Forever Knight

Sidney's Great Adventure

Sidney Lambert watched as his pet human, Natalie Lambert, took the carrier out of the closet and put it on the middle of the living room floor. That meant one of three things. Either they were going to see her boyfriend Nick Knight. Or he was going to her friend Grace's and she was going to Nick's. Or they were going to the vet's. Two of these scenarios were appealing. One was appalling. Sidney slowly circled the crate, sniffing it carefully. Although he knew it was his crate, and that no other cat had been near it, he had to keep up appearances. He was a cat, after all. Finally, he crawled inside and lay down. He would deal with where he was going when he got there. For now, it was time for his hourly nap, and the activity of checking out the carrier had left him nearly exhausted.

&&&&&&&&&&

Natalie was whistling a cheerful tune as she took the carrier to the car. That was a good sign. She hardly ever whistled when she had to take him vet. Then he noticed there was no bags or her medical case. That was not good. That meant that she would probably not be going to Nick's. She almost always took something with her when she visited him. She opened the back door.

# No! Not in the back seat! # He meowed. She must have understood. She moved the crate to the front seat and strapped it in with the seatbelt. So where was she going? All that thinking made him tired, so he settled in for another nap.

When he awoke, the car was moving. While most cats hated the car, he liked going for rides. Natalie knew that. Why, then did she put him in this blasted carrier? # Let me out of here!# He meowed loudly. She didn't look his way. Maybe she couldn't hear him over the sounds of traffic. # Let Me Out!# He meowed louder. Still no response. # OUT! NOW !# He howled as loud as he could. The car eventually came to a stop and Natalie put her hand between the carrier bars. "Poor Sidney." She said, scratching his ear as best she could. "You don't like riding in that carrier, do you? Well, I've got a surprise for you. I'm taking you to a pet store where people can bring their pets. Once I'm sure there's no problems, I'll let you out of the cage and put you on a leash. You'll love it there."

Sidney understood only a few words. Surprise ... Pet store ... Leash ... Love. It didn't make any sense. He would have to double his efforts to teach her basic Cat. That was all there was to it. The car started up. This would require a great deal of thought. And that meant expending energy. He'd better take a nap before he began.

&&&&&&&&&&

By the time he finished sleeping, they were there. Wherever there was. Natalie, true to her word, opened the carrier door. She put her hands under his front paws and tried to pull him out of the carrier.

# NO WAY! # Sidney screeched. He braced his paws against the sides of the carrier. He wasn't about to leave until he was good and ready. And he was definitely not ready ... not yet. He had to make sure the area was safe before he took even one step out of the protection of the carrier. Natalie pulled harder. Sidney locked his legs and dug his claws into the sides. The carrier with the attached cat came out of the car. The crate fell away, leaving Sidney hanging upside down in Natalie's arms. She tried to right him. At the same time, he tried to right himself. She lost her grip and he went flying through the air. He did a double twist in midair, and landed about five feet away. Right in front of a big dog.

A BIG … FRACKING … DOG!

The dog barked. Sidney howled and arched his back. His hair stood up all over. The dog barked again and growled, baring his teeth. Sidney did not know many words in Dog, but what this dog was saying was the same no matter what the language.

"NO! NERO! NO! BAD DOG! NO!" The dog's owner yelled, tugging on Nero's leash. "HEEL! SIT! " It did no good. Nero was a mastiff and the tiny lady on the other end of the leash was barely five feet tall. Nero's put his head to Sidney's snarled something. It wasn't a greeting, Sidney was certain of that. His nose was even with Sidney's. Sid swiped at Nero and ran under the nearest car to buy some time. He was not afraid of dogs. He bested Mrs. Gilroy's Pekinese, Precious, on a regular basis. He had even tangled with Mr. Hollingsworth's Doberman, Killer, and only lost a small patch of fur. Nero wasn't Precious or Killer, however. He needed a plan of action.

He could hear Natalie calling his name over Nero's barking. Suddenly, there was no time for plans. He could hear the engine in the car he was under roar to life.

"MY CAT! He's under your car!" Natalie screamed.

Sidney darted for the next car. In the brief time he was in the open, Nero nipped his side. Screeching and rolling on his back, Sid grabbed Nero's head with his front paws and at the same time, raked his muzzle with his hind claws. This time he drew blood. Nero backed off, yelping and pawing at his bloody face. Nero's owner was screaming something at Natalie. Natalie was yelling at Nero's owner. The driver of the car was shouting at both of them. And they were both bellowing at the driver.

Sidney noticed an area that had tall grass and bushes. A perfect place to hide until things cooled down. He ran toward it as fast as he could. He could hear the humans, yelling, screaming and running after him. He had to find a safe place ... fast. He spotted a drainpipe. He crawled in and followed it until it ended. He was in the open again. He could still hear the humans. They were right behind him and gaining fast. Across the roadway was a wooden fence. He could see an opening in it barely large enough for him to crawl through. He darted across the street and to the fence. He struggled and burst through the hole just as he felt a hand grab at the end of his tail. He wiggled free and sat panting and shaking.

Not for long. Two dogs this time were closing in on him. They weren't as big or as ferocious as Nero, but that wasn't the point. They were after him. That was the point. He tore across the yard and scrambled over the opposite fence. In a matter of seconds, the dogs had wriggled through the gate and were after him again. He darted left. They were still on his trail. He broke to the right. Still they came. Finally he spotted a large old tree and scooted up it. After what seemed an eternity, it could have been only a few minutes, or maybe an hour ... cats have no sense of time, after all ... the dogs grew tired of waiting and left. Sidney cautiously surveyed the area. There were no more dogs and he could not hear the humans. Carefully, he picked his way down the trunk. The danger seemed to be over. He concluded it was okay to return to his Natalie.

He held his nose high in the air and sniffed deeply and repeatedly. He could not catch her scent anywhere. He reconnoitered in several directions. Nothing looked or smelled familiar. # Natalie! Where are you?# He meowed loudly. # Please answer me. # There was no response. He tried again from a different vantage point. Nothing. A third attempt from yet another spot yielded the same results. There was only one explanation. She was lost, and he didn't know the way back home without her.

The sun had set by this time and the sky was turning black. He was pelted with large drops of water as it started to rain. Hard. Shivering, both from rain and from fear, Sidney huddled under a breezeway. Several cats and a dog passed by, but they were too busy trying to get out of the storm to notice the gray and white cat crouched by the garbage can. It was cold, but at least it was reasonably dry.

Slowly, he became aware that the wet spot on his side was not from the rain. It was blood. Nero had broken skin. Carefully, he licked the wound. It was painful, but there didn't seem to be any internal damage. If he were home, Natalie would clean and bandage it for him. She would give him a treat and a lot of TLC. Home ... # Natalie ... Where are you? # He began to mew softly. Would he ever see home and his beloved Natalie again?

Another pain assaulted him. This was not from the wound in his side, but from his stomach. Hunger. His instincts told him to hunt, but he didn't know exactly how. He was mostly an indoor cat, and his occasional forays into the outside world were for play, not for food. The biggest thing he had ever hunted was an occasional ant or spider that happened to crawl across the kitchen floor.

&&&&&&&&&&

Natalie finally stopped. There was no sign of either Sidney or the two beagles that were chasing him. The last time the small search party had seen of any of them was as they disappeared through the hedges about four blocks from the parking lot. Even the barking was becoming difficult to pinpoint. The party had broken up, some circling the blocks to the east while the rest went the opposite way. No one reported any sign of the cat or the dogs that were after him. Finally the beagles came trotting back to their yard. Now, they had nothing that could connect them to a small gray cat who could be almost anywhere. When the rain started coming down, the searchers had gradually disbanded until only Natalie continued the search. Now, with darkness setting in, even she was ready to give up.

Reluctantly, she headed for her car. Maybe, just maybe, he had managed to circle back and was impatiently waiting for her to let him in. As she started down the row where her auto was parked, she thought she heard a familiar meow. "SIDNEY! SID!" She called, ecstatically. "Where are you, you naughty kitty? Mommy's been going crazy ... " Then she realized that the woman behind her had a large black cat in her arms. The cat was objecting strenuously to being held. Wiping the tears from her eyes, she got in her car. Without any conscious thought, she reached for her cell phone and pressed the speed dial for Nick's number.

&&&&&&&&&&

Through the haze of sleep, Nick Knight heard the phone ringing. It seemed far away from his dreams of Natalie. He heard the answering machine kick in. "This is Nick Knight." The machine began. "I'm either asleep or incommunicado. Leave a message and I'll get back to you."

"Nick!" Natalie's voice said. She sounded as if she had been crying. "Something awful has happened."

Faster that the eye could see, he was at the phone. "Nat! What's wrong? Are you all right?" Panic tinged his voice.

"Uh. Huh. I'm okay. I'm fine. It's Sidney." She said between sobs. "I took him to that new pet store. You know, the one where you can bring your pets, well, he got away from me and now he's missing."

"Calm down. Give me your location. I'll be there as soon as I can." He cautiously looked out through the slats of the window shutters. It was almost sunset, and the dark clouds that covered the sky would make it possible for him to go out without too much danger. "And don't worry. Sidney can take care of himself. Remember, he is a cat after all." He wrote down the address and hung up.

&&&&&&&&&&

Sid squeezed himself as tight as he could against the wall. The rain was coming harder now. The sun had set and with the heavy clouds, the sky was pitch black. The only source of illumination was from a porch light two houses away. He was wet. He was hungry. He was cold. And he missed his Natalie.

&&&&&&&&&&

Natalie breathed a sigh of relief when she heard Nick's Caddy pull beside her. If anyone could find Sid, Nick could. A few moments later, he was in the car beside her. The rain was coming down hard now, and in traveling just the few feet from his car to hers, he was already soaking wet. She handed him the towel she kept in the car to dry himself.

"I know you're worried." He said after Natalie had told him what happened. "He's probably safe under some porch waiting out the storm."

"My head knows that. I just wish my heart did too" She said. "But he's never been outside this long and never at night."

After a few minutes, Nick stuck his hand out the window. "Well, it looks like the rain is starting to let up. I'm going to make a sweep of the neighborhood. Maybe I can spot something." He opened the door and walked around to the rear of the store. When he was sure no one could see him, he took to the air, flying low and slow enough that he had a full view of the ground. He mentally divided the area into one-block grids and covered ten blocks in each direction. He paid special

attention to backyards and empty lots, but there was no sign of Natalie's feline companion. Finally, he returned to the parking lot.

&&&&&&&&&&

Sid caught the faint scent of something familiar. He knew that scent. He had smelled it many times before. What was it? Then it dawned on him! It was Nick's scent! It was faint, but it was definitely there. Natalie's Nick was nearby! He had been found! He scurried out of the makeshift shelter of the breezeway and ran into front yard as fast as he could.

# NICK! # He meowed as loud as he could. # OVER HERE! I'M OVER HERE! # His little heart sank as the scent grew fainter. Nick was leaving the area. Sid knew that Nick had powers other humans didn't, including night vision, but with the clouds and the darkness, it was possible that he could not see Sidney running around the yard. Slowly Sidney started back to the breezeway. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks. TRACKS! That's it! If Nick was in the area, he must have left tracks. If he left tracks, Sidney could follow them back. Back to Natalie! Back to Home!

Excitedly, he began sniffing the wet pavement. Alternating holding his head high and pressing his nose to the ground, he went to the corners at either end of the block and on each side of the street. There was no scent of anyone, let alone Nick. He let out a long kitty sigh and returned to the breezeway. Maybe he had just imagined it. Maybe he wanted to be found so badly that he was hallucinating. But then, cats don't hallucinate.

&&&&&&&&&&

Nick opened the car door and sat down. Natalie did not need special abilities to see that he had no luck. His face looked almost as dejected as her own did.

"It's no use. I've searched as far as I can and there's no sign of him. I can't take any more time off work or Captain Cohen will hang my hide out to fry in the sun. She's been in a royal snit all week and she'll probably chew me from now to Thursday of next week for being late as it is. I promise I will make a point to tell all the patrols in this area to keep an eye out for the little fella."

Natalie nodded. She should have been at the morgue a half hour ago herself. She reached over and kissed Nick lightly on the cheek as he opened the door. She waited until he pulled out and then she put her own car in gear and exited the parking lot.

&&&&&&&&&&

Sidney sniffed the air. There was food nearby. He followed the scent to what he recognized as a trash can. It didn't smell like the Smiley Cat Kibbles that he was used to at home, but he was not home. Beggars can't be choosers. He had heard Natalie say that phrase many times and somehow, it seemed to fit this situation. Carefully, he climbed onto the can. Now all he had to do was figure a way to get the lid off. He started pawing at the lid, but that only threw the can off balance and both he and the can went clattering to the driveway. A light went on in the house, and the door opened. He heard a male human yelling something out of the doorway. In a panic, Sidney ran off. (So much for dinner.) He meowed.

&&&&&&&&&&

You want me to do WHAT?" Michael Combes asked. "This is some kind of a joke. Right?"

"No joke." Nick Knight told the police dispatcher. "Remember last Christmas when you had everyone looking for a Rudolph Beanie Baby for your daughter? Well, this is payback time. At least from me it is."

"That was different. That was for a gift for my kid." Combes retorted. "You really mean it. You really want me to put out an APB on your cat, don't you?" He could tell that the blond detective was serious.

"Well, Sidney's not actually my cat, either. He belongs to the coroner, Dr. Lambert. He's missing, and she's very worried. You see ... "

"Don't say anything more. I don't want to know any of the details." Combes sighed deeply. "Since it's for the good Doctor ... Okay. Call me a sucker if you want to. I'll do it. If this gets out though, my buns will be flying just under the Maple Leaf by tomorrow night, and I'll know who to come looking for." He picked up a pen and a missing person report. "What's the cat look like?"

&&&&&&&&&&

Natalie sat at her desk. It was a slow night. Only a couple of routine traffic deaths. Although to her mind, no death should be considered routine. Nothing unusual about the autopsies, though. Both persons had been killed instantly. One was struck down as he ran from between two parked cars into the path of a semi trailer. The other died when her auto struck a traffic barrier and overturned. She had not been wearing a seatbelt and her head went through the windshield. In a way, the doctor was glad. If there had been a serious autopsy, she doubted she could concentrate. Of course, the other side of the coin was that the slowness gave her plenty of time on her hands. Time to think about her missing pet. She mentally pictured Sidney lying on the side of the road, a victim of a speeding car. Sidney bleeding to death after being attacked by a wild animal. Sidney dying of starvation or freezing to death. And at least a dozen other scenarios equally macabre.

She picked up the phone and dialed Nick's number.

"Natalie." He said as he picked up the phone. "Don't worry. The patrols are searching the neighborhood as we speak."

"How did you know it was me?"

"You never heard of caller ID? Besides, you've been calling every hour on the hour. I can almost set my watch by it."

"I know, but I'm worried. Wouldn't you worry if it were me that was lost out there in the cold?"

"You? Yes. But Sidney's a cat. Like I told you earlier, he's probably curled up under some porch to get out of the rain."

"But it stopped raining hours ago."

"Then he's undoubtedly sound asleep."

&&&&&&&&&&

A strange sound startled Sidney awake. Carefully, he crawled out of his hiding place to investigate, but it was only the sound of a car full of teenagers with the radio blasting at full volume. He went back to his hideout. After the trash can incident, he had retreated to the back of another house. His every nerve was taut and strained. He had never spent the night outdoors. A shiver went through his body. Even though the rain stopped a long time ago, he was still wet and chilled. The cardboard box he had found was soggy too, and the night air was cold and damp, as well. He wished for nothing more than his warm dry spot, in the warm dry room, cuddled up on the warm dry foot of Natalie's warm dry bed.

&&&&&&&&&&

Natalie stifled a yawn and put the folder back in the cabinet. It was nearly sunrise, and her shift was technically over hours ago. She was hesitant to leave the coroner's office, just in case there was some news about her missing cat.

She knew, from numerous calls to both Nick and the dispatcher's office, that Captain Cohen had found out about the APB and had surreptitiously assigned extra patrol cars and even several beat officers to the area where Sidney was last seen. Even though she would deny with all she was worth, Amanda Cohen was a softie at heart. It was one of the worst kept secrets in the 96th precinct.

Reluctantly, she took her coat and purse and headed for the door.

&&&&&&&&&&

Nick pulled the Caddy into the parking lot of the PetPlus store. After he had left the precinct, he had been absently driving around, thinking about Natalie and how she would be devastated if anything happened to Sidney. She had gotten the cat when he was only eight weeks old. That was eight years ago, and they had been almost inseparable ever since. When his concentration returned, he was not really surprised to find himself here. He got out and looked at the sky. His vampire senses told him that sunrise was only a little more than an hour and a half away. There was still more than enough time for one quick sweep of the area. Even though the patrols and beat officers reported nothing unusual, he wanted to see for himself.

&&&&&&&&&&

Sid yawned and stretched. The night had been a series of short, nervous naps. Even though he was nearly exhausted, every sound had him wide awake and alert. He was still cold and wet. The wound in his side from Nero's bite had scabbed over and was little more than a dull ache. There was a much stronger and more pressing pain in his stomach. He had not eaten since early yesterday.

He thought he caught scent of Nick again. It was only a brief image, actually. He sniffed in every direction and it was not there. It must be wishful thinking.

There was a stronger scent. One he recognized as another cat. Immediately, he went into alert mode. Then he saw him. There was a male black and white spotted cat standing in the driveway. He was the biggest cat Sid had ever seen and he was heading straight for him.

# I am G'owl. This is my territory! Get out now or face my wrath! # G'owl hissed at Sid.

# I am called Sidney. # Sid returned. # I would gladly leave, but I cannot find my way back home. Can you help me? #

# Sidney! What kind of name is that? # G'owl said in a low growl. Then he noticed Sidney's collar and tag. # You're nothing but a housecat .# He spat. # I'll tell you once more, Housecat. Get out of my territory! Or Else. # G'owl emphasized his words with a swipe to Sid's nose that drew blood.

Although Sidney had been in catfights before, they were mostly for show. A lot of hissing and spitting and an occasional swipe or two, but not much more. This one was different. G'owl was not playing. Sid raised his hackles and bristled his tail. He bared his teeth and lunged at G'owl. G'owl sidestepped easily and dove for Sid. With one motion, G'owl rolled over, grabbed Sid around the neck and began raking his belly with his back claws. Sid could feel the claws dig into the soft skin on his underside. At the same time, he dug his fangs into the skin of Sid's neck. Sid began to rake G'owl with his own claws, and although he couldn't reach G'owl's neck, he bit into the large cat's left ear.

With a howl of pain, G'owl broke the grasp and Sid jumped on his back. He bit into G'owl's neck and held on as G'owl rolled and bucked in an attempt to dislodge him.

# Okay! You two! STOP IT! This instant! # Another cat howled.

Immediately G'owl broke his attack. Although Sid did not recognize the voice, he recognized the authority in it. He, too stopped.

# G'owl! # The other cat said, swiping at the black and white cat with her paw. # I'm ashamed of you. Attacking a visiting cat without provocation. # The speaker was a tri-color female about the same size and age as Sid.

G'owl only hung his head and crouched in the position of submission. He slowly backed from the female.

# Where's your manners? # She hissed and bristled at him.

# But he's only a stupid housecat. # G'owl meowed as if in defense of his actions.

# I don't care! # The female said. # If I heard correctly, he's only passing through. He doesn't present any threat to you or the others in the Community. You have an awful attitude, G'owl, and if you don't straighten up real soon, I'm going to give you one hell of an attitude adjustment. Now why don't you go and sharpen your claws on a loudbang stick. I'll take care of Sidney. # G'owl put his tail down and lowered his head as he turned and crept down the street.

# Don't worry, Sidney. # The female said. # G'owl is a big bully. He takes some kind of delight in using his size to scare the smaller cats. By the way, my name is M'wau. It means Cat Of Beauty. My pet human, though, calls me Patches. G'owl's name means Swagger Strut. What's your cat name? #

Sidney looked at her a bit sheepishly. # I don't have one. # He mewed softly.

# That's okay. I know lots of cats that don't. Especially if they've spent most of their time indoors. #

# Tell me, M'wau, why aren't you afraid if G'owl? He's so much bigger than you are. #

# Didn't your mother teach you ANYTHING about cat life? The Community is a matriarchy. And it just so happens that I am alpha female in the area. I'm also G'owl's dominant. He may rule the neighborhood, but I rule him. #

# The only thing my mother taught me was how to use the litter box. I was taken from her practically as soon as I was weaned. My human, Natalie, raised me since then. She's very nice, but she isn't a cat, so she couldn't teach me anything. We live in an apartment, so I don't get out much. Do you think you could teach me about cat society? That is if G'owl won't be upset. #

# I'd be glad to teach you. And as far as G'owl is concerned, I really don't care what he thinks. If he doesn't like it he can go stick his tail under a whirrynoisy grasswhackie. #

Sid swayed slightly.

# Are you all right? G'owl didn't hurt you too badly, did he? #

# No. It's just that I haven't had anything to eat since yesterday and with all the things that happened since then, I'm a little hungry. #

# Yesterday? What's that? #

Sidney thought a few moments to find the right idea so M'wau would understand. # Sun up before this. # He finally said.

# Oh. # She replied. # You must be very hungry then. Let's go hunting. You do know how to hunt, don't you? #

# Not really. #

# Then that will be our first lesson. There's a woods near here that is chock full of squeakers, chipchips and hoppitys. We'll start there. #

&&&&&&&&&&

Sidney relaxed atop the fence, his eyes half closed. The day had been extremely beneficial. M'wau had taught him more about being a cat in a few hours than he ever knew there was. They had hunted and caught several fat juicy micees and a hoppity. When she caught a chipchip, she laid it before him.

# What's that for? # He had asked.

# When you like somecat, you give that cat a present to show it. Most times, it's the tom who does it for the queen, but I didn't know whether you knew about that tradition or not so I decided to bring you one. #

# No, I didn't know that. #

Sid caught a small squeaker and gave it to M'wau.

# You learn fast. Since you don't have a cat name, I'm going to give you one. From now on, you will be known as Me'raw. It means Brave Traveler. #

# Me'raw. I like it.# He turned and presented himself for her anal sniff. He remembered one of the cats in his own neighborhood telling him that was the highest honor. She did the same for him.

She had introduced him to the other members of her Community. Me'wep (Little Voiced One), a young thin black tom. M'owr, (Forever Kitten), large gray and white tomcat who M'wau said was not the sharpest thorn on the bush. E'arr (Wise Teacher), an elderly white male who seemed to live more in the past than the present. P'reep (Pleaser Of Females) and finally O'wuu (Mother Many Times). P'reep and O'wuu were feral and the rest had pet humans. G'owl was conspicuously absent from the group.

They all seemed friendly. Each offered whatever they could to try and help him get to somewhere that he knew. In gratitude, he offered them each an anal sniff and they returned the favor. O'wuu was in season and she told him that she would like nothing more than to bear his litter. She seemed genuinely disappointed when he told her he had been fixed. She did let him jump her fur, though. It was the best he had ever had. O'wuu said that it was good, too. He left the area walking on air.

They had led him back to the PetPlus parking lot and he had managed to find Nick's scent there. He found the scent of Nick's car, too. E'arr had explained that not only living things had unique scents, but inanimate things as well. Using this knowledge, he had been able to follow the car scent for several streets until it became masked with the scents of so many other cars. At least he knew he was going in the right direction.

He had climbed up on the fence to get his bearings and to rest. He nodded involuntarily, and for the first time since this incident had begun, napped peacefully in the late afternoon sun.

&&&&&&&&&&

It was well after dusk when Sidney woke, refreshed and revitalized from his sleep. He hadn't meant to sleep that long, but the events of the night before and the developments of the day had left the cat drained and exhausted. Although the hunt with M'wau that morning had filled his belly, he was hungry again. At least now, he had the knowledge to forage for himself.

He trotted through the alleys until he spotted a small shopping complex. Yes, there was what P'reep had said to look for. He called it a Goodsmell Eatstore. Natalie had called it a restaurant. According to P'reep, their garbage was the freshest and tastiest of all. He had to admit, it did make his mouth water.

Carefully he approached one of the huge cans and climbed onto the opening. Several large squeakers scampered out and across the alley. He thought about chasing them, but the allure of the readily available food supply before him overrode his newfound hunting instincts. He jumped onto a plastic bag and tore a hole in it. He had hit the jackpot! This bag was filled with meats! Freshly cooked meats to boot. Hungrily he grabbed a piece that he recognized both from smell and sight as a steak. Although Natalie had only given him small pieces of it, he had seen it on her plate many times. As he bit into it, he could have sworn he had died and gone to cat heaven. He would have to mark this place for later.

He spotted a human coming into the alley. But it wasn't exactly a human. It looked like a human, but it didn't smell like a human. It smelled a little bit like Nick, but not exactly like Nick either. He couldn't sense any threat from it, though, so he decided to ignore it and keep eating. He would keep a close eye on this creature, though.

Screed came into the alley. He was singing, badly off key, a limerick about an inexperienced monk's encounter with a comely nun. When Sidney jumped on the dumpster, Screed had spotted the rats scurrying across the alley. He looked on the rim and saw the gray and white cat sitting there. He tipped his hand to him. "Thanks, Mate." He said as he caught one of the rodents. "You say-ved me the trouble of fishin' these little ratsies out me-self. We makes a good team, you and me, we do." He held out his hand. "Everybody just calls me Screed. I don't suppose you gots a name now, do you." Screed noticed the collar and tag around Sid's neck. "I guesses you do gots a name. I seen those shiny thingies on doggie dogs, but this is the first time I ever seen one on a kitty puss."

Sid sniffed the proffered hand. There was no fear or threat in the man's scent. Cautiously, he let Screed scratch his ear.

"I sees there's writing on your shiny taggie." Screed said. "Me, I never learned to read so good." He thought a moment. "Of course, V-Man, 'e can read real good. Maybe I could take you to 'im so's 'e can tell me what's on that taggie of yours." Screed reached for Sid, but Sidney spooked and ran into the space between the container and the wall.

Screed followed. "Now, you don't need to be afeared of ol' Screed." He said. "I won't eat you or nuthin' like that. I wouldn't do that to no fellow 'unter. Not me. Some of the other carouches, they might, but not Screed. No sir-ee." He looked down at Sidney and reached for him. "Oh! Bli-i-m-e-e-y!" Screed gasped in a high thin voice. Sidney was standing at the foot of a man. A very dead man. Slowly, Screed backed out of the space. "I thinks I'd best be reportin' this to the coppers. A-nonny-mouse-ly, of course." Slowly, he backed out of the alley. Sidney followed at a discrete distance. Screed found a pay phone and fished out several coins from his raggedy great coat and dropped them into the slot. A few minutes later, he returned to the dumpster. He reached for Sidney, and this time the cat let him pick him up. "I think it would be a good idea if we made ourselves scarce before the gend-armies arrives. Just in case they thinks one of us might 'ave did the bloke in."

&&&&&&&&&&

Nick walked over to Natalie. She was bent over the body. As usual, the alley was filled with officers, technicians and their equipment. After the police photographers had finished and Forensics had made their examinations, the dumpster had been moved to let the Coroner's team have more room to work in.

"Male. Black. Approximate age 40 or less, but looks about fifty five to sixty." Natalie said as she straightened up. "My best guess is that he died of hypothermia and malnutrition. Time of death at least 24 hours ago. Severe rigor mortis. There is no sign whatsoever of any struggle or foul play. Of course, I can't say positively until I finish the autopsy."

"That pretty much dovetails with what the shop owners we've talked to say." Nick said. "The restaurant manager says he's been coming around for about two years. According to him, the man is only known as Snuffy. He stays at the Open Shelter whenever there's room. When there isn't, he curls up wherever he can find the space. The manager gives Snuffy and several of his friends leftover meals in exchange for menial jobs such as sweeping the place or dishwashing. Several of the employees say they've seen him sleeping behind the dumpster before. My guess is same as yours. That Snuffy died from exposure." He closed his notebook. "As far as I'm concerned, this case is as good as closed. That is, unless the autopsy turns up something unusual."

Natalie caught a mental picture of Sidney. What if something like what happened to this poor unfortunate had happened to Sidney as well. While she knew it wasn't fair to equate a cat with a person, the thought was there just the same.

Nick noticed the look on Natalie's face. He didn't need to be psychic to know what had caused it, since he was thinking the same thing. He took her hand and gave it a quick squeeze. "Sidney's Okay." He whispered and gave her a quick smile.

"You know something that nobody else does?" She whispered back excitedly.

"No. Just a hunch. I can feel it."

Natalie's face dropped and she went back to her examination of Snuffy.

&&&&&&&&&&

" 'Ay, V-Man!" Screed called as he climbed the stairs to the loft of the abandoned church. "I needs your 'elp real bad, I do."

Javier Vachon put down his glass of 'Raven Special' and went to the edge to the choir loft. "What did you do now, Screed?" He called to his carouche friend. "And what trouble do I have to bail you out this time?"

"We didn't do nuthin' this time, I swear. 'E was already dead when we found 'im. I swear 'e was." Screed said as he slung his backpack to the floor.

"Who was dead and who is 'We'?" Vachon asked.

"The stiff in the alley behind that there restaurant, that's 'oo. I called the coppers just like you told me to do when I seen trouble. Then we got ourselves out of there before anyone seen us, we did. I remembered you saying that we shouldn't call any more attention to us than what we 'ad to."

"You brought the stiff here with you? I mean the body?"

"Oo, No, V-Man. We left the bloke where 'e was and then we 'ightailed it 'ere right fast."

The Spanish vampire grabbed Screed by lapels of his grubby coat and lifted him several inches off the ground. "I'm going to ask this only one more time. WHO … IS … WE?"

As if in answer, Sidney gave a loud meow from the greasy backpack the Carouche wore, and stuck his head out of the corner of the flap.

" 'Im is We." Screed said, lifting the cat out. "I found 'im in the alley behind the Rancho Steak House and we was 'unting ratsies together when we came across this dead corpse layin' back of the dumpster. We makes a good team, 'im and me. 'E flushes 'em out and I catches 'em. Can I keeps 'im?"

Vachon picked Sidney up and examined him. "No, Screed, you can't keep him. See this tag? That means he belongs to someone. According to this, his name is Sidney and he belongs to a Natalie Lambert."

"Do you think this Natalie Lambert lady will be wanting 'er kitty puss back? And if she doesn't can I keeps 'im then?"

"She'll want him back, all right. If she didn't, she wouldn't have put this collar and tag on him. In fact, I'll bet she's worried about him and missing him right now."

"Do you think there'll be a re-ward for Sidney Kitty Puss's return?"

"Could be. We'll ask her."

"What do you mean ask 'er? Is she coming 'ere?"

"No, she is not coming here." Javier said with a look of exasperation on his face. He knew that the Cockney carouche was a bit slow on the uptake, but this was ridiculous "There's an address on the tag. We'll take him to her."

"Okay, but I gets to carry the knapsack."

&&&&&&&&&&

Sidney squirmed inside the knapsack. Even through the cloth, he could tell he was home. His Natalie's scent was very strong, as well as his own markings and those of a few of the other cats in his neighborhood.

Vachon dismounted the motorcycle and reached for the backpack. Screed pulled it to himself. "Sidney's my buddy pal, 'e is. I found 'im, and I should be the one to return 'im to this Natalie Lambert lady person. If there is a re-ward. I'll bet she'll be so grateful, she'll give it straight away to me."

Vachon led Screed inside the apartment house lobby and found the Lambert mailbox. He rang the buzzer above it several times and waited for an answer. There was none. After a few more tries, he started to the door.

"Where we goin' now, V-man?" Screed asked.

"Home."

"Does that mean I can keep Sidney Kitty Puss?"

"No, Screed You can't keep Sidney." He said shaking his head. "There's also a telephone number on the tag, too. I'm going to find a phone booth and give her a call."

Vachon dialed the number. "You have reached Doctor Natalie Lambert." The recorded voice on the answering machine said. "I'm not available at the present time. If this is an emergency, I can be reached through my paging service at 555-2269. If it's not an emergency, leave a message. "

"Doctor Lambert." Vachon began. "My name is Javier Vachon. You don't know me, but I have your cat, Sidney. A friend of mine found him near the Rancho Steak House earlier this evening. I will be at the old church on Collier Street until morning. You can pick him up there."

&&&&&&&&&&

Natalie dialed her home number and then the code for playback of any messages. It had been nearly two days since Sidney disappeared from the PetPlus parking lot and the chances that he would be found were getting dim. Cruiser and foot patrols had been on the lookout for the gray cat since then and several officers had volunteered to conduct a detailed search of the area on their own time, but nothing had been turned up so far.

She had been calling home every few hours, hoping against hope there would be some word. The only responses she had gotten were four hang-ups, two solicitations from an awning firm, and one call from a dance studio telling her she had been selected for a free dance lesson.

" ... You can pick him up there." The machine relayed. Quickly, she punched in the code for replay and wrote down the address. She grabbed her coat. "Sidney's been found!" She called to her assistant, Grace, as she headed for the door. "I'm going to get him!"

&&&&&&&&&&

Sidney struggled as he felt Screed get back on the motorcycle. # NO! NO! Don't take me away. This is my home! # He howled. # Let me out! # It did no good. It was almost impossible to hear him over the roar of the engine. Even if they could, unless they spoke Cat, which Sidney doubted, Vachon and Screed wouldn't be able to understand what he was trying to say to them in the first place. The motorcycle slowed and stopped at the church. Screed got off and took off the backpack. He put it on the ground and rubbed his shoulders. # Let me out! # Sidney screeched over and over.

Screed loosened the flap. "What's the matter, Sidney Kitty Puss." He said, patting his head. "I knows you don't like it bein' there in Screed's old knapsack, do you?" This was the chance Sidney had been waiting for. It would be now or never. There was barely enough room, but before Screed could even react, Sid managed to jump out of the backpack and take off down the street as fast as he could.

Screed started after him, but Vachon held him back. "No. Let him go. I have a feeling he knows where he wants to go, and it ain't here. Besides, as fast as he's moving, I don't think we cold catch him unless we flew."

&&&&&&&&&&

Sidney paused for a moment and sniffed the air. Yes, the scent of Vachon's motorcycle was strong. This was one trail that he was positive he could follow. Unlike Nick's Caddy, the motorcycle had a very distinctive scent that was totally unlike any other of the vehicle scents in the area. Also, it had not been that long ago that the scent would be dissipated. He said a prayer in thanksgiving to Bast on E'arr's behalf, for all the elderly cat had taught him. All he had to do was backtrack, and he'd be home. Home. The thought was making him giddy! Holding his head high to be sure he wouldn't lose the scent, Sidney took off at a fast trot.

He remembered all the lessons M'wau had told him about traveling the streets. Stay in the shadows as much as possible. Look both ways. Wait until there were no cars coming. If there are humans going with you, follow them, but don't get too close. He said another prayer to Bast for her. He did all that she had said. Eventually, there were some things that were starting to look and smell familiar. He recognized the small playground across the street from where he was. He was almost fairly sure that he had been there before on several of his trips outside the apartment. Keeping in the shrubbery around the fence, Sidney made his way around the perimeter of the playground.

He spotted a tree at the edge of the swing area and ran for it. He sniffed it, and sure enough! There was HIS scent! HE HAD BEEN HERE. RECENTLY! He climbed to the first branch to get a better perspective.

That's when he heard the screams. To his rear, a female human was being held on the ground by a bigger male human. While he couldn't understand what the woman human was yelling, the tone was the same for of any species. From what he was doing and the way she was screaming, there was no doubt in Sidney's mind that she was being hurt. Sidney could not allow this to happen.

He jumped from the tree and with a mighty leap, he landed, screeching, on the male human's back. He sank his teeth into the back of the man's neck and hung on, at the same time raking the shoulders with his back legs. The man howled in pain and released his grip on the woman, who took off running and screaming. The man desperately tried to grasp Sidney and pull him off, but every time he got his hands near him, Sidney bit as hard as he could. Screaming in pain and frustration, the man dropped to the ground and began to roll around frantically in an attempt to dislodge the cat. Out of the corner of his eye, Sidney saw that the woman was safe. He released his grip on the man, who ran out of the playground.

The woman was coming toward Sidney. He was certain she meant to punish him for attacking the man. Quickly he scrambled under the fence and hid under the bushes in a neighboring yard.

&&&&&&&&&&

Natalie pulled up in front of the church and got out. "There must be some mistake." She said to herself. The church had been abandoned several years ago and had been boarded up ever since. She studied the address on the note she had written. She had checked with the city directory and there was only one church listed on Collier Street. This had to be the place. After getting a flashlight from her car, she tried one of the doors. It was unlocked. Slowly, cautiously, she entered. Cobwebs hung thick from the ceiling and debris littered the floor. Someone was watching her. She could feel it. "Hello?" She called timidly. Her words echoed through the darkness. "Anybody here?" She whispered.

"Doctor Lambert?"

Natalie nearly jumped out of her skin. She whirled around and stood face to face with the Spanish vampire. She stifled a scream. In the beam of the flashlight, he looked very frightening and otherworldly.

"I didn't mean to startle you." He said softly. "I'm Javier Vachon, the one who called you about your cat. My living quarters are in the choir loft. If you'll follow me."

Natalie began to breathe again and followed Vachon up the stairs.

"I'm sorry, but the cat got out of the bag ... no pun intended ... as soon as we got back to the church from your place." Vachon told her. "He headed west. At least that's in the general direction of your apartment. I think he's trying to go back home."

"Yeah. We tried to follow him, we did, but he was lots too fast for us." Screed added.

"I understand, and I thank you for trying. At least I know he's still alive. That's a big help."

"If you're really grateful, maybe you could show ... OUCH!" Screed yelled as Vachon covertly kicked his leg. "What'd you do that for, V-Man?"

Vachon only hissed at him.

"That's all right, Mr. ... "

"Screed. Me name's Screed." He wiped his right hand on his coat and held it out to the Doctor. "Right pleased to make your a-quaint-an-ence, I am."

"As a matter of fact, there is a reward for his return, and I'd be happy to give you something for your efforts in finding him." She opened her purse and pulled out her wallet. Vachon put his hand over the doctor's before she could open it.

"That won't be necessary." He said. "Screed and I were happy just to be of help."

"But V-Man." Screed said. "She said there was a re-ward for the kitty puss's return ... "

"But we didn't return the cat."

"De-tails, V-Man. De-tails."

Over Vachon's protests, Natalie pressed a twenty into each of their hands. "This is just to say thanks for what you were trying to do."

Screed took her hand and pressed his lips to the back. "We was just glad to 'elp, Miss Doctor Natalie Lambert Ma'm. we was." He looked at Vachon with a smug smile.

&&&&&&&&&&

Nick Knight rang the bell for Natalie's apartment several times. Each time there was no response. She probably hadn't gotten home yet. Grace had called to tell him that Sidney had been found and that she had gone to get him. Nick thought it would be a good idea if there was someone at her place to welcome them home. He had booked off early and driven straight here, stopping only at an all night supermarket that had a floral section for a bouquet of flowers and a box of Godiva Chocolates for Nat, and a large bag of Salmon and Tuna Kitty Snax for Sidney. He took out his key ring and found the key to Natalie's apartment. She had given it to him for emergencies. While this was not exactly an emergency, he decided to use it anyway.

&&&&&&&&&&

Natalie drove slowly and carefully along the route from the church to her house. While she couldn't cover every square inch, there was an outside possibility that she might spot her cat somewhere along the way. Every so often, she'd stop and lean out the window and call his name. While she knew that the chances of him coming to her were slim, she rationalized that he might take hope from hearing her voice and at least let him know that he had not been abandoned.

&&&&&&&&&&

Sidney went to the rear entrance to the apartment house. While the front door was used mostly by the humans, he knew that the back door was usually left open to the stairwell so that deliveries could be made and trash and other things removed without anyone having to worry about opening and closing the outside doors. He climbed up the required number of steps until he was at the kitchen door to the apartment he shared with his pet. He scratched and yowled to be let in.

&&&&&&&&&&

Nick went through the cupboards in the kitchen until he found a vase for the flowers. He filled it and put them and the chocolates on the coffee table. He looked around for Sidney's dish but didn't see it anywhere. He got a vegetable dish from the cabinet. He poured the Kitty Snax into the bowl and set on the floor. He knew that Natalie didn't like Sidney to eat out of the regular service, but he was sure that she'd make an exception this time.

He thought he heard what sounded like scratching at the back door and perhaps meowing. He listened again, this time concentrating all his vampire senses on the door. Yes, there it was again. It was certainly scratching and definitely meowing. He opened the door.

Sidney stood at the back door, looking for the entire world like he was very miffed. He was dirty. His coat was matted and dull. There were bare spots in several places where clumps of fur were missing for various reasons. There were numerous spots of dried on blood from numerous injuries, both superficial scratches and a few major wounds as well. He reeked of decayed food and feces as well as general outdoorsy smells. He was a mess, but there was no doubt he was Sidney. As soon as Nick opened the door, he jumped into his arms and began licking and purring loudly.

Giggling and laughing, Nick scratched, petted and fussed at the wayward kitty "Where have you been for the past two days?" He said between Sidney's licks of his face. "On second thought, I'm not sure I really want to know. I do know that the first thing we had better do is get you cleaned up before Natalie gets home or we both may be in deep doo-doo. Only in your case, that would be even deeper doo-doo."

&&&&&&&&&&

Sidney yawned and snuggled into the large bath towel. Even though the words 'BATH' usually brought on a flurry of both vocal and physical protests from him, this time he almost enjoyed the experience ... almost. Nick was stronger than Natalie and he let the cat know early on that he would not book any nonsense from the feline. Also, he kept up a running conversation during the entire experience, not the babble that Natalie usually used. Now, surprisingly, it felt good to be clean and sweet smelling. Nick drew the heavy drapes across the windows to block out the sunlight. He lay on the couch and placed the towel wrapped cat on his chest. The cat's purring was soothing and almost hypnotic. Within minutes, both cat and vampire were sound asleep.

&&&&&&&&&&

Sidney noticed it first. It was definitely Natalie's scent. She was in the building and she was coming to the apartment. He squirmed in the towel. The movement woke Nick up. "I know, Sid." He said softly. "I can sense her, too." He put his index finger against Sid's nose. "I know you want to go to the door when she opens it, but trust me. Play along. Go back to sleep."

Even though he did not understand the words that Nick was saying, Sidney was receiving his thoughts loud and clear. Nick wanted him to go back to sleep. Although he did not understand why he wanted him to do that, he trusted Nick. He circled three times on the vampire's stomach ... because humans expected cats to do that ... and then settled himself back in the towel. He put his head on his paws and closed his eyes.

Natalie closed the door behind her and sighed heavily. Another day without Sidney! She threw her purse on the counter and headed for the refrigerator. Something in the living room caught the corner of her eye. The room was pitch black. She didn't remember closing the drapes. Besides, she only did that on the few occasions when Nick came over, in case he had to spend the day there. She turned the light on over the sink. Sure enough, she could make out Nick's form on the couch. Something else was different, too. No She thought. It couldn't be. It was! SIDNEY! She almost cried out his name and then she paused. The two of them looked so peaceful and contented. Silently, she tiptoed to the closet and took out her camera. This was a Kodak Moment if there ever was one.

She carefully centered them in the frame and pushed the button. The flash illuminated the room with the light of a dozen suns. Sidney screeched as he jumped off Nick's stomach. At the same time, Nick sat bolt upright, his eyes yellow and his fangs descended.

She dropped the camera and took two steps back. "NICK!" She yelled. "DON'T EVER DO THAT AGAIN! You want to give me a heart attack?" Sidney leapt for his pet's arms purring loudly and furiously licking her face. "SIDNEY! Sidney! I'm so glad you're back!" There were tears in her eyes as she stroked and petted him. Nick, now back to normal, joined the two of them.

"How did you ever find him? Where?" She asked as she put the cat on the floor. Sidney immediately began winding his way through her and Nick's legs, purring contentedly.

"I didn't find him. He found his own way home. I was here waiting for you and he came to the back door. I just let him in."

&&&&&&&&&&

Nat pulled into the parking lot of the PetPlus. This time, Sidney was sitting in the cat carrier strapped in the passenger side of the car. His leash was firmly attached to Natalie's wrist. She opened the car door and then the door to the carrier and waited. After sniffing the car and everything else in sight, Sidney finally exited. If anything, the events of the last visit had taught his pet a valuable lesson.

&&&&&&&&&&

The End

Maybe.

And then again,

Maybe not.