Hygar crawled out of the trash can, much worse for wear, noting Zac’s groan of pain from the opposing direction where Big Tony had managed to grab him by the tail. The Doberman had taken his time with the two bullying cats, and Hygar knew that the dog never kidded around when it came to beating the living snot out of them. Tony had gone awful easy on him he realised, because aside from the slight twitch of Zac’s tail, there was no movement whatsoever from the panther otherwise. The leopard flexed his claws, wincing slightly at the sharp pulling motion from his left shoulder. The big dog had left them some time ago, Hygar realised.
“Zac? Hey, Zac…you alright?”
“Uuuugh shaddup,” the panther mumbled, still groaning in pain. “My ears be still ringin’ damnit.”
“S-Sorry,” Hygar offered apologetically.
The leopard had been having a few second thoughts as part of the Zero Boys lately, but even he had to admit, out on his own alone, he wouldn’t get too far under his own steam. He picked off a few old cabbage leaves and banana peels from his trouser legs, noting that Zac was, very gingerly, getting up from where Tony had tossed him into the garbage cans opposite him.
“God damn, I hate that dog,” Zac growled furiously. “Thinks he owns everything within a fifteen mile radius of the JazzCat…”
Hygar offered little in the way of agreement, the panther noticed. The leopard was preoccupied with checking if all his bones were intact. Zac hissed in pain as he brought his left knee up, wincing at the sharp grip of a strained muscle.
“My knee,” the panther growled.
“I keep tellin’ ya ta go and see Walter about it,” the leopard shook his head, heading over to him. “Why won’t ya?”
“Nothing wrong with it,” the panther snapped back, clear amber meeting concerned green. “Walter’s an old feathered fool.”
“With a medical degree.”
“Oh shut up, Garfield,” Zac grumbled, taking the leopard’s assistance anyway.
“Don’t call me that,” the leopard replied stiffly.
Zac sighed as Hygar helped him out of the alleyway, “Xav’s not gonna be pleased to see us like this.”
“With any luck, he won’t be home.”
“Oh hohoho, you don’t know Xav like I do,” Zac half-smirked. “He was out all night at the Topiaxa Club. He’ll be home, trust me.”
“I don’t see what he sees in that club, Zac.”
“Neither do I. Must be the women, I suppose. Though…some of them you can hardly call broads.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“Look, Gar,” Zac began. “I know Zsaz hurt ya bad, but you gotta get over her sometime.”
“She was in bed with Xav.”
“Yeah well…the broad had no qualms about chatting me up, man.”
“Yeah, because you gave her the inch she was after,” the leopard growled.
Zac said nothing more to Hygar on the subject, he was in no condition to have a fight with him after what Tony had put him through. Again he noticed that the dog had mainly resorted to beating the bickies out of him and had largely left Hygar alone save for a few bruises. He wiped his slowly-bleeding lip with his paw.
“Damn, Tony wasn’t kidding this time around.”
“Since when does he ever kid?”
“He left you alone and went after me fer starters.”
“Maybe because you’re the one who grabbed the kid, Zac?”
“Unusual markings that kid had, eh?” Zac changed the subject as quickly as he dared to. “Never seen any little guy with those colours before.”
“He’s unique, eh?” Hygar agreed, entering into the back gate of the Zero Mansion. “If Tony’s got an eye on him, we might have a few problems getting the kid back for this.”
“I dunno. Maybe Xav could help us there?”
The Zero Mansion was a beautiful, lushly gardened estate in the heart of Bigg City’s upper-class district. Over 30 rooms and various secret hallway passages made up this luxurious palace de jour, and Captain Zero had acquired it as a parting agreement between one of Lawrence L’Rahnqe’s old accounting backers. Its dark red and white accented brick and carved marble lion-like gargoyles littered the mansion itself, a foreboding entity amongst the kinder-looking estates that surrounded it. The giant silver ring on the front gate with its cursive ‘Z’ greeted those walking past, as well as the two personally-selected bodyguards Captain Zero employed on a regular basis. The Zero Boys called this palace home, and apart from having a solid roof over their heads, they were pretty much kings of the place when the Captain was absent. Hygar slid his cardkey into the back door, waiting for the three green circles to shine before pushing open the door.
“D’ya ever regret making berth here in Bigg City?”
Zac was silent for a bit as they entered into the back entertainment room, the panther thanking his leopard companion for helping him ease onto the couch.
“Why’d you ask me that, Hygar?”
“I dunno,” the leopard replied, fixing he and his pal a good stiff drink each from the bar. “I guess I’ve been kinda having a few second thoughts about being a part of the gang.”
“Happens to the best of us. Thanks, man.”
“I suppose it’s the idea that Xav’s our leader. I’m not really that used to taking orders from someone who’s meant to be our best friend, yanno?”
“He’s the eldest,” Zac shrugged. “Guess it’s the Captain’s natural choice for starters. Why, were you gunnin’ for it originally?”
“No,” the leopard replied firmly, sipping from his glass. “I guess I’m just concerned.”
“The direction we’re goin’ in.”
“Which is here, there and everywhere right now, huh?”
“The Princess Alice has designs on Xavier.”
“No, no fooling,” the leopard sighed. “I saw her making the moves on Xav the last time we was escortin’ her.”
“He’s still strung up about Lilliena though?”
“That’s kinda where I’m concerned, not just for Xavier, for us really. What if Xav eventually takes her up on that offer? What’ll happen to us?”
“I’d rather like ta think as mean as our ol’ alleycat is, he’s got a soft spot fer us,” Zac downed half his drink in one go. “’Sides, that’s not the only thing yer concerned about, is it?”
“I…overheard…a couple things yesterday afternoon that Cap’n Zero might not be too pleased to hear about.”
“Do tell,” the panther pressed.
“The Duchess is returning here in a couple of days.”
Zac nearly choked, “WHAT?!”
“Yeah, the trouble with that is, she made an official request fer the Star Team to escort her to the Magistrate’s Music Hall for the annual ball they’re havin’ there.”
“Jeez louise, no wonder you didn’t want to tell the Captain. He’d wring yer neck!”
“I’ve been debating telling him since Eloise is upstairs with him and he was drinking kinda heavy last night.”
“Might have a lesser impact with him hungover,” Zac agreed.
“You reckon I should then?”
“Best you tell him now instead o’waitin’ fer the slaughter to happen later.”
Hygar had just reached the doorway before Zac spoke again.
“To answer yer question, Garfield, yeah. Some days I regret it. Some days I think I could do much better than what I’m doing now.”
“Yeah. But then I look at how much I’m makin’ here a year and I realise I could be doing a better job elsewhere for much less than what Captain Zero gives us. I look in the mirror and I take it a day at a time. All I can do to keep from going nuts.”
“Heh…that was surprisingly relevent.”
“It’s the booze talking,” the panther grinned. “Hey, if there’re any orders for me upstairs, can ya bring ‘em down?”
And the leopard was gone, heading upstairs to speak with Captain Zero. Zac nursed his almost empty glass and sighed softly. He really did worry about Garfield sometimes. Maybe, and this was he himself talking and not the effects of the booze, maybe hiding the fact he had slept with Zsa Zsa, Hygar’s former fiance, wasn’t a good idea from the start?
He was finding it harder to keep the secret away from his best friend...
Xavier Corlette was in a dark mood, even darker than usual.
Not only had one of his pranks gone badly, he’d also been hung out to dry by Walter’s rather harsh treatment of his injuries. The old hawk had been less than gentle, even with the removal of his plaster cast. The cat had pictured some dark thoughts about getting even with the old bird, but he would rather like to avoid a fracas with his Captain on that matter. It was well-known that Walter favoured the Star Team, and as far as the cat was concerned, the bird could afford to be taken down a peg or three, given the chance.
His initial reaction to the feathered one’s...advice...was to wholeheartedly ignore it. He gingerly rotated his shoulder, feeling the still-tender muscles protest vaguely to being stretched in such a manner. He had stalked upstairs to the second floor to receive his orders for the afternoon from his Captain, forgetting completely about the broad he’d brought home the evening before.
Xavier ducked a thrown pillow and bolted out of the room before one of the half-empty champagne bottles made contact with the back of his head. Captain Zero snickered, practically stark naked save for what remained of the sheets wrapped around him.
“Aw, Eloise, it’s only Xavier,” he chuckled at the startled brunette female.
“God damn you, Whalen!” she simpered, still clutching the bottle like an easy projectile. “Keep the door unlocked why don’t you!”
“Oh for the love of the gods woman, it’s not like he hasn’t seen you naked before!”
Xavier rubbed his forehead gingerly, listening to the slightly-heated exchange inside his Captain’s bedroom. He was forever bringing home the broads, daughters of the wealthiest protectors in the city, friends and colleagues the Zero Boys had worked for time and time again. Whalen was a more than capable, and reliable, lover to some of these young ladies, and some, like Eloise, kept coming back for a night of copious alcohol, fine dining and shagging. Normally, Xavier didn’t mind these raucous evenings and he was often out himself, hanging around the nightclubs and the Theatre Royal until early the next morning, but today, after his brief unsettling encounter with Walter, the only thing he wanted was to get his orders and get the hell out of the Zero Mansion.
Eloise’s shrill exchange ended her affair with the Captain and she stormed out of the bedroom, leaving Whalen drunkenly calling after her. She glowered at the alleycat as she stalked down the stairs, heading for the front door. Xavier watched her go, disinterest filling his features. She wasn’t much of a looker, but then, he didn’t pick the broads his Captain slept with now, did he?
“Xavier? She’s gone, lad. C’mon in!”
Xavier entered the room to his Captain drunkenly trying to put on his pants and belt. He raised an eyebrow, but said little. This was a daily occurance for the cat and his...humanitarian...Captain.
“Ach, her Daddy will probably want to kill me,” Whalen snickered. “Not that I care. Yer orders are on the table, lad.”
“Yes, Sir,” Xavier replied, noting how the strength of his voice made Whalen groan in pain.
“Ugh. If you see Izzy, tell him I want a half dozen more bottles of th’ stuff he sold me.”
“Strong enough for you, was it then, Captain?”
“Even better than I had hoped, really. Sweet Gods, it packs more than just a kick.”
Xavier leafed through the sheets on the table, noting that two of the jobs coincided at the Theatre Royal, and the other was a delivery to Lilliena L’Rahnqe. His ears pinned back at seeing her name written there on the third sheet. Whalen must have noticed his expression because he clicked his tongue, half in remorse, half in sarcasm.
“You’re going to have to get used to the fact the broad doesn’t see you in that light, boy.”
“What the hell does that damnable Hedgehog have that I haven’t got?” Xavier snapped.
“The ability to tell a woman’s brain from her bosom for starters.”
“I’d say what I want to say to you Captain, but I rather like my job the way it is.”
Whalen smirked, “Xavier, that girl was beyond your reach a very long time ago.”
“Yeah...I suppose I have you to thank for ruining my chances, eh?”
Captain Zero ignored the sarcasm in Xavier’s voice. He stood, swaying slightly as he reached for his dress shirt, draped on the chair beside the bed.
“You don’t still hate me for the L’Rahnqe incident, do you?”
Xavier’s thoughts drifted back to the night Lilliena was named her Mother’s heiress. It had been a grand affair, luscious desserts and sumptious buffets and the rare appearance of Lawrence, Lilliena’s father, presiding over the events. Lil, her mother, had been decked out to the nines, a beautiful and lavish feline with all the trimmings of a hard-working woman. Lilliena had shone beautifully that night, a star in the making. And he had been there, ready to make his move on the woman he had lusted over and dreamt about marrying.
And it had been out of the corner of his eye that he had spotted Orion Hedgehog, in full dress uniform, the rest of his crew standing by, smiles of encouragement on their faces. And Lilliena had seen him, run from the podium to meet him, hugged him with all the adoration that lovers do;
...and kissed him full on the lips.
He had acted in fury, he realised, baring his claws with the full intent of challenging Orion, only to have Captain Zero pull him back and pin him to the wall behind them, telling him to leave the lovers be. He had struck his Captain across the eye in a rage and stormed from the party, his hopes of a future engagement shattered. Whalen had forgiven the alleycat for taking the sight of his left eye, but Xavier still felt the urges – still felt the rage to get revenge on Orion for taking Lilliena from him.
“No. Not you, Captain.”
“That sort of thing will consume you before long, boy.”
“Not in your life.”
“I suppose not,” the older man sighed. “I have no doubt one day you’ll get revenge on him, but as for the revenge you have in mind, it best not involve anything other than your fists.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
There was tone of strict clarity in Whalen’s voice, despite the still half-tipsy state he was in. He could certainly hold his liquor well, Xavier mused. He tucked his orders into the back pocket of his pants as Whalen began buttoning up his dress shirt.
“You don’t regret me squandering this mansion out of one of Lawrence’s old backers, do you?” he asked, watching for any move Xavier was making.
“Not at all. You gave the guys and I someplace to call home. The streets were getting kinda crowded.”
There was a brief flash of gratitude in the cat’s silver-blue eyes as he turned to face Whalen. The Captain nodded.
“Sorry about not locking the door,” he began.
Xavier laughed, “So, how was she?”
“Eh. Prefer Letisha myself. She’s more experienced.”
“Not worth the new car her Daddy promised you?”
“Hardly. Though I admit, it was between myself and Old George.”
“Strange isn’t it?”
Two knocks and a leopard muzzle poked around the door.
“Oh Xav,” Hygar gasped, “Sorry mate, didn’t know you were up here.”
“It’s fine, Hygar,” Captain Zero waved away his concerns. “Come on in. What’s up?”
“Uh, well,” the leopard began, “I overheard a couple of the judges talkin’ yesterday evening during my evening job, Sir.”
“Oh? What about?”
“About The Duchess Lorianna returning to Bigg City, Sir.”
Captain Zero raised an eyebrow whilst Xavier remained mercifully passive at the news.
“That’s news to me,” the Captain replied. “Is she requesting an escort?”
“She’s asked for the Star Team by name, Sir.”
Captain Zero was silent for a moment, taking in Hygar’s report.
“I see. So Star’s top of her list then?”
Hygar flinched slightly, expecting a reprimand from either of them, but it seemed neither the Captain nor Xavier were put out by the news.
“”I’m not too inherently surprised that Star got this one,” the Captain went on. “He’s been gunning for it for quite some time, and we’ve been on top of the list for Lady Marlena and Princess Alice for years. To know of Lord Andrew’s ah...little indiscretion probably doesn’t make us Lorianna’s first choice right now.”
Captain Zero ran a hand through his unkempt hair, “I found out about several of his ah mistresses the last time he was here on business. Lorianna was into her first year of marriage. Perhaps I could have broken the news to her a little more gently than I did in the end, but I would rather not see one of the standing Royals of the Heirarchy treated in such a way. Common courtesy, boys, you understand.”
“Since when were you that big on common courtesy, Cap’n?” Xavier’s voice made Hygar flinch slightly – he could never dream of disrespecting Captain Zero in quite the same way as the older alleycat constantly did.
“When a large sum of money and our reputation is at stake, Xavier,” Captain Zero replied firmly. “Mind you, Lorianna is still young and her decision to have Star’s boys as her escorts seems to reflect her merciful youth. I’m quite enchanted by that woman, but I don’t think Margreaves would have me anywhere near her.”
“Th’ old Kodiak tried to hurt you, eh, Cap’n?”
“Not so much hurt...perhaps a friendly warning at my back when I mentioned Lord Andrew’s ‘date’ with those six younger ladies.”
“Someone needs to take that big bastard down a peg or three,” Xavier muttered angrily.
“He is Lorianna’s Guardian and Leader of the Royal Guardsmen,” Captain Zero sighed. “I understand where he was coming from. He appreciated my truthfulness of the situation, but not my suggestion for you, Hygar and the boys to become involved with the Lord’s womanising. Andrew being stripped of his royal titles does come as a bit of a surprise to me – I wouldn’t have thought Marlena could be that ruthless honestly.”
“She holds a good deal of power in the heirarchy court, Sir.”
“Aye, that she does Hygar, that she does,” the older man nodded thoughtfully. “She’s also got a number of tabs on you, Xavier. Do tread care, won’t you? I’d rather not see you behind bars. Again.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Captain,” the alleycat waved dismissively.
Captain Zero frowned at Xavier’s nonchalance. He did respect him very much, but there were some days when he questioned his original ideals. Still, there was much to do that morning, and if anything, see to it he chilled whatever was left of those wine bottles Izzy had sold him the night before.
“The orders for the others and yourself are on the table.”
“Yessir, thank you.”
Xavier made for the door, opening it, still slightly smarting from having to run an errand for Lilliena. He would rather not have Hygar question his still-dark mood. He pulled the door shut behind him and Captain Zero waited and listened as Xavier’s footsteps trailed off down the stairs and well out of their earshot. Hygar caught the Captain’s glance.
“Is something wrong, Sir?” the leopard asked.
“There is. I’m getting worried about Xavier, Leslie.”
Hygar only ever allowed two people to address him by his middle name – his former fiance and his Captain. Fortunately, when Zero addressed him, he treated the title with utmost respect and clarity.
“How so, Sir?”
“He’s become...rather erratic lately. There are times when I’ve considered putting him on a permanent probation for some of his...ideas.”
Captain Zero pulled two still-corked bottles from the group of empties on the table, examining their purplish-red contents thoughtfully.
“Leslie, what are your feelings on Xavier’s behaviour?”
Hygar had hoped to avoid this kind of discussion, but he was now put on the spot and there was no evading the Captain’s eagle eye.
“I don’t want to come between the leadership of the crew and your thoughts on his demotion, Sir.”
“I understand, Leslie, moreso than you know...but I am worried that sooner rather than later, Xavier will put himself in a chokehold with no way out of it, and that is why I’m asking your feelings on this matter,” He pulled open the small fridge near the bookshelf and set the bottles down into its icy depths, “I know you turned down leadership out of respect for Xavier, and I do not doubt nor question your loyalty to him. You are his best friend, I know this. But I need to know if the probation period is a worthwhile step for him. I’d rather not see you taking the fall for him.”
“With all due respect, Sir,” Hygar began, “Taking the fall for Xavier is more out of the knowledge that he would not, and never will, accept nor admit to whatever charges that are laid against him.”
“Leslie, your reputation in this city is much higher than Xavier’s. If anything, you deserve the leadership more than he does...”
“But you named him leader, Captain,” Hygar replied, slightly forcefully. “I was named his second. I could not...would not...ever question against that decision, nor will I ever deny him what is rightfully his place in the pecking order.”
Captain Zero remained silent for a moment, taking in Hygar’s posture and demeanour. He had struck a raw nerve in the leopard, and there would be little hope of continuing the discussion, as meaningful as it was to his decision.
“...The reason I’m questioning all this is because I’m taking my leave for the next two weeks.”
Upon hearing this, the leopard gasped, “What? Why, Captain??”
“...Let’s just say I need a break for a while,” he shrugged his shoulders. “The pressures of being a consort-for-hire as well as your Captain demands a little too much too soon.”
Hygar resisted the urge to laugh at this – Xavier could get away with it, but him? Never.
“I’m going up north, spending some time with Laurelby,” he went on. “I hear he bought himself a new yacht, the old beggar. Intends to go on a week’s fishing safari with a few...eh...harem girls of his.”
“Leslie, I’m leaving the distribution of your orders to Xavier, but I want you, primarily, to keep an eye on the team. Keep them safe from whatever ends Xavier is planning.”
“Does this have something to do with Lilliena L’Rahnqe’s impending marriage, Captain?”
“It does,” Whalen nodded solemnly. “Xavier is still hellbent on revenge against Orion Hedgehog, this you already know. But I’ve been noticing a change in his demeanour lately. He’s questioning things, asking questions I didn’t think he would...ever...ask.”
“Riverlands-based questions. Social Class Ladder questions. Things I would normally choose not to discuss for any reason at all, but his sudden thirst for understanding about our city’s main enemies has me quite...edgy...lately. I recall the incident you had with that Rhino fellow a couple months ago. The fact he even attacked the man almost had us crucified in the Heirarchy Court, Leslie.”
“The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth too, Captain.”
“Probably not as much as it left mine,” he muttered drolly. “I need you to keep Xavier out of heirarchy affairs for as long as you possibly can hold him back.”
“Why not just have the Royal Guard keep watch on him, Captain? I don’t understand why you want me...?”
“Because he will do everything possible to evade the guardsmen,” Captain Zero’s voice was firm. “I know Xavier all too well. If he gets involved in matters concerning the heirarchy alone, it paints a target clearly on us and will implicate us in his scheming.”
The Captain stared levelly at Hygar.
“I would rather not see all of you imprisoned for his stupidity. Are we clear, Leslie?”
The leopard nodded, somewhat more understanding of what his Captain now meant by ‘keeping close watch’ on their wayward leader.
“Yes, Captain Zero.”
Hygar made for the door, his worry mounting about the Captain’s concerns as well as his own. The moment his paw touched the handle, he heard his voice again.
“Not a word to the others in the crew about what we’ve discussed,” he ordered quietly. “I’d rather they think I’m in conference with members of the heirarchy during Lorianna’s visit, as well as Xavier acting about normal rather than under the suspicion I’ve ordered you to keep tabs on him.”
“I’m not the most shrouded of people, Captain...”
“No, but you’re loyal, obedient, intelligent and wise. And that my boy is the reason why I made you second-in-command to Xavier. You hold values he lacks in spades. I trust you farther than I trust him. Don’t fail me.”
Hygar nodded once sharply and respectfully, opening the door and exiting the Captain’s room. Captain Zero listened as his footsteps faded down the stairs.
I was expecting you to have made mention of your incident with the Riverlander this morning at the JazzCat, Leslie, he thought. Tony’s reaction was a given, and I don’t appreciate having to learn from outside sources that you and Zac bullied someone under his protection...
Captain Zero busied himself with selecting his travelling attire and suitcases, his mind still heavy on the thought of the still-ongoing war between the Riverlands and the Heirarchy.
I honestly shouldn’t do this. I shouldn’t duck and run for cover, but what else can I do? I don’t like Riverlanders any more than anyone else in this city does, but I’m not...suited...to take on the might of the heirarchy should it fall to that. Leslie will keep an eye on Xavier – he’s very loyal to my old alleycat – but I can’t help but feel like they’re being led to a slaughterhouse...
He leaned his head against the bedpost, trying to instill some quiet clarity into his rambling thoughts.
Ah, I worry too much. Leslie will ensure the crew stays well clear of anything Xavier decides to do of his own accord. And I don’t have any doubts Zac, Gyrus and Oscar will back the boy up if he needs assistance...
He returned his attentions to the packing of his suitcase.