“Bubastis,” Chucky Chow whispered, “ya here?”
“Shh! You want to wake the whole alley?” The Grand Bubastis, wearing a black plastic trash bag, jumped out from behind a dumpster and herded Chucky into the shadows.
“Sorry boss, I got lost. I never been in dis part of town before. It sure is dark here.”
“That’s to make sure we’re not seen, you fool! Anyway, the Skyers are late too.” Bubastis looked up at the falling snow and hissed, “doesn’t anyone believe in being on time anymore?”
His question was answered by the fluttering of wings as twenty-odd Red-Breasted Sapsuckers landed on the closed lid of the trash bin.
General Flaps, Supreme Commander of the Sapsucker Sock Troops, hopped over to the Grand Bubastis and tweeted, “Where in birdland are we? It’s lucky we pinpointed Chucky, or we never would have found you.”
The graying Sapsucker looked around the quiet, unlit Newdale alley, which was located just behind Studio One, the warehouse where Catalina Wish shot her Elegant Eats commercials.
“My whistles, Bubastis, why’d you make us fly all the way downtown for this? Our usual meeting place in the alley by the lake is much prettier!”
The birds, all members of the Sock Troop Top Command, the STTC, twittered in agreement.
“Secrecy, my feathered friends,” replied Bubastis, sitting on his haunches. “Your next objective demands it.”
“More socks?” sang a trio of lieutenants.
“No, we have enough socks. Thanks to you, my dear winged comrades, and the multitudes you command, we now possess enough socks to complete phase one of our plan. I congratulate you on a job well done!”
Bubastis poked a paw out from underneath his canvas bag and lightly touched General Flaps on his tiny, scaly feet.
“We’re finished then? Mission accomplished?” tweeted the General, flying up to sit on top of the bagged cat’s head. “Alley access is permanent?”
“Yes... and no.” Bubastis shook his head vigorously and the bird alighted to his previous position.
“What do you mean, no?” The entire STTC cawed as one being, shattering the still night.
“SHHH!!!! You wanna be found talkin’ to cats?” Chucky hissed and stepped within a beak of General Flaps. “Now shutup and listen for a minute!”
“Sure, Chucky, whatever you say.” The General turned to the Grand Bubastis, hopping mad. “It’s just that you promised us unlimited and unmolested access to every alley dumpster in Newdale when we completed phase one!”
“And you shall have it, my fine feathered friend,” the bag reassured the bird. “As soon as the Cat O’Nine Tails have complete control of the alleys.”
“I thought that was the easy part.” General Flaps preened his feathers.
“It is. It’s just taking longer than expected. Alleycats are very independent. Remember, they’ve been eating birds for centuries. It’s a habit that’s hard to give up. What if you had to give up eating worms?”
“I see your point.”
Bubastis stuck his paw out from underneath his bag again and placed it on the Sapsucker’s velvety red head, guiding him over to a private corner on the other side of the dumpster.
“General,” the Bag whispered, “I need to ask you one more favor. I’m having a bit of trouble extracting the sweat from the socks. I have Promethean piles of them, but the sweat’s not pressing out. I need more pressure.”
“Well,” General Flaps tweeted, “how can we help? We’re much too light!”
“Not the Sock Troops, you silly bird! I’m going to need massive kneading power to force the prized pheromones into my collecting vats. I need kittens, hundreds of kittens!”
“KEERRR!!” the olive-bellied Sapsucker screamed. “We want nothing to do with more cats! You and Chucky are bad enough.”
“Quiet, General! Remember, this is supposed to be a secret meeting.”
“Kittens?” General Flaps anxiously fluffed his black wings. “You want the Sock Troops to help you catnap kittens?”
“Right. Look, it’ll be easy. Alleycat kittens are a snap, and the Sock Troops have already ensured unlimited access to the Feeder’s homes by pecking small holes in their window screens. I mean, it worked for the socks, didn’t it? All you have to do is move at night in teams of four, grab a sleeping kitten and fly it to the nearest alley. The Cat O’Nine Tails will take over from there.”
“But what if the windows are closed?” the wizened old bird squealed. “Because of this freak ice age around here, the New Ones are closing their windows. That last batch of socks was almost impossible to get!”
“There’s always a way. The Feeders open their doors to pass in and out of their homes. Catdoors are good, but watch for housecats. Try the chimneys, but look for smoke. Basement windows too. Every home has an opening! This mission is going to involve all the Sock Troops you can muster. Do you have enough Sapsuckers?”
“Not presently. Most of my troops are recovering from sock stress. You don’t know what it’s like to risk your feathers flying in and out of strange houses in this glacial weather! I’m going to need mercenaries. Hey, I bet the White-Headed Woodpeckers would help in return for a big pile of pine seeds.”
“No!” emphasized the Grand Bubastis. “Any Skyer but them. The White-Headed Woodpeckers work for the Fragrance Factory, and remember, if it wasn’t for Cat Noir creating the Neutral Free Zone in his gardens, we wouldn’t even be talking right now.”
“Yes, Skyer/Whisker communication did open up instantaneously throughout Newdale, once we had a free space where you couldn’t hunt us anymore.”
“Plus,” replied the black bag, “the White-Headed Woodpeckers get all the seeds and insects they want from his garden. They like cats. Why would they agree to catnap the babies of the dams they work with? No, General, let’s just leave Cat Noir, the Neutral Free Zone and the Fragrance Factory out of the picture. They must never find out what you are up to.”
“Well,” the Sock Troop leader trilled, “maybe the Northern Flickers would help.”
“Fine. We must act fast, General. We need to terminate the entire operation within two weeks, before the Royal Ball. Think of the bounty that will be freely available to you once the alley dumpsters are one-hundred percent yours!”
“That’s what you said last time,” warbled the Commander, who begged leave to confer with his comrades. After a few twittering moments arguing points with his command staff, he flew back and alighted on the bagged cat’s head.
“Okay, Bubastis. We’ll get you all the kittens you need to press all the sweat in birdland out of those socks. But if those alley dumpsters aren’t free in two weeks time, I’m going to personally see to it that all of your friends are picked, pecked and poked by all of my friends!”