No More Tender Vittles

No More Tender Vittles

This piece was originally published at Ordinary Times Magazine.

Andre was running late.  

Andre couldn’t stand being late. He knew people thought of him as a bit of a slacker and because of that, he dressed with care, spoke politely, worked fast, and was punctual. But he knew that despite his best efforts, they’d notice he was late today and use it as a data point to support their original assertion that he was a slacker.

It didn’t seem fair exactly that people could make a decision about a person and then forevermore be on the lookout for evidence to support their conclusion. It didn’t seem fair exactly that nothing you said or did for the rest of your whole entire life mattered once people had made up their minds about you.

Then he caught a light and the traffic gods were with him. Andre rammed his hovercar into the closest parking hole without hitting the brakes till the last possible second. He barely managed to stop within the zone. If he’d gone any further he would have had to keep going out the exit side of the hole and come around for another try and he totally for sure would have been late if that happened. But he had no time to celebrate his superior parking ability. He sprinted into work with about 60 seconds to spare, smiling as the security camera scanned his face. Officially on time.

There was a horse in the lobby. Looked pissed, which was par for the course. It was one of those huge ones, a Clydesdale or whatever, with those big hairy hooves that could kick your skull open, probably. Andre had never drawn a horse on any of his assignments and getting a look at the sucker he was pretty glad of that.

Nova was bringing him in. Nova weighed about 45 kilograms soaking wet and Andre thought for a moment how stupid it was they didn’t take an animal control agent’s size into account when handing out assignments. He knew it was supposed to be fairer that way, but in a cosmic sense it kind of wasn’t fair at all. Nova had a split lip, a pretty bad one, and she was limping. She sent him a rueful look and he knew it had been a rough one. Poor kid. “Hey.”

The horse snarled at Andre, like an actual snarl, which was disturbing.  “Hay? Real funny, pal”.

“Shut up, Wilbur.”

“Wilbur was the man, you twat.  You mean Mr. Ed.”

“Ok, shut up, Mr. Ed.”  He gave Nova a once-over. “Are you ok?”

“Don’t aggravate him, Andre, I barely got him here as it is. And I’m fine. Cracked some ribs, probably I think.”

Mr. Ed made a sound that was somewhere between a human laugh and a whinny. “You know what they say, once you’ve had horse, you’ll walk funny.”

Nova elbowed his flank. “Shut up or I’ll trank you again.” In response Mr Ed raised his tail in the air and plopped a massive pile of moist green turds onto the lobby floor. Nova considered it with a sigh. “That’s about the last thing I need right now.” She looked like she was about to fall over from exhaustion and Andre was overcome by chivalry.

“I’ll get it.”

“Really, Dre?”

“Yeah.”

“Won’t you be late though?”

“Eh. They got me on camera, they know I’m here.  Work is work, right?”

“Oh gosh, well, thanks!” Nova led the horse into the waiting elevator and pushed the button.  

The horse looked back at Andre with a smirk. “Enjoy.” The door closed before Andre could reply.   

By the time he got up to Argonne’s office, everyone else had picked up their assignments and left. Yay, one-on-one time with the boss. Fantastic. “Late again, DeLuca?”

“There was a horse in the lobby.”

“It’s always something.” Argonne took his phone and downloaded Andre’s assignment into it. “Here, kitty, kitty.” Andre thought again about poor Nova wrangling that Clydesdale and here he was getting a cat. Didn’t seem quite fair, cosmically, but you can’t change the world, so. 

A cat seemed like such an easy retrieval he decided to bring Harry along. If Harry didn’t get out enough he got stir crazy and weird and even though it was a risky thing to do, Andre swung back by the apartment to get him.

Harry was laying sprawled on the couch, one of his freakishly long arms draped along the back of the couch, and the other buried in a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. He had orange dust in his black fur and all over his mouth, and he was naked. Andre happened to know Harry hadn’t showered for a good long time and if he hadn’t happened to know it, he would have known it anyway because of the smell. He pushed down a wave of disgust, since he couldn’t exactly judge Harry by human standards, and Harry had certainly not asked to be created that way or any way at all.

The chimp was watching one of the Game Show Networks, a rerun of that stupid old show with the people on a desert island. Andre vaguely recalled his grandma had liked it. Harry loved that show because he loved anything that seemed tropical. Said it was in his blood. “Is this when the Skipper meets Gilligan? I love that one.”

“Up yours.” Harry sat up and touched the picture to pause it and Andre was chagrined to see he left a massive Cheeto fingerprint smear on the tv screen. “What are you doing here?”

“You want to get out of here for a few? I could use some backup.” In reality, Harry was generally more of a hindrance on retrievals than a help, but Andre figured he maybe needed a reason to live, just like everybody else needed a reason. So when he could, Andre treated Harry like a sidekick, a partner maybe even. He figured maybe it helped his friend get through the long days of his confinement, having a purpose, even if it was just charity.

“Hellz yeah. What do you got?”

“Cat. You gotta wear clothes though.”  

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Since he hadn’t had time for breakfast, Andre mixed up an energy smoothie while Harry put on a striped shirt and a pair of red Osh Kosh B’Gosh overalls. He felt bad for the guy, for his dignity, but they had to dress him adorably when they went out in public in case he had to pass. Selling a pet chimp was hard enough, so he had to look every inch of the part. Harry posed comically, a forced innocent expression on his simian face. “Ooo ooo aaa aaa?”

“Heh. You look like a chimp to me. Keep your mouth shut for a freaking change and we won’t have any trouble.” Harry nodded once and went out the windowdoor to the hovercar while Andre guzzled his breakfast and surveyed the ruins of his apartment. Since Harry moved in the place was thrashed, there was garbage everywhere, fur everywhere, the air smelled like sweat and bad breath and something worse that he didn’t want to know what it was. He didn’t dare walk around barefoot or he’d get tetanus or ringworm or something probably. He’d had to fire the cleaning lady so she didn’t rat him out for having a genetically enhanced animal on the premises. Most pressing, Andre found himself practically dying of the hornies since he couldn’tve had a girl come up in that mess even if he could have convinced Harry to hide in the closet for a few hours. And even if he could have convinced himself to bang some unsuspecting woman knowing that Harry was hiding in the closet listening in the entire time.

It sucked, and sucked hard, but what else was he supposed to do? Put the guy out onto the street? Not like he was a dog or something who could blend in if he tried; a lone chimpanzee walking unaccompanied down the streets of urban Cincinnati was not exactly inconspicuous. What was he supposed to do? Turn Harry in, walk him across that lobby and into the elevator on a one-way-trip like how Nova had taken the horse? Harry was a half-step from human, it just…it didn’t seem right. Andre guzzled the dregs of his smoothie and as he felt the rush of the epinephrine start to kick in, he wondered for the millionth time if there might possibly be a safe place in the world for Harry that wasn’t the inside of Andre’s apartment.

It was turning out to be a nice day so they put the top down on the hovercar. Since Harry didn’t get out much, he loved to feel the sun on his skin, the wind in his fur. But unfortunately the trip, while pleasant, didn’t last long. Much to Andre’s surprise, the cat wasn’t hiding out in a fancy neighborhood, it was only a few blocks away from his own place. Most of his retrievals were of course in the better neighborhoods where the rich people lived, since regular people didn’t have the spare change to waste on genetically altering their pets. This cat was in regular old low income housing, in a run down part of town Andre didn’t recall ever having visited before.

Harry played navigator, checking the GPS for directions, moving his finger across the screen of Andre’s phone as he held it securely in his foot. “Third story, round the back. Not the corner one, second one over.” Andre was glad to see there was no hovercar parked at the window dock, made things a lot easier when the perps didn’t have a way to run. He docked the hovercraft on the parking ledge. Harry looked at him drily. “You want me to come in?”

“Shut up and get in the back, would you? There could be cameras.” In the backseat of his car Andre had a cage and some retrieval gear, but he hoped he wouldn’t need it. Gloves, a loop and pole, even a trank if it came to it. But it was just a cat. Maybe it could be reasoned with. It was always better when they could be reasoned with. Harry scrambled out of sight and hid under a blanket Andre kept there in case he had to retrieve a parrot. Andre approached the windowdoor and peered through. The woman who lived in the apartment gazed warily at him through the glass. “Animal Control, ma’am.” She didn’t move, just swallowed hard. Oh yeah, she was hiding something, that was for sure. Andre tapped the screen of his phone. “I’m sending you the warrant now.” He could hear the buzz of her phone as it went through. She let it buzz five times before she answered, trying to prolong the inevitable, he figured. Her face had gone very red. Slowly she scrolled down, reading every word of the warrant. Innocent people never bothered to read the warrant, they just let him in. “You’ll see it’s all in order. Did you want to call a lawyer, maybe, before you let me in?”

She looked to the side as if someone was talking to her. “No.” She opened the windowdoor and let him in. It was a nice little place. Girls always kept such nice places, single girls anyway. Andre wondered if he should look into moving someplace like this building, maybe keep paying the rent for Harry and just find a nice little place of his own instead. It would cost a lot, but as long as he didn’t have to eat, drink, or keep the lights on it was doable. “Hey! Are you even listening to me?? I said, what do you want?”

“We’ve had reports…”

Before he could continue, he heard an unmistakable sound. Andre had grown up with pets himself, with normal pets anyway, and only one thing on earth made that sound. It was the sound of a cat jumping down from someplace high, in this case a dark wooden entertainment center that held a TV and several potted plants. “I guess you’re here for me.” The cat put his paws out in front and stuck his tail up into the air and stretched. He was a black and white cat, longhaired, with white mittens like that kind of black and white cat always seemed to have. He blinked his green eyes slowly and yawned, exposing sharp white teeth and his scratchy pink tongue curling. Then he sat and began to lick a paw.

“Tigger, no!”

“Tigger, did you say, ma’am?” The bastard wasn’t even orange. Andre made a note of the cat’s name on his phone. It was that kind of attention to detail that would get him ahead with Argonne. Eventually.

“I don’t want for you to get into any trouble, Zara, ok? If I go now you won’t get in trouble. That’s the way it works. You know as well as I do that if a human knowingly lies to Animal Control it’s a felony. This way they’ll let you off with a warning, right?” He put his paw down and looked expectantly Andre’s direction for confirmation.

“Exactly. If the owner turns the pet over when asked and is willing to testify, then the state doesn’t press charges.” The woman burst into tears. Andre was glad he was dealing with a good kitty. A fair number of enhanced pets would happily let their owners hang right alongside them, begging and pleading and guilt-tripping their humans into senseless acts of heroism and doomed last stands. “We don’t want you, Ms. Briggs, we just want the bastards who are doing this to defenseless animals.”

The cat walked over and rubbed against his owner’s leg. “Aw Zara, come on. We had fun. This day had to come someday.” She picked him up like a baby and nuzzled him, and Andre could hear the low purr from the cat’s throat. “Enough of that mushy stuff, now.” Tigger wriggled in her arms till he could get a good look at Andre. “She won’t get into trouble, though, right?  You promise? If I come peacefully, she’s in the clear?”

“As long as she’s willing to testify about whoever made you.”

“She doesn’t know, though. She didn’t have anything to do with it, she just found me.”

“Who made you?  Do you know?” Andre knew it was clutching at straws to ask, because the animals rarely retained any memory of the enhancement process, but the more information he could give the bosses, the better. 

“Couldn’t tell ya. I was a scrawny kitten living off scraps when Zara found me. I don’t have the vaguest recollection of how I got there. She didn’t even know I talked for the longest time. I scared the hell out of her when I started, heh.”

Zara started laughing through her tears.  “No more Tender Vittles.”

“Yeah, that’s right – no more Tender Vittles.” Tigger rested his forehead against Zara’s cheek for a moment. “You’ll be ok, kid. Just get yourself a real cat like God intended. ‘Cause I was never meant to be.” The cat squirmed till he dropped free from Zara’s arms and ran to the windowdoor. It was still open, just a crack. Zara wiped at her cheeks but more tears came as quick as she wiped them away. Tigger looked back at her.  “So long, and thanks for all the fish.” And he slithered out the door and was gone.

Andre saw through the glass of the windowdoor that the cat had hopped into the passenger seat of his hovercar, which was a relief, because he didn’t feel like chasing him down. As Andre filled out the forms on his phone to confirm retrieval, he tried to ignore the woman’s quiet sobs. “Sorry, Ms. Briggs, but I, uh – I need your John Hancock. Your signature?”  She stopped crying…well, mostly anyway…and glared at him. He held out the phone and she pressed her thumb onto the screen.

“How do you even sleep at night?” Andre had heard it all before and he knew better than to take the bait and get embroiled in some sort of a big philosophical argument with a grieving owner. That was for the politicians to worry about, not him. He was just doing his job and if he didn’t do it there’d be 20 other guys and gals lined up to do it inside of 5 minutes.  

He left the way he’d come in and climbed into the driver’s seat beside the cat. The furry jerk had his leg hitched up in the air and was licking his ass vigorously. “Do I need to put you in the cage?”

He didn’t even have the decency to stop licking himself.  “Does it…snarf…look like…mlerf…you need to…ffrelf…put me in the cage?”

“No.”

“Well, there ya go then.” The cat finished what he was doing and sat up. “So why d’you have a genetically enhanced chimpanzee hiding in the back of your car?”

“What?”

“Don’t insult my intelligence. The nose knows, man. Smells like he’s been eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or something, amirite?”

Andre willed Harry to stay put, stay silent so they’d have plausible deniability at the least, but he didn’t.  He popped his head out of the blanket and said, “What’re we gonna do now, Dre?”

“Goddammit, Harry, why did you talk? It was our word against his if you wouldn’t’ve talked!”

“Even you’re not that stupid, Andre. Come on! Animal Control gets accused of having an enhanced pet, whether he saw me or not, whether I stayed quiet or recited all of Roddy McDowell’s lines from Planet of the Apes, they’re gonna investigate! They’re gonna find my hair all over your apartment…and would it kill you to clean up once in a while, for Chrissake…”

“Well, Harry, maybe I could manage it if you weren’t such a freaking slob…”

“Even if I was a neat freak, they can get my DNA from a single hair!”

“Ladies, ladies.” Tigger licked his paw and wiped at his face with it. “Let’s save this lovers’ spat for another time, shall we? The question ‘what are we gonna do now, Dre?’ is sitting on the table before us, and I’ve got a suggestion, if you’d care to hear it.”

Andre sent a glare Harry’s direction, imagining his life going up in smoke for the sake of a damn dirty ape who hated showers and loved Cheetos. “I’m all ears, Tigger.”

Harry chuckled. “Tigger? His name is Tigger?  Dude, you ain’t even orange!”

The cat scrubbed his face with his paw furiously. “It’s because I’m bouncy, if you must know. Or I was, in my younger days. Now if I may continue?” Tigger shot Harry a side eye and Harry gestured at him to keep talking. “My suggestion is this. You pull over and I jump out and walk away. You tell ’em you lost me. I know you guys lose us now and then. You take your slap on the wrist, I keep my mouth shut, like, forever. No harm, no foul.”

It was a stupid idea. “They’ll just send somebody back to Zara’s place and pick you up again.”   

“I won’t go back to Zara’s.  She’s a good kid, but truth be told, the life of a housecat was getting kinda meh for me anyway.  The ennui.”

“The ennui?” Harry guffawed incredulously at the choice of words.

“It’s like French, for boredom.”  

“Oh I know very well what ennui means, you can trust me on that, Mr. Pussycat.  I could tell you about ennui for hours and hours.”

The cat considered Harry knowingly.  “Yeah, I bet you could, you poor bastard.”

Andre breathed in sharply through his nose and tried to keep his cool. The cat never looked his way, just kept washing his face. Andre looked at Harry, who shrugged, as if telling him the ball was in his court, and somehow the pitifulness of his friend’s gesture brought it home, how screwed they actually were. He hit the steering wheel a couple times in frustration, because this was a disaster, it was a complete and utter disaster, Argonne was never gonna let him hear the end of it, this would undo years of near-flawless work on his part. He groaned through his teeth and shook his head with vigor, as if he could just shake it all away. No good deed goes unpunished, ever ever ever it seemed like. “Fine. FINE! You got a preference where you want us to let you off?”

“Here is as good as anywhere.” Andre maneuvered the hovercar down to street level, past a fruit stand and some kids playing in the street. “Where do you take guys like me anyway? What do you do with us? I’ve always wondered.”

“I don’t know, believe it or not. They don’t tell us.” Andre drove the car into an alley to avoid the security cameras out on the street. There were supposed to be security cams in alleys too but they cost so much and were always getting vandalized, so most of the ones off the beaten path were fake or broken. He sure hoped the cams in this alley fell into one of those two categories. The cat stretched and leapt onto the top of the door frame where he balanced precariously for a moment. “Catch you on the flip side, gentlemen. Or not.” And he jumped onto the ground and scurried away while Andre and Harry watched.

Harry climbed into the front seat. Andre was lost in thought, trying to come up with a story he could tell Argonne so he wouldn’t get his ass completely chewed. He was so lost in thought he didn’t really pay much attention to Harry messing around with the glove box, debating as he was the merits of saying the cat had escaped versus that he had never been there to begin with and that he’d hit the wrong button on the touchscreen when he verified retrieval. But Harry was messing around with the glove box, and then IN the glove box, and when the chimp pulled out Andre’s service revolver that got his attention right quick. “What the hell are you doing? Harry, wait…”

Before Andre could even think of what to do, let alone do it, Harry had taken careful aim at the cat, who had climbed up onto a dumpster and was in midsquat, about to leap up onto a narrow ledge on a nearby building. The gun went off and Andre smothered a cry. “Problem solved.” Harry put the safety on and shoved the gun back into the glove compartment. He slammed the small door shut and Andre jumped at the sound. He realized he was shaking, shaking all over with anger, fear, sorrow, and something else underneath it all that he didn’t want to look at too closely. His stomach churned and he felt tears burn his eyes. “The cat ran, Dre. You had no choice.”

“Why did you do that for Harry, it would have been ok, I would’ve, I could’ve, I would’ve took the punishment, it was no big deal, everything was cool…” Andre realized he was babbling and forced himself to stop talking.

“Because screw him, that’s why. Screw him. Because better him than us, that’s why.”

Andre grew dimly aware that the troubling thing lurking underneath the swirl of more acceptable emotions he was experiencing was relief. “Better? Better him?”

“That’s right. Better him than us. The cat ran. Which he did, in a way, didn’t he, if you think about it? You had no choice.”

“No choice.” Andre nodded, and swallowed, and nodded again. The anger and fear and sorrow began to recede into the background and with more room to stretch its legs, the relief began to grow. It was wrong, what had happened, it felt wrong, and he knew it was wrong, but the thing was, if he was being honest the thing that just happened was really what he did anyway. It was what an animal control agent did. He took things…creatures…beings…things…that could talk and think and feel and had people that loved them across a lobby and into an elevator and then they went away somewhere and probably ended up just exactly like Tigger did and he was ok with that because he didn’t see it happen firsthand.

“All that just happened was an animal killing another animal, Andre.  It happens every day. It’s the most natural thing in the whole wide world for that to happen.”  

Natural. It was natural. It was entirely within the bounds of nature that a strong animal kills a weaker one in order to live. But what the hell did that mean anyway, natural, I mean seriously he was a guy sitting in a hovercar for Chrissake, how natural was that? He was a guy sitting in a hovercar beside a talking chimpanzee that had just wasted a talking cat. It was disturbing how quickly a person could go from thinking something was unnatural to justifying it as being natural all in the same moment. “Natural, yeah.”

Harry peered at Andre with those hooded round eyes of his for a long moment and then he leaned over and grabbed something from the back. Then he swung himself out of the hovercar with that casual ape athleticism he possessed, and scrambled up onto the dumpster where Tigger’s body lay. What he’d grabbed was the body bag that Andre always brought along in case a retrieval ever went south, like, deep south, which had never happened to him before but apparently it had now. Harry shoved the cat into the bag and then straightened up with sudden purpose just exactly how people do when their phone is set on vibrate and it rings. Andre realized with dismay that Harry had taken the phone and he knew it was because Harry hadn’t trusted him with it. Harry still thought Andre might turn him in and had taken the phone so he couldn’t call for backup. The chimp looked at the screen and touched it a few times and read something. He glanced at Andre with an amused air, tucked the phone back into the front pocket of the red Osh Kosh B’Gosh overalls and leapt from the edge of the dumpster into the passenger seat of the car. He landed lightly in the seat, depositing the cat’s body in the back of the hovercar at the same time. “You got a text. From Nova, Lothario.”

“Oh yeah?” For a chilling moment Andre considered how strong Harry was and how far he could jump and how fast he could move. For a moment Andre considered how tough it would be to retrieve a chimpanzee, harder than a horse probably even, then he pushed that thought away because Harry was his friend. “What’d she want?”

“Meet you for drinks.”             

“Huh.”

“Life goes on.”

Andre stepped on the pedal and the hovercar rose straight up.  Drinks with Nova sounded pretty ok to him. “Yeah, it does, I guess. Life goes on.”

After all, it was just a cat.  

 

   

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar

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