Snuffles ran excitedly from one smell to another. This was the most exciting day of the light brown Doberman's life: she was outside. She seemed to spend almost all of her working time indoors, wandering hallways and smelling lockers, so this was a rare treat indeed.
Even though Snuffles was trained as a bomb-sniffing dog, she couldn’t remember the last time she or any of her colleagues had actually sniffed out a real bomb. In fact, she was pretty sure they'd never found so much as a firecracker. Still, she was paid--in dog food--to sniff things out, and sniff things out she would.
So far she'd smelled lots of grass, old sweat, synthetic leather, and all kinds of other smells one would expect to find on a football field. Snuffles was surprised to find a little bit of blood smell near some chalk smells, but the handlers didn't seem surprised by it so she kept sniffing.
"What the hell are they even supposed to be looking for?" one of the handlers asked another. "Tommy Sherman wasn't killed by a bomb. So why the dogs?"
The other handler shrugged. "Li says have them check it out; we have them check it out. You wanna argue with the Queen of Paranoia?"
Snuffles liked the handlers. They gave her food, so that made them her best friends. The only problem was that they seemed to think her name was Cerberus. Snuffles knew her name was Snuffles. She'd been Snuffles for as long as she could remember. Still, the handlers were nice even if they weren't very smart, so she came when they called her Cerberus. But in her head she always pretended they'd said "Snuffles."
All of a sudden she froze. This was an unexpected smell. Cat. Catcatcatcatcat! CAT!!!
Snuffles whined and pawed the ground until someone came over. The handler searched all over the spot where she'd smelled cat, but finally shrugged and wandered off. The other dogs looked quizzically at Snuffles, probably wondering why she was so excited about a smell that wasn't going to blow up.
I smell cat, Snuffles thought. I know I do. And something else that I can't quite place...but the important part is cat. She tilted her head and thought. I'd better report this to the rest of the team.
Fluffy yawned as he padded into his best friend's room, having just watched the last of the family leave the house for the day. He climbed up onto Sandi's bed and stretched himself as far as he could across it. This is nice, he thought, purring and kneading the comforter slightly. No loud, annoying little boys trampling on my tail. No shrill woman complaining about fur on her business suit. No--
He sat up, his short white fur standing up on end. Something was wrong. He couldn't immediately tell what it was, but a brief scan of the room finally led him to it.
Sandi's make-up, he realized. It's been moved.
It was a minor thing--the compact was sitting on the left side of her dresser rather than the right, but Fluffy knew how meticulous Sandi was about her possessions. There was no way she'd have put it anywhere but precisely in its usual place, and Fluffy knew no one else in the family had been in this room since she'd left.
He crept off the bed and leaped gracefully onto the dresser. He sniffed the compact cautiously, then scampered backward a few steps in surprise.
Foundation, yes, he thought. But something else. Something...dangerous.
Gathering his courage, Fluffy leaned close to the compact again and gave it a second exploratory sniff. That is definitely not what Sandi's make-up is supposed to smell like. Could it be poisoned?
Keeping a wary eye on the compact, Fluffy jumped from the dresser to the nearest window ledge. His back legs slipped a little as he landed, and as he clawed his way onto his perch he glanced around out of habit to make sure no one witnessed his undignified landing. Then he froze. A new smell was now detectable near the window.
Fluffy returned to the dresser, suspicions confirmed. One of his mortal enemies had infiltrated the house and done something horrible to Sandi's make-up. He growled quietly, furious at this latest outrage by his team's hated rivals, but quickly set aside his anger.
Right now I must figure out what to do. From years of experience, Fluffy knew that Sandi's first act upon arriving home from school would be to touch up her make-up. He didn't know exactly what the foundation had been spiked with, but he had no doubt that it would harm her in some way. How can I prevent it?
Hiding the compact was out of the question--he knew of no hiding place in the house secure enough to ensure it would never be found, and if Sandi found it when he wasn't around to intervene...no. He couldn't remove it from the house, because ever since that unpleasant incident with the raccoon the family always latched the cat door when they left the house. Destroy it? He had no access to fire or explosives; indeed, his only real weapons were his claws and teeth, and those were not sufficient in this case.
Fluffy paced the room in high agitation. His thoughts were limited to a single sentence: I have to protect Sandi.
Finally returning to the dresser, Fluffy realized that there was only one option. He had to eat the make-up. It took a few pokes and prods with his claws to operate the release mechanism on the compact, and as he nosed it open the full stench of the tainted foundation hit him. Still, he had made his decision. Protect Sandi. Nothing else matters.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and took his first bite. Blech! Ignoring the bitter flavor, he kept eating until the last trace was gone. Fluffy staggered down from the dresser, retching at the foul aftertaste. As he felt his stomach begin to churn in protest, he groaned. If I survive this, he thought, I must call the rest of the team together for an emergency meeting.
J. B. the bulldog was making his usual rounds around the neighborhood, checking to make sure everything was as it should be. His patrol was interrupted when a light brown and white cat sauntered in front of him, then came to a stop and blocked his path.
"Ah, Mr. Whiskers," J. B. said, stiffly polite. "And to what do I owe this...pleasure?"
"Drop the act," Mr. Whiskers retorted, ears pressed back in anger. "You don't like me any more than I like you. Now, what are you up to? Why are you prowling around like you're about to start some trouble?"
J. B. sniffed derisively. "I guard this area," he said, "as you well know. I must be ever-vigilant so that the residents can remain safe from any feline miscreants."
"Feline?" Mr. Whiskers hissed. "The only threat around here is you, and your canine henchmen." He leaned in close to the dog. "We're onto you, you know," he added in a low growl. "We've been keeping an eye on all of you. Whatever it is you've got planned...we'll stop you."
"Us?" J. B. barked indignantly. "Don't play the innocent with me. You and your kind have been skulking around, plotting God-knows-what, for years. If anything, we're the ones who are on guard against you."
Mr. Whiskers twitched his tail and snarled, "Just watch out. You won't get away with it. Remember that."
"I will pass your compliments on to my associates," J. B. sniffed. "Now, I wish you good day. I happen to be very busy at the moment."
With that, he moved past the cat and continued on his way down Glen Oaks Lane. Glaring suspiciously after him for a few seconds, Mr. Whiskers finally tossed his head and moved on in the opposite direction on the same street.
Both failed to notice the figure hiding behind a nearby tree, watching and listening to the entire exchange.
Zachary sauntered into the living room and looked around. "Everything ready?" the small gray tabby asked his sister, Taylor.
Taylor, a muscular black cat with piercing green eyes, gave a brisk nod and went back to sharpening her claws on the Lane family couch. Sleeping obliviously on the couch was Trent, but the cats knew that nothing would wake him up before his usual time, which wouldn't be until late that night. Jane, meanwhile, had left for pizza and a movie with a friend and wouldn't be back for at least a few hours. Plenty of time for their meeting, which was due to start any moment.
Fluffy, as the leader, was first to arrive as usual. Unusually, however, he seemed to drag himself inside, with none of his customary arrogance and vigor.
Zachary stared curiously at him. "Jeez," he said, "look what dragged the cat in!" He sniggered, but neither Fluffy nor Taylor joined in. Fluffy sat haughtily on a pillow that was lying on the floor and refused to respond. Taylor continued sharpening her claws, but glanced over at him and grunted softly with concern--or what passed for concern with her.
Directing himself to Taylor, Fluffy explained briefly, "There was an incident. Someone tried to poison Sandi, and I risked my life to save her. I have reason to suspect that the dogs are behind this, but I'll wait to say more until the last member of our group is here."
He didn't have long to wait. Less than a minute later, Mr. Whiskers wandered in and sat down with the others. Taylor gave the couch one more jab with her claws before coming over to join the others.
"I'm glad you all could make it," Fluffy said. "I hereby call this meeting of the Feline Bureau of Investigation to order." He glanced around at his associates. "I have disturbing news."
He briefly described the tainted foundation planted by one of the dogs, skimming over the subsequent trip to the vet as the memory of Sandi's worried face and tears was still too upsetting to relive.
"...And because the dogs have begun openly attacking humans, I feel that we must take drastic measures ourselves in order to protect this town from their schemes. Any ideas?"
Mr. Whiskers leaned forward. "I had a little run-in with the dog leader, J. B., this afternoon," he informed the group. "I wasn't able to get any useful information from him, but I know it's only a matter of time before he slips up, and then I'll be ready."
"We will be ready," Fluffy corrected him. "Unless you want to be the leader of the FBI."
Mr. Whiskers suppressed an eye roll. "Of course not, Fluffy." He rattled off the words he'd said countless times in the past. "I could never replace you."
Soothed, Fluffy settled back onto his pillow. "Excellent. Then I suggest we begin brainstorming a counterattack. I have no doubt that, wherever they are, the dogs are preparing a plot so diabolical we can't even imagine it."
"...then I found a bigger stick, and my human threw it, and I went and found it, but then I found an even bigger stick and brought that back, and my human threw that, and when I went to find it you'll never guess what happened!"
J. B. yawned. "You found a stick that was yet bigger than the first four you told me about?" he offered.
"Oh wow, you guessed!" Odette, a small white poodle, said with disappointment. She suddenly became cheerful again. "But I bet you'll never guess what happened after that!"
"I would wager that I could, actually," he replied. There were days when he wondered if having Odette in the group, even with her impressive fighting skills, was truly worth the aggravation of putting up with her inane chatter. This was definitely one of them. He turned from his spot on the bench at the dog park to see Snuffles arrive. "Hallelujah!" he cried. "Our group is complete and the Canine Intelligence Agency meeting can commence."
"Sorry I'm late," Snuffles said. "There were a lot of smells between here and the school, and I guess I got a little distracted."
"All is forgiven," J. B. assured her. "Now, what new development did you have to report to us?"
Snuffles explained about the cat smell as well as the other mysterious odor on the football field. "I know there aren't usually cats there," she finished, "so I have no idea why I smelled one there. But I did smell one." She glanced defiantly at J. B. and Odette, as if expecting one of them to argue with her.
"We absolutely believe you, Snuffles," J. B. said calmly. "In fact, this lines up with some suspicions I've had ever since my recent altercation with Mr. Whiskers. I'm sure the cats are planning something nefarious, and my instincts tell me that the events at the high school have something to do with it."
"I bet you're right, boss!" Odette barked. "Want me to go after them? I'll find one and take 'em out...no, wait! I'll take 'em all out, one by one! Oh, even better--I'll fight them all at once!"
Before Odette could start adding imaginary opponents to an already epic imaginary fight, J. B. interrupted. "I've already contacted one of our out-of-town associates, who specializes in identifying unusual scents. If he can work out what it is that you smelled, Snuffles, then that will be a tremendous help in solving this mystery."
"And then I'll take on the whole lot of them!" Odette howled.
"Er...something like that," J. B. replied. "Until our expert arrives, however, I expect you both to be entirely on your guard. Watch out for anything suspicious, no matter how minor. Report back as often as you can, and above all: be careful. Meeting adjourned."
A few days passed before J. B.'s next encounter with the cats. He had just completed his evening patrol of the neighborhood when he found himself face-to-face with Fluffy.
"What a surprise to see you here," Fluffy said in a voice that did not sound at all surprised. In fact, J. B.'s suspicions that this was not a chance meeting were soon confirmed when he angrily continued, "In fact, I'm frankly shocked that you'd have the utter gall to show your face anywhere after what you tried to do to Sandi."
"To...Sandi?" J. B. asked in confusion. "Your human, correct?"
"Yes. My human," Fluffy spat. "The one you tried to kill!"
"Kill?" J. B. stared at the cat in total disbelief. "As far as I know, I've never so much as seen this person, let alone--"
"Don't even try to deny it," Fluffy cut him off, fur sticking straight out from his body in his fury. "Maybe it wasn't you, personally. Perhaps it was one of your wretched underlings. I don't care. You're the leader of that pack of hoodlums, and I know that they wouldn't do it without your permission...or, more likely, your direct orders!"
"This is ridiculous," J. B. snorted. He turned to leave, but found he'd unwittingly backed up against the side of a garage. "Get out of my way," he said.
"No!" Fluffy cried. "I intend to thwart you at every turn. Whatever you and the bitches who work for you are planning, I will stop you." He glanced around and a smile slowly formed. "Or should I say, we will stop you."
J. B. turned to look...just a moment too late. Taylor had already pounced from her hiding spot and landed directly on his back. He yelped and tried to shake her off, but she dug her claws in and he soon realized she would not be moved.
By that time Mr. Whiskers had moved in to stand next to Fluffy in blocking J. B.'s escape. The dog looked from one to the other, wondering what they had in mind, until Zachary's voice drew his attention.
"Maybe now we can have a civilized conversation," he drawled as he sauntered into view, stopping in front of Fluffy and Mr. Whiskers.
"Civilized?" J. B. echoed incredulously. "You...you all are nothing but a gang of ruffians!"
"Tsk!" Zachary shook his head and smiled. "Not at all, my dear friend. You are our honored guest!" Taylor kneaded J. B.'s skin briefly, causing him to whimper. Zachary continued. "And as your hosts, I'm asking you--politely, of course--to take part in a perfectly courteous and respectful dialogue in which you--" Taylor clenched her paws, drawing the claws in further. "--tell us all about your little plan. How does that sound?"
Through gritted teeth, J. B. replied, "I regret that I must decline your gracious invitation."
"Such a pity," Zachary said, unfazed. "Still, I'm afraid I have to insist on your presence at our social event. Now, shall we have a cozy little chat? Or does Taylor need to try a bit harder to change your mind?"
Taylor added teeth to her attack, and J. B. winced. "We're...not...planning...anything!" he growled. At a gesture from Zachary, Taylor eased off to let the dog speak more freely. "Our only goal at this point is to work out what you are planning and prevent it from happening!"
Zachary sighed. "I'm sure you don't really expect us to believe that. Not when you're clearly the ones who made the first move!"
"Us?" J. B. tried to laugh in his face, but it came out very weak. "You'll find we aren't as ignorant of your plans as you think we are. We may not know what it is you have in mind, but we do know you're up to something. One of my associates--"
"Enough of his lying!" Fluffy burst out impatiently. "Can't you see he's trying to divert your attention with these ridiculous accusations? Just finish this, already!"
Zachary gave J. B. a rueful smile. "Alas, it looks like our tête-à-tête will have to be cut short. How about we end with a little game? I'll count to five, and if you don't tell us everything we want to know in the meantime, Taylor will remove a significant portion of your body. Sound fun? Let's start. One...two...three...four...."
J. B. braced himself against the expected assault, but instead of feeling claws meet his skin he heard the sound of footsteps coming near. Human footsteps.
In spite of their rivalry, both the CIA and the FBI followed one rule above all others: avoid human detection at all costs.
"Scatter!" Fluffy ordered. Taylor leaped off J. B.'s back, and the dog immediately took the opportunity to escape.
The other cats ran toward their homes, and Fluffy turned to head for the Griffin house. Before he could take three steps, however, a soft voice called out from the shadows, "May I have a moment of your time, please?"
Fluffy froze in place, trying to see where the voice was coming from. It was a male human, he was sure, but was he addressing him? Was he expecting an answer? Should he ignore the voice or try to find out more?
"I understand," the voice continued reassuringly. "You and your kind don't want people to know you can talk. And I promise I'm not about to give away your secret. I just want to talk to you. We're on the same side in this, and I think I can help you in your work."
Still unwilling to trust an anonymous voice, Fluffy let out an experimental "Meow?" and began nonchalantly grooming his paws.
There was a sigh. "I don't blame you for being suspicious, but you don't understand. It's as dangerous for me to talk to you as it is for you to talk to me. If I'm caught--" The voice halted abruptly. "It's not safe. I have to leave. I'll find you another time."
The footsteps faded away, and while Fluffy immediately tried to follow he found it impossible to determine which direction they had gone in.
An uneventful week went by before the next CIA meeting took place. J. B., still bearing some scars on his back from the interrogation, called the meeting to order and wasted no time in introducing the newest addition to their team, a German Shepherd who seemed to constantly have his tongue hanging out of his mouth.
"This is Leary," J. B. announced. "He's the specialist I told all of you about." He turned to the large dog standing next to him and said, "You've arrived not a moment too soon. We'll need all the help we can get for our counterattack."
"Dude, I'm just sorry I took so long," Leary apologized. "Normally the Yeagers are super easy to manipulate into taking me places when I need them to, but their son is, like, a total narc. He's way smarter than they are and I've gotta be careful not to let him suspect anything. I was sooo lucky, though: their old college buddies live around here, so I didn't have to do much to make this happen."
"Well, I'm just glad you could join us at last," J. B. said. "Now, after the meeting Snuffles will escort you to the Lawndale High School football field so you can investigate the scents yourself and come to your own conclusions. For now, though, I would like to discuss tonight's plan for avenging ourselves on those ghastly cats!"
Odette hopped up and down in place. "Too bad I wasn't there, boss! They never would have laid a paw on you if I'd had anything to do with it. Just say the word and I'll handle it!"
Flattered as he was by the poodle's devotion, J. B. shook his head. "This is something we'll all be working together to deal with. Now, let me explain what I've got in mind...."
Mr. Whiskers was purring as he trotted down the street. The dogs had been very peaceful lately, his owners had bought him a new catnip toy, and just minutes ago he'd found a bit of tuna in a neighbor's garbage can. As a result, he was in a very good mood while he walked.
So it was a great shock when something slammed into him hard enough to knock him against a nearby tree.
He got back to his feet, woozy, and shook himself in an attempt both to clear his thoughts and to ease the pain now radiating down his left side. As soon as his eyes were able to focus, he saw the shadowy forms of three shapes he recognized.
J. B., Snuffles, and Odette.
"How dare you?!" Mr. Whiskers yowled.
"Yes, it is quite inconvenient to find yourself ganged up on, isn't it?" J. B. growled. "One might even call it unsportsmanlike." Grinning, he leaned in close to Mr. Whiskers. "Unfortunately for you, I've never considered myself much of a sportsman."
"Do your worst," Mr. Whiskers spat back. "No matter what you thugs do, we cats will always be there to stop you."
"Oh, yeah?" asked a voice from somewhere above him. "How 'bout ya stop this!"
The cat looked up just in time to see a river of liquid come splashing down directly onto his face. He screeched, but the trio of dogs blocked his escape. "Ugh!" he cried. "That's the foulest water I've ever smelled!"
"I see you haven't met my dear friend, Leary," J. B. said. "A brilliant dog with a nearly-infallible nose for detection...and also a regrettable drooling problem." He glanced up into the tree above them. "In fact, his salivary glands are so active, I expect he's got at least another three buckets up there with him. And did I mention that he's also got excellent aim?"
"This is inhumane!" Mr. Whiskers cried in agony at both his drenched fur and the revolting smell.
"Oh, we haven't even gotten started," Odette jeered cruelly. "That was just revenge for what you guys did to J. B.!"
"Yeah, we haven't begun the interrogation yet," Snuffles added. "That's going to be the fun part."
Mr. Whiskers shrank back against the tree, ears back and fur standing on end. "You'll get nothing from me except my name, breed, and license number."
"An admirable display of bravery," J. B. said. "Let us see how long you can maintain the charade!"
Without waiting for J. B.'s instructions, Odette sprang forward and sank her teeth into Mr. Whiskers's neck. The cat screeched with the pain and tried to swipe at the poodle with his claws. Odette dodged his paw effortlessly and nipped at him again, this time catching his tail in her jaws. Mr. Whiskers curled his body around, trying to bite Odette back, but Snuffles pushed him back down with a heavy paw.
"Enough," J. B. barked, and the other dogs return to his side. "Ready, Leary?"
Leary, who had now made his way down the tree carrying a large bucket of drool, set it down and nodded.
J. B. grinned. "Then we shall begin Stage Two."
Without warning, Leary grabbed Mr. Whiskers with his jaws and held him by the scruff. He carried him over to the bucket and held him above it, dangling just inches from the liquid.
"I believe you can guess what Stage Two consists of," J. B. told Mr. Whiskers. "In fact, let's make a game of it. I know how much you and your friends enjoy games. Shall I count to, I don't know, five? And then you can tell us about your plans...or else it's kitty heaven for you. One...two...three...four...."
Before J. B. could finish, they were all deafened by a rapidly approaching car engine. Moments later, dogs and cat alike flinched as bright headlights blinded them.
"Let's get out of here!" Snuffles cried. The other dogs didn't wait for confirmation from J. B. and quickly scampered away from the car. Leary tossed Mr. Whiskers aside as he left, and the cat became a blur as he ran for safety.
J. B. tried to sneak around the vehicle on his way back home, but the car door opened and a man stepped out, blocking his exit. He couldn't make out any features, as the lights were still shining full in his face, but he heard the man's soft voice quite easily as he said, "I believe I am addressing the leader of the group of dogs currently investigating a mysterious conspiracy organized by persons unknown?"
"Excuse me," J. B. argued indignantly. "We know exactly who is orchestrating the conspiracy!" Too late he realized he should have stayed quiet. "Er...bark?" he tried.
The man chuckled quietly. "Although I am aware that you and your colleagues can speak, I swear I will not share that information with anyone. You can trust me, I assure you."
Giving up the façade, J. B. retorted, "And I am supposed to accept your word for that?"
"I'm afraid I can't offer you any other proof of my sincerity," the man replied apologetically. "I can, however, give you this hint: you're barking up the wrong tree." He chuckled quietly again. "Sorry, I couldn't resist the pun."
J. B. only gazed at his shadowy form, unimpressed.
"Anyway," the man continued awkwardly, "may I ask what your associate discovered at the football field?"
Shocked, J. B. stammered, "What...how...I don't...."
"I have been observing your movements for some time," the man explained. "I know you're investigating the suspicious scent that Cerberus--"
"I'm sorry. That Snuffles found at the high school. I must insist, what did you discover?"
J. B. kept silent at first, but finally relented. "Nothing," he said with regret. "Too much time had passed, and his tests were inconclusive."
"That's a pity," the man sighed. "I have my own theory, but this isn't the time to discuss it."
"If you have information, then either share it or let me pass!" the dog angrily demanded. "If you want me to confide secrets to you, you should have the courtesy to extend the same to me!"
"I wish I could tell you everything I know, but I'm in a very dangerous position and the wrong word at the wrong time...well, let's just say I must always err on the side of caution."
"And I'm sure you understand that I must do the same," J. B. replied. "So unless you have anything more useful to say to me, I will be continuing on my way."
The man hesitated, then climbed back into his car. "I'll contact you again," he said before shutting the door and driving away.
"Order!" Fluffy called out, and the other cats turned their attention to him. "I'd like to begin today's meeting by reminding you that although things have been quiet on the canine front, it's practically a certainty that their plans are continuing to move forward. Does anyone have any suspicious activity to report?"
Mr. Whiskers stepped forward, then paused. "I'm not sure if it's relevant," he said slowly.
"Anything could be relevant," Fluffy said. "Tell us what you've noticed."
"It's one of the girls who lives next door to me," Mr. Whiskers explained. "She's come down with some kind of mysterious rash, and no one seems to know why."
"Does she wear make-up?" Fluffy immediately asked, thinking of Sandi and the tainted foundation.
Mr. Whiskers shook his head. "But I happened to be passing by her house the night she came home with the rash, and I smelled an unusual odor on her as she went by."
"What kind of odor?" Zachary asked.
"I'm not sure," Mr. Whiskers said. He began to pace in front of the Lanes' couch, then froze. He turned toward Trent, sleeping there as usual. "Wait...I smell it on him, too!" he exclaimed.
Taylor and Zachary climbed up on the couch and sniffed the young man. "Did she smell like guitar picks?" Zachary asked.
Mr. Whiskers shook his head.
"Body odor?" Taylor asked, wrinkling her nose at Trent's long-unwashed clothing.
"No, it wasn't that," Mr. Whiskers replied. "What else do you smell?"
"Alcohol," said Zachary.
"Cigarette smoke," added Taylor.
Mr. Whiskers tilted his head in thought as the two cats called out smells. "All of those!" he finally decided.
Zachary and Taylor looked at each other. "He had a gig last night," Zachary told his sister.
She nodded. "The Zon."
Mr. Whiskers frowned. "Then that must be where the girl next door got her rash!"
Fluffy cleared his throat to bring everyone's attention back to him. "Zachary, Taylor, you check this place out tonight. See if you smell anything." The two cats looked at him, both dubious and disgusted. "Well, anything unexpected, anyway," he amended. "Report back whatever you find."
"J. B.! J. B.!" Odette cried, voice muffled by the large stick she was carrying in her mouth. "You won't believe what I found!" She raced up to her leader at top speed with her tail wagging.
Sitting on the bench at the dog park, the bulldog looked wearily back at her. "Allow me to guess," he said with a sigh. "A stick?"
"Yes!" she yipped excitedly, dropping the stick in the process.
Snuffles approached him, trailing behind Odette. "It's not the stick that's important," she explained more calmly. "It's how the stick smells. That's the same scent I found on the football field; I'm sure of it!"
"Yeah!" Odette cried. "And I found the stick!"
"Er, well done," J. B. said. "It's too bad Leary had to return home. Still, we finally have a sample of the suspicious smell, and if we're very lucky we may be able to match it up with something. Where did you find it?" he asked Odette.
"Dega Street!" Odette replied. "I think it broke off a tree outside a grunge club there. And I found it!"
"Yes. You mentioned that." J. B. turned back to Snuffles. "We need to do whatever it takes to keep this stick safe. Right now it's our only lead, so it must remain secure." Odette whimpered, crestfallen. J. B. groaned. "And for crying out loud, try to find her a replacement stick!"
Fluffy was curled up on the couch in the living room when he saw Zachary poke his head through the cat door. He leaped down and raced over. "What are you doing?" he hissed. "Someone might see you here!" He glanced around, checking to be sure none of the family were nearby.
"Relax," Zachary told him. "I just stopped by to tell you that Taylor and I found some kind of weird chemical smell at the Zon. I'm almost positive it's related to that rash. And maybe even the foundation you ate."
Fluffy felt slightly queasy at the memory. "Good work," he said. "Now get out of here! If Sandi's mother finds you she'll go nuts. That woman is trigger-happy on the squirt bottle."
Zachary shuddered. "Later, boss," he said as he ducked back outside.
Less than a minute after he left, something flew through the door. Fluffy came back to investigate and found a rolled-up piece of paper. Nosing it open, he read, Nice work tracking the plot to the Zon. I don't know yet where they'll hit next, but I'm confident that you'll be ready for them. From your anonymous friend.
Fluffy stuck his head through the cat door, but there was no sign of the mysterious stranger. A few children played across the street and a couple pushed a stroller half a block away, but no one else was visible.
It had to be him, Fluffy thought. But how did he know what we've been doing? And, more importantly, can he be trusted?
J. B. had just arrived at the drop point. Because there was no place secure enough to leave the stick unguarded, and they weren't willing to let it out of their sight, the CIA had worked out a plan (or rather, he had worked out a plan and the other dogs had cheerfully accepted it). The dogs would rotate shifts carrying the stick, trading off at various intervals. In order to avoid raising suspicions, they scheduled drop points in which one dog would leave the stick behind just in time for another to come by and take it.
Sure enough, Snuffles was walking away from the stick, left on the side of the road for J. B. to collect. He nodded at his associate as she left the area, then began to cross the street. Without warning, a red SUV loomed ahead, clearly poised to run him over in mere seconds.
Just as J. B. had resigned himself to his fate, the SUV screeched to a halt, narrowly missing him. Breathing a sigh of relief, he hurried across to safety and grabbed the stick. He looked back at the SUV, wondering briefly if the cats were somehow behind this apparent assassination attempt.
That's when he noticed the folded piece of paper lying next to the spot where Snuffles had left the stick. At first J. B. assumed it was a random piece of litter...but then he realized his name was written on the outside. A message from Snuffles? he wondered. But she could have just told me...oh, and she doesn't have opposable thumbs with which to write me such a message.
He stretched out a paw and unfolded the note. He read, You're on the right track with the stick. Be ready--this is only the beginning of their plans, and it's up to us to stop them. From your anonymous friend.
J. B. looked around, but saw no one that resembled the shadowy figure he'd met weeks ago, nor any car that looked like the one he'd driven. Only a school bus passing broke the quiet scene, so J. B. continued on to his next destination, thinking hard about their new contact, and whether he was a friend or foe.
"You won't believe what I've found out!" Mr. Whiskers cried as he scampered into the Lane house for the FBI meeting. The other cats looked at him in surprise. Taylor even paused in the middle of sharpening her claws on the drapes to listen.
"A-hem." Fluffy peered disapprovingly at him, then continued. "If you'll recall, it is my duty to call meetings to order. Unless you think you should be leader of the FBI?"
Mr. Whiskers rolled his eyes. "No, I could never replace you, et cetera, et cetera." Without waiting for a response, he went on. "Do you remember that neighbor girl who got a rash from the strange chemicals we discovered at the Zon?" Seeing the nods of his comrades, he said, "Her sister's got one now, too!"
Zachary leaned forward with interest. "Did she smell like the Zon?" he asked eagerly.
Mr. Whiskers shook his head. "But I did smell pistachio dye and small animals." He thought for a moment. "There were a lot of other scents, too. Mostly money, plastic bags, and food court grease."
Fluffy forgot his earlier annoyance. "That's what Sandi smells like every weekend!" he cried. "That's the smell of the mall!"
"Cranberry Commons?" Mr. Whiskers frowned. "That's miles away from the Zon. How could the two possibly be connected?"
"No idea," Fluffy replied. "And we don't have any contacts at the pet store there, either. How are we going to get in to check it out?"
"We'll handle it," Zachary offered, gesturing at himself and Taylor. "We're experts at hiding."
"Are you sure?" Mr. Whiskers asked doubtfully. "It'd be hard to go unnoticed in a mall."
"Believe me--we're that good," Zachary replied as Taylor nodded her agreement. "We've lived in this house for over three years and I'm pretty sure Trent doesn't even know we're here."
Fluffy nodded. "All right, but be careful--there are several puppies at the pet store. I'll bet anything that the dogs have infiltrated the mall."
"How the heck are we going to infiltrate the mall?" Snuffles asked doubtfully, sitting with J. B. outside Cranberry Commons. Odette was away on stick duty, and J. B. only hoped she wasn't burying it somewhere.
"I've got a contact at the pet store," J. B. insisted. "He told me there was some suspicious activity there recently, and I think it would be worthwhile to investigate."
"Okay, sure," she replied, "but it's not exactly dog-friendly. How are we supposed to--"
A mass of people suddenly began exiting the mall. The dogs paused to listen to some of them as they passed, and heard them talking about a hurricane and the closing of the mall.
"This is a perfect opportunity!" J. B. cheered. "We'll slip in amongst all this chaos and confusion, and the place will soon be deserted!"
"Er...okay," Snuffles replied. She followed the other dog in, dodging the fleeing customers and trying to stay out of sight of any security personnel. Once clear of the crowds and feeling pretty sure they were alone, she put her nose near the floor and begin sniffing for any suspicious odors.
The two dogs roamed the corridors, stopping occasionally to admire the intoxicating scent of the various food kiosks, until Snuffles stiffened and exclaimed, "It's the same smell! Very faint, but I definitely smell it here!"
J. B. nodded and looked around. They were standing immediately outside of Our Furry and Scaly Friends, the mall pet store. "What else do you smell?" he asked.
"Um...gerbils," Snuffles said.
J. B. tapped his paw impatiently. "Well, that's to be expected," he said. "We're outside a pet store. Anything else?"
"Hmm. Peanuts." Snuffles thought for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, definitely peanuts."
"I believe we passed a nut stand earlier," J. B. mused, "but it's on the other end of the mall. It's possible that there's no connection, but perhaps--"
"Hey, Taylor, looks like you can teach old dogs new tricks," sneered a familiar voice. J. B. and Snuffles turned to see Zachary stroll out of the pet store with his sister. "Did you two get new jobs as mall cops?" he continued. "Or are you here because you heard they're having a sale on flea collars?" He snickered, and Taylor gave them a cold smirk.
"Very droll," J. B. growled. "Now get out of here. We're investigating a potential crime scene, and we don't need your kind getting in our way."
"Investigating a crime scene, you say?" Zachary said with mock-surprise. "Well, what a coincidence. Taylor and I are here for the same reason. And you know what they say about criminals returning to the scene of a crime...?"
"I was about to say the same thing of you two," J. B. replied. "Do I dare ask why you're lurking around the pet store? And why you insist on pursuing your fruitless schemes, even though we've sworn to stop you?"
"Again, likewise," Zachary hissed. "Let's just say we know you pulled something here recently, and we're trying to figure out what it was."
J. B. snorted. "I have no idea whom you're trying to fool with this ridiculous charade." He glared at the cats. "You know as well as I do that your nefarious plots are threatening to bring untold harm to this entire town!"
"No," Zachary corrected patiently. "We're just trying to prevent you from hurting thousands of innocent people."
"This is going nowhere," Snuffles murmured into her boss's ear.
"Too true," J. B. agreed. Turning back to Zachary and Taylor, he said, "Stand aside and let us pass."
"I don't think I feel like it," Zachary said, ears flattened against his head. "How about you, Taylor?" Taylor responded with a sharp shake of her head and a low growl. "Good call, sis." He looked back at the dogs. "We're going to go with a 'no' on that one. Get lost, mutts."
"You want to do this the hard way?" Snuffles snarled. "Fine by me!"
She leaped forward, teeth bared. Taylor crouched down and prepared to pounce, claws at the ready. J. B. and Zachary each stepped forward until they were nose to nose, each tensed and waiting for the other to make the first move.
Before anyone could attack, a voice cried over the P. A. system, "STOP!"
J. B. recognized the voice as his mysterious contact and hesitated. The others, confused by the interruption, did the same.
"This violence won't accomplish anything," the voice continued. "You need to focus your energies on uncovering the conspiracy going on around us!" There was a pause before he went on, "I have good news, though. I think I've gathered enough evidence to bring in the authorities. Er, the human authorities," he corrected himself. "Keep fighting the good fight. With a little luck, we'll soon bring this whole thing to an end!"
The P. A. system clicked off. Both sides held whispered conversations before Zachary said to J. B., "We'll finish this later."
"Indeed we will," J. B. replied ominously. To Snuffles he added, "To the dog park. We need to regroup."
As they left, Zachary muttered to Taylor, "I bet that was the guy Fluffy told us about. We need to tell the others about this."
Fluffy walked into the Lane house and plopped down with an aggravated sigh. "You're sure the rest of the family is gone?" he asked.
"They all left weeks ago," Zachary said reassuringly. "But be careful--Trent's been awake more during the day lately. He's composing a song." He wrinkled his nose. "A weird one. It's practically cheerful."
"Whatever," Fluffy replied huffily. He was still annoyed at the last-minute location change for the previous meeting thanks to the entire Lane family suddenly and inexplicably returning to the house. He had been even more annoyed by the lack of new developments in the FBI's investigations...until today.
"I'm here," Mr. Whiskers called out as he hurried inside.
"Then we'll begin," Fluffy said eagerly. "First of all, I think there's been another rash incident. Sandi's started wearing a turtleneck, which is very suspicious because normally she's very proud of her slender, graceful neck. It's one of her favorite features, in fact, after her eyes and hair and shoulders and--"
"--It's not a rash," Mr. Whiskers cut in.
Fluffy glared at him. "How do you know?"
"I heard her talking to some other girls at the neighbors' house. The window was open and I heard something about a neck zit."
"Sandi's hiding a neck zit?" Fluffy asked, confused.
Mr. Whiskers rolled his eyes. "Unfortunately, it's even stupider than that. I'd rather not even go into it. Let's just say it's a false alarm."
Fluffy tilted his head back and groaned. "Great. Just great. Our only lead in weeks, and it turns out to be a freaking neck zit." He looked around. "Anyone else have anything to report?" All three cats shook their heads. He sighed. "Then how about we just cut this one short?" This time the others nodded in agreement, and Fluffy stalked outside to go home.
We're just wasting time these days, he fumed. There's been nothing but dead ends and red herrings, yet I'm sure there's something going on. If only I could just....
"Psst!" A hushed voice interrupted his thoughts, and he looked up to see an old man with unruly white hair and thick bifocals waving him over behind a nearby tree. "Over here!"
Fluffy didn't recognize the man, but something about him seemed familiar. Then it clicked, and he trotted over to the tree. "It's you, isn't it? The guy who's been hiding in the shadows and sending me anonymous notes?"
The old man nodded. "Sorry it's taken me so long to contact you. It hasn't been--"
"--safe," Fluffy finished, still annoyed. "So you've said. Does this mean you finally have something useful to tell me?"
"All I know is that something's going to happen at the high school. I don't know when, and I don't know what, exactly. But keep your eyes on that school!"
"The school?" Fluffy asked, thinking immediately of Sandi. "We've got to keep the students safe!"
"I'll figure something out," he replied, "but I have to stay under the radar. I may have stayed out in the open too long as it is." Looking around nervously, he hurried away before Fluffy could ask any more questions.
And here I thought my day couldn't actually get worse, Fluffy thought. Sandi's still in danger, and there doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it.
J. B. was making his rounds when a strange smell froze him in his tracks. I know that scent! He turned his head from side to side, trying to find the source. After a short search, he centered on a garbage can by the side of the road. He sniffed at it a few times and his eyes widened. That mysterious odor we've been tracking!
Checking to make sure he wasn't being watched, he nudged the can until it fell onto its side and climbed in. He groaned at the disgusting mix of odors, including some kind of bizarre cooking experiment gone wrong. One by one he eliminated all the irrelevant scents until he had traced the one he was looking for to its source.
It was just a bag of assorted foodstuffs. He nosed each one in turn. Three slices of moldy cheese. A half-empty bottle of salad dressing. A couple of mushy tomatoes. A handful of berries. Nothing that, in themselves, seemed particularly suspicious.
Under any other circumstances, he would shrug it off as someone having cleaned out their refrigerator lately...except that each one had that distinctive chemical odor that J. B. had been constantly on the lookout for.
J. B. tried to think this through. The football field...a grunge club...the pet store...and now a bunch of random food. What can it mean? What do all of these things--
"Gahhh!!" A loud voice right outside the can jarred J. B. out of his thoughts. "Lousy dog! What the hell are you doing in the trash?"
Realizing he'd been detected, J. B. ran out of the can and hurried off down the street, followed by the angry shouts of a middle-aged man ranting about dogs and garbage and property values. He was running so hard, he didn't see the pair of legs until he'd run full speed into them.
"Ow!" he yelped, then looked up to see a white-haired old man peering at him through thick bifocals.
Without a word, the man waved the dog over to an out-of-the way corner. "I notice you had a little trouble over there," the man said.
"You!" cried J. B., recognizing his contact's voice. "Where on earth have you been? And what happened to that back-up you promised to get?"
The old man groaned. "I tipped them off about something suspicious going on at the high school, and they sent a couple of agents to check it out. Those lousy agents completely screwed the whole thing up, and ended up arresting a teacher for God-knows-what reason." He looked sadly at J. B. "I'm afraid we're on our own."
J. B. glared. "My fellow agents and I have been on our own from the start," he said. "As far as I can tell, you've done little to help us protect Lawndale from the mysterious threat."
The man nodded sheepishly. "I realize that I've let you down. You have to believe me, though, that I'm doing what I can to protect people. My hands are mostly tied, but I've got a couple of tricks yet."
"Please," J. B. begged, "give me something, at least."
"The high school," the man replied. "I've long suspected that the next target will be at the high school, and I have a feeling it'll be soon. Tell your bomb-sniffing friend--she'll need to be extra-vigilant. You all will."
"We always are," J. B. retorted, then softened his tone. "But thank you for the advice."
The man nodded, then glanced around nervously. "Better move on," he said. "Can't stay in one place too long." With a brisk nod of farewell, he turned and headed off in the opposite direction.
"Strange man," J. B. muttered as he watched him leave. "I do wonder if he's insane."
Fluffy watched Sandi sleep, concerned. She'd come home very ill, and yet she'd shown no symptoms of being sick before she'd left for school that day. He remembered the strange old man's words to him from weeks earlier. "Something's going to happen at the high school."
Well, something did happen. I'm sure of it. But what? And how can I keep Sandi safe when I don't even know what I'm keeping her safe from?
He looked at the clock next to Sandi's bed and sighed. It was time to leave for his FBI meeting. He left the bedroom quietly, careful not to disturb Sandi's rest, and headed straight to the Lane house.
Fluffy was pleased to see that the other cats were there on time, gathered as usual near the couch and an unconscious Trent. He briefly explained the situation with Sandi. "I don't know what happened to her, or what caused it," he finished. "All I know is that those dogs will pay for harming her yet again."
Taylor held up her claws and quietly asked, "Shall I...?"
He shook his head at her. "No, not yet. But I'm working on my revenge. Their time will come, believe me."
"And we'll be there to help," Mr. Whiskers promised.
"Yeah, there's no way we'd miss a chance to go after those mutts again," Zachary agreed. He snickered darkly. "Every dog has his day!"
Trent shifted slightly on the couch and muttered something in his sleep. The cats tensed and stayed quiet, then resumed their meeting when he settled back down again.
"He's usually impossible to wake," Fluffy remarked, surprised.
Zachary shrugged. "He's off his usual routine," he explained. "He's actually got a new gig coming up. Brittany Taylor is throwing a party in a few days, and for some reason his band got the job."
"Oh, that's right. Sandi's going to her party, too."
Mr. Whiskers commented, "I'm sure a lot of high school students will be there. Since we can't get near the school with all those dogs patrolling the grounds, this could be our best chance to dig up some information about what happened today. For example, if there were other targets beside Sandi, and whether or not anyone saw something suspicious."
Fluffy nodded thoughtfully. "You have a good point," he said. "I think we should drop by that party. With any luck, all of the guests will be distracted and we can slip inside without being noticed."
"We'll need to be careful," Zachary warned. "Remember, we keep trying to get an agent inside that house...and they keep disappearing."
"There's been another incident," Snuffles said as soon as she arrived at the dog park.
"What happened?" J. B. asked, one paw on the stick. Odette stared longingly at it, but she'd been taken off stick duty for irresponsible behavior. She'd been drawing too much attention to the stick, and J. B. suspected she'd even buried it a few times.
Snuffles replied, "Several students at the high school have mysteriously become ill. I had a look around, and I think it has something to do with the cafeteria. I smelled the chemical scent there, and was even able to trace it for a little while."
"Did it lead you anywhere?" J. B. asked eagerly.
"I lost the trail not too far from the school," she reported sadly. "I think it was leading toward Crewe Neck, but I can't be certain."
"Crewe Neck?" J. B. frowned. "I heard one of the neighbor girls discussing some kind of social event going on there in a few days."
"Do you think there could be a connection?" Snuffles asked.
He sighed. "I have no idea. However, in the absence of any more promising leads, I suppose it would be best to go and see what we can discover."
"Then it looks like we're crashing the Taylor party," Snuffles said with a grin.
"Oh, no!" Odette suddenly cried. "I don't have anything to wear!"
Fluffy leaped up onto the ledge outside one of the first floor windows at the Taylor house. Peering inside, he quickly located Sandi and saw that she was chatting with her friends. He was happy to see that she looked perfectly healthy, with no sign of her illness earlier in the week.
He continued to scan the room until he saw a young boy run by. For just a moment the boy paused and looked out the window, directly at him. For a moment Fluffy worried that he was going to draw everyone's attention to his presence, but the boy simply stared at the cat with what Fluffy could only describe as malice...and something else, which Fluffy could not describe at all.
Shuddering, Fluffy jumped back down to rejoin the other cats. "What's wrong?" asked Mr. Whiskers.
"I don't know," he replied. "There's something weird about that place--and that kid--but I can't put my paw on what it is."
"And what've we got here?" sneered an unfriendly voice. The cats turned to see Odette glaring at them, with Snuffles and J. B. standing behind her. "Up to more of your evil little schemes, I'll bet!"
"Us?" scoffed Fluffy. "You're the ones prowling around like...like...prowlers!"
"Hardly," J. B. said. "We found you lurking outside, presumably preparing to launch yet another attack on these poor students!"
"Yeah, right!" Zachary stepped forward to stand beside his leader. "It's lucky for those students that we're here to protect them from you!"
"Protect them?" Snuffles snarled. "Is that what you were doing in the high school cafeteria the other day?"
"What cafeteria?" Mr. Whiskers asked, confused. "We're talking about how you tried to poison Sandi a few days ago...just like you're probably about to do to the other students now!"
J. B.'s glare softened into a thoughtful frown. "Just a moment," he said slowly. "A few days ago, you said?"
Fluffy looked similarly preoccupied. "Yes...she came home from school very ill on Thursday, with no explanation."
Snuffles leaned toward J. B. to say, "Thursday was the day I smelled the strange odor in the cafeteria."
Zachary still eyed the dogs suspiciously. "You mean Thursday was the day you mongrels planted something there!"
"I wonder...." Fluffy trailed off.
J. B. nodded. "Indeed. Do you suppose--"
At that moment all of them cringed as a shrill screech hit their ears at top volume. The moments after it subsided were filled with whimpers and moans.
"We'll deal with this another time," croaked J. B., eyes squeezed shut as the sound continued to reverberate in his sensitive ears.
"Let's get out of here before it happens again," Fluffy gasped at the other cats. The animals all dispersed, shaking their heads as though trying to shake out the pain.
Unseen by any of them, the young boy watched from an upstairs window as a grim smile spread across his face.
Snuffles was exploring the school grounds on a routine bomb check when she noticed some fashionably-dressed girls walk inside wearing unfashionable rubber gloves. Deciding that this counted as suspicious behavior, Snuffles headed toward them to investigate and recognized Sandi, Fluffy's human, as one of them. Before she could get any closer, she passed the door they'd just entered through and stopped in her tracks.
That smell. She recognized it, faintly wafting through the doorway. Changing course, she followed it until she came to a dumpster. She put her front paws up on the side and peered in. All she could see was a bunch of sheets of paper...and a very odd-looking substance.
On the surface it looked like, well, vomit. But Snuffles knew her nose didn't lie--whatever it was, it was not regurgitated food. From what she could see it was some kind of artificially-created yellow paste, and it reeked of the strange chemical that had been turning up all over Lawndale.
Another attack on the students? Snuffles tried to think back, but nothing particularly odd had happened at the school recently. Fluffy's human had broken her leg weeks ago, but that had happened at home. Out of Snuffles's jurisdiction, and on the cats' turf.
Snuffles sadly shook her head. I don't know if those cats are behind this or not. But whoever's doing it, they're not finished yet.
Fluffy and the rest of the FBI quietly approached the Taylor house from the side. Zachary had warned Fluffy that, thanks to at least one of the usually-absent Lanes returning home, it wasn't safe to hold meetings there at the time. Fluffy had decided to take the opportunity to investigate the Taylors' again, still certain that something strange was going on in that house.
"How are we going to get inside?" Mr. Whiskers asked. "We can't just ring the doorbell!"
All of the cats jumped, startled, as they heard the sound of a doorbell ringing. Mr. Whiskers crept over to the corner of the house to peer around to the front, but suddenly scrambled backward as J. B., Snuffles, and Odette raced around the other side.
Odette growled fiercely, and Taylor bared her claws and hissed.
"Stop!" cried both Fluffy and J. B. at the same time.
J. B. spoke first. "I see you had the same idea we did," he said. "May I suggest that we institute a temporary détente, since we all want to examine this house more closely? Tearing each other apart will not help either of us in our goals."
Fluffy twitched his tail back and forth indecisively before finally replying. "I suppose we can call a truce...for now." He bristled at the dogs. "But if you put one paw out of line...."
"Likewise," J. B. said. "Anyhow, as we speak, one of the girls who lives in my neighborhood is paying a visit to Brittany Taylor. I propose we take advantage of the distraction to explore the house."
"Agreed," Fluffy said. "I saw an open window toward the back of the house, so I think--"
Seven furry faces turned to see the old man running toward them.
"Thank goodness I got here in time," the man panted, catching his breath as he stopped in front of them. "I know you're planning to go in there, but you can't. It's too dangerous."
"Why?" Fluffy demanded. "For once, explain yourself!"
"Quite so," J. B. agreed. "We've had more than enough of your cryptic remarks."
The man sighed and nodded. "You're right. We need to put all the cards on the table, but that goes for all of you, as well. It's time for you to put aside all of your petty squabbling and work together!"
The dogs and cats all looked nervously at each other. "Very well," J. B. said. "But only on the condition that you tell us everything you know."
"Everything," Fluffy repeated with a stern look.
He nodded again. "I will, I promise. But not right here. Meet me at--"
Whatever he said next was drowned out by a loud, high-pitched chittering sound. Fluffy yowled in pain as something struck him on the side of the head, hard. The cries and yelps he heard around him told him that others had been similarly hit.
After trying unsuccessfully to dodge more projectiles, Fluffy finally saw them.
Gray squirrels, to be exact. They were everywhere--lurking in the trees, scurrying on the ground, climbing on rooftops. And all of them were hurling acorns and other nuts at them as hard as they could.
"They've found us!" called out the old man, who turned and ran away from the attack. The dogs and cats tried to flee as well, but it seemed like every direction they turned met with a fresh assault.
"This way!" Snuffles shouted to the others, running toward an open area. The others followed her, and quickly put distance between themselves and any squirrels that were in trees or on other higher ground. The squirrels were forced to chase them at ground level, leaving behind their stockpiles of nuts.
Once the attack weakened, Taylor spun around to face their attackers, who were rapidly closing in. Hissing, she swiped at the first one that came within range and scored a direct hit. The squirrel went flying and she immediately turned to the next target.
Odette came to stand at her side, fangs bared. Every time a squirrel slipped past the cat, the poodle's jaws snapped down on it.
Snuffles and Mr. Whiskers stood back-to-back, protecting each other from sneak attacks as each defended against the onslaught of squirrels. Occasionally one would snatch a squirrel only inches from the other, stopping an attack at the last second.
Meanwhile, Fluffy and J. B. stood firm at the center of the battle, calling out directions to dogs and cats alike. Zachary scampered from one animal to another, helping out wherever the fight was thickest.
In the end, the few squirrels still standing began to retreat. Odette and Taylor chased the stragglers off, hissing and snarling until their leaders called them back.
"We are victorious!" J. B. cheered.
"It would seem so," Fluffy said. "You dogs fought very well."
"As did you and your associates," J. B. replied. "Indeed, I think we made a great team."
The other dogs and cats nodded. Abruptly, Snuffles barked, "Hey! I smell something!" She trotted across the grass, sniffing curiously. At last she stopped and nosed at a small cube of the familiar yellow paste. "It's the chemical!" she cried.
"One of the squirrels must have dropped it during the attack," Zachary said.
"And now we know for sure who our true enemy is," Mr. Whiskers added.
"And we'll need to work together to bring them down!" Snuffles said.
"But first we need to figure out a plan." Fluffy looked at J. B. "If we combine our knowledge, I'm sure we can come up with a way to defeat them."
"Agreed," J. B. said, "but not here. Our mutual anonymous friend warned us that it isn't safe, and it seems he was correct."
"Where?" Fluffy asked. "Our usual meeting place isn't secure."
"Our headquarters in the dog park?" J. B. suggested.
"The... dog...park," Fluffy replied with a raised eyebrow. "Where cats aren't allowed."
"...Ah." J. B. shook his head. "Well, neutral ground might be best, anyway."
"What about our neighborhood?" Mr. Whiskers asked.
"Perfect!" J. B. said. "Shall we meet on Glen Oaks Lane at sunset in three days? That should give us all sufficient time to, er, lick our wounds and gather our resources."
"...and then we ran into you and the other dogs at the Taylor house during the party," Fluffy was saying. Everyone had met as planned at the appointed place, and both sides had just finished bringing each other up to speed on their actions over the past two years.
"Interesting," J. B. remarked. "It sounds like we were all following different clues to the same places. There are still several unanswered questions to work through, but I think the most important is what, specifically, these squirrels are doing."
"And how to stop them," Fluffy added.
"True." J. B. frowned and stared thoughtfully into the distance. After a minute or two, his gaze fell upon a nearby garbage can and he suddenly remembered that the owner of those cans was very protective of them. "You know," he said slowly, "it might be possible to bring humans into this fight. We just need to draw attention to the squirrels' activities."
"How?" Mr. Whiskers asked.
"Like so," J. B. replied. He trotted over to one of the cans and knocked it over.
"That's it?" Snuffles asked doubtfully.
"We should also hide," the dog suggested, seeing someone start to emerge from the garage.
The animals all found hiding places behind trees and watched as a man approached the cans, carrying a bag and talking to himself. Suddenly he shouted and ran to look at the overturned can. "Damn skate punks are tearing up the streets! Today it's trash cans, tomorrow, mail boxes! And then...." His voice grew slightly deranged as he shouted, "You won't get my shrubs! Do you hear me? You won't get my shrubs!"
The angry man stormed back into the house, and J. B. sighed. "All right, that didn't go precisely as I had planned."
Fluffy tilted his head in thought. "I see what you mean, though. I think we need to find a more direct way to incriminate the squirrels." He gasped. "Snuffles, do you still have that cube you found after the squirrel attack the other day?"
"Yes!" she answered, then shook herself all over until something slipped free from under her collar and landed on the ground in front of her.
"Perfect!" Fluffy said, then turned to Zachary. "Take that cube. I have a mission for you."
It took a few days, but Zachary had finally tracked down one of the squirrels that was part of the mysterious plot. The moment the squirrel saw the cube Zachary was carrying, he began chasing after him. Zachary was now running at top speed toward the house with the garbage cans. Perfect, he thought. Now I just have to see a dog about a man.
Right on cue, Snuffles fell into step next to him. "Great timing!" she called out. "The angry man is on his way home right now! Go!"
Zachary reached the house and, with a single leap, knocked over both garbage cans. He quickly darted into one of them and hid the cube amongst the trash that remained inside. Just as quickly he darted out again, just in time for the squirrel to dive inside and begin searching for the cube. Zachary and Snuffles scampered away as a Lexus pulled into the driveway.
Both of them watched as the man climbed out of the car, screaming and raving. The squirrel emerged from the garbage can with the cube in his mouth.
"It worked!" Snuffles murmured to Zachary as the man stared in surprise and anger at the squirrel.
A few days later, J. B. and Mr. Whiskers watched in dismay as yet another squirrel ran into and back out of the still-open trap. "I don't understand," Mr. Whiskers complained. "Why isn't it closing?"
J. B. shook his head. "I observed him while he was setting up the trap. He managed to get his arm stuck in the damnable thing, and had to practically destroy it just to free himself. I expect that in the process, he damaged some kind of mechanism."
Mr. Whiskers twitched his tail impatiently. "Well, we've got to do something," he said.
"Correct," J. B. replied. "I will go in and try to repair it."
"Do you think that's wise?" Mr. Whiskers asked uncertainly.
"It doesn't matter," J. B. said, "and right now that trap could be all that stands between this town and total annihilation!"
Mr. Whiskers stepped in front of the dog. "That's true. But you aren't going."
"I beg your pardon?!"
"You won't fit in that little trap. I'm smaller than you are. If either of us has a shot, it's me. I'm going."
Not listening to J. B.'s arguments, the cat walked over to the trap and hesitated only briefly before stepping in. He peered at the inside of the machine until he located a gear that had come loose. He nosed it back into the right spot and the mechanism clicked into place...and then slammed the door shut behind him.
Mr. Whiskers screeched in terror. "Remain calm!" J. B. called to him. "I'll fetch help!" The bulldog ran off as fast as his short legs could take him.
Within half an hour he had returned with Odette and Taylor, but they arrived just in time to see the man bend over the trap. He opened the door and said a few words, then reached inside.
J. B., Odette, and Taylor all winced as Mr. Whiskers viciously attacked the man, then ran away. He stopped when he reached the others.
"Was that really necessary?" J. B. asked.
Mr. Whiskers lowered his head, embarrassed. "I panicked."
"Well, it was excellent technique," Odette praised, then looked back at the man. "And that guy's even madder now than ever. Maybe that'll make him work even harder to catch the squirrels."
"Let us hope so," J. B. said. "In the meantime, we wait and watch."
By Sunday the trap had still failed to yield results, and the animals were beginning to discuss new options. Fluffy was napping on Sandi's bed that afternoon when he was awakened by a crumpled piece of paper flying through the open window and bouncing off his nose.
Fluffy pawed at the paper to smooth it and found a message written in a childlike scrawl.
Your nosy little human friend is in my custody. Come to the Taylor house with all of the others if you want him to live. Don't try any tricks.
He gasped, grabbed the note in his mouth, and ran for the cat door to search for the others.
Once more, the combined forces of the FBI and the CIA stood outside the McMansion on the south side of Crewe Neck. "I don't like this," Snuffles muttered. "It smells wrong."
"I'm afraid that doesn't matter," J. B. said. "We must follow this to the end."
"I knew it was going to lead back to this place," Fluffy said. "The first time I saw that boy here, I knew...I just knew." He shuddered.
"Enough talk," Taylor growled. "Let's go."
Without another word, the group walked to the front door, which they found slightly ajar. One by one they entered the house.
"Should we split up and search?" Mr. Whiskers asked.
Fluffy shook his head. "Better to stay together," he replied. "There's safety in numbers."
"We will systematically search each room, one by one," J. B. decided.
They wandered through the house, searching one room after another, but found no sign of the boy or anyone else. Snuffles looked fearfully at all of the dead animal parts that decorated the house. "I really don't think it's safe here."
Mr. Whiskers shuddered. "Do you suppose we'll be next?"
At last there was one room left to search, a bedroom on the second floor. "This is it," Fluffy said.
Odette took a deep breath and, after a nod from J. B., pushed the door open with her nose. All seven animals burst inside at once and found themselves faced with a messy room filled with plastic action figures, smelly old sneakers, and cartoon posters...but no people.
"There's no one here?" Zachary asked in confusion.
"No," Snuffles replied slowly. "I smell...."
"What you smell," interrupted a thin, clear voice, "is me." Everyone looked around in surprise, but no one could figure out where it was coming from. "Oh, excuse me. Let me introduce myself."
At that, a small white mouse emerged from underneath the bed.
"My name," it said, "is Roger. Welcome to my base of operations."
Taylor crouched low to the floor, preparing to pounce. The mouse turned to look at her. "Let's not play cat-and-mouse, okay?" he said coldly. "I think you'll find the game a bit more complicated than you planned."
At a signal from Roger, the closet door swung open to reveal the old man, unconscious and surrounded by dozens of squirrels. One squirrel stood on the man's shoulder, holding his long, sharp claws against his neck. Roger nodded to it. "Thank you, General Nutkin."
The squirrel saluted with his other paw but said nothing. Roger looked back at the dogs and cats. "I don't think I have to tell you that it's in his best interests for you to cooperate." He climbed up the bed and settled comfortably onto the pillow. "Ahhh, that's better."
"What the hell is going on?" Fluffy demanded.
"Tsk," Roger said. "No need to lose your temper. I'll explain everything in my own time."
"So you're the one behind this conspiracy?" J. B. asked.
Roger gave a small bow. "I am."
"But you're just a mouse!" Snuffles blurted out without thinking.
"Not at all," Roger argued. "There was a time when I was, indeed, just an ordinary lab mouse. Then I was taken here to this house, to this very room, by a young boy who--" Roger stopped abruptly. His entire body twitched violently for almost a full minute before he went still again, grasping the pillow tightly with all four paws while panting for air.
"My apologies," he said once he'd recovered control. "Anyway, I won't go into detail. The child is a sadist, and the experience was unpleasant. However," he continued with a twisted smile, "he actually did me a favor. His...actions...gave me a new purpose. A reason for living. I knew what I had to do." The smile grew into a manic grin that seemed to take over the mouse's tiny face. "I had to enslave everyone on this entire planet to make sure nothing like that happens to me again. Ever."
The cats and dogs exchanged some uncomfortable glances, but everyone remained quiet.
"I was returned to the science lab where I'd started out, and I learned out how to escape my cage and began experimenting with the chemicals I found there. It took me months, but I finally discovered a chemical mixture that allowed me to brainwash anyone I chose. I started with the other mice in the lab, but I needed a human test subject. Fortunately," he said, looking around the room fondly, "I knew exactly where I could find one."
The old man moaned quietly, then blinked his eyes a few times and looked around at his surroundings.
"Ah, I'm glad you could join us!" Roger squeaked. "I was just getting to you. You see," he explained to the animals, "this man is much smarter than he looks. Of course," he added with a snicker, "he'd have to be, wouldn't he?" He resumed a serious expression. "I don't know exactly when or how he noticed me, but it wasn't long before he started snooping around this house and the high school, poking his nose into things that were none of his business!"
The man tried to lunge at Roger, but the squirrels held him back and General Nutkin pressed his claws even harder against his neck.
Roger continued as though nothing had happened. "He was always gathering evidence and taking notes and getting pictures, no doubt planning to publish the whole scheme in his ridiculous little newspaper."
"You write for the Lawndale Sun-Herald?" Fluffy asked.
"Ha!" Roger let out a nasty little laugh. "The legitimate media? Don't flatter him. You're looking at Walter Mahoney, the crackpot editor of the Lawndale Shopper." He laughed again. "Honestly, I shouldn't have even worried about what he might print. It's not like anyone would have believed that lousy rag, anyway. Still," he said gleefully, "it was awfully fun for me to send all those brainwashed mice after him. They cornered him on top of his roof and the fire department had to get him down!" He rolled around on his back, still laughing.
"You bastard!" Walter screamed. "I thought you were going to kill me!"
"If you hadn't backed off your investigation," Roger replied, turning dead serious in an instant, "I would have. You're lucky I let you off with that warning...and my little promise about young Billy."
"Billy?" asked Mr. Whiskers.
Walter broke down sobbing. "My grandson," he explained. "He's only six years old, and he threatened to...to...you bastard!"
"Such language in a grandfather!" Roger admonished. "Anyway, with Mr. Ace Reporter taken care of, I was free to continue my work in the lab. I had discovered that although one application of the chemical turned my fellow lab mice permanently into slaves, on humans the effect only lasted for a few minutes, or at best half an hour. I needed to figure out how to make it last longer--ideally forever."
Odette had begun creeping around, out of Roger's sight, toward the closet. One of the squirrels spotted her and chittered menacingly at her until she backed off again. Roger ignored the whole thing, continuing his speech without missing a beat.
"I had just created a new formula and was about to return to my young test subject when I realized I was being watched. Some stupid former student had wandered into the room and saw me at my work. If I didn't act quickly, he would tell everyone and my plan would be ended before it could even begin. So I arranged for a little...accident...with a goalpost."
"You killed him!" Snuffles exclaimed. "But I smelled cat on that field!"
Roger snorted. "Of course you did. I planted plenty of cat fur there to cover up any scent of mice. I couldn't risk detection by any of you. After being noticed twice, I realized I needed to be more cautious. So instead of continuing to test my work on the boy here, I persuaded him to tell me about his friends and their families. When he mentioned his classmate Chris and his teenage sister who had a cat named Fluffy, I couldn't resist the opportunity to set you against each other once again. All I had to do was leave a bit of dog fur behind when I planted the chemical in the compact, and you all danced like the puppets you are!"
"How dare you?!" Fluffy cried. "If you had harmed her in any way--"
"--then it would have been a unexpected side effect of my glorious master plan," Roger finished coolly. "But by then I had turned my attention to applying the chemical to larger populations. I couldn't very well affect one person at a time if I wanted to enslave the entire planet within my lifetime, after all. I snuck into a grunge club restroom one night and left traces of the chemical all over the place." He sighed. "Unfortunately, all I succeeded in doing was giving one girl a rash for a couple of days. It was back to the drawing board."
"He's insane," Zachary murmured into Mr. Whiskers's ear.
"No talking during my monologue, please!" Roger snapped at them. "Now, where was I? Oh, yes. By this point I had begun brainwashing other animals. I couldn't keep doing everything myself, especially now that you were starting to investigate the situation, and if you discovered any of the other mice they would lead you back to the lab. In spite of the excellent job I did in framing you, there was still a small possibility that you'd stumble upon the truth. Especially with Walter interfering every step of the way."
"I had to do something," Walter said defiantly. "Someone has to stop you!"
"No one will stop me," Roger replied calmly. "Anyway, I first recruited a group of gerbils to spread the chemical throughout the mall. Everything was ready--they had each been given a sample of the formula, the cage was opened, they were free to put my plan into action...and the first thing they do is smell peanuts and get completely distracted! The plan was a total failure, unless you count giving yet another teenage girl a rash."
J. B. cleared his throat and glanced meaningfully at Taylor. "May I ask," he said to Roger, "why you continued to use the same formula when it only seemed to be making people break out in rashes?"
Taylor took the hint and began edging toward the bed while Roger's attention was on the dog.
"That's exactly the same conclusion I reached!" Roger replied, his small red eyes lighting up. "I quickly figured out that in order to make the formula truly effective, I needed to adapt it to work when eaten, not when put in contact with skin. And if that cat takes one more step, General Nutkin will slice Walter's throat open."
Taylor immediately backed off, and J. B. gave the others a helpless shrug.
Roger continued, "I began working on an edible version, disposing of rejected samples in various trash cans around the town. In the meantime, I noticed that our mutual friend the newspaper editor was putting out articles about what a crappy town Lawndale is because the football team was playing badly." He looked at Walter, amused. "Did you really think that would convince the residents to move away?"
Walter glared back. "Apparently you don't know this town very well. If the high school football team had kept losing long enough, you might have been found yourself terrorizing a ghost town."
"It's true," Snuffles remarked. "People here are weird about football." The other animals nodded knowingly.
"Excuse me, but I'm still talking," Roger interrupted, annoyed. "So I created my new formula, and decided to have my first trial run at the high school. I put a large amount of the chemical into the salad dressing one day, but it wound up just making students sick. If their bodies hadn't rejected the chemical, though, I would have had a high school full of human slaves by now!"
"Including Sandi," Fluffy muttered angrily. "Over my dead body!"
"That is definitely a strong possibility," Roger replied. "My young servant did see all of you outside during the party later that week. He reported it to me immediately, and that's when I knew you were starting to close in. I had to hurry. Fortunately, soon after that I had a breakthrough. I had perfected an edible version of the chemical, and began storing quantities of it in the school dumpsters."
"I knew it!" Snuffles said. "I found some of it!"
"Yes, I know," Roger said. "And that's when I recruited my friends here," he said, gesturing at the squirrels. "I knew I would need protection and help in the final stage of my plan." He tilted his head inquisitively. "Didn't any of you wonder why I invited you here and started explaining the whole plan in detail?"
"Well, I did wonder a little," Mr. Whiskers admitted. "But I didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth."
Roger rolled his eyes. "I'm not doing this as a favor, you idiots. While we've been chatting, General Nutkin's most trusted agent, Colonel Bucktooth, has visited the mayor's house with a little gift to sneak into his dinner. He's been given similar presents to drop off for the chief of police, the school superintendent, and every other authority figure in this town. I brought you here to keep you distracted so that you wouldn't be able to interfere!"
"This has all just been a diversion?" asked Fluffy.
"Yes, and a successful one!" The mouse laughed. "By now the whole city will be ripe for the picking. Today I take Lawndale, and tomorrow...."
"...the world?" J. B. finished, his voice full of dread.
"No, tomorrow I take the greater Carter County area! And after that, a sizeable portion of eastern Maryland! And then the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States! And then--"
"I think we get the idea," Zachary interrupted impatiently. "Why don't we just skip to the part where we defeat you?"
"Defeat me?" Roger crowed. "I don't think you understand. You're too late! Colonel Bucktooth started his mission earlier this evening, and once he accomplishes his tasks, I will be unstoppable!" Twitching with excitement, the mouse glanced at the clock and then looked over at General Nutkin. "Come to think of it," he said, "he should have been back by now. Nutkin, where is he?"
The squirrel shrugged, confused. After a few moments, a thudding bass beat broke the silence. Even from inside the house, everyone could hear three male voices yelling out, "Whoomp, there it is! Whoomp, there it is! Whoomp, there it is!"
Before Roger could stop her, Snuffles ran to the nearest window and put her front paws on the sill to look outside. "It's the angry man and some assistants," she called out. "And I see the trap in the backseat!"
J. B. stepped forward. "I believe I can answer your question, Roger," he said triumphantly. "You see, your precious agent, on whom this entire plot depended, has just met his match in the form of a middle-aged man with a trash can obsession."
The others cheered.
"Colonel Bucktooth has been captured?" Nutkin exclaimed, pulling away from Walter in alarm. Taylor took advantage of his moment of distraction to pounce, snatching the squirrel in her teeth and throwing him to the ground. Odette immediately slammed a paw down on him, pinning him there.
"No!" Roger cried as the cats and dogs attacked the rest of the squirrels. With the defeat of General Nutkin, most of them fled while the rest were taken down in a matter of minutes. "Come back, you cowards!" the mouse shrieked at the fleeing squirrels. "This isn't over! This...isn't...over!!!"
A large hand reached out and snatched him up. "Oh, yes it is," Walter said, holding him tightly and glaring at him.
The mouse thrashed around for a few minutes before giving up. "What...what are you going to do with me?" he asked nervously.
"Hmm. I suppose we could stop by the pet store and see if that boa constrictor is hungry," Walter said with narrowed eyes.
"You wouldn't!" Roger squeaked.
"Wouldn't I?" Walter replied coldly. "After everything you put me through? After the way you threatened my grandchild? After what you tried to do to this entire town?" He brought the mouse up directly in front of his nose. "Try me."
Roger shook violently in the man's grasp until his beady eyes rolled back and he went limp.
"I've never seen a mouse faint before," Walter said with a chuckle. "Well, I suppose I should turn him over to your custody," he said to Fluffy and J. B. He held the unconscious mouse out to them, and Fluffy nodded to Taylor, who took hold of Roger's tail with her mouth and held on.
"We greatly appreciate your assistance in this," J. B. said to Walter.
"I was happy to help," the man replied. "Thank you for rescuing me!"
"We should leave," Fluffy said. "The Taylors could come home at any minute."
"True." J. B. called out to the others, "Let's call it a day. We've earned a rest!"
Standing together outside the house, the cats and dogs said their farewells to Walter as he ambled slowly towards his home. At last, they turned to each other.
"Good work, everyone," Fluffy said to the group. "We made a great team."
"Indeed we did," J. B. agreed. "In fact, I think I speak for all of the CIA when I say that I would be proud to work alongside you on any future cases."
"And the same goes for us, too," Fluffy replied. He laughed quietly. "You know, you guys turned out to be all right...for dogs, anyway."
Odette looked slightly offended, but smiled back. "Yeah, you kitties did all right in spite of your size."
Mr. Whiskers bristled. "Well, we may not be as good at chasing cars and drooling as some, but we do our best."
Snuffles growled under her breath. "At least we aren't crippled by an irrational fear of water!"
Zachary thrashed his tail back and forth. "Why don't you go bury some bones?"
"Shut up, you catnip addicts!"
"Stick?" Odette yelped. "Where?! "
"Enough!" both Fluffy and J. B. yelled. They shook their heads sadly and turned to each other.
"Look, we work well together--when we have to," Fluffy admitted.
"I take your meaning," J. B. replied. "We'll be ready if you ever need us, but perhaps a bit of...distance...would be best."
The two bowed their heads in respect to each other and then led their teammates away. They had a duty to uphold: to continue protecting Lawndale from every possible threat, to keep the residents safe at any cost, and to defend every last inch of the town with their last breaths.
Except for the veterinary clinic. Screw those bastards.
Thank you to RLobinske for beta-reading