by Mary E. Lowd
“You couldn’t wait?!?” Petra exploded. “This dumb-as-charcoal dog said, oh yeah, let’s go to the press, and you thought that was a good idea?!”
Alistair’s ears were flat and his brow drawn. “Are you finished?” he asked.
“Never listen to a dog.” Petra glared at Trudith. “Now I’m done.”
“First of all,” Alistair said. “Trudith and I decided to go to the press together. It wasn’t only her idea. Not to mention,” he mentioned, “that it’s what Kipper wanted. Secondly, I know you’re not crazy about Trudith,” Alistair gave Trudith an apologetic shrug. They both knew it was true. “But you spend an awful lot of time insulting dogs for someone who’s married to one.”
“Hey, I hadn’t thought of that,” Trudith said. Her tail wagged from nervousness and also her irrepressible need to be liked, even by a cat like Petra. “If you’re down on dogs so much–”
Trudith didn’t get a chance to finish. Petra cut her off with a swishing tail and then spat words. “Lucky doesn’t count. Besides, this isn’t about me and Lucky.”
“It’s about the campaign,” Alistair said.
“Well, we don’t need to worry about that, do we?”
“We got scooped,” Trudith woofed. She was still a little in shock from the day’s stupefying events.
“Getting scooped means that someone beat you to a story,” Petra said scornfully. “You didn’t get scooped.”
“More like eclipsed,” Alistair said. “No one cares about a bunch of cats and their lifestyle choices right now. On Mars or Earth.”
“That’s not true,” Trudith said. She knew it wasn’t true, because she cared. She wished everything wasn’t moving so fast. She wished the world would give her time to assimilate the meaning of one event before throwing a new one at her.
Jingle, thwack! The front door flew open, ringing the ceiling bell, and slammed against the wall. Two figures stood framed in the streaming sunlight from outside. At first, Trudith assumed from their height that the two silhouetted figures were two cats, but as they stepped forward, Trudith could see that the second figure was a small mixed breed dog.
“Lucky!” Petra said. She looked confused and startled, but after a wild glance around the office, finally settling her eyes on the wall clock, she said, “I’m not late for our meeting yet.”
“Yet?” the dog quipped. “You were planning to be late?” He was a classic mutt: a lean but stocky figure, a few wiry wisps of beard around his chin, triangular ears that drooped at the top, and a big, round spot covering one eye. Combined with his ultra-traditional name and a dull-brown sweater vest — he was the perfect picture of a First-Racer, waiting for humans to come home. Why, he should have had his head tilted over a Victrola.
“There’s a rally,” said the cat beside Lucky.
“Yeah, a bunch of crazy First-Racers are making complete fools of themselves,” Lucky said. Apparently, looks could be deceiving. If one were to go by looks, one would never guess that Lucky and Petra were a couple. Clearly, each of them had a few surprises up their sleeves.
“I don’t think it’s just First-Racers,” the cat, who had mottled orange and black fur, said to Lucky. If she’d had white fur too, she would have been a calico cat. If she were a dog, her coloring would be called brindle. Trudith wasn’t sure of the word for that coloring in cats.
“This is big,” the brindle cat said. “We thought you should know, right away.”
Trudith went to the window and peeked through the blinds that were drawn. Cats and dogs filled the streets. Some carried signs. A lot of them were running. “Where are they heading?” Trudith asked.
Alistair came up behind her. Like all cats, he was shorter than Trudith, barely coming up to her shoulder, so Trudith stepped away to let him see out the window.
“The crowds started all the way back at the cattery,” Lucky said. “I’m surprised you didn’t hear them.”
Trudith, Alistair, and Petra looked at each other, each of them blaming one (or two) of the others for causing such a tempest in a teapot that they’d missed the full-size tempest outside.
“I know one way to find out where they’re going,” Petra said, punching off the display on her com-console and sweeping all the papers on her desk into a drawer that she pointedly locked. “Let’s get going,” she said.
“That’s my girl,” Lucky said. Petra looked like she wanted to hiss at him in answer, but she contained the sentiment down to a rolling of her emerald green eyes.
In short order, Lucky, Petra, and the stranger cat were out the door. Alistair paused before following them. With his paw on the door and his keys ready to lock it behind him, he asked Trudith, “Aren’t you coming?”
Trudith wagged her tail reflexively, but she couldn’t help wondering about that locked drawer. Petra didn’t usually leave her papers in the office, but, when she did, she didn’t lock the drawer. Something was up, and the clues were in that drawer.
Alistair stared at her expectantly, waiting for an answer. Trudith couldn’t think under these conditions. All this pressure.
“Well?” he said.
Trudith’s tail wagged some more, her mind failing to come up with any words to answer him.
“Tell you what,” Alistair said, putting his keys away. He pulled something else out of his pocket and tossed it to Trudith who caught it with ease. Even under pressure, she had excellent reflexes.
“After the fiasco with Petra and Lucky’s elopement,” Alistair said, “I got us both cell phones. Give me a call on Petra’s cell — the number’s in there — when you’re ready to catch up with us. Okay?”
Trudith looked down at the delicate square of metal and plastic, barely the size of a single one of her paw pads. She felt like she could have crushed it easily between two pads, let alone between two paws while trying to operate it. It was clearly designed for a cat.
“Lock up behind you,” Alistair said. By the time Trudith looked up, he was already gone, leaving her alone with a moral quandary. Trudith may have been big and tough — covered in sinewy muscles under her smooth black fur from head to paw — but she didn’t like being left alone with a moral quandary. Those beat her up from the inside, and her brain was a bit of a wimp, or at least a coward.
Trudith eyed Petra’s desk. The faux-mahogany top was mockingly blank, and the brass keyhole looked tauntingly easy to pick.
There was nothing else for it. Trudith’s brain would have to tackle the big scary, desk-shaped moral quandary staring at her from the corner.
She wondered if she should do some warm-ups first. Some brain exercises. Five times five is twenty-five. Nine times nine is eighty-one. This wasn’t helping. No, no, Trudith scolded herself. She would never bother with pushups or her morning run if she tried to measure their effects immediately after. Although, she also couldn’t get into the kind of shape she was in by going on a quick run right before an important scramball game.
She would have to work with what she already had. And, maybe tomorrow, she’d pick up a book of brainteasers and add a brain workout to her morning routine.
If only she’d done that a month ago.
The problem was deceptively simple. Petra was hiding something, and the clues were locked in that drawer. Trudith could break into the drawer. She’d had plenty of practice back in her thug days. She could do it without leaving a trace. And, if no one ever knew, then it was like it hadn’t happened, right? So, Trudith thought, she should break into that drawer. The clues inside could lead to protecting Alistair from Petra’s nefarious plans, whatever they were.
Boy, would Alistair be happy with her, Trudith thought, when she told him all about what Petra was up to so that he could put a stop to it! Why, he’d probably tell her just what a good job she was doing. Trudith grinned. It would be great.
Alistair would want to know how she’d found out whatever it was she found out. Trudith shook her head, flapping her ears.
Alistair would not be happy with her if he knew that she’d broken into Petra’s desk. She could lie to him and tell him that she’d made her discoveries… um… some other way. For instance, Petra might have left the papers sitting out. Or maybe she hadn’t locked the drawer. It would be Trudith’s word against Petra’s, and who would Alistair believe?
A good, loyal, trustworthy dog, who just happened to have worked as a thug in the past. Hmm.
Or his sister. Alistair would believe his sister. Trudith could picture the scene. Petra would spit and swear and call Trudith a thieving dog. It would be very unpleasant, but it would be worth it to save Alistair from…
From what exactly?
And therein lay the problem. Trudith didn’t know. There could be anything locked in that drawer. Petra was an extremely unpredictable cat, and that was saying a lot. Trudith wasn’t good at predicting normal cats.
Petra could be hiding evidence of charity work in that drawer, or conspiracy theories about humans having gone literally underground and living in a giant subterranean cave for the last two centuries. Or love poems for Lucky.
Trudith shook her head, flapping her ears again. She gave her head an extra hard shake, flopping her jowls even, to get the idea of Petra writing love poems out of her head. It was like hitting reset on her brain. All that arduous, complicated thinking, and where was she at? Nothing was any clearer than when she started.
Except for the image of on Alistair’s face of quietly disappointed disapproval when Trudith imagined Petra ratting on her for breaking into the drawer. That image was very clear.
Trudith didn’t know what was right, but she knew she didn’t like that look at all. Not one bit. She had to find a way to uncover Petra’s schemes without risking that look from Alistair.
With a final wistful but determined (and still confused) look at her nemesis — the locked drawer — Trudith gathered up her own keys to the office and prepared to follow her cats.
Standing in the sunlight outside, Trudith locked the office, and then pulled Alistair’s cell phone out of the pocket where she’d stowed it. She grimaced. So small. The blunt claws tipping her paws felt comically clumsy scrabbling against buttons designed for the tiny, delicate, retractable claws of a cat.
“Pfff,” Trudith snort-sighed through her jowls. She shoved the cell phone back in her pocket. Alistair and Petra’s group couldn’t have got far. She’d follow the crowd like they had, and surely they’d show up.
Trudith took off down the sidewalk. As she loped along, the currents of the crowd caught Trudith up, and she let herself be swept into the middle of the roadway. No cars would be driving there anytime soon. The few cars that Trudith did see were stuck, inching along, nosing between pedestrians. If they were smart, the drivers would give up and park as soon as possible. Most of them would probably join in the crowds after that.
Another few blocks brought Trudith to Central Square, the brick and concrete meeting space in front of City Hall. Looking around, the enormousness of it all started to dawn on Trudith. She wouldn’t be able to find Alistair and Petra in this crowd.
Dogs with picket signs, reading “FIRST RACE RETURNS!” or “HUMANS COME HOME!” paced about the Square, moving together in large groups. Probably church groups. The cats in the crowd were more intermingled, moving singularly or in small cliques, but there were lots of them.
In the far corner, beside the brick planters of marigolds, a group of Greyhounds stood together, head and shoulders taller than most everyone else. They were dressed in very nice suits, and Trudith noticed wires running from their collars to the insides of their ears.
Moving closer, Trudith managed to see between them. Their long bodies and long limbs obscured a short, bushy dog with a thick, gold-orange mane. His long-nosed face was that of a Collie; except, a Collie would be nearly the Greyhounds’ height. This dog looked laughably short and stubby in their midst. He was a Sheltie, Alistair’s rival Senator Morrison, and the Greyhounds were clearly his security detail.
Trudith, still drifting with the various currents of the crowd as it milled about Central Square, made a point of drifting closer to the senator.
Even to a big dog like Trudith, the Greyhound guards were imposing. Nonetheless, they seemed relatively at ease with the crowd — checking their watches, answering cell phones, looking around. None of them exuded the kind of prickly, porcupine tension that warned, “Stay away at all costs!”
Trudith drifted within earshot.
“Is it time?” a Greyhound asked.
“Not yet,” Senator Morrison answered. “Let them get more riled up first.” He looked around, as if gauging the temperature of the crowd around him, perhaps counting the cats and dogs who looked riled up enough. By the wolfish grin on his thin, orange face, Trudith judged that he liked what he saw.
“Let’s wait until they’re almost boiling over,” he said. “Then we call for war.”
Trudith gulped. Her heart raced, and her ears rang.
Continue on to Chapter 6…