Xander supervised his humans, Mike and Ginny de Hunter, as their dingy circumnavigated Flamingo Cay, a lifeless piece of Bahamian rock, which wasn’t home to any birds, let alone something as exotic as a flamingo.
As they rounded the last dark, rugged point of dead rock, Xander noticed a familiar cabin-cruiser lashed to Whispurring Winds, his immaculate sailboat. Whiskers bristling with irritation at having the filthy boat and it’s stupid, braZen dog anywhere near him, Xander stared in disbelief. A moment later, Mike’s eyes bulged and he increased the dinghy’s speed. “I can’t believe they had the audacity to tie their boat to ours.”
Ginny looked forward, shading her eyes from the harsh mid-day sun. “Is that C Pause?”
“Do you know of any other red cabin-cruiser?”
Ginny glared at Mike, “It’s your own fault.” He stared at her as if she’d grown gills. “Weeks ago, back when we were anchored at Allen Cay, you told Nan and Jim to ‘hook up to us’ if they ‘happened across us’.”
“But I didn’t mean that literally.” Mike gestured to C Pause. “They didn’t even bother putting down an anchor – just tied onto our stanchions! What kind of an idiot does that?”
The kind with a dumb dog for a mascot, Xander thought.
Mike’s face turned an odd shade of red that neither sun nor wind could duplicate. If the turquoise water hadn’t been home to jelly fish, sharks and barracuda, Xander would have leaped over the dinghy’s fat round sides and swum to Whispurring Winds to make certain that Valentine, the vile dog, who lived on C Pause wasn’t snooping in his things.
“Its probably safer to have them tied to us.” Ginny wrinkled her nose. “Back at Allen, they never set their anchor well and I’d rather not have them drag into us, if the wind picks up.”
Xander studied C Pause. The only difference in its appearance seemed to be that there were more fat bags of trash tied to its rails. Since the breeze was at his back, he couldn’t tell – yet – if the stink had improved, but he doubted it. The nasty red motorboat had been infested with all sorts of dreadful things, the worst being the dog who lived aboard.
As soon as he got back on board, he checked everything, but nothing seemed to have been tampered with. Still, there was a dog’s boat tied to his starboard side, so precautions were wise. As covertly as possible, Xander armed several of his sensors to monitor C Pause.
Hours later, as Xander wrote his report for the Catamondo Council about Flamingo Key, a starboard line groaned and a warning light began to blink, Xander flicked a paw over his keyboard bringing up his purrsonal security grid. The camera on top of Whispurring Winds’ mast showed wilted sails and moonlight glistening off the glass smooth surface of the Caribbean Sea, which meant an intruder had crept aboard from C Pause. A second sensor on the starboard side began to blink.
Xander knew who the spy was and that, even if the more obvious cameras didn’t show him in the shadows, he was there and moving. Shivers ran up and down his spine as his paws became a blur while he concealed his surveillance program and the Top Secret Document he’d been working on. Paws flying, he encode his cypher; instantly Catamondo’s security files became invisible.
For several moments, the only sounds he heard were the typical ones his humans made during a calm night: Mike’s soft snores and the quiet rustle when Ginny turned a page. Then came a muffled movement above deck accompanied by a tiny list to starboard.
The prowler was not fully aboard on the forward deck.
Xander’s tail twitched with anger.
Stealthy sounds indicated that the mutt was heading toward the starboard porthole, which offered a view of the interior of his cabin.
While his acute hearing monitored each tiny, furtive movement, Xander finished concealing his files. Ears perked, he clicked on the screensaver. Irritation mixed with anticipation at the mind games he could play with the dumb dog.
He glanced up at the cockpit, noted Ginny’s unresponsiveness to the dog’s presence and made a mental note to work on her training. Before Valentine was close enough to peer into his cabin, Xander leaped to a cushion in the salon and sprawled across its emerald fabric. By force of will, he relaxed his muscles, laid his head on his paws and closed his eyes. Several heartbeats later, webbing sighed as Valentine’s snotty nose pressed against the porthole’s screen. Xander counted to ten, then pretended to wake up and groggily look around Whispurring Winds’ salon. He feigned surprised when he noticed the boxer’s nose squashed against the mesh. “What are you doing here?” Xander sat up as if stiff with sleep.
“Until you woke me,” Xander snapped. He stretched so he could glimpse the clock. Unless Ginny stayed stuck in her novel, his humans would change watch soon, so time was limited.
“It’s scary tonight,” Valentine whined, his baggy skin quivering like Jell-O. “I can hear stuff moving out there, but I can’t see anything.”
“Look for flying fish on the decks in the morning.” Xander yawned hoping he could convince the dog that he was a very shallow, sleepy cat. “They’re kinda bony, but if you get to the over-nighters early enough, they’re fresh.” His tail slashed in irritation when he realized he was giving the pesky boxer useful advice.
“So that’s why you go out on deck so early every morning.” The wrinkles deepened until the fangs were visible. “I’ve always wondered.”
As he suspected the dumb dog had been watching his activities. “Well, now you know.” The question was if Valentine actually had not understood his above-board routine or if he was simply using that as a lame excuse to pry. Too bad the dog had been so intrigued that he’d motivated his humans to hear an invitation in Mike’s careless words.
Xander yawned and stretched. Things were awfully dull at the moment and he was nearly done analyzing the Bahamian Islands for potential feline sanctuaries, so confusing the snoopy dog might be fun. Valentine shifted and a wave of putrid-dog-odor assailed Xander’s nose. “When was the last time your humans bathed you?” He gave a slight shudder, thankful that his elegant seal point coat had never smelled so vile. No matter how boring things were, he wasn’t desperate enough to deal with that stench. The sooner the sun rose, the sooner the boats would be free of each other and the sooner Valentine would be confined to C Pause’s filthy decks.
“Bathe?” Valentine said, as if he didn’t know the meaning of the word. He looked over his back, then huddled closer to the open porthole, as if he expected the lifelines to flip him over the side for a much-needed soaking. “How long will these doldrums last?”
Obviously the annoying dog had been rolling in his own excrement, again. It was all Xander could do not to take a step backward. “Only Hathor knows the weather. You really should get your humans to give you a bath, you’ll feel much better.” And so will my stomach, he added silently.
Valentine stared at him as if he’d sprouted a second head. If the mutt had been another cat he would have given him detailed hygienic advice, but most dogs seemed incapable of good grooming. And if this one didn’t even know the definition of ‘bath’…. To break his train of thought, Xander yawned, again. “Why did you come aboard my ship without permission?” In the ensuing moments, while he waited for an answer, the only sound was Mike’s soft snores.
“I hope the sun drives away the fog tomorrow.”
Fog? What fog he wondered. If it hadn’t been for Ginny not wanting Mike to hurt Nan and Jim Danvers’ feelings, he wouldn’t have a stinky dog leaning against his screen or be wasting his valuable time acting like he didn’t have anything better to do than discuss the weather with an imbecile, who was either too dumb to distinguish between nighttime and mist or too dumb to think up a more clever comment.
Or else the beast was trying to make him think he was stupid.
He’d supposedly just woken up, so how would he know the night was clear? “That would be nice.” Xander glanced toward the cockpit, where Ginny was engrossed in her book. He’d deal with her later, for now he needed to play the part of an imbecile. “Nights seem shorter when I sleep through them.” Xander gave such a big yawn his jaw hurt.
Another wrinkle appeared on Valentine’s furrowed forehead. “I never noticed.”
Pretending fatigue, he allowed his body to slump. “You should go home, find your cozy spot and relax,” he urged, “you’ll feel better by morning, but don’t sleep late or the over-nighters won’t be fresh.”
Valentine smiled. “Thanks, buddy, I’ll do that.” Amazingly, he disappeared into the night.
Xander plopped onto the cushion, continuing his charade of exhaustion. The mutt landed on his own boat, then his claws clattered across C Pause’s fiberglass deck. Xander’s tail slapped the emerald fabric with a vengeance. The utter gall of that creature! How dare he act like they were friends! How dare he come aboard Whispurring Winds without an invitation! How dare he use the lame excuse of making sure he was all right as a cover for spying!
Xander froze and reviewed his thoughts.
What if the dogs suspected who he was? What if Valentine had been sent to spy on him? Obviously, the dog had been watching his above-board routine, but that would not have revealed anything, so there had to be some other reason why the dumb dog had felt the need to investigate further.
Had the mutt been sent to gather data on Catamondo’s worldwide communication network?
Did the dogs know he’d been appointed The Sea Purrtector?
Did they know that he was responsible for organizing a program that would enable all seafaring cats access to their e-mail over boat radios?
Did the dogs suspect Catamondo was creating a worldwide system of safe places for abused and displaced cats?
Whatever he’d hoped to learn, the mutt would not find out anything from him. Xander padded up Whispurring Wind’s steps, entered the cockpit and glared at Ginny, whose attention was supposed to alternate between her book and the cockpit monitor, but seemed to stay on the pages of the book. He could understand her neglect, since the monitor didn’t have music, a story line or anything interesting enough to warrant the attention it got, but Mike always insisted that the boring thing needed to be constantly watched. Except it wasn’t even good enough to keep an eye on C Pause.
He gave his humans high points for understanding that the situation with C Pause needed watching, but Ginny had lost points by first tolerating C Pause’s arrival, and most recently by not noticing when Valentine came aboard.
Tomorrow, he would work on her training, but for now he had other things to do. Xander moved into the shadows, pausing for his eyes to adjust. Then, on paws soft as the night, he made a perimeter patrol of Whispurring Winds’ deck, concentrating on the areas where Valentine had been. Aside from four blobs of slobber and some reddish hairs, it didn’t look like the annoying animal had left anything behind. Xander returned to the cockpit. Whiskers twitching, he again studied the strange little screen his humans took such interest in. So what if the thing supposedly showed where Whispurring Winds was? So what if it could tell if there was a fish underneath their boat? Anyone could learn that simply by looking around. The screen was not all that accurate, either; when Xander had checked it at their anchorage in Stocking Cay’s tidy-bowl-blue harbor, it had claimed their boat was in the middle of rock.
Xander snorted at the memory, then tail twitching with indignation, he padded back below to his laptop. He listened for several minutes before he sat down and tapped the space bar on the laptop; he didn’t have enough time to finish the report, about Flamingo Cay only being acceptable as a temporary way-point for desperate cats fleeing from hurricanes, dogs or other atrocities.
But he had enough time to check his e-mail.
The longer it took the HAMM e-meter to transmit his request, the faster Xander’s tail twitched. Perhaps the satellite link was jammed or there was a bug in the program. Due to the amount of time he’d lost because of the nosy dog, he didn’t have time to look for a problem in the software let alone deal with it.
The circle on the monitor lazily revolved, oblivious of his limited time and mounting frustration.
Finally, his e-mail scrolled onto the laptop. The first three were from Fluffy. Whiskers twirling with anticipation, he glanced at the clock; in twelve minutes the alarm would ding and his people would change shift. If he’d convinced the dog he was a dumb cat and unworthy of further surveillance, it had been time well spent.
Three red slashes flashed next to the eighth message. The Red Claw of Catamondo! The fur along Xander’s spine stood up at the sight, which signified that something horrible had occurred. Xander glanced around the shadowed salon. Nothing stirred. He peered through the Plexiglas into the cockpit in time to see Ginny turn another page. If the story was that good, she might not wake Mike on time, regardless, he’d have time to hide his mail and feign slumber, so the worst that could happen would either be another rant about fur not belonging on the keyboard or cats not belonging on the desk.
He flicked the message open.
Kamikaze Xander, the message began. He scrolled to the signature at the bottom: Lady Mitzy Montgomery. His whiskers stiffened so violently he feared they’d leap off his face. Dear Hathor, why was the Purrsident writing to him? And why had she embedded The Red Claw of Catamondo on the message? Mouth dry, he started at the beginning.
My Dear Kamikaze Xander,
I hope you will purrsonally investigate a situation, which is near and dear to my heart. My littermate, Dame Esmeralda, has been catnapped. I fear the worst and dare not trust this catastrophe to anyone but the best.
That is you, my dear fellow.
Xander’s spine snapped to attention.
Against my advice, Essy and her human moved to Kingston, Jamaica three years ago. I warned her that the area had a bad reputation but Essy would not listen. She should have. Last month, her human died under mysterious circumstances and now this. I digress, you need facts, not emotion. I am attaching:
The initial note I received from Sir Simon Morgan regarding the catnapping
Also, the file on Sir Simon, Purrtector of Jamaica
While I’m sure he wouldn’t have been voted into office if he were not qualified, I know nothing of Sir Simon, since his file is lacking. I do know you, and pray to Hathor that you will be able to purrsonally handle this horrible problem.
Sincerely, Lady Mitzy Montgomery
When he finished reading, Xander hopped onto the salon’s cushion and clawed the green fabric until it began to pill. Frustration somewhat salved, he went back to the computer and reread the message: ‘purrsonally investigate a situation’; ‘purrsonally handle this horrible problem’. Hathor! How could he purrsonally do anything when one of Dogdum’s spies was watching him so closely that their boats were tied together?
Was Valentine’s arrival a coincidence or was he smarter than he appeared?
If Dogdum was involved in the vile catnapping and they guessed who he was, then it was certainly a telling coincidence that C Pause had tied up to Whispurring Winds mere hours before the crime.
He took a deep breath and acknowledged that it was a compliment for Lady M. to put such faith in him, but how could he coordinate a rescue effort when he wasn’t familiar with the area, much less within a hundred nautical miles of Jamaica? Doubts aside, he needed to acknowledge the appeal, so he wrote:
My dear Lady Mitzy Montgomery,He winced at how pompous it sounded, erased the screen and wrote Dear Lady Mitzy. No, no, no now it sounded too familiar. Dear Lady Montgomery, Yes, that sounded good. He continued:
Though I am hundreds of miles away, I shall proceed to Jamaica immediately. Finding your beloved littermate will be my top priority.
Faithfully yours, Xander de Hunter
All Purrtectors were required to post their itinerary online and this wasn’t the first time someone had not understood that a trip that normally took a car an hour or two, took at least a day by boat.
How could he coordinate anything from the middle of the doldrums? If C Pause stayed tied to them and Valentine continued to spy, it would be even more difficult to organize a rescue. Worse, if the wind did not return, he’d have to motivate his humans to fire up the noisy, smelly diesel engine that got even worse speed than the sails. His tail slapped the plotter so hard that Ginny put aside her novel and looked at the monitor. Xander quickly hid his mail program and closed the lid.
By the time Ginny came down to wake Mike, Xander was curled on top of the fabric he’d shredded in his fit of frustration. When she passed him without caressing his ears, he knew he’d given a convincing performance of being asleep. Despite the rapid thudding of his heart, his whiskers twitched with pleasure.
Xander continued playing ‘possum while his humans settled back into their normal nocturnal inactivity. Despite the fact that he barely moved a muscle, his mind was swirling around the red claw situation and what part he could play.
Perhaps the Jamaican Purrtector, Sir Simon, had merely told the Purrsident about the situation because she was Dame Esmeralda’s sibling.
Perhaps Sir Simon didn’t need or want help with his investigation.
And perhaps catnip grew on Mars.
Xander put his paw over his eyes. Sir Simon must have asked for help because he could not solve the abduction. He needed to stop the denial phase and accept the fact that he needed to find a way to resolve the mess. His fur quivered. Since moving aboard, ‘somehows’ always involved a nasty, wet dingy ride, which left his fur tasting of salt for days. Xander shivered at the memory of a recent dunking and the resulting fur-ball he had nearly gagged on.
Or perhaps Sir Simon had asked for help so he wouldn’t be responsible for such a high profile case, which suggested the tom expected a bad outcome … Xander feared this could end up being the fur-ball of all fur-balls.
Xander’s hiss was drowned out by a soft rumbling sound. Cautiously raising one of his eyelids, he peaked under his paw, slowly, he turned his head until he could see into the cockpit. Mick sprawled in the white leather captain’s seat, his jaw slack. After another snore, Xander moved into the cockpit on paws silent as the hidden moon. Standing behind the captain’s seat, he made a visual search for Valentine, then, when nothing was seen, he conducted a security patrol of the deck, peeking into the hatches, he checked Whispurring Wind’s interior. Though Ginny still clutched the novel, her eyes were closed, telltale crescents underneath her eyes testified to the fact that this was day four of anchoring in this desolate area with its rumors of drug smugglers and pirates. Since she obviously felt insecure here, it would be easy to get her to decide to go to Jamaica.
Without wasting another moment, Xander scooted back to the computer, opened his database and checked its encrypted files for Sir Simon’s credentials. He didn’t know what he’d expected the Chief Purrtector of Jamaica to be; a jaguar, perhaps. Whatever he’d expected, he hadn’t imagined that any Maine Coons lived in the tropics, let alone got voted into a tropical island’s highest office. Xander frowned, wondering why he’d never heard of Sir Simon. If the tom had risen through the ranks via the typical route – kickboxing tournaments – he should have heard of him after he won his first contest. He remembered a gnarly, scrappy tom named Scalpy from Jamaica who’d won the Caribbean Open two years previously. Scalpy had been a ruthless opponent, but he certainly hadn’t been a Maine Coon.
Xander’s frown deepened as he studied Sir Simon’s handsome face. A tickle of worry shimmered at the edge of his thoughts, growing stronger as he thought about how voters in Los Angeles tended to vote for either well-known stars or pretty faces. His tail swished to dismiss the errant thought. Not all longhaired toms were sissies; his best pal, Merlin, an elegant white Norwegian Forest Cat with leaf-green eyes, looked movie-star handsome, but fought like a ninja, rode the waves like a surfer and cussed like a sailor.
They’d met when Merlin had insisted on accompanying him during an Emerald City investigation; Merlin had claimed that he could help find his missing sister because he knew her habits. Xander had been certain the pretty boy would hang around only as long as the ladies watched them from the shrubbery, then make up an excuse to back out. But the tom had been serious about locating his sister, and hadn’t batted a whisker when the clues led them through the moonlight toward a dock, which was more dry rot than wood.
In fact, the only strange thing Merlin had done was grab a kite before he ran onto the dilapidated dock. Without thinking, he’d chased him. A leap before he caught him, the dock collapsed into the pounding waves. Merlin’s whoop of unbridled glee had drowned out his own screech of panic. He’d swallowed his weight in water before he managed to fight his way back to the surface. Eyes stinging with the salt, he glimpsed Merlin laughing above the white froth. Then, the frigid talons had sucked down into the cold darkness, again.
He lost consciousness.
Awareness returned when he landed stomach first on something hard. Initially, he was certain fate had thrown him into the Styx, river of the dead, then, he’d heard another of Merlin’s whoops of delight and opened an eye to see a white specter standing on his hind legs, head tilted back to laugh at the heavens. It took several blinks to recognize Merlin because his fur was so saturated that he appeared half his normal size. Xander hadn’t been that wet since birth, an experience he felt fortunate not to recall. He had never been at eye level with whitecaps before, and couldn’t quite figure out if he was alive or dead. Worse, he couldn’t understand how he’d gotten onto a piece of broken plank or why the dock seemed to be getting farther and farther away.
Again, Merlin whooped with glee.
The tom was obviously demented and it was his bad luck not to have noticed the defect before he’d followed him onto that rotten dock. Now, they were balanced on flotsam and within a whisker of death.
“Hathor but I love water!” Merlin said.
The tom was definitely insane. “Are we dead?”
“Nope, just having fun!”
Mad beyond any doubt. “We’re getting farther from shore.”
“Cool, huh?” Merlin looked down, catching his look. “Can’t you swim?”
“Of course not.” He’d never imagined hearing such a ridiculous question.
“Oh, then you’d better hold on tight so I don’t have to fish you out, again.” Speechless, Xander stared at the tom, who had apparently saved him from the clutches of water, and didn’t seem to realize how imperative it was for them to get back to land. Merlin somehow guided that rotten piece of wood out into the Puget Sound to where Cha-Cha clung to a drifting dinghy. She started yeowling when she recognized them moving toward her. As they came close, Merlin said, “How many times have I told you not to sharpen your claws on painters?”
“I only sharpen them on old rope,” the indignant white Norwegian Forest Cat with the sun-burned nose retorted.
“What do you think a painter is?” Merlin meowed in exasperation. “The only dumber thing to do was go to sleep in the boat after you weakened the line.”
“Whatever,” she said. “Is that tom with you alive?”
“No,” Xander responded, “I’ve passed on to live in my nightmares.”
Cha-Cha’s laugh skipped over the waves. The whole litter was crazy!
“Cut the chit-chat,” Merlin ordered, “and hop aboard. We need to get back to shore while it’s still too dark for any humans to see us.” And amazingly, the tom had piloted that rotten plank right back to where they’d fallen in.
Xander shook his head at the memory. He still didn’t understand how any cat could love water or what had motivated Merlin to learn to swim, much less hold onto a kite, while he sank his rear claws into a board so he could surf it across the harbor. But, ever since moving aboard Whispurring Winds, he’d realized anything related to water sports would be good skills to learn in his new environment. And, no matter how much it disgusted him, he’d made every effort to become as proficient on the water as he was on land.
However, unlike Merlin, he’d never learned to love anything about being wet.
Xander shook his head so hard his ears flattened. He didn’t have time to reminisce about the past; he had to find a way to pacify the Purrsident, even though he couldn’t possibly do much purrsonally, no matter how much the purrsident had stressed her wish. The solution was to find a way for Sir Simon to handle the situation. He turned his attention to the laptop and studied the tom’s qualifications. Odd that the tom had undergone a frontal declawing, he couldn’t think of another purrtector who didn’t have all his claws. How in Catamondo could the tom protect himself in a brawl?
Perhaps he really needed help.
Xander leaned closer to the monitor to reread a few other lines in the file. Eighteen-inches at the shoulder and forty-two from nose to tail … but only thirteen-pounds? Xander blinked in disbelief. How could the tom be an inch taller and a full half-foot longer and weigh eight pounds less? Didn’t Jamaican humans know how to cook for their owners? If the Intel was right, the boy was nothing but fur covered bones. He wondered if a tom that light would need a kite to surf.
Xander closed his eyes and shook away the errant thought. He needed to figure out why the tom had involved the Purrsident.
Why Lady Montgomery had involved him was obvious: he was the best and he was in the general area – the Purrsident simply didn’t understand how huge the general area was.
Xander scrolled down to view the kid’s credentials. Unless the records were missing vast parts of Simon’s file, the kid was an interpreter for kitten’s stories, who might be able to spell the word kick, but probably didn’t know how to execute one. Xander’s eyes crossed. How in Catamondo had the tom gotten his appointment? Did the Jamaicans think the guy could right wrongs because he was literate?
The best way for him to cover his tail would be for Simon to resolve the situation.
The question was: if Simon was capable and if not, how could he manage the situation from the middle of nowhere?