by Mary E. Lowd
An excerpt from Otters In Space: The Search for Cat Haven. If you’d prefer, you can start with Chapter 1, or skip ahead to the next chapter.
Three blocks through the alleys was farther than the Chow cared to follow Kipper throwing bottles. So, Kipper was able to emerge onto the main street and limp the last two blocks to Luna Tech. She wasn’t bleeding, but her paw pads were filled with slivers. Before entering the Luna Tech lobby, Kipper leaned against the outside of the building and took a moment to carefully dig the glass shards out of her paws. As she was working, Petra came around the block and sauntered over to stand beside her injured sister.
“Nice line,” Petra said. “Dogs on leashes. I especially like the way that I can either take credit for it, as your sister, or disown you as a troubled radical who I’m unfortunately related to… Depending on who asks.”
“Glad you liked it,” Kipper said, gingerly trying her paw on the ground.
“Absolutely. I think I won several votes.” Petra opened the glass Luna Tech door for Kipper and beckoned in. Kipper tried putting weight on her paw and found the hard pavement too merciless to be borne. She limped inside. The soft lobby carpet was a huge relief.
“We should try that every day,” Petra said, following Kipper inside. “Pick a scary looking dog on the bus; egg him into throwing bottles at you…”
Kipper flattened her ears and grimaced. She’d been defending Petra since they were kittens. Somehow, she’d thought the fisticuffs would end when they grew up, but, nonetheless, here she was fighting Petra’s fights all over again.
“Look, I’m gonna go on up,” Petra said, ignoring Kipper’s unhappiness. “You probably have to check in with Corrie…” Petra gestured toward the miniature poodle at the front desk.
“Right.” Kipper had temped at Luna Tech before, but they always made her check in at the front desk and then wait to be escorted to her position. Kipper hated temping, but there weren’t a lot of jobs that cats like her could get. Petra was lucky — her job wasn’t much, but it was her job — and, Kipper always felt lucky when she got to temp near her.
Kipper approached the front desk. The miniature poodle manning it wasn’t much larger than Kipper, and her white curls were long and shapeless, completely unshorn. But their cascading effect could have made a pro-scramball player fumble a free throw. Even Kipper, a cat, could see that.
“Hi,” Kipper said, “I’m the temp for the accounting department.” Kipper glanced at the elevator she’d be taking in a moment and noticed the security guard there. She’d seen him before, but she hadn’t remembered that he was a Chow. It made her heart race. Petra didn’t seem bothered, but Kipper found herself relieved to hear Corrie summoning the personnel coordinator over the intercom.
It rankled Kipper’s independent nature, but the best protection from a big dog is another big dog. And the personnel coordinator, Cheryl, was a giant Golden. Kipper couldn’t help but feel safe in her easy presence. Even with her mild history of conflict with dog co-workers, Kipper had never had trouble with Cheryl.
Once Cheryl ran Kipper through the basics of the specific job she’d be temping, Cheryl took her to the desk she’d be working at. Kipper was glad to find it only a few desks over from Petra’s. Kipper dipped her ears salutatorily, and Petra rolled her eyes back.
“You’ll report to Sahalie, as usual,” Cheryl said, gesturing to the half-open door behind her.
“Right,” Kipper agreed, sitting down at the desk. It was still covered with her antecedent’s personal affects: several photographs, all of purebred Siamese; a hairbrush; what looked like a lucky pen; and an African violet that had been watered recently. “What happened to the cat I’m replacing?” Kipper asked.
“Violet?” Cheryl shrugged. “No one knows. She didn’t show up for work on Monday, and we haven’t heard from her since. Is there anything else you need?”
“No…” Kipper answered, setting down a pawful of Petra’s fliers on the desk. It was strange, but this was the fifth cat she’d temped for at Luna Tech in the last year. She wondered what kept happening to them. Why wasn’t anyone worried about all these disappearing cats?
Fortunately, Cheryl didn’t notice Kipper’s concern. She was turning her head to look at the campaign fliers, which were upside down from her perspective, on the desk; she pawed them around until they were angled so she could read them. “Our Petra’s running for district representative?” The soft black lining in her mouth showed when she laughed. Laughter was better than revulsion, but Kipper still didn’t like it.
Clearly, Petra didn’t like it either. “Is there something wrong with that?” Petra asked, stalking over with her shoulders squared, looking at Cheryl with all the cat-dignity she could summon.
“No…” Cheryl shoved the fliers back, her eyes darting back and forth between the two sisters. Having recomposed herself, she looked as if she was deciding whether to give Petra and Kipper an important piece of advice. Both cats were infuriated by her final decision: “Of course, if you’re running for office,” she said, “shouldn’t you dye your fur?”
Kipper could feel the tip of her tail itching to twitch, and, from Petra’s face, she could see that her sister was torn between feeling insulted by Cheryl or pity for her. “What’s wrong with Petra’s fur?” Kipper asked.
Cheryl looked the two sisters over, Petra with her flaming orange stripes and Kipper with her subdued gray. Two plain tabbies. “Well,” Cheryl said, “most of the cats I can think of in government look Siamese.”
It was such a dog thing to say. Only the lowest-class, trashiest cats dyed their fur to pretend they were a purer breed. Petra replied, “There’s not a cat in the world, Cheryl, that can’t tell the difference between a bottle-job Siamese and a real one.”
Cheryl looked surprised, as if it hadn’t occurred to her that cats could tell each other apart at all. “What about the blind cats?”
With great forbearance, Kipper told the Golden what any cat would know. “They could hear the difference in the timbre of Petra’s voice. She’d sound like a tabby.”
Cheryl shrugged as if to say, “Have it your way,” or “Cats are so complicated,” and left Kipper and Petra to themselves.
“First Race!” Petra exclaimed. “I wish it was that simple. Put on a Siamese costume, and win the election.”
Kipper wondered if Petra really believed in the First Race or if she’d just picked up the expression. It was the rare cat that fell for such ridiculous dog dogmas, though it did happen. It was possible that Petra thought affecting such idiotic doggish beliefs would help her in the polls… She wanted to ask Petra about it, but she knew Petra wouldn’t tell her if it was a ruse anyway. So, all she said was, “I don’t think it’s that easy even for Siamese. Only a dog would think that being the right breed makes the world open up for you like a clam, gleaming with pearls inside.”
“Right,” Petra agreed. “Though…” She traced an extended claw along the edge of a photograph on Kipper’s temporary desk — a photograph of a Siamese tom. “She’s right that it would help me win the election. Anyway, I better get back to work. If I don’t win, I’m still going to need this job.”
Kipper kept staring at the photograph even after Petra’s claw was gone. Eventually, picking it up to look at it closer. Now there was a cat who was Siamese to the bone: clear blue, almond shaped eyes; a long, triangular face with a broad nose; and huge, wide-spaced ears. Goodness, he was handsome. Either a brother, husband, or son of the cat whose desk he was on. And blue-blooded down to the marrow. In fact, based on the other pictures — all of them Siamese — it was a safe bet that Violet, the name on the tacky little nameplate, was as purebred as they came. Yet, she’d worked here, in this tiny, fishbowl of a desk in inner-city New LA.
Even Siamese cats don’t have it so good. She was an assistant to an accountant. Not much of a job. Though, Kipper supposed it was a step up from temp for an assistant to an accountant. The fur on Kipper’s neck bristled as she admitted that to herself. It really was a dog’s world.
As Kipper put back the photograph, the cardboard backing slid out of the frame. A piece of paper had been folded inside, and it fell, halfway open, on the desktop. Kipper glanced around to see if she was being watched, feeling strangely embarrassed to be messing with Violet’s things. But no one was looking, so she unfolded the piece of paper the rest of the way rather than simply tucking it back in the photograph.
It looked like a printout of an airline receipt — there was a confirmation code, large and boxed, at the top of the page and an overly itemized itinerary, followed by pricing information filling out the rest of the sheet. Kipper flattened the page out to examine it more closely, and she was astonished by what she found.
Kipper powered up the computer on Violet’s desk and ran a few numbers through the company database. Yes, the number on the hidden paper was for a company credit card. Kipper was holding the receipt for a one-way ticket to Ecuador on a flight last Saturday, bought with Luna Tech funds.
Even stranger, there were cryptic notes scribbled at the bottom of the page. “@ SE, ask for Chip — night flight — DSA, red 1/4 — Larson w/the Manta Ray” and so on. Kipper couldn’t make out what they meant, but she knew this was the key to Violet’s disappearance. Pride swelled in her chest, realizing what Violet had done…
Violet hadn’t just vanished; she’d stuck it to the Dog and got away. Was that what the Burmese cat meant? Was there a hidden colony of cats, living free from canine rule, in Ecuador? Some sort of cat haven?
Kipper was getting ahead of herself.
Violet probably had family in Ecuador, and there was a sudden family emergency. Or maybe she decided to give up New LA and return to the place she grew up… And her extended family who ran a commune of cats living peacefully together.
In a cat haven.
Yeah, Kipper really needed to get to work. She tried to clear her mind of visions of dancing felines, far away from dog rule, and focus on the credit report Violet had been preparing before her sudden departure.
Rows and columns of numbers. Valid and invalid uses of company credit cards. The more Kipper worked with Violet’s credit report, the more she started to worry about the fact that Violet had used company credit. Sure, she wanted Violet to make it down to Ecuador and be with her dying grandmother for her last days… Or dancing in a cat commune with a handsome Siamese. But, she didn’t want to get in trouble herself. And, being a party to another cat’s embezzlement… Well, it didn’t seem like a good idea.
Kipper made herself keep working, quietly, diligently, until the morning break. Then, she found Petra in the break room and showed her the strange discovery. She even told Petra her strange, fantastical theory about a cat haven down in Ecuador. Though, from the way Petra’s eyes lit up, with the crazy light that got into them sometimes, Kipper immediately regretted it.
Petra grabbed the sheet from Kipper’s paws before Kipper could stop her. “I don’t know if you want to get involved in this…” Kipper started to say, but Petra had already run the sheet through the copier. A fresh, warm, inky copy spat itself into the out tray. Petra picked that up too and handed the original back to Kipper, staring open mouthed and scruffy-furred back at her.
“You should take that to Sahalie,” Petra said, pointing to the original she’d returned to Kipper’s paws. “She’s the head accountant. That way you’re covered if anyone finds out Violet was stealing.”
“What about you?” Kipper asked, indicating the copy. “You’re the one running for office.”
“So? No one knows I have a copy, and there won’t be any record of a few handmade scribbles in the computers. Besides, it’s not my job to keep track of what Violet was doing.” Petra looked at Kipper meaningfully, clearly to say that the job of double-checking Violet’s records was hers. “Now… SE… SE… What could that stand for?”
Kipper watched Petra mutter to herself, ears back in concentration and eyes fixed on the paper. She was torn between joining in at breaking the code and remonstrating with her sister further. How did Petra think she was going to make it in City Hall if she took stupid risks like this? Maybe it wasn’t her job to keep track of whether Violet was embezzling, but there was something stranger than mere embezzlement going on. Whatever it was, it made Kipper twitchy.
Kipper shifted uncomfortably, and for a moment she thought Petra caught her drift. Petra looked up, but she didn’t look at Kipper. Her eyes locked behind Kipper, and Kipper had to turn around to see what she was looking at.
To Kipper’s dismay, it was the stocky but lean, medium-sized mutt named Lucky. He explained his name, when anyone asked — and sometimes when they didn’t — by saying his parents were devout First-Racers and very traditional. Kipper still found it hard to believe any dog mother would name one of her new puppies Lucky.
Cats with names like “Stripes” or “Mouser” were much less surprising. In fact, Petra’s original name had been “Marmalade,” but, like most cats named by overworked, tired, and tasteless social workers, Petra’d had the good sense to change her name when she came of age. Of course, some cattery orphans were luckier in their names than others. Kipper, for instance, had kept hers. She thought it was cute and ironic to be named after a fish snack. Kind of like naming a kitten Robin — the name she’d picked out for one of her own kittens some day. If she ever had any.
“What’s that?” Lucky asked Petra, pointing right at the incriminating photo-copy.
Kipper was trying to come up with a line of damage control, when Petra replied flippantly, “Plans for taking over the presidency.”
“Oh, yeah?” Lucky asked, grinning a wolfish, tongue-lolling grin. “Save me a seat on your cabinet when you get elected.”
“Try in a cabinet,” Petra snapped back. Then she noticed Kipper and said, “You’re still here? You need to get that to Sahalie. Now, shoo!”
Kipper was loathe to leave Petra alone with Lucky, but if Petra didn’t want her there, she knew there wasn’t really anything she could do. She could still hear the two of them jabbing at each other, Lucky calling Petra “Mother Hubbard,” as she walked down the hall.
Kipper stopped in front of the door to Sahalie’s office and drew a deep breath. Whatever the receipt was about, she knew better than to make herself a party to embezzlement. Even so, she was pretty sure she could claim ignorance of cryptic, scribbled notes. So, at the last moment, she tore off the bottom half of the page and stuck it in her vest’s inner pocket. Then, she ventured into the head accounting office for all of Luna Tech. The mere idea of a cat holding a position so high gave her shivers. And when she saw Sahalie, the sight of her made Kipper shiver too.
Here was a cat that could dye her fur and pass for Siamese. Everything about her was pure and pedigreed from her cavernous ears and broad nose down to her darkened toes. Everything except for the stripes, that is. At a superficial level, Sahalie looked just like Kipper. At least, a dog might think so. Any cat would know that Sahalie must be half Siamese.
“I’m glad you brought this to me.” Sahalie said after Kipper showed her the document. Her voice purred as she spoke. Her stripes may have, technically, made her a plain gray tabby, but she carried herself like an Egyptian queen. Sahalie rose from her desk and closed the door to her office behind Kipper. “Have you shown this to anyone else?” Sahalie ran an extended claw along the torn edge of the sheet, gently removing it from Kipper’s willing hand.
“I brought it straight to you,” Kipper lied, hoping Petra would keep the lie safe. More for Petra’s sake than her own.
“Straight to me?” Sahalie repeated, blinking her blue eyes. She looked surprised, but eyes like that always look surprised. “Well, good. There are some things that are better kept between us cats.”
“You knew about it?” Kipper asked, somehow hearing that inside Sahalie’s tone. But, then, those blue eyes narrowed at her, and Kipper realized the implications of what she’d just said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply… I don’t think you’re…” She couldn’t bring herself to say the word embezzling.
Sahalie flicked her ears and smiled. “It’s all right,” she said. “I just meant that dogs don’t understand the kind of pressure a cat feels living in this society, and we need to support one another.”
Kipper wondered if Sahalie meant what she was saying or if she was mocking her with quotes from Petra’s fliers. Nonetheless, she decided to take a chance and ventured, “I’ve noticed… I’ve noticed this office has trouble holding on to cats.”
Sahalie’s wide eyes grew wider. “Do you think there’s a reason they keep disappearing?”
Kipper was momentarily troubled by Sahalie’s use of the word disappearing. But, the feeling was drowned out by her memory of Petra and Lucky squabbling. The sound of them was still ringing in Kipper’s ears. “Could the dogs here be threatening cats? Antagonizing them? Somehow, subtly, forcing them to leave…”
“Well,” Sahalie said, “I’ve never had any trouble with the dogs in this office.”
Kipper could well believe it. A cat like Sahalie wouldn’t stand for anything less than the best treatment. From cats, dogs, or otherwise.
“But, I’m sure it’s harder for the other cats…” Sahalie’s voice turned solicitous. “Have you had any trouble?”
“I’m never here more than a week or two at a time,” She figured it was better not to bring her sister into this. “None of the other cats — let alone the dogs — really get a chance to interact with me.”
Sahalie smiled with her eyes and put a paw reassuringly on Kipper’s shoulder. Well, partly reassuringly — the other part was a light pressure toward the door. “I’ll look into it, okay?” She reopened the office door, and Kipper found herself being moved outside.
“You’ll let me know if you find anything?” Kipper asked, feeling the folded, torn paper in her pocket.
“Sure,” Sahalie said. “But, if I were you,” Sahalie turned her ears, listening in to the dogs talking by the water cooler, “I’d be a little less worried about these cats you didn’t know, and a little more worried about the cat you do know — your sister.”
Kipper gulped, realizing that Petra was among the dogs, brandishing fliers at them.
“Best of luck,” Sahalie wished her. “She’ll have my vote.” The thought was hardly reassuring. Worse, Kipper suspected Sahalie of being insincere. It would be hard to win this election if Petra couldn’t even get other cats to vote for her.
She’d probably have better luck if she stopped hanging around the water cooler, yapping with the under-dogs. Or any dogs. They weren’t her target demographic. Though, with the disappearing cats of Luna Tech, around here her target demographic was in short supply…
“Hey, Petra,” Kipper said, taking her sister by the arm, leading her away from the water cooler. “I talked to Sahalie.”
Petra was still looking back at the dogs around the cooler, even though she was walking with Kipper. “I’d take that bet!” she yelled back to them. Then, finally acknowledging Kipper, “What were you saying?” But, instead of waiting for Kipper to answer, she said, “I was thinking, maybe we should report that Chow who was throwing bottles at us to the police.”
“Right,” Kipper said. “We could stop by the station after work…” But when she tried to picture it, the image was too ludicrous to seriously consider. She imagined Petra describing the scene from that morning to a blue uniformed German Shepherd taking scrupulous notes. “Now, what kind of bottle did the Chow throw at you?” The Shepherd would ask the questions, while an Airedale leaned against a desk toying with his beard. As soon as they left, the cop-dogs would laugh their heads off at the silly cats and dump the scrupulous notes in the wastepaper basket. Nothing would get done. Unless the cops decided to try their paws at intimidating Petra out of running for representative.
No, Petra and Kipper would have to handle any hostile dogs they had to face alone. “No. No, cops,” Kipper said.
Petra shrugged. “Fine by me. It’s no skin off of my nose if a Chow gets a bit hot under the collar.”
“Unless the bottle hits you in the nose,” Kipper grumbled, but Petra seemed to have completely forgotten the extent of the danger they’d been in that morning. If she’d ever been aware of it at all. In fact, she seemed to be ignoring dangers of all sorts. She had her photocopy of Violet’s scribbled notes out and was waving it around for anyone to see. “Put that away!” Kipper hissed, grabbing her sister’s paws and pressing them, with the potentially incriminating document, in toward Petra’s body, shielding the page from any prying eyes.
Petra flattened her ears at Kipper and spat through her whiskers, but she still folded the page back up and stuffed it in a pocket. “What’s the big deal?” Petra asked. “It’s just a piece of paper with some random handwriting on it.”
Petra had a point. But those cryptic notes in loopy handwriting gave Kipper the creeps. “Just keep it out of sight, okay?”
Petra shrugged and headed back to her desk. Kipper headed back to her own. Petra was already ears down in work as Kipper passed by, but she said, without looking up, “Give Alistair a call. See if he’ll meet us at Hell tonight.”
So, before settling back to her important work of balancing accounts, making sure expenses were properly charged, and other fun accounting details, Kipper phoned up their brother. He was more than happy to meet his sisters at All Cats Go To Hell, one of the rattiest bars in New LA, that evening.
“We can go over campaign strategies,” he said, looking relaxed and a bit blurry on the cheap work vid-phone. Alistair was more interested in the actual politics of Petra’s campaign than either of his sisters.
“Maybe,” Kipper answered, looking over at her sister. “Petra’s being kind of off-the-wall today.” It looked like Petra was still puzzling over Violet’s notes, instead of working. “She thinks she’s found a set of secret instructions to a cat sanctuary down in Ecuador.”
Alistair’s simple, pragmatic response made sense, but Kipper had to admit she liked Petra’s completely unrealistic obsession a little better. The idea of a cat haven in Ecuador, unlikely though it might be, made her feel like there was a backdoor to this dog eat cat world. A secret ticket out, if things got too rough.
Continue on to Chapter 3…