Saturday, December 10, 2016

TIGER EYES A Mike and Angel Christmas Short Story

Posted by: Nicole Luiken

Note:This story takes place between Angel Eyes and Golden Eyes

   “Let me get this straight,” Mike said, his eyes narrowing, “your kidnap victim—”
   “Our victim,” I corrected. Saying ‘our’ made me happy. Mike and I were business partners now in Angel Security. I’d offered to change the name to Michelangelo Security, but he’d said that Angel Security sounded better.
   “—our kidnap victim is a cat?” he asked.
   “That’s right. A genetically engineered mini-tiger to be exact. I’m told he’s the size of a regular housecat only with tiger colouring.”
   “And the cat has been kidnapped, why?”
   “Custody dispute.” I smiled.
   Mike groaned. “Over a cat?”
   “Yup. Mr. Hastings claimed the cat was his because he paid $750,000 to have it engineered—”
   Mike choked at the amount.
   “Mrs. Hastings claimed the cat was hers because he gave it to her as an anniversary gift. The judge ruled in her favour.” I’d checked out that part of the story quite thoroughly. While I was willing to skirt the line of the law, I did not want to risk my business name only to have it come out that the client had lied to me, and her husband had legal rights to the pet.
   “What kind of idiot spends $750,000 on a cat?” Mike looked mystified.
   “A rich one who wanted his wife to forgive him for an indiscretion,” I said. “The ex Mrs. Hastings claims he doesn’t give a crap about the cat, he just wants revenge because he knows she loves her ‘Stripes’.” I grimaced to show what I thought of the nickname.
   Mike shook his head. “All I can say is Mrs. Hastings better be paying us well.”
   I leaned forward. “That’s where it gets interesting. You’re going to love this: she’s paying us two million—”
   Mike shook his head. “No way. No cat is worth that much. This is a trap. Nations Against is setting us up.”
   I lightly punched his shoulder. “You think I didn’t think of that?” Nations Against had already tried to get at me and Mike twice with false cases. “Besides, you didn’t let me finish. We’re being paid two million eDollars.”
   Another blink. “And you’re okay with that? Being paid in fake money?”
   “Oh, but it’s not,” I said, enjoying myself. “I checked with Devon. eDollars are a real currency; you can earn them online or trade for them. The going rate is one hundred eDollars make one real dollar.”
   Mike sat back down. “So we’re being offered $20,000 for the gig?”
   “Uh-huh. The client claims it makes the money harder to trace. In case hubby ever tries to prosecute her—and therefore us—for breaking and entering.” The client had also taken the precaution of contacting me through her VR avatar. I didn’t share that tidbit with Mike. I had my own suspicions about the avatar, but I wanted to take this job. I wanted to earn a reputation as a kidnap rescue company, even if it meant starting with an animal.
   “Well, that does decrease the chances that it’s Nations Against,” Mike said.
   “Why?”
   “They wouldn’t think we were stupid enough to do a job for fake money.”
#
   “How do you feel about taking a little side trip on our way to Catherine’s?” I swivelled in my office chair to face Mike.
   “Fine by me. What’s up?”
   “I got another message from Mrs. Hastings. Looks like we’re going to have to move the timetable up. Take a look.”
   Mike leaned over my shoulder. I breathed in the scent of his skin while I replayed the clip.
   Instead of being a scan or an enhanced version of herself, the avatar was a cartoon girl with big blue eyes in an over-sized head. Her black hair was up in a ponytail, and her clothing was simple and all blue.
The avatar glanced over her shoulder as if someone were watching her, then whispered into the camera, “I heard something bad today. I heard he was going to sell Stripes to a lab. So they can do tests on him.” Cartoon Girl shuddered. “You have to rescue him, quick!” End of message.
   “That’s it?” Mike asked. “Nothing more concrete?”
   “That’s it.”
   Mike pulled up another chair. “Show me the first message, when you were first contacted.”
   “There are two messages actually.” I obligingly cued up the first one.
   It showed the same cartoon girl, this time wearing an orange hoodie with matching orange eyes. “Uh, I’m looking for Angel Security? Your ad said you do kidnap rescue? Please, please call me. I need help.” End of message.
   The second one was much longer and showed my avatar, a purple-haired girl with purple eyes, interacting with hers.
   As soon as I introduced myself, she started squealing and jumping up and down. “You’re Angel? For reals? Wow, I thought I’d get an assistant or something. This is one hundred percent cool! I watched you last month on NextStep Titanic. You should have won.”
   She kept gushing for a few more minutes before avatar-me steered the conversation around to her problem. A fairly standard interview followed. Mrs. Hastings easily answered my questions about the condo where Stripes was being held and the details of the divorce settlement, without being stumped. She referred to her husband several times as a ‘meanie’.
   Mike was frowning when the clip ended. Ha! I felt an inner vindication: I hadn’t been imagining the fact that something was off.
   “Do we have any video of Mrs. Hastings in real life?” Mike asked.
   I was prepared for the question, having already gone down this path myself. I cued another clip. “I found this, but there’s not much audio,” I apologized.
   This one showed Mrs. Hastings leaving the courthouse and getting into a limo. She wore large black sunglasses, a slinky turquoise dress and knee-high leather boots. Her sunglasses, dress and purse all had leopard trim.
   She was also swearing like a sailor.
   “That’s not the same person,” Mike said flatly.
   “Agreed.”
   His head whipped around and he stared at me. “If you know it’s a trap, then why are you taking this case?”
   “Because I don’t think it’s a trap.” I clicked on the last photo in my file, of a pudgy dark-haired little girl with a big bow in her hair. “This is the Mrs. Hastings’ daughter from a previous marriage. She’s nine years old.” She was smiling, but there was something stiff about the expression, as if she didn’t like the person holding the camera.
   She looked unhappy.
   “Her name is Clarabelle Santiago. She’s our client. Christmas is coming, and we’re going to get her kitty back for her.”
#
   I slid my foot another few inches along the ledge. “Catherine’s Christmas party is tomorrow. Have you bought her present yet?” I asked Mike.
   Mike stopped staring down at the fourteen-storey drop and turned disbelieving violet eyes on me. “Why, no, I haven’t.” He levered his body out the bathroom window and onto the six-inch marble ledge with me.
Anyone who didn’t know him as well as I did would never guess that Mike was scared of heights. He was determined not to let his fear stop him.
   I tested out my gripping glove on the smooth wall. It seemed to work. Good. That meant our intel that only the first three floors of the building had been coated with Anti-gripping Gloss was correct. I took two more sliding steps to the right. “Well, do you know what you’re going to buy her?” I persisted.
   It was kind of a big deal. This year would be the first one that Mike and Catherine acknowledged their surrogate-mom-and-son relationship.
   Only a few short months ago, he’d thrown the birthday card she sent him in the garbage.
   Mike slowly stood up, using the gripping glove for extra support, but not depending on it. “Do I have to buy her a gift?” he asked. “Catherine will probably be over the moon if I just show up.”
   I glared at him. “Knowing Catherine, she’s bought three gifts for you already, so yes, you do have to buy her one. And not something impersonal, either,” I added as I approached a second window. The room appeared empty.
   The gripping gloves didn’t work on glass so I leaned against the window and carefully moved my feet. I crossed safely and waited for Mike.
   My stomach tensed up. If he fell, he might be able to slow himself with the gloves. That is if he could make contact with the wall. If the gripper didn’t burn off from the friction as the manufacturer warned.
   He made it across the window and joined me back on the ledge. He was panting slightly. “So what am I supposed to buy her? Liqueur? Perfume? Chocolates?”
   Those sounded more like Betty Vallant’s preferred gifts than Catherine’s. “Those are a bit generic. Unless you know Catherine’s tastes, I’d steer away from those.”
   We approached the corner of the building. “So what do you suggest? What did you buy your mom?”
   “I got her and Dad front-row tickets to a musical starring Gillian Fleur and Benjamin Brown. Oh, and I picked up this cute little candycane centerpiece. You know how my mom loves that kind of stuff.”
   “No, I don’t.” Mike bit off the words.
   His surliness made my heart ache a little. The whole mother-son thing was so new to him. I’d meant to distract him, not worry him. I leaned over and brushed his cheek with the back of my hand—the only bit of skin showing through the gripping glove.
   “Relax. Catherine is pretty much guaranteed to love anything you get her. It’s the gift tag that really matters. Just write, ‘To Mom, From Your Son Mike’ and you’re golden.”
   “Both grippers back on the wall please,” Mike said tightly.
   Apparently, I was making him nervous. I complied. Time for the next step, anyhow. The ledge ended here.
I reached around the corner and tested the grippers again—just in case this wall had been treated like the bottom storeys. But it seemed fine.
   Time to make like a bug on the wall.
   While keeping contact with my right-hand gripper, I swung myself around the corner into nothingness. A pulse-pounding second later, the gripper patches on my knees made contact with the north wall. My right-hand gripper let go with a pop. I slammed both palms against the south-facing wall, but not before I slid half a foot down.
   This was why the grippers were advertised as climbing aids and the ad very specifically said that two wouldn’t hold a person for more than a few moments before they began to slip. And once the sliding started, friction would rapidly burn out the grippers and you’d be falling.
   My solution, tested yesterday on a climbing wall, had been to use a lot more than two grippers. Knees, shins, elbows and hands were all bedecked.
   It was also why Mike and I had started out a storey above the balcony we were aiming for. I angled to the side, slipping and sliding down at the same time in a crazy rush.
   I was bang on target and reaching for the balcony rail when my left gripper suddenly gave. I slewed sideways, helpless to stop myself.
   Then suddenly Mike was there, an arm on either side of me, caging me in. “Going somewhere?” He smirked. He’d managed to hook his toe through the railing so that we were secure.
   A burst of happiness went through me. There was nothing I’d rather be doing and no one I’d rather be doing it with. His lips were right there, so I kissed him.
   Humour gone, he pressed closer and kissed me back, demanding a response. I gave myself over to the kiss until we started to slide again.
   Laughing, we chinned ourselves up to the balcony. A mad scramble of elbows and knees, and we were standing on the outside of the railing.
   I swung my leg over and hopped down onto the balcony.
   According to Mrs. Hastings’ avatar, the doors should be unlocked. I was prepared with a glass cutter if that proved not to be the case, but in fact there were no doors at all—at least not the sliding glass ones I was expecting.
   I cautiously tossed a stick of gum through the empty space. No alarms rang. No laser zapped it. Mike and I exchanged glances, and then shrugged. I peeked through the green drapes, then stepped silently inside.
I couldn’t see any cats, but we definitely had the right place: a carpeted climbing apparatus with scratching poles and platforms sprawled in front of the huge glass window and images of swaying jungle greenery were projected onto the walls. There was even a small wading pool with several badly mauled balls—tigers being one of the few cats who liked swimming. This was like the Pet Hilton.
   Hastings had dropped a lot of money on this room, not even counting the price of his genetically engineered mini-tiger.
   “Here, kitty kitty,” Mike whispered, joining me inside.
   I reached into my cargo pants pocket and took out my secret weapon—a tin of cat food—and popped the top. According to our client, Stripes could hear this noise anywhere in the suite and would instantly come running.
   I crouched down to set out the open tin—and noticed a pair of topaz eyes staring at me from behind the couch.
   Tiger eyes, check. Orange and white fur with black stripes, check. He really was the size of a house cat. Except for his fangs, which he obligingly showed me in a near-silent hiss.
   “Guess who I found?” I breathed.
   Since hauling around a cat carrier would be both awkward and a dead giveaway, I was wearing a specially designed pouch that I’d bought from a Fire Safety site. It had a padded inner layer to protect me from Stripes’s claws and a mesh zippered top so the mini-tiger could breathe.
   But first I had to get him in the pouch. I nudged the tin toward him. No dice.
   “Maybe he prefers a different brand,” Mike whispered.
   The noise of a cupboard closing in the other room brought my head up.
   “It’s not in the kitchen,” a woman called.
   Which meant there were at least two other people in the apartment. Crap! Cleaning staff?
   Mike hid behind the green drape. I dived behind the sofa and found myself almost eye-to-eye with Stripes.
I extended my hand, hoping my fingers might still smell of tuna, but no luck. Stripes retreated under the sofa, squishing himself much farther down than I would’ve thought possible.
   Okay, forget the cat. I’d deal with the witnesses first. I rolled onto my side and hunted through my pockets for Knockout patches.
   “Here, kitty kitty. Come on, you stupid cat,” the woman said in a sugary voice. A redhead walked into the living room.
   I’d assumed she was part of a janitorial service, but she was wearing hiking boots, which jarred me. Who wore hiking boots indoors?
   Someone who feared being bitten.
   “Here, kitty, kitty. Come out so I can stun your furry butt and put on this lovely collar.”
   Looked like we’d only just arrived in time. Mr. Hastings must have decided to recoup some of his money by selling Stripes to someone. A lab?
   The hiking boots clomped closer. Any second now, she’d look behind the couch.
   I stripped the protective layer off my Knockout patch and prepared to leap up. Hopefully she’d be startled, because it wasn’t a good angle for me.
   With a yowl, Stripes shot out from under the couch and streaked toward the climbing platforms.
   Good kitty. The redhead followed in pursuit. I rose up as she went past—just in time to see Mike trip her.
She went down like felled timber. Moving on silent feet, I jumped on her back and slapped the Knockout patch flat on the nape of her neck—the only bit of exposed skin I could reach.
   She grunted, but the impact must have winded her, because she didn’t make another sound. She struggled briefly to rise, then passed out as the drug hit her system.
   I counted to ten just in case she was faking and then got up. Curious, I flipped her over. Sure enough, her uniform said GeneTech Labs, not B-Kleen Stomps on Dirt.
   Mike grabbed her under the arms and I lifted her feet. Walking backward, he pulled her with him onto the balcony.
   “Elena?” a voice called. “The bedrooms are clear. Did you get the cat?”
   Stripes flattened his ears and glared down at us from a platform near the roof.
   No time to grab the cat. I stood just inside the room and twitched the drape to conceal both me and Mike out on the balcony. I peeked out through the slit between.
   Another woman, a petite brunette in another GeneTech uniform, warily entered the living room.
   It would probably take her a whole ten seconds of searching to find me. And I didn’t have a second medi-patch.
   Stripes yowled and jumped from his platform to a second one, then down onto the floor.
   The brunette reached for Stripes, but he raced past into the gleaming stainless steel kitchen on the left. Along the way, his paw disrupted a laser beam.
   A wall buzzed to life at my back: the missing balcony door.
   Mike hit his fist on the force-screen, and then grimaced and rubbed his hand as if he’d received a small shock. We exchanged glances. He was locked out.
   I heard a clang and cursing from the kitchen. A streak of orange and black fur barrelled down the left hallway. Two jumps and Stripes had regained his perch. He was licking his paw when Brunette raced in and came to a stop, panting.
   She spotted Stripes. “What did you do to Elena, you stupid cat? You deserve to be dissected.”
   Stripes hissed at her and jumped to the tallest of the carpeted platforms, four feet over her head. I was starting to like this cat.
   Before I could leap out, we heard the unmistakable sound of keys turning in a lock.
   “All I can tell you is that a silent alarm was tripped,” a male voice said. “It was probably just the cat, but I’m getting paid to check things out. Thanks for letting me in.”
   “No problem, dearie,” chirped a wavery older voice.
   I rolled my eyes. Oh, that wasn’t suspicious at all!
   The brunette cast a baleful glare at Stripes and promptly hid behind the couch.
   The door closed with another click and footsteps entered the kitchen. “Here, kitty, kitty,” the fake security guard called.
   Well, wasn’t this interesting? Just how many groups were after Stripes anyhow?
   I looked up and saw Brunette’s gaze locked on me. If looks could kill, I’d have a knife sticking out of my throat.
   Fake Security Guard had brown hair and a moustache. He moved into the room in a low crouch, stun gun held out in front of him in a textbook position. He scanned right, then left, then right again, gaze pausing on me.
   This hiding place sucked.
   I dove forward, tucking my body into a forward roll—
   Zip! A bolt just missed my calf.
   Brunette jumped up from behind the couch and brought a telescoping baton down hard on the fake security guard’s temple. He was out like a light.
   I landed on my feet beside a coffee table, but Brunette was quicker. She picked up his stun gun and aimed it at me.
   I whipped a coffee mug at her face. She dodged, but the movement spoiled her aim and the stun bolt thunked into the ceiling.
   I was out of projectiles, but that was okay. Brunette was so focussed on me she’d forgotten about the other player in our little farce.
   Snarling, Stripes jumped down onto his intended prey, furry front paws held wide. He landed on Brunette’s head and dug in with his claws.
   While she tried to pull him off, I lashed out with my foot and knocked the stun gun out of her hand. The gun passed over the laser sensor and the balcony door winked out of existence again.
   Stripes jumped off of her head and dashed up the curtains.
   Brunette chopped at me with the side of her hand. I sidestepped, grabbed her wrist and threw her into the wading pool. She came up fast, dripping wet and spitting mad.
   The doorbell rang.
   We both stopped.
   “Should I call the cops, dearie?” the older woman called through the door. “I can hear thumping noises.”
   Mike opened the drapes and looked at me. I nodded to show that I had it under control.
   He bent over Fake Security guard and ripped off his fake moustache and cap, then jammed them on his own head. He headed for the door at a run.
   Was he crazy? The neighbour would have to be blind as well as deaf to— My gaze came to rest on the Fake Security guard again. Actually, he looked a bit like Mike. No, make that identical to Mike. What the heck was Gabe, his clone, doing here? And should I expect Devon to show up, too?
   While I was distracted, Brunette kicked me. At the last moment, I twisted and she hit the side of my thigh instead of the knee joint. I winced. That was going to bruise.
   Brunette and I circled each other warily. I feinted left and tried to follow up with a foot stomp but missed her instep, only catching her toes.
   Voices floated down the hallway. “That won’t be necessary, ma’am. It’s just the cat tearing around. Darn thing pulled down the curtain rod and shredded the carpet. Glad that’s not my problem.”
   Stripes yowled on cue. Good cat.
   I heard Mike lock the apartment and walk away down the hall, whistling. I felt a glow of love at his obvious faith in me.
   Determined, I moved in on Brunette with a flurry of punches.
   Brunette blocked them but was forced backward. In trying to avoid the pool, she ended up hitting her shin on a potted plant. I moved in. She swung wildly. I absorbed the blow, simultaneously hooking her feet out from under her. Boom, she was down. I jumped on her and knocked the wind out of her.
   While she was wheezing, I flipped her over and borrowed Gabe’s handcuffs to subdue her.
   My eyes scanned the room and balcony for combatants, but didn’t find any. Elena was still down from the Knockout patch, Gabe was unconscious from Brunette’s stun gun, and Brunette was tied up. I won.
   Now the cat. I looked up and saw Stripes crouched on a high platform, tail bushy. He hissed.
   “Enough games,” I said sternly. “Time to go, little cousin.” I held up my hands.
   The mini-tiger calmly walked over and leaped down into my hands. He tamely let me tuck him into my pouch and zipper the top closed. Brunette stared with her mouth open.
   “Never send a dog-person after a cat,” I said loftily.
   I listened at the door for a moment, but the neighbour appeared to have gone back into her own apartment. I eased quietly out.
   Mike was waiting for me in the stairwell. He raised his eyebrows. “I half-expected you to be covered in scratches.”
   “Nah. Stripes is being a gentleman,” I said. I could air my suspicions later, once we were safe.
   Coming out of the stairwell on the main floor, we picked up our earlier conversation so as to not attract attention. “Really, you can probably get away with almost any gift this Christmas,” I told Mike.
   “So if I get her a toothbrush….?”
   I stopped dead in the middle of the lobby and stared at him. “You’re scaring me.”
   A couple passed us, without paying the least attention. We started walking again. “You’re never scared,” Mike said.
   “I’m scared you’re going to get me a toothbrush for Christmas.”
   “Oh, I’ve got your gift already,” Mike teased.
   “It better be good,” I threatened, “because your gift is fantastic.” We reached the lobby doors and Mike held one open for me. So far so good.
   “You know that TV series that you never got to see the last episode of?”
   My eyes widened with excitement. “The Prisoner?”
   “Yeah. I almost got you that.”
   I glared at him. “I’m going to hit you later.”
   He laughed.
#
   We reached the rendezvous point, but—surprise, surprise!—Mrs. Hastings wasn’t there.
   Neither was her daughter.
   I went online and discovered that the eDollars had already appeared in our account and there was a new message. “Thanks so much!” Cartoon Girl said, bouncing up and down. “I knew Angel Security would get the job done!”
   If that were true, Gabe wouldn’t have been there. Our client had definitely hedged her bets by hiring both of us.
   “I can’t make it to the rendez-vous,” the avatar continued perkily, “but just release Stripes. He’ll know how to find me!”
   Mike and I exchanged grim looks. “Just release a $750,000 cat? Yeah, I don’t think so.”
   It took a little doing because I wasn’t the computer whiz that Devon was, but I tracked down an account for Mrs. Hasting. I sent an interview request, billing myself as a freelance fashion writer. She didn’t bother to check my credentials, because I got a pingback within fifteen minutes. The delay gave me just enough time to tweak my avatar into something more fashionable.
   “What’s this article about?” She tossed her hair over one shoulder.
   “I’m hoping to spin one up about unusual accessories. You have a flawless touch with them, especially leopard print. I heard a rumour that you even had a genetically-engineered mini-leopard cooked up to match your gown. Is that true? And when can we expect to see you two around town?”
   Her manner cooled. “You’re misinformed. It was a mini-tiger.”
   “Oh.” I wrinkled my nose. “Orange and black are so bright. Is that why you no longer have the mini-tiger?”
   Her avatar was one of the fancy ones that reproduced facial expressions. She made a moue of disgust. “I only took the animal to piss off my ex-husband. As soon as I found out the truth, I dumped him back on Jarl. I wasn’t about to keep that freak around.”
   Out of the corner of my eyes I saw Mike wince. Stripes flattened his ears. “The truth?” I prompted, but I’d already guessed.
   “He had the cat made with enhanced intelligence. I couldn’t find my ring, so it climbed up onto the cupboard, jumped onto the bookshelf, pressed a lever with its paw and then used the keypad to open the safe.” She sounded outraged.
   “That… would be a bit of a giveaway,” I said. “I hope your daughter wasn’t too sad when you gave the cat back.” When you dumped the pet that was desperately trying to please you. Good thing my avatar was a cheaper model that displayed only the emotion I selected, instead of showing the rage I felt.
   “Oh, no, she’s allergic.”
   And that killed that theory. I spent a few more moments with Mrs. Hastings, taking notes on some of her other unusual accessories: movie props her ex-husband had bought at auction and a handmade set of obscenely expensive angel wings made of recycled cans she planned to wear to a Christmas party. By the time I managed to cut the connection, I half wanted to write the article mocking her taste.
   I let out a deep breath. As one Mike and I turned to Stripes. Our client.
   He licked his paw and peeked at us with big topaz eyes.
   “Give up the innocent act,” I told him.
   His muscles tensed.
   “And don’t run. We’re not going to take you back. You’re still the client. We work for you. I’m just concerned that you haven’t thought this through.” I opened up a simple text editor and turned it to the mini-tiger.
   He extruded a single claw and started typing. ILL B FINE.
   Mike snorted. I elbowed him. “Good to know,” I said politely. “Since we know your secret now, why don’t you tell us where you’re really going?”
   THE PARK.
   “Are you meeting someone there?”
   He hesitated and then tapped, YES.
   Stripes was like a babe in the woods. “Great! Tell me their name and we’ll take you to them.”
   ITS A SECRET.
   I shook my head sadly. “I need to know more than that. What if this person turns out to be a bad guy? What if they sell you to GeneTech or a different lab?”
   Stripes wriggled guiltily. I DONT KNOW THERE NAME. I HAVENT MET THEM YET. IM GOING TO GET ADOPTED!
   It wasn’t a terrible plan. He was cute. If he went to the park, he stood a decent chance of some kid falling in love with him and bringing him home. It also sounded like the plot of an old movie. It was the kind of idea an eight-year-old child would come up with. I suspected eight was about Stripes’s mental age.
   I hated to quash his confidence, but I had to do it. “Okay, let’s say that works. A wonderful kid finds you and takes you home. A kid with a nice home with regular food like the kind you want is going to have parents. They might let the kid keep you, but first they’ll want to check and make sure you’re not someone else’s missing pet. Mini-tigers are a bit rare. How soon before the Hastings or some other unscrupulous person claims you?”
   Stripes drooped.
   “Even in a best-case scenario where you stay with the kid who loves you, how soon before you give away your intelligence again?” I paused to let that sink in. “Do you even want to try to live that way? Mike and I did that for a lot of years, pretended we were average.”
   Mike put his hand around my waist and squeezed.
   “We did it because we had to, to protect ourselves, but it was hard. Our lives are so much better now that we don’t have to stuff ourselves in a box.”
   Stripes mewed unhappily.
   “Why don’t we think about it some more and try to come up with a better plan? What you really need is a guardian, not an owner.” Someone who would nurture him.
   Part of me wanted to volunteer for the role. Stripes was so cute! And he wouldn’t have to pretend to be dumb around us. But… any pet was a big responsibility and a pet who was more like a child would be an even heavier one. I shouldn’t even bring up the possibility until I’d done some deep thinking and discussed it with Mike.
   “I’ve got it,” Mike said suddenly, grinning from ear to ear. “Stripes, did you ask Ultraviolet to rescue you, too?”
   Ultraviolet was Catherine’s company and had probably sent Gabe.
   YES. SORRY. I PANICED.
   “No problem. Ultraviolet is a good group. Do you trust them?” he asked.
   YES.
   “What do you think about Catherine Berringer being your guardian?” Mike asked. “She knows all about genetically enhanced people and how to encourage their talents. She’s kind and very patient.”
   I opened my mouth to protest that I wanted to keep Stripes, then shut it. He was right. Catherine was much more patient than I was. Goodness knows she’d spent long enough waiting for Mike to come around.
And she’d missed his growing up years. Stripes might well fill a void in her life. I choked up. “I think that’s a great idea, Mike.”
   SHE SOUNDS NICE. DO YOU THINK SHED LIKE ME?
   “I know she would.” Mike stroked the mini-tiger’s head. “I bet she’s worried sick about you right now. You’re going to save my bacon, cat. You’re the perfect Christmas gift.”
   He took out his palmtop and pinged Catherine. She picked up immediately. “Hey, Catherine, are you allergic to cats?”

The End

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