Here I share the first of my “Stories for My Friends” short story series.
The Feline Affair
by Vee James
Rocky the cat had been missing for three days. This might seem insignificant to most but in our house this was a matter of utter upheaval, at least on the part of my ten-year-old daughter, Shelly.
“Dad. We have to find him. He’s out there by himself, lonely and cold and scared.”
I tried not to show my thoughts but I knew Rocky. Scared? Not Rocky. Lonely? Doubtful. If ever there were a cocksure feline, it would be that big tomcat to whom my little Shelly was so dedicated. I could see him right now, pitched back on the cat sofa, martini in one hand, cigarette in the other, giving some little pussycat the, “Give me a few minutes to recover, babe.”
I tried to put an arm around Shelly’s shoulders but she would have none of it. “We need to drive around the neighborhood again. You go slow, I’ll call his name and make the feeding time sound.”
“Shelly, we’ve already made two trips. We’ve talked to all the neighbors we know.” We didn’t know too many but the Georges had said they’d keep an eye out and Shelly’s volleyball coach, Jan, said she would watch while she weeded her garden. I thought that was pretty good for a day’s sweep.
“No, Dad. We’ve got to go over into Rocky Hill and Clear Spring. He could be just waiting to hear me call him.”
There was no doubt of her dedication but really, did Rocky even want to come home? I guessed “no”.
“Look, Shelly, let’s give it another night. I’m sure—“
“You don’t care.” The burst of tears was only seconds away, so spoke the shuddering stormfront playing across Shelly’s brow. “You said you never wanted a cat. Well there, you got your way.” She turned and escaped up the stairs, eager to put some distance between herself and her ogre of a father.
“No, Shelly, wait. That’s not true. Well, I mean it is true that I said I didn’t want a cat but I’m not glad he’s run away. I don’t want him to be…” But she was gone, her flight capped by the enormous slam of her door, the signal this discussion had ended but not in a good way.
I knew I had to give her time to cool down. I also knew when we went out for the inevitable third sweep of the day, I needed to get some gas in the Mazda.
As Shelly went off to bed that night, I promised I’d get up early and search for Rocky. Promise made, I hopped out of bed the next morning, skipping my usual three clicks on the snooze button. Francis didn’t stir, better for me that I didn’t have to go into an explanation. It was a nice cool Saturday morning so I figured a walk around our townhouse cluster would be good for me anyway. I left my phone behind, made sure I had the keys, and went out the front quietly so as not to disturb Francis or Shelly.
The wind had scooted our deck furniture out of place so I straightened up. As I pushed one of the chairs under the table, I spotted a small paper bag standing on the steps. The top of the bag was neatly folded the way my wife likes to do with bakery goods; the perfect folds no doubt designed to keep croissants fresh.
I lifted the bag, thinking I would stick it in the kitchen before I left on cat patrol, but the weight was so much more than I expected, the bag almost tore. I swept my left hand automatically under it to support the unexpected heaviness and carried it over to the picnic table. Unfolding the top, I could see the bag contained a metal box, a dull greenish-tan affair a bit smaller than a cash box. An official-looking logo decorated the top, a military symbol with a skull flanked by two eagles holding lightning bolts. Inscribed below this were the letters A.W.A.B.G.
“Awabg?” I wondered, “What the hell?”
I looked through the garden gateway but didn’t see any SUVs with extra dark tinted windows like the ones in “24”. Curiosity, the thing which tends to kill the Rockys of the world, got the best of me and I carefully withdrew the box and pushed the small button that looked like a catch. Just as I thought it was probably locked, there came a dull click and the lid moved.
I had a brief image of the townhouse and maybe the entire cluster being vaporized and I cursed myself for, as usual, not thinking through the possible consequences of my actions. But no explosion came. The lid rose smoothly and a small viewing screen snapped into place. The display flickered to life and several screens flashed in rapid succession, then the now-familiar logo, the skull/eagle/lightning bolt thing, came up. A man’s voice began in a serious, demanding tone:
“Good morning, Jim.”
My name is Ryan.
“The man you are looking at is Victor Cordoba.”
A video of a man appeared in the display, dark-haired and dressed in a suit that probably cost more than my car. He was talking to someone offscreen.
“Last year, Cordoba seized control of the Corazon Cartel in Central Mexico, dealing death to the existing leadership in cities as far-flung as Miami and Matamoros.” The video flashed through some gruesome still shots, no doubt the remains of Cordoba’s victims.
“Cordoba, his place now assured as the cartel’s leader, had reached the pinnacle of cartel power. He began to spend extravagantly, entertaining women and celebrities.” The video showed clips of lavish parties and Cordoba scoozing-up to well-dressed guests whose faces had been blurred.
“Cordoba’s reign was short-lived and an assassination attempt in Los Angeles last month turned into a rolling skirmish as he fled with his men to the eastern United States, pursued his rivals.
“Last night our surveillance satellite pinpointed his position, right here in Cherrywood Cluster. Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it, is to stop Cordoba from leaving the city. As always, should you be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. Good luck, Jim.”
I waited because I had seen this movie before and I knew what came next but the box did not start smoking. It was a pretty good copy of the old show but what about the whole “team” thing? Don’t I get to choose a team? Then I caught myself. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “What do I care? I’m not Jim.”
The screen began to display a pulsing light and a tiny yellow button next to it flashed in synch. The screen displayed the word “Incoming”. I pushed the yellow button, wondering why the hell I never learned my lesson.
A white-haired man with a bushy white mustache looked out from the screen, a long briar pipe jutting out through the hairy jumble. “Hello, Jim. I—-who the hell are you?”
“Are you Sawyer?”
“Then who the hell are you?”
“I’m Ryan Hayes.”
“Ryan Hayes. Look, there’s been some kind of mix-up.”
“Damn right there has been. Are you the one who spotted Cordoba?”
“Oh, no, see, I’m looking for my daughter’s cat and—-“
“You can drop your cover, Hayes, this line is encrypted. Now, you’ve got to get out of there. The enemy is likely to zero-in on your position at any moment.”
“What? No, you—-“
“Don’t worry, Hayes, just exit through the gateway there and turn right. Head uphill and you’ll reach Timber Tree Lane.”
My face flushed with anger. “I know I’ll reach Timber Tree Lane. I’ve lived here for eight years.”
“Don’t get testy. You’re not out of the woods yet. Now march, soldier.”
Before I knew it, my feet obeyed the sharp command and I stepped off the patio, through the gateway, and turned up the walk. Cate Ferguson, weeding her flowerbed, straightened-up to say “Hi”.
“Hayes, we see a civilian on your right. Don’t acknowledge her unless you want to see her die in a hail of gunfire.”
I didn’t want to see my neighbor snuffed even if she had raised a stink about our party wall a couple of years back. I speed-walked past Cate, whose hello and Good Morning smile faded as I went by.
“Hayes, switch to LAT.”
“Low audio transmission.” A small door slid open on the box. A single earbud popped out and fell to the sidewalk. “Come on, Hayes, Uncle Sam isn’t paying you to drop things.”
I bent over and retrieved the earbud. Placing it in my ear, I hissed, “Now look here, you’ve got the wrong man.”
“I hope not, Hayes, for the sake of your family and mine and the whole damn city. Now, see the black van parked in front of the end unit across the way? Two of Cordoba’s men are stationed there. Your target is located inside the townhouse.”
I had wondered who owned the unit. Hadn’t it been the Savarini house? The roof was still covered in those outdated shake shingles and the exterior was done in an ugly paint job. Did they still approve that shade of green?
“My target?” I was shaking now, “Sir, I don’t know what’s going on but I’m not who you think I am. I can’t do this.”
“Calm down, Hayes, we’ll walk you through this. Do you know how to release the Sauguass 70?”
“Sauguass? What are you talking about?”
“Well, sorry we hadn’t time to brief you. Place your hand under the Comm Unit and press the yellow button seven times. Hurry.”
I counted out the seven pushes and I heard a whirring come from the box. It lost almost half its weight as an oddly-shaped weapon dropped into my left hand. It looked like a big smartphone with a few holes through it. But I realized it was a type of gun.
“Oh, now wait a minute. I’m not shooting anybody. I’m a programmer, damn it.”
“Straighten up, Hayes. There’s nothing to it. You just aim and squeeze.”
“No. Do you hear me? That’s it, I’m done. I’m not going to kill anyone.”
“Who said anything about killing, Hayes? We need these men alive. Otherwise we’d just flatten the place with a missile and call it a gas explosion. Now, get moving up the street. Cross Timber Tree Lane and follow the little access path. That route will conceal you behind the line of azaleas and bring you up alongside the van.”
“And I don’t have to kill anyone?”
“Suck it up, Hayes. I already answered that question.”
The gun looked odd. Its basic shape was rectangular and anyone seeing it from a distance might think I was carrying a book or a small tablet. There were holes through the rectangle and could be held with either side facing up. The top side as I held it now had a wicked-looking short, fat arrow, like the crossbow bolt I’d seen in “Braveheart”. But if I flipped the whole thing over, I saw I could place my finger into a different trigger hole and that side had a short, wide barrel, resembling a six-inch-long shotgun barrel.
The earbud buzzed. “Alright, Hayes, you’re doing fine. The van is just on the other side of the bushes and there’s a break ahead of you. The guards in the van are distracted, eating some chicken and listening to sports. It’s the perfect opportunity. Just walk to the opening, aim at the side of the van, and fire the Gas Dispersal shot.”
“Which one, the arrow thingy?”
“Remind me to assign you a new weapons instructor before your next mission. Yes, the arrow thingy.”
“Quiet, Hayes, unless you’re up for a little hand-to-hand.”
That shut me up quickly. I turned the gun so the fat bolt was on the top, slid my hand into the grip then placed my left hand under my right to steady my aim like I’d seen them do on the cop shows. I took aim at the wide side of the van when I felt the skin on my leg prickle and the hairs stood up. Something had my leg. Cordoba’s men had found me and now I was going to take a beating. Why the hell had I—-
I looked down, staring into the big yellow eyes of Rocky the cat. He stood between my legs, his fluffy tail wrapped around my calf. He meowed insistently, like I was late bringing him his breakfast.
“What is it, Hayes,” the old man’s voice hissed, “Do you need back-up?”
“Well, what are you waiting for? Fire when ready.”
Rocky wandered away, his attention on a fat moth flitting among Mrs. Stuyvesant’s tulips. Once again I took careful aim at the van. My finger felt the trigger and I remembered my uncle teaching me how to shoot a gun when I was twelve. “Don’t jerk, squeeze.” I tightened my grip.
My concentration on aiming was so intense, I almost didn’t recognize the sound of the van’s driver side door opening. A big greasy guy with heavy black hair and an overgrown mustache got out, stretched, and then saw me.
“Que es?” he growled but that was enough to scare me into action. My hand jerked shut and the gun went off with a shooomp. The bolt struck the guy square in the chest and stuck straight out. He backpedaled and then fell into the van. I heard a loud hiss and white smoke poured from the van’s open door. Soon the only sound coming from the van was the voice of the excited announcer screaming that Brazil had made a “Gooooooooooooooal”.
“Well, Hayes, that’s one way of getting it done. Now get the driver’s key ring. Remember to hold your breath or you’ll be sleeping with these slimeballs.”
I took a deep breath and leaned into the van. I had to push the meathead’s arm out of the way so I could pull the keys out of the column. My eyes were burning as I stepped away and took a breath of fresh air.
“The bronze-colored key, the one that says ‘Defiance’, will open the front door. There’s a sentry just on the other side.”
“I have to shoot somebody else?”
“Not this one. We’ll ring the house telephone which should get him to walk back to the kitchen. You’ll have 90 seconds to clear the door and get to the stairs leading to the basement.”
“Can’t you send a team to do this?”
“We’ve got teams on the way but they won’t get there in time. We have to nab Cordoba before…well, before someone else does.”
“Nevermind. Just get to the door and prepare to enter. Turn the gun over so you’ve got the fat barrel on top.”
“What does it fire?”
“Get moving, Hayes, the phone will ring in three, two, one…”
I scooted up to the front door just in time to hear the phone ring inside the townhouse. The key fit perfectly and I turned the knob, certain I would soon have to explain myself to Mexican mobster goon. But I could hear his deep voice coming from the kitchen, booming out he did not want to change cable service providers, they were happy with what they had, and so on.
The house smelled of expensive cigars and cheap whiskey. Raucous laughter came from the floor above and I could hear the dull chunk of plastic chips, a poker game in full tilt.
“Hayes?” rasped the voice in my ear, “What the hell are you doing? That guard will be walking back any minute. Head for the stairs.”
I moved as quietly as I could down the hallway, wincing as I stepped on a tortilla chip that had been dropped on the floor. Luckily the guy in the kitchen was more interested in yelling at the telephone sales guy.
I opened the first door. A row of coats hung there and the floor of the closet was piled with big, black patent leather shoes.
“Not that one. The one at the end.”
I heard heavy, clumping footsteps coming and lunged for the door at the end of the hallway.
“Andres?” The deep voice boomed as I slipped through the door and onto a set of steps leading down. The big man uttered a curse and I heard the chair squeak as he sat back down next to the front door. I was cut off now. I pointed the gun forward and eased as silently as I could down the stairs.
I reached the halfway point and decided to lean down so I could peek into the basement hallway. I saw another sentry, a big bear of a man, sitting on a folding chair outside a door, propped back against the wall with the two front legs off the floor. He was breathing in noisy slow breaths, completely asleep, a set of white earbuds firmly entrenched and two slim white wires drooping down over his huge belly.
As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I pointed the weapon at the sleeping man.
My own earbud buzzed, “Well, Hayes? Are you at the target’s door?”
I whispered as loud as I dared, “There’s a sentry outside the door but he’s asleep.”
“A big fat guy with a unicorn tattoo?”
I looked. Peeking out from under his shirt sleeve there was an image of hooves. “Well,” I whispered, “Yeah, maybe, I guess.”
“Don’t worry, Hayes, that’s Dominguez Santara de los Gualopos. He sleeps like a rock. Get to the door.”
I scooted around him, terrified he might open an eye and grab me at any moment. “Okay, I’m at the door.”
“Okay Hayes, now listen carefully. Knock on the door and say, ‘Senor Cordoba, aqui es tu café.’ Can you do that?”
I swallowed hard. “This shot isn’t going to kill him right?”
Before the bushy-faced guy could answer, a voice came from inside the room. “Si? Quien es?”
My throat closed and, for a moment, I couldn’t make a sound.
“Quien es? Dominguez?” The voice was more insistent, more alert now.
“Hayes?” the earbud hummed, “Hayes, snap out of it. Say something.”
“S-s-senor Cordoba?” I finally got my voice going but it sounded like a mouse asking the cat not to eat him. “Aqui es tu café, sir.” Oops.
The door opened before I took my next breath and I was looking cross-eyed down the length of a very big pistol, the barrel of which barely brushed the end of my nose.
“Sir?” Victor Cordoba held the gun steadily, pointed at my face, his eyes dancing with the decision to shoot now or wait to hear a little more. All I could do was swallow hard and look back at him. He looked older than the images I’d seen and there were dark circles under his eyes. He smelled of desperation, paranoia, and Eau de Toros.
Cordoba reached down and relieved me of the square gun, tossing it over onto the bed. In a deep accent he asked, “Who sent you?”
I opened my mouth to answer but I didn’t know what I was going to say. “The cluster board invites you to their next meeting?” Before I could speak, the earbud sounded off, “We’ve got trouble, Hayes.”
Cordoba frowned, “What?”
“You know?” said Bushy-face, “How do you know?”
“Cordoba has me at gunpoint.”
“Yes, I do,” snarled Cordoba, “Who the hell are you talking to?”
“Listen Hayes, it’s much worse than that. Cordoba’s rival gang is approaching the townhouse. You have about four minutes until the place erupts in an all-out gun battle.”
Cordoba shoved his gun’s barrel against my nose. “Oh what?”
The earbud, “Hayes, tell him ‘Enemitos vaya aqui pronto.’”
I repeated the phrase as well as I could.
Cordoba’s face grew pale. He reached out and grabbed my shirt, hauling me to the sliding glass doors which looked out toward the golf course. He glanced around, slid the door open, and dragged me out into the townhouse’s small backyard. Someone had started a nice garden there, a few tomatoes and pepper plants were doing pretty well. But the steel barrel of the gun reminded me my life hung in the balance. Why the hell hadn’t I just stayed on my patio?
Cordoba looked at me and pointed with the gun to the earbud. I reached up slowly, pulled it out, and handed it to him.
He looked suspiciously at it like it might be booby-trapped and then hesitantly put it in his own hairy ear.
“Quien es?” he asked and I heard the bud buzz with Bushy-face’s voice. “Si.” A pause followed by another, “Si.” He looked up at me and I thought this might be the moment I joined the heavenly choir. But he motioned with the gun for me to lead and growled, “Vamanos.”
He pointed with the big gun down the row of townhouses toward the entrance to the golf course. He was crouched and going rapidly and pushed me along with the barrel. I was just hoping the thing didn’t go off.
He stopped at the golf course gate and spoke, “Senor?” The earbud did its thing and Cordoba relaxed even more. He smiled and looked back toward the townhouse. I looked too, expecting the whole place to erupt in gunfire at any moment. Just then I heard a grunt and I looked around to see two men, totally dressed in black, holding Cordoba on each side. The man’s eyes were bulging and he was looking at me like I was Judas or something.
Four other black clad gunmen stepped from places of concealment all around us and I figured it was all over for both of us. The cartel hitmen had us and it was the end of the line. Just then I saw a patch on one of the guy’s shoulders: the skull/eagle/lightning logo with the letters A.W.A.B.G. across the bottom. Saved!
They hustled me and Cordoba around the corner of the building and in seconds they had the mobster trussed and packed into a black SUV with dark-tinted windows just like I’d seen on “24”. The SWAT guy who seemed like the leader put his finger to an earbud then motioned for me to follow. We went to the corner and the bushy-faced guy stepped out. He had on one of those nice suits so, below the neck he was a picture of neat perfection. But his face was Einstein-like, white hair flying everywhere. And in his arms was Rocky, looking every bit the contented feline.
“Agent Hayes, you and your pet have done your country a great service.”
“Rocky? What does he have to do with this?”
Bushy-Face stroked the cat’s neck then clicked a collar free. I hadn’t noticed it before.
“The cat was able to get in close. We heard Cordoba’s plans. It’s a good thing too. He was ready to catch a plane out of Dulles this morning, probably to a country that has no extradition agreement with the U.S.”
Rocky saw something that grabbed his interest, probably something small he wanted to kill, and he hopped down from the man’s grasp.
“I’ve been meaning to ask, sir, what does A.W.A.B.G. stand for?”
“That’s ‘need to know’, Hayes. But rest easy, you helped the Good Guys today. And, speaking of need to know, Hayes, you do realize this whole affair is strictly mum, right? No one, not even your wife, must hear any details of this operation.”
I could do nothing but agree.
A few minutes later, I was walking along the cluster path, passing between the George’s three-story and the Hamilton’s patio home, thinking back over the last two hours.
As I opened our front door, I could hear clattering coming from the kitchen. The house was filled with the aroma of fresh waffles. As I stepped forward, something soft brushed across my calf as Rocky pushed past me.
I heard Shelly say, “Daddy’s home,” followed by the soft running footsteps. She rounded the corner and saw Rocky. She skidded to her pajama-covered knees and seized the big cat in a hug.
“Rocky. Daddy, you found him.”
“Well,” I started, “He found me really.”
Shelly released the poor feline who made a beeline for the kitchen. “Oh Daddy,” she said as she threw her arms around me, “Thank you. You’re the best daddy ever.”
I decided this was one of those times you just go with the flow.