by Mary E. Lowd
Only two hours until Alistair planned to storm the senate assembly, and Trudith was completely lost. She didn’t get lost easily. She’d been all over the back streets and alleys of New LA. In her old life, as a thug, she’d tailed many a cat through every unsavory part of the city.
She could only assume Petra was going somewhere incredibly top secret. Or she knew Trudith was following her.
At first, it was only an inkling in the back of Trudith’s mind. Leading Trudith on a wild goose chase was the kind of thing Petra would do, but Trudith had never been spotted by a cat she was tailing before. Of course, most cats weren’t Petra.
Petra led Trudith three times around the same block. “Okay,” Trudith harrumphed, stepping out of the shadowed leeward side of a building that Petra was studying the signs on for the third time. She was a smart cat; she couldn’t be that lost.
“This is just insulting,” Trudith barked.
“Yes, it is,” Petra snarled, “But you’re the one who started it.” She took a cautious step toward Trudith. All the fur on her face and arms fluffed out. She must be scared of Trudith, no matter how hard she tried to hide it. “What’re you doing following me around like the common thug who beat my sister up? Or are you not as reformed as you pretend to be?”
Trudith took a step back. How had this turned on her? A moment ago, she was the good guy, and Petra was sneaking around town.
“Are you on Morrison’s payroll? Is that it?” Petra asked with a sneer and another step forward, though her fur was still fluffed.
“Wait, what?” Trudith was confused. How could she prove that she wasn’t on Morrison’s payroll? She wasn’t, right? Trudith was so confused that, suddenly, she wasn’t even sure. “I mean, I don’t get any money from him, if that’s what you mean…”
Petra skewed an ear.
Maybe this was exactly what Morrison would want — Alistair’s two closest henchmen turning on each other. Maybe Morrison had schemed it all. “How would Morrison get me to do what he wanted without telling me he wanted it?”
Petra skewed the other ear and rolled her eyes. “Never mind,” she said. “You’re clearly not on Morrison’s payroll.” She looked thoughtful and added, under her whiskers, “Unless you’re a much better actor than I think you are.” After a moment’s consideration, she dismissed the thought. An evil glint appeared in her eye, only to be replaced a moment later by an almost vapid look of innocence.
Cats are so complex, Trudith thought. She could hardly keep up when Petra actually talked to her. Understanding the multifarious thoughts and feelings that flitted across Petra’s twitching ears and gleaming eyes? Trudith hadn’t a hope. She knew better than to even try.
Shuffling her paws and grinning nervously, Trudith said, “As long as we’re both out here, I suppose, well, we could head to the senate assembly together? I mean, we might as well. Right?”
“Yeeeees,” Petra said, stretching the word out between her tiny, pointy feline fangs. “Why don’t you lead the way?”
Trudith shuffled her paws again and lowered her eyes, avoiding Petra’s piercing gaze.
“Oh, I see,” Petra said, sarcasm dripping from her voice. “You’re lost, aren’t you?” She didn’t wait for Trudith to respond. She clearly already knew the answer. “I guess I’ll have to show you the way.”
Trudith’s jowls gaped in an even more nervous grin, and her tail started to wag reflexively. “Oh thank you, Petra!” she said. “Thank you!”
The silence between them grew tense and heavy as Trudith and Petra walked through the maze of alleyways and rundown neighborhoods full of dilapidated buildings. Trudith wanted to fix it. She wanted to say something that would ease the tension and make Petra like her again. Except Petra had never liked her.
Trudith didn’t know why.
She had been following Petra around town, thinking about breaking into her desk drawer, and generally mistrusting this sister of her two closest friends. Maybe, Trudith thought, Petra had a point. Maybe all of this really was her own fault.
When Petra said, “You know, Trudith, I have an idea for something you could do to help Alistair out,” gratefulness flooded through the big, loyal, black dog. She would do anything to help Alistair. She could hardly believe her luck that Petra would, of her own accord, offer a chance for Trudith to win redemption.
Only a flicker of uncertainty surged through Trudith when Petra said, “I think you should kidnap Senator Morrison.”
Trudith didn’t say anything, and the two of them walked on in silence again for a while. The tension was different this time. Very different. Was Petra serious? Trudith was afraid to ask.
“If you can’t do it,” Petra said, “That’s okay.”
Trudith raised an eyebrow, stretching the brown spot above her eye into the shape of a jelly bean. Was Petra trying to egg her into this by challenging her ego? That wasn’t going to work. Unfortunately for Trudith, Petra sensed she was losing her and changed tactics.
Petra said, “I kind of hope Alistair doesn’t win. If he did, it would mean living in this big publicity spotlight for even longer, and I am ready to be done with that.” Petra cast Trudith a sidelong glance. “Soooo,” she added to make her position completely clear, “It’ll be better if you leave Senator Morrison be. If you kidnapped him, then Alistair would probably win. And I wouldn’t want that.”
Trudith, sweet but senseless soul that she was, bought it hook, line, and sinker. She wanted to please Petra, but her loyalty to Alistair outweighed anything else. “You really think that kidnapping Senator Morrison would help?” she asked.
“Of course,” Petra said as matter-of-factly as she could.
Trudith was tired of looking stupid in Petra’s eyes, but she was also reluctant to take such a drastic action. Kidnapping was the kind of action Alistair would look down on. “How?” Trudith asked. “How would it help?”
“Weeeell,” Petra said, “Are you familiar with the rebellion of Mai Mai, the great Siamese king of South Texas?”
The jelly-bean shapes of both of Trudith’s eyebrow spots answered that question. Which wasn’t surprising, as Petra had made King Mai Mai up.
Petra quickly spun a complex tale of her invented king’s last minute capture by the Texan pug dog mafia. “And that’s why there isn’t a monarchy in South Texas anymore,” Petra concluded as soon as Trudith’s head looked like it was spinning enough. “I’m quite sure the same tactic would work here.”
For good measure, Petra threw in a quick, but verbally ornate, analysis of the parallels between Senator Morrison and King Mai Mai. It boiled down to: they’re both evil and need kidnapping.
Trudith didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. Petra could read her body language just fine. Trudith’s jaw line had taken on a determined edge, and she was holding her head stiffly forward. Completely unaware that she’d been played, Trudith spent the rest of their walk in silent contemplation.
When they arrived at a familiar bus stop, Petra parted ways, claiming that she had a few things to pick up at her apartment. Mostly, she wanted to separate herself from the impending excitement. Guileless, Trudith nodded absently and continued walking on to the capitol building alone.
She was trying to hatch a plan, but planning had never been Trudith’s strong point. When she’d been a thug, she’d just followed her targets — who were usually low-life cats, living on the fringe — until they were alone. Her greater size and strength, combined with the cats’ lack of social agency to affect reparations after the fact, did the trick.
Senator Morrison wasn’t that much smaller than her; he was rarely alone; and, he had a lot of social agency to affect reparations after the fact. Probably jail-time style reparations. Trudith didn’t think she’d like those, and, worse, they’d probably reflect badly on Alistair.
So, no jail.
This meant she needed a plan. A sneaky plan. The kind of plan Petra could come up with and may have already had in mind but had somehow failed to mention.
Trudith had been doing her brain exercises. She would have to put them to the test. As senators began to arrive at the capitol building, Trudith paced the grounds. She stared hard at her paws and tried to force her brain to think, but, all she could think was that her claws were getting awfully long, and she’d need to get them ground down again soon.
She tried staring up at the sky and soon found herself daydreaming about Kipper instead of planning.
Finally, Trudith settled on watching the senators arrive, wearing their expensive-looking suits. They were all dogs, of course, except for Senator Adinew. He was one of those fancy breeds, according to Alistair and Petra. He mostly looked thin and orangey-brown to Trudith. When he arrived, he was wearing a nicely cut, sleek powder-blue suit. It complimented his fur strikingly, but it seemed a little flashy to Trudith. For a senator, anyway.
Arg! Trudith thought. What was she doing? She was supposed to be coming up with a plan, and instead she was watching the senators like they were a fashion show. No plan at all.
Yet, her brain still felt like a pulled muscle from all her concentrated attempts at planning. With a jowly sigh, Trudith decided to give her brain a rest.
When Senator Morrison arrived, surrounded by his Greyhound guards, Trudith defaulted to her standard operating procedure. She fell in step, following the senator, hoping to spot a moment of opportunity.
Senator Morrison went straight up the wide marble stairs and into the foyer of the capitol building. His three Greyhound guards flanked him right through the lobby and into a senate room antechamber. There was no point in following him there. It would be impossible to kidnap a senator from the middle of the senate hall.
Trudith hung around the lobby, keeping an eye on the door to the antechamber, feeling awkward, and trying to look nonchalant. She felt both confused and relieved when Alistair arrived. She was glad to see him, of course, but she wasn’t sure how to reconcile his presence with her plans.
“Has the assembly started yet?” Alistair asked. He had a laptop computer under his arm, and he looked harried. “Is Petra here? Have you seen her?”
Trudith started to answer, but Alistair was already asking new questions.
“Do you know how to hook up one of these things,” he waggled the laptop, “to a projector? Do you know what kind of projector they have in there?”
Under the pressure of all those questions and the embarrassment of knowing the answers to so few of them, Trudith could feel the inside of her ears turn bright red. Fortunately, with the way they flopped, no one would be able to see it.
“Quit pestering Trudith,” Petra said, walking up from behind. “She has other things to do.” Petra glanced up at Trudith meaningfully. “And I’ve already got everything worked out.” She took the laptop from Alistair, grabbed him by the arm, and dragged her littermate toward the senate antechamber where she’d apparently been the whole time. Over her shoulder she called, “Trudith, you’ll get a good view of the action from the lower level pressroom.” She pointed toward a corridor with the laptop.
Trudith followed the gesture and found herself in a balcony-like room. It was like a balcony in that there was a chest-height wall enclosing it, but Trudith was still on the ground floor. Instead of looking down, this room looked up and across the senate hall. Petra was right. It was a good view.
The senate hall was a large, tiered oval room. Most of the senators were at their desks which were arranged in several concentric semi-circles on the lowest tiers. Each desk had a lamp, and most of them had open laptop computers.
Trudith took it all in, but she kept her focus on Senator Morrison. He stood in the doorway to the antechamber, which was under an actual balcony for the general public to watch from. He was arguing with Alistair. Petra had already made it to the center of the semi-circles, where she was attaching various cords to her laptop.
As Trudith watched, the argument between Alistair and Morrison grew more and more heated. Morrison was practically barking at him. Several other senators noticed Petra, and, after a quick consultation, the dachshund and Scottish terrier senators shoved Senator Adinew her way. He looked annoyed. His ears were flat, and his tail swished behind his powder blue suit. When he got to Petra, Trudith couldn’t make out the words, but she could hear that they came out in a hiss.
Then the video started. Everyone went quiet. Petra looked pleased with herself, tail swishing wildly as she beamed up at the image of her sister projected on the wide, empty wall that served as a video screen.
“Senators, citizens, members of the press,” the recording of Kipper said.
Trudith didn’t see any citizens in the upper balconies, though she noticed there was a Chihuahua sleeping in the corner of the pressroom she was in. He wouldn’t be too happy when he woke up, to find out that he’d missed all the exciting news by sleeping through what he clearly expected to be a boring assignment.
Trudith felt bad for him. She would have woken him up, but out of the corner of her eye, she saw her target move. Senator Morrison left the hall.
One breath and Trudith was back outside the pressroom. A handful of heartbeats, and she had the door to the senate antechamber in sight. Senator Morrison couldn’t have emerged yet.
With her eyes locked on that doorway, Trudith strained to hear the echoes of Kipper’s video-speech in the senate hall.
No use. The sound was too muddled from travelling through walls and by turning around corners. But Trudith knew the gist of the speech anyway — Kipper and a band of heroic otters, at Alistair’s behest and relying on the senate’s generous support, were on their way to rescue New Persia. If the senators played along, they could claim the credit.
It was the senators’ reactions that would be interesting, and Trudith might not be staying long enough to hear those. Every muscle tensed in her strong, black-furred body when she saw Morrison’s long, orange muzzle emerge from the antechamber. He looked about furtively, and then he darted out of the building like the quick orange fox jumping over the lazy brown dog.
Trudith was no lazy brown dog, and she kept pace. Outside the capital building, Senator Morrison took a few quick turns until he was in a deserted grassy side yard. Trudith could hardly believe her luck. He couldn’t have picked a better spot for her to kidnap him if he’d tried.
“All right,” Morrison said, pulling out a cell phone and holding it up to his ear. “I’m alone.”
Intrigued, Trudith hesitated. She wondered what she might learn by listening in on Morrison’s side of this phone call, but she didn’t get to find out. A giant fawn-colored, black-muzzled bull mastiff dressed in street clothes stepped out of the bushes and wrapped his paws around Morrison’s bulkily-fluffy orange neck. Morrison’s voice strangled to a halt, and the phone fell out of his paw.
“Joey?” Trudith said.
“Trudith!” the bull mastiff exclaimed. “I, uh, wasn’t expecting to see you here!” He looked around nervously, Morrison still hanging by the neck from his massive paws.
“It looks like you weren’t expecting to see much of anyone here,” Trudith said. The two dogs then exchanged a knowing look reserved for those in the thug trade, meant to accompany verbal innuendoes about the unpleasant nature of their work.
Suddenly, the entirety of the situation registered in Joey’s mind. He looked at the senator in his paws and startled, as if he hadn’t remembered there was anything there, let alone an important senator. Joey dropped Morrison’s neck immediately, and, then, in an odd gesture, dusted off Morrison’s shoulders and straightened his rumpled jacket.
Morrison, a fluffy little thing compared to the other dogs, stepped back quickly. “You’re Alistair Brighton’s bodyguard,” he said to Trudith, looking back and forth between her and Joey. Trudith was larger than Morrison, but Joey was almost twice his height and bulk, and, unlike Morrison, little of that bulk was fur.
“And you–” Morrison addressed Joey, but his words sputtered to a halt. He clearly didn’t know how to say are a big thug who was throttling me.
So Trudith said it for him: “Are a big thug who was throttling you.”
“Er, right,” Morrison said.
“This is Joey,” Trudith said. “We used to work together, back in the day.”
Joey looked uncomfortable.
“You’re a hired goon,” Morrison said to Joey. In his sharp navy suit with orange fur overflowing the collar, Morrison looked in control again. “Someone hired you to bump me off, then. Who was it?”
“No, jus’ kidnap you! I mean… No, I mean, I wasn’t working for anyone.”
“Oh really,” Morrison sneered. “You were just strangling me for fun then?”
“I… slipped?” Joey tried. If he’d been a smaller dog, his awkward discomfiture would have made him seem to shrink away. As it was, Joey looked more like a sofa with nowhere to hide.
Morrison looked down his long nose disapprovingly. “I’ll be filing a formal complaint against you with the police, of course. Last name, please?”
Joey gaped. “Why would I tell you that?”
“Blevins,” Trudith said. When Joey glared at her, she shrugged. She was legitimate now. If Joey wasn’t, that was his moral quandary to wrestle. Never mind the fact that Trudith had been planning a similar course of action. That was different. It was for Alistair.
Senator Morrison interrupted Trudith’s thoughts, saying, “You might have told me your last name, because then I would have told the police you were cooperative. After the fact.” Morrison glared at the befuddled bull mastiff. “You can leave now,” he said pointedly.
Not knowing what else to do, Joey lumbered away. Trudith felt bad for him. In the past, she’d have had his back. Why, they even used to be on the same scramball team! Come to think of it… “Hey Joey,” she called. “Does the scramball league still meet on Tuesdays? Is there room on the team?”
Joey’s serious snub-face brightened. “Oh yeah!” he said. “We could use a player like you! Interested in coming back to the team?” His tongue lolled as he grinned.
The goon and reformed former-goon grinned at each other. Senator Morrison rolled his eyes impatiently and huffed his long cheeks. When Joey was around the corner of the capitol building and out of sight, Trudith said, “You know, Joey’s not a bad guy. He didn’t mean any harm.”
“To you, perhaps. To my neck, he meant plenty.”
Trudith looked the angry senator over. He would prosecute Joey to the full extent of the law. That was clear. Fortunately for her buddy Joey, she was the only witness, and she’d interrupted him before any real harm was done. A little roughhousing among dogs was all in good fun, and Morrison would have trouble proving otherwise. It should only count as a minor infraction. A slap on the wrist, legally speaking. Goons had to get used to those; it was a hazard of the job.
Gosh, it was going to be fun to start playing scramball again! If she had time.
The senator was looking at Trudith strangely. “Ye-es?” she said.
“Thank you for saving me,” Morrison said stiffly. He hurried on before Trudith could get too comfortable with the ‘thank you.’ He said, “I’d like you to set up a private meeting between myself and your employer, Mr. Brighton.”
Trudith gave Senator Morrison a steady, serious stare. Her jowls were set tightly, but the thoughts in her head were bouncing like super balls between her floppy ears.
Was she hearing what she thought she was hearing? Was it all that easy? Did it count if it was that easy? Petra would discount anything Trudith did on any technicality, but Trudith wasn’t doing this to impress Petra. She was trying to help Alistair.
“Senator,” she said, “I’m sure that can be arranged.” She laid a heavy black paw on the senator’s expensively-suited shoulder. “In fact,” she said, “if you’ll come with me now, I’ll take you to the Brighton headquarters.”
“Shouldn’t we wait for the end of the senate meeting?”
“No,” Trudith said, a slight tone of menace, a growly tone, entering her voice. “It would be best if you came with me now. Quietly.” The grip of her paw on his expensive suit tightened ever so slightly.
“Oh, very well,” Morrison said with an airy tone. “I hate senate meetings anyway. Lead the way.”
Trudith escorted the senator back to Alistair’s headquarters. She had no idea whether she’d kidnapped him or merely provided the secretarial convenience of arranging a meeting time for him. She was extremely confused.
Continue on to Chapter 12…