“Darla! Daarrrlllaaa!” I hear Caitie calling for me from the doorway of our little suburban townhouse. Part of me wants to turn around. To forget the mission and just go home to 12 Darling Drive and play the “good kitty” role forever. But I know what I have to do. I just hope Caitie can forgive me if I don’t come home this time. Please don’t judge me too harshly, it was never my intention to break a little girl’s heart. I guess I should probably start from the beginning.
My real name is Alexandra Rogers. I am part of a secret organization called H.E.L.P that manages high profile, dangerous, individuals involved in illegal activity to make sure they aren’t making too much of a ruckus under the table. We refer to them as S.K.U.M (Shitbag Kept Under Management). Don’t act so shocked, a little bit of crime is necessary to keep society running smoothly. No crime would mean no police, no soldiers, no government agents, and frankly, no reminders of what happens if you don’t comply. We need them, and they need us. There is ALWAYS one that falls out of line.
What does any of this have to do with Caitie and I? Well, you see, I was recruited for H.E.L.P because of a certain…skill I possess. I’m a therianthropist. Meaning, I can transform myself into a cat. H.E.L.P has a particular fascination with therianthropists of different species. They recruit as many as they can to join our side and scatter them far and wide. Alas, none are local, and most are sworn to secrecy about their abilities, other than to the boss. Tons of folks would like to be one. If only they knew how bad the changing process hurt, and what a pain it is! It took me forever to get the process down, so I didn’t get stuck halfway. I ended up with a tail and funky eyes for a week once! Though it makes my job much easier. Nobody is suspicious of a gray tabby cat. And that’s me. Casually assuming the role of a little girl’s kitten.
I’ve been monitoring S.K.U.M for quite some time around here. It wasn’t my intention, though. I was just supposed to check on him and go home. But then, 2 years ago, Caitie found me. I was perched on the hedges of 12 Darling, peering into the house next door, when she scooped me up. She thought I was a stray and wanted to keep me. I fought with everything in my tiny body to getaway. I scratched. I clawed. I hissed. But it was no use. It just made her want to love me more.
If I said I hated my life with her, I’d be lying. She takes wonderful care of me. I’m free to come and go as I please, as long as I’m home by dinner. Honestly, knowing I’d have to eat cat food and pretending to like it was a pretty low point for me. But I eat it just to make her happy. I’ve actually grown quite fond of Caitie. She’s a loner, just like me. Mom died when she was young, dad is always away on business. If you ask me, 12 is way too young to be left home alone. The paper route and dad’s allowance barely get her by most weeks. I guess that’s why I stay. She needs me too.
Besides, from inside my house, I can watch “Mr. Jones” get his mail every morning. Each morning, there’s a package. Except, Mr. Jones is really Henry Bruno. One of the world’s most wanted illegal exotic animal traders. Hyenas, poison dart frogs, you name it. But something felt off about this particular morning. Bruno went out like usual…but there was no package waiting. Our mail carrier runs a pretty tight ship, so I was immediately suspicious. I meowed loudly to alert Caitie to my departure and pushed out my cat door. First, I would scan the neighboring streets for the mail truck. Maybe we had a fill-in today.
I went up and down the streets for hours, but no sign of USPS anywhere. In my 2 years here, a package comes EVERY day. Something was wrong. I paw the tiny microphone on my pink sparkly collar.
“Tabby to Base, Tabby to base, come in base!” I signal.
“Copy Tabby. This is Rooster at base.” A voice on the other end responds.
“Rooster? What happened to Johnson? Johnson always responds when I radio in.” I question.
The voice scoffs. “Lady, you know as well as I do the boss don’t give us diddly shit in the way of knowledge around here. They said sit, man the scanner and the radio, so here I am. Can I help you with something?”
“Right. Uhm. Yes. Regarding my mission…” I fill him in on the details and the missing package. He scoffs again.
“Let me get this straight, you want me to alert the boss that your neighbor didn’t get his mail?? You want us both to get rung out? Not a snowball’s chance in hell, Tabby. Radio in if you’ve got a real issue. Rooster from base, over and out.” The radio beeped off.
Damn it! I screamed. Who the hell hired that asshole! Boss won’t like this, but I’d better handle it myself. I returned to my perch at home, scanning Henry’s window again. A huge box laid on his living room coffee table. The delivery came? I hadn’t seen the truck anywhere! And that box is FAR larger than the packages he’s gotten before. Two husky men in suits stood over the box, but I didn’t see Henry until he popped up in the window. He smiled and seemed to be grimacing in my direction while he yanked the curtains closed. Did he know I was watching? A loud bang erupted from next door, accompanied by a flash of light, and suddenly the two men were hustling out the back door and down the embankment behind the house. I bolted out to follow, but by the time I got to the clearing, the men were gone.
I turned to go back into the house and was met by a tall, gray-haired man in a clean suit standing behind me. I could see my reflection in his over-polished dress shoes. It’s the boss.
“Ms. Rogers! Out for a stroll I see.” He gave me a puzzled look as I frantically tried to explain the craziness happening with my neighbor.
“As I’ve told you before dear, I’m sorry, I don’t speak cat.” He mused. I rolled my eyes. My hysterical blabber had come out as meows and coos. I motion for him to stay where he is, and dart into the house. Caitie will have left for school by now, and I can shift back into a human. It had been some time since my last shower, but there was no time. I shifted, threw on something more presentable, and opened the door for the boss. He nods, and motions to my pink collar. I forgot to take it off.
“Sorry about that. I forget myself sometimes! As I was trying to say, my neighbor, Henry Bruno, I saw…” The boss cut me off.
“Bruno was eliminated by our H.E.L.P Elite agents earlier today. That’s why I’m here. Your mission is completed. You will be given the afternoon to gather your things and say your goodbyes, and then you will be reassigned. We have reason to believe the animals Bruno smuggled in are not on the approved list, or from an approved distributor. We’ve tracked the group responsible for the Anatolian Peninsula. We’ll need you to fly down there and..” I cut him off this time.
“Asia?? You want me to relocate to ASIA?”
“Ms. Rogers, you signed a contract to go where you’re needed. This is where you’re needed.”
“Respectfully, sir. THIS is where I’m needed. The little girl who lives here…she’s alone. Her mother died, and god only knows where her father is, I think I’ve seen him three times in the two years I’ve been here.” I scoff.
“Wait, you’ve SEEN the father? You know what Mr. Darling looks like?” Boss inquired.
“I mean, a few times. The asshole just wires his 12-year-old money every 2 weeks and calls himself a father. Unbelievable.
“Wires her money? Is it traceable to a bank account?” He interrupts.
“I mean, probably, but the schlub doesn’t even carry a phone so his daughter can talk to him, I doubt it’d matter if we could reach out to him. Point being, sir, the kid needs me. I can’t whisk off to Asia and just leave her. I just can’t.” I plead.
Understandable!” He gruffs. “I will send additional agents to take care of the girl when I send for you later. For now, I must be off. Please be ready by 6 pm sharp!”
And just like that, I’m alone. First thing’s first, I need a shower and a hot meal that doesn’t wreak of tuna fish. When I finish, I consider all my options, including coming out to Caitie. I’ve found the best place to think is my favorite hiding spot. The fire escape of the abandoned building, in an alley by the house. Not exactly Alex accessible, but perfect for Darla. As I make myself a cozy kitten, a large black van rips into the alley. Ugh. Not the kind of peace and quiet I was hoping for. But it isn’t the bunch of kids I was expecting that gets out. It’s the boss. He’s talking to someone on the phone.
“I’m in the requested meeting spot. Yes, it’s all according to plan, she’ll be relocated tonight, and the girl will be alone. But I have new information. Our suspicions were correct. Gradlin is alive. He’s been sending money to the girl. See if you can trace the wire. We might just have him. I want that man’s head. Got it? Good.”
Gradlin? He was security. He went completely AWOL when he was shipped to work the holding facility in South America. Rumor has it he set all the prisoners free and alerted some S.C.U.M members to classified information. He essentially signed his own death certificate. From what I knew, he was executed. He’s alive? He’s…Caitie’s father?? He didn’t abandon her…he’s in hiding to protect her…and I lead them right to him! Without meaning to, I let out a low, tiny mew of a gasp, and the boss looked up from his phone.
“The Tabby knows. The meeting is off. We can NOT let anything or anyone mess up this plan. Execute on sight.” He hung up the phone and looked around the alley for me.
“Thank you for confirming our suspicions, Alexandra! Little Caitie will be the perfect bait to bring our rat out of hiding. You had better hope cats really do have nine lives.”
I couldn’t take it. I leaped from the fire escape on to his head, and I clawed and kicked as much as I could, desperate to mark up his face, to lead to questions for other agents. Then, I ran home as fast as I could. Caitie would be back from school by now. I’d have to tell her and hope she believed me.
I saw the bus pull away from the house, and I meet Caitie at the door. She stops on the stoop to scratch my ears and attempts to pick me up, but I nudge her inside. When she closes the door, I plan my next move very carefully. Watching me transform would scar her for life, no doubt. But I didn’t want her to think some strange lady wandered into her house either. She’d have to know it was me. I dart into the upstairs closet, and knock things down, blocking the door while I transform. It’d have to be quick.
“Silly kitty, come out of there! You’ve locked yourself in!” Caitie giggles. But when she opens the door, her eyes go wide at the sight of me.
“Caitie. It’s me. It’s Darla. I know this is scary, but. I’m not what you think I am. And I don’t have much time to explain. You’re in danger, Caitie. Some nasty people are after you, and I need to keep you safe.”
Without words, she reached up and traced the letters on the tag of my pink collar.
“Darla.” She looked up at me and smiled, wrapping her petite arms around my waist. I couldn’t believe she was so accepting of the transformation.
“Yes, sweetie, it’s me. I’m sorry I was hiding, but it’s part of my job. I have special abilities and have to use them to keep…” She rolled her eyes at me.
“You’re part of H.E.L.P., And you’re like my dad. He’s a thery…thera…well, he can turn himself into an animal, like you. But he didn’t even know until after he joined, so he kept it a secret. His is way less cool, though. He’s a mouse. I’d much rather be a cat. He was worried I might have inherited it, I haven’t shown any signs yet…except for the tail incident... But anyway, he told me not to tell anyone, but since you’re one too, it’s safe, right?”
Woah. Gradlin? A therianthropists? That must be how he escaped! Nobody would have suspected foul play from a mouse bite in South America! But he could spread disease like wildfire. It would have been painful, but if he shapeshifted after being shot, he would have been able to heal faster. He must have known if they knew he’s a therianthropist, they’d try to take his daughter too.
Banging downstairs brings me out of my thought process.
“Yes, I am safe, but those men are not. Caitie, I need you to get in the closet and don’t come out for any reason. When you don’t hear anything, it’s safe. I may not be here when you come out. They might take me, but that’s okay. You need to stay safe!”
She tried to protest, but through tears, I hugged her and shoved her into the closest and instructed her to block the door as I did and stay quiet.
I hear the special agents destroying the house downstairs and plan my attack. I have weapons stashed through the house in case of S.C.U.M attacks. Who knew my own boss would be on their side. I crouch as I hear one climbing the stairs, and shoot a poison dart in his direction. Tiny, but deadly, and he falls back. Two more men file up the steps, with the boss behind them, and another man protecting his back.
“If you find the Tabby, kill her on sight. If you find the girl, do not harm her. Our research team will do plenty of that during testing. Your father may have destroyed our lab, little mouse, but there are other ways to force transformation.” He flashed a devilish smile, and I couldn’t take it. All these secrets, who ARE these people? What are they really doing? They’re pure evil, and I won’t stand for it. I go straight for the boss, blasting my way through the agents in front, going straight for headshots. Hunting flies in my window hammock has made my shooting surprisingly accurate. Down they fall until only the boss is left.
He stares at me, and I can feel myself shifting, half cat, half-person. My eyes flare, and my claws extend as a scream, both out of anger and of pain.
“No, please stop, don’t you want to get to the root of your power? Don’t you want to harness that pure energy coursing through you? Alexandra…finding those answers would mean there’s a cure for your condition. Ease for your primal rage, I can help you. I can…”
But I didn’t care. Not this way. I raised my clawed hand to his throat and slashed. He fell to the floor with a thud, and I turned to the closet.
“Caitie, I want you to stay in there for a few more minutes while I clean up. We’re safe now.”
But the little girl shoved out of the closet and clung to me. It wasn’t until she opened her eyes and saw the men on the floor she became hysterical. I sat her in the corner and told her to close her eyes. Chances are if they were coming to take her, they were going to wipe her memory. She’d be more compliant that way. I search the boss, and sure enough, the flasher was in his pocket. A false memory would be better than all this violence. And without her father’s secret, or knowledge of the therianthropists, they’d have no use for her.
“Okay, honey, now open real quick.”
Caitie slowly moved her hands from her face, wiping her tears, and I clicked the flash.
“Your dad is a wonderful, normal man, who’s a traveling salesman. He’s often away on business. Therianthropists are just pretend.” I exhale a deep sigh. “And your cat Darla ran away. But she loves you very much. You’re in the middle of a nap. When you wake up, make some food, and be a strong girl.”
I figured that bought me a few minutes. I ordered food to be delivered to the house, packed anything I hid away in the house, and left. This would be my last mission. I would find Caitie’s father. I would make sure he got home safely if it was the last thing I ever did.
As I ran down the street with my backpack, I could hear Caitie, awake, and calling for her kitty from the doorway behind me. I wipe the tears from my eyes, and unhooked the pink collar from my neck, leaving it by the side of the road.
I’ll be back kiddo. I promise