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Title: The Meow Guardians
Genre: Holiday animal fiction
This Christmas the holiday spirit is under threat and only a special stray can save it!
The name’s Ginger, AKA Agent Meow 01. Usually, I spend my free time searching for scraps and getting chased by dogs, like the stray cat that I am.
But this Christmas, everything changes.
When the dog agents from PAWs mess up and leave the human world hanging by a thread, it’s Ginger to the rescue. With my combination of brains, stealth, and daring, I’m the agent they call when the fur starts to fly. Except this time, I’ve got a new partner.
A house cat.
With the clock ticking, this mission seems doomed to failure with so many pheromones about.
Will the Christmas spirit be saved, or will we turn our tails and let the world burn?
Maria Vermisoglou is an International Bestselling author of fantasy and paranormal with an obsession for witches. She loves throwing her heroes into impossible situations. Maria draws inspiration from books, travel, and…the ceiling. (So blame the ceiling!)
Maria started writing when the stories she read became too boring and the voices in her mind too loud.
When she’s not writing, she loves a good riding on the fantasy dragon, but a book can also be exciting, along with a cup of tea.
Nowadays, you can find her in Athens, exploring the mysteries of the ancient world.
ONE CHAPTER EXCERPT
Chapter One: Duty Calls
It was a sunny morning in an otherwise chilly winter. I lay on a tree branch, reveling in the warmth on my skin. The birds chirped, making my stomach rumble from hunger. While I could leap high, I couldn’t fly, so they rarely became my meal. Besides, all that feathered costume took too much time to dismantle. Sitting under the sunlight was pure bliss until a sharp noise penetrated my ear.
“Agent Meow 01, do you copy?”
I yawned and stretched my tired body. “Can nobody sleep around here?”
“Agent Meow 01, do you copy?”
“Yes! I copy, cut, and paste if you want.” I let the sunlight filter through my eyelids, sat up and scratched my ear. “What is it?”
“Agent Meow 01, the mission is about to start. We need you in headquarters.”
“Of course, how could I forget? Oh, wait! I didn’t forget because it’s freaking November and the mission starts every December!” My voice rose with every word, masking the fear building inside me. If they were calling me a month early, things were worse than bad. A squirrel gawked at me from the oak tree across and tightened its grip on the acorn it held. I pounded my clawed paw, and its fur thinned. With a shake of its pointy ears, the squirrel leaped into the tree hollow.
“There were some complications, which is why we need you forthwith. Please proceed to headquarters with utmost haste.”
I clicked my tongue and huffed, watching my quiet morning dissolve, and problems arise in my future. “I’ll be there in a few.” After a thorough cleanup of my claws on the branch, I licked my paws, removed some insects who had taken refuge in my fur and leaped from the tree.
“Cooold!” I screamed. “I thought the snow would have melted by now.”
An ugly coat of white blanketed the street from the night before when it had snowed like crazy. I retreated, my eyes darted in every direction, in search of dry land. My back collided with the tree, signaling the end of the path. Still, my paws were dipped in the snow, making me shiver from whiskers to tail.
Some passerby laughed at my predicament, but carried on their way. Probably because I was a cat. And a secret agent. But they had no knowledge of the latter because they were humans.
People in gumboots crossed the crunching streets, shivering in their coats. Children yelled, throwing snowballs, and I glared at them, observing the wet balls of death flying through the air, in case any of the snowballs closed in on my location. Cars moved on the streets at a snail’s speed, the drivers cursing.
“Well, if you hadn’t been living in abandoned buildings and pipes, you might have realized that,” the voice from my earphone sounded amused.
“I will have you know pipes have a great reserve of rats. Do you know how delicious they are?” I licked my whiskers at the thought of their juicy flesh as they went down my throat.
“You’re not made of sugar, agent. Get on with it.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m a dame, but made out of red granite not sugar.”
My body trembled, and my teeth chattered like castanets in a flamenco dance. When a father passed in front of me hauling his son, who was covered from top to bottom with warm clothing, I felt a pang of jealousy. Wet drops brimmed in my eyes, blurring my vision and obscuring the polar weather. I quickly detected the best path to the headquarters without becoming an ice cube and grinned when I came up on the first means of transport. I jumped on an old lady’s shopping trolley when she happened before me and waited till she reached the red light in the avenue, leaped on an oh-so-terribly cold bush and continued my journey, changing means of transportation, avoiding the patches of snow as much as possible. Annoyed at the constant rattling of my teeth, I clenched my jaw and sped up to get away from the icy mattress before I suffered a heart attack. Oh, how I hated cold!
When Tails of the City, a local pet shop, swam in view, I breathed in relief and pressed my legs harder, licking my mouth in anticipation of the warm secluded room with the machine that spat heat. My nose twitched at the prospect of treats and canned fish. Mice I could catch, but I would never get near that treacherous water.
“Hey, kitty, are you hungry?” The shopkeeper welcomed me with a smile.
I blinked. Is she expecting me to answer to that stupid diminutive? Keeping my eyes on her face, I waited.
“Someone is not in a good mood today.” Her mouth quirked. “Is it the snow?”
The woman enveloped with the wet smell of dog food laughed and padded to the back of the store, giving me the chance to slip to the aisle with the cat products. Passing by the discarded empty boxes, I gritted my teeth, resisting my urge to jump right in and proceeded to my destination. I lifted my head, sniffing around, and my senses turned crazy. The massive packages lined up on the shelves teased my nose, causing my mouth to water. So many wonderful flavors to choose from and so not the time to do it. I climbed on the top shelf which hosted transportation boxes, beds, and finally came to a stop in front of the pink cat cube.
I entered and pressed the button that made a monitor come to life.
The pet shop was the entrance to a secret base for the Pat & Purr, which was an organization for cat agents. We had many bases across the globe, with state-of-the-art technology and special toys to help our mission.
The computer voice asked the familiar series of questions, so I answered quickly before the human came looking for me. The lights on the screen faded, and the floor opened beneath my feet. I slid down a pipe, and I yelled, enjoying the trip. I loved amusement parks, especially slides that transferred you from one place to another at lightning speed.
After my soft landing on the white carpet, I walked to the sliding doors that parted and I entered the heart of our organization.
Pat & Purr, the secret cat organization that worked for humans under their nose. I’m telling you, if it wasn’t for us, they would have destroyed the planet. Not that they haven’t tried it already.
It was quiet. Very quiet. The main room, where on a normal day, my colleagues would type in their computers, assess distress signals, fabricate modern devices or chase their tails, was empty.
I swallowed the nervousness dancing in my stomach and studied the desks where the monitors sat quietly, the chairs against them and shifted my gaze, in search of any sign of life. The sticky notes on the pastel blue tapestry where we sometimes stuck memos didn’t shed any light on the mystery, so I moved further to the agency.
“This is strange. Am I too early?” My ears folded, and I meowed loudly. “I am losing my form.”
“Nah. They’re waiting for you in the mission room.”
I rolled my eyes when Sandy, a dirty white cat with a burned tail and goggles on his swollen eyes, came into view behind the master computer.
“I didn’t realize I was such a famous figure. Aren’t you coming?”
“Nah. I have to run some algorithms and put the final touches on your accessories. Time is of the essence, so I’ll just listen from the radio.” He lifted a screwdriver as a greeting. “Have fun, Ginger.”
Chuckling, I padded the way to the mission room, my thoughts swirling. Sandy’s words did nothing to ease my nervousness, adding more mystery to the tangling jungle of unexplainable occurrences. My paws tingled once they touched the fluffy rug, and I rolled on my back, dug my claws on the carpet, rubbed the itchy spots and relished the sensation of velvet against my fur before I got back on my feet.
Pat & Purr had pipes leading to offices and storage rooms, and of course, the playroom. We cats loved slides, boxes, and naps. Our organization was built to give us a haven to be ourselves without the presence of humans.
I slid down the red pipe and landed right outside the door which harbored the mission room where we held all our important meetings. My paw froze in the air and I stalled. I’ve never been to the mission room. Even my tail was nervous. Like all cats, I could feel change and this one blew unpleasant vibes. When I pushed the door, my whiskers flicked from the massive presence of cats, which explained the emptiness in the offices. All cats were gathered here.
The mission room didn’t only look like a mission room, but it smelled like business, too.
Grey walls coated the circular room that broke the tradition of colorful rooms of the agency. The floor emitted the vibrant aroma of freshly cut wood, although claw marks decorated their surface and the paint glistening on the walls gave the impression they were painted recently. My anxiety spiked when I gazed at all the furred bodies and the papers flying around. Arrays of chairs spread in the room where cats were already sitting. The silence was deafening. Only the voice from the speaker sounded, peppered with scratching noises of ears, tapping of claws against the wood, and stretching of stiff limbs. The glowing monitors drew my attention to the tail of the mission room. I felt the food I swallowed yesterday stirring in my stomach. I flashed back to my first day as an agent, when I’d met the Board of cold-blooded killers. Otherwise known as Pat & Purr’s Board. The vested cats typed feverishly on computers while they answered phone calls. When the Russian blue penetrated me with his yellow eyes, I decided to scram.
“This can’t be good.” I inspected the room, confused by the vast meow population, in search of a place to curl while the speech was still underway. My eyes fell on an empty seat and I grinned, but my grin melted when I realized it was in the house cats’ seats.
While agent cats generally got along with each other, since we all sought the same goal, there was a broad gap between strays and house cats. We strays were laid back, ate what we could find and struggled with everything. Since we lived in the streets, we had to protect ourselves, toughen up and sharpen our claws for imminent attacks. The menu of our enemies contained many pages.
House cats had the whole enchilada. A house to pass the chilly winter nights and hot summer days, nice food waiting for them every minute of the day—they were fat!—and love. But they were whiny, slow and indifferent. We stray cats called them cat queens. If we dared to sit next to them, they would call us every name under the sun, not accepting to be close to a cat of lower status than theirs. Rubbish! We all lived on the same earth therefore, they should be helping us, not giving us more obstacles to deal with.
I spotted an empty seat in the stray cat aisle in the middle. My whiskers trembled and I coughed at the pungent scent of sandalwood and fish the Head of Pat & Purr carried who delivered his speech with passion and determination. I wrinkled my nose, hoping I didn’t have to face him today. My stomach rumbled. I crossed rows of dark and colorful cats, passed under swinging and curly tails until I climbed to the seat, curling on the fuzzy pillow.
“Every year, we make sure humans find happiness at Christmas. Our agents work hard, infiltrating homes and move strings so that they can make that happen.”
I yawned. “Let’s catch up on some much needed sleep.” I had barely closed my eyes when I heard paws shuffle from the neighboring seats and meows fill the room. I stirred in my chair.
“You’ll find your assignments on your desks,” the Head of Pat & Purr announced.
He was a British shorthair silver tabby with the most beautiful green eyes a cat could possess. However, his charming qualities stopped there. He was annoying as hell and sluggish. The black bow around his neck set him apart as a house cat. Even if he was a stray, someone would pick him up solely for his beauty.
Screens sprung in desks, throwing up papers from the slot on the side, so I turned my attention to mine. My desk was a wooden circular thing anchored to the chair, and no screen popped up like the others. I punched it and raised my eyebrow when it remained immobile. The cats started jumping off their seats, dragging chairs as they left the room, muttering things among themselves.
I debated whether to go to the silver cat or follow the clowder when a sharp female voice boomed.
“Whoever has no assignment should report to the front desk immediately.”
I looked at the silver tabby and noticed him pace on the desk, conversing intensely with a Siamese female, their tails twitching.
Clearly, there was something wrong, or they wouldn’t have called us mid-November. We took on the mission at the beginning of December and had the whole month. Seeing how he gestured at the calendar, time was of the essence.
“Time to find out who messed up.” I leaped from my chair and made my way to the wooden floor decorated with claw marks.
When the two cats sniffed my presence, they lowered their voice to whispers. The Head cat of P&P punched the desk, ending the conversation. He arranged his bow tie better before addressing me.
“Agent Meow 01, reporting for duty.”
“I presume your screen didn’t pop up?” He rummaged through the pile of papers in his office.
“I wouldn’t be here if it did.”
“Yes, yes. There are certain circumstances…yes.” He leafed through his papers, mumbling among himself. “There you are. Agent Meow 01, oh, you’re many years in the force.” He finally looked at me, studying me with renewed interest, but his eyes glided toward the back of the mission room where the cats of the Board typed on their fancy screens while they spoke loudly on the phone. My ears flopped. They reminded me of humans who were so absorbed with their work they didn’t see the world around them. As far as I was aware, the Board were lap cats who did secretary duty and acted like they had the best job in the world while we were servants who occupied space.
Our assigned number signified when we joined the force. I was the first recruit in ‘01, hence the code name. The rest of my details were on the fancy papers they made me paw and fairly certain the Head cat of P&P would bring up in a minute or two.
I tapped my foot down, annoyed by his lack of energy. Everything pointed out to the severity of the situation—his assistant paced as she checked her clipboard, the blinking red lights on the monitor behind him suggested an urgent call—and yet, he acted sluggishly.
“And you’re a ginger tiger cat?”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s unverified at the moment.”
His eyebrows shot up and his lined forehead creased. The miracle of eyes darted between me and his papers. “Really?”
I tilted my head, my ear touching my shoulder. “No, sir. I am, as you can see, a very orange striped cat, a fact anyone can determine if they look at you!” I pounded on the floor and he jumped in the air, landed on the desk, scratched the surface and almost fell back.
The Siamese cat stifled her giggles between coughs and hisses but buried her face behind a paper when The Head cat of P&P glared at her. “Strays are so rude.” He licked his paw, leafed through his papers, but he seemed more alert, his gaze wary on me, as if he was afraid I’d start throwing punches.
“I’ll tell you where your manners go when you starve or when a dog is after you because his master ordered him to sick’em,” I growled, ruffling my fur, and decided to put an end to this conversation before we dove into politics. “Why are we starting the mission now? It’s early.”
“Because the dogs messed up!” The Head cat of P&P hissed, losing his indolent attitude. He banged his paw on the desk and pressed his claw hard between his teeth. “The dogs messed up, and we have to clean up the mess, as usual,” he said in a more controlled voice.
I raised my eyebrow and almost felt sorry I attacked him. His docile attitude masked anger.
“Never leave a cat’s job to a dog.”
For the most part, I found them irritating and stupid unless they belonged to Paws—the secret dog unit which had the same role as ours, but started their mission in November. They might be annoying, but they got the job done. Or at least, I thought they did.
“Messed up, how?” I half-lidded my eyes, observing the Head cat of P&P rock back and forth, my back foot nervously tapping the wooden floor like a pendulum.
“Every Christmas, our agencies work hard to bring happiness to the human world,” the Head cat said, prowling.
I waved my paw. “Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard your speech a dozen times, but you never tell us why. What did the dogs do that was so bad? Why do we have to make humans happy, and why is Christmas our deadline?” The questions slipped through my mouth on their own and I waited, hoping for an honest answer.
When Pat & Purr recruited me, they gave me a purpose. Every December, I felt like I was a guardian of some sort and people would treat me better, spare some food and cuddles. However, I learned the hard way that they could be as mean at Christmas as on normal days. I still did my job in the best possible way, but I didn’t know why I did it anymore. Perhaps for the luckier cats, I guess. Or for the kicks. Or for the cool gadgets I briefly obtained for my mission. Any of these reasons could do, or none at all.
But this time, I needed genuine explanations of why I should work like a dog mid-November before people even started to think about presents, celebration dinners and decorations.
The Head cat of P&P sighed and turned to the Siamese cat. “Can you brief the others while I have this conversation?”
“Yes, sir!” The Siamese cat fished some papers from the mess of his desk and left, wagging her tail.
I frowned at The Head cat of P&P, who scratched his chin. “What conversation, sir?” His cologne misted the air in a thick cloud, tickling my nostrils.
“You’ve lost your interest, haven’t you?”
I was taken aback. It had crossed my mind that he would chide me or give me a lecture on duties, but this was not in today’s forecast. “Well…” I moved my head left and right, trying to come up with an explanation, but I wasn’t the evasive type. “I don’t feel the thrill I used to. It’s just a way to fill my days in December, so I would like to know the reason we must do all these things. Especially since humans don’t treat us well.”
The Head cat’s nostrils fluttered. “Many moons ago, when humans were created to walk this earth, a witch determined they needed cats to guard them against the adversities.”
I blinked. “I’m sorry, a what?”
“A witch,” the Head cat of P&P repeated without hesitation. “They’re not just tales humans tell their children as bedtime stories. Witches are real.”
I took a step back, struggling to wrap this idea around my head. I could believe in things such as birds, dogs, anything natural and logical, but witches were over the top.
Sometimes, on wintry mornings, I slipped in coffee shops when there was a storytelling gathering because every cat knew wherever there’s gathering, there’s food. It was entertaining and educational, if you liked stories with witches who saved the world with their powers and potions or fell in love with the dashing human. But that was all they were. Stories.
I gazed directly at the emerald shades of his eyes, studying the irises. A cat’s eyes revealed everything. Once I got the full picture, I stepped away. He wasn’t lying, or at least, he believed what he said.
“And what does a witch have to do with cats?” I cringed. I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth.
“She appointed us to bring happiness to the humans, but if we failed to complete our duty, we would disappear and so would the world. We are the guardians of balance, happiness and mischief.”
“This is…but…” I shook my head and stayed silent. The words failed to express the vast hole in my chest dripping in the pit of my existence. “Why didn’t you tell me that when I joined?” I stirred the conversation to things I understood before my brain exploded.
“You weren’t ready.” He sighed. “Stray cats are more prone to lose their path, and also more disbelieving because of their past.” He tilted his head.
I nodded. “There must be a more logical explanation than a fairytale. It doesn’t make sense that our fate is predetermined.”
“Do you believe in the magic of Christmas?”
“Of course I do. What does this have to do with anything?”
“Then you believe in fairytales,” he decided. “The witch is real and so is the happiness she brings every year with our help.” He collected the papers in his office into a pile and grinned, the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “If the required number is not met, destruction will be upon us. The dogs failed on their quota, so we have to double our numbers to cover the loss.”
“I don’t believe in witches, but the balance thing makes more sense.” I forced the conversation on the darkest corner of my head and held out my paw. “Where are my cases?”
The Head cat of P&P pushed a paper toward me and my mouth dropped. Blinking rapidly, I studied the printed addresses that covered the entire sheet and continued on to the next page. Sweat gathered on my eyelids and I mopped my forehead with a swift move of my paw. “There are over fifty cases listed.” My small heart complained at the sight of so much ink. This year would be the death of me if I had to cross the country walking on snow. “They used to be barely ten.”
“There are a hundred and fifty.”
My pupils dilated, and I coughed. Punching my chest, I meowed a shriek. “A h-h-hundred?”
“Why do you think I have been yelling at the phone for a week with the absurd dog leader who returned only excuses and yelps?” He snorted. “You will have a partner in this one.”
“A p-partner?” My claws scratched the wooden floor as I backed away.
Deep breaths. I imagined the sun warming my face, flowers spread their intoxicating aroma, and lines of rats waiting for me to devour them. My rough tongue whisked away my anxiety as I licked my mouth, and a certain calmness settled over me. I calculated the possibilities of getting the job done on my own, considered all the variables such as weather and hostile humans, and came to the ugly conclusion it was an impossible task. Given this day had only a few hours left, I couldn’t count on getting much done today. So the logical being in me agreed a partner would be a good move.
“And the dogs,” the Head cat of P&P curled his lips, spitting as he pronounced the word, “have offered their full cooperation.” He paused. “As much as I despise them, I advise you to get their help when you need it. Time is of the essence. Your deadline is December 6. Don’t forget. Should any of the teams fail, destruction awaits.” After an ominous pause, he lifted a claw, pointing to the back of the room. “Lucinda will give you the rest of the details. Good luck and keep your claws sharp, agent.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.” I padded the way to the exit, panting. My head pounded from the unexpected revelation and I was uncertain how I felt about it. Mystified for sure, but no longer lost and uninterested, which was good, given the current situation. “I hope they don’t pair me with a house cat, or this mission will be a guaranteed failure.”