s atrium.
“Will you need any help?” Dominica called after them.
“Nah, don’t worry about us, major,” Jake replied. “This superhero stuff’s a cakewalk.”
Four Enforcers in the innermost cluster flew sponta- neously into paroxysms, then dropped to the ground, unmoving, as suddenly as their attack had come. The spasms moved through more dumbstruck officers, taking down a concentrated swath, and the path seemed to make a beeline for Katrina Mendoza. Felina blockaded her- self between Katrina and the oncoming wave, her hand to her gun, though it belatedly struck her that she had no idea how it would help her. Regardless, she stubbornly stood her ground and braced herself for im- pact.
Chance and Jake, who had noticed the bizarre event as they were almost to the next floor, reversed and sped toward the Enforcers in hopes that they would outrun the convulsing tide. The swell had a big head start, and by the time the kats had broken through the crowd, the cause of the seizures had already slapped Felina off to the side and into Dominica. The two wo- men sprawled, incapacitated, and in front of Katrina popped her mirror image.
“*There* you are, Mari,” Katrina greeted her dopple- ganger. “Where’s Sabrina?”
“She’s diddling around here somewhere looking for us,” Marina answered. “C’mon, Gabelloto’s ditching!”
The identical hybrids promptly trampled through the fallen mass to the open staircase and disappeared to the next lowest floor. The two masked kats, mired in the recovering pile of Enforcers, cleared their way with elbows and growled commands and eventually emer- ged at the head of the stairs. From there, they were rewarded with a glimpse of two-thirds of the Mendoza Sisters escaping into flapping doors.
“Stay where you are for right now,” Chance dictated to the Enforcer crowdlet. “We’ll be right back.”
“Situation report, sergeant.”
“Sir,” a light gray kat in a beige military uniform responded. “Captain Feral’s confirmed the presence of the Mendoza Sisters and has had reinforcements sent in. She and Major le Normand’s crew are on the third floor. There’s been no report of an arrest yet.”
Feral rested his arm on the roof of a cruiser, con- templating the sea green glass face of the building before him. She’d done pretty well in cornering them, with or without le Normand’s guidance, and now it was only a question of how long it would take for her to finish. Here, he would be able to deliver a few stir- ring sound bites to the press while Felina was in there, saving his neck. He exhaled, grateful for the coming end, and tidied up his posture for the first news crew.
“Just arrived on the scene is Commander Feral,” Ann Gora recapped to the camera as she approached Feral in reverse. She turned in time to address him properly. “Good evening, commander – Ann Gora, Kats’ Eye News. Now, your Enforcers have told us that they have the Mendozas holed up in there, but they have yet to catch them. What do you plan to do?”
“Ann, my recruits are well-trained in how to handle high-pressure situations like this one,” Feral inton- ed, as if she were a kindergartener. “Two of the best officers I have are in command up there, and I trust them both to make the right decisions to keep the ope- ration well in order.”
“Uh-hunh,” Ann rejoined, disregarding the patroniza- tion. “There’s also been a rogue jet staying close to the action tonight, and no one is quite sure whose side it’s on. Do you have any comment?”
The giant brown kat’s complacency sloughed from his face. “What jet?”
The lightless, chutelike corridor herded the kats to a sharp left turn, which they hung and skidded into a new hallway while barely missing the walls. At the end of this hall, there was a blackness, which must have been a new room. Inside it, the two heard the grate of soft-soled slippers on carpet, and one voice spoke to itself out of sight.
“One of those freako kat guys was able to see through my masking ability, so there’s a very real possibility we could be tangling with other luses.”
“Oh, terrific. Well, how’d he bust you?”
“He sneaked up behind me and thumped me right in the middle of the back, and I couldn’t pick the cheap jerk up until he bashed me!” A brief, static second passed. “Come t’think of it, I didn’t see that girl he was with until then, either.”
“Let’s worry about that later. Right now, our mo- ney’s skittling away, and if there’s another lusus following us, I don’t wanna waste the time fighting with him. This whole deal’s given us nothing but crap all the way, and I think we should just pull out now.”
“Wait, Sabrina…” Another scuffle silenced the tri- plicate speaker. The lack of ambient sound sucked the air from the hallway and caged both kats’ lungs, see- ping into their ribs with the continual effort to match the quiet. The two shrank into the corridor, their eyes focused on the blackness ahead of them.
“I *thought* I felt something!” one voice finally shouted. “GO!!”
“Here we go again,” Chance grunted, catapulting into a run.
The twosome streaked into the room, upsetting a few monitors and keyboards on their way, and burst through the door left open by the assassins. There was a spi- ral flight of stairs this time, and at the foot of it sounded the pitterings of the escapees’ bootied feet. The kats plunged over the handrail, skipping the steps, and landed on the floor with a sizeable gap be- tween them and the Mendozas. Fifteen feet of a walkway more opressive than the one they had passed just be- fore sustained the chase until the chute branched into a grand marbled lobby. The gap between runners closed more by the second.
“Sabrina,” Katrina demanded, “I want you t’give Mari and me some leeway, got it?”
“What?! Didn’t I just get done saying we shouldn’t waste time fighting?”
“It won’t take long, and from what I’m picking up now, I don’t think either of *them* was the lusus. Go on!”
“You’re faster than I am – you catch up to them while I fight off the one,” Chance told Jake as they slingshot around a mirrored support. The lithe one complied and raced in front of his partner, who in turn interlaced his fingers to form a footrest. Jake leapt, and his forward momentum rapidly melted into freefall. Chance’s run took up the slack and he caught Jake’s foot in his hands. He carried Jake along until he heaved him forward like a living bullet, and the little kat soared away on his own while the tabby stopped running to minimize the shock from Sabrina rushing into him.
She rammed into him with twice the strength of an eighteen-wheeler and sent him rolling into an unexpec- tedly hard velvet bench. He staggered to a squat, still dizzy, and found the valkyrie hovering five feet above the black and white checkered marble, a good distance from him, which he guessed was where they had met. She returned his look and put up her arms in a ready fighting stance, one knee bent and her tail wrapped around her straight ankle in anticipation.
Chance compelled himself to take up a battle bearing in response; his disorientation made his head loll to one side and forced him to lean on his damaged knee, and he felt a huge bruise forming on his right side. He still gritted his teeth and clung to her stare. Her face hardened, sick of posturing, and she drew her limbs closer to her body. Compact, she rose a foot more, and, snarling, she dove.
Jake careened through the air lke a missile, and the distance between himself and the sisters disintegrat- ed. An exit came into view and offered to swallow them up into safety if the airborne kat did not catch them first, and the opportunity boosted the women’s speed.
Gravity was rapidly siphoning off his momentum, and Jake sought a new way to regain the edge in the chase. He zeroed in on a boxy object near the mouth of the doorway – a fire hose box – and allowed himself to touch down on a table of brochures. From it, he hand- sprang to the box, where he was ahead of the Mendozas, but not quite the winner of the race yet. Within the box, the canvas hose lay, tightly coiled. Jake measur- ed his window of opportunity: the assassins were still four yards behind, which gave him ample time to act. He closed his fists together and raised them over his head.
Punches, kicks, and jabs sailed around Sabrina but never struck her as she coasted around their sender. He turned and hurled another swing at her, and she darted in rings around him, from air to ground and back again in less than a second, giggling at Chance’s annoyed roars.
“Move pretty quick for an old lady, don’t I?” she crowed from the rear. She dispatched her heel into Chance’s glass-clogged arm. He screamed furiously and blindly swung his good arm, trusting he would somehow hit the witch on the way, but she dodged the swipe again. She hammered into his side, he fell, and she continued to pummel the weakening tabby once he was on the ground. Each hit was like a bomb, concentrated in small bursts about the size of an orange that rained all over him, and with him unable to fight her off, she mopped him across ten feet of glistening tile. His defenses battered at last, the huntress loomed over her softly-breathing quarry, her feet planted on ei- ther side of him. She condescendingly clucked her tongue at him, then brought one foot over his head. Slowly, savoring the minute, she lifted the foot high- er, carefully, precisely…
Chance snared the paw in a smooth pounce and hauled it toward the tiles, and at the same time he shot a venomous kick upward and heard her atmospheric shriek as it connected. She tumbled back away from him, hun- ched over, her breath coming in squeaks. The kat re- gained his feet.
“Apparently, not fast enough,” he admonished.
A lionlike roar exploded from Sabrina in spite of her small stature, the rumble ignited by her undoing at a lesser hand. Her pupils slitted so severely they seemed to be lost in the green, and she lunged at him, her polished claws extended to the quick, forsaking all her fighting panache to exact vengeance for her reputation. He grasped her wrists and used her own movement to whip her around in a circle, then let go as she pinwheeled above him. She met the floor full on her back, but at such an angle that she did not stop moving there. She skidded rather comically across the floor, emitting dishonored wails all the way, and tra- velling pell-mell for her copies.
“KATRINA! WATCH OUT!” she yowled.
Jake blasted the box’s window in one stroke and thrashed the hose out of the case. During the hose’s descent, he pinpointed the fugitives, whose attention was not on him but on their floor-skimming third. The costumed kat spread his feet wide apart and dug his claws into the floor to hold himself in place, then fired the hose full throttle. The choreography of the play gelled at that moment with such perfection that time seemed to stretch: the last Mendoza belted her sisters at the exact same time that a watery ramrod pasted the three of them in mid-air. Blue-white water pooled on the tile where the beam had hit them after it plowed them, squealing, into a column by the ser- vice desk.
From the center of the ballroom-like lobby, Chance precariously jogged toward the defamed Mendozas. Under the water pressure, the women were paralyzed, and so they only stared sullenly at their enemies. The kats knelt wearily by the saturated three, and Jake cut the barrage to reuse the canvas hose as a restraint. While the vigilantes wordlessly bound the Mendozas to the column, Marina mentally asked her siblings, *So whadda we do about the money?*
<Would you shut UP about the freaking *money*?! I could NOT care less about the stupid money if I tried!> Katrina stung in reply. <Just shut up and sit tight. Since when have I left us in the lurch?>
The soggy half-kats accepted their bindings in smol- dering silence.
“Well…” breathed Chance, rocking back on his heels. “D’ya think it’ll hold?”
“You kidding?” Jake questioned. “I’m hoping Nicka and her little friend are gonna hustle down here soon. Attention Enforcers!” he hailed, touching the mike in his helmet. “The Mendozas have been temporarily har- nessed in the downstairs lobby. We suggest taking no delays to increase the probability of their being here when you arrive. Oh, and watch it – it’s a bit slippe- ry in here. Out.” He hopped up off the ground. “Come on. Time to go.”
“What? Why?!” Chance protested as he levered himself to a stand.
“Becaauuuse…it’s against superhero etiquette to wait for the cops! Gotta keep that intangible mystique, y’know.”
“Oh, f’r heaven’s sake,” sniffed the tabby. “Then let’s go. Be good, ladies!”
The hybrids dripped.
Feral deadened his ears to the caterwauling report- ers mobbing him on his way into Mien, Inc.’s office building. Those voices over the radio a minute ago gave him a sickening sense of deja vu, but he could not figure out how. He *did* know he had been upstag- ed, and that embarrassment, compounded with his inabi- lity to profess any knowledge of a fabled jet parked somewhere nearby, drew his already generous stride out nearly double.
He arrowed through glass doors, pried open by more reporters and some recruits, and redirected himself to an extravagant lobby while praying that, if his job had been done for him by a crew of vigilantes, the me- dia wouldn’t see it. Against his will, the press faithfully accompanied him to a view of the Mendozas, all alone, neatly trussed up to a column like a pre- sent for the police.
The reporters nearest to Commander Feral whispered amongst themselves. The murmur behind his back grew louder, but respectful enough of his presence to re- main somewhat hushed. Feral, himself, was paralyzed. After proclaiming having a handle on the case, after setting up elaborate networks, gaining information through covered dragnets (though the most recent was operating out of his control, but that wasn’t impor- tant), in essence after he had thrown a full law en- forcement floor show, a couple of unknowns came in and, without any word, hitched *all three Mendozas* to a column and left them there for Feral to pick up. The three most feared living weapons in all the world, who had slipped from his and others’ hold for two decades, had been sitting there since who knew how long. Boots kathumped on the remote side of the room.
“Wish I’d stumbled into *this* lobby instead of that other one,” muttered Felina, brandishing her gun and moving past her officers. She caught sight of the three by the desk. “Well – how do you like that?” She turned and nodded at the major.
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
“Provided you get us in one,” Katrina blandly remar- ked. While film rolled, there came a moistened shred- ding, and the trio broke from their bonds. Sabrina looped her arms around Marina and Katrina and levita- ted above the heap of wet canvas, then faced Feral and his entourage.
“It’s been real, but we have to see a man about an agreement,” declared Katrina. “Nice try, though. Keep it up!” The women rocketed for a bay window, somer- saulted through it as shards splintered and joined the wet mess on the floor, and the Mendoza Sisters coasted away into the westward dawn.
When they had risen sufficiently into the atmo- sphere, Katrina began to glide under her own power and clasped one of Marina’s hands to share the load. A mile from the scene, they flew at a more leisurely pace and watched blocks parade under them, bathed in the early morning chrysanthemum glow. Sabrina regarded Katrina.
*The next time you send me off to fight one of those guys, at least stave ‘im off with a mindspike or some- thing first,* she sent.
<Now how was I supposed to know he was gonna toss you like that?>
*You’re a telepath!*
<Yeah, well, I’m not a precog, too.>
<Oh, hush. We got away, didn’t we? At least now we know what to look for the next time we run into those leather-wearing wackos.> Katrina unfocused her eyes on the air before her. <So now this city’s got superhe- roes.>
“I’m cold and I’m wet!” whined Marina.
*Y’know, with the coverage this fracas has attract- ed, I think our chances with Gabelloto are shot,* re- minded Sabrina.
<He’ll pay us, in one way or another. No one’s ever gotten a freebie from us, so why would he? All he needs is a little firm persuasion – he’s nothing, really. As a matter of fact, I think I see him now.>
Crossing the tile, scowling at it sourly to make sure its slipperiness didn’t skew her brisk pace, Fe- lina spoke to Dominica under her breath.
“I mean, *we* have an excuse – we were way out of range to do anything effective when they zoomed off, but *he’s* been down here way longer than we have, AND he has the press with him! Y’d think he’d be tripping all over himself to hog the glory in front of the ca- mera.”
“Shh, captain; he’s right in front of us,” Dominica mildly warned. “I imagine the press is giving him enough flak without his own niece joining in.”
“Neh.” Out of the spill, Felina hastened to the street, sideswiping her sputtering uncle as she went.
“There’s…a good reason for this sudden downturn,” Feral attempted, his voice cracking. If he could pro- duce one great save… “Had these interceptors, of whom you speak in such praising tones, not stuck their noses in where they didn’t belong, the Mendozas would be in interrogation this very minute, and we could be well on our way to solving this homicide.” That should’ve done it.
“Y’mean like you’ve had them in interrogation this very minute for the past twenty years?” someone sneer- ed.
Maybe not. “Well…,” he struggled, “…the Mendozas are extremely difficult criminals to hold for *any* period of time…”
“Exactly. Hey, where did somebody say that jet was?”
“Up on the roof, quick!” answered another reporter.
The swarm receded and left Feral to himself. Now _this_ was shame. He was suddenly expected to compete with Delphic watchmen for the media’s attention? That he could do. But what would it cost him? If this in- stantaneous diconnection of his authority dulled the troops with ennui, his control over them would fizzle, and he would be plunked even farther back in the com- petition. Something about them tweaked a nameless ill in him, in a familiar but unwelcome sensation, and that finalized his decision. He whisked in a half-cir- cle and strode out to his cruiser left in the middle of the road. The first point belonged to them. He planned to tie it in the next round.
His arm emptied of the biggest chunks of glass, Chance tested the muscle. He winced as he curled the arm to his shoulder, feeling the pebbles bite into the inner sinew.
“You’re sure your arm’s okay?” queried his compatri- ot, who peered down at him from their jet’s wing.
“Ugh…yeah. I’ll just pull ’em out as I find ’em.”
“Hey, you’re still here! All right! Hey, Annie…”
A few steps away, at the rooftop entry to the stair- way, a baseball cap-wearing kat in jeans and a T-shirt stepped back, and from the entrance came a turquoise- dressed newscaster. Once she adjusted to the cross- winds buffeting her diminutive frame, she trotted to the costumed pair and their jet.
“Great, you’re both here. Is this all of you?” she asked. They quietly nodded. “Perfect. You know, you’re both an incredibly tough pair of men to find. We’ve been chasing you around all night! I should probably introduce myself.” She protruded her right hand into their midst. “Ann Gora of Kats’ Eye News.”
Chance greeted her, not sure how to react, and Jake jumped down from the jet to offer his hand as well. Neither offered the customary response. Ann pulled her hand back, tilting her ears to the side. “What’s the matter? Don’t you have names?”
“Let’s get back to you on that, miss,” Chance sup- plied, elbowing his comrade.
“What?” wondered Jake.
“Okay, then. Johnny?”
“All set,” the baseball cap kat replied. “We gotta do this fast, though, ’cause it won’t be long until everyone else’ll be up here too.”
While Ann Gora delivered the news recap and status report, Jake tapped Chance. “Why’d you elbow me?”
“You’re the resident idea man,” whispered Chance. “I thought you said you had our names. I hope you have something ready when the lady asks us again, or we’re going to look pretty darn silly.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got them – I came up with the perfect codenames on the way up. I’ll lead into it when she interviews us.”
“Fine. Just make sure mine doesn’t have a ‘Mr.’ in it anywhere. I’ve always hated those – who the heck takes a guy who calls himself ‘Mr. Fantastic’ serious- ly?” the striped one said as the newscaster turned the microphone on them.
“You two were able to catch the Mendozas, something the current chief of police, Commander Feral, has been unable to do since he came into office, and you did it without outside help.”
“We can’t really say that – we had help from Major le Normand and one of her captains, Felina Feral,” corrected Chance.
“Minimal help, then. But as it stands, you two are responsible for a landmark in MegaKat City’s legal history. What made you decide to step into the case?”
The smaller threw his shoulders back and cleared his throat. “We’ve been on the inside of MegaKat City for quite some time, and we feel that Commander Feral thinks the best way to make a problem go away is to throw as many things at it as he can. It works most of the time, very crudely, but it’s also a huge waste of energy, which, in a city this size, is something that can’t be blown at random.
“Instead of just throwing stuff, especially in the case of the Mendozas, my partner and I think a subtler approach is what’s needed to solve MegaKat City’s pro- blems. We’d search, locate, and penetrate the source of the problem with every effort needed, rather than rely on some informant to toddle up to us and tell us something we already know. We use our own tactics in this fight.”
“I see,” Ann punctuated. “So, in short, you might encapsulate yourselves as MegaKat City’s self-proclai- med set of SWAT kats?”
The couple glanced at each other. “Sure,” replied Chance.
Ann Gora checked her cameraman, who gestured for her to hurry. “Yes. Speaking of nomenclature, is there anything you’d care to be called individually?”
“As long as it isn’t vulgar,” Jake joked. “Really, our individuality, at heart, is inconsequential to our cause – sorely-needed protection for the city – and to each citizen, we mean something different, less a per- sonality than a concept. Still, for the sake of brevi- ty, the press most likely wouldn’t like to call us ‘that big guy and the little one’ all the time. A sense of unity could also come from common names for us. Therefore,” he histrionically announced, “you can call me Razor, and my partner…” the newly-dubbed Ra- zor faced the striped one, who was waiting as intense- ly as Ann, “…is T-Bone.”
“Fantastic, guys, but can we wrap it up? I can hear the others coming,” Johnny hissed.
Ann resumed, “These two, the SWAT Kats of MegaKat City, have just pledged to take on the burden of city- wide safety upon their own shoulders as an alternative to what they perceive to be the low quality of the En- forcers. With this in mind, can we look forward to seeing you appear on the scene again in the near fu- ture?”
“Of course. What good would we be if we didn’t keep our promise?” answered T-Bone.
“Ann Gora, Kats’ Eye News.” She signalled Johnny to end the tape, then turned once more to the kats. “Be- fore you go, is there anything you need or want me to do? It’s the least I can do to repay you for giving me such a big story.”
“Yes, as a matter of fact,” Razor accepted. He took T-Bone’s shoulder. “My partner was seriously injured in a fight with one of the Mendozas. Could you possib- ly get a paramedic here soon? You do have contact with an emergency number, right?”
“I most certainly do,” Ann replied. “Come down with us, and I’ll have an ambulance on the street for you in no time.”
“Thanks, miss,” said T-Bone, following her back into the stairwell. On the way down, he issued another el- bow into Razor’s side.
“What, are we prone to violence today?” the red- brown kat commented.
“You named me after a slab of dead cow,” T-Bone mut- tered, glowering.
“Hey, I thought it was a neat name. It kinda suits you, if you think about it.”
“Are you getting retribution for some past sin I’ve committed against you or something?”
“It’s a good name for you!”
“If you say so, Mr. Keep-the-Cool-Name-for-Myself and-Stick-My-Partner-with-the-Lame-One. A name that means ‘little cutting thingie’ is infinitely more im- posing than something that loosely translates to ‘big ol’ slab o’ meat.’”
“It’s not as bad as you’re making it. Besides, few people can pronounce, let alone remember, ‘Antidisestablishmentarianism Lad.’”
“Yeah, yeah. I guess you could’ve done worse, though. I *suppose* I’ll live with it.”
“Nice speech, by the way.”
Newscaster, cameraman, and heroes bypassed the thick pack of reporters stuck coming up and ambled out to the police-taped road to wait by a news van, listening to nearing sirens as daybreak gradually drew color back into the civilizational canyon.
“How’s your arm?”
“T’s fine. Good thing those paramedics could take all that out without having t’go to the hospital – can you imagine all the hassle we’d get in trying to fi- gure out who would pay?”
“No kidding. Hello, Nicka? Hi! How are you?”
Chance sank deeper into the tattered old couch, propping his bandaged arm on the back. He lowered the volume of the television for Jake, then relaxed as commercials gave way to the actual program.
“Good morning, and welcome to Kats’ Eye News, Mor- ning Edition. I’m Ann Gora.
“Only a few hours earlier, the long-running Car 07 case was brought to a close, for the time being, at least, by MegaKat City’s newest peacekeepers, a pair of vigilantes who call themselves the SWAT Kats.”
“Nicka, are you watching the news?” Jake asked.
“In a moment,” she replied from the other end. “Ah, there it is. Oh, look! *There* you are!”
“These two made their debut by performing a feat previously impossible to attain through conventional policework: the successful capture of the Mendoza Sisters, a famous set of hitmen. Unfortunately, the delayed actions of the Enforcers allowed the Mendozas to escape once again. The Mendozas, according to the vigilantes’ accounts, were accessories to an underly- ing plot with capo Joseph Gabelloto that, through an error, resulted in the theft of Car 07 and the subse- quent murder of felon Arthur Ramirez. Two Enforcers, the recently-upgraded Major Felina Feral and her for- mer superior, Major Dominica le Normand, have reported working with the SWAT Kats, and their comments, over- all, praise them, as follows:”
“You offered comment on us?” Jake reacted, a bit startled.
“Yes, and Major Feral did, too. She said she likes you, and she told me Chance kind of reminds her of herself,” Dominica reported brightly. “Don’t worry – I haven’t told anyone about your ‘secret’.”
“Hey, Chance – Nicka says the captain lady said you reminded her of herself!”
“Uh…thanks. Tell her I said she isn’t a bad fighter herself.”
“Chance said -“
“I heard. She’ll like that.”
“So,” sighed Jake, “has Feral reamed you for acting out of orders and associating with a couple of super- heroes?”
“No, he hasn’t spoken to anyone. He’s just been con- stipated, as usual. Or maybe even more so.”
“Jake, your monologue!” alerted Chance, pointing to the screen. They quieted themselves while Jake’s pre- recorded voice recited his earlier speech.
“Jake?” Dominica interrupted.
“It’s not a very nice thing for me to say, but you sure are hamming it up.”
“Am not,” he protested, ears flat.
“What’d she say?”
“She just called me a ham!” Jake echoed.
“She calls ‘em as she sees ‘em.”
“Ha ha ha. *You* said it was ni-hey! Stop laughing over there!”
“In other news, the bodies of Roger Hicks and Emilio Romaine have been found in the suburb of Ithaca Cen- tral, possibly the handiwork of the Mendozas or their henchmen.”
“It wasn’t THAT funny. C’mon, stoppit! You’re not supposed to laugh when somebody’s talking about dead guys!”
“Half an hour ago, Joseph Gabelloto, also involved in the Car 07 case, was found murdered along with a driver in a black luxury vehicle, apparently victim of a drive-by.”
“Looks like they came t’collect the tab and someone wasn’t answering,” Chance deducted from the couch.
“Yes, well…that’s what we’re here for,” added Jake, leaning on the counter by the telephone. The transmis- sion faded out and bombarded the two kats with more blaring commercials.
“Oh, I’ve just been paged,” apologized Dominica. “I’ll call you later, okay?”
“All right,” agreed Jake. He inched toward the cra- dle as he finished talking. “See you later, then. ‘Bye.”
Yep, this is the end of this bit. It’d be downright uncivilized not to thank the people who helped me do this, so here we go: Thanks to my grandma and my un- cle, who uncomplainingly let me use the computer to accomplish my evil ends; to a certain Nick B (not Ball – we don’t even share the same hemispheres) for teach- ing me the ways of the enigmatic being called “e- mail”, and mostly to DJ Clawson herself, who has had to put up with my general nimnullity more than once all through the ordeal. Thanks lastly to everyone who had the attention span to read all the way to the end, and I shall return. Be warned!
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