The first cat brave enough to talk to me about what had happened was Nikita. She said she and most of her fellow cats had become suspicious and leery when they saw those humans in the black outfits appearing around the fish house and the processing facility.
Another cat, named Katya, came forward. “They looked bizarre, almost freakish. You know, all the other humans here wear comfy, if not tattered, clothes. We’ve never seen anybody here in suits and ties and raven shoes.”
Embolden by their two co-workers’ readiness to talk, more and more cats voiced their uneasiness, even fear, about the uncommon visitors.
“Yeah,” Nikita said, “the more often they showed up, the more guarded we all became. That’s why …”
“Hold on.” I interrupted her even before I spotted Olaf’s blazing eyes. “Those men in black snooped around here more than once?”
This time, Boris took over. “That’s right. It was about two or three days ago when they started to hang around here. They never stayed that long, but they were all over the place, the fish house, the processing facility, the packing house and the warehouse.”
Eager to learn what else Nikita wanted to say, I passed calling Olaf out on his lie. Instead, I tickled Nikita with accolades to keep her gaze on me and away from Olaf’s now clenching jaw, at the same time prodding her to tell everything that had happened.
Obviously charmed by my flattery, as gawky as my attempts at it were and something I was still learning from Ludwig, Nikita started to spill the beans without naming anybody. “There were three of us, heading with our bags of caviar toward the warehouse. Suddenly, those strangers in black started to chase us. We got away, but one of us dropped the bag and the contents spilled all over the place. That’s when we took matters into our own paws.”
A cat sitting next to Olaf stood up. “Nikita is right. I was the one who dropped the bag. I know it shouldn’t have happened, but that one guy almost caught me by the tail, and I speeded up and escaped under a fence, but then, I stumbled over a rock, and the caviar can hit the edge of it and broke open. I guess I’m in big trouble, aren’t I?”
“Don’t worry about it right now,” I said, “just tell me what you did then.”
“Excuse me,” Katya said, “I was the third one of the three. When Nikita and I saw the mess Igor had made, we came back and helped him lick up all the caviar so there was no evidence of it.”
“Yeah,” Nikita said, “if those men wanted proof of some shabby dealings, all they would have found was an empty can which would have meant nothing.”
I frowned and glanced at Olaf. He flicked his tongue, and I nodded at him to speak up, but he kept mum. Apparently, what the cats were telling me was true, and I could not pin the blame on them. The only one to blame was Olaf for withholding from me that his government had been prying until he had no choice but to give me the lowdown.
“You were quite on the ball,” I finally said to the three cats who had come forward. “I would say you did the right thing under the circumstances.”
Igor, sitting back down, leaving a big gap between him and Olaf, said, “We thought so, too, but a courier dog saw us munching away on the caviar and reported it to Olaf here, and he bawled us out big time.”
I asked if anybody else wanted to add something, but they all shook their heads, including Olaf.
“One last thing before I let you all go,” I said, keeping my eyes on everybody. “Did anyone of you notice an unfamiliar dog with a shiny golden collar around his neck showing up here?”
The cats looked at each other and again shook their heads. I rose, thanked them for their honesty and cooperation regarding the caviar fiasco and dismissed them.
Then, I bared my teeth, ready to lash out at Olaf, his face frozen into a glowering mask. Before I could fling my first insult at him, the voice of the little dog who wanted to fetch her boyfriend echoed from one of the bushes behind Olaf.
“Is it me or do you always show your teeth at others?” The little dog jumped in front of me.
I relaxed my jaw and gave her a quick grin. “Great you made it back.” I frowned again. “Where’s your boyfriend?”
“He … eh … was kind of … eh … held up.” She looked at Olaf out of the corner of her eye. “I’ll try to pass on what he told me to tell you about the dog he saw the best I can.”
To be continued
To read the story from the beginning, click here or go to Fable on the menu.
Olaf’s attitude was stumping me more and more. Only a little while ago, he had tried to hold me back from conferring with my cat employees, and now, he was acting as if he wanted them to take off and disappear.
Afraid the cats might do just that, I called them to step forward, trying to sound gentle, yet firm. I was hoping some of them were old-timers and would recognize my voice from the time I had met them when I had set up my caviar business.
I lucked out. Two cats came slinking from under a bush, their eyes glued to me. Slowly, I moved toward them, all the while soothing them. They kept on coming closer, and we met halfway.
“You are the boss, aren’t you?” the bigger one of the two said. “I remember you. The first time I saw you, I was thinking what a small and plain dog you were and already the owner of a business. It gave me an incentive to work hard because I’m almost your size and also lacking glitz and glamour, so I’m determined to make something out of myself too.”
I looked the cat up and down. He was a huge tomcat with short black and white fur. Undecided whether he had just insulted me or given me a compliment, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I gracefully thanked him and asked if he could introduce me to his co-workers.
“Sure,” he said, “if they’re still here, and there will only be a few.”
“See,” Olaf barked at me. “I’ve told you they won’t be around. Let’s wait ‘til tomorrow to catch up with them.”
Before I could reply, the big cat, ignoring Olaf’s comment, turned to the other cat. “Boris, go tell the others to come over here and meet the dog who puts their food on the table.”
While Boris took off, I nodded at the big cat. “Well, you couldn’t have said it any better. That’s just what I want to talk about with you all. Maybe you can shed light on why some of the cats ate the caviar they were supposed to hand over to the courier dogs at the warehouse.”
“I heard about it,” the big cat said, “but I wasn’t there when it happened. You’ll have to ask one of the perpetrators.”
I cocked my head. “You know who did it?”
The big cat frowned. “I’m not a rat. Just ask the cats if one of them took part in it.”
“Oh, come on, do you really think they’re going to tell me they’re guilty?”
Olaf butted in again. “They won’t …”
“If they’d done it, it must have been for a good reason and they’ll tell you,” the big cat said, looking me straight in the face.
It was the second time that he had snubbed Olaf who now had his gaze fixed on the flock of cats striding in a single file from the farthest corner of the fish house toward us. The closer they came, the more Olaf’s ears flattened.
Boris came leaping ahead of the others. “I scrounged up more than I thought I would. Most of the cats who worked today were still here, just scattered around.”
“Wow, that’s great.” I patted Boris on the shoulder while smirking at Olaf.
“I wouldn’t give their statements too much weight,” Olaf said as his fur began to bristle. “They’ll just come up with some phony excuses.”
I glanced at the big cat expecting him to tell Olaf off. Instead, he kept his mouth shut but exchanged a look with Boris that said it all.
What the heck was wrong with Olaf? His secrecy and evasiveness to everything I was querying had set alarm bells ringing in the back of my mind. Was it all part of some underpaw, if not sinister, scheme of his?
Despite the bad luck of Ludwig’s disappearing and the shootings, I thanked my lucky stars that I would have a chance to talk to the cats myself. I should have come over here right in the beginning to find out what’s going on without delegating it to Ludwig. It would have made things less complicated.
When everybody had arrived and the big cat had made the introduction, I suggested we all sit in a circle to have an easy question and answer session. I finagled it to sit opposite to Olaf so that I could interfere if he tried to intimidate the cats by baring his teeth.
To be continued
Foreign business affairs
A fable by Bruny Hudson
The more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is.
Hobo: Living forever through his adventures
Olaf, still glowering at me, cleared his throat. “If you don’t need me right now, I have some unfinished work to do at the office. I’ll see you later.” Without waiting for my reply, he turned around and trotted toward the packing house.
I shrugged my shoulders at the little dog. “Let’s hear what your boyfriend told you to say.”
Instead of conveying the message, she shouted, “Hey, Sergi, he’s gone, you can come out.”
There was a lot of rustling of leaves, followed by a loud yelp. From the commotion and the forceful bark I expected to see a huge dog plowing through the bushes and wondered why he would hide from Olaf. What came crawling out of the bushes was another small dog.
“Ouch, these darn twigs, sharp as needles.” He twisted his neck to lick his shoulder, and then staring at my surprised face, he said, “Hey. My name is Sergio, or Sergi like Elena here, my girlfriend, likes to call me.”
“I hoped we wouldn’t run into Olaf,” Elena said. “Sergi tried to stay away from him after I told him how Olaf came down on him.”
“Not that I’m afraid of him.” Sergi made himself stand taller. “I’m strong, very strong, just look at my muscles, perfect for my job. But I hate confrontations.”
“I didn’t think of that,” I said, and after introducing myself, I added, “I should have sent Olaf away before you came, but I mistakenly assumed he would have liked to know if you had seen Ludwig. Did you?”
“Elena told me Ludwig is the dog with that fancy golden collar around his neck?”
“You’ve seen him then? Where? Tell me.”
“I’ve only seen him for a second, but that collar was so shiny and so out of place here that I couldn’t have missed him.”
“But where, where did you see him?”
“In the warehouse, at one of the computers. I was leaving on a delivery run. I’d just punched in the URL address and was busy aligning my tag with the USB port when that golden-collared dog came popping out of the computer next to me. I even jerked my neck aside to get a better look at that collar of his, but my tag had already made the connection, and I was on my way to the Internet.”
My head started to spin. Almost under my breath, I asked, “Was there any shooting going on when you took off?”
“No, but I heard a funny noise, just as the wind sucked me in, something very much out of the ordinary. Later, I found out they were shooting around the warehouse after I’ve left, so that noise could have been a gunshot.”
A guttural moan escaped my mouth. “I think it was. I heard those unusual noises, too, when I was on the way over here, and it also would match the time I was afraid Ludwig must have arrived at the warehouse. Now, when you came back, did any of the other courier dogs mention a dog with a golden collar?”
“I didn’t talk to anybody right away when I returned. There was nobody around. Later, I mingled with some others at the fish house here, but they only talked about the shootings, nothing else.”
“But, Sergi,” Elena called out, “you’ve told me you asked a couple of your co-workers about that dog because you wanted to get a collar like he had for me.”
Sergi nodded. “I did, but as I said, only the shootings had caught their attention.”
I thought deeply and long about what Sergi was telling me. My worst fears had come true. Ludwig had arrived at the warehouse during the shootings, but apparently, nobody got hit, at least, no dead bodies had been lying around.
There was still the possibility that Ludwig, gunned down and bleeding, had dragged himself outside and was now withering away in some shrubbery, but I recalled not seeing any blood on the bullet-riddled floor of the warehouse or on the concrete slabs in front of it.
I knew Ludwig did not hide under the computer stations, and Olaf had occupied the only hiding place. If Ludwig had tried to run the gantlet of bullets through the warehouse and out of the door, Olaf should have seen him … or maybe not. He didn’t mention anything, but he could have kept silent to mislead me.
Nevertheless, if Ludwig had made it unharmed out of the warehouse, one of the dogs or cats should have remembered seeing him. As Sergi had said, it was not easy to miss a collar like Ludwig’s, and it would have also been true amid distractions.
The only scenario left was that Ludwig, at the first sound of the shooting, had somehow managed to reconnect immediately with the USB port again. If so, he should be back home … or he could also have had just enough time to punch in an Internet stopover for whatever reason, which would make it almost impossible to hunt him down. But there was a way to check what he did.
To be continued
The coughing of a dog, coming from the corner where I’d ambushed Olaf, cut into my train of thought. A second later, a small dog, about half my size, hopped around it.
“Excuse me,” the dog said, the voice clipped but polite. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I couldn’t help eavesdropping when I heard you mentioned a strange dog who might have appeared here.”
I jumped in front of her and bared my teeth. “You’ve seen him?”
The dog shied back. “Don’t bite, I didn’t do anything.”
“Sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean to startle you, but I’m desperate to find my friend. He looks similar to me but is a little bit bigger. Have you seen him?”
“No, I haven’t seen anybody, but my boyfriend, who’s a courier dog here, told me he saw a dog today who was wearing a collar that would fit me to a T but had no idea where he could find it for me.”
I almost bared my teeth again. What was she talking about? I was interested in Ludwig, not in collars. Then it hit me. “Did he say what kind of collar?”
“Sure, one all we girls dream of having, a golden one.”
“That’s him, that’s my friend Ludwig. He’s the only dog I’ve seen so far wearing a golden collar. Where’s your boyfriend? I have to talk to him.”
“We’ve parted a little while ago. I don’t know where he went.”
“Do you think he went to do a delivery run?”
Olaf poked his nose between the dog and me. “They’ve already shut down the packing house for today. So there won’t be any more deliveries until tomorrow.”
Craning my neck around Olaf’s muzzle, I asked the girl, “Did your boyfriend tell you anything else about the strange dog, where he saw him, what he was doing, where he headed for?”
“No, the big news was his collar, with us dogs here having all the same drab brown ones. I just noticed, yours looks pretty nice, too. I bet you didn’t get it here in Russia.”
“Thanks,” I said. “It’s made in China … Is there any way you can get hold of your boyfriend?”
“Let me see. Sometimes, after he’s done with the deliveries, he waits at my home to meet me again when I return from our earlier date at the fish house.”
Olaf put his muzzle between us again. “Where does your boyfriend find time for your rendezvous? He should be working. And I assume you’re not one of the courier dogs?”
The little dog glowered at Olaf. “For your information, I don’t work here. I just slip out from home whenever I can to meet my boyfriend and only during his breaks.”
“Well, I’d better inspect his records.” Olaf took a step backward and gave the little girl the once-over.
I shook my head at him and asked the girl, “Where do you live?”
“It’s not far away. I tell you what. I’ll go home now, it’s almost time anyway, and if my boyfriend is there, I’ll drag him back to the fish house. Check in about half an hour or so if we’re there. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait ‘til in the morning to talk to him.”
“That sounds great. Thanks a lot. I hope to see you both shortly.”
“I’ll do what I can,” the little dog replied, and giving Olaf the evil eye, she spun on her paw and took off.
“OK, Olaf,” I said, “While I’m here, take me to the cats. I’d like to have a word with them.”
“I don’t know if they’re around right now. With all that’s going on, they might have decided to leave. It’ll be just a waste of time.”
“Where would they normally hang out?”
“At the fish house.”
“So, take me to it, and we’ll see. We have to wait anyway and check if the dog finds her boyfriend. We might as well make the most out of it.”
Olaf led the way, and I trotted alongside him. We both were quiet. My mind was buzzing with riddles of finding Ludwig, of sorting out Olaf’s remarks about my caviar business and of why he had suddenly become tight-lipped. No answer or solution popped up.
As soon as we came within eyeshot of the fish house, I saw cats scurrying behind the building and the adjacent bushes. I knew they were watching us from what they thought was a safe distance, underestimating the instinct and speed of us dogs. I would have liked to teach them a lesson, but right now, I needed their cooperation.
“Go ahead and call them,” I said to Olaf as we approached the building.
“The cats, of course. Don’t tell me you didn’t see them.”
Stopping, Olaf asked, his voice shrill, “Where are they?”
I stared at him. Something was very much wrong.
To be continued