Special surprise (for after the story!)

<Captain Kitty>

Cat's Paw

*Sequel to 'Spellbound'

By

Carol Foss

 

"Well, look what the cat dragged in," Lt. Commander Chip Morton grinned from his second mouthful of candied corn in Seaview's deserted Observation Nose. The damp and disheveled intruder wasn't exactly unexpected. Just late. Add to the fact he was sporting more than a week's growth of beard and hair in desperate need of a barber, it was only natural for his friend to add, "You look like a wet dog."

"Gee thanks. I got caught in a cloudburst, okay? Where's the coffee?" he looked in vain for the carafe that was usually kept at the ready on the sideboard, even when the sub was moored at her home dock.

"Been drafted for the party," Chip looked at his watch pointedly.

"Party? What party?"

"You do remember the Halloween party don't you?"

"Cripes, I forgot all about it. Do I have to go?" Commander Lee Crane added hopefully.

"Well, if Lola finds out you reneged on purpose, she'll make sure you'll be doing paperwork till Hell freezes over. Which means you'll be grumpy and irritable when we pull out tomorrow and it will be up to me to soothe everyone's ruffled feathers, including Nelson's. He's really sore at you by the way. Still, she and he might conceivably forgive your slithering around undercover which got you all hot and bothered, hurt or so brain damaged that you forgot about tonight or some such thing."

"I wasn't undercover!"

"Yeah, yeah. So that's why Joe Jackson admitted to the Admiral that you'd volunteered more than 40 hours worth of agency business before the new fiscal year."

"Which won't happen until July!"

"Damn it Lee, you've been gone more than two and a half weeks! Almost three! No word to anyone. Face it Lee, you, sir, are in the doghouse. Even Lola used words I won't repeat in polite company."

Crane mumbled something.

"Didn't quite hear that."

"All right all right," Lee sighed, "if you must know, I took Sea Sprite out..."

"Lee, Lee, Lee," Morton shook his head, bemused and incredulous, if such a thing were possible at the same time. "You took that wreck of that sailboat of yours out instead of spending your shore leave with her? That does it, you have to have brain damage from all of your adlepated stunts and...."

"Chip, please," Lee hesitated, "she's been getting a bit too...serious. I needed time. Time to be alone and think."

"And?"

"I'm not sure yet...I don't know if I'm ready for the kind of commitment she wants."

"Have you slept with her?"

"None of your business...but no...she's not that kind of girl..."

"You think," Morton snorted.

"Chip~."

"Okay okay not another word. C'mon then. The party's already started. I told them I knew you'd be back in time for our departure tomorrow. All you need now is a costume."

"You're not in costume," Lee regarded Morton's khaki uniform.

"I have a hat," he plopped on a plumed 18th century naval officer's cap from a box of party supplies. "Lola left you a choice of costumes. This one is made of some kind of Spandex. She has one like it, only hers is white."

"No, absolutely not!" Lee exclaimed, aghast.

"Ah c'mon. She picked it out special.For the perfect couple. Get it? Purr-fect?" he chortled. "But, if you insist on hurting her feelings, you can use his one," he pulled out a pink feather encrusted outfit. "Kind of appropriate don't you think?"

"I'm a Crane, not a Flamingo."

"Close enough for government work...toss you for it if you can't decide."

"I don't think I feel very well. Just tell everyone I'll be holed up aboard with the pink stuff..."

"Sorry, no can do. Self preservation you know. Now, decide, bud."

***

"Great party Harriman," Admiral Jiggs Starke, aka 'Henry the 8th', grimaced sipping the punch, "the kind your grandmother probably gave."

"I'm sorry about it being a dry party, Jiggs," Nelson, aka the 'Wizard of Oz', laughed, "employee's kids you know. Don't worry, you can join me later for a little private libation."

"At least your girl did a good enough job decorating the cafeteria."

"Administrative Assistant..."

"My my, we are picky tonight, aren't we," Starke sat his empty cup beside the skeleton's hand groping the side of the punch bowl as eyeballs floated around in it.

"I have reason to be."

"Just pass me earplugs when you lay into Crane, if he gets here."

"The gate said he arrived fifteen minutes ago...Chip promised he'd get him here. Speaking of whom..."

Morton was waving happily, stopping to talk to a few crewmen as he made his way toward the two Admirals.

"Well, he's back," Morton finally said as he poured himself some punch, "wasn't undercover. He says. Lola's giving him what for though, not to mention adding a few last minute touches to his costume. I had her meet our prodigal in the lobby."

"So, what's he coming as?" Starke asked.

"Gee, cat's got my tongue, sir," Chip snorted.

***

Word spread rapidly that the errant Skipper had returned and the party began to liven up a bit more. More folks took to the dance floor while others continued to enjoythe several games and goodies set out for themselves and their children.

But there was a subtle change in the atmosphere as one stifled gasp followed another around the room as Lee Crane and Lola Hale entered.

"Oh my God..."Nelson said.

"Amazing, isn't sir, what a man will do when he's in love," Morton chuckled.

"What're they wearing, leotards?" Starke asked.

"Spandex Unitards," Morton explained, "not leotards exactly, but a kind of body suit. You know, I never knew Lee could curse in so many languages when he was pulling it on. Still, better than a fluffy Flamingo, which of course as a Crane he just couldn't abide. Something about birds of a feather."

"Is he supposed to look that scruffy?" Nelson asked," or is he hurt?"

"Er, well, no, at least I don't think so."

"Well, I think that costume is outrageous!" Starke fumed. "A black cat is one thing, but leotards! It's absurd! If it were me, I'd choose a new girlfriend!"

"Cut him some slack, Jiggs," Nelson grinned. "You've been in love once or twice yourself, remember."

"He's the Captain of the Seaview. Should show some dignity, even if this is a costume party!"

Indeed, in dramatic contrast to Lola's whites, Crane's also came with tail, elastic headband with ears, and a little black nose glued to his own with white whiskers. Black ballet slippers with little white claws painted on them finished the costume.

"Donít even say it," Crane approached, having found a legitimate excuse to escape the women accumulating around himself and Lola. "I feel like a complete idiot. And it itches like hell," he added under his breath as he poured some punch into a paper cup. "Okay, hers is ready; where's the coffee for me?"

"Jiggs had the last of it, " Nelson said, "now, where the..aah...acchhoo! Where the hell have you been all this time?" he asked in his most 'Admiraly' pose which wasn't easy with green hair and padded belly. Even his new watch had a stone that matched.

"Running Sea Sprite through her paces...needed to get away for awhile..."

"Do- you- mean- to- tell- me that aaa...aaa...aaachoo! That you've been sailing all this time?"

"Oh, that poor girl," Starke added his own outrage.

"There's no law that says I have to spend every spare minute I have with her, and even I'm entitled to a little time to myself at times, you know."

"She was terrified for you!"Nelson almost yelled, "and we were damn well worried ourselves! Aaa aahhchoo! I almost used the EBL to contact you, but visions of interrupting you in some vital covert action prevented me. In spite of ONI's assurances to the contrary. They've lied before."

"Sir, please. I've already been through the third degree with Chip."

"I guess I have no choice but to be satisfied with your explanation, though you might as well be a cat from the stealthy way you acted....you are okay though aren't you? You look a bit drawn around the eyes."

"I'm fine. Except for this damn outfit."

"Well, hello there Captain Kitty!" Lt.Cmdr. Will Jamison approached, several officers and some crewmen in tow, presumably drafted for punch duty by their ladies as well, most of whom were gathered in corners casting sidelong glances at Crane's form fitting costume.

"Very funny, Doc, and before you say anything, it was her idea, not mine. "

"Well, look at me Skipper," Riley said,"my girl made me come as a cow."

"Bull, actually," Doc intervened. "Consider it a compliment. Be grateful you only have horns and no udder "

"Merlin or Nostradamus, Will?" Crane asked regarding his long purple tunic and pointed star encrusted hat.

"Merlin."

"Too bad. I was hoping you could whip up some coffee...maybe the vending machine..."

"Out of order," Doc said.

"Does anyone have a couple of quarters?" Lee spread his arms akimbo," no pockets."

"Weren't you listening Crane?" Jiggs asked, "No coffee."

"Well, there's got to be something better than Kool Aid. That's what this is, isn't it?"

"Yes, and it's not all that bad," Chip said pulling some loose change from his pocket, "Here you go."

"Thanks."

With a mischievous grin Crane headed off to scout the various beverages, returning to his friends holding a pint of milk he'd already opened and begun to chug down.

Lola was quick to join him, and patted dry some of the milk Lee had managed to get on his black nose and a few of his whiskers.

"Meow," was all he managed to say to his friends before the couple joined the crowd on the dance floor gyrating to a lively rag time piece.

"Talk about Purr-fect," Riley laughed.

"Huh?"Morton asked.

"The tune, it's 'Kitten on the Keys!"

***

Almost all stations were manned and ready for Seaview's departure to the Southern Hemisphere at the bequest of the Navy to test a new piece of equipment. There was just one problem. Seaview's Captain hadn't reported yet.

"Anything?" Nelson asked O'Brien while he lit another cigarette in the Observation Nose.

"Phone doesn't answer. Voice mailbox is full. Emergency Band Locator doesn't get any kind of response, security had his apartment manager check to see if he was in; he wasn't; no trace of his car...."

"Then try something obvious."

"Miss Sweetly says Lola, I mean Miss Hale's taking a personal day."

"I can just imagine," Nelson sighed. "Get her on her home phone then. Pipe it through the speaker phone."

It was difficult for Ski not to chuckle over his imagined and awkward situation.

"Kowalski!" Morton chastised, "Keep it out of the gutter."

"Aye sir."

"I have Miss Hale on the phone sir," Sparks reported over the PA.

"Let me speak to Lee," Nelson began without preamble as he flipped the switch on the intercom speaker.

"Lee?"

"Yes, Lee, Commander Crane if you prefer, but get him, even if you have to wake him up!"

"He's not here. He was supposed to have breakfast with me this morning before shoving off...and I don't appreciate you thinking that we've been sleeping together!"

"All right. All right. I apologize. Now, did he say anything about where he may have planned to go after the party last night?"

"Well, after we went to the Kit Kat Club...what's that?" she asked of the men's snickering, "Am I on speaker phone?"

"Never mind that, what happened after the Kit Kat Club?"

"Well, I wanted to show off our costumes to Lin, but," she paused, "we kind of left in hurry before I could find and introduce her to Lee. He, er, well if you must know, he was propositioned. Most women find him attractive, but this was a lot different."

"How?"

"It was a guy."

Morton bit his lip manfully as many of the crew couldn't help themselves exploding into laughter.

"Of course," she continued, "we got the you- know- what out of there, flank speed I think you boys call it."

"No doubt. Go on."

"Took me straight home. Didn't even stay for a drink. Then he said he was going to get a few zzz's aboard Seaview...you did check his cabin didn't you?

"I can guarantee you he's not aboard or anywhere on the Institute grounds," Morton said firmly.

"What do you think could have happened?" Lola asked, "and now that I think about it, he did look kind of furtive at times last night. Oh lord, what if it wasn't the costume? What if he'd really been on assignment with ONI and he had something better to do than go to that damn party and keep me company?"

"Excuse me Admiral, Lola, "O'Brien said, "But where did he put his wallet in that costume? I mean, if he was driving fast, maybe he got pulled over for speeding...and with no drivers license..."

"Oh my God, I put it in my purse and we both must have forgotten about it.. "

"I'll check SBPD," O'Brien headed to the radio shack. In moments he returned.

"He was arrested for speeding and driving without a license."

Nelson visibly sagged in relief.

"But" the young officer hesitated, "he was released last night."

***

The staff of the Santa Barbara Police Dept. were, as in most cities, overworked and underpaid. Invaded by the 'wannabe' Navy that Chief Abigail Dunmore had always regarded the Nelson Institute, it's staff gritted their collective teeth as she and one Admiral Harriman Nelson butted heads, Nelson demanding to know just why his Captain had been released late last night to find his way home cashless, in ballet slippers and without so much as having made the legal phone call all detainees were allowed by law.

"Look Admiral. For the last time, he was properly ticketed and brought in for identification. The military fingerprint database proved he was who he said he was, and when he assured us we could charge the fine to his account at your Institute, we let him go. Minus his car, of course. For that, he'll have to come in person, license in hand."

"You should have called us!" Chief Sharkey bellowed.

"That was his decision, not yours, not ours. And we didn't hold him very long. We actually did him a favor, letting him go without any fuss. Couple of guys in the holding tank really liked those tights, or whatever you call them," she snorted.

"Oh, gawd," Sharkey moaned.

"Did you check all his normal haunts? Perhaps he got a ride with someone and stopped off someplace for a little action. Or maybe he's just pussy footing around. Ha.Ha," she giggled, making her look a lot younger than her 50 plus years. If the situation weren't so serious Nelson wondered if he might actually like to get to know her better. However...

"Are you going to put out an APB out on him or not?"

"Like we already told your submarine people, it's got to be 48 hours before we can consider him missing."

"He could be lying dead or dying along the highway," Sharkey bemoaned, " hit by a semi, slipped down the cliffside, eaten by wild coyotes..."

"Francis, chill, "Nelson ordered.

"Sorry sir."

"Very well Chief Dunmore...wait...did you release any of the men in the lock up with him at the same time? Perhaps one of them gave him a lift."

"It's a free country, " Dunmore pulled out some files from a stack on her desk, "Let's see. There were only a few drunk and disorderliness last night. The drunks, no way, the disorderlies, maybe, " then she started to laugh, "says here one of them kept telling anyone who'd listen that your boy was a real cat! Tried to pet him."

Sharkey almost swooned.

"Look, Crane's was already a closed case by the time I reported for work this morning," she rifled through a rolodex, "but, considering his position, national security and all, I'll get an adult amber alert out. It might not do any good at all, but it's worth getting you off my back."

"Thank you."

"By the way Admiral, when one of ours went missing, it was hell for us to wait that damn 48 hour limit."

***

He was cold, wet, and naked. Why, oh why did weird things keep happening to him? Last night had been a nightmare. The thunder had mocked Lee, as the torrential rain soaked him. And it had been like navigating a puzzle to find his way to the main road to NIMR. The ground had given way and he tumbled and skidded down the mud slicked cliffside to the beach.

When he'd finally seen less than stellar house he hadn't expected it to be occupied, and had sheltered under it's back porch as the tide came dangerously close. And now he was a prisoner of good intentions. Oh well, any port in a storm as he looked up at the matronly woman offering him a fresh bowl of milk on the kitchen floor.

"Let's try again, shall we?"

Crane's stomach rumbled.

'Oh, that's a good kitty," she scratched behind his ears, "A purring cat is always so soothing."

 

I wasn't purring and don't know how I morphed into this fleabag, lady. If you're going to feed me, how about a nice juicy steak? And a Martini would be nice.

 

Of course, all she'd been hearing were the meows and yowls from the bedraggled black cat. As soon as she'd spotted the creature huddling in the corner a little before dawn, she'd been hooked. And so Lee had found himself picked up, brought inside, his mud caked fur bathed in warm soapy water, dried off, combed, brushed, and blown dry, as the woman made sure he was free of any remaining sticky burrs and gravel that had imbedded themselves in his fur and paws. It wasn't that he hadn't appreciated the shelter and attention he'd received, but he had to get to Seaview before she sailed if she already hadn't. And most important, he had to convince Nelson of his...er...altered state.

 

"Now, you be a good boy and use the litter pan this time, makeshift or not. Fishing you out of the toilet is not my idea of a permanent relationship."

 

Wasn't my fault I slipped off the edge. Cut me some slack! I'm not exactly used to being a cat.

 

That wasn't altogether true. Lee Crane had been a cat before, when he and Chief Sharkey had been hexed by Mirabelle Darcy. The bone fide and centuries old witch, was now, quite rightfully, a frog in the Whipsnare Amphibian Research Center. Lee had to wonder if she'd managed to break out of her warty existence or if someone was playing around with one of her equally ancient spellbooks.

 

It was bad enough just being a cat, but having to have had someone pull you out of a toilet had been just too humiliating. Back to the present and the bowl of milk. He had to give felines their due, it was hard to lap up liquid with the back of your tongue, not to mention keeping it from splashing all over your fur. But he was thirsty, so he slurped his fill, even if it wasn't a Martini.

 

Before he could make good his escape when the opportunity presented itself, he was plopped into a cardboard box, and sealed in.

***

Lee was mistaken. There was something more humiliating than falling into a toilet. Having your buttocks held firmly while a lady veterinarian took your temperature anally was far worse.

"Feisty isn't he, Lin?" Dr. Yvette Abercrombie laughed as he yowled his displeasure.

"He certainly is, but he's a bit odd. I mean, I didn't see him lick himself clean once. And when he condescended to use the litter pan instead of the toilet, it was as if he deliberately turned his back to me. Didn't scratch the litter before or after either. Maybe he can't see well?"

"No, no, his eyes are fine. Maybe he doesn't quite know to be a cat...could be feral or abandoned as a kitten. Instincts can only do so much; It takes a mother to teach their kittens what you might call the social graces. Then again, he could be retarded."

 

Retarded?Retarded?I have a degree in Electrical Engineering from Annapolis and Ow! Ow!Take it easy, will you? Lee spat as the thermometer was removed.

 

"Normal."

"What do you think he is? Burmese, Bombay?"

"Neither. Not with those greenish eyes. Besides, you say he had very curly, almost human looking fur when it was wet. Not a trait of either breed that I know of. Well, physically he's fine, could use a bit of padding though. Has good heart and clear lungs so he must be a non smoker," Yvette laughed. "Still, I'd like to take a blood sample if you're going to keep the little fellow. You can leave him here if you like....you know, Lin," she swabbed and drew a small vial of blood from inside an elbow as the assistant held the protesting Lee still. Or was it an elbow? Lee was uncertain if cats had had elbows. "I've never seen such beautiful chameleon eyes before."

"Yes, I noticed that right off. One minute green, then gold, then brown.. sometimes they even look hazel. You know, that's what Iím going to call him that! Chameleon!"

"I have a friend who's really into cats though she doesn't have any of her own just now. You ought to show him to her. Maybe you can enter him in the mixed breed category in the Santa Barbara Cat Show. It's coming up soon. Anyway, you can leave him here a few hours and I can get a sperm sample and check for volume and motility if you'd like to breed him."

 

I'm out of here! Lee struggled.

 

"As for not being all that tidy, well, non castrated toms sometimes don't take as much time and effort to groom themselves as fixed cats do. I can do that too for you if you'd prefer."

 

The hell you will! Crane spat, claws outstretched.

 

"Fixing him might make him a bit more sociable too, still...what pretty kitties he could father," she rubbed under his chin and put a band new collar on him, complete with license and temporary name tag.

 

Will you stop talking about me like I'm a prize stud? If you think for one minute that I'd...I'd...and with an animal, you're sadly mistaken!

 

"Let me think about it," Lin said while 'Chameleon' was unceremoniously put into a loaned cat carrier, but before it was latched shut, he managed to leap out, and dart out of the examination room. In moments he'd raced out the clinic's door from which a new client was entering.

 

***

"Commander Lee Crane, Captain of the submarine Seaview," the TV reporter was saying," has been reported missing, postponing the vessel's scheduled departure. Private sources tell us that he was last seen at a branch jail of the Santa Barbara Police Department.'

The head and shoulders mug shot showed Crane still in his little black nose and white whiskers.

"Arrested for speeding and driving without a license, he was released on his own recognizance minus his car of course. In his own defense, he had, it is reported, attended a Halloween party at the Nelson Institute, his costume, a one piece unitard, like the one shown here from the National Ballet Company, left little room to store any kind of personal possessions"'

"That's for sure," another reporter laughed.

"So far there have been no reports of a man seen lingering anywhere in a cat costume...and now, in other news..."

***

"Jiggs, how could you go to the news?"Nelson paced his office, puffing away, not even noticing the distinct flavor of his favorite brand of ciggarettes."He'll be a laughing stock!"

"Yes, but at least he'll be back."

***

What was the old saying? Out of the frying pan and into the fire? Oh, he'd made his escape from the vet's office, but where was he? He'd completely lost his bearings.

Suddenly the smell of food assaulted his nostrils and his sharp eyesight finally focused on... Dillardia's! Now, if he remembered some of the introductions from last night correctly, Riley's current girlfriend was the diva chef's daughter! Now if he could only hitch a ride if Antonia was joining the many friends and family seeing Seaview off...if the boat was still in port that was. So cautiously, ever so cautiously, he pussy footed the corner.

 

Blast. Double Blast. No vehicle was parked at the service entrance.

 

But the back door to the kitchen was open and his stomach rumbled again. He suddenly realized just how hungry he was, his nostrils opening wide. Maybe he could snag a piece of pasta or something.

 

Without warning he found himself looking up, at least from his point of view, at the biggest meanest chef in creation. Minutette Dillardia herself! Lee realized he'd better use whatever resources he had. He'd never known a woman of any age or demeanor able to resist a poor pathetic animal.

 

Lifting up a paw, he asked or at least tried to, 'Pweeese, can you spare some linguini?' and batted his eyelashes...did cats even have eyelashes? He couldn't tell. Of course all she heard were feline cries.

 

"What's this? You mangy cat! You want me to get closed down! Get outta' here!"

 

Mangy! I just had a five star grooming! I'm...er...well, anyway, I'm Captain of the Seaview and I need to get back to my boat, but I need some fuel before I collapse from exhaustion! Now, will you do your patriotic duty or not? he meowed and wailed.

 

"Whoa...calm down kitty..."Minutette said as the cat paced back and forth, lifting it's paw now and then for effect.

Lee had little doubt batting those damn invisible eyelashes was working.

"Are you hurt? Oh you poor little thing. Look, I gotta' hide you. The Health Inspector's here...Toni?" she called urgently, "Toni! Come here!"

"Hey, it's a kitty cat!" the young woman smiled, pleasantly surprised.

"I know that. Just put it in the broom closet, okay? I'll get a plate of something for it. And make sure you wash your hands after okay?"

"Okay okay, cheech. Even I know that, Mom," she scooped up the cat. Within minutes Lee was safely seconded next to brooms, mops, and a vacuum cleaner of questionable age. Minutette opened the door not many minutes later and sat down a large plate in front of him.

 

Years ago Lee wouldn't haven't objected to Sushi. But he had dealt with enough Fishmen, Lobstermen, and sea life of various sorts since becoming Seaview's master that he'd rather just do without, thank you very much. The heaping pile of fish offal, scales, and the odd eyeball was not in any way appealing. And the aroma wasn't all that great either. Lee looked at the plate, then up to the chef, then down at the plate again.

"What's the matter? Cats like fish, don't they?"

"Actually Mom, it's only cause' we've spoiled housecats with it. In the wild cats don't touch fish, Lola says....I've never seen it around here before, Mom. With that collar, he's no stray... just lost, or abandoned, " Toni knelt down to check his collar.

 

I'm not lost, just er..temporarily misplaced.

 

"Says here, name's Chameleon. I'll call the SPCA registration hot line for his owner...how about some ice cream Sweetie? Last folks didn't finish dessert..."

"Oh very well, Toni, go ahead," Minutette said, "but check the newspaper for any missing cat ads before calling the SPCA. Maybe there's a reward."

"Poor baby..."Toni scratched his ears, and soon returned with a half melted glass cup of multi colored Tuti Fruiti, and closed the door before Lee had a chance to consider his options further.

***

"No, I haven't seen any strays around here," Lola studied the picture Yvettee and Lin were showing her in the office, "I'm glad you had the good sense to take this photo, Lin. What beautiful curly fur!"

"Yes," Lin said, "I'd never seen a cat with wet fur like that; sorry about not rinsing out all of the soap suds before taking the picture."

"It's a darling photo! You should submit it to a card company. I'd buy one... You know, that fur kind of reminds me of Lee's hair..."

"Any word on him yet?"Yvette asked.

"No...but the Admiral promised me they'd find him, even though he can't delay sailing much longer."

"I'm sure they will, dear," Lin said, "as for Chameleon, well, he must have been so frightened by his visit to Yvette, that he just ran away. And he was so...so strange..."Lin began to share her experiences with the black stray that sadly was hers no more.

"Miss Hale, I...oh, excuse me," Nelson had unintentionally interrupted and turned around.

"No, wait, please sir. Dr. Yvettee Abercrombie, Miss Lin Needlemeyer, Admiral Nelson."

"A pleasure."

"Any word on Lee yet sir?"Lola asked.

"No. Nothing. This sort of thing has happened before you know. Heavens, that cat has curly fur!"

"Only when wet," Lola and Lin said in unison.

"Harriman," Jiggs Starke entered, "You'd better call your search parties back and get a little rest before shoving off tomorrow. They haven't made any headway and the cops are getting offended that we're getting in their way."
"Damn it, Jiggs, where the hell is he?"

***

Lee wasn't all that keen on Tuti Fruiti; he'd have preferred Chocolate or Strawberry, but at least it was palatable and he already felt better for it but as refreshing as it had been, he really needed to get to NIMR.

"Nothing in the paper for the past week, Mom," Toni opened the door and removed the plate. "What a messy eater..."

Minuette knelt down with her as they used some dishtowels to wipe off some of the sticky mess on Lee's fur. As soon as they rose, Lee leapt out of the closet.

"Hey, where do you think you're going?" Toni asked, picking up the struggling cat, "I don't think he likes to be held Mom. I hope nobody's hurt him."

"Why not call it a day a few minutes early and take him home for now. I have a busy schedule tonight and I don't want to have to keep checking on him."

"But I have a date! Stu's only got a little extra time off because his Captain's AWOL."

"Lock him in the bathroom then."

"I hope you mean the cat, Mom," the girl laughed," Can't Emily and Daniel babysit it?"

"They're barely old enough not to need babysitters themselves, but, I suppose they can watch him."

In minutes the girl had plunked Lee into a lidded box on the passenger seat of her black and chrome Corvette convertible and sped off.

 

"Hey!" she exclaimed as Crane managed to escape the flimsy box, but instead of cowering in a corner, or jumping out of the speeding vehicle, he rose up on his hind legs, stretched out his paws on the dashboard and was clearly enjoying the wind in his fur.

"I guess you're not a scardy cat after all," Antonia nearly sang out.

 

I was not scared. I'm checking to see if you're going anywhere near NIMR. But this is a great little car, he mewed.

 

"Hey Toni!" some boys about her same age on motorcycles in the next lane waved as she slowed, waiting for the red traffic light to change.

"When you get a cat? Looks like a hood ornament."

 

Hood ornament! The very idea.

 

"Don't you growl at me cat!"

"Leave it alone Buzz. He's not hurting you."

"C'mon.. let's get it on...I have a place we can be alone."

"I told you before to leave me alone. I'm not interested."

"But I am," he took her arm, but in a flash Lee had attached his claws to the bully's arm, his body following, and forced some of the leftover Tuti Fruiti still on his tongue to foam out the corners of his mouth as he showed off his feline fangs.

"Get it offa' me! Ow! Ow! That hurts! Oh gawd hurry up, before it bites me...is it rabid or something?"

Toni could have sworn the cat turned to her with a wink.

"Or something," she said calmly, "You might not want to try to accost me again Buzz. My Sweetie is very protective, but," she added, "you might want to get a rabies shot, just in case. C'mon sweetheart, "she gently pulled the cat, who had a hard time figuring out how to retract his claws, off the bully and put him back on the passenger seat. As the light changed she sped off, the motorcycles turning the opposite direction. Fast.

"Thanks," she laughed, and Lee began to unintentionally purr. "How about that, my own little attack cat. Sure glad I recognized that Tuti Fruiti...I would have thought you were rabid myself. Uh oh," she added as thunder boomed. "We'll have to hurry before that rain comes down. The top's got some holes in it." She pressed the switch for the lid to rise over the cockpit.

***

"Emily! Daniel! Look what I brought home!" Toni called out as she carried Lee in. Instead of having sought shelter under the seat from the leaks, Lee had kept his post, scouting as it were, and if he was honest with himself, enjoying the ride.

"Oh!" the girl, Emily, 10 or 11, clapped her hands and extended a gentle hand,"you poor thing."

Crane made sure he didn't say anything he'd regret in case this innocent child took his meows the wrong way.

"Name's Chameleon. Got lost somehow," Toni sat him down on the floor, "Mom says you and Danny get to babysit him."

"I got better things to do than look after a stupid wet cat!" Danny, about 13 said sourly.

"He's not that wet. Look guys, I only have a few hours with Stu. And Sweetie here saved me from Buzz. If he hadn't gotten involved, something awful might have happened. I think you both are old enough know what I mean. Now, bring me my hair dryer."

"Your hair's fine," Emily said.

"For the cat!"

"But won't he get all fuzzy? Like a permanent?"

"I..er...I don't know...but I think we should get him warmed up a little at least."

"He can have some of my hot chocolate right now," the younger girl sat her mug in front of Lee, the marshmallows bobbing up and down. It made him feel a bit seasick, but tried a lap or two.

"He likes it!" Emily said gleefully and began to pet him in earnest.

Lee didn't know how, and right now he didn't care, as his body responded with deep purring which made the kid even happier.

"Well," Daniel said, "he's not going to get any of my Spaghettios."

Spaghettios? Spaghettios? Lee's ears perked up. There was something about that canned food that reminded him of something....of course. Now if it was one of those special alphabet versions.... Lee bounded away from the mug and plunked himself on the top of the living room's coffee table where Danny's meal lay.

 

Aha!

 

Lee started using his paws to sort through the alphabet mini letters..

"Hey stop that!" Danny pushed Lee off the coffee table.

"I'll get you some tuna," Emily retreated to the kitchen, "Come on kitty..."

Perhaps surrender was indicated in this case, the kids wouldn't catch on anyway...

 

Certainly the can of tuna wasn't bad, just missing something. Like a couple of slices of rye bread, lettuce, tomato, mayo....

 

Now let's see if there's anything I can find out on the news about Seaview's sailing...Nelson's sure to have men searching for me...'' he returned to the living room and batted the remote control in Daniel's hand.

 

"Hey Toni?" Danny yelled, "Your cat's acting weird."

"Deal with it!" she called from her bedroom. "Did you dry him off?"

"Do it yourself! Come get the stupid cat! He's bugging me!"

The doorbell rang.

"Cheech!" the boy rose and huffed over to open the door revealing the red haired blue eyed All-American boy next door, his vintage Triumph Thunderbird motorcycle with sidecar leaning dangerously on an equally vintage kick stand.

 

Riley! I've never been so glad to see anyone in my life before! Lee jumped off the couch and ran around and around the seaman, meowing feverishly.

 

"Hey, I didn't know you had a cat. What's the matter with it?"

 

It's me! It's me! C'mon Riley open your eyes! You've seen me as a cat before!" Lee batted Riley's legs.

 

"I'm sorry," Toni arrived, changed into a nice dress and heels, slightly out of breath, picking the protesting Crane up, "he's just trying to protect me...it's a long story."

"Er, Toni," Riley began, " I tried calling earlier but I only just got back from one of the search parties...do you mind if we just get some pizza maybe? The Admiral's really upset, the XO's ready to blow a gasket and the Chief's gone ballistic...I just don't think I can enjoy a real restaurant or bar... I'm awful worried about the Skip."

 

But it's me! It's meow! Uh oh...Hey!Wait a minute! Lee was suddenly aware that Danny hadn't finished all the Spaghettios. Quick as a flash he was upon them again, searching for the letters with his nose and paws which might just prove to the crewman who he was.

 

Please Stu, Look at the letters will you! Look at me! I'm desperate! he yowled.

 

"He's kind of weird," Toni sighed. "C'mon Chameleon, lets get you out of the way if you can't behave," she took Lee to her bedroom and locked him in.

Nobody noticed the L-E- that Crane had managed to spell out.

***

"If Captain Crane is alive, he'll find a way to get in touch, won't he?" Toni asked as they enjoyed their pizza at the kitchen table.

"He knows too much. What if he's been kidnapped, bound and gagged, and tortured or..."

"Stu, C'mon.. you're probably just imagining things."

"But he's just...vanished."

***

Antionia's bedroom was more typical of a teenager than a young woman, but considering she still lived at home it wasn't all that surprising. Lee almost winced at the pink canopied bed, fluffy pink pillows, etc. It wasn't that he disliked pink, but all over the place like this it was a bit nauseating. But the fates had been kind. Over there, just visible from under the heaps of clothes a chair beckoned, right under an open window.

***

"Hey Stu, you're back early," the NIMR guard said later that night, "You don't have to be here till morning. So, have a good time? " the guard waved the crewman to the small vehicle parking area.

"Just great," he answered, sarcasm dripping from his tone, "all she could talk about was her stupid cat! Then he ran away, right out from under her nose. Said he must have felt bad vibes from me. Called him Sweetie! Sweetie! That's my name! "

 

Suddenly Lee leapt out from under the spare helmet in the sidecar and ran toward the Administration Building.

"Hey! Well, that's just swell, now he stows away in my bike!"

"Calm down, don't have a cow."

"Name's Chameleon. Toni was just looking after it till they could find it's owner."

"Well, he can't have gone far. 'Sides I know just how to lure a cat," he clicked the Food Services Dept., "Hey Gus? You got any raw fish, yeah, scraps are fine... "

***

Charts and charts of charts littered every conceivable space in Nelson's office as his fevered smoking compelled Jiggs to open up the office balcony to help clear a little air.

"Sorry," Nelson joined him.

"Harry...about Crane..."

"I know...I know... damn ONI. They won't aaaa aaachoo, admit anything."

"I thought you got rid of that cold."

"Not a cold. Doc said it was an overload of...aaa...aaa.acchoo, histamines..."

There was a sudden movement in the heavy vines intertwined with the wrought iron balustrade on the 2nd floor. Lee loosed his hold on the vines and emerged onto the balcony.

 

Finally!

 

"Hey!'Starke boomed, as the cat ran into the office and jumped onto Nelson's desk."Get your hairy butt off of Harriman's desk!" he picked up the struggling hissing feline.

"Easy Jiggs, it's just a cat," Nelson pressed the intercom, "Security? Nelson. We have an intruder here. No, nothing serious. Just aah aaachoo pussyfooting around," he laughed, "It's a cat. What? Why yes, it's coal black. Collar? Yes," Nelson reached for the tag," yes that's it all right. Check with Riley for his girlfriend's number."

"And hurry it up!" Jiggs added before Nelson ended the call.

"Settle down, Jiggs,"Nelson took the cat from him, "That goes for you too Tiger. I mean Chameleon; gads what an awful name for a strapping fellow like you. That's better..."

"Great Caesar's Ghost, I think it likes you!"

"I'm kind of surprised myself. I've never been partial to...aaa..aaaaaachhoo...to cats. "

Quick as a flash Lee used the lesser grip to jump free and onto the desk again, and began to pat the computer keyboard.

"Oh no you don't, buster, " Nelson picked him up, "Bad kitty. This is highly sophisticated piece of technology. Not something to play with...see? Look at what you did," he pressed the intercom again, "Communications? Get me Chip Morton. My personal computer's a aaachoo...acting up."

 

For Pete's sake, give me a friggin' chance to finish will you? Lee meowed.

 

"You sure you didn't just press the wrong button again, sir?" a voice hesitated.

"You don't question orders sailor, you obey them!" Starke bellowed.

"Right away sir."

"I keep telling you that you need to attend a computer class," Jiggs sat down in the comfortable lounge chair, while Nelson maintained his grip on Lee.

 

He's right Admiral. And while we're on the subject, you really shouldn't use Seaview's computer for the odds on winning the Lottery or the Santa Anita horse race either. Blew a fuse that time.

 

"Noisy fellow aaa aaachoo! Aren't you?" Nelson laughed, "Doc said he was sure I wasn't allergic to cats or dogs...but I think he may have been mistaken."

***

"You wanted to see me?" Morton ducked into Nelson's office a few minutes later," Hey, it's a cat."

"Brilliant powers of observation Mr. Morton," Starke snorted. "Now, fix Harry's computer."

"What's wrong with it?

"I had it tuned to the NCIS director's office for any updates on Lee, now that they're involved," Nelson said, "Now it's nothing but a blank blue screen, except for that little code on it. "

"If I didn't know any better it almost looks like the old DOS system...but that's Word, that's a word processing system but the toolbar's not showing...never mind. You lost your connection to NCIS. When did you get a cat, sir?" Chip asked as he tried to figure out the I- M-L-E-E on the screen.

"I aa aaachoo! didn't."

"The stupid cat popped in here like it owned the place and decided to play with Harriman's toys," Starke explained, "if it's ruined his computer...."

"Couldn't have done that, sir," Chip scratched behind Lee's ears, "could you. You know, you're a pretty kitty. I bet Lola would like you. Looks like a panther, doesn't it, sir. Well, that's no code I'm familiar with. Makes no sense that I can see either, unless the cat actually meant to type something in felinese, " Morton joked.

 

I did you idiot! I'm Lee, Chip! I'm Lee! And I would have finished if I hadn't been interrupted! And I'm not a pretty kitty!

 

"Is it talking back to me?"

"Seems like it," Nelson laughed.

Security arrived with an animal carrier and Starke waved them in.

"We'll take the cat off your hands."

 

No!

 

"Whoa Tiger!" Nelson warned as Lee hissed, fur rising.

"Nobody's going to hurt you," security said, "Except maybe Riley."

"Riley?" Chip asked as the screen returned to NCIS.

"Seems this kitty cat kind of stowed away in Riley's sidecar. Antonia Dillardia was watching it till she could get the SPCA to find it's real owner. By the way we found out who it belongs to. One of Miss Hale's vet's friends. A Lin Needlemeyer. Well, I'd better hurry. You know darn well sir that Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned or if her kitty cat's absconded. I remember when Miss Lola...well, never mind that now sir....er...if you'll hand him over?"

"Wait a minute, I've been thinking. Call Miss Hale and see if her friend can pick him up at her place. You'd like that over a stay in the kennels wouldn't you, Tiger? No barking dogs to upset you," Nelson handed Lee over to the man, struggling fiercely.

"I guess not," Nelson chuckled as Lee found himself deposited in the carrier, but not before he heard Chip asking Nelson if Seaview's mission could be postponed a little longer.

"No Chip, I've afraid we've delayed long enough. By order of the SecNav we've wasted enough time."

"Trying to find Lee is not wasting time!"

"We know that Morton," Starke said. "But for this mission Seaview's been specifically requested by the Navy to test out this new software."

"Which is just plain stupid, if you ask me. Any boat can babysit that thing they installed to listen and identify vessel signature noises. Why us?"

"Payback of some kind I'm sure," Nelson said. "I tried Chip, I really did. You know I don't like leaving things as they are. But orders are unfortunately, orders. Captain or no Captain."

 

***

"What a pwitty wittle kitty..." the bathrobe clad Lola opened the carrier as the man grinned at her appreciatively.

 

Lola, I love you, Lee meowed, but will you please stop using baby talk?We've discussed this before. And as for you Mister, he hissed with a backward glance, quit looking at my girl like that!

 

"Oh, yeah, by the way, Riley said the cat's a bit weird."

"Yes, Lin told me about Chameleon's little idiosyncrasies."

"The Admiral calls him Tiger."

"Well, I guess you have middle name, Chameleon. Chameleon Tiger Needlemeyer, sounds just fine for the show."

"Oh yeah. Compliments of the cafeteria," he handed Lola a huge plastic container, "Lots of leftover fish stuff."

"Oh, he's going to be in Cat Heaven!"

 

More like Cat Hell.

 

"Stu also said he likes Spaghettios," the man laughed, and handed a few cans over.

"Well, you'd better get back to the Institute, thanks for bringing him over. Now, let's take a better look at you, Chameleon. Name's right on for a cat with such magical eyes...just like Lee's," she sighed sadly.

 

That's because I am Lee!

 

"What's he trying to pat his paws at?"the man asked from the door, "Don't you worry Miss Hale, I'm sure they'll find the Skipper soon."

 

I'm right here! I'm right here! And I need your help! Lola help me! Help me!

 

"Poor baby...calm down, no one's going to hurt you... "she stroked him.

 

'I know that!' he moved away as if snubbing her.

 

"You know, he actually rode in a cycle sidecar and climbed up the bushes to get into the Admiral's office. Probably why he's so scruffy."

"Lee's scruffy at times too, "Lola mused. "Oh God I'm so scared for him..."

"Now now...do you want me to call the Admiral or maybe Mr. Morton to come sit with you awhile?"

"No. Thank you. I'm sure they have enough on their minds."

"Good night ma'am."

"Night."

 

***

"I don't have to tell you," Nelson briefed his officers later that evening in the conference room, "that I expect the same degree of professionalism and excellence that I've come to expect from you under Captain Crane's command. I'm sure you won't disappoint me or the Navy. It will be a rather simple mission. All we have to do apparently is log the various vessels the special array will identify. Commander Morton, of course has assumed the position of Acting Captain and will remain so until further notice. Lt. O'Brien will be Acting XO for this mission. Any questions?"

"Will we be on radio silence?" Sparks asked.

"No need to be. This is not a fox and hounds exercise. We're really nothing more than a cargo ship this cruise."

"I'd like to request permission to remain behind sir," Jamison said, "in case Lee will be needing my professional help when he's found. I'm sure Frank Granger will be able to manage..."

"Very well, Doc. I have no objection to the senior Corpsman in your stead. You're excused."

"Me too!" Sharkey said, "I mean, well, what if Doc needs help keeping the Skip in the Med Center...you know how good he is at escaping and...oh gawd sir, do we gotta' go on this mission."

"Stow that kind of talk Chief," Morton ordered.

"I'm sorry Sharkey," Nelson said, "I realize how you feel. How we all feel; but I need you aboard Seaview. "

"Aye sir."

"Jiggs, you sure you won't come along after all? It's really your place as Commander of Submarines Pacific..."

"Someone's got to put the fear of God into Crane when he gets back."

For a moment Nelson wasn't sure if his old friend was joking or meant business.

"Very well. We'll be getting underway tomorrow morning at 0400. Good night...Chip? How about joining Jiggs and I for a nightcap?"

"Thank you sir, I'd be delighted."

***

Though the Spaghettios had been tasty, there wasn't a pasta letter in this variety, so convincing Lola of his identity that way was impossible. She hadn't even paid attention to him when he'd tapped various newspaper sections as she'd cut them for litter. Words and phrases such 'Captain' of 'Seaview',' Missing' or 'Crane'. But what had been most irritating was how she treated him like a kitten, er...baby. At least it wouldn't be too long of a walk from her apartment back to NIMR, for come hell or high water, he was going to be aboard Seaview when she sailed.

***

There had been a saying his Mother had told him years ago that 'When the Lord closes a door, He opens a window'. Well, this time it was the other way around and Lee was ready for it as Lola greeted Lin at the door. Crane dashed out under their legs and into the night, running hard and fast. He couldn't believe his luck, for seemingly waiting for him was old # 7, one of the few bus's which made stops almost on NIMR's doorstep. It was almost 2300 and this was the last ride of the evening. He even recognized some of the night shift's custodial crew chatting among themselves as they boarded, and took refuge in one of the ladies' tote bags unawares before it was whisked up with her into the vehicle. Trying to still his heavy breathing he had no desire to be discovered by yet another matron with maternal instincts. Fortunately the bus doors had closed before Lola and Lin, lagging far behind, were seen or heard.

***

"You've got to be kidding," Morton, replied on Nelson's phone," All right, we'll leave it in your hands. Out."

"Now what?" Nelson asked from the balcony, Jigg's already having retired to the guest quarters elsewhere on the grounds.

"Chameleon got loose again. Caught a bus."

"He what?"

"Caught a bus. Number 7, but...

"Go on..."

"Apparently he'd gotten into one of our night worker's tote bags, hid there for the duration. Jumped out after she'd arrived in the ladies locker room. You know, I think someone needs to have a long talk with that cat," Morton laughed then continued, "Then it ran down the corridor and out the automatic doors. Seems to have disappeared into thin air. Security will keep a look out, but a black cat at night? In any case, I'd hate to be in it's shoes, I mean paws, if those ladies get their hands on him."

***

"No kidding? A bus? That is one weird cat!" Patterson chuckled as the boat began to slowly fill up with personnel. It was far easier for the single men to stay over the night before an early departure.

"Well, I don't mind if they never find him," Riley pouted.

"Yeah, yeah, quit harping on it will you," Ski checked his watch. "Whatever Toni calls it, it's a cat, you're her man. And there ain't no equal in that respect. So don't worry about it, kid okay?"

"Okay. Thanks Ski."

***

Lee was glad of his black coat. It made blending into the night so much easier. He was glad supplies had already been loaded. No floodlights and busy crew to elude. Secrecy was essential in that he didn't want to risk being discovered prior to sailing or until after Seaview was was well away from the point of no return. He did not want to risk being sent home even by the Flying Sub before he could convince Nelson who he was. Choosing an opportune moment he stowed himself in O'Brien's duffle bag while the Acting XO was saying goodnight to his bride before boarding. Lee knew Frank O'Brien would be too busy for sleep what with the remainder of the time before sailing to properly stow his gear, so a quick getaway from the relative safety of the Lt.'s cabin would be simple.

***

In the closed animal clinic, the fax machine was emitting a message. Meyerling Labs had somehow mixed up the last sample sent. The sample from one feline, Chameleon by name, was missing. The blood from his sample, was human.

***

Stretching his muscles, Lee was glad that he could use the top bunk to pull the ventilation grill open and just walk into the shaft. He had to smile to himself. Could cats smile? O'Brien had simply tossed his duffle onto his bunk while Sparks, his roommate's, was already stowed, the man probably catching a bite to eat in the Wardroom with the other night owls. Lee hurried along the winding shafts, assuring himself that his cabin was probably unoccupied though it was Chip's right to use it as Acting Captain. He really needed to use the head. And this time, he promised himself, he wouldn't fall in.

***

"Aaachoo!" Nelson grabbed a tissue as he spent the next few minutes in a sneezing fit. He and Morton had opted to board Seaview early themselves and were discussing their missing friend and team-mate when Nelson cocked an ear, "Did you hear something? It came from the ventilation shaft...hope it's not rats. Most boats have an infestation now and then..."

"Not Seaview," Morton assured him, "The Skipper would glare the fleas off of them...damn, I hope he's okay, sir..."

 

Now was not the time or place to reveal himself and sadly Lee continued his journey toward the bend in the vent and to his cabin. He'd been right about Chip, for the cabin was empty of any new occupant save Lee.

***

After his er...business, Lee hopped up onto the sink and looked at himself in the mirror. He was a sorry sight if ever there was one. His fur was matted and dusty again. He grimaced at what Lin would say if she saw him like this after all her hard work. Of course, he'd purposely managed to contort himself enough to get the damn collar off his neck, leaving it in the vent. The less they knew about him right now, the better. An ordinary cat, if discovered, would give him more leeway, than if hustled back to a certain lady. He was reminded by his tired eyes and series of yawns that he'd been without sleep for more hours than even Doc would approve of. But he had work to do and was soon tapping some inquiries into his personal computer. Before he knew it, he'd fallen asleep on the keyboard.

***

"I'm not sure how it could have happened, " Will Jamison checked the report Dr. Abercrombie had sent with Lola and Lin the next morning. "That lab's never had a mix up like this before. I wonder who's blood it is..."

"I don't care about that!" Lin pouted, "I want to know that my baby's okay! He could have fallen into one of your aquariums, drowned or been eaten by one of your damn trained sharks or dolphins or something."

"Lin~" Lola tried to calm her down.

"I'm sorry. It's just..."

"I know. But cats have a great homing instinct. He's probably on his way to your home right now."

"But he's only just met me! It was an accident that he used my beach house for shelter. He didn't pick me. I picked him! There 's a difference. Yvette said he was probably ferral..."

"I'll have maintenance make a sweep of the labs,"Jamison said, "the lab-rats might be tempting."

"Eeeyooo."

"You okay Lola?" Doc asked after a moment, "I know it's hard about Lee..."

"I know Will. It's just...I can't help feeling it's all my fault...he wouldnít have been pulled over if he hadn't been wearing that stupid costume...I mean...we wouldn't have been speeding home...I wouldn't have had his wallet in my purse...we..."

"It's not your fault...it just happened. Okay?"

"Okay."

***

"Hey!"Cookie glowered at the men breakfasting in the Crew's Mess, Seaview well underway, "Who's been in my galley?"

"Huh?"Ski looked up, as bewildered as the rest.

"Somebody's been scrounging around. Got into my peanut butter cookies! Crumbs and bits of cookie dough all over the counter and the floor.. and then there's spilt water and milk... When I find out who..."

"Probably Morton,"Ski said.

"He ain't that sloppy, no matter how hungry he gets."

"Maybe it's rats," Riley said, "I heard Mr. Morton talking to O'Brien about vermin control when we get home."

***

Lee yawned, glad to be back in his cabin, still smacking his lips; he resolved never to eat raw peanut butter cookie dough again. He could swear some of it was still stuck to his tongue, even though the baked cookies themselves had helped to scrape some of it off. Of course, there was no way he'd been able to open the fridge, and had had to do with water from the tap until he discovered the measuring cup half full of milk.

Meanwhile, his computer had continued to search out any information that might determine what, if any, blame for his condition could be made to Mirabelle Darcy. So far, there was nothing. Turning the computer off, he leaped from the desk to the ventilation shaft again to spy on Seaview's progress from the Control Room.

***

"It could be something you're exposed to ashore and aboard, "Granger was saying to Nelson in Sick Bay,"perhaps a new cleaning solvent, a different soap or shampoo even. Maybe something we all use. Companies do change their formulas."

"Well that's just great!"

"There is a shot I can give you that might help reduce the sneezing temporarily, but I guess Doc will order a more involved test when we get back."

"I see."

"In the meantime, why don't I have some men run a checklist on everyone's personal toiletries and our cleaning supplies, see if there's anything new or different."

"Good idea, in the meantime, I heard something scampering around last night. What's the current protocol if we have a rodent infestation?"

"Don't get bitten."

"Very funny."

"Well, for now, don't eat or drink anything that's been left unattended."

***

"That leaves Captain Crane's, Mr. Morton's, and Mr. O'Brien's stuff," Patterson was saying as the men entered the Captain's Cabin.

"Wouldnít it be weird if the Admiral was allergic to his own after shave?" Riley asked.

"He'd be sneezing constantly then," Ski said, "No, has to be somebody else's stuff."

"Hey guys?" Pat interrupted from the head, "Over here. Look at this," he ran a finger over the loose black fur on the edge and in the sink.

"Uh oh," Riley pointed toward the main cabin area, "over there! The vent's open."

"That's got to be one big rat..."

***

"We'll be at these coordinates in about three hours, Mr...er...Captain," O'Brian reported to Chip.

"There's only one Captain of Seaview and his name's Lee Crane."

"I still think we should have pulled out of the exercise. It's not a Seaview essential after all..."

"You heard the Admiral, the Navy won't take no for an answer."

"Excuse me sir," Kowalski reported to the officers, extending his hand, "We found this in the Skipper's cabin."

"What is that? Fur?"

"Long black strands of it all over the place. In the sink, on the toilet, on the desk, on the computer. And the ventilation shaft was wide open. I hate to say it, but I think we have rats sir. Big ones."

"Take those samples to Sickbay," Morton ordered, "Granger may be able to identify just what kind of rodent we're dealing with. Sharkey, get a party to check all essential wiring...any sign of nibbling sing out. O'Brien, get a team to sweep the vents. Place some traps."

"Right away."

"Er. Mr. Morton?"

"Yes Patterson?"

"Last night, Cookie told us somebody had gotten into the galley, made a mess, crumbs all over the place.Must've eaten cookies..."

"Why wasn't I informed?

"Ski thought it was you."

"Kowalski!"Sharkey scolded.

"Sorry sir."

"Anyone exhibiting signs of gastrointestinal distress report to Sickbay," Morton clicked the mike, "Anyone who ate any cookies last night report as well. And if you see any rats, mice, whatever, don't provoke them. They can carry diseases we're not prepared for."

 

Oh swell, Lee thought from his hiding place. They think I'm a rat. He'd been aboard boats with rat infestations before and the ensuing protocols were no picnic. Well, he wasn't going to put Seaview and his crew through that, even if it meant they'd probably put him ashore early. He'd have to figure out another way to speak to Nelson. But the grill was shut fast. He butted his head and paws against it to loosen it to no avail.

 

"Must be one in there now!" Riley said, "I see it's eyes. Man, like it's huge!"

Morton took out a gun from the arms locker and cocked it.

 

Uh oh...wrong time and place... Lee scampered off as fast as he could out of range.

 

Morton opened the grille and fired toward the black heap.

 

Ow!

 

"It's a cat!" Ski exclaimed.

"I can tell that. Get in there after it," Morton ordered, "But be careful. Could be rabid."

"I think you only winged him sir," Ski was heard moments later, as he pulled on Crane.

Moments later Ski emerged, cat in hand, it's shoulder bleeding.

 

Did you have to use a gun Chip? Of all the...ow..take it easy Ski!

 

"I think he's giving you both a tongue lashing," Sharkey said.

"Can't say I blame him," Morton said ruefully. "Get it to sickbay. Riley, you go with him. I'll join you shortly after I report to Nelson."

****

"Is it Chameleon?" Nelson asked as Granger treated the bullet crease in Sickbay.

"Well, he's black all right, sir," Riley said, "But Chameleon had a collar. And he acted weird, sir."

"Well, taking refuge in the Captain's cabin, using the head, and apparently sleeping on his keyboard certainly meets that criteria," Morton said.

 

Ow!

 

"Sorry, kitty," the Corpsman said as he patted the wound with antiseptic cream and placed a bandage over the small shaved area. "He'll be all right. Actually he's been pretty good considering. Wish the Skipper could be as good a patient..."

"You know buster," Nelson picked Lee up gently, "you are in big trouble. Nearly gave us the heebie jeebies thinking you were a rat. Aaachoo! As it is...I guess you're along for the duration."

"Where do you want us to put him?"Ski asked.

"My cabin."

"Your cabin sir?" Morton asked.

"Yes, my cabin. I won't have it fouling up Crane's."

 

Hmpf.

 

"Er, actually," Ski said, "it uh wasn't all that bad. I mean, he just probably wasn't strong enough to flush the toilet..."

"Even so, " Morton said," what's to keep it from getting into things, even the vent again. He's a danger to himself and to Seaview. See to it that a cage of some sort is made."

 

Now wait a minute!

 

"Good idea," Nelson agreed, "In the meantime," he added to the creature in his arms, "let's see if we can prove your identity, hmm, Tiger?"

"How sir?"Granger asked.

"Well, Chameleon's supposed to be curly when wet, isn't he? Test it out."

Granger quickly soaked a washcloth and dribbled it on Lee's lower back. The fur curled wildly.

"You know, that almost looks just like the Skipper's hair!" Ski exclaimed.

 

That's because I am him!

 

"Have Cookie send something down to my cabin," Nelson said, "I'm famished. Something for our cat burglar too."

 

I didn't steal anything! And I'm not really hungry Admiral...but thanks for the offer. I'd rather have a little chat with you in private. Perhaps using your computer?

 

"I'd swear that cat's trying to talk with you, sir," Granger laughed.

 

***

"You sir," Nelson sat the cat down on the deck of his cabin after he'd closed the door, " have been ah aaachoo, a great deal of trouble."

 

You don't know the half of it Admiral, Lee jumped onto the desk and pounced on the computer's keyboard.

 

"Oh no you don't," Nelson picked him off the desk. "What is it about you and computers? Nice and warm, is that it?"

 

No that's not it, if you'd just let me get a word in edgewise...damn thing's taking time to turn on..is it unplugged?

 

"Well, Chameleon," Nelson said, sitting on the bunk, "even if it turns out that you're not Lin's pet, I'll see if any of the staff at the Institute would care to adopt you. I would of course, if I didn't live alone and am gone too much. You're an interesting specimen."

 

I'm not a specimen, I'm Lee! I'm Lee! Now stop petting me and put me down so I can prove it to you! Er...a little lower...mmm...I've been longing to get that itch scratched...thanks...

 

"So you can purr."

 

No, no no..I didn't mean it...put me down Harry, please!

 

His meows were interrupted when Cookie arrived at the open door with a tray of food.

"Ah, and what do we have here?"

"Ham sandwich, mug of soup for you, sir, and a can of tuna for the kitty. We don't have any Spaghettios..."

"Close the door, Cookie. Let's see if he's hungry," Nelson let him go.

Instead of choosing the can of tuna on the deck, Lee chose Nelson's desk and began to devour the sandwich.

"Discriminating fellow aren't you," Nelson laughed and took a sip of his soup.

"That soup okay, sir?" Cookie asked, "Stowed by mistake, from the Day Care."

"It's fine Cookie, I quite enjoyed Alphabet soup as a boy."

Alphabet soup? Lee's ears perked up. Leaving the sandwich the cat dangled claws in the mug hoping to snag some letters of interest.

 

"Now that's weird. I'll bring you another sandwich and more soup now that your new roomie's helped himself to it. "

"Yes, thank you," Nelson mused, looking at the cat with interest. "Rather intent on playing with his food isn't he?"

"Yeah, kinda' like he did with those Spaghettio's at Toni's, like Riley said. "

"Excuse me sir," Granger knocked, peering in at Nelson's leave to come in. "The cat's fur matches the sample Ski found in the Skipper's cabin... DARC? If I didn't know better I'd say it's trying to spell something..."

"Just gibberish. Must be the size of the pasta bits that intrieges him."

 

Darcy! Darcy, Mirabelle Darcy! C'mon use your brain Admiral! Lee patted the pasta on the desk.

 

"Is it yelling at you sir?"

"Probably wants more letters to play with...Antonia Dillardia was keeping it awhile, probably fed him a bit too much Italian."

 

They gave me raw fish offal and Tuti Fruit Ice Cream! C'mon Harry, would you please stop thinking of me as a cat and as an intelligent human being instead? And if you'll notice, I'm not eating it! Y, I need a Y! Lee dangled claw after claw to try to pull out another letter..

 

"Well, if we're going to be keeping each other company, Tiger, sorry, Chameleon, I suppose I'll need to make you some toys," Nelson rose and pulled out a small something from under his bunk, and waved it in front of him, "There, how aaachoo! About that?"

 

Oh gawd, Harry. You can't expect me to play with a sock ?Crane looked at him aghast.

 

"I guess not."

"They've made the cage," Chip entered, "Doesn't seem to have eaten much..."

Riley, behind him, sat the cage down in a corner.

"That cage is large enough for him to be comfortable isn't it?" Nelson asked.

"Plywood floor with a couple of thick towels," Morton said, "wire mesh frame, and a pan of dry oatmeal."

"Oatmeal?"

"Well yes sir. Has to be flushable kitty litter. Biodegradable...dried oatmeal's perfect. Get it..purr fect?"

 

That's not funny Chip....Y! Lee proudly snagged the letter and pushed it to join the others, Look! Look! Will you look!

 

"Enough of that yelling, Tiger," Nelson scooped him up. "I have to get back to work and can't have you getting into everything."

 

No! No! You don't understand! Admiral! Stop! Harry!Please!!!

 

In moments Lee was seconded to his new home away from home, complete with facilities, water bowl and a dish of what looked like 'Goldfish'* cheese crackers, courtesy Cookie and a wicked sense of humor.

***

Lee was mad. Nothing he had tried had worked to free himself, but he still had his voice, in a manner of speaking, and he used it.

***

"Do you hear that?" Sharkey whispered to O'Brien of the weird echoes down the length of the sub.

"What the dev..."Morton raised an eyebrow.. "Riley! Go quiet that cat down! "

"Why me?"

"Did you say something mister?"

"Er, who me sir? Uh how can I stop it sir? Other than drowning it?"

Nelson raised an eyebrow.

"Not that I would sir."

"Good, because you've just pulled catsitting duty.Take his mind off things. Keep him caged or make sure the door's closed if he isn't, but give him something to occupy himself with. A toy, food, but shut him up, understood?"

"Aye sir."

***

Let me outta' here!

 

"C'mon kitty, play with the nice string already!"

 

No.

 

"Stu? Morton sent me to give you a hand..."Ski knelt down beside the rating," Engineering reports they can hear him all the way down there."

"Tell me about it. Like, he's possessed or something. I've tried Cookies, ice cream, even Ravioli! All cats like to play with string, except this one."

"Wait...what about the computer...Mr. Morton said he played with the one in Nelson's office ashore..."

 

Now you're talking!

 

"No way, man. You want it to fry the thing? The computer I mean, all that fur..."

"Okay, let's take him to the crew's quarters then. Maybe a video will calm it down. How about that Chameleon? Would puddy tat like to see 'The Cat Creature'? Or maybe 'That Darn Cat'... or how about Bagheera from 'The Jungle Book'?"

 

Iím not a puddy tat! I don't want to watch a movie, or compare myself to a black panther! Get me out of here so I can show you I'm me!

 

"Wow, he's pissed."

"Nah, just having a hissy fit!" Ski laughed.

 

***

Lee was frustrated as hell, still trapped in his cage, too hoarse to holler any more. His cat sitters and some of the men off watch in the Aft Crew's Quarters were almost finished watching a new more mature version of 'The Jungle Book', making comments about Chameleon's 'big brother'.

 

Stow the sarcasm! And he's not my big brother...only Harry has that right and...

 

"Sounds like he's choking on a hairball or something," Sharkey turned, removing the DVD as the film ended.

 

Hairball? Hairball? I assure you I ...aahhggghhh. Lee gagged as the matted slobbery fur came shooting from his esophagus and out his mouth. Ptuie!


"Admiral's pet or not, I ain't cleaning it up after you, Tiger or Chameleon, or whatever the Admiral calls you," Riley said.

"Let's see," Sharkey read one of the multi media boxes, 'The Cat Creature'...an Egyptian Queen is really a cat and metamorphosis's back and forth...good gravy what a bomb...wait...ooooh., there's a pretty dame in it"

"Meredith Baxter Birney,"Ski whistled in appreciation.

"Whatever, she's a dish."

 

Chief! Chief! That's it! Watch the movie! The same thing happened to us! Remember Mirabelle Darcy! Put the two together, man!

 

"Hey guys, he's acting weird, again," Sharkey said.

"Just put in a new movie to clam him up will you Chief?

"Or make him stop hopping around like a cat on a hot tin roof!...We got that movie? It's a classic."

 

No! No! No! Will you idiots listen to me?

 

"I think the Admiral was watching it in his cabin last week..." Ski said.

"Okay, I'll go check."

 

Well, it was time for the pathetic little kitty act again, only Lee never felt less than acting...

 

Er excuse me, fellows, but I'm starting to get desperate now.

 

"I wish he'd shut up," Riley snapped. "I can't think. I'm gonna' beat you at Scrabble this time Ski."

 

Scrabble...of course...at last....c'mon guys...let me out! See sore paw..see sore paw.

 

"Granger said he was okay...maybe he got a sliver..." Ski furrowed his brows. "That cage got made pretty quick. Stu, close the door....I'll pull him out."

In moments he'd opened the cage door, "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty..."

 

My name is Captain...Lee argued as the seaman pulled him out and exmined his paws.

 

"I don't see anything wrong."

 

There will be if you don't let me prove who I am.

 

"Maybe we should let him be just be awhile," Ski sat him on the deck. "Okay Chameleon, is that better?"

 

Lee jumped up on the Scrabble board and began to paw through the letters he'd quickly tipped over out of their containers.

"Must think they're Spaghettio's, stupid cat," Riley groaned.

"I guess...looks kinda like he's into L's and Ee's....C's, R's, A's, N's, uh...guys? Is he spelling what I think he is?"

 

Another E was proudly placed at the end of his name and Lee looked up expectantly.

"Uh...oh..."

"Get the Chief down here! Fast," Ski ordered.

 

Ski I could kiss you! Lee sighed, and began to scrounge for more letters.

 

***

"Yeah?" Sharkey was closing the Admiral's small DVD/Video cabinet, "What's so urgent Riley?"

"The cat...he's...he's spelling out 'Lee Crane'."

"Some kind of joke, right, kid?"

"No...he's really spelling stuff! Like that DARCY there by the mug of soup."

"Darcy? What? Oh shit! "

 

***

"So you mean to tell me, " O'Brien asked as Riley and Sharkey stood before him in the Control Room, "that Chameleon is actually Captain Crane?"

"Yes sir," Ski said. "He's been trying to talk to us...the spaghettios, the computers, now Scrabble.."

"This is in very bad taste!"

"Skipper's been changed into a cat before, sir," Sharkey said, "Me too. I of all people shoulda' thought about it..."

 

In a matter of minutes, O'Brien had turned the Conn over to Sparks, and crossed his fingers that he wouldn't be laughed off the boat should he be proved wrong. The crew often played practical jokes, but never at the expense of the Skipper...it was unconscionable.

 

By the time the Acting XO arrived in the aft crew's quarters, men crowded around watching in awe as the cat spelled out answers to their questions with the little wooden squares.

 

"All right, ask it if it's Captain Crane," O'Brien ordered Kowalski.

Why don't you ask me yourself Lt? Lee spelled out.

 

"It was the witch, wasn't it," Sharkey said," That's what you were trying to say with the alphabet soup. About Mirabelle Darcy..."

She may have had something to do with it. She or her jewels or spellbook or something. But I checked with the computer. She's still a frog and nothing's missing.

 

"Wait," O'Brien said firmly, stunned, "You men could be moving the squares with strings or remote controls or something."

What can I say to convince you, Frank? Wait, I know. You have a pair of non regulation shorts with little red hearts on them your bride must have given you. They were in your duffle bag. That's how I came aboard. I'm sorry if it embarrasses you but think of how I've felt all this time stuck as a cat.

 

"Oh gawd...er..."O'Brien nearly fainted. "I'd better...er...prepare the Admiral..."

 

As he clicked the PA to request meeting the Admiral and Morton in the Observation Nose, he turned toward Crane, "After you Skipper," he motioned towards the door.

***

"Any idea why O'Brien asked to meet us?" Morton wondered.

"Your guess is as good as mine."

"Everyone's been on edge this cruise. And we all know why."

"Chip, I had no choice but to sail. The Sec Nav..."

 

"What is that cat doing back here?" Morton said of Lee, whose tail was held high as he led the small group forward.

 

As befitted his rank, O'Brien was succinct and to the point. The Skipper was no longer missing and had been under their noses all along. Only as a cat. Chameleon in fact. Straight from the source.

"Oh, you've been well and truly had!" Morton said. "I'll speak with the crew Admiral. I don't know how they did it, but..."

"That's what I thought at first," O'Brien interrupted, "but...the cat, er, the Skipper, well, he knew something nobody else could have known. Er...okay Riley, set up the Scrabble board on the table."

 

Lee hopped up and began to pull at some of the letters. Then looked at Nelson expectantly.

It's me, Harry.

"Pretty good trick, how are you doing it?" Nelson asked.

"And the Skipper never calls the Admiral Harry," Morton added.

"Er...actually," Nelson began, "he does, sometimes..."

I know it's difficult to accept, but you have to help me.

"I'm not sure..."Nelson mused, as Morton looked more closely at Chameleon.

"It's happened before if you remember, sir..."O'Brien said. "When the Chief got turned into a dog and the Captain into a cat, only this time..."

"Well?"

"Well, the Skipper checked on that. Mirabelle Darcy is still a frog since one of her spells backfired, and none of her stuff's missing."

"Which can only means that he hasn't been bewitched again and this is still some kind of bad joke," Morton said firmly.

 

You have to believe me! Lee hissed.

Sorry, I'm still not sure how that happens. Please Admiral...Harry... You're my only hope.

"All right, all right," Nelson said, his nerves frayed, "for the sake of argument, tell me something only you and I know. Not Chip, not O'Brien, not one member of the crew or anyone at NIMR. Not the Navy, not ONI, not the SecNav, not the President. And not even Edith."

The cat pondered a moment, headed to the massive computer, pawed in a few numbers and then waited for Nelson to read the printout.

 

Nelson turned ashen and crumpled the paper into his pocket.

"Is it him?" Morton asked.

"God help us, it is."

 

Lee returned to the plot table, jumped up and spelled out I don't know about either of you, but could sure use a drink. And make it a double.

 

"Hold it, "Morton said, "you're still a cat. It could hurt you. At least let us check with Sickbay."

Granger's a corpsman, not a vet. Besides, he'll only say no.

"We're still going to check," Nelson ordered and nodded to Chip to raise Sickbay. The answer was a definite 'donít know sir'.

Then how about a fried egg sandwich? Some coffee would be nice too.

***

"All this time,"Morton groaned less than a half an hour later in Lee's cabin as Crane finished his sandwich, which had been cut up into small bits by Nelson. After a few more laps of the saucer of coffee, Lee leapt off the desk and went to the head.

"At least that mystery's solved," Nelson paced, " but if we don't know how it happened, how the devil do we get him back?"

After Lee had finished his business, he pounced up to the bunk and the Scrabble board Chip had ready and waiting for him.

 

The silence was uncomfortable. Chip decided the two probably needed to talk privately and excused himself.

 

"Well Lee?" Nelson finally asked when they were alone.

 

What do you want me to say? Frankly I can't think of anything more right now. Except the sooner this mission is over and we get home, the better.

"I called you a specimen! A specimen!"

You also promised me a good home. Treated me well, and even gave me a better name than Chameleon. Fair exchange, I'd say.

"And we'll lick this thing Tiger...er sorry, Lee. I don't know how, or when, but I promise you we will. You look done in. Why not take a catnap, er..."

 

It's okay Admiral, Lee meowed.

Thanks, I think I will,he added for Nelson's benefit.

 

As Nelson left Lee in peace, he hoped he could keep his promise. For right now, he was as bewildered as he'd ever been in his life.

***

"I'm having a little difficulty believing it, Harriman," Starke was saying via Nelson's videophone.

"Is this one of Chip's or Lee's sick jokes?" Lola added, Angie shaking her head behind her, "because I have to tell you sir, I don't appreciate it."

"I'm not that bad," Morton pouted, "and it's not the first time; surely you know about the Darcy incident."

"Damn," Jiggs said, smacking his forehead, "I completely forgot you telling me about it, Harry."

"Well, I don't remember, "Lola said.

"Ah yes, "Nelson said, "well, we all kept it rather quiet...the first time Lee and Sharkey were in effect, bewitched by Mirabelle Darcy, a 400 year old witch, give or take a couple of centuries. However, she doesn't seem to be responsible this time. And Sharkey seems to have avoided a second transformation...."

"Oh you bad bad boys! How can you keep on joking like this!"

"Miss Hale, Lee Crane is feline," Nelson said firmly, "black, with changeable eye color. Probably your friend's stray. And his fur is curly when wet."

"I won't believe it till I see for myself and talk with him!"

"I had every intention of letting him tell you himself! But he's sleeping right now," Nelson tuned the videophone to Lee's cabin.

He wasn't there.

***

With the freedom of the boat in hand, er, his paws, Lee, after his catnap, had pounced off the bunk and headed to the Control Room. Men he'd passed by gave him an odd look or two, as word had spread like wildfire about his er...condition.

 

He'd used the spiral ladder and was sitting on one of the rungs and gazing out over the spectacular vista from Seaview's view ports with an occasional glance to the Control Room. He hadn't meant to intrude on O'Brien's authority, but Acting XO approached with a loud enough voice to be heard by all hands, "Skipper, would you like to take the Conn?"

 

No, Frank, this mission's yours and Chip's. Thanks for asking though, he meowed.

 

"Er, I've taken the liberty of setting out paper alphabet and scrabble squares in all vital areas of the boat sir, so we can understand you...er...communicate...."

 

Indeed the letters were heaped in neat piles on the plot table and periscope stand and in every conceivable space for ease of use, just waiting for him. In a few moments he'd verified that he wanted O'Brien to remain Acting XO... for now.

 

O'Brien was about to argue the point, when Lee angled his ears and headed to the Navy's experimental system. Hopping up onto the console, currently manned by Kowalski, he pawed at his earphones.

Ski took them off and lay them down within Crane's earshot immediately.

"Er...I didn't hear anything sir."

But the Captain had, and bounded back to the plot table. It's the Galileo

"But the system hasn't isolated her signature yet," O'Brien said.

 

Trust me.

"Ski, make a note for the official report that the Galileo's signal is not being picked up by the new software, but has been identified by..er...another source aboard Seaview. Note the coordinates and the time for documentation."

How many signals have we picked up during this operation?

"Five, sir."

Out of 20 vessels in the containment area? Not too impressive for a couple of million dollars worth of software.

"Maybe they didn't install it right when we were on shore leave," Ski offered.

"Lee? Nelson," the Admiral's voice interrupted over the PA. "Report to my cabin would you? I have Miss Hale on the videophone. She, er...doesn't believe what happened."

The men's hearts bled for him. Facing life as a cat was one thing. Your girl, quite another.

"He's on his way sir," O'Brien clicked the mike shaking his head.

***

The argument was still in full swing by the time Lee arrived at Nelson's doorstep so to speak.

"I don't know why you're insisting on hurting me like this!" the blonde was saying.

"Have we ever lied to you?" Morton tried to persuade her.

"Yes!"

"Those were probably matters of national and international security," Nelson said.

Lee decided it was now or never and quietly entered the open room and hopped up on the desk.

 

Lola?

 

"Is that him?" Lola asked.

"He's the only cat aboard!" Morton said.

"Well to quote one of those scientific methods the Admiral is always spouting, if it looks like a cat, acts like a cat, smells like a cat, it probably is one!"

 

It really is me Lola, he spelled.

 

"It's a robotic, isn't it. You're testing it out on me, aren't you? "

"Wait," Nelson said, "Lee? Get in the shower."

 

What? Oh.

"And I suppose you understood what it just meowed at you," Lola said sarcastically as Lee hopped off the table and went to the head, Chip behind him to do water knob duty.

"Not at all, but I remember what you said about Lee's hair...."

In moments the soaked Crane returned and hopped back up in front of the videophone.

"Curly when wet, just like Lee's hair, you said. Now, does this fur really look like an ordinary cat's? I should think these," he lifted some of Lee's furry but curly ringlets, "speak for themselves."

"Oh no, no, no! Oh, Lee!" Lola began to sob.

"I'm going to give you two a little time together. We'll conduct a full fledged teleconference in the Observation Nose later. Together we may be able to figure out what happened. See if Dr. Abercrombie knows anything about cat lore, legends and stuff, but don't inform her about Lee's conversion..."

"Will do, Harriman... Oh stop your blubbering, woman!"he spouted to Lola, still crying behind him.

 

Hey! Don't you talk to her like that! Lee hissed.

 

"I'm not sure I want to know what he just said."

Would you stop speaking over me as if I didn't exist? And if you ever speak to her like that again, Admiral or no Admiral, I will make your life miserable. Sir!he added.

"All right Lee, all right," Nelson said, " I'm sure we all got the message. We'll meet in the Nose in about an hour." In seconds the couple were alone via the videophone.

***

"Man, I could hear her crying all the way down the corridor," Malone whispered as he relieved Ski. "Then, when I passed by Nelson's cabin, I saw the Skip just sitting there, staring at a blank screen. Ski? You think the boss'll be able to figure it out?"

"He has to."

***

"If I'd only known," Doc was saying on the large monitor, "I mean, for a cat's DNA to test as human..."

"Did it prove Crane's identity?" Nelson asked.

"Well, no, the results from the national data base haven't come back yet..."he looked off to the side.

"Anything wrong?" Morton asked

"I think they, Lee and Lola I mean, had...words...Angie's trying to calm her down..."

"Harry, it's been over an hour..." Jiggs interrupted.

"We're still waiting to hear from the Museum," Morton said, "they're checking the Darcy diaries and manuscripts for anything about shape shifting, stuff like that. And the reptilian research lab confirmed what Lee said, that Frog #0978 is still there, fat and happy....unless...."

"Unless somebody switched frogs...."Nelson mused.

"But that's impossible Harry, you said it was implanted with an identity chip..."

"I know...and it still matches. Where the devil's Lee? He's been paged twice already."

"Excuse me sir," Ski approached, "Malone saw the Skipper in your cabin a while ago, but...er..."

"But what?" Morton asked.

"Well, the video call had already ended, but he was just sitting there, staring at the screen...said he looked kinda' spooky."

"Probably brooding. Go tell him it's time."

"Aye sir."

***

"Thank you Mr. Scales," Nelson ended his private call to the Salem Museum and returned to the conference table. "They confirm the Darcy collection safe and secure, and nothing in it about changing people into animals. I'm afraid Mr. Scales thinks our inquiry's a bit odd. Had to tell him it was research for a book."

"So it wasn't her,"Sharkey sighed.

"Well it had to be somebody!"Jiggs spouted.

"I'm ready now sir," Lola appeared at his side, her eyes red. Angie sat next to her prepared to take notes.

"Excuse me sir," Ski returned, "But he's not in your cabin, or his. I also checked the Wardroom, Sickbay and..."

"Lee?" Nelson clicked the mike.

"Harry? What are you doing? He can't even click the damn thing properly without an opposable thumb."

"I er..wasn't thinking..."

"Chief?" Morton ordered, "Get a search party going..."

Nelson returned to the monitor. "Stand by..."

***

Brooding wasn't the word for it. Lola hadn't taken Lee's transformation very well. She could hardly be expected to. There was no way Lee could ask her to continue their relationship if he had to spend the rest of his life like this.

***

For the next 15 minutes Seaview was subjected to a stem to stern search.

It wasn't the first time Crane had hidden himself away someplace when he didn't want to be found...even by his friends.

"There are all kinds of places he could have gotten trapped in or fallen into..."O'Brien mused.

"The pressure hatch!" Morton ran aft.

But there was no sign he'd ever been there.

"What about the Flying Sub?" Sharkey asked as he conferred with Morton. " He's used it before when he's been in a snit."

"There's no way anyone or anything could get into it, not even from her aft hatch. And what do you mean when he's been in a snit?"

"Er...well...he is...sometimes..."

***

Stupid, stupid, stupid! Lee groused after he'd yowled in pain. The vent was easier than stepping up and over the several knee knockers of the hatches on his way forward, but there was a drawback in that some of the rat traps that had been laid hadn't been removed yet. He'd been careful to avoid them, even if they were pretty impossible to set one off unless one was in the mood for cheese. Until now.

 

It had all begun when he noticed a few ants, drawn to the feast. He'd made a mental note to have Seaview properly fumigated when she returned to port. But in his case it was too late.

Trying to shake off one or two of the biting ants that had somehow attached themselves to his fur, he bumped backwards smack into one of the traps, which caught his tail.

 

It was bleeding and it hurt like hell. But at least it was a part of his new anatomy that he didn't need to walk. He hadn't been able to remove it and with each step the pain was getting worse. He also discovered that the ants preferred 'cat' food to cheese. No telling how many times he'd been bitten now or what Granger would say. He wondered if his growing nausea was due to thinking about it, or if these damn eight legged critters were poisonous. His paws were growing painfully swollen, and it was getting hard to breathe. The next grille and freedom was a long way away.

 

***

"Control Room?" Patterson's voice came over the PA, "We heard a god awful wail followed by some distressed meowing a minute ago from somewhere in the aft ventilation shaft. He sounds really hurt. Riley's gone in already to try to find him. He's got a throat mike."

"Very well," Morton clicked the mike, "Sickbay? Stand by. We think the Skipper's hurt."

"Any idea how?"

"Not yet."

"I'll be ready."

***

Okay, okay,Lee panted, don't panic...you're just scared.

 

He had every reason to be. His heart was racing, and he was starting to see things. Dark creepy things he was hard pressed to identify....

 

"I hear him! He doesn't sound good," Riley pressed his throat mike.

 

The seaman finally saw him, Crane's bent tail dripping blood, still encased by the metal trap as he painfully crawled, practically on his belly further down the vent and out of sight.

 

"Skipper? Skipper? Wait...don't move! I'm coming! Control! Frame 45... Skipper! Hold on! I'll be there in a sec....oh damn...."

 

All hands waited with baited breath as they listened in over the PA that Sparks had tuned the mike to.

"I've got him! Easy Skipper, easy...how on earth did you get your tail caught in a rat trap... I got it off him...but I think it's broken his tail, it's bleeding....ow! Ants! Did they bite you? Skipper? Skipper? Hey guys, his paws are all swollen, his eyes look weird and he's not breathing too good! Meet us at Junction 4!"

 

Lee was too hurt and exhausted to even acknowledge his rescuer as Riley put him inside the top of his jumpsuit, and crawled them both to the exit, the seaman having the good sense to stow one of the ants in his jumpsuit's zippered pocket for examination.

 

***

Granger had laid Crane out on the gurney, paws sweating, breathing labored.

"Riley, do you have any sign of swelling or discomfort from your bites?"

"Not a bit, but the Skipper's getting worse."

"We've got Dr. Abercrombie on the video monitor now," Sparks piped through to both Control Room and Sick Bay as Granger rushed an oxygen mask over Lee's face.

"I understand you have a medical emergen...ohmygod. Is that Chameleon?"

"Er, no. It's the ship's cat, Tiger," Morton covered from the Control Room. "Admiral Nelson's trying to identify the kind of ants that bit him..."

"Red or Black?" she asked.

"Red! Red! Red!" Riley yelled, "Do something Doc, he's dying!"

"Calm down, Stu," Ski said as he grabbed a thermometer," Excuse me sir," he whispered to Crane as he took the cat's temperature...."temperature's 106.5, ma'am."

"Too high, even for a cat. Wet down his paws and tail only, no where else, that would trap in the heat. Get an anti-pyretic ready if we have to use it."

"I found it!" Nelson emerged from the Sickbay office, "Harvester ants...painful stinging bites, not poisonous but..."

"But they can cause severe allergic reactions, and in some rare cases, we believe hallucinations. All right...at least we know what we're dealing with...do you have adrenaline?"

"Yes, right on it," Granger said.

"I'd recommend the same dosage as for a newborn infant. He's the same size and weight.."

In seconds Lee had been injected with the life saving serum.

 

It wasn't long before Granger felt it safe to remove the oxygen mask.

"The swelling should come down soon," Dr. Abercrombie said, "now, what happened to his tail?"

"Er, he had a little accident," Ski said.

"No tailbones broken," Granger showed her photocopies of the X-Rays.

"I agree. Considering the trauma, use a local anesthetic for the stitches, it'll be easier on him. You know," she furrowed her brows, "he looks a lot like Chameleon...he also has the same curly fur when it's wet..."

"Perhaps he's a relation..."Morton covered.

"Chameleon was all alone when Lin found him, besides most non-castrated Toms tend to keep to themselves. I'm a doctor. I know how to keep a confidence. Chameleon's actually your cat isn't he, Admiral? What did you do to him to cause him to run so far away? Cats do run away, but not usually far away from a good meal."

"The swelling's gone way down," Ski interrupted, "temperature's better too."

"Doctor," Nelson said firmly, "I didn't do anything to him."

"Er, Admiral, Commander," Granger intervened, "perhaps you'd care to wait outside while I stitch him up.

"I'm staying right here," Nelson said firmly and stroked the back of Lee's head.

"Me too," Morton stood, arms folded.

***

"Look, Lola, if you're keeping something from me... "Lin was saying over a bite in the NIMR cafeteria.

"I...I can't say anything....but I asked you here to tell you that I don't think Chameleon's coming back..."

"Hello girls," Dr. Abercrombie approached.

"Ohmygod, he's been run over or something..."

'No, it's not that..."Lola hastened..."Yvette's here because they needed her expertise for..er...Tiger, the ship's cat."

"Tell me, Lola,"Yvette asked, "does the Admiral always keep a cat aboard Seaview? Because he should really take better care of him...and keep that sub of his insect and rodent free."

"I'm sure he will after this," Lola sighed.

"You look awful, have you had any sleep lately?"

"I've some personal problems...Lee...."

'Ahhh. Yes....you wanted to take it to the next level and he didn't, that it?"

"He...was uncertain..."

"Men who look like your dreamboat Captain don't need to make a commitment; they're having too much fun."

"Lee's not like that!"

"You're smitten with him and he knows it."

"That doesn't mean he doesn't love me."

"Has he shown it?"

"Well, he humored me by wearing a unitard! He sure didnít want to. I have some pictures...I thought they were nice costumes..."

***

"Easy Skipper," Riley said a few hours later as Lee sat up on the gurney, testing his limbs. "Dr. Abercrombie said for you to rest."

 

I feel fine!

 

"Oh, sorry Skipper," Granger sat some alphabet letters on the gurney.

 

Never mind, Lee meowed and jumped down.

 

"Hey! Come back here! Skipper? Skipper!"

"Looks okay to me," Riley said as Lee ran down the corridor.

***

There was a heated argument coming from the Observation Nose, most members of the Admiral's tele- conference all talking at once from the monitor and from the confrerence table.

 

"But that's impossible!" Lola was saying from the monitor.

"Really Admiral, it's absurd, "Angie added.

"Do you have another explaination?"Nelson demanded.

 

Er, care to fill me in? Lee meowed from the spiral ladder.

 

"What are you doing out of Sickbay?" Jamison shouted, "you're supposed to be resting..."

"We're pretty sure we know what happened, Lee," Nelson said.

"You see, it's like this, Skipper," Sharkey began....

"It's the only explaination,"Morton interrupted.

"It's a stupid explaination!"Lola shouted.

"You have a better one, Miss Hale?" Nelson demanded.

 

Hey!

"Are you hissing at Harry, Crane?"

Lee moved some squares, What's going on?

"He thinks it's my fault!" Lola yelled.

"She did tell you that she wished you'd be warm and fuzzy all the time, just like you were that night, didn't she?"

What's that got to do with anything?

"It was Halloween night..." Starke piped up.

"Under a full moon," Morton added.

"She put a spell on you, Lee. Unintentional but..."

Are you out of your minds? Lola's no witch!

"There's more Lee," Nelson said.

 

"Er...she bought some emeralds, Lee," Morton said.

"What she and we didn't know," Nelson added, "is that the curators at the museum had sold off some of the lesser Darcy gems...to help pay for flood damage repairs, and they well, are reputed to have powers, you remember."

They lost their power centuries ago!

"Mirabelle said, " Morton said.

"Miss Hale was wearing them the night of the party..."Nelson said. "They must have caused her words to be taken as casting a spell... changing you into a warm fuzzy cat. Logical really, considering you were wearing a cat suit..."

I'm not fuzzy, just a bit furry.

"The fact remains whatever magic was in those emeralds, they, combined with her wish changed you..."

"So all she has to do is to wish you back," Morton said.

"Well, I think your theory is ridiculous!" Lola pouted, then, "So, Lee, how on earth did you manage to get your tail caught?"

The rat trap jumped out and attacked me. Actually, I was checking my ant bites when I backed into it.

"But you are okay now?"

Yeah, I'm fine, I guess.

"Morton's going to pick her up with the flying sub; bring her back with the gems."

Belay that! We're still in the containment area. Or has everyone aboard this boat forgotten about our mission?

"Get going Morton," Starke ordered, "The sooner the better."

Am I Captain of this boat or not? Lee left, soon pouncing on the Navy console. This time Ski merely took off his headphones and laid them down for the Captain to listen to.

"You're a cat!" Jiggs voice followed him.

"He has a point Lee," Morton said, "In your condition there's no time for you to give immediate orders or responses...the squares enable communication, yes, but the delay compared to speech, well..."

"And you're still on the sick list..."Jamison said loudly.

"It's not that we don't want you in command, son," Nelson approached apologetically. "But even you have to see it's illogical, from a military point of view..."

 

Lee knocked the earphones off the console, meowed apologetically to Ski, hopped down, headed aft and out of sight, turning once to glare at Nelson, fire in his eyes.

"Well, that went well," Nelson muttered.

***

"What on earth are you doing Cookie?" Riley asked the chef as he mashed up the piece of cherry pie as some of the sailors just released from their watch filed in.

"For the Skip. Thought it might make him feel better. You know. About his command being taken away."

"Did the Admiral have to do that?" Riley asked, " I mean the Skip's still Crane, just has a new body like, that's all."

"A new body that makes it impossible for him to be understood without taking the time to use all those little squares," Patterson said, "the Admiral has a point; the Skipper understands. "

"Maybe. But, like, if you'd seen that glare. Think how he must feel. "

"Think how Nelson feels. Kinda like betraying your own brother."

***

Lee was idly flipping one page to another on the computer. He was so intent on his own moodiness that he barely noticed Cookie's arrival with the dessert plate of pie and a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

***

"Dr. Abercrombie?" Nelson asked, frowning, as Morton helped her out of the Flying Sub.

"I couldn't help myself," Lola emerged after, "I had to tell her, and before you get upset, she thinks she may be able to shed a little light on Lee's transformation."

"Er...we have other guests sir," Morton said.

"Officer Dunbar?"

"I thought I'd better talk to you in private, but Admiral Starke thought perhaps it would be advantageous to poole our resources..."

"Mine too, but I still donít believe it," yet another woman emerged.

"Miss Needlemeyer," Nelson ran a hand through his hair. Things were going downhill fast.

"Doc?"

"Well, you don't think I'd stay behind."

"Ladies," Morton said, " If you'll follow me to the guest wing...Admiral Starke, you know the one we usually assign you to...."

"I want to see Chameleon first, I mean...Lee..." Lin interrupted.

"Well it seems as though the cat is well and truly out of the bag, literally," Nelson said, "O'Brien, would you escort Miss Needlemeyer to the Captain's cabin."

***

Lee was just finishing up the ice cream when O'Brien opened the door after a knock, Lin braced for the sight of her poor lost cat. He was a sorry sight. And though he'd finally forced himself to lick himself clean, the fur had caught on his tongue, making him gag, so he just didn't even bother to finish.

"Oh Chameleon!" she raced to him but stopped herself from picking him up in time, " I mean...Captain Crane...I was so worried about you."

I'm fine. Thank you for all your help when I needed it.

"I...I found it hard to believe at first. Frankly I thought Lola was a bit adlepated...but now...er...do you need some help cleaning up?"

Actually, yes, I'd appreciate it, thank you.

***

"Let me get this straight" Nelson asked Officer Dunmore in the Wardroom, Lee sitting on the table, freshly groomed, "that detainee who thought Lee was a cat might have actually seen a little transformation before the total result? But if that's the case, surely your officers would have seen something unusual?"

"Perhaps, unless it was so minor that nobody noticed...or...well...maybe it was on and off...though we found his unitard more than a mile away, just yesterday."

"Um hum...and what about your theory, Dr. Abercrombie? This kind of thing can simply 'happen', no spells required? Mr. Scales of the museum assured me there was absolutely nothing in Mirabelle's spell books about shape shifting."

"According to some mythological works, spells aren't required," Yvette said, " if one's agreeable to it."

"Agreeable?" Lola fumed, "I doubt very much that Lee was agreeable to be turned into a cat!"

"Even if the love of his life wanted him to be 'warm and fuzzy' all the time?"

"Perhaps subconsciously, but not..."

"But that's all it would take. But somehow, the elements got confused and mistook your warm and fuzzy to mean warm and furry, and the Captain's willingness, in a manner of speaking."

"Humph."

"Well, what do you think Captain Crane?"

I'm open to about anything if it will get me back. But it's a bit hard to believe it wasn't a spell of some kind. We've dealt with that sort of thing before. So all I have to do is think myself back into a human?

"That's the gist of it."

 

Lee closed his eyes and sat, apparently in a trance. Opening his eyes, he looked at his paws then back up to the Dr.

Doesn't work.

"Try Lee, try!" Lola closed her eyes, "I want Lee to be a man again. My man."

 

So do I, so do I, Lee mewed. But to no avail.

 

"All right, let's try it with the gems,"Nelson said.

In seconds Lola had put on the earings."I don't want Lee to be warm and fuzzy or furry anymore. I want him back. Scruffy or neat as a pin, I want him back. I want him back as a human!

 

For about 10 seconds nobody said anything as Lee sat waiting...and waiting...

 

"Are you sure those are Mirabelle's?" Morton finally asked.

"I bought them from a reputable auctioneer. I have the certificate of authenticity from the museum. There were only a few emeralds they sold. I got these two earrings, somebody in Boston got the other lone gemstone."

"Maybe we need a witch or warlock," Sharkey said.

"Absolutely not!" Nelson griped. "We got into enough trouble last time. Get Mr. Scales on the line again."

"Well, in case nothing works," Dr. Abercrombie said," Captain Crane must really learn how to groom himself properly. Licking himself may bring up the odd hairball, but I doubt he'd want one of your crew assigned to keep him combed and clean. You've all seen how messy an eater he is, no offence Captain."

None taken.

"Your call to Mr. Scales is on the speaker phone sir," Morton turned the unit back on.

"Nelson here again. I realize there may be a privacy issue, but we really need to know the purchaser of the other Darcy emerald. Miss Hale is one of my employees, and it's a matter of the utmost importance."

"But Admiral, surely you already know."

"What?"

"The other purchaser, why, she's your sister. Miss Edith Nelson."

"My...are you sure?"

"I have the copy of the check if you need it."

"No, that won't be necessary. Thank you Mr. Scales. Seaview out."

You can't think Edith cast a spell on me!

"Never mind that now," Nelson clicked for Sparks to call his sister's private line.

"Harry" she answered a few seconds later, "What's wrong? I'm in the middle of a dinner party!"

"Are you taking this call in private?"

"I'm in the conservatory with the door closed. Now what is it? Are you okay? Is Seaview? Is Lee?"

"Edie, did you buy one of the Darcy gems?"

"Now how did you figure that out? The Rolex company promised confidentiality when the set the stone..."

"Rolex?"

"I guess you didn't know... Yes, Harry. The new watch I sent you."

"Er...yes...yes. Keeps perfect time...er...goodbye. "

"Wait! What did you want to speak to me about?"

"Never mind."

"You interrupted my party for no good reason? Harry, sometimes you're really dense. Oh, by the way, be careful wearing that watch, I hear the Darcy emeralds were supposed to be haunted...if you believe in that sort of thing," she laughed.

"Er...yes...well, thank you...goodbye, sis."

"Bye Harry. Say hi to Lee, oh and tell him from me that he really shouldn't keep Lola dangling...it's high time he popped the question."

"Uh, I'll tell him...bye."

 

"So it's something you wished for or said, Admiral," Lola said.

"Apparently. I just can't think what."

"Just what time was it when that jailbird thought Lee was a cat?" Jiggs asked. "It might help narrow things down."

"About ten minutes before we released the Captain," Dunmore said.

"I was already in bed," Nelson muttered then looked at Crane, "I'm sorry Lee. I don't know how I turned you into a cat," he rubbed the stone on his Rolex, "I just wish you weren't one. You must know how much I want you back. "

 

Nothing happened.

 

"I'm sorry," Nelson barely managed to whisper as Lee slumped his shoulders, jumped off the table and left.

 

***

 

It was past midnight when Nelson entered the Control Room and looked toward the Observation Nose. "How long has he been up there?" he whispered to Officer of the Deck.

"Awhile. Just sits there, looking out the windows."

"Thanks," Nelson said and headed forward, closing the accordion pleats behind him.

 

After a moment Nelson spoke to the cat on the windowsill, "Want to talk about it?"

Lee shook his head 'no' and returned his gaze to the vista.

"Lee...please...talk to me."

Crane turned and jumped on the table.

There's nothing to talk about. I'm just going to have to live the rest of my life as a cat.

"I've racked my brain. I can't remember anything I did or said that triggered your change."

It's not your fault, Harry. If you don't mind, I'd like to be alone a little while.

"All right, but not here...it's upsetting the men. Lie down, rest. Use my cabin awhile. It's further away from the guest wing. I'm not sure they wouldn't bother you there. It's a sure bet they won't try my cabin. I'll be checking the Navy's unit...."

Thanks Harry, I think I will, but don't spend too much time on it. Just tell the Navy that it's not worth the patent it's written on.

Before Nelson could open the pleats, Lee took the spiral steps, unable to face being so superfluous on his own boat.

 

***

Nelson shot the stars for lack of knowing what to do. It had been a long time since he'd done this task. Usually a starlit sky was comforting, but the constellation Leo mocked him. After he motioned the fifth officer below, he couldn't help burrowing his head in his arms against the coaming, tears forming in his eyes.

"Dear God... Please, make me remember what I did to him! Bring him back, please God, just bring my son back."

***

He'd expected Lee to have returned to his own cabin already, but Lee was fast asleep, curled up on Nelson's bunk, the picture of feline comfort.

Nelson toyed with the idea of waking him, but instead, changed into pajamas and robe, and moved the lounge chair beside the bunk. He was resolved that if Lee was going to have to live at the mercy of his new body, Nelson would do what he could to make it more tolerable, even if it meant bunking in a chair beside him tonight. He could of course have used Lee's or a free guest cabin, but there was something about tonight that made him want to stand watch somehow. Nelson tried to remember some old proverbs or sayings to give him some comfort regarding Lee's less than normal condition, but they eluded him and sleep didn't come easily.

***

"Damn," Lola whispered, jumping down from the top bunk.

"Me too," Lin replied and sat up from the lower.

"I just can't help wondering what could have done it, " Lola pulled out a small photo album from her purse, "nothing rings a bell...nothing..."

"Party pictures...they're very nice....what's this one for?"

"I don't know...the photographer must have taken it."

"Looks more like a security camera capture."

"Say that again!" she exclaimed as she pressed the intercom link, "Er..Communications? This is Lola, er, Miss Hale...ask Institute Security if they have videos of the Halloween Party? And if there was sound. Thanks." She dragged Lin to the door, "C'mon! We have to tell the Admiral!"

***

Minutes later the trio held their breaths as the videophone played the tape in Nelson's cabin, Crane still sound alseep. It didn't have good clarity, but when Nelson saw himself berating Lee...

"Oh my god..."

"What? What?" Lola hissed, "I can't hear a word of it..."

"I...I told him he might as well be a cat from the way he'd behaved! It's my fault! Mine! Where's that damn watch...."

Pulling it from a drawer, he pulled it on, turned, and gently stroked Lee, "Reverse what I said about Lee might as well being a cat from the way he behaved...."

"It's not working," Lola groaned.

"Oh Lee, Lee..."

"Admiral," Lola gently took his arm, "It's all right to cry. I've shed an ocean of tears. Let's go Lin. And sir, try to get some sleep."

***

Word had spread quickly that the Admiral's second attempt to reverse Crane's spell hadn't worked. By the time the day watch assumed their duties, it was a very depressed boat. Nelson hadn't shown for breakfast. Neither had Lee.

"I'll go see if they're okay," Morton said, with a last sip of his spent coffee.

***

"Admiral! Wake up!" Chip whispered, pulling on his robe's sleeves.

"Hmm? What?"

"Shhhhh! Look!"

There on the bunk, Lee lay toward the bulkhead, nude and normal.

"No tail! He doesn't have a tail!" Nelson jumped up, quickly pulling off his robe and covering Lee with it."Lee? Lee?" he shook Lee's shoulder gently in order not to startle him.."C'mon Lad, wake up..."

***

"I still can't believe it," Lee said over breakfast, a vast spread, laid out for her Captain and their many guests.

"At least it won't happen again," Starke said, "Harry tossed that watch and Miss Hale's earrings overboard right after they found you changed back. Still don't know how they worked, singly or together."

"But a Rolex..."

"I think Miss Hale agrees with me that you're worth far more than any watch," Nelson said. "You know, it's aaachoo, amazing, you actually look more like a cat right now than when you were one!"

"Very funny."

"Must be the hair...chameleon eyes..." Lola grinned.

"I'm never going to live it down."

"Well, I still think you'd have placed in the Santa Barbara Cat show," Lin said.

"If I haven't said it before, Lin, I really appreciate your taking care of me...if there's anything I can do..."

"Just be nice to any stray that comes your way."

***

It seemed that no sooner than Seaview had returned to port, Nelson had seen his friend Jiggs off and returned to his office to get in some paperwork which had been sadly lacking his attention.

 

"No...oh no! No!" he gave a strangled yell, and leaned against the wall, shaking.

Atop his vast desk was a cat. A black cat. On a boxed Scrabble game. Jumping up to join it was a white cat, with blue eyes.

"Admiral?" Angie entered, racing to his side. "What's wrong?"

"There! Look there!" he pointed and groaned, "Lee...Miss Hale...they..."

"Ah, Admiral," Crane sauntered in, Lola on his arm, "I see you've met Bagheera and Snowbelle."

"Er..uh...if you're both you, who the devil are they?"he asked, breathing again.

"Yvette said their owners couldn't take care of them any longer...I kind of thought you might like to have first choice. The other's going to Lin. "

"Me? Keep a cat?"

"Well, you did kind of like Tiger,"Lee grinned.

"But Lee, I can't keep a cat...I'll be sneezing all over the place."

"No you won't. Doc's report just came back. You're not allergic to cats. You're allergic to me...my hair gel. Must have been some residue on my fur. But once I stop using it, it shouldn't bother you again...how about it sir," Lee picked up the black cat, "I'm kind of partial to my brother here. He needs a good home. And I bet he can nip any rodent problem Seaview has in the bud."

"Are you out of your mind? We can't have a ship's cat. Far too dangerous if we're ever on silent running. Besides it wouldn't be fair to him. He should be a pampered pet, not a working animal..."

"Then you'll keep him for yourself?"

"I can't Lee. Who'll take care of him when I'm off to Washington or something or..."

The cat purred in response.

"You er...you're a nice little fellow aren't you,"Nelson took him from Crane and began to stroke it absently. "I'm sure we'd all be glad to watch him for you whenever you're away sir," Angie said."Oh, by the way, would you chair the Scrabble Championship tonight? We planned it last month. Staff vs. Seaview. We're holding it tonight. We tried to talk Lee into it, all the experience he's had, but," she giggled, "he has other plans..."

"I guess I have no choice in either matter," Nelson grinned.

"Lets' get out of here before he changes his mind," Lee whispered to Lola.

"Now, so we donít have another missing in action situation,"Nelson said, "what are you doing this weekend Lee? Remember, I need you back here on Wednesday."

"Well, I kind of thought maybe I could get in some scuba diving in the Catalina's....er...sorry," he added as everyone laughed. "Er...come with me?" he asked Lola, his romantic insecurity a thing of the past.

***

Now, everyone knows that mere gemstones have no magical power except for those who value them, and witches do not live captive lives as frogs in amphibian or reptilian laboratories. And there's no magic in the stars, except perhaps toward those who's hearts are aching. But far deep down below in the depths, three emeralds slumbered, the last vestige of the magical powers Mirabelle Darcy had entrusted them with spent, at least temporarily, to await the end of her captivity, for the next time fate brought a victim her way.

 

"If this relationship is going to work," Nelson told his new companion later that night, "we're going to have to set some ground rules. This is off limits," he pointed to an expensive leather chair he'd just removed it from. The cat of course, had no intention of listening and just as quickly hopped back up onto it. "Stubborn as Lee, I see. Now," he studied the cat's pedigree papers while he sat on the sofa. "I don't think I can bring myself to call you Bagherra. How about Tiger...er no...I don't think so, not after all I've been through. How about Buster? Ah, you like it?" he asked as the cat jumped up onto his lap and began purring. "Very well, welcome home Buster Nelson,"he wrote the new name on the form. Leaning back, he pondered over the magic, or was it Divine Providence alone that had actually brought Lee Crane out of his cataclysm. And if such a morph could happen again, especially since they didn't really know how it had happened in the first place...but of one thing he was certain of. At least he wasn't allergic to cats.

 

>'<

Fini

 

 

 

Spaghettios- A product of Cambell's Soup Company

Scrable-A Hasbro Inc. board game.

Meyerling Labs is fictional

Whipsnare Amphibian Research Center is fictional