Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Out Where the Banjos Play

Phoebe looked over at her traveling companion, Beruthiel Beauregard, who was practically vibrating with excitement, which in a huge fluffy cat was a sight to behold. The closer the Maine Coon got to her own headquarters, the more excited and thicker the computer generated accent got. It had started when the airplane touched down in Virginia and continued through their trip through customs and their stop at the national headquarters of the Department of Espionage, Reconnaissance, and Paws (DERP). They transferred to a small plane and headed into the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia and Beru started purring more than explaining her team. Then they landed at Greenbrier Valley Airport and got into the waiting car and she started chittering.

The car drove through the tiny town of Lewisburg and past the Confederate Cemetery. Beru stopped chittering and saluted as they drove past the road to it. Then they turned on a long drive that lead to what appeared to be a run of the mill farm, except the number of cats lounging on the porch would seem high to anyone not in the know. This was the West Virginia headquarters of DERP.

The car stopped and the driver got out. He was a middle aged man in farmer overalls, tee shirt, and trucker cap. Beru introduced him as Tucker, no first name just Tucker. He was this base's Angus and Phoebe should rely on him like she did on Angus. Phoebe wasn't so sure but she was willing to see.

Phoebe and Beru walked up to the porch. They nodded to the cats that nodded to them but went straight to another Maine Coon that looked a lot like Beru. He was lounging on a braided rag rug and spat into a spittoon as they approached. He lazily stood and stretched.

“Who's this?” the other Maine Coon drawled. (Tucker heard it as speech since he had his ear piece in to hear the computer voices of the cats but any other human would have just heard meows and other cats sounds.)

“Phoebe, from MEOW,” Beru answered. “She's on loan to us for a couple weeks while her team leader recuperates.”

The other cat nodded. He had seen the paperwork on the international feline exchange and approved it but he wasn't going to let Beru get away with just bringing in a new cat without some formalities even if she was his sister.

“Phoebe,” he said. “Welcome to DERP – West Virginia. I'm Dale Beauregard and I lead thisn here collection of cats.”

Phoebe started at the name Beauregard and looked to Beru.

“My brother,” Beru whispered.

Phoebe looked back and forth between the two Maine Coons and nodded. The family resemblance was there once you looked for it. Hopefully they worked together better than Nala and Natalia. Siblings in the spy business was a tricky thing.

“Beru, why don't you get Phoebe here settled and then we can reconvene here on the porch in about an hour?” Dale suggested in such a manner that it was actually a command.

Tucker opened the front door of the house for Beru and Phoebe. Beru lead the way up the stairs to what had been the master suite when humans had occupied the house but now held an array of sleeping platforms with curtains to be pulled for privacy and empty shelves wound around the room up to inches below the ceiling. It was a bit homier than back at MEOW but very similar to Clouder Number Nine's quarters. Though there were more bunks than in the Clouder's room.

“Dale and the headquarters’s staff as well as my team sleep here. The other rooms each house two teams,” Beru said. “All told we have about fifty cats living here but about half are deployed at any time.”

“And the humans?” Phoebe asked.

“Tucker and his wife Bobbi Ann live in an apartment just off the kitchen. She oversees the physical needs like cleaning the house, stocking the food and litter and keeping the machines in repair,” Beru replied. “There are another seven humans that help, one for each team.”

“You mean Clouder,” Phoebe said.

“We call them teams. Clouder is way too fancy a word for us,” Beru teased. “We're not as posh as you Brits iffin you haven't noticed.”

“I've noticed,” Phoebe agreed.

“Anyway, this is your spot,” Beru pointed out an empty sleeping platform with two nice log cabin quilts on it. “That one's mine” she pointed to the platform next to it with two pinwheels quilts on it. Beru hopped up and turned around a couple times in the quilts. “Oh it's good to be home.”

“We do have time for a wee nap, don't we?” asked Phoebe.

“We do,” Beru agreed as she settled herself more deeply in the quilts. She reached out a paw to a computer panel next to her and set an alarm for a half hour.

Phoebe jumped up onto the platform assigned to her and wriggled around until she was comfortable. The quilts were surprisingly warm even though they looked thin. She would have to ask about them. Later. After her nap. She yawned and went to sleep dreaming of the fried catfish Beru had chittered about on the trip from the airport to the farm. Catfish. Phoebe hoped they weren't related. Some cats liked to swim and her dreams the tasty treat took the form of felines with mermaid tails swimming and playing in the rivers.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch

Beruthiel Beauregard looked around the sleeping shelf she had inhabited for the last few weeks. It wasn't nearly as good as the one she was headed to, that would be home and always preferable, but she'd miss this place. Her own team would be reassembling by the end of the week and it was time to get back. Back to the good old United States of America, where team was a good enough word for a group of cats working together. Nothing fancy like Clouder was needed. It was just another sign of the poshness of the British cats. She would miss Angus and his kilt. Maybe she should suggest a uniform change back at HQ.

A polite little meow sounded from the floor below her and Beru looked over to see Phoebe looking up at her. Beru waved an inviting paw and the gray and white Norwegian Forest cat runt joined her on the platform. They held a conversation that, to any humans listening, was all meows and chitters and purrs. They sorted out what Phoebe would do with her month leave: join Beru in the States. She would secure the necessary permissions whilst Phoebe packed. They would be leaving that afternoon.

Elsewhere in Clouder Number Nine's private quarters, the Irish brother-and-sister duo Erik and Fiona O'Brian were plotting how to handle her private mission. A request had come in for some subtle back-up to the bodyguards for a minor branch of the Royal family as they vacationed in the Scottish Highlands. It would be bank rolled by the family and not the government, and so it would be rather cushy. The pay would pad Erik and Fiona's retirement accounts nicely. The main issue was whether Erik could use the resources of MEOW or if he needed to run the operation from the O'Brian' London flat. Either way, Fiona was being paid to ride one of the most exclusive trains around – The Royal Scotsman. She had dreamed of doing so but knew she couldn't stowaway on such a train, so to be invited, even if it meant working, was a dream come true. It sounded like her job would be to find a comfy spot near the family and watch. If someone or something slipped by the obvious bodyguards, then Fiona would need to act. Otherwise she just needed to be the twelve-year-old girl's beloved pet cat. It was a perfect short-term mission.

Alexander Cattus was in his sleeping quarters. Everyone else in the Clouder had plans to do things with the unexpected downtime, but he did not. The Aberbran Mission had been his first and he had no contacts to visit or private job offers to pursue. He was finished with his training so he wouldn't even be able to hang out with Rhys, and Nala was too sick for visitors yet. He was at loose ends and sliding quickly into depression.

A knock sounded on the doorway to his sleeping quarters. That meant a human wanted him. Alex bounded up with all the energy of the kitten he still was. He opened the curtain he'd closed. Sure enough, Angus was crouched next to the shelf. He was decked out in his full military uniform. That was unusual. Angus usually wore a military kilt and tee shirt around headquarters, but now he was in full field uniform of the British army, ribbons and rank insignia and all.

Alexander snapped to attention. He raised a paw and saluted. Angus returned the salute.

“Mr. Cattus,” Angus said formally. “I have need of your assistance.”

“Anything,” purred Alex. He turned the computer voice in his collar on and purred it again.

“Good,” Angus said. “Follow me.”

Alexander jumped down and followed the human from the room. They twisted their way down corridors until they arrived at the helipad. There the Angus, his two lieutenants--one who oversees the Clouder's supplies and the other who works with Erik at the computers--and Alex lined up and saluted as Beru and Phoebe walked past. It was a formal acknowledgment of the help of an ally as Beru departed the base. There hadn't been time for a formal welcome when she'd arrived, but she'd be given full honors as she left.

No sooner had the helicopter with Beru and Phoebe taken off, than another arrived. This one was greeted with similar formality. Alexander recognized one of the two men who stepped out. He was a minor member of the royal family. The training on recognizing the royals was still new enough to recognize him. The other member was the Deputy Minister in charge of MEOW.

“Commander MacDougal, his Grace, the Duke of Glasex,” introduced the Deputy Minister.

“Commander,” nodded the Duke. He looked at the cat beside Angus. “Is this the cat I've come to meet? He looks a little young to be of much use.”

“No, your Grace,” Angus said. “Alex here is a newly trained agent and has just completed his first mission. Quite admirably too. But he is not the cat you're needing.”

“Then where is that cat?” demanded the Duke.

“She is studdying the briefing your people sent over an hour ago and strategizing with her technical support to plan the mission,” assured Angus. “Alexander and I were just seeing off a colleague and an American just prior to your arrival.”

“Take me to the cat,” the Duke insisted, ignoring the explanation of Alex's presence.

“Certainly, you Grace,” Angus said as he turned precisely on his heels and led the way into the building. He made a subtle hand motion and Alex fell in, at his side, tail proudly in the air.

The little procession made its way back down the corridor. They arrived outside the Clouder Number Nine control room and stopped. A sound that could only be described as a caterwaul was emanating from the room.

“Dear God, what is that?” demanded the Duke.

“That is two cats singing the song of their people,” Angus said calmly.

“Clearly,” said the Deputy Minister. “Is there anyway to get them to stop?”

“Maybe if we knew what they were singing it might help,” Angus said as he flipped the switch for human speech translation.

“Dulaman na binne bui, dulaman gaelach
Dulaman na farraige, b'fhearr a bhi in Eirinn...” sang an Irish tenor and soprano in harmony.

“That's not much better,” said the Duke dryly. “What is that?”

Angus opened the door and walked in. The two cats stopped their singing and heard the Duke's last comment.

“Irish Gaelic folk songs,” answered the Irish man's voice that was Erik.

“Why?” asked the Duke.

“Because my sister and I were waiting for you all to get here,” continued Erik. “We finished the plans a couple minutes ago and I'm going to miss my sister so we thought we'd sing a goodbye song.” He put on his most innocent feline face and everyone except Angus bought it. Angus looked at the O'Brian siblings and glared his 'we will talk about this later' look at them.

“Which one of you is coming with me?” asked the Duke. He wasn't sure about this cat thing, but the Deputy Minister assured him that this team of secret agent cats had actually been the ones responsible for saving Westminster a few weeks ago, so he was willing to have a cat along.

“That would be me,” Fiona's Irish woman's voice said as the big black-and-white fluffy Norwegian Forest cat stepped forward.

The Duke sized up the fifteen-pound ball of fur and thought, with claws out, the cat might be useful in a fight. Particularly if it could identify friend from foe, then there would be a lot fewer friendly casualties compared to other weapons on board a moving train. There might be something to this cat thing after all.

“What kind of plan did you guys come up with?” asked Angus trying to herd the cats back on track. The last thing MEOW needed was to get a reputation as undisciplined in royal circles.

“Well, as I'm to be Lady Anne's pet,” Fiona said. “I was looking into what she likes.”

“That's actually what got us singing Dulaman,” interrupted Erik. “She likes Celtic Woman.”

“Of course,” replied the Duke. “I've heard that song before. Just not sung by cats.”

The Deputy Minister manfully refrained from laughing. It was always interesting to come to MEOW headquarters when not in the middle of a crisis.

“I'll leave you in Commander MacDougal's capable hands,” the Deputy Minister said to excuse himself from the plans. “I must go consult with Lady Gwen.” He slipped out the door before anyone could respond.

A half hour later, the Duke was impressed despite himself. The plan had been laid out logically before him by the cats with minimal input from Commander MacDougal. The supply Lieutenant carried out a box of necessary supplies and stowed it in the helicopter. Fiona walked proudly by his Grace's side and was seat belted in next to him. He had instructions on how to put the leash onto her harness for appearances sake and the app installed on his phone so he could receive texts from her in the field. Texts from a cat on his daughter's safety, the Duke couldn't believe it but there it was. He also had what appeared to be a blue-tooth headset for his phone which would allow him to talk to and hear from the cat. The things he'd do to keep his family safe, thought the Duke as the helicopter lifted away. It was going to be an interesting two weeks.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

1 Mission Down - An Infinity to Go

The Agents of Clouder Number Nine, all five of the regular felines, the two temporary feline agents, and their human, gathered in the conference room at SPA Headquarters. They were joined by MEOW's Chief Veterinarian and Lady Gwenllian, the Head of MEOW. This wasn't a conference but a celebration to watch the news coverage as the fruits of their last secret mission were finally realized. Two weeks ago, the Clouder had stopped part of London from being blown up and today MI5 was making the last arrest of the conspirators. The news coverage was playing on the projection screen.

“Are you sorry they didn't succeed?” Liz MacDougal, the Chief Veterinarian, asked her husband, Angus, the Clouder's human.

“No,” Angus replied. “Why would I?”

“Because you want an independent Scotland,” she said.

“Aye, I want a free Scotland,” Angus replied. “But that was no the way to go about it. Scotland should be free when all the Scots agree to be a free country. It should be done by law and order not by murder and terror.”

“I'm relieved to hear you say that,” Lady Gwen said as she came up to the couple.

“Why?” Angus said. “Were you worried about my loyalty?”

“I was not,” assured the commanding feline. “The Minister had reservations, at first, about your clouder being the one assigned to the mission. I assured him of your loyalty.”

“And when did he believe ye?” Angus asked.

“About the time you were reported to be disassembling the bomb,” Lady Gwen said as she walked away.

Angus let out a string of Gaelic profanity that was as impressive in its creativity as it was in its length. Liz laughed and put her hand on her husband's arm. His tirade slowed and stopped altogether. He had a thought of how would she know what the Minister was saying and when he quit saying it, seeing as she was in the tunnel with him at the time.

“How would ye know?” Angus asked. “Ye were with me at the time, my Lady.”

“Do you think that the Clouder's comm is the only one I have in my ear?” Lady Gwen said cryptically as she strolled away.

“Well, she told you,” laughed Liz, as she and Angus watched the fluffy white cat walk away with her head and tail held high.

“She sure did,” agreed Angus. “I keep thinking of her as a cat and forgetting that she runs MEOW. She can multi-task better than some people I know.”

Nala walked over to them and rubbed against Angus's leg, wrapping her tail around his bare knee. He bent down and scritched her behind the ear. She walked away, wobbly on her feet.

Nala was halfway across the room when she fell over. She tried to get up but couldn't.

Liz rushed to the cat's side and examined her. She pulled out her phone and pressed the emergency speed dial.

“Molly,” Liz said as she scooped the Russian Blue feline up. “Prep the IV. Nala's jaundiced.”

Angus opened the door for his wife and her feline burden. Liz nodded her thanks as she walked swiftly from the room.

Angus turned to the other cats. Beru and Rhys had noticed something was wrong and came to twine between his feet. He squatted down and petted them.

“Liz will take care of her,” Angus reassured the two cats.

“Who is Liz taking care of?” asked the computer voice of Lady Gwen.

“Nala,” Angus answered. “She just collapsed and Liz called for emergency preparations.”

“Keep me posted,” Lady Gwen said. “I was going to keep this til later, but with the wrap up of this mission done, Clouder Number Nine has earned some down time. Barring emergencies that the other Clouders can't handle, Number Nine has a month of leave. Starting today. Except the new recruit,” she stared at Rhys.

“Yes, my Lady?” Rhys's Welsh accented computer voice answered.

“You start training tomorrow,” she answered. “Try to keep up with the kittens.”

“I'll make you proud,” Rhys answered.

Lady Gwen nodded at him. He may have been a street cat but he'd be a good, if older recruit than normal. She was sure he'd do as he said and she looked forward to him showing up the kittens. She walked out of the room.

“So anyone have plans for their leave?” asked Beru.

“Not until after we find out about Nala,” returned the Irish woman's voice of Fiona.

“Of course,” Beru said. “I have to return home but I'll delay it by a few days. But my service is anxious for me to get back.”

“Of course they are,” Angus said. “Whatever is wrong with Nala, Liz and her team will take care of it and there is not much any of us can do that they canna.”

The debriefing/ party ended and the Clouder and their human went to their quarters to wait for news of their compatriot. Angus sat on the couch and soon found himself covered in concerned cats. Rhys on his lap. Beru snuggled up to his right leg and Erik on his left. Alex draped himself over Angus's left shoulder and Fiona lay on the back of the couch with her chin resting on his right. Phoebe, returning to behavior not seen since she was a kitten, draped herself across his head. Angus didn't mind, he liked having his clouder close but this was a little ridiculous though he understood.

The conference screen in the Clouder's quarters blinked on. Liz, on the other end of the video feed had to repress the urge to laugh. It was not a sight seen often, her strong husband covered in cats. They all appeared to be napping. She hated to wake them but she had news. She hit the button for the chime to alert them to her presence on the screen.

The cats awoke at the sound and shifted to more dignified positions. The shifting of clawed creatures woke Angus and he looked at the screen.

“What news?” he asked. The cats all came to attention, waiting anxiously for what Liz would say.

“Nala is extremely jaundiced and we need to MRI her liver,” Liz said. “Right now she's on an IV to stabilize and then after the MRI, if it shows what I think it will, we'll need put in a feeding tube. She'll need round the clock care here for a couple weeks and then some at home, with us, Angus.”

“Aye, she'll convalesce with us,” agreed the big Scot.

“But she should get better,” Liz assured the clouder. Relieved purring came from all around Angus at that news. “My understanding is that you all have been aloud some leave, when you get back Nala should be fine.”

The screen blinked off. The cats scattered to make their preparations for their various other destinations. Angus was left on the couch with Rhys, who had no preparations to make.

“Weel, then,” Angus said. “We should get you to the training dormitory.”

Rhys rubbed his head against Angus's jaw and purred. Rhys could train knowing his only feline friend would be alright. He's train and be good enough to earn his spot on Clouder Number Nine by the time she was fully operational.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Lady Gwen - Field Agent

Lady Gwenllian trotted down the tunnel she had been assigned and tried to ignore her wet fur. She disliked the feeling and knowing that the once white fluff cloud she was proud of was getting dirtier and dirtier the further she went. She was going to need, horror of horrors, a bath when this was over. There was no way she was licking all that filth off. She'd make Angus do it. Or maybe Liz. Liz had a way with her that you knew she knew you hated water but it had to be done and got it over with as quickly as possible. Yes, Liz would give her a bath when this was over.

When she wasn't thinking about how dirty her fur was getting or the mission, Gwen was happy to be back in the field. She had been a great field agent back in the day but she'd been offered promotions and those came with desk jobs. What with one thing and another, it had been almost a decade since Gwen had been in the field. For a twelve year old cat that was almost a lifetime. She'd stayed fit and active. She occasionally took the job of instructing the new kittens on exercise when the normal instructors were gone for various reasons. Sometimes the kittens couldn't keep up with her. But exercise in the yard at headquarters was vastly different from running down dirty, dusty, and dingy corridors with wet fur. Gwen enjoyed being out in the field. When this was over, she was going to have to find away to be out in the field more often, the dirt not withstanding.

Gwen rounded the corner and heard the sounds of people up ahead. She stopped and regrouped her thoughts to focus on the mission. She advanced down the corridor, silently. She had always been the cat who was best at stealth. She frightened new recruits, on a regular basis, by sneaking up on them, usually when the recruits were talking about herself. She learned the most fascinating facts about herself that way. Her favorite was that she had never been a kitten but had been born full grown and took down her first enemy agent when she was just hours old. It wasn't true but the fear and awe that it inspired made her smile.

Gwen shook her head and the laser came out of her collar. She had forgotten that it was motion activated. She wasn't used to having a tactical collar since her usual was a collar of estate indicating her position as the head of MEOW. She was just about to do the counter motion and reset the laser when the conversation she'd been listening to registered. She had to move now. She ran around the corner, a blur of dirty white fur, and let out the battle cry of her people – a loud yowl. She found a half dozen men all crowded together at the junction of two tunnels.

The men, gathered around a crate and an electronic assemblage, looked up at the sound of a cat. It wasn't unheard of in the tunnels, there were mice, after all, and where there were mice cats tended to follow, but the cats normally in the tunnels didn't yowl. They were too busy catching the mice.

The moment of surprise was all that Gwen needed. She fired her laser at the man who looked to be in charge and got him in the eye. He back off and tripped on the man behind him. They went down in a tangle of limbs and screams. That left four for Gwen to deal with. The second in command made a leap for her but she bounded out of the way and he collapsed across the crate.

“Careful, Lloyd,” cried a man with glasses working over the assemblage. “You don't want to set it off accidentally.”

“Sorry,” Lloyd said as he picked himself up.

Gwen had used the distraction to launch herself at the last two men but one of them had ducked and shoved the other directly into her path before running down the tunnel on the left. She let the man get away, knowing that was the tunnel that Fiona had taken and he'd soon be taken care of. Sure enough, the man started howling minutes later.

Gwen, herself, clung on to her victim's face with her claws. She twisted and forced the man to the ground and moved to the center of his back. She dug her claws in, again, and held on as he twisted and writhed beneath her trying to dislodge her. That was the beauty of being a cat in situations like this- you could stand in the spot a human couldn't reach and hold on with claws, which made the person twisting beneath you inflict wounds to their own selves. While holding on, Gwen was moving her head until the right tool came out of her tactical collar. She injected the needle into the man beneath her and in seconds the sedative took affect.

The men were all subdued and Gwen went to look at the device. It was more complicated than she expected. She pushed the buttons to get a close up of the device since the camera had been running the whole time.

“Erik? Do you see this?” Gwen queried.

“Aye, I see it,” Erik answered over the comms. “I'm alerting the bomb disposal tech now.” The sound of typing filled her ears before Erik spoke again. “They say they can get to you in a half hour.”

Gwen looked at the counter. “We don't have that long. It's set to go in twenty.”

“I can see that,” Erik said.

“I'll be there in Five,” Angus said.

Fiona, Beru, and Phoebe came into the intersection then. They took one look at the situation and turned on the humans who were trying to regain consciousness. They puffed up and started hissing at the people. The humans looked at the angry cats, who were slashing out with their claws, and started edging towards the river. The three felines herded the people into the waiting arms of MI5.

Angus rounded the corner and saw the device. Rhys was right on his heels. The new cat hadn't the training to know he shouldn't be there, so he hopped up beside Gwen.

“What are we looking at?” he asked.

“An explosive device,” said Gwen. “And you need to join the others, away from here.”

“I could help,” Rhys protested.

“You might but it's against the rules,” said Gwen.

“Only one person or cat down range of an explosive,” explained Angus. “It limits the damage.”

“Oh,” Rhys said as he hopped down. “Good luck,” he called as he raced after Beru and the others.

“That goes for you, too, my Lady,” Angus said.

“You're going to need more light than you've got,” Gwen said, ignoring his impertinence. She shook her head and the flashlight in her collar activated.

“You have a point,” Angus said as he looked closer at the device. He traced several wires with his fingers an inch above them, so he wouldn't jostle the wrong one.

“I don't think I can disable the firing mechanism,” Angus said at last. “There are two many redundancies in place.”

Gwen looked where he was pointing. Yes, the firing mechanism was wired in enough places that to severe them all would take more time then they had. But what was that? The majority of the fire power of the device was in a secondary container? The device could be crippled but not stopped? She got Angus attention and pointed out that most of the explosives could be removed.

“That would work,” Angus answered. He removed the explosives just as the counter got to ten seconds left. He grabbed Lady Gwen, who didn't protest at being cat handled, and the explosives and ran for the river down one of the tunnels.

Just as they reached the river, an explosion shook the tunnel behind them. A cloud of dust came their way. When it cleared, Angus put Gwen down and they looked into the tunnel. It appeared to be intact.

“What was that?” asked Lieutenant Wallace of the Bomb Squad.

“The detonator charge,” Angus explained as he thrust the remainder of the explosives at her.

A dingy pulled up next to Angus. He recognized the captain as Henry Jones, Clouder Number 2's usual human.

“Need a lift?” asked Henry, for all the world as if it was a pleasure cruise.

“Sure,” Angus replied, in the same tone. “We could use a ride to the Tower.”

Angus got in the water craft and the cats followed. Their prisoners had been rounded up by the men from MI5 and the Bomb Squad would deal with the remains of the explosive. No one needed to know about the role MEOW had played in today's action. The Agents of MEOW headed down the river to the London MEOW outpost, known as The Tower for their debrief.