Ann sneaked across the overgrown lawn by a grand fountain, making her way towards towards the large, three story house and various outbuildings which comprised Darkhaven. Her high heels made walking through the ankle-high grass difficult. She leaned against the rim of the fountain and slid off one shoe, and then the other, looking up at the house as she did so, taking in her surroundings.
The mansion was positively ancient, from around the turn of the century as far as Ann could tell. Overgrown plants and large, leafy vines gripped the exterior like the tentacles of a sea monster, giving the structure the appearance of some mad combination of a medieval fortress and an old ivy league school. Most of the windows were shuttered, and those that were open revealed only darkened rooms.
The fountain, too, in addition to the state of the lawn, was a testimony to the fact the place hadn’t been occupied in ages. Although beautifully carved, depicting a fearsome-looking horned dragon reared up on its hind legs with claws outstretched and fanged maw open to spit forth a torrent of water instead of fire, it wasn’t turned on at the moment, and nothing but scummy, nasty-smelling water filled the enormous basin, which was the size of a swimming pool.
From what she could see, Darkhaven was completely deserted. But, that didn’t mean it really was. Ann trusted her hunches. It was what had made her such a good reporter, if she did say so herself – and she frequently did, being a relentless self-promoter without a humble bone in her body. Not that she considered herself arrogant, exactly; she simply wasn’t one who believed in hiding lights under bushels.
With her shoes in one hand and the camera in the other, Ann crept barefoot around the side of the house, following the gravel driveway to the rear of the property where there was some kind of large cobblestone courtyard. There, in front of a large, low building set aside from the mansion, sat the silver-colored SUV, right out in the open. It was parked facing the low building which Ann guessed was the garage – through the slightly open door she could glimpse large, blocky shapes covered in protective tarps. The SUV’s back was open, a single crate labeled “Property of Megakat Mint” sitting in plain view. Jackpot.
Smiling, Ann used her camera to snap a photo of the vehicle and its incriminating contents. Flash! But, where was the rest of the booty? She’d thought for certain there’d be more. It seemed off to go through so much trouble just to steal one-
Hearing a door open, she hid in some bushes. A thin beam of harsh yellow light knifed across the courtyard, shining on the parked SUV. Someone came out of the rear door of the mansion. And then, someone else. Two male kats. The first one was stocky, with blonde hair giving him a vague “surfer dude” look and an equally blonde, thin mustache, while his taller companion had a shock of spiked-up white hair. Both were in business suits. They walked to the SUV as a third kat stood in the open doorway and watched them.
The two got the crate out of the back of the SUV, hefting it with some effort. Evidently the contents were quite heavy. Gold, Ann thought.
“Sheesh,” said the blonde kat with the mustache, “these things weigh a ton!”
“Good thing this is the last of ’em,” said his white-haired companion.
So, Ann thought, there were definitely more inside.
“Quit your griping,” said the third kat, the one standing in the doorway. He moved aside for his two friends, then went and shut the SUV’s liftgate.
This kat gave Ann the willies. He too wore a suit. Dark. A red tie. Blood red. Evil black gloves covering his hands. He was lean and sharp-featured, with yellow fur and neatly-combed solid black hair, and bright, alert eyes which seemed forever roaming, always penetrating; once, he seemed to glance at her hiding place, and she thought for certain he had spotted her. She froze. But then, his gaze moved on, and he watched the other two carry the crate into the house through the door. He followed them and shut it after himself, plunging the courtyard into blackness again.
Ann sighed with relief.
Now that she’d found the thieves’ hideout, she could run back to the van and get the heck out of here and alert the Enforcers and get the big scoop. But, her tendency to rush in without thinking and her curiosity at just what the criminals were doing with what they’d stolen got the better of her. Forgetting her unease with the black-haired kat in the dark suit, and the terror she’d felt when she had thought he’d seen her among the shrubbery, she made up her mind to break in and have a quick snoop around.
Moving barefoot across the cobblestones, she paused at the door. No. They might be right on the other side. Better to find a different way in. Besides, they probably locked it after themselves. She crept back around the side to the front of the house, cautiously looking in every window she came to and trying each one. Finally, she found one that looked into a small but ornate dining room with a table for twelve. She found that the window was unlocked.
“Yes!” she whispered triumphantly to herself and slid it open.
She left her shoes lying on the ground under the sill and climbed in. This room had been used recently. Although many pieces of furniture were still covered in dust-proof dropclothes, the table and six or seven of the chairs were bare, and half-eaten pizza and takeout adorned the otherwise expensive china. It seemed that the thieves helped themselves to the Balcus family heirlooms and were using them to eat off. Ann took a photo and cringed at the flash of light which flooded the room. Crud. She hissed between her teeth and looked down at the camera, squinting in the dimness, trying to find the button to deactivate the flashcube.
She heard footsteps. She froze. Someone was coming! She was in the middle of trying to decide whether to leap out the still-open window or dive under the table, when, at the other end of the room, through the open door, a kat of medium build walked by and continued on, apparently without having seen her. His footsteps receded. Sighing in relief, Ann went and peered around the corner of the doorframe.
She found herself looking down a wide hallway with many doors and a hardwood floor. The kat she’d seen, a lean fellow in a suit – were they all in suits and ties? – was walking away from her down the hall. He took a right and disappeared. She followed him. He was oddly dressed. He wore a suit and tie – were they all in suits? – but also had a construction hardhat on his head. What was going on?
She watched him go to a closed door. When he opened it and went through, an orange light flooded the dark hall. He didn’t close the door all the way, and so Ann snuck over to peer in.
She found herself looking down into a merger of a medieval nightmare and a modern metalworking facility. The door opened onto a narrow landing, from which a flight of old stone steps led down into what appeared to have once been a sizable basement to the mansion. It had been converted into a working foundry, and recently, judging by how new all of the equipment looked.
Suddenly eager for as close of a look as she could safely get, Ann eased the door open enough for her to pass through and crawled on her hands and knees to the edge of the landing and gaped down at the massive operation before her. Kats in hardhats, including all of the ones she’d seen already, were working on opening multiple wooden creates, the ones labeled as mint property, wrenching the tops off with crowbars. Some had protective goggles.
The ones with goggles were taking huge gold bars from the crates and carrying them to an enormous heated cauldron or vat that was twelve feet wide and ten feet deep if it was an inch, requiring them to go up a short flight of metal steps to access it. At the top, they threw the bars in, where they melted. The entire thing was filled almost to the brim with bubbling liquid gold.
“Kats alive,” she whispered to herself, “what an operation!”
She continued to stare, openmouthed, silently watching them work. The lean kat in the dark suit, also wearing a hardhat, appeared to be directing them, shouting orders and hurrying them along, repeatedly checking a wristwatch as though concerned about the time. He was standing at the direct edge of the vat, flanked by two other kats, one wearing sunglasses indoors, the other sporting a black and white striped tie. They were sweating from the intense heat pouring off of the smelting vat and were in varying states of undress and discomfort, ties undone, ties completely removed, jackets off.
All save the black-haired kat, whose jacket was buttoned primly, tie done up nice and tight against his throat. Though he was sweating just like his companions, he didn’t seem bothered by the heat at all.
“Come on, come on,” urged the black-haired lean kat, eyes wide, looking insane and slightly Mephistophelean bathed in the orange glow coming from the vat, “move, guys!”
“Relax, Todfeld,” said Sunglasses, fussing with his tie absently and yawning.
“He’ll be back soon, and I want to surprise him by having it all melted down by the time he gets here,” said the black-haired kat. Todfeld. Ann didn’t recognize the name.
Evidently, they answered to someone. A ringleader. This kept getting better and better. Ann could barely contain herself. Suddenly remembering her camera, Ann lifted it up and almost snapped a photo. She cursed quietly, remembering the flash, and fumbled with it. Managing to get it turned off, she sighed in relief, and began snapping pictures of the criminals going about their work. She got many pictures of Todfeld in particular, if that even was his real name. She wanted lots of him.
Outside, Jonny waited in the van, uneasily drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. Come on, Annie, where are you? he wondered. He saw a pair of headlights coming down the road through the trees. A long black vehicle of some sort. He couldn’t really tell. He turned into the driveway and stopped at the front gate, which creaked open for it. Uh-oh. Company. Hunkering down a little bit fearfully in reflex, Jonny watched as the sleek, dark vehicle drove through, the gate shutting after it with a loud clang, and eased its way nearly silently up the long driveway towards the house.
In the makeshift foundry, Ann continued taking pictures willy-nilly. All the while, the criminals working down in the hellish industrial setting below her were completely oblivious to her presence. Thank goodness she’d remembered to turn the flash off. But, in her zeal to get photographs of every single little thing, she not only took too long, but started to forget she was supposed to be hiding and started raising her body up on the landing a bit more with each successive picture that she took.
“When will the molds be ready?” asked Todfeld, glaring down into the churning golden liquid under his feet, as though hypnotized by it.
Striped Tie answered. “The guy I talked to said tomorrow at the latest.”
This seemed to satisfy Todfeld, who finally peeled his gaze away from the vat’s contents to look at Striped Tie and Sunglasses beside him. “That’s cutting it close, but I guess it’s better than nothing.
Without warning, he flinched as he noticed something, seemingly in Sunglasses’ face, and whipped his head around, looking up at Ann. Crud! She realized he’d seen her suddenly in the reflection of the lenses of Sunglasses’ sunglasses. Oh no! she thought, panicking, oh no!
“What the-?” he said.
“Crud!” Ann said aloud.
“Look!” Todfeld cried, pointing at her with one black-gloved hand, as though in accusation. One by one, everyone else began turning and looking up, until literally every pair of eyes in the place was on her.
Oh, this night just got really terrible, really fast. Oh, Annie, she thought, why didn’t you just take a couple of pictures and leave? Why did you get so greedy?
Todfeld then uttered two words that may as well have been a command to kill.
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Disclaimer: SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron is copyright to Hanna-Barbera Cartoons Inc. All Rights Reserved. © 1995. All other characters and material within this page are the property of their respective creators.