What a Pain! – Chapter One.

Mike Stoker opened his gritty eyes, coughed, and tried to rub the sleep from his eyes. Raising his arm to his eyes was difficult. Still detecting the scent of smoke on his body and thinking about a shower, he sighed as deeply as he could, and recalled what happened the night before. It certainly hadn't been what he thought would happen on one of his days off, but he had always been a sucker for a hard luck case. "How do I get myself into stuff like this?" he thought to himself. "I guess I don't have the resolve I used to have. Ah well, stranger things have happened." His head still ached a little and he stretched his muscular arms and long legs. Then he quickly noticed the Pain. The Pain crept slowly from his feet, up his legs and settled on his chest. He yawned, coughed again, and decided he needed to get up and out of bed. Maybe then the Pain would depart. Gingerly, he put a hand on his chest, expecting the Pain to protest his movement.

"Move it, Pain," Mike growled. He slid to a sitting position, raked his hands through his hair, then attempted to dislodge a skinny gray and white tabby cat from atop his chest. The cat wasn't in the least bit interested in leaving his warm spot on Stoker's chest. Mike gave the cat a gentle shove. "Go on, get up. We need, uh, I mean, I need breakfast. You need to go out."

The Pain, originally christened "Sir Pain-in-the-Butt", was a stray cat Mike started to feed a few weeks ago and who was now the unofficial newest member of the Stoker household. Pain joined Larry, Moe and Curly, the three goldfish in a tank in the kitchen, plus Lucy and Ethel, a pair of frogs that lived in the backyard garden. Mike loved pets, but knew that with his schedule, he shouldn't keep anything that needed walking or couldn't go a day without attention. Sir Pain showed up a few weeks ago and had spent a day or two sitting on the fence, watching as Mike puttered around in the backyard. The cat's curiosity won out and he finally jumped off and decided to make friends. Mike was pulling weeds in his small vegetable patch when the cat walked up and began purring and rubbing against Mike's legs.

"What? Where in the world did you come from?" he asked the cat. Mike smiled, sat back on his heels, and reached out his hand. The cat sniffed and must have decided Mike was one of the good guys, as he promptly plopped himself down and rolled over for a belly scratch.

Mike hadn't had a cat since he lived with his folks and then, that cat had been a furry terror! "Clawed" ruled the Stoker house with a menacing paw, yet had Mike's mother completed taken in. She'd chat to Clawed in baby talk and tell him what a good boy he was, even though the nasty thing had just bitten her ankle...again. Mike's mom was smitten and nothing Clawed did was wrong. From that experience, Mike had decided that cats were for people with a much higher level of tolerance than he. Until, that is, Sir Pain-in-the-butt arrived.

Mike liked to be alone in his garden to think as he worked. It was soothing and distracting at the same time and never failed to calm his sometimes frazzled nerves. He wasn't in the habit of chatting while he worked, but somehow the cat's presence brought the words out that Mike had been holding inside. "Would you believe what happened at work today, Cat?" Mike said, and continued to tell the cat all about his shift. True to cat form, it never told Mike what he should have done or said, and neither did it accuse Mike of mistakes or criticize his work. It was nice to be able to talk out loud and not have to worry about someone jumping in to "help" when help was not asked for.

The cat did have a nasty habit of digging in the garden and occasionally it brought back a partially eaten mouse as a gift, but by and large, he was a pretty good cat. Mike was content letting the cat stay in the backyard and for awhile, the cat seemed fine with that arrangement as well. It wasn't long before Mike started looking for the cat each time he came out to the garden and on more than one occasion, fell asleep in the hammock with a purring cat resting on his legs. Mike did not ask for a cat. He was pretty sure he didn't want a cat and didn't think he could manage a cat on his schedule, but the more time he spent talking to his furry friend, the more he became attached. Soon enough, Mike began setting out leftovers and a saucer of milk before he left for work each shift, and reluctantly admitted he hoped the cat would still be there when he returned. The cat never yowled or fought with neighbor cats or "left his mark" anywhere he shouldn't, which was definitely something Mike could appreciate.

Oddly, Mike found himself thinking about the cat during the day when things were quiet. He wondered what the cat did while Mike was gone and if it was safe. When thoughts of the cat invaded his brain, Mike would smile and shake his head, trying to shoo them away. He was doomed to become a "cat-guy" and he knew it.

Chet and Marco both had typical "macho" dogs. Chet had a big, drooly, Lab and Marco had a German Shepherd. Cap had daughters who insisted on a cute dog, and he had reluctantly gotten them a teacup poodle named "Buttons". Cap didn't speak much of Buttons; he was far too embarrassed by the yappy little fluffball. Roy's wife Joanne liked dogs, but since she would be the one to take care of it most often, she protested the addition of one. She had enough work with the kids, the house, and "Nutty" the gerbil. She had no desire to add a dog to the mix. Johnny had horses and had always wanted a dog, but hadn't actually gotten around to getting one yet, so that left Mike, the big, strong, engineer, with a tough-guy image to maintain, and here he had adopted a scrawny cat. Nope, he wasn't about to tell anyone how attached he had gotten to the little thing, or that the reason he left as soon as shift was over was because he missed it. Totally anti-macho.

Coughing lightly again, Mike sat up in bed and rolled Sir Pain onto the mattress. Pain flopped over and waited for a belly scratch, rather than get off the bed like Mike wanted him to. "What a mush you are," Mike growled fondly. "Eh, I guess after last night, you pretty much earned your keep, haven't you."

He eased his legs off the side of the bed and sat there for minute. He actually did feel a little light-headed yet and wasn't sure he'd remain upright for second. Once the feeling passed, he needed to try standing, lest he not get into the kitchen for the desperately needed coffee. He held onto the edge of the dresser for just a moment to steady himself. Pain jumped off the bed and sat on the floor, gazing up at the human he decided belonged to him.

Mike smiled down at the cat and said, "Alright...c'mon, you can stay inside for now. I imagine you're hungry." He walked slowly down the hall and into the kitchen, then stopped when he saw his clothes by the back door, shed late last night when he had stumbled back into the house. He could still detect the scent of smoke on the clothes and on himself. "Hmm...shower or coffee first?" He placed a little saucer on the counter and filled it with milk. When he bent over to put it on the floor, his world tilted a little and he grabbed the counter top to keep from falling over. "Man, I musta' banged my head harder than I thought!" he mumbled. "I better take a shower first; that'll wake me up."

The cat lapped the milk up while Mike teetered off to the bathroom. After a cool, soapy, refreshing shower, Mike wrapped a towel around his trim waist and stood in front of the mirror, examining the lump that he now sported on the side of his head. It was turning blue and red and still quite tender to the touch. Stoker winced when he brushed his fingers lightly over the lump, and tried in vain to coax his hair into hiding it. "This better be gone by the time you're back on shift, or Cap'll send your butt to Rampart," Mike told the Stoker-in-the-mirror. The cat, having finished his milk, had entered the bathroom and was entwining himself around Mike's ankles, purring and making his signature sounds. Not quite a mew or a chirp; Mike called it "mewping."

Mike's doorbell chimed and he quickly tossed on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. A police officer stood there with a clipboard in his hands. "Hi, Mike. How're you feelin' this morning?" he asked.

"Not bad, Frank," Mike told him, "a little rough, I guess. I'll be alright. What can I do for you?"

"Well, I'd like to see if you can fill us in a little more on what happened last night," Frank asked him. "There's still a few missing pieces."