Following the memory map still functioning in his mind, Buck tried to lead his troop of cats on the same course he took when he was employed as a pizza deliveryman. He recognized, in exaggerated proportions, several landmarks along the way, but he and his friends continued to have trouble with the signs. Such a search would work well for a six foot five, two hundred and twenty pound human but was difficult to do for a cat, who was only one foot tall. He had, as did his friends, short legs, a squat little body and, as far as he was concerned, poor eye sight to boot. To make matters worse for Buck, he couldn’t remember the name of the street and had to constantly watch over his friends, especially the incorrigible Jim.
Buck tried very hard during their journey not to share his fears, but, because of their collective consciousness, found this difficult to do. He was almost certain, at this point, that they were lost and wondered if it was even possible for them to reach the hospital across town. His friends were exhausted. He was, after drinking beer and overeating for so long, out of shape and ready to drop. As an out-of-shape young men, they were now out-of-shape cats, especially Jim. At any moment, Buck suspected, the big calico was going to collapse into a multicolored heap and expire before their eyes.
But then suddenly, as the four cats stood at the corner of First and Main looking gravely at the road ahead, Buck caught sight of an ambulance stopping in front of a Jack-In-The-Box Restaurant and saw his chance.
“Okay, guys, follow me!” He let out a loud meow, scampering toward the vehicle.
As he had hoped, the two ambulance attendants, in their hunger for Jumbo Jacks, had left their front seat windows open. Following their leader up and over the open window in the door, the other three cats knew exactly what Buck had in mind. Obviously this ambulance, with the county hospital logo emblazoned on each side and on the back of the vehicle, would head back to the hospital unless the attendants got a call. Fortunately for the four cats, who now huddled beneath a gurney, this was exactly the case. After only a few short moments, the two attendants returned to their vehicle with sacks of food in their hands and, in even less time, were heading uptown to the county hospital, sipping cokes and munching fries.
For the first time in several hours, Buck felt encouraged. Obviously, he thought to his friends, the Lord listens to cats. He had for the first period in his adult life prayed to God. The realization that time was running out for them could not dampen his enthusiasm. As one of the attendants broke into a sneezing fit up front, he gave his friends a mental pep talk: “This is our big chance, boys. When we get to the hospital we’re gonna find that bitch and turn off her life support system!”
As Buck continued his pep talk, his bombastic tone was reminiscent of how he sounded as a mortal man. As the four cats purred and nestled against each other’s sides, one of the attendants continued to sneeze violently up front.
“Jeez Bob,” they heard one of them cry, “cover your face. I don’t want your friggin’ cold.”
“I’m sorry, Murray,” responded Bob in the most miserable tone, “my sinuses are really bothering me, but it ain’t no cold. I don’t feel achy; I feel sneezy.”
“Yeah, Bob, it’s just like the time you didn’t have the flu,” Murray replied sarcastically, shielding his face and trying to hold the steering wheel at the same time. “The only other time you get this way is around cats. Come on, Bob, you got another cold. I better get me a bottle of vitamin C or some Cold-Eeze.”
“No, listen to me, Murray,” Bob responded after a muffled sneeze, “I’m only allergic to one thing: cats. I don’t got no fever. I don’t feel hot. It must be in the air.”
“Wait a minute,” Murray did a double take, “didn’t we leave the windows open?…. You don’t suppose one of them mangy alley cats we saw running down the street climbed aboard?”
“Uh oh!” Tom’s voice came into Buck’s head.
As would a zombie, Bob rose up from the passenger seat and began lumbering through the ambulance. The four cats braced themselves for a battle with the advancing human, but he began sneezing so badly his associate demanded that he lie down in back until they reached the hospital. Once again it seemed as if God had answered Buck’s prayers. As Bob lie there on the gurney over the four cats, his condition naturally worsened. Fortunately for poor Bob, his associate reassured him several times, the hospital was not far away. Help was on the way. Soon they were pulling into the emergency zone of the hospital, and Buck was telling his gang how they should escape.
Buck’s plan was simple. When the attendants exited the vehicle, they would probably, because of Bob’s condition, exit immediately and leave the windows open again, affording the four cats the opportunity to flee. If they closed their windows, one of them would push the crash bar in the back gate and they would rush out. Jim and Ed nodded with approval, but Tom, with his typical politeness, found fault with the plan.
“Listen Buck,” he said incredulously. “they might lock the ambulance. What do we do then?”
“They won’t do that,” pshawed Buck. “Trust me on this Tommy. We made Bob really sick. Besides, these guys are stupid; they’re predictable.”
“Humans aren’t predictable.” Jim disagreed suddenly. “I was a human, and you were a human, and we weren’t predictable!”
“Trust me,” snorted Buck, looking over at Tom for support.
“Yeah, Jim, I guess he’s right.” the tomcat nuzzled between them. “We gotta have faith!”
Ed, who had been napping, looked up after the last sneeze. Jim nodded his fluffy head. In their current anatomical forms, they had all questioned this concept. Faith, like soul, seemed to apply only to conventional mortals, and would seem to be too great an abstraction for their bewitched minds. And yet all of them, even Ed had been praying during the last half hour.
“I have faith,” Jim thought resolutely.
“Me too,” Ed tried to frown.
Buck smiled proudly at his three friends.
After the two attendants had exited the ambulance, the sound of Bob’s sneezing trailed off significantly in the distance. At Buck’s signal, the four cats scrambled out a window of the vehicle and scampered across the crowded parking lot toward the emergency ward of the hospital. They looked like any foursome of cats, with the exception, unknown to the rest of the world, that they were communicating telepathically, with each other, Buck giving them simple commands and warnings each step of the way.
“We’re not going into the emergency entrance,” Buck directed curtly. “Follow me down this path, until we find a open window or door, so we can go in the back way.”
“I’m hungry,” whined Jim, “when do we eat?”
“You’re always hungry,” Ed teased “You were a fat human; now you’re a fat cat.”
“I’m hungry too,” Tom seconded Jim, as he kept pace with his friends.
The buildings surrounding Buck’s gang were shaded by oak and elm trees, the pattern of their branches and leaves moving eerily to the rhythm of a sudden breeze. The cats spooked a moment at this aberration, until Buck reminded them of what this phenomenon was. It was one more reminder that they were losing their human minds, as they completed their transformation to cats. A terrible moment in which Ed chased a ground squirrel up a tree and, after Buck coaxed him down, when they all spooked at the distant bark of a dog, underlined this fact in all of their minds. When, after sniffing and eyeballing every promising bend and turn ahead, Buck spotted a door propped open for the janitors, the big tabby charged ahead with a loud meow that was suppose to be a yell.
As they reached the ominous door, all four cats again spooked as a janitor emerged pushing a cleaning cart with a mop handle clinched in her hand. Buck again scolded them for their feline behavior, although he had spooked too. Before she removed the jam, which was propping open the door, the top cat flew into action. After hearing him meow, the other cats streamed out of the nearby bush. It was important that she be distracted somehow so the four could scoot passed her into the room. Buck hissed at her, looking very much, as he approached, as if he would pounce onto her legs. The other cats also hissed and humped up their furry backs, moving back and forth on their tiptoes as they waited to enter the room. The woman panicked, as planned, and ran screaming back into the building, leaving the opening free. Buck ran in, and, close on his hind legs, scampered Tom, Ed, and Jim. Realizing that they were in a utility room, Buck sat cursing a moment, which amounted to a long fit of hissing, until he saw that there was an elevator straight ahead. The woman had gone out of a door on the side of the room, which was now closed. Buck’s gang now gathered around him in a terrified knot.
“What do we do? What do we do?” They asked repeatedly.
“Listen,” Buck looked around at his friends, “I noticed this building sloping down a hill. This is the basement of the same building that the emergency ward’s in. It has to be. We lucked out boys!”
“Luck?” Jim groaned. “That bitch is going for help!”
“We gotta push that button up there,” Buck motioned with his snout. “Don’t argue with me Jim; we don’t have much time!”
“But it’s impossible,” Jim groaned, collapsing in a furry heap.
“He’s right,” Ed spat angrily, “we don’t got the elevation, Buck. We’re gonna wind up being caught and sent to the pound!”
“I think I know how we can do it,” Tom came suddenly alive. “All we need is the woman’s mop. Three of us should be able to hold it, while Buck does one of his famous lay-ups and presses it home.”
“I haven’t played basketball in months,” Buck protested, “I’m gonna break my neck.”
Nevertheless, as his three friends grappled with the mop below, the big tabby prepared himself for the jump, mustering all his mental energy and strength. When it was positioned precariously near the target, Buck leaped up once, twice and finally, with the third attempt, pressed the mop so it hit the up button, then dropped heavily onto his paws.
The up arrow, which was the only direction in the basement, flashed on, a bell rang, and the door slid slowly open. By then the cats heard noise from behind the door. Collectively spooked, they humped their backs and hissed, startling the advancing maintenance men out of their wits. All four cats made it safely into the elevator before the doors began to close.
“I’m not grabbing those cats,” one of the men announced. “Let’s call security!”
“I got a better idea,” the second man said, snapping his fingers. “We’ll call animal control!”
“Now what do we do?” Tom asked, cringing inside with the others.
“It’s moving on its own,” Buck observed, after the doors shut tightly and the elevator left the utility basement, where it originated, and began rising up its well. “The first floor is lit up. That’s where emergency and the main floor connect. Someone up there pushed a button.” “…. They’re standing there waiting now,” he added, with a gasp. “We gotta move fast!”
As the elevator rose sluggishly to the next floor (the very floor where India Crowley lie), Buck stood on his trembling paws in front of the other three cats, expecting the worst as the elevator came suddenly to a halt.
“God protect us!” He tried to say, a series of inflected meows flowing out instead.
When the door opened, they looked out to see a crotchety old lady holding a small child’s hand.
“Kitties!” The little boy pointed excitedly.
“Good Lord!” The old woman screamed.
“Let’s run for it!” Buck ordered, skirting passed the pair.
“Damn varmint infested county hospital!” The old lady wrung her fist. “I know’d they had cockroaches. I heard they got rats. But this is ridiculous!”
“Kitties run! Go Kitties!” The little boy cried with glee.
Buck’s gang had the opposite problem from Sheldon’s trio. Whereas Sheldon, Tanya and Penny were trying to get out of a jam, Buck’s gang seemed to be trying to get into one. (At least that is how Jim, Tom, and Ed saw it.) The foursome had no illusions that what they were doing might land them in the city pound.
As they darted down a hall, slipping passed startled nurses and patients into shadowy nooks and crannies to escape detection, a pair of hospital security guards had reluctantly began their search for the “mad” feline pests. Animal control attendants, they had been told, would not be allowed in the hospital since it might lower morale. What they didn’t know, as they passed a patient in the hall, was that beneath the sheet-draped gurney on which the patient lie, the Shadowbrook cats had found temporary refuge.
The realization that they were temporarily safe but on the emergency floor where India probably lie only increased the cats collective fears, for none of them knew what to expect in the room of a comatose witch. Now that they were on the right section of the hospital, they must, Buck insisted, look for policemen or other conspicuous officials who would lead them to India’s bed. These thoughts, which were picked up quickly by the others, invoked immediate arguments from Tom, Jim, and Ed.
“All right, mister hotshot, where’s the cops and officials? All I see are nurses, injured people, and a pair of rent-a-cops walking up and down the halls,” Ed thoughts shot into Buck’s head.
“I’m watching, looking and listening,” Buck explained feebly, peeking out at feet moving up and down the hall.
Beneath the sheet draped gurney with its patient waiting for transport to another location in the hospital, Buck gently scolded his friends for their skepticism, but found it difficult to impress them when they could read his own emotions, which included abject fear. Quite unexpectedly, however, when it appeared as if Buck had led them into a foolish trap, they noticed a commotion in the room right across the corridor. A policeman, escorted by a young nurse, entered the room, and then exited after a short while with the nurse by his side. A doctor also peeked in, followed by another nurse with an I.V. bag in her hand.
“Thank you Lord. Thank-you-thank-you-thank-you!” Buck purred loudly now.
“You’re insane!” Jim peeked in terror across the floor.
“Wow! What colossal luck!” Tom nudged Buck. “But how’re we gonna sneak in?”
“I’m thinking,” Buck replied, his little snout poking out of the sheet.
“You forget,” Ed transmitted sarcastically, “we can read your thoughts too. I don’t see nothing but a big question mark in your head!”
As they waited for an opportunity to slip across the corridor and sneak into room 1B, the patient on the gurney complained to a passing nurse: “how much longer are you people gonna make me wait for my tests.”
“We’re very busy sir,” she sighed, reluctantly stopping in her tracks. “We’ve had several code blues today.”
“I don’t care if they’re code reds,” the man groaned, rising up as if to climb off the gurney, “I’ve been waiting a half hour here. I gotta take a pee!”
“All right sir,” she guided him gently as he touched the floor, “I think 1F has been emptied. You can use the restroom there.”
“You know,” the man said querulously, “I think you got rats in this hospital—big ones. I could’ve sworn I saw four of’em scoot under me just now.”
Looking back with a shudder, the young nurse uttered a nervous laugh, “Oh, that’s silly sir, we don’t have rats here at County Hospital.”
“Oh yeah?” sneered the man as she lead him into the room. “You folks got enough cockroaches. I must’ve seen an army of’em marching across the floor.”
At just that moment, the door to Room 1B opened and another doctor emerged with a grim look on his face.
“This is our chance!” Buck shouted into their collective thoughts. “He left the door ajar. Let’s get in there now!”
“Yeah,” Ed seconded him, “let’s go snuff that witch!”
The nurse, who had assisted the patient, glimpsed the foursome scurrying into Room 1B, but dismissed it with another shudder, but a young intern did a double take as the calico tail of Jim disappeared into the room. Fortunately for the cats, another code blue suddenly sounded from the nurses’ station, and the doctor was immediately distracted to the issue at hand.
“Your ours baby!” Buck said, hopping gleefully upon India’s bed.
“Let’s bite her!” Jim thought maliciously.
“Let’s scratch her all over then chomp off her tits!” cried Ed.
“Wait a minute,” ordered Buck. “Ed and Jim: stop gnawing on her hands and face. This is an assassination, not (he searched a moment for the right word)… a butchering site. Let’s be civilized. We’ll pull all her plugs and then split. So, stop it! We don’t got time to chew her up!”
At just that moment, however, the suspicious young intern returned to the scene. Soon afterwards a young nurse joined him in the room. The cats’ quick feline reactions allowed even the portly Jim to scurry swiftly under India’s bed as the door creaked. But once again his calico tail was seen.
“Hello,” the young doctor called into the shadowy room, “is anyone in here?”
“What’s wrong Doctor Wiggins?” The young nurse, who had recently exited India’s room, sounded fearful, herself.
“I-I thought I saw something run into this room,” he explained awkwardly. “I’m sure it’s due to lack of sleep.”
“I saw something too,” she reached up to touch her delicate throat. “The patient I was assisting said he saw rats and cockroaches running up and down the hall…. But I’m not sure what it was.”
“Say,” the doctor snapped his fingers, “one of the night nurses told me this woman was dressed up like a witch.”
“That explains it,” she giggled hysterically. “I think security should handle this.”
Coincidentally at that very moment, after reporting into their supervisor on their walkie-talkies, the two security guards passed by India’s door again, having no desire to hunt for the cats or, as an eyewitness on the first floor told them, “monster rats.” Since the maintenance crew had, with the maintenance manager’s authorization, called security instead of animal control, the two officers felt misused. In the words of the security supervisor, himself, “it ain’t our jobs to chase strays!”
“I dunno Louie,” the handsome black security officer declared as they began scanning the main corridor, “I think them cats was a figment of that janitor’s imagination.”
Louie removed his hat to scratch his baldhead. “You think so Lamar? Those animal control guys should handle this anyhow. They get the big bucks, not us. I don’t particularly want to get the Pasteur treatment.”
“Say,” Lamar winked mischievously, looking around the corridor, “we could take a look up on the roof,” “and,” he patted his bulging shirt pocket next to his badge, “maybe have us a smoke.”
“We could also stop by the cafeteria, grab some coffee, and take our break,” said Louie, adjusting his hat smartly on his head.
“Yeah,” Lamar nodded with inspiration, “and while we’re at it, Louie, we could have us some lunch and take our time coming back. Let those animal control guys do their job!”
“Oh, look here, Lamar,” Louie pointed with mock dismay at his wrist, “it’s one o’clock! Beep-beep-beep: search ended. Time for lunch!”
“You da man, Louie,” Lamar high-fived his portly friend, “you da man!”
While the security guards excused themselves from the search, Buck and his gang remained trapped beneath India’s bed as the young doctor stole quietly back into India’s room.
“So you’re a witch, eh?” he looked with misgivings at the comatose woman. “The night nurse said you were pretty banged up when they brought you in. Got yourself shot up too…. Let’s see,… your Alpha waves seem to be in operation…. But everything else is… phew!… off the chart!”
As they listened to him talk to the patient, the cats, who huddled next to their leader, exchanged nervous mental chatter. Buck’s own fears were transparent in spite of what was said in their minds.
“Don’t worry, boys, we’re safe,” he promised them. “This guy’s afraid of his own shadow. As soon as he leaves, we’ll get the job done, and no one will be the wiser when we escape.”
“Yeah, in your dreams!” Jim spat bitterly. “We’ll get gassed like all those other poor bastards at the pound!”
Ed, who had been silent for awhile, asked Buck, “Hey man, how we gonna sneak out of here? You really think it will be as easy as sneaking in?”
“Yes, he’s right, Buck,” Tom offered timidly. “It’s one thing entering a darkened room, but now we have to exit into a well-lit corridor. We need another plan.”
As they collectively thought about their dilemma, a different nurse, who was a towering Amazon of a woman, came in with a new I.V. bag and a syringe on a tray. The doctor, who was still mumbling to himself, looked back at her self-consciously, wondering if she had overheard him, and then, without further adieu, exited the room. The sounds of the large nurse working above them on India’s bed, now accentuated their fears, for here was a human who could do great harm to their little feline bodies. Directing their misgivings to their leader Buck, Jim, Tom, and Ed began to blame him for everything, from their bewitching, which, according to Jim, would never have happened in the first place if they had gone to the football game, to Ed’s feeling that this entire fiasco at the hospital was suicide. According to Tom, Buck’s best friend, “it was better to be a live cat, than a dead human!”
Buck moved to the far end of their temporary haven, overwhelmed by the voices in his head. It was, he was certain, the worst day he had suffered in his short life.
When the Amazon finally left the room, Buck forced himself to make the first effort to kill the Shadowbrook Witch. It was, he would admit later to his friends, the most clumsy feat he had ever attempted, partly due to his fear of being immediately killed and partly because he did not know exactly what to do. As he scrambled up and onto her bed, looking each way in an effort to find the quickest way to unplug or turn her off, Buck uttered every prayer he could think of including the one his parents taught him as a child.
“…. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
As he approached the heart lung machine, he looked around feverishly, mentally muttering, “Let’s see, where do I begin?…. Humph, that big pumper looks like the key…. But all I need is a plug…. It looks like it’s plugged directly into the wall.”
“Then do it already!” Jim’s thoughts screamed into his head.
“Get up here and help me, you cowardly sons-of-bitches!” demanded Buck.
“Just unplug her,” Ed suggested lamely. “That shouldn’t be so hard.”
Hopping upon the case containing the indicators, Buck called out in desperation, “Come on you guys, give me some support!”
“What do you say men?” Tom tried to sound brave, although fear registered strongly in his mind.
As he walked over India’s bosom and stood on her emaciated head, Buck decided to attack the lung machine first. Pulling the plug out seemed impossible for him at this angle and too difficult for his little paws. As he leaped onto the machine, he turned in time to see his three friends join him on the bed. The reluctance in their movement did not stop them from joining Buck’s effort to kill the witch. Ed and Jim could not help scratching her up as they traipsed over her frame. Tom marked a spot directly by her ear. While Buck tore and chewed with little effect at the rubber hoses strewn between India’s face and the machine, Jim attempted to push buttons over various indicators and Ed and Tom decided to work on pulling out the plug. Before Buck could make a hole in the apparatus, Jim could successfully push a button or turn a dial, and Tom and Ed could get even get a grip on the plug, the door opened, a shaft of light filled the room, and the cats scrambled under the bed.
“That was close!” Jim announced with a sigh.
“We failed! We failed!” Buck mentally wailed. “We’ll have to try again.”
“What is that smell?” Doctor Wiggins asked the young nurse.
“It smells like urine,” she answered, carefully inspecting the bed.
“Doesn’t this woman have a catheter?” The doctor asked, sniffing India’s face. “Wait a minute, I smell urine up here, beside her head.”
“I don’t see how that’s possible,” the nurse shook her head, dabbing a Kleenex over India’s cheek.
“Well, let’s get someone in here to change this woman’s bed clothes and nightgown. You might have to check the mattress too.”
“Uh oh, did you hear that?” Jim asked with a feline gasp.
“Yes,” Buck decided, “that’s our cue. We’ve got to get out of here before they get back here and mess with this bed!”
“When?” asked Tom and Ed.
“Now,” cried Buck, “as they’re leaving—before they shut the door behind them, we have to escape! Turn sharply left, men, and we’ll head toward the exit down the hall!”
Buck set the example, praying that the others would follow suit, scampering ahead of the more slowly moving doctor and nurse toward the door. Although he was able to run clear of them and out the door, the other cats ran right into the legs of the doctor and nurse. The nurse screamed and the doctor gasped as they tripped over the cats. In the process Jim’s leg was injured by a misplaced foot and he was limping as he exited the room.
As Jim entered the corridor, he could see only humans moving up and down the hall: visitors, patients, and hospital staff, but no cats. He was alone; terror gripped the calico now that he was separated from his friends. An amazed and flustered Doctor Wiggins followed the injured cat, wondering what he should do. He had, in the two years he had been with the hospital, seen cockroaches skirting the baseboards and even spotted a few rates, but cats in a patient’s room? That was a first!
“Hey, someone, anyone,” he sputtered, looking around for help, “there’s cats loose on the ward!”
“Oh, dear me,” a heavyset bespectacled nurse gasped, “I’m not gonna touch that beast. He may be sick. Let’s go find an orderly.”
“We just need a bag or something,” replied the doctor irritably. “He’s not sick; the poor little fellow’s injured. I clobbered him accidentally with my shoe!”
No one, however, within earshot or visual range, responded to Doctor Wiggin’s call. Most of the traffic in the immediate vicinity stopped or slowed down, giving the cat a wide berth as it hobbled across the floor.
Jim could scarcely believe he was in such a predicament. Fortunately, he looked as if he was sick. No one wanted to pick up a sick cat, he recalled: it might be rabid or, if it was injured like him, simply be in a nasty mood. In spite of the excruciating pain he felt, Jim managed to emit a long drool from his mouth, jerked his head a few times and then growled, hissed and humped up his back. The young doctor, who was having second thoughts, cringed at this effect. As he followed at a safe distance now, he called the nurses station on his cell phone and asked for the number of animal control. Bertha Welch, the supervisor, informed him that someone had already been called. Patients and visitors already thought the county hospital was a pestilential hole, she explained bluntly, so they must try to do this as quietly as possible, themselves, using security or maintenance personnel.
Unfortunately for Doctor Wiggins and the Emergency Medicine Ward at the county hospital, the maintenance men had been the ones who called security, and the two officers, Lamar and Louie, influenced by the attitude of their supervisor, continued to lay low, waiting complacently for animal control officers who would never come.
Filled with misgivings now, Doctor Wiggins retreated up the hall to the nurse’s station to confront the intransigent Bertha Welch. Unhampered by friend or foe, Jim limped down the corridor in the direction that the other cats had run, his shaggy coat looking like a multicolored dust mop dragging the floor. To some observers, who were cat lovers, he invoked pity but for others, shocked by his appearance, he was the subject of great shock and fear.
“Mad cat! Mad Cat!” a corpulent woman visitor cried.
“Why the poor thing’s hurt,” a young lab technician said with concern.
To keep from being captured or clubbed by panic-stricken visitors or staff, Jim detoured into another room. This time there was a patient in the room and a nurse was, at that moment, checking his I.V. Luckily for Jim, the man was unconscious and the nurse was too preoccupied to notice as he ran under the bed.
After Tom and Ed made their getaway through the legs of the doctor and nurse and followed Buck to the main corridor and on toward the exit down the hall, Buck called to them that he was going back for Jim. They must, he advised grimly, wait for some nice person to open the door for them; it was their only chance. Jim and he would meet them by the large elm tree they had passed on the grounds. He knew it would be dangerous, but Buck’s concern for Jim was overwhelming now.
“Stay put Ed! No chasing squirrels!” He ordered the Havana as he scampered back down the hall.
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Tom promised as he and Ed ran the opposite way.
Now, more than ever, Buck needed his mental telepathy to reach out to his injured friend.
“Jim, Jim, where are you?” he called out in his mind. “Oh man, you really screwed up now!”
From his own memories, which remained strong in spite of his fears, came the same comparison Tom and Tanya had made to sonar. His hope was that the closer he came to Jim the stronger would be Jim’s call for help, but so far his head was filled with nothing but the normal static of the human’s world.
Reasoning that Jim had probably not even made it down the first corridor to the main hall, Buck ran directly to the point where they had found the gurney near India’s room. The unfortunate patient was still lying on it in a state of torpor as he waited for his tests. When he was in mental range of his friend, Jim could hear him calling “Jimbo, Jimbo, answer me Jim!”
“I’m in here!” He called out from beneath the bed.
“Where?” Buck called frantically. “Give me some landmarks.”
“I’m across from a drinking fountain.” Jim explained, peeking out into the darkened room. “I saw it when I ran into this room.”
“There’s one of them!” cried the nursing supervisor, pointing at Buck.
“Yes, indeed, Miss Welch,” snorted Doctor Wiggins, “an American shorthair tabby, I believe. You actually think I would touch those filthy beasts? I don’t want to have the Pasteur treatment, Miss Welch? You’ve got serious problem on this ward!”
“I know, I know,” she muttered light-headedly as Buck searched for his friend. “That’s not natural for a cat, not natural at all. Where are those goddamn guards?”
“Forget the guards,” Doctor Wiggins now uttered a bitter laugh. “They’re worse than useless. Nurse Sullivan saw Officers Lamar Hastings and Louis Bozelli, the two deadbeats sent by security, in the cafeteria. One of our x-ray technicians saw them in the veranda a few moments ago smoking up a storm.”
“Oh, dear me.” Bertha Welch clasped her forehead in disbelief. “Maintenance should have handled this as soon as they entered the building. It’s all their fault!”
“Forget maintenance,” grumbled the doctor, “those numbskulls are the ones who called security! They don’t want rabies shots either, Bertha. I don’t care about hospital policy or what the hospital superintendent says, we need animal control! We need those bastards NOW!”
“Yes, yes, of course Doctor Wiggins.” the harried supervisor nodded, raising her cell phone to her ear, “I’ll call animal Control at once. I just hope they get here soon!”
After seeing the drinking fountain and spotting the room across from it, Buck scampered inside, startling the attending nurse out of her wits.
“Mad cat! Mad cat!” came the refrain.
“Under here,” Jim called.
While the nurse went to find help, Buck darted under the bed. There was hardly any time left, but he now talked to Jim as he would a child.
“Jim, you remember that decoy play we did in football? You know the one were the halfback runs out as if he’s gonna catch a pass, but the quarterback runs for a touchdown himself.”
“Yeah,” said Jim meekly.
“Well, you’re the quarterback this time, Jim.” Buck said moving forward now. “…. I’m going to create interference while you head toward the exit passed the elevator down the hall. That’s the goal post, Jimbo—freedom!”
“I think I remember seeing the exit,” Jim said fearfully. “But I’m not sure I can make it. My leg’s really banged up. I can barely walk.”
“All you gotta do is follow me,” Buck explained softly. “I’m gonna act so deranged, no one will dare touch me. You just follow along. Capiche?”
“All right,” came Jim’s mental response.
With this diversionary tactic in play, the calico would make his escape. Buck trotted out, letting out a terrible caterwauling sound that male cats performed when protecting their territory. Jim jerked around, as he had before, as if rabid or possessed with an evil spirit. No one in the corridor would attempt to apprehend them by themselves, and everyone was calling for someone else to do the deed. Lamar and Louie were just this moment returning from their break, and none of the orderlies had the nerve to go after the cats. By the time a nurse’s aid had the ingenious idea to throw a laundry sack over them, Buck, growling and snapping at her ankles and shoes, had led the equally demented but much slower Jim to the corridor leading in the direction of the elevator and the exit down the hall. The nurse’s aid shuddered and gave up the attempt, as a mixed group of cat fanciers and cat haters watched the cats escape.
Now it depended on whether someone would take the elevator up to the second or third floor or open the door leading out of the building before they were caught. Taking the elevator back down to the utility basement might prove to be a trap or a dead-end at this point. The most important thing, Buck explained to Jim, was getting off this ward. When the heavyset bespectacled nurse and an orderly appeared suddenly in the main corridor, the two cats felt as if they were, indeed, trapped. Both the nearby elevator and the exit down the hall remained unused as they waited for a Good Samaritan or unwitting visitor or hospital employee to appear. Meanwhile, the nurse and orderly looked fearfully at each other but moved steadily toward the cats.
“There’s two of those little sons-of-bitches!” The nurse snarled.
“Do you remember what we did to India when she tried to put us in her sack?” Buck asked his terrified friend.
“We scratched her,” Jim answered, looking with horror at the advancing pair.
“I bit clear to the bone!” Buck reminded him.
Just as the man and woman were upon the cats, the woman brandishing a toilet plunger that she would use as a club and the man lifting up a sack to nab them, the bell to the elevator sounded, the door opened, and Buck and Jim ran inside passed a startled young woman, who immediately exited onto the ward. The nurse and orderly staggered after the cats. Before they could capture the two, however, Buck ran between the corpulent woman’s legs, scratching her badly on the way through. While the man tried to place the sack on Jim now, the big yellow tabby turned and began biting the man’s shoe, the woman ineffectively swatting at him with the plunger, which glanced off Buck’s thick skull. As the orderly tried to shake Buck off his shoe, he began to howl as the tabby’s teeth bit through. Jim likewise sank his fangs into the nurse’s unshaven leg. The woman dropped the plunger and the man dropped his sack, both of them howling with rage but limping from the scene. Jim now hobbled behind Buck towards the exit where the young woman was now heading. Both of them sensed that she was a cat fancier, although she appeared to be frightened of them now.
“Careful! Watch your timing!” Jim counseled frantically. “Wait for her to open the door!”
At first, as she opened the door, the woman looked back in fear at the approaching cats, but then, in order to impress her with his intelligence, Buck paused and, in a very unfeline pose, pointed his paw at the door and nodded his head. The woman stared in disbelief at the big yellow tabby and, holding the door open now, let Buck and then Jim pass.
“Thank you for helping us escape!” Buck meowed, while he darted passed her shapely legs.
“Why, you were trying to talk to me, you poor little beastie!” She declared with an English accent, waiting for Jim to catch up. “I will help you escape!”
“She heard you,” Jim transmitted, out of breath, purring in spite of his pain.
“She’s a cat lover,” explained Buck, affectionately rubbing against her leg. “Maybe she’ll take us home.”
Though Buck easily followed her down the path, Jim could barely walk now. To prove that he was intelligent too, Jim made all sorts of squeaky and mewing sounds and gestured with both his paws and head. Seeing his affliction, the woman lifted him up and told the other cat to follow her to the car. Fortunately for Buck, the other two cats had not obeyed his instructions and were waiting directly outside the building. As soon as the woman saw Tom and Ed, she asked the tabby whether or not his friends were trying to escape too. Buck nodded vigorously and the woman uttered a hysterical laugh.
“Show the woman that your not dumb cats!” Buck ordered them as they followed them to the woman’s car.
Tom and Ed now ran ahead of the trio and performed all sorts of antics, including playing leap frog and rolling around crazily on the lawn. The young English woman’s apprehension had almost disappeared as she allowed the four cats to climb into her small car. For a moment, she sat there marveling at the miraculous cats. With Jim laid gently in the back seat and Buck, Tom, and Ed huddled around the woman in the front, the car backed out of the stall, rolling quickly out of the parking lot and onto the street.
“We failed to kill the witch,” Buck transmitted to his gang now, “but we did our best! I’m sure we can find a way to give this kind woman directions to Shadowbrook Arms…. At least we’re still alive!”
“I’m hungry,” groaned Jim from the back seat.
“I’m tired,” Tom admitted, laying his head on the woman’s lap.
Ed, who was too tired and hungry himself to be distracted by birds or bugs, curled up next to Buck, reading his friend’s sorrow more clearly than the others now.
“Don’t blame yourself,” he consoled his friend. “It wasn’t meant to be. It won’t be so bad being a cat!”