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Puss and the Little Lady

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Lightning flashed. It lit up an open windowsill. In it, a large walnut shell, with a scrap of fabric askew across it. A bed and blanket for someone no bigger than an old woman's thumb.

The bed was empty.

I came to around noon. The last thing I remembered was Admiral Clintstock, my human's father-in-law and some sort of uppity-up here in the city of Neverwood, tossing me a ball of 'nip and telling me to have fun.

It had been potent stuff. Had, in the past sense. It was in 'nip heaven now. I hoped I hadn't embarrassed myself.

The last time this happened, the Kid, my human, wouldn't shut his yap about how 'cute' I'd looked. Said I'd attacked the air like some sap who couldn't hold his herbs. I didn't show my face for a week after that faux paws.

A 'nip habit is a sad thing. But I'd lived a hard life. You developed habits. Ways to cope. And they stuck with you, even after you got yourself into a better situation, like when your human went and married a rich heiress.

Thanks to yours truly's efforts, of course.

Now here I was. Living large off the land, with 'nip of a grade I never had before. Lying here, under a side table, no idea how I got there. At first, I wasn't sure what had woken me. Then I heard claws on the floor.

Claws? Claws on the floor? I was the only one in the house with claws.

The sound of claws was followed by a yapping. I groggily raised my head just in time to turn it straight into a slobbery tongue and breath so foul that my fur curled. The Stupid Kid had let in a damned dog!

I did what any self-respecting cat would do, which was hiss my displeasure and swipe at the enemy's nose. The mongrel danced out of reach, tongue lolling, then darted back in close and licked me again. I yowled and fled for higher ground and sympathetic company, namely the lap of Mrs. Kid, known as Beatrice.

"Oh, you've met the puppy," my second human, one Beatrice Miller née Clintstock, said, rubbing the dog drool into my fur as she stroked my ears. She was trying to be comforting, so I didn't claw her. If the Kid had tried it, I would have taken a chunk out of him.

"Why is there a dog, doll?" I meowed, licking my paw, preparing to groom the drool out of my luxurious pelt. I wasn't going to be able to show my whiskers until I got the smell off of me.

"He was in a box on the street and isn't he an absolute dear?" cooed Mrs. Kid. I shuddered. Things had been getting kind of hairy around here since she'd gotten babies on the mind. The Stupid Kid was being all shifty about it and this was how I had to suffer: A dog.

Now, I understand that it's different for humans as opposed to a cat like me who can love 'em and leave 'em, but caring for one little human can't be so bad that you'd get a dog instead, right? Humans, I don't get them.

The dog was still yapping. I arched my back real threatening and took a swipe.

"Puss!" said Mrs. Kid, lifting me high above the mutt. "You two are going to be the best of friends. Maybe he'll even be your little sidekick."

My eyes widened in horror. So did my tail.

"Stop fussing," said Mrs. Kid as she forcibly scritched my ears back from their position of flattened horror. "You're not afraid of a little puppy, are you?"

"Madam," I said with dignity, "I am afraid of no mutt. But I don't like sharing what's mine, dig?"

She kept scritching. It felt heavenly. But I wasn't going to be distracted from this… this… I started purring, deep in my chest.

Then the damn, pardon my french, dog leapt in her lap with no care that I was there too. I was gone. It was time for me to spend some quality time out of the old abode. Back on the streets, to get in touch with the little people I'd sorely neglected since my ascent into a higher social strata.

That said, I didn't have a goal in mind. I was going to walk the streets until they took me far away from that puppy. Puppy. What a name. You'd hardly tell they ruined lives and carefully cultivated situations.

I sauntered downtown, toward the docks. If someone were to say that my saunter was a little faster than normal, well. I think I had good reason for haste. I paused to catch my breath after a bit and found myself in front of Jack's tailor shop.

Perfect. Just the man to commiserate with me. I pawed and yowled at the door till he let me in, then found a basket of fabric scraps and made myself comfortable.

"Evening, Puss," Jack said, and for some unknown reason, he sounded amused. I was taking care of the drool and the dust from my trip, and only spared him half a glare. "Your boots look all right, so what's the occasion?"

"Can't a cat visit an old friend?" I mewed, licking at my shoulder. That awful beast had gotten slobber everywhere. A cat can't be expected to live like this.

Jack snorted and picked up a bundle of fabric, sorting out the needle and beginning to sew with neat, precise stitches. For a human, Jack was remarkably attentive to detail. "A cat can, but he doesn't."

I would have shrugged, but I was busy with my hindquarters. "I'm turning over a new leaf."

"How new?"

"New as a first-day kitten. I'm a changed cat, Jack. I'll be visiting the old friends, roaming the old neighbourhood," I lifted a leg to get a prime bit of cleaning in.

"Everything all right at home then?" Jack said, sewing his precise little stitches. There was a note of… I don't know what you'd call it. Contemplation? Something like that, in his voice. I doubted it was about my home situation.

"Oh, it's great, just dandy, the humans got themselves a puppy," and I said this in my most withering tone, "so we're all one big happy family now. Why couldn't they just pop out a littler one like a normal couple? I don't mind kids when they're too small to grab you. You know that. I'm generous like that."

"Bill brought that up last time we talked," said Jack. Bill. What a stupid name to call Stupid Kid by.

"Yeah, and did he mention wanting to ruin my life then?" I gave a low rumble and started cleaning my front paws.

"Well, Puss, it's not like cats. You don't much care where you came from, as long as you have food and water. But humans, they're not like your average tabby. Bill had brothers once. Walked out on Bill. Walked out on Marshall. You remember him, I hope," said Jack. "I never can tell with cats."

Marshall. My first human. Scooped me out of the gutter and gave me a little dignity again. Stupid Kid wasn't a patch on the old man. A paler version in all respects. But Marshall'd told me to watch out for his kid. Said I was the only hope the Stupid Kid had. So I did as I was told. Had a lot of respect for that old man.

"Yeah, so?" I said. "I liked him. He was all right by me."

"Yes, but you must have noticed he didn't always have the easiest time with people who didn't do what he wanted. He was hard on his two eldest, and harder on Bill. As they say, we all turn into our fathers," said Jack delicately.

I hated that about Jack. He'd dodge around topics. He knew I had a hard time reading humans. They were inscrutable. Well, I didn't have time for that nonsense. I decided to skedaddle and see if there were any rats at the pier.

"I gotta bounce," I said.

"Wait!" said Jack. "I have something that I was going to bring to Bill, but it might be more suited for your eyes."

"'Bill's' useless," I said.

"He commands a very helpful little friend," Jack said. What friend, I thought. Who was taking my place. I'd claw them.

Jack picked up an envelope and slid out a piece of paper. He cleared his throat.

"Ahem, the facts of the case. A case so unbelievable that until now it has gone unattended until brought to yours truly, a problem solver of great renown.

"Nearly a year ago, one July night, one 'Mother Malone', who was truly Birdie Malone and, her admiring friends had thought, mother only to the needy, came to me. It seemed her daughter had been kidnapped."

"What's the big deal about her having a daughter. Lots of women have 'em. You didn't know about the kid then?" I rested my head on the edge of the basket. I'd talked big talk about leaving, but Jack's scrap basket was too comfy to really leave.

"Mhm. It was the stature of the daughter that led dear Mother Malone to conceal her from the community."

"All kids are short. Ain't nothing to be ashamed of," I said. "You humans get weird about everything."

"She was as small as a thumb, Puss."

My head perked up, ears all a-tingle. "Which one of those is that again?"

Jack leaned down and held up his hands in the gesture I'd seen the Kid use when someone did him a good turn. Never saw the point of it. But as a visual aid to the size of missing dames, it was pretty good.

"That's pretty small, Jack," I said.

"It is, Puss. Easy to get lost. Easy for someone to come in a window and steal her, maybe," he replied, still bent down to look me in the eye. Now, I don't think I liked his tone very much. If I was getting his drift, it was time to set things straight and narrow.

"I only chew, Jack. I don't eat any of you humans, no matter how tiny you are. Not even the loud ones."

"I wasn't saying it was you. I was saying, there's other cats out there. Cats without your compunctions. I'd start there. If you're taking the case," Jack said. He stood up and went back to his work bench.

Dark mind, that Jack. Suggesting that one of my feline brethren would eat a tiny, bite-size human. A mouse-size human. A tidbit human.

I said nothing.

He said nothing.

My tail started thrashing, but he didn't break.

Finally I couldn't take it any more. "Fine. I'll look into it. I better get paid."

"I would never volunteer you for free, my small friend," said Jack.

To my disgust, Jack took me to see my client in a basket. His reasoning was that he didn't want the local street dogs to get any ideas. I was thinking he was trying to make me more palatable to the old lady. He was getting on in years. Maybe this was his way of courting, getting up to solving problems again. But this time using me.

I didn't like the idea. I was no man's bouquet of peonies.

I sang the song of my people to keep him company while he carted me around in that wicker nightmare. I was surprised he didn't leave me on someone's doorstep and abandon the whole thing, but determination in the face of common sense was always one of Jack's stupid habits. Like that time he climbed all the way into the clouds, but that's a story I've already told you about.

Maybe instead I should have told you about the time he set his pants on fire trying to leap over a candle. The old man told me that one when I was smarting as a kitten when Jack had called my tail raggedy. Well, joke's on him. His pants burnt and my tail is now long, flowing, and luxurious. My finest feature, if I do say so myself.

Speaking of the old man, I thought about, then discarded, the idea of going to the office to pick up my peacemaker. Might run into the Kid and I was finito with that family over the canine for now.

Finally we got to our destination. Jack informed me, and thanked me for my singing, by dropping the basket onto the steps. Nearly bit my tongue. Cat got my tongue. Get it?

I poked my head out of the basket to give him a piece of my mind, and while I was grumbling this and that at him, I took a look at the premises. The door was well worn, and the paint on it was cracked and faded, but those stone steps were washed so clean you could practically see your face on 'em. So the lady was clean, but couldn't afford new paint.

This did not bode well for my payment.

"Oh Jack, is that him?" said a voice at the top of the shoes that opened the door. Clean, mended shoes. Jack's work. Bet he did it pro-bono.

"The one and only Puss in Boots. My old friend's little protegé." Jack picked me up and I got a human's eye view of the lady. She was toned dark, like the Old Man. Her hair was tied back so tight that a strand didn't dare move and it was black, shot with grey. I rolled my eyes. Definitely the same age as Jack. I better find this lady's kid or he was going to be plum out of luck in the romance department.

Jack was reassuring the lady that I'd find her pint-sized kid. He really sounded concerned. I don't get it. Kids are a dime a dozen. Just find another guy, like Jack, and get another. I guess she was getting on though.

I wondered how some of my kittens were getting on. Not that'd we'd ever exchanged words, feline or otherwise. But that was feline parenthood for you.

Human brats sure did a number on you. Look at this lady. Her kid flew the coop like the old man's two oldest did and now she was a wreck, just like he was. Oh, Jack clearly thought she was the bee's knees but I could see she hadn't been happy in a good long time. A cat can smell that, despair in a human.

I stopped collecting with the old nose, and started focusing with the old ears.

"He's got such clever eyes," the lady was saying.

"Thanks," I said, grudgingly. She was praising me. Good. Jack put me down on a table next to the window, and I saw a little bed, no bigger than a shell of one of those nuts humans and squirrels like to eat.

In fact, it was one of those shells. I took a closer look, and a good long whiff, just to make sure the missing child was actually human. And not something, like say, a mouse, or some such.

No dying flower stench, so the doll hadn't been a fairy. And it was faint, but the shell smelled of tiny human. I ignored the two humans and their ridiculous courting rituals, and let myself out via the window. The outer sill had the same tiny human scent. And something… watery?

I needed more information. I prowled along the alley outside the hovel until I smelled him. And saw him, a second later. A feline most foul. He was big and mean and kinda dumb looking, but his scent was all over the place, so he'd probably seen the diminutive doll at some point. I sauntered forward, ears and tail high, not looking for a fight.

Sometimes, the thing you're not looking for finds you anyway. "This is my patch," big and ugly growled, as soon as I approached. "Back off."

"I just have a few questions about -" I stopped, abruptly. Things were going south, fast. His scent was all aggression and fury, and he clearly was more in the mood for a tangle than a two step. I stepped back and crouched down, the first notes of my battlesong rumbling in my throat to let him know I was up to meeting any challenge he cared to bring. Then we were leaping for one another, and he landed a lucky swipe that left me seeing stars.

I shook it off and started the next verse of my battlesong. I've fought bigger cats than this lunk before, and generally, I win. Then, like a vision sent from the land of Bast, she appeared on a fire escape above us.

"Mittens, just tell him about the toad. There's no reason to make a mess."

That cultured voice. That fur like smoke. It was her. Kisa.

She had a tail that went for miles and she knew how to whip it. The softest paws and the toughest claws. I liked a little rough with my tumble, but Kisa wasn't going my way, not now, not ever. It made a cat feel a touch hurt. Lady cats didn't usually give ol' Puss the brush off.

But she had a sweet spot for me, even so, and that worked out in my favour. Like, for instance, right now with Mittens, Mr. Muscle For Brains.

Mittens bristled at her, and she flicked her tail in the most expressive disdain. What a feline!

"Hey pretty kitty," I purred.

"It's Mitt, toots, and I ain't helping no narcs," Mitt hissed at her.

"Whoa now," I said, my tail swishing in offended pride. "I don't work for the coppers. I'm strictly private investigations, just trying to help a lady find her daughter."

Mitt looked sour, but curled his tail around his paws, settling into idol pose. "Fine. But you didn't hear this from me, got it?"

I unruffled my fur. "I know how this works, Mitt. I don't sing about my sources."

Kisa gave a trilling purr. "That's a fact, Mitt."

Mitt spilled the beans like the lady told him. My quarry was, miraculously, not cat chow. Seems the kid had run into some trouble that was distinctly not feline - in fact, it was downright amphibian. The docks had a frog problem, and by problem I mean a dynasty of frogs of the criminal persuasion. They hustled, they handled the bootlegging for the animal kingdom around these parts, and at the head of them was Mama Toad.

Mama Toad had herself a shiftless son and a while back, oh around July in fact, she'd been going around saying she'd found him a wife finally. Then nothing.

It was a good place to start. You know what had a watery smell that could linger for a year? Frogs.

I went to the docks, sniffing around, asking some questions. Seems that Mama and her boy kept a little hole in the wall, literally, down where the water fed out to the river.

I was in luck. In front of the establishment was an almighty huge toad haranguing a smaller one, a nasty little piece of work with a marking on its face that looked like a pretty lousy mustache. When I got closer, I realized my search had taken on a new urgency.

"You're going to get out there and find that girl, Eustache!" croaked Mama Toad. "If she's got someone on the case, she gotta still be out there!"

"Mama -"

Mitt must have snitched. It couldn't have been dear sweet Kisa.

I stepped in.

The toads didn't appreciate that. They were a lot happier not knowing I was there. I didn't know they made tommy guns that small.

Let me be clear, I don't sneak up on people. I walk normally, quiet, soft pawed, like a civilized cat. It's not my fault humans can't hear for spit.

Toads, it turned out, don't hear so well either. Mama Toad fixed me with a bulbous eye, and Eustache kept me covered with the tommy, and I suddenly regretted leaving the peacemaker behind. It would have been nice to have some firepower of my own.

"Whataya want, Cat?" Mama rumbled, and gave a slow blink. "If you're not here for a drink, you'd better move on. We don't like your kind around here."

I didn't know if they meant detectives or cats, and I didn't care. Eustache was starting to shake, holding up his piece, and the day I can't get the better of some frog, I'll hang up my boots. A quick swat sent the tommy gun flying, and then I was giving two mighty chews and Eustache had a new semi permanent address: my stomach.

Mama Toad screamed and tried to leap away, but I slammed a paw down on her legs and she wasn't going anywhere. "That wasn't very friendly of your boy, Mama," I mewed. "Here I am, trying to be all neighborly and just needing to ask a few questions, and you threaten me and he pulls a gun. You treat all your customers like this?"

It took a while for Mama to pull herself together enough to give me the dope, but eventually I learned the doll had been stashed at one of their summer places on a large lily pad in the middle of the river. The toads had figured she was too far from shore to swim for help, so they'd left her alone and gone to fetch the preacher. When they got back, it had all been gone, lady, lean-to and lily pad.

Mama glared defiance up at me as she finished her tale, clearly having found some more courage somewhere in her story. "We figured a fish got her, so we stopped looking. But then word on the street said you were on the case, so we get to thinking the girl maybe hadn't drowned. Now let me go, you flea-bitten predator!"

"I did you a favor by ridding you of that lousy son of yours," I reminded her, just before I let her go. She spat at the dock near my feet and jumped clear, out of sight in seconds. I guess I could have tried to get her to throw in a bottle of her moonshine, but toad whiskey just isn't worth it.

I followed the river.

I had a lot of time to think. The river was long. Must've been something to ride down it when you weren't any bigger than a human's thumb.

I thought about Kisa and that lovely, lovely tail. But all good things cannot last. My thoughts wandered to my home situation.

I thought to myself about what that mangy fleabag was doing in my house. My home! I'd gotten all the servants and people trained up right and now that dog was running rampant.

A dog. A dog.

I thought about the breakfast I was missing. I thought about Mrs. Kid's perfect ear-scratching nails. I thought about how there was a primo sunny spot I'd recently discovered in Admiral Clintstock's office that bore further investigation.

I thought about a lot of things as I followed the river. There wasn't much else to do but think while I walked my little paws and boots off. Boring work but not all detective work was glamour and fine 'nip.

City roads turned into not the city roads which was way too wild and wooly wilderness for this cat, but technically I was still within city limits. I mean, I could see the place. Old Neverwood. What a city. Corruption, dames, and enchanted castles. It was just a hike to get back to civilization when your legs were this compact.

The scenery was now gently rural.

Hated it.

Eventually dawn's rosy fingers started reaching into the sky and my stomach rumbled. Eustache, may he rest in peace, had made his journey to the afterlife and my digestion. I needed another meal and a nap so I could keep up my tracking of the girl's trail.

I looked around. It'd been a while, but the old hunting instincts never dulled. That's why us cats are the top of the food chain.

It was different hunting in the wild and wooly outdoors. No checking for what didn't fit in the nice, orderly, and above all artificial city of stone and concrete. Instead it was grass, rocks, and a dirt road. And a dirt field. A lot of dirt. But I was a cat who could learn. Picked that up on life number 3.

Had to look for what was moving in an edible-like manner. Not a grass blowing gently in the wind, touched with the scent of spring type of movement.

Ugh.

Dinner presented itself in a beetle wearing, of all things, a top hat. This may seem like high talk from a cat wearing boots, but mine were made with class.

"Poor Beetle," said a voice from the tree as I finished chewing. I looked up.

"Life happens, toots. Mine goes on. In some way, he'll always be with me."

"Oh, no, not that," said the squirrel in the tree, keeping its distance. "He was dying of a broken heart. The woman he loved turned out to not be what he wanted and he was a broken shell of a beetle. Not that it would have worked. She was a human, if very tiny, and he was a right bastard. And a beetle."

My meal turned to stone in my stomach.

I'd eaten my witness.

But life was short, and the squirrel seemed to be in the know.

"Who'd he leave her for?" I said casually.

"No one. He regretted it ever since. I hear she ended up with Mole, the richest rodent in this district. Poor thing, trapped underground like that. If you come near me," the squirrel added, "I will take your eye out with this twig."

"Wasn't even considering it," I said, focusing on a dust mote.

A mole. I hated moles. They burrowed too far underground to make good sport, and they were coated in dirt even if you could catch them. But if the doll had come this way, I would have to keep going.

I found a nice perch in a tree, at a distance from the chatty squirrel, and settled down for a quick nap.

Well, sometimes cat naps aren't that short. The sun was sending long shadows streaming from the west when I woke up, and the surroundings were suspiciously quiet and critter free. So much for a quick meal before my next meeting. I guess Twitchy had spread the word. Damn squirrels.

A stretch, a wash, and I got myself out of the tree and back on the little lady's trail. I hadn't moseyed for long before I caught an earthy, rodenty, and wealthy scent. Yep. From the smell of things, the mole had quite the extensive underground lair. And a mousey neighbor, unless I missed my guess.

I hadn't. Around the next bend they were waiting for me, the mole's bulk dwarfing the more delicate form of the mouse. He puffed up larger as I got closer, trying to intimidate me. Prey always try that.

Settling on my haunches just inside leaping range, I tilted my head to look at them better. The mole shook his paw at me. "See here, you rascal! You can't just barge into people's territories and start looking for runaway wives! I demand you leave at once!"

Seems my friend the squirrel had been by here too.

"River's free land," I purred, flicking my tail in warning. "I'm just passing through. And the lady's mother is the one who hired me. I'm doing my job."

Very lofty, he looked down his pointed nose at me. "You can stop now. I will be taking care of Thumbelina as soon as I locate her. And she will learn her place!"

I figured it was time to make the world a better place, even if it tasted like mole. The mouse shrieked and fled to the mouth of the burrow, hiding partly inside the tunnel where it would be difficult to get her. I crouched down more and tried not to look too hungry.

"Listen, I can tell you're not like the mole. You want to let me in on what you know, ma'am?"

The hole smelled like heartbroken mouse tears, and then I heard the sobbing.

"He never would have treated you right, girl," I said, as kindly as I could. "You have to learn to love yourself." She peeped out at me, whiskers dripping. I stayed where I was, still and not a threat.

"Bonus, his house is empty now. I doubt anyone would mind if you took it over."

That seemed to work. It's a sad, virulent, thing, greed. She wiped her wet eyes and straightened up, staring me in the eye. "Thumbs left with a sparrow. She never really liked Mole. I don't know why. Last I saw of her, they were flying that way, toward Whispering Grass."

Whispering Grass. Some places have forests where strange disappearances happen. Neverwood has Whispering Grass Meadow. Sometimes entire families or church congregations will go for picnics, and never come back. I'd never been there myself, but it looked like that was all about to change today.

I left the mouse to familiarize herself with her new digs, and continued on toward the meadow. The closer I got, the more I smelled dying flowers, until I finally sneezed six times in a row. Fairies. Made sense why the picnickers don't always go home.

I got to the edge of Whispering Grass and looked over an idyllic scene of flowing grasses and bright flowers and shady trees. I nearly broke out in hives. I'm a city cat. Nature makes me sick. Then a blur of motion resolved itself into a tiny winged man in front of my nose.

I was on a roll. I tried to eat the fairy.

I missed.

He dodged my leap, and vanished into the flowers. I took a quick prowl around, but with real flowers and fairy flower scent, my nose was stinging. I sat back on my haunches in frustration and made an executive decision. I needed a tracker, someone who could smell his way through the confusion. I needed - I sighed deeply - I needed a dog.

Unfortunately, I knew exactly where one was.

Mrs. Kid was visibly relieved to see me when I wandered back into the house, one boot heavier from the package I'd picked up from my client's house. I felt the ghost of a twinge of guilt for making her worry, as she was the better of my two humans. Eh. She was fine.

She picked me up and rubbed my head with her long nails. I purred to let her know she was doing a wonderful job.

"You were out all night, Puss," she said, never stopping with the petting. "Is the puppy really so bad?"

I wanted to say yes like a proper feline, but I needed her to let me take it for a walk.

"Just needed to mull it over, doll," I told her. Bea scratched a particularly itchy spot and I sighed in bliss. "Actually, I was thinking I should get to know him a bit better. Maybe show him around the neighborhood."

She gave me a look that was worthy of a cat, but she let me take the mutt out after my nap and a quick dinner. The wretched thing bounced around me as we went down the street, barking at everything like the biggest headache I'd ever known had grown a body, a pair of floppy ears, and a tail that couldn't control itself. I gritted my teeth and hurried the mutt to the meadow.

Luckily my humans had given the stupid dog a leash, so I was able to catch it and force it to meet my eyes.

"Hey!" I mewed. It tried to lick my face. I got it a good one across the face with a pawful of claws, and it whimpered and sat back, its tongue finally properly stowed. Fortunately I had practice from training the Kid. "That's better. Pay attention, mutt. I'm looking for a girl. A tiny human, smells like this." I pulled Thumbelina's blanket out of my boot. I'd picked it up from her mom on my way back from the godforsaken wilderness. The puppy buried its nose in the fabric, huffing up the scent and wagging its tail. I let go of the leash. "Got it? Go find her, mutt. Earn your keep."

The dog shook itself all over, barked like a loon and charged off into the grass, sniffing as he went. I kept pace, letting the lower animal do the hard work.

It slowed near the middle of the field and began yapping its fool head off at a large closed flower. Great. Not only did Stupid Kid get a dog, he'd gotten a defective one. "I told you to find the girl!" I scolded. The stupid mongrel barked joyfully, nosed the flower and tried to lick me again. I sidestepped, not willing to deal with dog drool all over my whiskers again.

Then, to my surprise, the flower blossomed, revealing a tiny, tiny human, just about the size of Jack's thumb. "What's going on out here?" she asked.

She had a tiny gold crown on her head, and delicate wings like a dragonfly. Nobody had mentioned the wings before, but this was Whispering Grass. Still, I had to check. I gave a respectful ear flick and leaned in close. "You Thumbelina, toots?"

Thumbelina gave a regal nod. "I am, but what's it to you? Why are you and this noisy creature waking me up early?"

I sat back on my haunches, feeling smug at another job well done. "My name's Puss. Your mother hired me to find you. She's been pretty sad since you vanished."

She looked alarmed, then guilty, as near as I could tell on such a small face. "My mother!" she cried. "I forgot to send her word! I shall bring her here to live with me."

I'd only been there a little while, and I was itching to get home. The stupid mutt had raced off after some butterfly, but I could still hear its crazy barking at a distance. I had the make sure the puppy got back home, too, or Mrs. Kid would never forgive me. I wasn't sure Thumbs' mother would want to live here any more than I did.

"Maybe you should just go back for a visit first, let her know what happened." Thumbelina looked confused. I held in a sigh. "Me and the mutt are heading there. We can give you a ride."

The dog could, anyway. I am no man, or doll's, beast of burden. Thumbs hemmed and hawed and finally woke up Mr Thumbs, who also wore a tiny crown. They hashed it out for hours. I took a nap. I have my priorities straight.

A rough wet tongue woke me from a dream where Kisa had just finished the most beautiful love song, and I growled at the mutt as I came up swinging. Thumbs and Mr Thumbs were on his back, along with what looked like half the meadow. Even tiny humans have so much baggage.

"We are ready to go, Sir Cat," said Mr Thumbelina, and I got to my feet with a proper stretch. I let the dog lead the way, and took the dainty doll back to her doting mama.

Mother Malone made a fuss over us you could hear all over town. She grabbed up her daughter and her son in law and exclaimed over them and their crowns. She gave the mongrel a bone. And me, well, for a do-gooder, she knew some prime ‘nip dealers. I took my payment and the dog's leash and made us vanish like smoke.

My stupid human and his lovely wife were in the kitchen when we came in.

"You really were making friends," Stupid Kid said, and he had the gall to sound surprised. "I thought you'd taken Champ off to drown him."

Champ? What a stupid name for a dog.

I shrugged and dropped the leash, heading for my favorite cushion. I'd earned that ‘nip during this case, and I meant to indulge.

"I wouldn't do that," I said. Certainly not now that I knew he was expecting it. I settled in for a good session.

Mrs Kid stroked my back. "Did you two have a nice time?" I shrugged, leaning into her hand.

"It was okay. I solved a case. I ate a toad." She looked a little disgusted, but she kept petting. Her taste in pets left something to be desired, but she knew how to treat a cat.

Maybe training the dog to help me track wouldn't be so bad. As long as it learned its proper place.

Well, that could wait. For now I had 'nip and a soft bed and that was enough. Tomorrow was all the time in the world to boss the mutt around. Maybe we'd be friends.

I laughed myself to sleep.