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, return to the previous chapter, or skip ahead.
After Kipper finished her exciting day of balancing accounts, and Petra finished her last-minute canvassing of the water-cooler dogs, the two sisters headed down to their favorite hangout, deep in the heart of Old Town. The bus ride between Luna Tech and All Cats Go To Hell was short and, unlike that morning, uneventful. The walk from the bus stop to the bar’s front door, however, always made Kipper a little nervous. And tonight she was extra jumpy, seeing shadows everywhere.
Behind Petra’s cheerful chatter about how they should go down to Ecuador themselves and find out what Violet was up to, Kipper could hear dogs talking in the alleyways. Their laughter echoed off the dilapidated brick walls, punctuated by the cooing, purrful propositions of gaudily dressed, faux Siamese and Bengals sashaying along the streets.
They even passed a cat who had herself done up as a Siberian tiger — all black and orange and white. She was probably naturally black, because the orange and white were obviously fake. It made Kipper feel embarrassed to be a cat. But she also worried for the sakes of these poor cats. Street cats generally didn’t live long lives.
As if all that weren’t enough, Kipper had the distinct feeling that someone was following them. Every now and then, she saw a large, black shadow out of the corner of her eye and she heard a heavy echo to her footsteps. But it was probably nothing more than the giant, crumbling, human buildings playing with the sound and light. Kipper was relieved when the small, cozy shape of All Cats Go To Hell nestled inside one of the ancient First Race ruins came into sight ahead of them.
The bar didn’t look like much. The red neon sign had a few missing letters, and the front window had a few broken panes… But, the food was good and, unquestionably, Sammy the bartender whipped up the best milk froths in New LA. That’s what made All Cats Go To Hell worth the trouble.
Sammy, ironically, was a dog, but none of the cats held it against him. He was a tall but beanpole thin mutt, and his golden eyes were everything a bartender’s should be: soulful, inviting, and sympathetic. Even the most diffident cat would confide in Sammy, and Sammy would nod his speckled head, tutting sympathetically at the cat’s problems.
Alistair had beat his sisters there and was already relaxing on a barstool, making small talk with Sammy. When he saw them come in, Alistair ordered one straight froth for Kipper and a double froth with a shot of caramel for Petra. That had been her drink since early kittenhood; Petra had always had a sweet tooth.
“Hey Kip; Pet,” Alistair greeted his sisters. “Let’s take our drinks and get a table.”
Kipper followed her brother docilely; Petra, however, bounced between at least three extra tables greeting cats and dogs she knew. Only after Kipper and Alistair were settled did Petra let the steaming, foaming drink waiting for her at their table draw her back to them.
“So,” Petra said, taking her seat, “did the Kipster tell you? We’re forgetting this whole election thing and heading to Ecuador.”
“Um… yeah…” Alistair answered, “she told me something about it…”
Within minutes, Petra and Alistair were deep in a one-sided debate about the importance of her running for district representative. One-sided because Petra’s wild plans involving Ecuador were hardly coherent enough to call an argument. Kipper had heard Alistair’s organized, orderly, and logical arguments before, and she soon found herself zoning out of the conversation.
Her eyes kept being drawn back to a large, black dog with brown eyebrows and muzzle sitting at the far corner table. Kipper couldn’t make out her breed — something between black lab and Rottweiler. If it weren’t for the incident with the flying bottles and broken glass less than twelve hours before, Kipper probably wouldn’t have thought twice about yet another dog big enough to pin her with one paw. As it was, she kept wondering if this was the large, black shadow that had been following her.
That Chow had really shaken her up. Kipper tried to shake it off and put the scary dog sitting in the corner out of her mind. She tried to focus on what Alistair was saying.
“They’re cutting the funding for New LA catteries again.”
Petra looked bored, but Alistair kept going.
“This is an important issue,” he said. “I think you should really focus on it in your campaigning. Most of the cats around here grew up in catteries. This is an issue that will touch them.”
“Yes, it touches all of us,” Petra agreed, still bored and a little sardonic.
Kipper could see Petra’s point. Alistair had given them each the catteries speech about a thousand times. It did get a little tiresome. Though, he was absolutely right. Kipper stared into the snowy whiteness of her drink. Thinking about catteries took Kipper back to her kittenhood. It would do the same for most cats around here.
Kipper, Alistair, and Petra had all been cattery kittens. They’d always speculated that their mother was a tortie, since Kipper was gray and the other two orange. Of course, any number of crossings could produce a litter like that, but it was nice to have an image of her. Even a made-up one. Catteries were notorious for their poor record keeping.
Alley cats, young mothers who could barely support themselves let alone an unwanted litter, brought their kittens to the catteries for a warm home with good food. The kittens got that. But they mostly grew up alone.
Many kittens were accidentally or carelessly separated from their siblings during kittenhood. Some lost their littermates to young deaths. Kipper was very lucky to have both her brother and her sister. Though, she wished she had known her mother. Alistair looked out for her; and, she and Petra stuck together; but it wasn’t the same as having parents.
Unwanted kittens were a big problem in New LA. Even so, only the most liberal, generous, and desperate dog couples would adopt a kitten.
“It’s a subject you can speak about from the heart,” Alistair said.
“No,” Petra countered, “It’s a subject you can speak about from the heart. The subject I can speak about from the heart is Ecuador.” And with that proclamation, Petra excused herself to the bar where she ordered another froth for herself and Kipper.
“You know,” Kipper said, watching her sister wait at the bar, “I can’t help thinking, Ali, that maybe you should be the one running for government.” He certainly knew more about the issues, and all the cats Kipper knew liked him.
But Alistair deferred. “No, no. Petra’s the one with the passion,” he said, also watching their sister.
Kipper refrained from pointing out that while Petra had passion, it was completely unfocused.
When the froths were ready, Petra brought them over, along with a plate of game hen for them all to share. She and Kipper hadn’t had dinner yet, having come straight from the office, and Alistair was always up for a snack.
As the three cats talked on, drinking and munching juicy bird, Kipper started to feel herself coming unfocused. The creaminess of her froth got in Kipper’s whiskers, giving her a gummy feeling, but the white warmth glowed in her stomach.
About halfway through the plate of game hen and around the time Petra brought over a third round of froths, the live music started. A droopy mouthed Beagle took the stage and, seated in a spotlighted rocking chair, sang the blues. His low, baying voice was accompanied by the jangly bleat of a cat pounded piano. The music was magic to Kipper’s pointed ears. She wondered if the froths had something to do with that…
“You ordered this with a shot of rum… didn’t you?” she asked Petra, but instead of answering, Petra shot her a devilish grin and headed to the bar to get another round.
“I have to head off,” Alistair told Kipper. “My shift starts at midnight.” He worked a forklift; it wasn’t a prestigious job, but it was more stable than anything Kipper had found. “Don’t let Petra get you too drunk,” he said. “And see that Petra makes it home?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Kipper agreed, wondering why she had to be the responsible sister when it was Petra running for office. By the time she finished knocking back her rum-laced froth — in preparation for the new one Petra was already bringing her — Kipper felt her cares beginning to lift. A few sips into the fresh drink, her lightening cares took flight and flew away. Like birds flying South to Ecuador.
“Is that where birds go for the winter?” Kipper asked Petra.
“Where?” Petra asked.
“To Ecuador!” Petra answered, but it wasn’t really an answer. More of a toast. So, Kipper toasted with her, “To Ecuador!”
A few sips further into their froths, Petra named the theoretical Ecuadorian cat sanctuary “Cat Haven.” Shortly after that, the sisters decided to spend next Christmas in Ecuador. Do a little bird-watching; start a worker’s revolution; and make Cat Haven a reality.
Their plans were well underway when a funny looking cat with a pinched face and buggy eyes interrupted Petra’s oratory on Ecuadorian, Cat-Havenian Christmas carols.
Kipper didn’t think they should invite the funny cat to Cat Haven with them. “You could recruit other cats for us, though,” she told him. “If you’d like.”
“You don’t remember me?” the funny cat asked.
Kipper flattened her ears and focused her eyes better. The funny cat wasn’t a cat; he was the Chihuahua from that morning. “I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you without your cell phone.” Then, narrowing her eyes, “You’ve got a lot of gall coming up to us after what happened this morning.”
The Chihuahua fidgeted nervously with his paws. His eyes darted back and forth between the sister cats. “I didn’t know Gerald was going to act like that. Really. He’s a good guy. At heart…” the Chihuahua ended feebly.
Kipper’s look could have withered a catnip plant, though she would have regretted it afterwards. Petra, however, invited the Chihuahua to join them. Of course, Petra, herself, was on the way to talk to a table of their co-workers across the room. She promised to be back soon.
“I think it’s great you’re running for office,” the Chihuahua told Kipper.
“Her,” Kipper said, indicating her disappearing sister. “She’s running for office.”
“Well, I’ll vote for her!”
“Promising votes is cheap,” Kipper grumbled into her drink, wondering why Petra always had to be so social.
“Actually,” the Chihuahua said. “I came over here to make this morning up to you. See that black dog over there? By the door?”
Kipper’s blood ran chill. The dog the Chihuahua meant was her black shadow from earlier. Suddenly, all the warm milk she’d been drinking turned sour in her stomach. “Yeah, I see that dog,” she said.
“Well, she’s been watching you all night. I’d get out of here if I were you.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Kipper told the Chihuahua, though she couldn’t help thinking it wasn’t really very helpful. Kipper could recognize a hired thug when she saw one, without any help from some ditzy Chihuahua. If he’d really wanted to make that morning up to her, he would have offered to escort her and Petra home. Not that a Chihuahua would be much protection from the big black thing in the corner…
Thinking of Petra… Where had she got to? She wasn’t sitting with the water-cooler dogs at the table of their co-workers any more. Kipper didn’t see her anywhere in the bar. “Did you see where my sister went?” Kipper asked the Chihuahua.
“I wasn’t watching her,” he said. “Maybe she was smart and slipped out.”
“Without me?” Kipper asked, skeptically.
The Chihuahua shrugged. So much for dogs believing in loyalty. Well, in fairness, the Chihuahua might believe in loyalty — just not loyalty in cats. Kipper knew better. Petra wouldn’t leave her alone here, in danger, unless Petra was in worse danger.
Kipper tipped back her milk-mug and licked the final drops of milky froth from the cool glass. The milk was room temperature, and all the fluffiness was gone. But the burn of the rum gave her courage.
“Well, good luck to you,” the Chihuahua said. Then, he headed back to his table. He’d been sitting with a couple cats and another Chihuahua — it looked like a great gang, but it only emphasized how alone Kipper now felt in that crowded barroom. Wherever Petra was, she wasn’t in sight. Kipper stood up casually. She could see the black dog watching her, pretending not to watch her. So, Kipper pretended not to be aware, all the while keeping the black dog in her sights. She didn’t want her back to that big brute, even in a crowded barroom.
It made it harder to get to the bathrooms, but she managed to edge along the bar and get there. Not that it did her any good. Petra wasn’t there. So, she must’ve left the bar entirely. Kipper really was alone, and who knew what kind of state Petra was in…
Kipper hadn’t seen a second dog with the big black one, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t one. Or more. Waiting outside. In fact, Kipper thought, that’s probably what happened to Petra. Next, it would happen to her. But she wasn’t going to wait for it. She didn’t relish the idea of facing her big black shadow alone, but she didn’t see a better alternative. Besides, if something had happened to her sister, that dog had the answer to it.
So, Kipper walked straight toward her.
The black dog was arranging coasters on the table, trying to stand them up like a card castle. Deceptively innocent, pretending to be preoccupied. The coasters toppled over as Kipper approached, but the black dog continued to stare at them, brown eyebrows hooding her dark eyes.
“So, is it just you and me now?” Kipper asked, figuring that whatever friends of this thug grabbed Petra, they were probably gone by now.
“I guess so,” the dog answered, looking around the bar a little confusedly. Kipper picked up on her meaning: perhaps this dog was the only thug left, but there were certainly a lot of witnesses.
“Will it do any good if I stay here all night?” Kipper asked.
The dog answered, “I’ve nowhere else to be.”
“Will it make a difference if I leave with a crowd?”
“Have you got one coming?”
Kipper took a moment to think about it. Alistair wouldn’t be off his shift at the shipyard until late in the morning, and these dogs had already nabbed Petra. Her temp job kept her moving around too much to make any real friends at work, and Petra’s work friends were already gone. “Well, if we’re going to do this,” she said, feeling the fur rise along the nape of her neck, “let’s get it over.”
“After you,” the black dog said while rising. She gestured for Kipper to precede her to the door. Kipper felt wary of letting the dog follow her from behind, but she didn’t think the dog would attack until they were outside. And Kipper had an idea.
She could feel the dog’s warm breath on her ears as she walked through the crowd toward the barroom door. The crowd thinned before they reached the door, and Kipper felt the coolness that the last customer to walk through that door had let in.
Kipper pushed the door open, stepped out, and as she rounded the edge, she flung the wooden slab of a door back with all her strength. The door slammed hard into the black dog’s wet nose, and Kipper dropped into a crouch on the other side. She could hear laughter from inside the bar. She hadn’t realized anyone was watching. Maybe they’d come out to help? She didn’t think so…
The black dog didn’t take long to recover. She grumbled a menacing growl and launched herself out the door to the find Kipper. But Kipper was still ducked under her line of sight. The black menace was still gawking frantically about looking for her striped cat target, perfectly camouflaged in the gray night, when a blur of stripes launched itself at her knees, clawing and tripping her.
Because of her massive size, relative to Kipper, the black dog went down hard. But, Kipper still took the worst of it, since she was too entangled to get away. The black dog crumpled her like a stone falling on a paper bag. A tussle of paws and claws ensued, leading to the black dog rising from the ground, Kipper clamped firmly in her massy paws.
Bright lines of blood sprang up on the dog’s muzzle as Kipper clawed her, but that only caused the dog to hurl Kipper away from her, towards one of the crumbling brick walls of the ruin around the bar. Thud! Kipper’s body hit the wall. Crack! Her neck whiplashed her head against the bricks. Her furry body crumpled to the hard ground in a cloud of dust from the ancient mortar.
Dull aches and sharp pains wandered over Kipper’s body as if they were surveying her like a piece of land, trying to find the best place to settle down. Eventually, the dull aches congregated to her back, and the sharp pains set up homesteads between the roots of her ears and in her right arm.
Kipper forced herself up from the ground, and the dog was waiting for her. Kipper unsheathed her claws and raised her left arm to swipe, but the world grew dark and dizzy. She lost her footing and, shakily, ended up back on the ground. Her body had taken almost as much as it could take, and it was time to try reasoning with the dog now. If Kipper could only force her whirling mind around it…
“She won’t stand down,” Kipper said and immediately regretted it. She’d meant to lie, but her brain had forgotten that between forming the thought and transmitting the words to her tongue. “I mean, she will stand down.” She put her paw to her head, ashamed at how hollow the lie sounded. With a little more conviction she said, “I’ll convince my sister to back out of the election.”
“Election?” the dog asked.
“Yeah…” Kipper answered, and, in her wobbly state, she launched into one of Petra’s rehearsed campaign speeches, babbling about funding and initiatives, before realizing the problem. “You don’t know about the election?”
The black dog looked deeply puzzled, and her brown eyebrows were pinched into an expression of concern.
“What do you want, if you don’t know about the election?” Kipper couldn’t tell if it was the rum or the pain that was making her brain foggy. She decided to believe it was the pain and was thankful for her foresight in drinking so much natural painkiller.
For a moment, Kipper even wondered if she had picked a fight with this brute of a dog for no reason. Could she be that drunk? Maybe Petra wasn’t always the rash, irrational one…
“I was hired to kill you,” the dog said, and the words opened Kipper’s mind. She knew it would make dogs mad — Petra running for office — but, it shouldn’t make them that mad. They all lived in a much worse world than she’d thought. The dog added, “I didn’t ask why.”
“Funny,” Kipper said, still in a daze. “That’s the first thing I would have asked if someone asked me to kill someone.”
The dog looked abashed. “The reasons never seemed that important when I was, you know, just roughing the cats up.”
Kipper eyed her skeptically, as if to ask, “Is that a hobby you indulge in often?”
“You know…” the dog said. Then, making her voice gruff, presumably in imitation of her employer, “Send such and such tomcat a message: keep out of my part of the town.” Back in her normal voice, she ended, “It’s all kind of silly, really.”
And that was precisely the attitude that let this kind violence happen. “Not to the cats that you’re roughing up,” Kipper said.
The dog’s face contorted, her ears far back and her muzzle parted in a nervous look of distress. “I can see that now.”
The big black dog looked Kipper over, clearly unused to seeing the bloodied results of her work. Her eyes could not have looked more guilty. Kipper shifted and shivered, the cold earth numbing her limbs. The dog crouched down beside her and felt her for broken bones.
“You’ll be okay,” the dog said, transitioning from would-be assassin to nursemaid. The change made Kipper’s mind reel, but, when the dog offered her a paw to help her up, Kipper took it. She swooned as she rose, but the dog’s strong black paws held her firm and walked her to a car parked down the street.
In the car, the dog, whose name was Trudith, fed Kipper an aspirin, apologized, felt Kipper’s forehead for a fever, apologized, dusted off Kipper’s fur, and apologized again. Under Trudith’s sisterly affection and solicitation, Kipper broke down and cried. “Why do they want to kill me? Petra’s only trying to make things better! And why don’t any of the other cats see that? None of them even seem to care… Not even Petra…” Kipper’s cat dignity took over again, but she could see the pitiful cat act was working on Trudith. She sniffled and let out her pain in a piteous mew.
“It makes me so mad!” Trudith said. Her brown eyebrows were arched in anger, and the two animals shared a pregnant silence. While Trudith stewed over all the injustices Kipper had so vividly painted for her, Kipper wracked her brain to understand her sudden change in fortune. It couldn’t be about the election, and, although Petra had a way of making people angry at her, she didn’t have any real enemies. Just enmity from passing strangers. Certainly nothing bad enough to set anyone out to kill her or her sister…
“Give me a minute…” Trudith said, storming out of the car. Kipper could see her black, lumbering shape walk back to the bar and climb into the phone booth beside it. In her moment of solitude, Kipper patted herself down, feeling the rough, comfort of the clothes covering her body. Her paw happened on the lump in her vest pocket. She pulled out the rumpled, scribbly sheet she’d found at work, on Violet’s desk. Was this was the key? To everything that was happening? Or was it just the muzziness of the rum that made Ecuador and Petra’s imaginary cat haven there seem so important?
Kipper had to think… It was hard, but she worked her way back through the day. The only people who knew about Violet’s ticket receipt were her, Alistair, Petra, and… Sahalie.
When Trudith returned, Kipper asked her, “Do you work for a dog? Or a cat?”
“A cat lady,” Trudith said.
“Is she tabby?”
“Never saw her, never will.” Suddenly, Trudith looked very proud, “I quit. Told that cold-hearted cat lady that she could get another dog to do her dirty work.”
Trudith must have seen the look of devastation on Kipper’s face, but she misinterpreted it as having to do with her failing to answer the question. “She has a nice purrful voice,” Trudith said. “Could have been a tabby. Would you like her number?”
“You quit now?”
“In the payphone?!”
“Yeah…” Worry had returned to Trudith’s eyes. “Did I do something wrong again?”
Kipper hissed the answer between clenched teeth: “If they know I’m not dead, they’re going to send someone else to kill me.” Not they, Kipper realized. Sahalie.
Suddenly Kipper’s brain was clearing up fast. Whatever took Violet to Ecuador had to be more than a family emergency — and Kipper would have bet her whiskers that Sahalie knew something about it. That whole scene in her office had played wrong, and Kipper couldn’t put her paws on why. But now she was beginning to get a good idea: who better to embezzle funds from a company than its head accountant? But where were the funds going? And what was so important that it was worth killing to cover it up?
More importantly, where was Petra? And was she swept up in this too?
Kipper looked over at Trudith, leaning over the steering wheel with big sad eyes. “I’m so sorry,” Trudith was saying. “I’m not a bad dog. It’s just… The cat lady sounded so nice, and she paid me so well… It’s hard to believe a thing could be wrong when someone’s telling you to do it so firmly. Can I ever make this up to you?”
Sometimes Kipper couldn’t believe how easy dogs were to manipulate. She’d always considered herself above manipulating dogs before, but right now she desperately needed an ally. And, luckily, this dog was already on her side.
Kipper turned to Trudith and said, “I need you to help me find my sister.” She said it firmly.
A cat would have asked questions; Trudith eagerly agreed.
Kipper wondered if it seemed strange to Trudith to now be taking orders from her former target. If it did, Trudith didn’t show it. Kipper supposed that as a professional thug, Trudith was simply used to taking sudden, unexplained orders — and now Kipper was the cat giving those orders. It was a job that would never suit a cat, even if the cat were big enough and strong enough to do it.
Continue on to Chapter 4…