Cat Baloo:

A TaleSpin "What If" Story

By Indy and Chris Silva

Chapter 1 - The New Assignment

       Baloo had three passions in life. One was Louie’s, the second was flying the Sea Duck, and the third he was doing his best to pursue at the moment—namely snoozing. The gray bruin had his hammock tied up on the wharf under the arch of the Higher For Hire sign and had been enjoying the view of his inner eyelids for about ten minutes when a sudden squall named Rebecca blew him out of slumber land.
       “Baloo, you get up this instant!” Rebecca shouted shrilly. “How do you expect me to keep this place above water when you’re spending all your time finding ways to sink it!” Baloo’s knee-jerk reaction caused him to overturn the hammock and he ended up face down on the wharf. “Aw Becky, I was just thinking about—oh okay, I was napping, but I’m bushed! I just got back from a twelve-hour run and this old gray bear’s as beat as a rug on cleaning day!”
       “I’ll show you what beat is if you don’t get those mangoes to Mangolia!” Rebecca said, her voice speeding up as always when she was livid. Fortunately for Baloo, a wolf in a movie director’s outfit and shades walked into view around the building and interrupted Rebecca’s tirade.
       Rebecca sensed the chance for profit and forgot all about Baloo, instantly putting on her business manners. “Oh, hello there! You look like someone who needs help. Are you by chance thinking of chartering a flight? I’m sure we can work a deal. Our rates are flexible.” Oscar Huston was one of those up-and-coming directors full of “let’s make a classic” enthusiasm, but there was a nervous edge that showed through in his manner. He rushed up to Rebecca and shook her hand vigorously. “I am in such great need of help! I’m making a movie, and time and money are of the essence!”
       Rebecca knew a mark when she saw one. “Well sir, time and money are two things we understand here at Higher For Hire! I’m Rebecca Cunningham, the owner, and you are?” Oscar nervously shook her hand again, appearing annoyed at having to take the time even to introduce himself. “I’m Oscar Huston, working for Twentieth Century Skunk studio, and I need transportation! There’s gear coming in from Starrywood and it needs to be at the set yesterday and I can’t waste the time waiting for it to arrive! I have to get back to the set and start with principal photography. Those loafers are probably building sand castles by now!”
       Rebecca didn’t pretend to know what he was talking out. “Um, okay. All we need is a security payment and the directions.” Oscar threw a piece of paper at her and plunked down some cash. “The whole thing’s on there! Make sure he’s at the pickup point bright and early! We have to begin shooting by noon tomorrow!” Rebecca watched as the nervous wolf ran down the pier and turned right, then came back left, shaking his head.
       “Oh well, a customer’s a customer,” Rebecca said, starting to count the money, then held the paper out to her pilot. “Here, Baloo, I think this is for you.”
       “Uh, one last thing!” the director returned, nervy as ever. “I forgot to mention, we might have to leave the area of shooting very quickly. I’ll need to keep your plane and pilot on retainer for a few days, as we might have to leave in a hurry.”
       The look on Becky’s face showed she was not pleased with this new development. Oscar picked up on it and peeled a few large bills off a role he took out of his pocket. Her pleasant smile returned and they shook hands.
       “He’ll be there bright and early,” she cooed, smiling, as Oscar rushed back to the street and jumped in a waiting cab. Baloo took the piece of paper, which had a map and instructions, a manifest of cargo to be picked up and a time schedule for doing it all. Baloo frowned when he saw the pickup time—six a.m. “That’s mighty early. I better get right to bed so that I’ll be well rested for the trip, Becky.” Rebecca’s eyelids slid down to suspicious slits. “No Baloo, you can’t go to Louie’s until after the cargo run!”
       “Aw, if it were up to you, relaxing would be just as bad as working!” Baloo said.
       “And if it were up to you, every day would be a holiday. Now get going, before I have to hire a new pilot!”
       Baloo grumbled, but complied. It was the slow season right now, anyway. Wildcat had taken a week’s vacation leave and Kit had school so the veteran pilot had the Sea Duck all to himself. He turned over his baby, smirking. “She didn’t say anything about not going to Louie’s first...”

Chapter 2 – A Very Rude Awakening

       Never one to argue technicalities, Baloo headed for the land of Krakatoa Specials. It was hours before he headed out for Mangolia, and hours later still before he completed his cargo run. In fact, as fortune would have it, he found dawn breaking as he started back. “Oh great, no shuteye. Well, guess I might as well get over there and grab that kooky director’s cargo.” Then Baloo had another thought and checked the instructions he’d been handed. “Hey, hey! Says here he doesn’t need it until noon. Guess I’ll just load ‘er up, then taxi off to one side for some well-earned downtime.”
       Baloo followed the map, ending up at Gobroken and a little third-rate airstrip that served as a go-between for small planes and commuter traffic. Baloo edged his way in, and fortunately his skill balanced out with the airstrip’s short runway. He found the cargo on one side of the tarmac and pulled out the paper again as he got out to check the list. “Let’s see…three crates marked ‘Props’, one crate marked ‘Zombies’, one marked ‘Body Parts (various)’—yuck! Two fifty-five gallon drums marked ‘Stage Blood’. Double yuck. Hey, what is all this stuff?”
       Baloo saw a steamer trunk placed haphazardly beside the crates. “Typical airport I guess. Some poor slob’s going somewhere without their britches.” He went to another pile of boxes that appeared to have been opened with several zombie props showing from under a tarp. He pulled it back and found that one of the boxes had been apparently broken open during transit. “Hmm, two more boxes marked ‘Zombies’ and one marked ‘Victims’. Huh, this lady victim on top of the box is the fakest of all. Well, better get this stuff loaded, don’t want to keep DeMillion waiting.”
       Baloo slung a loose zombie over one shoulder and picked up the fake-looking victim over the other. After a few moments, the “fake” victim woke up and screamed at the top of her lungs, “PUT ME DOWN!”
       Baloo screamed too, dropping her and the zombie on the pile of props. “Hey, sorry lady. I’m just moving this cargo. I didn’t know anyone was...” Baloo stopped in mid-sentence when he saw the young lady’s face. “Say, you look mighty familiar-like.” The young lady in question, a blonde-haired feline, stood up. She had a svelte figure and was wearing jeans and a leather-fringed jacket over a white cotton blouse.
       The cat dusted herself off, annoyed. “Yeah, I’m sure I do. Look, I just want to get to this crummy little island and get on with this. I don’t suppose you serve latté on that junk heap of a plane over there...” Then the cat looked at the plane and realized it was familiar—too familiar. Her head cleared from the doldrums of sleep and for the first time she took a good look at the bear in front of her. “Oh, NO! NOOOOOOOOOO! Not you!”
       Baloo was similarly affected, to say the least. “Kitten Caboodle!!! I thought you were in jail or somethin’ like that!” The cat balled up her fists, closing her eyes and stamping her foot on the ground. “I knew it! I just knew it wasn’t worth taking this two-bit job! I’m out of the pokey a few months, and who do I run into? The very...”
       She punched him in the stomach at this point, which coming from her didn’t amount to much. “The very tubbo who got me sent there!” Baloo wasn’t hurt of course, but he was more than a little annoyed. “Cry me a river, Kitten. You tried to get me killed! According to my manifest I’m just supposed to take cargo. No one said nothing about no passengers, especially some snitty glory-hogging actress!”
       Kitten shoved a telegram in his face. He snatched it from her hand and read it. “Oh great, it’s from Oscar. ‘Hello Baloo, slight change in plans. Kitten Caboodle’s our replacement leading lady and we need her here without delay! I figure you won’t mind her company for a few hours. Oscar’.”
       Baloo grumbled as he considered just chucking the whole thing right there. However, he knew Rebecca would’ve already spent the deposit, and whatever he might think of this conniving cat he always held to fulfilling a contract when it was within his power to do it. It took about five minutes to get most of the stuff on the plane, ignoring the large steamer trunk. “Aren’t you going to load the trunk?” Kitten demanded.
       “Hey, It ain’t on the list!” Baloo said.
       Kitten put her hands on her curvaceous hips. “That’s my wardrobe, mister genius. What, did you think I was going to wear this half-bit getup the whole time? Now get moving, so I can get away from you and back in my element!”
       “Prison?” Baloo quipped.
       Kitten growled and made like she was going to scratch him. “Oh, I wish I had you back at the old studio! I’d have had the set crew roast you over a hot flame! Now I’ll be lucky if anyone offers to keep the rain off me.”
       “Well, I’d love to keep going down memory lane with you, but we have a five-hour flight to the island from here, so get comfortable. Can I offer you anything? Coffee, tea, the rack?” Baloo hefted her steamer trunk, carried it into the plane, and secured it with the other gear. Kitten went to the front of the plane and plunked down in the co-pilot’s seat. Baloo wished he’d brought along some industrial-strength chain. He remembered how Kitten treated his baby before. “Hey! Just remember, this is my plane, so don’t touch anything!”
       Kitten got a nasty look on her face. “If I wasn’t depending on it to get me there, I’d cut it up with a blowtorch!” She snatched the seatbelt and locked herself in place, crossing her arms crossly, and began to work on turning the Sea Duck into an igloo.

Chapter 3 – Lights, Camera, Baloo?

       After getting clearance from the tower, Baloo took off. The idea of being stuck with Kitten for the next few hours wasn’t very pleasant. He just hunched over the controls and kept his eyes fixed straight ahead. Fortunately for him, Kitten was doing much the same thing. The time passed slowly, but eventually Baloo spotted the island in question. Baloo pulled out the map again, checking to see the layout of the place.
       “Gitwhil Thegitunsgud Island,” Baloo read. “Who comes up with these weird names? Well, the note from Oscar says not to land at the dock by the big spooky house if there’s a boat tied it, which there is. Looks like the only good place to land’s the old airfield they used during the Great War. Hope the landing strip’s solid.”
       Kitten decided to thaw out enough to ask a question. “What if it isn’t?”
       “Then we’re both gonna have more broken bones than even the number you’re thinking you’d like for me to have.”
       Baloo checked to see if there was anyone at the old field on the radio, but predictably there wasn’t. The cargo pilot shrugged mentally and chose what looked like the best approach angle. The landing strip held under the Sea Duck’s weight, and Baloo brought the plane to a halt.
       There was no one to greet them, but there was an old beat-up truck that appeared to be in working order. Baloo piled the stuff on and followed the only road leading away from the field, Kitten glowering in the passenger’s seat. A few bumpy unpaved miles brought them to the site of an old manor house, a dilapidated and weather-beaten old structure, its glory long since faded.
       The house rested on the crest of a hill whose lower edge met the ocean at the lip of a bowl of a secluded lagoon. In short, it looked positively perfect for a movie. Baloo got out, deliberately ignoring Kitten, and unloaded the stuff. He was about to hunt for the nervous-looking director he’d seen when he noticed some commotion down at the dock, located at the base of the hill that led up to the manor house.

       There was a medium-sized yacht tied at the pier and several disgruntled-looking people were throwing supplies on board in a hurry. Baloo walked down, hailing them. “Hey, what gives?” A hound dog wearing green coveralls threw a bedroll onto the boat, not bothering to look around at the newcomer. “I’m getting my tail outta here, and so are Bret and Harry! This place is jinx city!”
       Baloo watched as three of the movie crew headed out on the boat, then turned as the director ran up, screaming. Oscar tried to flag them down. “No, don’t go! Oh, why do these things always happen when I shoot a movie?”
       Kitten came up to the dock and was ticked that she wasn’t the center of attention. “What’s going on? Are we still filming or what?”
       “It’s mutiny!” Oscar lamented. “There was another accident on the set! It was nothing, really. I mean, we put him out before he was seriously injured, so it was nothing to worry about.” Oscar sighed as he watched the boat head into the distance, then put on a fake smile and turned to Kitten. “Kitten Caboodle! I’m Oscar Huston, director and writer of the movie. It’s an honor to have you on my set. I’ve seen all your films.”
       “Really?” Kitten said, perking up. “Which do you think was my best performance?” Even Oscar couldn’t hide the shudder as he tried to bluff his way out of this loaded question. Naturally Kitten picked up on his discomfort and so did Baloo. Kitten decided to let it drop. “Uh, where do I put my stuff?”
       Oscar was relieved the inquisition was over. “Oh yeah, there’s a room in the manor for you. It hasn’t been occupied in a while so it’s a little messy. Baloo, would you carry her trunk up to the manor? I need to talk to Kitten about her role.”
       “What about those crew members that just left?” Baloo asked.
       “That’s the way it goes. The rest of us will just have to give that extra 110 percent to make up the difference! As long as there’s someone to roll film and someone to act in front of it, this movie will get made.”

       Baloo hoisted the heavy trunk and headed into the old manor house. The wooden floor creaked and groaned in ways that Baloo didn’t like, but everything held. He headed up the main stairs, serenaded by the creaking chorus, and found a long hallway on the second floor. It was in a T-shape, with the immediate hall in front of him and the side halls of the T stretching the length of the house. In all, there were doors to about twenty rooms.
       After a quick check, Baloo found there were index cards tacked to some of the doors with the names of cast and crew. Baloo found Kitten’s name on a door at the far end of the left hallway and set the trunk down. When he opened the door, the rust and squeakiness showed just how long such a practice had been abandoned. The interior was frugal, with only a paper-thin mattress over the old bed frame and a worm-eaten chest of drawers as the room’s decorations.
       The bear shrugged and pulled the trunk inside, then headed back down to find a group of actors and crew assembled. Oscar was in the middle of a shouting match with Kitten. “You never told me you were still on probation!” Kitten crossed her arms defiantly. “So what? Let’s see you get anyone else to act in this two-bit flea trap of a movie!”
       Oscar balled up his hands and stormed around, as all directors who deal with such things do. “Okay, okay! But no publicity stunts! If I find out you’ve maimed one cameraman, sabotaged one set or even touched my director’s chair you’ll have your wardrobe picked out for you for the next ten years! Capish?”
       “Yeah, yeah. I’ll be good,” Kitten said, rolling her eyes.
       Oscar wiped his brow. Such things were part of his misbegotten life. “We’re on a tight schedule here. The regional zoning board’s condemned this house and they’re going to tear it down in less than a week and there’s some question whether we’re even allowed to be here on the island—but we’re almost ninety percent sure it’s okay.” c
       The director looked around, making sure there weren’t any zoning board reps hiding in the undergrowth. Satisfied, he returned his attention to his leading lady. “Okay Kitten, you’re here to finish a movie that was started here on this island fifteen years ago: ‘The Claw Monster from Planet Zero’. However, since we only have one of the original actors, none of the props or monsters, I’ve had to have the boys do a bit of rewriting. Starting today, you are the lead actress in ‘Count Fracula, the Creature From Beyond the Grave’!”
       Kitten gave him a syrupy smile. “I’m so pleased to be here.” Oscar handed her a script. “Read this, we start shooting in an hour.” Baloo watched the introductions and turned to walk away, desperately wanting to get to the Sea Duck for a long awaited nap, when Oscar called his name.
       “Baloo, wait!” the director said, running up to him.
       “Lemme guess, you want the house moved, too?” Baloo asked.
       “Baloo, how would you like a screen credit in this movie?” Oscar said, flashing that fake grin again. Baloo’s nose twitched as he thought about it. “This movie? What do I have to do, play a corpse or something?”
       Oscar held onto his lapels. “Better yet, you get a starring role!” Kitten twisted around at that, horrified at the idea. “What!” Oscar ignored her, continuing his pitch. “With Bret gone, I need you to be the Fracula monster!” Baloo started to shake his head. “Fracula? Oh no, no! I ain’t getting in no costume and...terrorizing…her...” Baloo began mulling it over in his mind and Kitten didn’t like what she saw there. “And she has to behave and all, right?”
       “Absolutely!” Oscar said.
       Baloo’s grin got bigger. “ I get the regular salary with it?” Oscar shrugged. “Uh…well, yes, but don’t expect to get rich. Twenty dollars a day for a few days and if it takes longer than that then we’re outta money and the project’s down the tubes—along with my career if this movie isn’t finished!”
       Baloo eyed Kitten, who was beginning to search for safer ground already. With a grin, Baloo secretly acknowledged he’d have done this for free. “Okay Housty, you got a deal! Can I be, uh, creative as they say with how I play the role?”
       “Yeah, I guess so, but don’t go too overboard. You’re only in the action sequences and remember the second rule of low-budget movies, ‘Talk is cheap, action is expensive’. So there’s little room for retakes.”
       “No problem, Housty! I got you covered.” Baloo slapped him on the back, knocking him down. The jittery director picked himself up, and then Baloo reported to Makeup for his transformation into Fracula.

       The entire procedure consisted of a pair of fake vampire teeth, some appliqué monster eyebrows and a count’s outfit—secondhand, of course. Oscar held out his hands in admiration as Baloo came out. “Oh, perfect! You are the essence of Fracula! Okay, your first scene’s the legendary scene where the lightning strikes the monster and the mad scientist cackles with glee at the life in his creation.”
       “Uh, didn’t that happen in the real ‘Frankenstein’?” Baloo asked.
       “Yes, but remember the first rule of low-budget movie making: ‘It’s not a rip-off, it’s an homage’. You’ll be working with the one and only Bela Lugrosi.”
       Baloo scratched his head. “Lugrosi? I thought he was dead.” Bela suddenly seemed to appear from nowhere next to them, startling them both. He had the whole fake vampire voice going. “I am dead! I am a vampire, one of the living dead! One of the children of the night! Blah, blah!”
       Bela headed for the Makeup “trailer”, which was what the living room of the manner had been transformed into, snagging a copy of Cosmicpolitan from one of the crew on the way. Baloo wondered just who would show up next. As fate would have it, it was Kitten. She’d waited for him, and to say she was in bad spirits was a gross understatement.
       “You’d better not louse this up, butterball!” Kitten hissed. “I hate working with amateurs, especially amateurs who send me to the clink for a year!” Baloo gave her a smug grin. “Who said I was an amateur? Besides, you can’t bat an eyelash the wrong way this time, or ol’ Housty’ll send you back to the hoosegow faster’n you can say ‘jailbreak’!”
       Kitten stopped and stared at him, disbelieving. “You’ve acted before?” Baloo straightened up, proud. “Hey, you’re looking at the star of Miss Simm’s third-grade drama team!”
       “Oh, spare me!” Kitten said, disgusted.
       “Not a chance, floozie! I’m gonna enjoy every minute of this.”

       Baloo laughed menacingly, and Kitten actually gulped as he walked off. It was just the effect Baloo wanted, because he was determined to have some real fun out of this. Baloo headed over to the set, and soon enough everyone was in place.
       The set was a crudely arranged mad scientist’s lab set up in a storage shed near the manor house. What appeared to be the actual lab props from the classic “Frankenstein” were on hand. Baloo climbed onto the big metal table and the director walked up to him.
       “Okay, Baloo,” Oscar said, starting to sell the scene, “this is a big moment in the movie and you’ve gotta really sell it!” Oscar knelt down a little to even himself up with Baloo’s height, turning Baloo’s face to his. “You’re a Frankenstein monster made up of body parts from vampires, so you’re twice the monster Frankenstein was! Your cue is when Dr. Hankenstein says, ‘Give him life’! Then, amid the lightning and thunder, you sit up, breaking your tear-away bonds. Give me a primal cry of rage that would scare the devil himself and we’ll cut—oh, and don’t worry about the lightning. We have Marty on the switches to fake some lightning flashes and we’ll loop in the sound of thunder in during post-production.”
       Oscar covered Baloo with a tarp and took a seat in his director’s chair. “Action!”
       Lightning, or what passed for lightning, flashed and the mad scientist ranted. “Life! Give him life!” On cue, Hankenstein removed the tarp. Baloo opened his eyes, trying to imagine just how he should stir up primal rage. He sat up slowly, his eyes wide open and staring. Baloo broke his bonds, and immediately his eyes caught sight of Kitten who was trying to use the opportunity to sneak off. She held a blowtorch in her hand.
       Baloo jumped up off the table in one mighty gesture, his eyes wide with unspeakable anger at the thought of his baby being cut up by that grease-painted hussy. “YAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHH!” The director and everyone else were simply amazed. In fact, Huston was under his chair.
       Oscar caught him as he started to advance toward Kitten. “Cut and print! That was beautiful, Baloo! The feeling, the rage—so real! As soon as we set up the next scene we’ll be ready to roll again. Take ten for now. The next scene will be Kitten as Fawn Hankenstein, the mad scientist’s daughter, and she hears the noise from the lab and comes to investigate. She’ll find a door with a padlock and she’ll use a blowtorch to cut the lock off, come into the lab and find the doctor and the monster.”
       Baloo marched over to Kitten. “Gimme that!” Baloo snatched the blowtorch out of her hands. Kitten stared at him, incredulous. “What’s the matter with you?”
       “Huh?” Baloo said, not believing she could possibly think the innocent routine would work. “Whattaya think’s the matter? I saw you about to sneak off and turn my baby into a junk heap, that’s what!”
       Kitten pointed at the blowtorch. “Look you idiot, it’s just a prop for the next scene! It doesn’t even work. I need to get into the right frame of mind now, so just leave me alone!” She yanked the prop out of his hands and threw it down on Baloo’s foot. “Yeow! Gimme one more good reason, and I’ll get your mind into frame for ya!”
       “Ah, ah, ah!” Huston said, coming over. “Kitten, remember. Nice.” Kitten shook with the effort to restrain herself, replying through clenched teeth. “Why, of course. So sorry, Baloo.”
       “Don’t mention it,” Baloo retorted, the same sarcasm evident in his voice that was in Kitten’s. “Man, what did I get myself into...”

Chapter 4 – A Knockout Knocked Out

       Baloo stormed off, leaving Kitten alone. The next scene went okay, and Baloo found to his amazement that Kitten was able to evoke that calm and silky demeanor he’d remembered from the first time he’d met her. Maybe she’s starting to mellow, now that the film’s underway. After a few minutes, Baloo found that impression corrected. He watched as Kitten lashed out at everyone around her, criticizing, bullying and making a general pain of herself. Baloo shrugged, wondering how she could act that nice one minute but be such a temperamental little troll the next. He didn’t have time to think about it much longer, as the director called them over for the third and final scene of the sequence.
       “Okay, she’s had her confrontation with her father over his monster, and now she’s confronting the monster itself,” Oscar said, back in selling mode. “She’s horrified of you and hates you, yet at the same time there’s something about you that stirs pity in her soul. She touches your cheek, then you grab her and carry her off-stage over your shoulder!”
       Kitten’s face twisted into a scowl. “Pity? I’m supposed to pity him? I want to stuff him in a meat locker!”
       “That’s why it’s called acting, sweets,” Oscar said.
       “Yeah, yeah. Gimme two shakes...” A few minutes later, Kitten returned from Makeup, now actually smiling. Baloo wondered if she’d hidden some sort of deadly weapon on her person. “Okay, let’s do it!”
       Baloo and Kitten assumed their places. “Remember, pity,” Baloo said.
       Kitten responded in her sultry voice. “I always pity you, poopsie.”
       When the camera started rolling, Baloo looked as menacing as he could—which wasn’t much of a stretch at this point. Kitten drew back from him, covering her eyes with her arm. Baloo waited for her to look again, and Kitten approached, slowly reaching out and brushing his face. He counted to two, then burst out in a fresh tirade, actually causing Kitten to jump back.
       In one motion he grabbed her up, Kitten screaming, then fainting in his massive arms. As Baloo lumbered out the door, the director stood up.
       “Great, that was just great!” Oscar applauded. “Okay, set up the next shot.”
       Gus, one of the tech guys, tapped him on the shoulder. “Oscar, the boom mike was in the shot.” Oscar waived him off. “No time for retakes, and besides no one will notice that. Okay, let’s keep rolling, folks!”

       Baloo had been watching the spectacle with such interest that he’d forgotten about Kitten, still slung over his shoulder. He pulled her off, and found she was limp as wet spaghetti. “Uh, hey! I think she really fainted.”
       Oscar looked over in Baloo’s direction, annoyed yet worried at the same time. “Oh, not another problem! We can’t take any chances with her! We don’t have the time or money to replace her—if only we did, overbearing jailbird…” Oscar paced for a few moments, fighting a migraine. “Okay, let’s get her back to her room! She’s probably just worn out from the trip and jumped into filming without getting enough rest.”
       Oscar shook his head, coming over to Baloo after taking a minute to calm down. “I apologize to her and to you. I’m just under a lot of pressure to get this movie done. Okay folks, that’s a wrap! See you bright and early on set tomorrow!”
       Everyone walked off, leaving Baloo holding Kitten. He shrugged and took her to her room in the manor, laying her on the bed. She was still groggy, so he found a glass and cleaned it then splashed some water in her face.
       “Puh, bluh! What’re you doing! Why’d we leave the set?” Kitten demanded, pulling the covers over herself.
       “Don’t flatter yourself, dollface,” Baloo said. “You were out like a busted-out tail light. Something wrong with you? You sure been behaving strange today.”
       Kitten rummaged through her things, finding a monogrammed towel. “The only sleep I’ve had in the last 72 hours is that catnap I had at the airport. I’ve been flying almost nonstop since I finished shooting ‘Teenage Cannibal Zombie Apocalypse’ in South Northistan. I’m tired, hungry, bored, and angry for good measure! Now will you please get out of my room!”
       Baloo bowed mockingly. “You’re welcome, your highness.” He slammed the door behind him, heading down the hall. Baloo found his name had been added to the index cards, and they’d put him next to Kitten’s room. He pulled the tack up that held the card in place and took both it and the card down to an empty room at the end of the opposite hall. After a trip to the Sea Duck to get his gear and make sure no one had messed with the plane, he returned.
       As he closed the door, he realized that Kitten wasn’t the only one who hadn’t had any sleep in an interminably long time. The bed wasn’t much, but he had his hammock and managed to string it up. He took off the Fracula costume and got back into his own clothes. In two more minutes, he was zonked out.

       The next thing he knew, someone was banging on the door and calling his name. “Yeah Becky, be there in a minute...” Baloo opened his eyes to find it was morning and this wasn’t Higher for Hire. As soon as he remembered where he was, he grumbled and came down for a meager breakfast. Then it was time for another shoot at a different location. Oscar took center stage. “Okay, today we’ll be shooting a scene that will explain where the monsters in the footage from ‘Claw Monsters’ come from. Dr. Hankenstein is really an alien and...”
       “I am a vampire!” Lugrosi countered vehemently. “I am not an alien!”
       “Uh, yes. We already talked about this, Bela?”
       Bela sulked and held his tongue while Oscar cleared his throat. “He’s an alien and in the caves to the north he has his alien claw monsters. Unfortunately we don’t have any of the original claw monster props and we don’t have the budget to make them of the same quality of the original production, so Lou our production manager’s managed to rig up some mechanical claws for us to use so we can just operate them from off-screen and cut to shots of the full monsters when needed during editing.”
       Oscar took a moment to ascertain whether Kitten was listening or not, then continued. “We’ll be filming at the caves today. If we can get enough in the can, tomorrow we can start filming at the cemetery. Baloo, we’ll also need to have you play the supernatural creature that Fracula summons to help him fight the alien claw monsters.” At this, a male mouse that came up to the size of Kitten’s hips stomped in front of her, getting the director’s attention. “Hey, when do I get be in this stupid movie! I’m the one getting top billing!”
       “Soon, Buck. Baloo, this is Buck, who’s playing our leading man, Buck Stagman.” Oscar said. Baloo looked at the mouse curiously. “But I thought Stag was supposed to be a big guy?” Oscar paused, sighing. “He was, but Buck here wanted the role and his father’s footing the bill for the movie and that means he gets any role his heart desires, so there you go.”
       Oscar returned his attention to the impatient mouse. “As Fawn’s boyfriend, you arrive by seaplane, visit your girlfriend and find out what’s going on then save the day. Uh Baloo, we’ll also need you to do the sea plane scene.”

       Baloo didn’t like the looks of Buck one bit. “With all that smelly goo in his hair, he probably chokes the monster to death.” Buck whirled on him. “Hey you, are you anyone? Keep your trap shut or I’ll shut it for you!” Baloo thought about what a wonderful punching bag the little parasite would make.
       “You two need to play nice,” Oscar said, intervening. “You have some important scenes together yet.” The director turned to Kitten. “In the climatic scene, Fracula bites your neck and turns you into a vampire and when Buck arrives to rescue you, you spurn Buck’s love and to show him you’re now evil you passionately kiss Fracula.”
       The look on Kitten’s face was priceless—well, for Baloo it was anyway. He fell on the ground, laughing and holding his belly to try not to bust his gut. Kitten bared her teeth and claws. “NO! I refuse to kiss that misbegotten fleabag! No way!”
       “Ahem,” Oscar said, pulling her aside. “You’re forgetting your contract, my dear. Have you forgotten the standard ‘the director’s always right’ clause? And don’t forget, one slip-up and you’re back in Sing-Song doing other people’s laundry.”
       Kitten leered at the laughing bear. “I’d like to stuff that contract down his...oh, all right!” Once Baloo had recovered and wiped the tears out of his eyes, he waltzed by Kitten. “Don’t worry, baby. I’ll make sure to only take a small chunk out of your neck.” Kitten’s eyes narrowed to slits of pure poison. “If you so much as look happy about this kiss, I’ll rip all the upholstery out of that beat-up excuse of a plane!”
       “Aw, she’s angry! A little smoochie will make it better...”
       Kitten screamed in frustration and Baloo walked off, as content as he’d been since this farce started. Not that he was looking forward to the kiss from Miss Congeniality. He just knew how to yank her chain and he was a pro from way back when it came to that. Oscar decided to film the seaplane part first, which gave Kitten a chance to get off on her own and cool down.
       When the Sea Duck landed, they filmed the scene of Dr. Hankenstein meeting with Buck and explaining that Fawn had been kidnapped by the monster. Once he’d been informed of the monster, he made a Dudley-Doright kind of pose and headed off to win the day, heading through the woods to the cemetery to find his love. At the cemetery, Baloo…er Fracula appeared again, sneaking up on his victim. He put his hands on Kitten’s shoulders from behind and showed the fake fangs, leaning in to make it convincing. She screamed in make-believe terror while he put the fake bite marks in place when his noggin blocked the camera.
       Suddenly, Buck appeared and took a heroic pose. Kitten screamed again, then Buck saw that his beloved was now under the spell of Fracula.
       “Oh—dear!” Buck said. “My—beloved—is—now…underthespellof—the—evil…Fracula! Fawn—itisI…your hero…your…hero…come to rescue you!”
       “Not any longer,” Kitten said, a wicked tone coming to her voice. “I have another love now—an eternal one!” Kitten turned and grabbed Baloo’s face. Before the bear even realized it, she’d laid one serious smooch on him, and the hero was thwarted. “Zounds—Iamundone!” Buck sputtered. “I must—destroy…theevilFraculawhohasmybeloved—under his evil spell. But how?”
       Oscar called “cut”, hoping they didn’t see him holding his nose when Buck did his lines. “Okay, that’s a wrap for tonight. We’ll throw in some footage from the claw monsters here to pad the film. The way things will go next is that the claw monsters will now be going after Fracula to rescue Fawn, but Fracula wants her for his mate so he summons Gorgonzola the Monster to fight the claw monsters. Then Fracula flees to the caves to steal Hankenstein’s space ship, he and Hankenstein fight, the island explodes, Buck rescues Fawn and flies her to safety. The end.”

Chapter 5 - A Kitten Up a Tree and Hard Choices

       Kitten walked off immediately, seemingly glad to be anywhere else at the moment. Baloo decided to head back for the manor and his hammock in his room. When he woke up again, it was night and he found that everyone was downstairs in the living room, talking about various films they’d been on. The director did most of the talking, telling about all the on-the-fly decisions he’d had to make over the years and the often-funny outcomes.
       Baloo started to join in when he noticed Kitten wasn’t there. He thought maybe she was upstairs, but when he asked, one of the crew said she’d just gone down near the shore. Baloo looked back at the entertaining scene in front of him, but despite his loathing for Kitten that fainting spell still stuck in his mind. Something wasn’t right about her, and he was determined to get to the bottom of it.
       He headed for the Sea Duck first to make sure she was still in good shape. As he was giving his plane a once-over he noticed Kitten sneaking into the surrounding jungle, attempting to not be seen. He checked everything over quickly, but he was becoming more and more concerned about Kitten. She had gone out into the woods after dark on a strange island, never a good sign. He tried to be indifferent, but his conscience wouldn’t let him so he grabbed a flashlight from the plane and against his better judgment he decided to go look for her.
       Following the shore’s contour, he came to a small wooden shack half-buried by jungle. To his surprise, a flash of brilliant light came from behind it. Baloo hurried his pace, sensing trouble. Sure enough, he found Kitten sprawled behind the shack, a bottle in her hand. Standing over her was a fox in a trench coat and hat, holding a camera. He’d just leaned down to adjust the angle of the bottle in Kitten’s hand when Baloo saw the fox’s other hand heading for Kitten’s dress.
       That did it—floozy or not, Baloo had been raised to always respect a lady and defend her honor. Before the paparazzi knew what was happening, Baloo had knocked him off his feet. “Listen to me, and listen close. You’ve got just one shot of coming out of this with your teeth intact. You don’t say another word, and you turn that film over to me right now. Got it?”
       “Not a chance!” the photographer said. “This is freedom of the press! The public has a right to know. Besides, she grounded her heel into every photog in Starrywood, including me. She’s a worthless...”
       The fox didn’t get a chance to finish, because a Baloo haymaker left him unconscious on the ground. Baloo opened the camera and ripped out the film then came over to where Kitten was still out cold. He took at look at the bottle—catnip. “So that’s it! No wonder she was purrin’ like a kitten during filming. She must’ve been taking some of this, and then it’d wear off. I wonder how long she’s been doing this to herself.”

       Baloo took the half-empty bottle out of her hand and stuck it in his shirt pocket. He picked her up and began carrying her back to the house. As they headed back, Kitten began to regain consciousness. She opened her eyes and looked up at Baloo, putting her arms around his neck and tucking her head under his chin, purring.
       “Hello, Balloon,” she said in giddy voice.
       “It’s Baloo. What’s wrong with you Kitten? I didn’t figure you for the type to be guzzling catnip.”
       “It’s just a little something to help me—hic…help me get through the day,” she replied with a giggle. Baloo’s voice became angry. “This stuff’ll make a mess of your life—well, more than you’ve already messed up your life.”
       “Oh, don’t worry about little old me. I can quit when-e-ver I want,” she said, beginning to stroke his ear. He turned his head away to get her to stop. “Kitten, get a hold of yourself.”
       “I’d rather get a hold of you.”
       “Stop talking like that, Kitten! When you sober up you’ll be at my throat again, like it should be.”
       “Did anyone ever tell you how handsome you are?” Kitten said, running a finger along the contour of his nose. “I’ll bet your mean old boss lady never said you’re handsome.”
       “No, and that’s also like it should be.”

       Kitten giggled and began stroking his ear again. They approached the house and Baloo put her on her feet. She slumped to the ground, still giggling, and Baloo realized she couldn’t make it to her room under her own power. “Man, the things I have to put up with.” Not wanting to draw attention to her condition from the others, he had to sneak her in a back way, and with difficulty he got her back to her room without anyone seeing or hearing them. He put her on her bed but she refused to let go, even putting her claws in his shirt. “Get some sleep, Kitten. You need to get that junk outta your system. Nighty night.”
       She was still purring, and looking into his eyes, she smiled. “You don’t have to go. It would be ever so nice to have a big cuddly-wuddly teddy bear to snuggle up with.” At that, Baloo grabbed her hands and pulled them off, her claws tearing his shirt. “Good night, Kitten.” She sighed and turned over and he pulled the covers over her.
       Baloo left the room, his heart pounding like he had looked death in the face and laughed. “Give me air pirates, monsters, lawyers—anything but crazy dames!” He wandered the halls for a while, deeply troubled by what had just happened.
       Baloo was never one to hold grudges in life and now he was left in a quandary of whether to try to help someone that had tried to kill him. As he thought on these things he had an idea and began checking the various unoccupied rooms until he came to a child’s playroom that was long abandoned but still furnished. Inside he found what he was looking for.
       Baloo soon returned to the shack to find the photographer still unconscious on the ground. He picked the guy up and began lugging him back to the house. He decided that he’d better keep an eye on Kitten in case anyone else tried something. Man, I can’t wait to be off this stupid island. Here I am, having to protect the a-number-one traitor of all time!

       When Kitten woke up, she found she was snuggled up with a large gray bear. She closed her eyes and snuggled closer until her memory of the night’s events came back to her. Kitten leaped out of bed to find she had been cuddling a child’s large, stuffed gray teddy bear. Her hand moved instinctively to her neck in a self-protective manner, then moved to her head and stayed there.
       She had a world-class hangover and couldn’t remember much of what had happened, but she did recall Baloo carrying her back to the manor house and now she cringed as she recalled what she’d said and more importantly how she’d said it. She looked down to find her clothes in place, and breathed a sigh of relief. Then she noticed the bottle of catnip on the old chest of drawers. So he knows. But why would he leave it here and why aren’t I on my way to prison? Is he baiting me now?
       Hesitantly, Kitten took the bottle and concealed it, then returned her attention to her companion in the bed. He must be mocking her—yes, that was it. He was mocking her and was just biding his time to make her suffer and then he’d lower the boom and she’d be off to Sing-Song. Kitten slapped the bear off the bed and jumped up and down on the stuffed toy, wishing dearly it was Baloo.
       When her ire was spent, she headed downstairs to find the crew and the object of her vitriol assembled for the next day’s shoot. “Okay gang, there will be a slight delay before we begin shooting today,” Oscar said. “Gus and Larry are struggling with the mechanical claws and a temperamental generator at the caves. Be at the caves on the north side of the island by two. Till then, enjoy breakfast.”
       “Uh, I better head there now!” a newcomer said, dashing out of the room as soon as he saw the surprised look on Kitten’s face. Kitten turned to Oscar. “Who was that? Where’d he come from?”
       “That’s Hank, he’s stuck on the island for a few days. I think Baloo said something about him being a nature or animal photographer, and then the guy said something like ‘yeah, and I do most of my work at night’. Something like that. I managed to wrangle him into a supporting role as Hankenstein’s lab assistant, Fleagor,” Oscar said.

       A very unpleasant memory flashed through Kitten’s mind. “Uh, I’m going to slip out for a while. I need to check something.” Before anyone could respond, she rushed out the door. She made a beeline for the shack she had been at last night. There was something disturbingly familiar about that guy. When she got there, she stood in silent horror.
       There on the ground around her footprints were the tracks of two others—a fox and a very heavy bear. Also there was a smashed camera and a ruined roll of film. Now it clicked where she had seen that guy before: he was a photographer from Starrywood and moved with the usual pack that stalked celebrities. Suddenly, the image of what he must have seen last night went through her head, then that image resting on the front page of every newspaper in the country also passed through her mind.
       She had to sit down, suddenly feeling like she was going to be sick. If that had gotten out…but it hadn’t. And there was only one explanation, but that was even more confusing than the way her catnip-influenced brain felt at that moment. Why had Baloo of all people protected her? After she pulled herself together she headed back to the manor, making sure to steer clear of Baloo until she could clear her head and think about this more.

       A few minutes later she was walking across the set, looking for a quiet place to read her script, when she fell privy to a lively conversation that Baloo was having with some of the crew. All the happy-go-lucky bear needed for inspiration was a hot cup of joe and some guys around that understood him. Kitten clung to the shadows, listening to see if he’d already ratted on her. “So there I was, out in the middle of the far side of Near Burkestan. I had all these guys with scimitars and all chasing me on horseback!” Baloo said.
       “So what’d you do?” Huston asked.
       “DO? I headed over the next dune and headed for the Sea Duck, triple time! There was Wildcat, working on the engines, so I had him rev ‘em up and we created a little sandstorm for those bozos. They never knew what him ‘em, and I got away with five of the best-looking crystal statues of Himawanna Kooki that anyone’s traded King Idanoeeni Beder out of! And that’s how I got ‘em.”
       The guys all laughed and clapped, then one of them started looking around. “Say, where’s Kitten?” the director asked. “She’s always heading off somewhere.” One of the cameramen nodded. “Yeah, why doesn’t she mingle? After all, she’s one cute kitty, even with all the trouble she’s been in.”
       “Hey, lay off the girl, will ya?” Baloo said testily.
       Huston found this reaction surprising. “What’s your problem, big guy? She turn you down?” The guys all snickered and Kitten’s interest level went sky-high. “Nah,” Baloo said. “I just think the kid deserves a little slack. I mean, it ain’t easy being a jailbird. I remember one time me and my boss were pris’ners over in Thembria, and you know how the court system is there...”
       Baloo went on telling stories, never giving the least hint of Kitten’s condition. She listened for about an hour, then quietly tiptoed away. It made no sense—why wasn’t he spreading what he knew all around? She would’ve in his place. After all, he did hate her, didn’t he? That she had to ask herself that question gave her a start, and quickly she decided to let the issue drop. There was still work to be done, anyway.

Chapter 6 – A Surprise Ending

       When two o’clock rolled around, everything was in nearly working order. Oscar wasn’t exactly in the position to ask for miracles, so he let it ride. “Okay folks, the claws are giving us some problems. You’re going to have to just wing it and act like you’re being attacked. You have my permission to go to town on this first shot. Baloo, we’ll need you to put on the Gorgonzola costume. It’ll be uncomfortable and there’s almost no ventilation, so you can’t wear it for more than ten minutes or so or you’ll pass out.
       “Kitten, you fight with some claws and Buck will first defeat Fleagore and then rescue you. Gus will be standing in for Fracula, facing away from the camera. He’ll be fighting with Dr. Hankenstein. Remember Gus, Bela’s almost 80, so take it easy on him.”
       “Blah!” Bela said. “I am immortal! I cannot be killed!”
       “Please, Bela, not now…” Oscar whined.
       “Pitiful mortals!”
       Oscar turned to his leading man. “Buck, wait for your cue then rush in. You have to fight with Fawn because she’s still a vampire.” Baloo looked at the horrible rubber monster suit he was to wear. “The things I do for twenty bucks...I mean, for my art.”
       Oscar called “action” and Baloo growled and yelled menacingly. The claws he fought “flew” at him on not-so-invisible wires, and some of the ones he dispatched kept coming back for more. Eventually, he had to just rip them down, which coincided with him losing his temper, so it actually looked fairly mildly if you squinted like a supernatural being getting mad at some mechanical claws.
       When Oscar said “cut”, he clapped with approval. “Baloo, that was great! Every low budget filmmaker should have one of you on the cast. Okay, that’s good for now! Now we’ll move onto Buck and Kitten’s scene.” Kitten had changed into her vampire seductress outfit and Buck was wearing his hero costume, armed with a prop machine gun, the origin of which had never been addressed in the script.
       “Okay Buck, you’re trying to save the woman you love from a fate worse than death. Sell it, man, sell it!” Oscar said. Buck struck a pose as the camera rolled. From off camera Fleagore leaped at the small mouse, knocking the gun from Buck’s hand as they rolled around on the ground. Fleagore was milking his screen time for all it was worth. Buck laughably overpowered the much larger fox, picked up his prop machine gun and ventilated Fleagore, which lead to Fleagore’s overly long and overly dramatic scenery chewing death scene.

       Only after that did Fawn appear. Buck threw his gun aside and he took another dramatic pose. “Cut!” Oscar shouted and things were moved and makeup was checked and Fawn was moved to her new mark. The director said a silent prayer and called, “Action!”
       “Ishallsaveyou…from a fate…worse—than death, my beloved!” Buck bellowed.
       Oh, you are going to keel over and die, then? Kitten thought. She hissed menacingly in vampire fashion. “Prepare to join the ranks of the mostly dead, hero!” Buck pointed his gun at her, which was now inexplicably back in his hands from having thrown it away in the previous scene. “I amnotafraid, for I am Buck...Staghorn!” Buck started to pull the trigger. “No! I cannot...shootmylove!”
       Meanwhile, Fracula and Bela were going at it—well, sort of. “Me eat Hankenstein!” Fracula shouted.
       “Bleah, bleah!” Bela shouted back. “I do not think so!” They traded some wind-aided blows and then Fracula went down. Bela dusted his pale hands off. “Ah, the monster is defeated. But what is this I hear? It sounds as if the island’s volcano is about to erupt!”
       Dramatic pause…
       “I said, it sounds as if the island’s volcano is about to erupt!” The cameraman began shaking the camera around to simulate an earthquake. The not-quite-expired Fracula pulled Bela into its grasp, then conveniently breathed its last. Kitten was free from the vampire monster’s spell.
       “He’s dead and I’m free from his evil spell!” Kitten shouted. “Quick Buck, we must flee the island in the spaceship!”
       “Do not fear...Fawn. I will pilot...theship...and then we will be safe!” Kitten and Buck got into the makeshift ship—well, Kitten had to pick him up and put him in the driver’s seat—but from there everything went rather normally considering. Kitten leaned in and kissed Buck, holding it for a few seconds as she’d been told.

       Oscar stood there in silence for a few moments, his mouth hanging open. Shortly his mouth began to twitch and then he screamed. “That was incredible! Brilliant, beautiful! Okay, everybody, lets do it again!” Actually, they needed two retakes to satisfy Oscar—after all, perfection demands attention to detail. Once he was satisfied, they shot some miniatures of the spaceship heading out of the cave and then a mock-up of the island itself exploding in a fiery residue, reminiscent of a teenager’s science project.
       Oscar gathered them together again. “I’m proud of you, my lovable bunch of misfits! In editing I’ll work the best of those takes together. We’ll call it a wrap for tonight and kick back and relax! That was the worst part of shooting, the big finale. Now that it’s in the can, the rest of it will be like a cakewalk.”
       No one really believed that, as that was the kind of thing all directors said. However, Oscar did have a little reward for them. He’d arranged for a little nicer repast in what turned into a regular beach party. The crew set out tiki torches and blankets, then came the food. Someone brought a record player with some jazzy tunes, and Baloo was in his element. He cavorted like the expert he was, laughing and dancing to the music.

       Kitten sat back at a distance from the rest, content to just watch the show. She had too much on her mind and the person on her mind had the spotlight right now. As she was lost in her thoughts, Buck appeared before her. She realized that in her sitting position she was eye to eye with the diminutive mouse. “Oh, hi Buck. Can I help you with anything?”
       “You sure could, wonderful,” Buck said, straightening the tie on the tailor-made suit he was wearing. His voice was much deeper than his diminutive frame described, and it had a bit of a New York edge to it. “How’s about you and me go for a moonlight stroll on the beach and discuss your future?” Kitten’s head slumped as she decided that his offer was the best she’d had all night. She stood up, towering over the mouse, noticing the infatuation in his eyes.
       Forcing a smile, she walked with him down the shore. “What’s on your mind, mousey?” Kitten asked. Buck was amazed. He hadn’t really thought that she’d come with him, but maybe that kiss got to her more than he thought. “You, sweets. If you don’t mind my saying so, you are the best-looking babe in the business. I’ve seen all your shows, even that flop ‘Twenty-Five Broads from Saskatoon’. What were they thinking!
       “But anyway, I knew all you needed was a great guy like me to show and take you away from this half-bit life. I’ve got a great place, and we could vacation in Nassau and the Cayman Islands. I’ve even named my biggest sailboat after you—of course, I’ll have to get a little bigger one for you to fit in it, but that’s just details.”
       “So what are you proposing?” Kitten pressed.
       “What do you think, sugar-lips? Marriage! Hey, after all I wouldn’t be here at this flea circus otherwise. Of course, you’d have to sign the standard pre-nup. No biggie. But you’d have me around, and that’s certainly worth it. So what do you say, babe? Ready to leave these losers and began living for real?”
       Kitten stared at him, astonished. “All this was just to get a chance to meet me in person? You paid for the movie just for this?” Buck snapped his fingers. “Hey, it’s a drop in the bucket, baby! Besides, I knew you were on the downside and I figured you’d be looking for a bigger and better thing. So here I am! Whattaya say to becoming Mrs. Buck Fendlemocker?”
       “Well, I don’t’s all kinda sudden. I’ll have to think about it. Don’t you think it’ll be a little strange? I mean, our size and all?” Buck shrugged. “What’s a few feet? And hey, I’m a patient guy, but I figure I know your side already. After all, you haven’t exactly found paradise with anyone else. I figure that’s why you...” Buck made a motion like tipping a bottle up and drinking from it.
       “What!” she screeched. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” She quickly did an about-face and began quickly walking away. Buck slapped his face. He hadn’t meant to tell her that...yet. Now he’d have to do some serious thinking, and fast. If there were any brains under that blonde mop of hers at all, she might put two and two together. For now though, he’d have to plan.

       Kitten returned to the party in a perfectly wretched mood. She couldn’t count the times she’d had offers like that, and from much better-looking prospects. Was that the kind of person she was relegated to now? The egotistical son of some wealthy whosits that just wanted her for a plaything? Kitten wrinkled her nose at the idea and walked absentmindedly right into the middle of the action.
       Before she realized it, Baloo had taken her hand. The bear was in the middle of his Carmen Miranduck impression, with a basket of fruit on his head. He had the rhythm in his blood, and he’d even dance with Kitten in that mood. Kitten tried to pull free. “Hey, whattaya think you’re...whoaaaa!”
       Baloo spun her around, all the time dancing to the beat. Kitten tried to keep her feet. “Baloo, I don’t—watch out, you’re—coming through!” Baloo looked down, seemingly realizing for the first time it was Kitten. “Hey, loosen up, kid! You’re tight as a drum in a bugle corps! Sway with it...”
       Baloo took her other hand, and began to pump her arms up and down to the rhythmic jungle beat. Kitten wasn’t in the mood...she’d didn’t like...didn’t want...didn’t...she started to sway. Baloo grinned as she began to dance along. “Hey now, that’s pretty good! But I bet you can sway better than that. Turn it up, Gus!”
       Gus obliged, and Baloo got nose-to-nose with her, the bear in the height of jungle fever. “Now kid, see if you can keep up with the old master!” Kitten forgot about her problems, and besides she liked a challenge. “I’ll let you know when he comes in!” Every move Baloo made, Kitten mirrored. They walked like ducks, scratched like monkeys, hopped like kangaroos, flapped like birds, and generally just lost themselves in the feel of the beat.
       The crowd around was clapping and shouting, right up to the end of the music when Baloo put on a big finish and began twisting around and around. Kitten followed suit and the two of them ended up dizzy and laughing on the sand.

       “Hey, you’re all right, kid!” Baloo said, looking over at her. “Got a real sweet swing.” She had a smile on her face for a moment, but then it turned to a frown. She looked around and saw Buck just staring at her with a livid look on his face. He’d seen her dancing with Baloo and didn’t like it one bit.
       Kitten stood up, brushing the sand off her fur. “Baloo, just leave me alone. Haven’t you caused me enough trouble?” Baloo’s carefree feeling left him. “Whatever. Just having fun. See you later, kid.” Baloo got up, and went back with the guys, starting up a new funny story. Kitten watched him go, realizing that she didn’t really want him to. Why does life always have to be so difficult? “Goodnight, Baloo.”
       The movie star fallen from grace hung her head and headed back to the manor. Kitten felt like...she didn’t know just how she felt. She went upstairs to her room and sat on her bed, trying to think her problems out. It was no use. She couldn’t seem to think. Something was in the way. The former glamour goddess went over to the window and pushed it up. She could hear the distant echoes of music and Baloo’s cavorting even from here.
       Leaving the window open, she pulled the covers over her, then looked over at where she’d thrown that stuffed bear on the floor. She started to reach for it, resisted, started again, and finally just snatched it up. Sitting up in bed, she hauled the toy up by its paws and listened to the music. In moments, she had the gray bear dancing in the air, humming along to the tune. She caught herself at it and started to throw it away, ashamed. Instead, she tucked teddy in with her and hoped that paparazzi hadn’t found a second camera. Within a minute, she was fast asleep.

       Kitten avoided Baloo deliberately the next day, the filming schedule allowing for it most of the time. The remaining days were spent on re-shoots of scenes where time and film allowed for it, including adding scenes with Fleagore to edit in with the existing material. The last scene to redo was the kissing scene, where Kitten had become a vampire and rejected Buck for Baloo as Fracula. As they set up for the shot, Kitten noticed that Buck appeared very uncomfortable with it and glanced often at Baloo with unfriendly looks. That gave her an idea.
       Oscar raised his megaphone. “Okay, quiet on the set. And roll ‘em!” Kitten waited for her cue, and when she turned around to face Baloo, she wrapped her arms around him and gave him the Grade-A, number one, major smoocherama of his life. Everyone just stood there in stunned silence, especially Buck, as she held the squirming Baloo over halfway and finally let go.
       Oscar fell out of his chair. “…cut...print...”
       Kitten gave Buck a “too bad” look as she headed off and Baloo ka-thunked to the ground, overcome by the unexpected power of that kiss. Buck’s blood began to boil, and his ire was aimed squarely at the bear lying on the ground in the kooky costume. It took Baloo several minutes to recover, then he sat up, rubbing his head. “Oh baby, where’d that lightning bolt come from?”

       Baloo stood up, noting that the crew gave him some funny glances. He glanced over at Buck. “Hey Bucky, wanna grab some grub?”
       “Yarrgh!” Buck stormed off, leaving Baloo standing there wondering. “Now what’s eating him? Say Housty, what’s all the hubbub? ‘Yarrgh!’ is my line, not his.” Oscar smirked, watching Buck tromp away. “I don’t know, but he seems a bit ‘short’ tempered today.” Baloo grinned at the joke, then saw someone else was missing. “Say, where’s Kitten? Did we shoot that retake already?”
       “Don’t you remember?” Oscar asked. “She gave you one world-class kiss! I guess a smooch like that would knock the sense outta a guy.” Baloo blinked, still somewhat in shock. “A world-class one? I do remember her turning around now and putting her arms around my neck, come to think of it...” Baloo took a moment, and then it all came back—the shocked surprise and the power of it all. He shook his head, trying to straighten things out. “Well, guess she gave you one great retake, then!”
       Oscar rubbed the back of his neck. “Funny how this business is. In real life you two can’t stand each other, but in front of the camera you’re smooching like all get-out.” Baloo shrugged. “That’s why it’s called acting, I guess. Well Housty, if that’s all I think I’m gonna head for the lunch wagon. We clear out right after chow, right?”
       “Yeah, that’s it. It’s been a blast working with you Baloo. You really saved our bacon and I appreciate your willingness to help out on this picture. The crew will help you get your gear stored on the plane and then it’s back to Starrywood for me to spend the next few months editing this turkey into a movie.”
       “Guess I’ll haveta see how I look on the big screen,” Baloo said, wondering if he should tell his friends. “Hope it doesn’t make me look fatter.”

Chapter 7 – A Change of Plans

       Oscar watched as Baloo left and gabbed with the crew while using his tray for a plate. After trading a few stories with the boys and finishing up, he went to check on the Sea Duck. Meanwhile, Kitten was packing her things back at the manor when a familiar figure knocked at her door. “Hey toots, how’s tricks?”
       “Hi, Buck,” Kitten said. “I can’t believe the shooting’s over already. Time to go back to the world of shallow people and fair weather friends.” Buck did his best to appear contrite. “Hey uh, listen. If you’re sore and all about the way I treated ya at the beach, I just wanted you to know that I was on an ego trip then. How’s about we start over, and you and me can leave this dump together and I’ll treat you right. Whaddaya say?”
       “I’m sorry, Buck, but I just don’t think it’s right for us. It’s more than just the size thing. We’re from two different worlds.” Buck couldn’t hide his confusion. “Two worlds? You an alien or something?” Kitten came over and tried to put it kindly. “You’re from family money, Buck. You’ve probably never worked a day in your life or spent a day working outside from sunup to sundown. I tried living the fancy life when I was a star and it was so seductive I nearly resorted to murder to keep it, but now it’s gone and now that I’m a bit wiser I don’t miss it as much as I’d thought.”
       “But I’m offering you a ride on easy street!” Buck countered. “Certainly better than that bum of a bear you were grinding lips with...” Kitten smirked. “Ah, you’re the jealous type. I owed him...for helping me with something. It was nothing personal. He’s the guy I almost murdered to remain a star, so there’s no warm fuzzies between us.”
       Buck sneered. “So you say. But this ain’t through, toots! You’ll find yourself wanting the good life again, and when you do, you’ll come around! You’ll see!” Buck left, and Kitten shrugged, finishing her packing. She found Baloo next to his plane.
       “You get everything in that trunk again?” Baloo asked. “Ready for me to pack up, so we can get back to Planet Reality?”
       “Yeah, back to the middle of nowhere,” Kitten sighed. “Baloo, I...I want to thank you for what you did for me. You could’ve hurt me bad, but you didn’t. You’re…a real gentleman.” Baloo tipped up his flight cap. “Aw, now don’t go making a fuss about that. I saw what you were into, and I’ve seen it before with others. You really ought to give that stuff up, though. It’ll mess you up after a while, and the next guy that comes along might not be so nice.”
       “I’ll survive. I always do, somehow. Buck’s after me to be his wife even. All these headaches and heartaches. Fame isn’t what it’s made out to be. On film it’s all so glamorous, but it stinks just as bad as real life!”
       Baloo was surprised to hear her talking like this. He started to reach out a hand to her, then realized what he was doing and to whom he was speaking. “Yeah, I guess so. I’ll be back in a minute.”

       Baloo went to Kitten’s room in the manor. She had her wardrobe trunk ready, but when he hefted it he noticed that something was jamming part of the lid open. He set it down on the bed frame and found to his surprise that it was the same teddy bear he’d found for her, its arm wedged between the lid and the frame.
       “Well, whattaya know...”
       Baloo dislodged the bear and hefted the trunk again, then stopped as strange thoughts began to enter his head. He hadn’t taken Kitten’s kiss seriously, but now he began to reflect on the way she’d talked to him downstairs and the teddy bear he’d found. Was, that would be ridiculous. They had nothing in common, and after all, she’d leave once they were back at the airport. Case closed.
       The cargo pilot headed down and put Kitten’s trunk in the back of the plane and stored it with the other stuff, suddenly realizing that they hadn’t used any of the props they brought with them. He realized that must have come about due to Oscar’s rewriting of the script. Baloo climbed into the cockpit where Kitten was already seated and strapped in. “Mmm, look at that sky!” Baloo said, his enthusiasm returning. “Can’t wait to get up there and clip me some clouds!”
       Kitten had a faraway look in her eyes. “It must be nice to be somewhere else.” Baloo chuckled, “Yeah, that is until Becky starts wailing at me like a typhoon for being away all this time. I’m sure she’s overbooked us already and has a load of cargo piled ten feet high waiting on the dock.”
       “I’m not eager to get home either, but I guess there’s no way of putting it off,” Kitten said, thinking out loud. “I wonder what my next movie will be like…there was some interest in me playing a small role in, ‘Fangula Jr. vs. the She-Cyclops vs. It-Thing’.”
       “You’re gonna keep playing these tank-town movies?” Baloo asked. “Why don’t you go home for a while and cool your heels?” Kitten glanced over at him. “I left home to find something better, and even this is better than what I had before.”

       Baloo felt strangely uncomfortable. Every few minutes he’d glance over and she’d catch him at it. Baloo was more than thankful when the airport came into view. It was late afternoon now, and the sun was about to set in another hour. With a will, Baloo got out and unpacked all the movie gear, leaving it where he’d found it. Then he came to Kitten’s trunk. “Well Kitten, guess this where you and me part company. Gotta say it’s been more fun than I thought it would be...uh, well, that is, more fun than I thought things might go.” Kitten looked up at him, then turned to face the setting sun on the horizon. She sighed, taking out some money from her pocket. “Baloo, where’s your next stop?”
       Baloo tilted his head, not sure why she was asking. “Cape Suzette. Why—aint’cha heading out for that next movie now?” Kitten tried to smile, but there was no spirit in it. “There’ll always be another lousy movie I can humiliate myself in later. I got money. I can pay for a ride. I’m not asking for charity. You’re right, I need to cool my heels, but somewhere else than here.”
       Baloo had started to go for her trunk when he stopped and turned around. “Uh, you sure? I mean, I’ll drop you off wherever you wanna go, but I thought that—”
       “You thought I wanted a springboard back into the big time? No. Baloo, I’m tired. You know why as well as I do. Look, just let me go with you and recommend a decent motel in town or something. I need to think.”

       The cargo pilot shrugged and put her trunk back in place, closing the Sea Duck’s cargo hold. “All righty, you got yourself a ticket to Cape Suzette, then.” Kitten paid him and they took off. Baloo looked over at the feline, and couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. She was moping, her elbow resting on the door and her head supported by her hand. Suddenly, the bear changed course. “Hey, where are we going?” Kitten asked.
       “Kid, you can’t go to Cape Suzette looking that way! I think a special stopover’s called for.” Baloo headed for a small tropical island, with only one building on it. That building happened to be Louie’s place, the restaurant the enterprising orangutan had built from the wreck of Captain Stansbury’s galleon.
       Baloo set down at the dock, and after a little cajoling convinced Kitten to go in with him. When they did, they found the place was rocking. The nightly party had been underway for a couple of hours already and Louie was on stage with two leis around his neck, dancing with a female hippo. “Shut my eyes and call me Clyde! If it ain’t the life of the party!” Louie jumped up to an overhanging light and swung across the room, landing in front of the pair.
       “Hey there, cuz! Louie’s was beginning to feel like a ghost town without you here, fuzzy....welllll, hello there!” Louie’s attention turned to Kitten. “Entrez-vous, mad-mo-selle! Welcome to Louie’s place! I’m Louie, totally at your service.” Kitten instantly switched to glamour mode and she flipped her hair so it seductively covered one eye. “Thank you, Louie. I hope we’re not intruding on your little party.”
       “NOT AT ALL!” Louie leaned over to Baloo, mumbling. “You lucky stiff...”

       Baloo laughed and escorted Kitten to a table. Needless to say, she had the attention of everyone (well, everyone male) in the place. The simian band came over and surrounded the table, taking Kitten’s requests. Louie gave her a meal on the house, as the only price he asked was “the privilege of looking into those pretty peepers”. After a bit, the boys in the band started up a Reggae beat, and Baloo was hooked.
       “Hey kid, wanna dance?” Baloo asked Kitten, standing up. “I may not look like much—” “You can say that again!” Louie interjected. “Give her a break, fuzzy!” Baloo cuffed him. “But I can dance to the beat!”
       Kitten smiled seductively. “Sure, let’s cut a rug…fuzzy.” Baloo extended his hand to her and she took it. As she stood, she touched his cheek the way she had during the filming of the movie. Baloo felt strange. Here he was, dancing with the cat that had nearly gotten him killed, and worse he was enjoying it!
       He started cavorting, doing whatever came to him. When he grabbed a big vase and put it on top of his head upside-down, Kitten giggled. When he started doing the “King Tut”, she laughed, and when he did his rendition of “Lawrence of Arabia” she nearly busted a gut as he let loose with his chicanery.
       Baloo took five and came down from the stage. “Gotta love the classics. So, feeling better?” Kitten got control of herself. “Yeah. Surprisingly, I am.” The music suddenly changed to a tango, and Kitten got an intense look in her eyes. She grabbed a rose from the centerpiece of a nearby table and clenched it in her teeth—she didn’t know why, but she had seen people in the movies do that. She pulled Baloo close to her and they began to dance. “Go, Kitten, go!” Louie said, rallying her on.
       If there was one thing Baloo liked, it was an enthusiastic dance partner. They tangoed up and down the place, trading the rose between them several times, the crowd cheering them on. On about the seventh encore, the rose stem was worse for wear and drooped, and Baloo ended up kissing Kitten’s cheek instead. This caused a roar of approval from the onlookers, and Kitten noted to her surprise that Baloo blushed.

       He led her back to the table. “Uh, maybe we oughta sit this one out, kid.” Kitten’s glamour facade had faded and now she was embarrassed and worried that she’d embarrassed Baloo as well. “Yeah, maybe that’s a good idea. Sorry, I got a bit carried away. It’s nice to be able to cut loose and not have to worry whether it looks good on film.”
       “That’s okay, kid. It’s good just to have good ol’ fashioned fun and answer to nobody. Speaking of answering, we’d better head on over to Cape Suzette. Becky’s bound to have a list of cargo for me to run long as the Great Wall of Stoneware!”
       “Is that all you do? Just fly stuff from one place to another?” Kitten asked.
       “When I’m not dodging air pirates, yeah. It’s never quite that simple, though. There always seems to be something happening.”
       Kitten found herself interested in the conversation. “Are you a good pilot, Baloo?” Baloo grabbed his shirt lapels. “Good? Step right this way...” Baloo led her to a poster board, where there were snapshots of various pilots. Baloo’s had the place of honor, right at the top. “This is the pilots’ hall of fame. Everyone knows I’m the best pilot from here to Lapdogland!”
       “Yeah, and the best bragger, too,” a female voice said behind them. Kitten and Baloo turned to see a female hippo in a pilot’s outfit. “Well, look who blew in, Plane Jane!” Baloo said. “Now, why don’t you blow out and give everyone else in here a chance to breathe?” Jane walked over to Kitten. “Hi, I’m Plane Jane, but you can call me Jane. You flying with this oversized doorstop?” Kitten grinned at the repartee going on. “Yes. Baloo’s flying me to Cape Suzette. We just got done shooting a movie together.”
       “Don’t listen to Jane,” Baloo said. “She’s just thinks she’s as good a pilot as I am.”
       “No, I know I’m as a good a pilot as he thinks he is,” Jane said. “Movies, huh? So you really are Kitten Caboodle, then? I thought you looked familiar, but chubby here takes up so much of the picture I couldn’t be sure.”
       Kitten giggled, then found she was curious. “You’re a pilot? I didn’t know there were female pilots.” Jane bumped Baloo aside. “Oh sure. You’ve heard of Amelia Bearheart of course, and there’s Louie’s aunt, Louise. I’m what you’d call a regular cargo hauler, and I know of a few others out there too. The skies ain’t just for guys anymore.”
       “It must be exciting!” Kitten said. “So, are you and Baloo rivals or something? Is it very competitive?” Baloo bumped Jane aside. “Me and Jane are...friendly adversaries.” Jane gave out a laugh. “Yeah, except for when we’re after the same thing. Well, I’ll see you, Baloo. I’ve got a load of crabapples for Crab Island. Watch your six, if you can count that high!”
       “I’ll be seeing you, Jane,” Baloo said. Jane was surprised that Baloo didn’t get in a sarcastic retort. She noticed he seemed slightly nervous during the whole conversation. Well, there’s more important things to do than worry about that tub of lard.

       Kitten watched as Jane left. “Well, you certainly have a large and interesting circle of friends, Baloo. It must be nice to just be able to pick up and go.” Baloo nodded. “Yeah, it is. Some days I’ll just grab a pole and head out for some fishin’, and some days I’ll head here, and...”Baloo noticed the look in Kitten’s eyes, and then she yawned. “Aw, I’m sorry, kid. You gotta be beat. C’mon, I’ll get ya over to town.” Kitten protested some, but Baloo insisted and they headed for the Sea Duck.
       Once Baloo got them in the air, Kitten took a good look around the cockpit and noticed a picture she’d missed before. It was a group shot that Baloo kept, with Rebecca and Kit on either side of him, Molly in front, and Wildcat peeking and waving from behind Kit.
       Kitten buckled herself into her seat. Once Baloo had taken off she decided to indulge her curiosity. “Baloo, who are the people in that picture there besides your boss? Are you married to your boss and are those your kids?” Baloo was caught off-guard by the question. “Me, married to Becky? That’d be like pouring gas on a fire! As for Kit and Molly...well, Molly’s Becky’s girl and Kit’s an orphan who used to hang out with the air pirates before I met up with him. Kit’s like a son to me, and we’re best buds. Oh, and that guy waving there’s Wildcat. He’s our mechanic and while he might be a little strange, he’s a real nice guy.”
       To her surprise, she felt relieved to know that those people weren’t his family and when she realized she felt that way she was alarmed and became concerned as to what those feelings could represent. “Well, that’s nice. So...what’s Cape Suzette like, Baloo? Maybe I’ll have one last fling before I head back to the farm.”
       “Oh, it’s all right as towns go. Shere Khan pretty much rules the roost with that Khan Industries of his. The folks in town are friendly enough, though, and there’s always something going on. Of course, the air pirates try to either steal somebody’s cargo or get past the cliff guns into Cape Suzette once a week. They’re sort of a sideshow to us.”

       Then Baloo realized what else she’d said. “Go back to the farm? But I thought you hated it there.” Kitten folded her hands in her lap. “I do hate it there, but I hate Starrywood now too. At least at the farm I only have to deal with bugs, the blazing sun and working from sunup to sundown. In Starrywood I have to deal with fake friends, slimy business people, crazed fans and maniacal studios. I’m either a slave to the soil or a slave to a studio. Same difference.”
       Baloo yawned, covering his mouth. “Hey, now don’t think that way. You’ve got brains, an’ more than enough looks to get you into the door of anyplace you want. Why don’t you use what you learned in Starrywood and teach acting somewheres? Or maybe you could try for a stint on Boardway.”
       Kitten laughed. “Me, teach acting? I couldn’t act my way out of a wet paper bag with a chainsaw and everyone knows it. They’d never let me near Boardway unless it’s the stage version of ‘Fracula, the Creature from Beyond the Grave’. I’ve got my looks, but I’m tired of being a sex symbol. At least on the farm it’s honest living.”
       “You deserve better than that, though.”
       Baloo winced—he was so tired, he’d actually said what he was thinking out loud. He instantly tried to cover. “Uh, we’re passing the cliff guns now. If you look off to your right, you’ll see the lights of Cape Suzette as we clear the cliffs.”
       Kitten leaned over and nearly had her nose against the window. “I’ve always wanted to visit Cape Suzette. I’ve heard lots of stories about the town, but to actually see it…I can see Khan Tower from here! Even at night it’s such a busy place.”

       Baloo breathed a silent word of thanks that she hadn’t caught what he’d said. Kitten watched as they headed into the harbor and Baloo’s flying instincts took over. He set them down as smooth as silk, and gently they bumped into the pier at Higher For Hire. “Well, I got you here in one piece. Say, what time is it?”
       Baloo watched while she tried to read the numbers on her wristwatch in the low light, and took advantage of the situation to stick the money she’d given him back into her purse. “Two-thirty seven,” Kitten said. “Typical night for you?”
       “Pretty much,” Baloo said. “Say, it’s too late for you to grab a spot in town. Tell you what—there’s a nice place in the back of the Duck for snoozing. It ain’t much, but it’ll get you through the night. I’d let you take my room and I’d sleep out here, but I share the place with Kit and he’d probably wonder about waking up and finding a pretty lady there in my place.”
       “No problem, Baloo. Are you sure I’m not imposing? I could probably find a place in town.”
       “At this time of morning? Not a chance! Now don’t you worry, I’m sure things’ll be fine.” Baloo rolled out a mattress pad for her and brought her some blankets and a pillow. “If you decide to head out before I get here, I just wanted to say it’s been a real adventure. You going to be all right?”
       Kitten nodded. “It’s no problem, Baloo. I wasn’t always a glamour queen. I know how to live out of a suitcase.” Baloo hesitated, then nodded. “All right. Well, I’d better be getting some shuteye too. Knowing Becky, I’ll be hauling cargo nonstop for the next two weeks, even though it’s gonna be one of the better publicity stunts she’s pulled off.”
       Kitten felt very uncomfortable as they stood near each other in the dim light on the dock. She moved to Baloo and hugged him. “Goodnight, Baloo. Thanks for being there when I needed a friend. Not many people I’ve met would ever forgive me for what I tried to do to you.” Now it was Baloo’s turn to feel uncomfortable. He put his huge hands on her shoulders, a twinkle coming to his eye. “Hey, you were just mixed-up and all. You’re a real okay kid. And besides, you were probably out of your right mind with such a dashing guy like me around.”
       “What woman wouldn’t lose her head over a big teddy bear like you?” she said with warm smile. Baloo blushed again. “Aww, now you’ll have me thinking too much of myself. Good night, Kitten. It was a blast.”

       Baloo headed off, looking back once, and Kitten waved when he did. When he got upstairs, Baloo found Kit sound asleep in his hammock and Baloo settled into his own as quietly as possible. He grinned, thinking of Kitten and how much his perception of her had changed. She’d turned out to be a good egg after all, and even...well, sweet. Baloo’s thoughts returned to Buck and he wondered if he might be doing the wrong thing, letting her go. After all, she didn’t have anyone and—but no, he was a lone eagle.
       Baloo was a loner and had been most all his life. He liked the freedom of solitude, and only Kit had managed to divert him from it. The kid wasn’t so bad to Baloo’s mind. After all, he was a boy and enjoyed the things he did. A girl, had never even occurred to him, and certainly not one that looked like her. She had pampered penthouse stamped all over her, and she’d probably be unsatisfied with anything else. She did say that she was going back to the farm, though...
       Baloo rolled over, trying not to think about it anymore.
       Inside the Sea Duck, Kitten pulled the makeshift curtains up and lowered one of the fold-up beds that were on the wall. She sat on the lower berth and looked at her steamer trunk. That was all she had left in the world from her Starrywood career. Opening it, she pulled out a scrapbook and looked at the glamour pictures and newspaper articles about herself. She also read the ones that followed the downward spiral of her career and how the people who once used to kiss up to her began ripping her to shreds.
       She paged back to see pictures of her family on the farm. They were all in overalls and carrying farm tools, or dressed a little better for church socials. She was the youngest of seven and had left them early on for a “better life”. As much as she liked looking at her parents again, the thought of returning to the dreary existence on the farm held no joy for her. She didn’t have anywhere to go except the farm, though.
       Kitten sighed, changing for bed. For the first time since she’d left home some ten years ago, she truly felt purposeless. She’d had her whole life laid out in her mind, but now that dream was no longer within reach. What would she do now? She lay staring at the ceiling for a while and then looked back at the open trunk and was reminded of something. In one movement, she reached over and grabbed the teddy bear Baloo had given her. As she drifted off to sleep she hugged it tightly.
       “Goodnight, Baloo.”

Chapter 8 – Another Rude Awakening and The Wrath of Becky

       “Hello there!”
       It was dawn, and Kitten found herself staring nose to nose with a friendly-looking lion mechanic, and pulled back against the wall instinctively. Wildcat brought his finger up to his lips and shushed her, whispering. “It’s okay. I’m just here to make sure everything’s running all right on the Ducky.”
       Kitten pulled the covers over herself and hid the bear behind her back. “Who are...oh yeah, you must be Wildcat. Baloo said it would be okay for me to sleep here. I hope you don’t mind.” Wildcat had already walked off and was checking under the control panel, humming a tune. She drew the curtains and changed quickly, then walked up to see what he was doing.
       “Oh, there you are!” Wildcat said happily.
       Kitten was confused. “What, you thought I’d left?”
       Wildcat stood up. “No, not you, silly. I’ve been looking for this for weeks!” Wildcat opened up his hands, and showed her a ball of tin foil. “It’s from the best of my collection! I remember when I made this. It was a weekend-long repair on the Sea Duck’s whirlygigger and I must’ve had 30 chili-burrito hotdogs and—”
       “Uh, that’s nice, Wildcat. Is Baloo around by any chance?” Kitten asked. Wildcat looked behind her on both sides. “Um, no. Say, could you do me a favor? I’ve got to tighten the springy here on the clockenheimer. Could you hold that screwdriver in place?”

       No one had ever asked her to do anything mechanical, although she’d learned a little here and there. Her tampering with the Sea Duck was proof of that. She shrugged and did as she was asked while Wildcat tightened a bolt underneath the panel. “Thanks!” Wildcat said, rubbing his greasy hands off on his coveralls. “Say y’know, you look sort of familiarish. Have you been in the back of the plane before this?”
       Kitten smiled and shook her head. “No, I’ve never been in this plane before and this is my first time in Cape Suzette. I used to be a movie star. I’m Kitten Caboodle.” Wildcat banged his head on the panel getting up, gasping. “You’re THE Kitten Caboodle? That’s where I saw you from! Wow, I’ve like seen every movie you ever did and I even went to see ‘The Big Wakeup Call’ five times and I didn’t believe any of what they said about you not having the talent that Lana Turnbull has. Wait right there!”
       Wildcat ran off and returned with a big scrapbook, with even more pictures, articles and such than Kitten’s album had. “Would you sign my scrapbook? Well, actually it’s not mine, or it didn’t start out being mine. Y’see, it used to belong to Baloo, but then you and him met up and he gave it to me so I kept it and here it is.”
       Kitten looked up in surprise. “Baloo kept a scrapbook of me?” After a few moments she regained her composure and took out a pen and autographed the scrapbook. “Thanks for the kind words, Wildcat. I haven’t heard too many of those lately.” Wildcat ducked his head and blushed, showing himself for the softie he was. “Gee thanks, Miss Caboodle.”

       Kitten turned and found a little bear girl of about five or six, looking at her. “Wow, you’re purty. Did you come to talk to mom? She’s inside, yelling at the phone again.” Kitten found she instantly liked the youngster. “Hello, young lady. You must be Molly. I’m a friend of Baloo’s, and he’s told me all about you. My name’s Kitten.”
       Then she turned to Wildcat. “Uh, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to mention that I’m here. I’ll just pack my stuff, get a cab and be on my way.” Molly wasn’t about to be put off. “Kitten? That’s a funny name. Do you know what name I want to have when I grow up? Danger Woman!”
       Kitten smiled down at Molly. The girl was a real charmer. “Kitten’s just my stage name. My real name’s Zelda. I changed it when I went into show business. I like Danger Woman too. I did a part in the episode, ‘The Caller Called at Midnight’. I was Lady Lavender, the heiress who was being stalked by a madman.”
       That did it. Molly was spellbound. “REALLY! Oh goody! Tell we what Danger Woman looks like and what it was like to work with her and what the others are like and...”

       While Kitten spoke with Molly and tried to find an opportunity for a noble exit, Baloo came down from his quarters. He hoped that Kitten would be gone, and then again he hoped that she might want to stay. It was confusing, to say the least. He got to Rebecca just in time to see her hang up the phone—or rather slam it down.
       “That’s the third time I’ve lost a customer this week! Baloo, I’m glad you’re back,” Rebecca said, slumping into her chair. Baloo leaned an elbow on her desk. “Got competition trouble again? Is it Cool Hands Luke or someone new?”
       Rebecca swatted his elbow off the table. “That’s not it. Sometimes, I just can’t seem to close the really big deals. I’m like this close to getting the contract to fly Mexican jumping beans to Chibowwow and then they say ‘we’ve changed our minds’,” she said in disgust. Baloo started inching for the door. “Well, I know how tough it is in this job, Becky. We’ve just Kitten off... bitten off more than we can chew. Things’ll get better, just give it some time. You oughtta take time to relax, Becky. You’re working too hard.”
       Rebecca snapped out of her busied thoughts. “Work! Oh, I’ve got to get Molly in for breakfast and start in on the week’s agenda!” Rebecca started heading for the door and Baloo bodily blocked her. “Don’t worry, Becky! I’ll go get Molly for you. Just stay right here!”
       Still blocking with his body he opened the door and backed out of the room. She watched him as he nervously bolted out. “Now what’s the matter with him? Whatever it is, it better not keep him from his morning cargo run...”

       Baloo came outside to find that the group was on the wharf now and one more visitor had joined the fun. Kit had just come down the outside stairs and had brought his ski rope for some cloud surfing he planned to do later that day, now that the Sea Duck was back. He stood at the base of the stairs and then came over to Baloo when he came out the door. “Is that who I think it is, Baloo?” Kit asked.
       Baloo jumped in front of Kit. “There ain’t no one there, little britches! It’s just your imagination.” Kit knew that attitude and what it meant. “It’s that much trouble, huh? Why’d you bring her here then, Papa Bear? I thought you hated Kitten more than anyone after she let you down and all.”
       The pilot gave himself a moment to calm down. “Well, it ain’t right to hate anyone, at least not forever. She was at the movie shoot and she needed a lift to Cape Suzette, that’s all.” Kit shrugged and started marching right by him. “Whatever you say.”
       “Kit—hey Kit, waitaminit!” Baloo said, sensing disaster on the horizon. Kit came over to where Kitten had just finished regaling Molly and Wildcat with a story about one of her movies. Molly was one little furball of happiness. “Hey, Kit! This is Kitten, but her real name’s Zelda. She’s been in movies, and she met Danger Woman!”
       “That’s pretty cool,” Kit said, taking off his cap. “Hi there, I’m Kit Cloudkicker.” Kitten smiled at Kit. It had been quite a while since she’d been given the level of courtesy he’d just shown her. “Hello, Kit. I’m Kitten Caboodle, a friend of Baloo’s. He’s told me all about you, and I think you’re quite an interesting young man.”
       Kit glanced back at Baloo, who looked more and more nervous, then back at Kitten. She certainly wasn’t the kind of person Baloo had grumbled and growled about when he ripped all of her pictures down from their room. “Well, ol’ Papa Bear likes to brag on me, I guess. Say, you going to be hanging around? I’m going to see if I can talk him into letting me go cloud surfing. Ever see anyone do that before?”
       “I’ve never even heard of it. What kind of surfing can you do in the clouds?” Kitten asked. Kit pulled out his special boomerang-shaped airfoil and casually flicked his wrist to extend it. “With this and the tow rope tied on the back of the Sea Duck, I can ride the wind itself! It’s one of the biggest thrills I know.”

       With all the distractions, Rebecca had been forgotten. She however had not forgotten about getting Molly inside. Grumbling something about “that lazy, distracted bear” she opened the outer door and headed out to the dock. Baloo saw her and tried to head her off, but she had come too far already. She marched up to the crowd and took Molly by the hand, at first too concentrated on her daughter to notice who Molly was talking to.
       “Come on, Molly. We’ve got to get your breakfast and then get Mister Lazy here up in the air. Hello Kitten. And then I’ve got to call about enrolling you in kindergarten this fall and check on the Levvy Lobster account and...” She’d gotten halfway back to the building when she stopped in her tracks. Her eyes grew wide in surprise and her mouth dropped open. Slowly, she turned.
       Baloo cringed. “Oh man, this is bad.”
       Rebecca marched right up to Baloo. “So, that’s what you didn’t want me to know, huh! What’s this all about? You didn’t let her con you out of the Sea Duck, did you!” Baloo held his hands up in a stopping gesture. “Don’t get your hair in a twist, Becky! Kitten was on the movie I was at and she just needed a ride to Cape Suzette, that’s all. No funny business happened, so there’s nothing to get upset over.”
       Rebecca took on a mock jovial air. “Oh, I see! There’s nothing to worry about. Then I guess I didn’t see the person who tried to kill you and me both just to advance her career standing there with my daughter not three feet from her!”
       Molly pulled on her mother’s slacks. “Mom, don’t be mad at Kitten!” Rebecca knelt down. “Honey, this doesn’t concern you. Now, run along inside.”
       “No! She didn’t do anything bad, and she knows Danger Woman and she said I was cute!”
       Rebecca glared at Kitten while she answered. “Molly, in the house. Now!”
       “Yeah mom,” Molly moped, heading in slowly. Rebecca lunged for Kitten, but the three guys blocked her way. “Let—me—at—her!”
       “Miss Cunningham, she didn’t do anything wrong!” Kit said.
       “Yeah! She just talked about what she does and all,” Wildcat added. Baloo got a hold of Rebecca’s arm. “Becky, stop and get a grip!” Rebecca growled, “I’d like to get a grip all right! A really tight one!”
       The tussling ended when Kitten whistled to get their attention. “Hey, I didn’t come here for a fight! Baloo flew me to Cape Suzette and let me spend the night in the Sea Duck. I’m not asking for anything. I’ll just get my stuff and find a cab and be on my way.”
       “Good! I’ll go call one,” Rebecca said, marching off.
       Baloo watched Kitten start to turn around. “Now wait just a dime-store minute here, Becky!” Rebecca was incredulous. “Wait? Wait for what? You heard her, she’s ready to go! Oh, wait. Let me guess, she got to you.” The coldness of Rebecca’s stare went right through him, but Baloo shook it off. “No, it ain’t like that! Y’see, she’s out of the movie business now and she ain’t got any place to go except home.”
       “Let her go home, then! We sure don’t need that painted hussy around here.”
       “Becky, you take that back!”

       Both Rebecca and Kitten started at that. Baloo was actually angry over this. Rebecca took on a counseling tone. “Baloo, you’re not thinking straight. She’s obviously been manipulating you again and—”
       “No she hasn’t, Becky,” Baloo countered, “but if you don’t lay off I’ll manipulate myself right out of here!” Rebecca gave out a laugh. “With my plane? I don’t think so.” Kitten didn’t like where this was going. “Hey! I said I’m going. Look Baloo, I don’t want to cause any more trouble for you, I’ll just go. Thanks for helping me and for everything else. I won’t forget all that.”
       “You just cool your heels a minute,” Baloo said. Baloo pulled Rebecca aside for a conference out of earshot of the others. “What’s this about, Baloo?” Rebecca asked. “I thought you had more sense than this!”
       Baloo raised his hand as if to take an oath. “Look, I’m telling you how it is, honest injun! She ain’t like she was when we met her the first time. She’s had a rough road and it’s made her face up to all of it. The kid’s alone, and...well, I feel for her. I’ve seen some tough times myself, but believe me they’re nothing compared to what she’s been through. Becky, I’m asking this as a personal favor—don’t make her leave. I’m afraid if she does, she ain’t gonna last much longer.”
       Rebecca was amazed at the desperation in his voice and the depth of feeling that came pouring out. She looked over at Kitten again and some of the initial rage began to quell. “All right, Baloo. All right, but if she so much as blinks wrong I’m sending her on a one-way ticket to wherever it is she came from.”
       “Fair enough, Becky. She’s still on probation from the prison, so if she tries anything underhanded you go right ahead and call ‘em. But I don’t think she will,” Baloo said. Rebecca and Baloo returned, finding Wildcat helping Kitten get her trunk. It took a few moments for Rebecca to muster the fortitude to say what Baloo wanted. “Kitten, we’ve talked about this, can stay. For now.”
       Kitten was floored. “Really?” She clasped her hands together in gratitude. “Thank you, Rebecca, you won’t regret it! I’ve got some money, I can pay. I’ll sweep floors, clean windows, whatever needs to be done.”
       Rebecca mulled it over in her mind, and suddenly a nasty little thought implanted itself. “Why yes, I think we do have some work for you. Wildcat, do you have some spare coveralls? She can’t work in that pretty dress.”
       “Why sure!” Wildcat said. “Be right back!”

       Kitten couldn’t believe her luck. She already had a job, and with a female boss at that. Maybe things were looking up. Wildcat brought her the coveralls and she went into the Sea Duck to change. When she came out, she looked entirely different. Kitten had tied her hair back into a ponytail, and the grimy coveralls made her look like a regular work-a-day girl. Rebecca grinned, seeing Kitten reduced to this. “Perfect! Now come on. This place is overdue for a cleaning.”
       Baloo couldn’t believe it. Rebecca was going to make Kitten work like a scullery maid? He looked back at her, but Kitten really didn’t seem to mind. And now he found that she didn’t look quite so glamorous, but more like a typical pretty girl you’d find in any small town in Usland. Rebecca set Kitten to work on scrubbing the floor in the office. For the first time in weeks, she was in a good mood, watching that little tramp get her comeuppance.
       Baloo poked his head in. “Uh, Becky? Anything I can do?”
       “Sure, Baloo, let me spell it out. See Baloo. See Baloo fly away with cargo. Fly, Baloo, fly!” Rebecca said. Baloo cast a concerned look over at Kitten down on her knees, then slowly padded his way to the Sea Duck. Rebecca shuffled the “to do” list, and actually found herself humming. It was going to be a good day.

       When sunrise turned to sunset, not only had Kitten finished cleaning the floor but she’d done all the ground floor windows as well. Rebecca had to grudgingly admit, she’d done a very good job. “Well, I used to do all kinds of work on the farm,” Kitten explained, cleaning off the cleaning supplies. “It’s been a while, but I’m glad to be doing anything right now. Thanks, Rebecca.”
       Rebecca couldn’t believe it. She thought Kitten would’ve quit halfway through, but she’d taken the worst jobs she could think of and had done them. Rebecca paid her. “All right, tomorrow I’ll need you to work on updating the customer files for the last five years. I’ll show you where to begin and I’ll want them in alphabetical order by the end of the day.”
       “Yes, Rebecca. I’ll get on it first thing.”
       Rebecca wanted to have Kitten start saying, “yes, Miss Cunningham” but for some reason let it slide. The Sea Duck landed a few minutes later and Rebecca and Kitten came out to see how things were. “You’re back early, Baloo,” Rebecca said, suspicion mixed in her voice. “Afraid that I’d work our newest employee too hard?”
       “Oh no! Nothing like that,” Baloo said. “Just wanted to get back and see if Kitten wanted to do anything tonight. I knew she’d worked hard all day.” Kitten wiped off some of the grime from her face. “That’s sweet of you, Baloo, but actually I’m sort of tired now. It’s been a while since I’ve done a full day of physical work like that. Rebecca, is there some place I could bed down inside?”
       “Well, we don’t really have a guest room,” Rebecca said. “There’s the sofa in the office, though.” Kitten nodded. “That’ll be fine. That way I can get to the filing quicker in the morning. Once I’ve earned enough, I’ll see about getting a place of my own.”
       “But Kitten, it’s—”
       “No, don’t put yourself out. I’ll be fine. Good night, everyone.” The group said good night, and Kitten headed for the office as the last rays of the sun disappeared under the cliffs.

       Baloo turned to Rebecca. “So she really did do a solid day’s work?” Rebecca gave out a laugh. “Surprised me, too. I thought she’d have thrown a tantrum and caught a ride for home.”
       “Maybe she’s just lonely, Miss Cunningham,” Kit said.
       Rebecca looked back to the office. “I’m keeping her under my thumb. One day doesn’t prove anything.” Baloo got worried. “Now Becky, don’t be too harsh with her. I know you want to keep sinking your spurs in, but I dunno how much she can handle.” Rebecca raised her chin defiantly. “Are you saying a mere woman can’t handle it?”
       “Naw, Becky! I just mean that I think she needs friends now. That’s all.”
       “Well, if she wants me to be her friend she’ll have to earn it,” Rebecca said flatly. The boss of Higher For Hire headed back to her office to find Kitten had already cleaned up and changed for the night. She had fallen asleep on the sofa the moment she’d hit it, exhausted.
       Despite herself, Rebecca went over and adjusted the covers. Then she noticed Kitten was holding something under them. Immediately suspicious that Kitten might’ve stolen something, she took a peek. It was a gray teddy bear, and Kitten was clutching it tightly. This amazed Rebecca no end, but she simply replaced the covers and headed over to her desk to get her work done. After all, the smarter businessperson makes good use of their time.

Chapter 9 – Old Cravings and a New Job

       Come the dawn, Kitten felt the pangs return. She’d done pretty well since she left the island, but yesterday’s work had taken a lot out of her and she’d become so used to the catnip propping her up that it was a reflex now. She went to her trunk and searched for her bottle, but it wasn’t there. Kitten threw everything out of it, but to no avail. Panic began to set in, and immediately she suspected what had happened.
       Kitten found Baloo out by the Sea Duck. “Where is it! What did you do with it!” Baloo stared her down, which was a challenge at the moment considering that Kitten was starting to get the shakes. “Kid, I told you that stuff was rotten! Besides, you think Becky would let you stay here if she found out you were on catnip?”
       “Baloo, I can’t handle stress without it! When it started getting bad at the studio, I found it helped me to overlook all the chaos going on.”
       Baloo suspected as much. “Then you were on catnip when I met you the first time?” Kitten nodded. “And when I went to prison I had horrible withdrawals. I try not to do it, but do you know how hard it is to be dazzling on cue? Now give it to me, before it goes any worse!”
       “No,” Baloo said.
       “No? NO!” Kitten said. Then the pangs hit worse and it fired her adrenalin. She came at Baloo, shouting and threatening, but the big bear had been ready for something like this. He grabbed her and pushed her into the Sea Duck, shutting the door to minimize anyone else hearing her onslaught.
       It went on for around half an hour, then Kitten’s engine gave out. She crumpled to the floor, crying in a torrent of self-pity and woe. Baloo put something in her hands. “Here, Kitten. I went out yesterday and asked a doctor friend of mine what would help, and he said these pills would cut your cravings. He said these ain’t addictive, and after a week or so your body’ll adjust and you won’t need ‘em anymore.”

       Kitten immediately read the instructions typed on the side and then took two pills and in another half-hour the cries of self-pity ceased. She was embarrassed now, but she was also relieved that the overwhelming cravings had been reduced to a minimum. “Thanks, Baloo. Thanks for not letting anyone else see me that way. How often can I take these pills?”
       “Whenever you feel the cravings come on, but don’t take more than two at a time,” Baloo said. “They’re mighty strong.” Kitten regained her feet. “Oh, I’d better get back inside. Rebecca wants me to fix her filing system.” Baloo halted her before she could get out. “Hang on, kid, you look a mess. I’ll go inside and snag you some chow and your makeup kit.”
       Baloo headed inside to find Rebecca looking for Kitten. “Did she slip out on us?” Baloo shook his head. “Naw, she’s outside. Don’t blame her, Becky, it was my fault. I was telling her some of my stories and the time got away from us.”
       Rebecca snorted. “Baloo, I’ll thank you to stay out of my business from here on, and let Kitten get her work done! Now call her in, and I’ll get her some breakfast.”
       Baloo thought fast. “Well, she was in the Sea Duck with me and her mascara ran and she’s embarrassed for anyone to see her. I’ll take the food to her, and that way she can eat and fix her face before getting to work.” For a long moment, Rebecca stared and considered it. “All right, just make sure she’s inside in ten minutes and working on those files. We’re due to be audited, and I want those files in perfect order!”
       Baloo kowtowed several times and skipped back out to Kitten. She took the food gratefully, her appetite having returned. “Thanks again, Baloo. My head’s clearer now, so I think I can handle those files.”
       Baloo waited while Kitten cleaned and made up her face, and went back into the building with Rebecca. It was past his time to be going, so Baloo jumped in the Duck and started her up. He was relieved that the pills had worked, and that Kitten hadn’t thought it strange that Baloo had gotten a prescription so easily. “If doctors knew how good sugar pills were, they sure wouldn’t sell ‘em so cheap. Thank God for the placebo effect.”

       The work routine kept up for the next several days. Kitten would toil at cleaning the place up, and Rebecca would try to find the worst things she could imagine asking a person to do. Kitten never talked back once, and every day she turned in early. This struck Rebecca so strangely until it hit her that Kitten might well have been used to a routine like that from prison. On the fourth morning, Rebecca put that thought into words.
       “You’re right,” Kitten said. “And believe me, I was a royal pain in the you-know-where about it at first. The guards were tougher than I was though, and I ended up scrubbing almost every hallway in Sing-Song before I was done. I even got the nickname ‘sponge’ because I was almost always seen with one. A year of that’s enough to change anyone’s attitude.”
       Rebecca nodded, starting to feel a little guilty for how she’d treated Kitten. She shook it off, and watched as the cat in dirty coveralls went outside and climbed a ladder to reach the upper windows in order to clean them. The lower window was open, and soon she heard Kitten start to hum, then sing.
       It had never occurred to Rebecca that Kitten could be a good singer, but the low and soft voice that came down was somehow soothing. Kitten was singing, “Look For the Silver Lining” and Rebecca put down her pencil to listen. Then she looked out the window and saw a dockworker stop and look up. Then another did. And another. None of them said a word; they simply stood there and listened. When she stopped, they smiled some and quietly headed on their way. Rebecca stood up, and the Sea Duck landed from its morning run. Baloo had been running on time every day Kitten had been there, and it hadn’t escaped Rebecca’s attention.
       Kitten had become a part of the routine now, so Baloo just said hello up to her and then walked into the office. “Hiya, Becky! The Potentate of Pomegranate sends his best and says that marriage offer’s still open.” Rebecca laughed. “Him? In his dreams. Still, that goatee of his was sort of cute, even if it was on a billy goat.”
       Rebecca thought for a moment. “Say, could you use an extra hand on the runs this afternoon?” Baloo blinked in surprise. “Well, sure. We could always use help and if you want to come along—”
       “Good, c’mon.” Rebecca went outside and called Kitten down.

       “Anything wrong, Rebecca?” Kitten asked, climbing down. “I think I got them all shining.” Rebecca shook her head. “No, it’s nothing like that. It’s just that we’ve got such a lot of cargo to move these days, I think you’d be more useful helping Baloo and the guys for a while.” Kitten’s eyes grew wide in pleased surprise. “Really?” Rebecca grinned, despite herself. “Really. You know the system, now that you’ve reorganized the files. Baloo’s only good for flying, and for once I’d like neat ledger entries that I don’t have to have an expert in chicken-scratch to interpret for me.”
       Rebecca handed over the ledger to Kitten and Baloo just stared at his boss. She brought him over to one side, but changed her demeanor to more of what her pilot was used to. “Right now, just keep her out of my hair, Baloo. She’s your responsibility while she’s in the Sea Duck. Keep an eye on her, and make sure she does the work.”
       “Now when have I ever let you down?” Baloo asked innocently.
       “Let’s not go into that, shall we?”
       Baloo began frantically shaking Rebecca’s hand. “Don’t worry, Becky! You won’t live to regret it!” Rebecca sighed, “That’s what I’m afraid of.” Rebecca watched as they left. She didn’t like having to put on airs, but she also didn’t want to falsely influence Baloo. Kitten had proven to be a surprise to this point, but just perhaps this was all a ruse. Rebecca decided to play it close to the vest and allow Baloo to make his own conclusions.
       Baloo didn’t give his boss a chance to reconsider. He motioned for Kitten to follow him, and she Kit and Wildcat headed for the Sea Duck to finish getting it ready for the afternoon run. Kitten took the seat next to Baloo as she had before. “So what is it we’re doing today?” Baloo took a look at the list Kit handed to him. “Looks like we’ve got to pick up some mangoes for the Dominatin’ Republic, some tool and dies for the Cape Suzette tool and die company, and we’ve got to run a load of boomerangs over to a ship heading for Landownunda.”
       Kit tapped Kitten on the shoulder. “Uh, Miss Caboodle? That’s my seat. I’m the navigator.” Kitten unbuckled herself. “Oh. Sorry.” Kitten got up and let Kit sit in his usual seat, taking the one behind him.
       “Uh, miss Kitten?” Wildcat asked.
       “Yeah, yeah. I know...”

       Kitten moved again, feeling like the square peg in a round puzzle. For the remainder of the day she kept quiet, observing and writing down what Baloo told her to write down at each delivery point. It was distracting at least, but not half as distracting as she was to the guys standing around at each place. Baloo noticed it, and kept her back some. Kitten noticed his reaction and it pleased her.
       Finally, the workday was over and they headed for home. Baloo signaled to Kit and the young bruin headed for the back of the Sea Duck, where Wildcat helped him open the cargo door, and in one motion Kit was outside and surfing the clouds on his board. “Yee-ha! Higher, Papa Bear, higher!” Wildcat relayed the message, and Baloo looked back at him with a thumbs-up. “You got it, kid!”
       Kitten grew alarmed. “Baloo, this is dangerous! He’s just a little boy. Shouldn’t Wildcat reel him in?” Baloo waived off the notion. “Don’t you worry your pretty head. Kit’s an ace with that thing. Right, Wildcat?”
       “Yeah, right!” Wildcat agreed. “As long as he doesn’t try that triple loop-de-loop thingy he did that time with Daring Dan and all...”
       Kitten was really worried now. Why weren’t they taking this seriously? “Baloo, he should have a safety harness or something! Even the stunt people at the studio took more precautions than he is. Baloo, please don’t let him do anything to hurt himself!” Baloo knew the kid wasn’t going to like it, but he didn’t want Kitten to fret. “Okay Wildcat, reel him in...” Wildcat obeyed, and when Kit was back inside his face showed his confusion. “Hey, Papa Bear, why’d you pull me in so quick? Get a weather warning?”
       “Naw, nothing like that,” Baloo said. “I’ll explain to you when we land.” Kit couldn’t figure it out at first, but then he took a look at Kitten and noticed she had trouble looking him in the face. He put it together, and didn’t like it. No, not one bit. If there was one thing he didn’t need, it was someone trying to boss him around. But what was worse, she had influence over Baloo. He wasn’t sure if he liked that, and by the time they landed he was more than pretty sure he didn’t. When Baloo tried to explain, he just marched off.

       Kitten walked up to Baloo, apologetic. “I’m sorry, Baloo! I didn’t mean to cause trouble between you two.” Baloo watched at Kit headed for his room. “Don’t worry about it, kid. He’ll be over it by tomorrow. Still, his birthday’s coming up soon. Maybe I’ll get him something a little extra nice to let him know it’s nothing personal.”
       Kitten shook her head, smiling. “You are such a nice guy.” Kitten hugged him, and Kit watched from his upstairs window with growing envy. Meanwhile, Rebecca had seen it as well, but her emotions centered on annoyance and suspicion. Baloo was back before his time, which either meant he’d been really efficient or Kitten was a major distraction. She still hadn’t made up her mind about this one, and was in total boss mode when she came out.
       “Baloo, did you make all the runs on time?” Rebecca asked. “Sure did, Becky! Pilot-in-training Kitten, hand over the logs,” Baloo said. Kitten did so, and Rebecca found everything in perfect order. “Well, that’s more like it,” Rebecca said. “Wish I could get that kind of performance out of you every day. You’re back forty-two minutes earlier than usual.”
       Baloo checked his watch to confirm the fact. “Yeah, guess I am. Say Kitten, if you’re not tired or anything, I know a jumping joint in town that’s just begging for two good dancers like us.” Kitten looked at her overalls. “I’ll have to change into something nicer than this. Give me an hour and we’ll cut a rug, bug.”
       “Hey, hey! We’ll slide and glide!”

       When the sixty minutes came and went, Baloo and Kitten were both slicked up fit to kill. Rebecca, Wildcat and Kit watched with varying looks as the twosome headed out for a night on the town. Only Wildcat got any sleep that night, as he rarely if ever worried about anything. However, two other souls were still awake around two, watching the clock, when the sound of laughter announced the couple’s return.
       Rebecca stopped pacing when the door opened. “I hope you two didn’t have too good a time. There’s a morning run to Timbukthree, you know.” Kit was right there, managing the complaints department. “How am I supposed to sleep, not knowing whether you’re okay or not?” “Now you two don’t have to worry about me!” Baloo said. “I’m a grown bear, and despite possible rumors to the contrary I do know how to treat a lady right.” Kitten smiled up at him. She was wearing a black evening dress and it was obvious she’d had a nice time. “He sure does that. He held the door open for me at the dance hall and held off three not-so-gentlemen who tried to walk in front of me. It was fun, Baloo.”
       Kitten kissed him lightly on the cheek and went to change for the night. Rebecca felt that Baloo was making a fool of himself, which meant everything was perfectly normal. “I’m going to bed. Baloo, get upstairs before I think about how tired I am.” Kit just glared at Baloo and stomped up the stairs to their room. Baloo watched as the both of them left. “Now what’s eatin’ them? Oh well, time fer forty winks.”

       Baloo walked upstairs slowly, after taking one more look Kitten’s way. He’d really enjoyed his time out on the town with her, and he’d even felt comfortable just talking about regular things. He was beginning to realize that Kitten was more than just the sum of her looks, and what he’d discovered both pleased and disturbed him. When he opened the door to his room, those thoughts were still in place, but the look on Kit’s face quickly dissipated them.
       “Hey, Little Britches, you sore at me or something?” Baloo asked. Kit sat on his hammock, the irony there on his face. “Oh, you suddenly have time for me?” Baloo closed the door. “Since when haven’t I had time for ya? You know you and me’re the best of best buds!”
       “Since little miss movie star came around, you haven’t looked anywhere but in her direction. And what’s the deal with the cloud surfing? There wasn’t any danger!” Kit said. Baloo started to hedge. “Look, I was just trying to be polite for the lady! She was real scared for ya, and I didn’t want to upset her too much. Besides, there ain’t nothing between us. I’m just helping Kitten to think things out and then she’ll be on her way and things’ll go back like they’ve always been. You’ll see.”
       Kit sighed, letting his anger go. “I hope not, Papa Bear. You’re all I have in the whole world.” Baloo held out his arms, and Kit came to him at once. “I ain’t going nowheres. You and me, we’re a team and that’s the way it’ll be.”
       “It’s okay, Baloo. And you don’t have to feel responsible for me that way. I’m almost grown up now.”
       Baloo grinned at him. “I know I don’t haveta, but I do anyway. You’re like my own cub, and no matter how old you get, I’ll be there to harangue you about not taking chances.” Kit headed back for his hammock. “Just make sure you’re not taking one now, Papa Bear.”

Chapter 10 – A Polish Evening and Kitten Rises To the Occasion

       When dawn came, Kitten stretched and sat up on the sofa in the office. She was used to being up early, almost a universal requirement for those in the acting profession. She went outside in her nightgown and breathed the cool sea air, letting it fill her lungs. It felt good, but she didn’t. She’d enjoyed the dancing with Baloo, but she knew that the problems Rebecca and Kit were having were because of her presence. And was it worth all that? After all, she could just up and leave—but no, not now. There were too many things to sort out and now she needed time to think and settle things in her mind.
       Kitten went back inside, changed into her coveralls, and prepared to get another day going. She was about to go see if Baloo was awake when Rebecca came into the room. Kitten smiled at her in greeting. “Good morning, Miss Cunningham. How are you today?” Rebecca listened to the words—they sounded polite, sincere and even sweet. She wasn’t buying that routine for a minute. There was something about all this she didn’t trust, and once she’d had her coffee and grabbed the Cape Suzette Financial Times, she decided that it was time to put Kitten through the paces again.
       “We’ve got Lech and Oleg Kabinksi of Kabinski’s Krullers coming in late this afternoon, so I’m going to take you with me to my apartment to help with the preparations,” Rebecca said. “I want the place spotless! The room needs sweeping, the windows need washing as do the curtains, and make sure to clean the rugs. When you’re done with that you can start working on cleaning the kitchen. I’m hiring a chef to come in and cook them a gourmet dinner, and everything needs to be sanitary. Oh, and make sure there’s enough clean glasses and silverware, too.”
       Kitten took a moment to write down everything. “Okay, then. Shall we go?” Rebecca left Molly with Baloo, Kit and Wildcat for the day and once she and Kitten reached her apartment it was battle stations. Kitten rolled up the sleeves on her coveralls. “Nice place. Guess we better get started.” It was a constant stream of work for the both of them—cleaning, ironing, sweeping, dusting, and straightening. Kitten sang again after about an hour into it, and Rebecca found she liked the sound of it.
       She watched as Kitten proceeded into the kitchen, getting down on her knees and starting to clean the messy floor. Rebecca had wanted to enjoy this—she’d been boiling over that day Kitten had shown up, thinking of how she’d used and betrayed both her and Baloo. Rebecca didn’t like that, and particularly not in a woman. She hadn’t liked Kitten’s uppity nature and had hated all the false glitz and glamour she’d represented. So when she saw this same girl reduced to scrubbing the linoleum with both hands, she’d expected to feel the satisfaction of revenge.
       The problem was, she didn’t. Kitten was in there working hard, and the more Rebecca saw the more she was forced to put herself in the place of this person. How would she be if she had fallen from the pinnacle of success to the dregs of physical labor? She didn’t want to admit it, but she wouldn’t be handling it like this.

       Rebecca tried to push the thought aside, but thankfully for her the telephone gave her an excuse. However, the conversation wasn’t to her liking, to say the least. “WHAT!” Rebecca screamed. “I paid two weeks in advance for this, and you call now to say he can’t come? But what about...all of them? You can’t leave me stranded like this! Okay, so you can’t control the flu bug, but I’d better get a full refund, buster!” Rebecca slammed down the phone, and Kitten came in, curious.
       “What’s the matter, Rebecca?” Kitten asked.
       The frustrated entrepreneur slumped into a chair. “That was Fryer for Hire. Their Polish chef’s sick with the flu, and everyone else is booked.” Kitten wiped her hands off on a dishtowel she was holding. “I can cook for you. My parents are old-country Polish and all we ever ate growing up was Polish food.”
       “You cook?” Rebecca said, near shock. “Pardon me for sounding skeptical, but you don’t look like the type that could cook water without burning it.” Kitten took a chair, looking Rebecca in the eye. “I grew up dirt poor on a farm, helping mama in the kitchen. I know how to make all the things she can. You’d be amazed at how many different ways you can serve cabbage.” Rebecca groaned, looking at her watch. “I must be crazy, but go ahead! The groceries for the chef are already in there. I’ll be in my room getting dressed.”
       Rebecca went to her room, suddenly worried. What if it all really was an act up to this point? Kitten might just have been biding her time, waiting for the right opportunity. Rebecca decided she’d have Kitten taste the food first, just in case. Four hours later, it was show time. A knock at the door announced the Kabinski brothers.

       The rabbits wore tailor-made suits and were both taller than Rebecca, and certainly larger. They were the latest in the long-standing Polish family of Kabinski confectioners, known throughout the world for their Krullers. Both of them spoke with a strong and deep East-European accent. “Greetings to you, Miss Cunningham. I am Oleg Kabinski. We are pleased to be making your acquaintance,” the rotund rabbit said, shaking her hand firmly. His brother, just as husky, shook her other hand. “And I am Lech Kabinski. Yes, yes. We hear good things about your Hiring For Hire!”
       Rebecca was dressed in her best blue dress, with pearl earrings and a gold necklace. “Why thank you! And it’s Higher for Hire, by the way. Please, come in! Dinner will be ready soon, I’m sure.” The Kabinskis came in and sat down at the table. Rebecca had gone to extra effort to make the presentation nice, even folding the dinner napkins into little teepees. Oleg looked around the room.
       “Um,” Oleg grunted.
       Rebecca knew that couldn’t be good. “Oh, is there a problem, Mr. Kabinski?” Oleg tilted his head and wrinkled his nose. “I was going to say your choice of decor is outdated, but I do not like to be making criticism.”
       “I thought so too, Oleg,” Lech said. “And where is your butler to serve h’ors douevres?” Rebecca tried not to blush. “Oh, he’s out this week. Even we up-and-coming business people have to make do sometimes.” Oleg gave her a probing stare. “I am hoping that you are not exaggerating when it comes to your Higher for Hiring’s capabilities, Miss Cunningham.”
       “That would be very bad indeed,” Lech added.
       Rebecca gulped. “It would?”
       The rabbits nodded as one. “We give prospective customers chance to prove themselves by meeting with them in the informal atmosphere,” Lech said. “If we like, is good. If we not like, is very bad. Anyone who is very bad, we spread word on. Same if is good.” Rebecca began to perspire. “ good so far?”
       Oleg and Lech looked at each other. “We eat, then decide,” Oleg said. “Never good, decide on empty stomach.” Rebecca got up, grateful for the excuse. “I think I’ll just go check and see how maid’s doing in the kitchen.”
       Rebecca left the table in a cold sweat. A ten-year deal and her whole reputation were both riding on the line, depending on what was behind that door to the kitchen. She opened it and nearly fainted when she came through. “Ugh! What is that horrible smell?” Kitten was sampling from a large soup pot, another pot simmering next to it. “Boiled cabbage and potato soup. Good thing you told me to get cooking when you did; this cabbage just got done. Want a taste?”
       It took all of Rebecca’s control to keep from screaming. “They’re not going to want to taste that! They’re going to want to dump it over my head! It’s awful!” Kitten shook her head in protest. “Rebecca, you don’t understand! This is a native Polish delicacy, and it’s supposed to smell this way!”
       “Oh, right!” Rebecca said, crossing her arms. “I just hope I can sneak them out of here without losing the biggest contract of my life!” Rebecca came out, putting on her best professional smile. “There’s a little...problem with dinner. I think that maybe we should—”
       “Wait a moment!” Oleg said.
       Oleg and Lech began sniffing the air. “Is that cabbage I smell?” Lech asked.
       “And potato soup?” Oleg added.
       Rebecca wished she had Kitten at the table so she could strangle her. “Uh yes, but you’d probably prefer something altogether different. Why not—”
       “Different?” Oleg said. “Dear lady, we have not been having true meal from old country since we leave there two years ago to take over distribution of crullers in Usland!” Lech’s eyes were starting to fill, and Rebecca feared the worst. “Is it bothering you? Do you need fresh air?”
       “Is reminding me of mama!” Lech cried. “Home always was smelling this way when I was a boy!” As if on cue, Kitten brought out the delicacies on a serving cart. She played the part of maid, even wearing a maid’s uniform, a costume from her Starrywood days, as she had anticipated a situation like this.
       Kitten served them both. “Here you are, gentlemen. I was so thrilled to hear that two men from the old country would be here tonight. You see, I am Polish as well. My name’s Zelda—Zelda Figinarksi.” The two men stood up and bowed, as if she were the queen of England. “It is great honor to be meeting you, Zelda!” Oleg said.
       “Such a cook, and so pretty as well!” Lech added.
       Kitten chuckled. “Well, thank you!”
       Lech pushed Rebecca aside. “Zelda? My aunt’s name was Zelda! Please to be sitting down with us and we will speak of old country!”

       Kitten did so, and Rebecca watched in utter disbelief as they talked through five helpings of the smelly foods. Kitten for a change wasn’t the animal that was purring. “So, you see, Higher For Hire has been good to me, as has Miss Cunningham,” Kitten said. “She’s got a good head on her shoulders, and I think you’ll like doing business with her.” Oleg nodded, finishing another helping of soup. “Zelda, if you say so, then is so. Miss Cunningham, is pleasure doing business with you. We have signed contract tomorrow morning. Agreed?” Rebecca sat there, flabbergasted. “Uh, agreed.”
       “Is good!” Lech said. “Zelda, you send me cabbage soup recipe and I send you mama’s special recipe for marinated meatballs.” Kitten shook his hand. “Sure thing, Lech. Glad you enjoyed it!” The rabbits each kissed Kitten’s hand, then waved goodbye to Rebecca as they headed out of the apartment.
       Kitten turned to Rebecca, a look of pleased satisfaction on her face. “Looks like the way to a man’s pocketbook also goes through his stomach. Sounds like you’ve got quite a lucrative deal there, Miss Cunningham.” Rebecca was still trying to get over it, but now she found her voice again. “How dare you...”
       “I beg your pardon?” Kitten asked, confused.
       “How dare you risk my professional reputation and the deal of a lifetime that way!” Now Kitten was really confused. “I didn’t risk anything! They loved it, and I knew they would the minute you said they were Polish!” Rebecca was seeing red. “Do you know how long and hard I’ve had to work to make any kind of inroads with people like that! I had to beg, flatter and kow-tow to get those rabbits in here and then you just come along and they’re like putty in your hands!”
       “So what’s your point?”
       Rebecca was twitching with ire. “My point! The point is, you made a mockery of me! I’m the one who spent four years and suffered through business school. I’m the one who’s had to endure all the ‘woman in a man’s world’ jokes, and when those rabbits tell all their cronies that the business passed muster, is it going to be because of any of that? NO! It’s going to be because Zelda cooks cabbages like mama did!”

Chapter 11 – Another Chance To Dream and Reconciliation

       Kitten watched as Rebecca railed on, and decided to let her be. She finished cleaning up for the night, and took the guest room to sleep in. It took over an hour for Rebecca to wind down, but finally she did. Still, it was quite some time before she felt like sleeping. True, she was glad she had the contract. It was the means of opening doors she couldn’t have otherwise, but having Kitten be the one responsible...
       Rebecca changed into her nightgown and flopped down on her bed in a huff. Slowly her emotional turbines calmed and her eyes grew heavier. All grew quiet in the apartment, and near Rebecca’s bed a certain painting began to glow slightly. The picture was of an old sea captain, and one that would always be in the heart of one Rebecca Cunningham. In a moment, she was on an old wooden sailing ship, cruising through the heavens.
       The voice drew her full attention and she turned to see a dashing lion in a captain’s uniform. His gray hair and beard set off his features well, and his soft eyes matched the soft caring tone of his deep yet whispering voice. He smiled down at her from his position at the helm. “There are times when even dreams can pull back the curtain between your world and mine.”
       “William? William!” Rebecca ran to him, embracing him with joy. Once the shock of the moment was over, she started to look around. “What am I doing here? Did I die in my sleep! Did Kitten poison me or smother me? I should’ve known—” William calmed her down. “No, Rebecca. Even though you didn’t realize it, you reached out to me, and so I was able to reach you in your dreams. It is...good to see you again, beloved. But you are troubled.”
       She hugged him tightly. “There’s a crazy woman who’s come into Baloo’s life and into my business! She was a movie star and she tried to kill Baloo and me as a publicity stunt. Now she’s living at Higher for Hire and she’s acting all sweet and remorseful. She helped me get a big contract tonight, but I don’t know if she’s playing a sinister game or if she’s really had a change of heart.”
       “Yes, I know. You might say I have a unique vantage upon these things.” The captain raised his paw and a glowing portal opened in front of Rebecca. In a moment, she could see Kitten asleep, back at her apartment. Then scenes of Kitten’s life began to play out for her, from Kitten’s childhood on. “She’s had a harder life than she would ever admit, Rebecca. The person you met previously was the result of bad choices, and worse ones once she had staked her claim to dame fortune. When Baloo met her on the island, she had just about given up on herself.”

       Rebecca watched, amazed at the level of struggles, setbacks and sufferings Kitten had experienced. She even got to see the events that happened on the island and was surprised that Baloo had such chivalry and she was further surprised when she saw the retake kiss that Kitten and Baloo shared. “How do I know this is all real? I’ve dreamed about you before. How can I tell that this just isn’t another dream?”
       William smiled down at her, gently touching her hair. “You should trust me by now, Rebecca, but if you need a sign to know for sure then remember this: the next time you speak to her, ask her what you owe her. She won’t try to take advantage of you, and will even admit that she can’t afford to be proud any longer like she was. Give her a chance, Rebecca. Remember that those who hurt you the worst often need your help the most.”
       Rebecca looked into those kind eyes and couldn’t find the least trace of guile. “You’re right, William. I’ve just never been good at letting people off the hook. She’s not going to try to kill anyone else is she?” William gave a gentle laugh. “No, but she will have a great effect on someone close to you. You will know what to do, when the time comes.” He took both her hands in his, kissing them in the gentlemanly fashion, and began to fade.
       Rebecca felt sadness welling up in her. “Already?”
       “Yes. Never forget me, and that I am here with you. When your days end, you need not fear. I will be there, waiting to take you on board for all eternity. My love for you gives me patience.” They came together and shared a kiss, even as the dream faded like the morning fog. Rebecca woke up with a start, and looked over at the painting. “I hope it was real, William. I hope so.”

       The next morning, Rebecca found breakfast waiting for her. She ate quickly and then she and Kitten headed for Higher For Hire. Rebecca didn’t say anything to Kitten in the car, and only seemed to warm up with she saw Molly running to her at the dock. The youngest Cunningham ran into her mother’s arms. “Morning, mommy! Me, Baloo and Kit had a great time!”
       “I hope you behaved yourself,” Rebecca said. “Did you eat a good dinner and get to bed on time, dear?”
       “Of course not! These are men we’re talking about.”
       Baloo and Kit grinned and shuffled their feet. “Uh, she was just too excited, Becky,” Baloo said. Molly looked back at him. “You were the one who ordered the pizza.” Kit started backwards. “Um, I think I hear Wildcat calling me.”
       “Oh, me too! Bye, Becky!” Baloo said.
       She watched them rush off and smiled. “Well, as long as you’re still alive and the place hasn’t been burned to the ground, I’m happy.” Molly looked up at her mother as Kitten went off to see what the boys were doing. “Mom, are you feeling okay? You don’t sound like yourself this morning.”
       “Thanks to Kitten we got a big contract for the business, so I’m very happy about that,” Rebecca said. “And I need to deal with something else that’s bothering me. Molly, what do you do when someone does something mean to you and then later is sorry and wants to be your friend?”
       Molly thought a moment. “You get biiiig puppy-dog eyes and say you’re really, really sorry and won’t be mean again unless you forget the next time.” Rebecca shook her head. “No, sweetie. I mean, how would you react when someone who had done something bad was sorry and wanted to be friends with you?”
       “Well, if they’re sorry and say so I’ll think about it. If they’re sorry and say so and get me an ice cream cone, I’ll be in a much more forgiving mood!” Rebecca hugged her daughter. “Thanks, honey. Now, let’s go tell the guys about the big contract.” Once outside, Rebecca rounded up the gang and shared the good news. “As much as I would like to take credit for this success, the thanks goes to Kitten for the boiled cabbage that saved the day.”

       Kit, Baloo and Wildcat looked first to Rebecca, then to Kitten, then back to Rebecca again. “That’s great news, Becky!” Baloo said. “Let’s all have a big night on the town to celebrate! Or better yet, let’s head over to Louie’s. I’m sure he’ll be glad to hear his favorite cargo company’s doing so well.” Rebecca rolled her eyes at Baloo’s suggestion. “I figured you’d suggest Louie’s. We celebrate after your runs for today are done, agreed?” Baloo saluted. “Yes, ma’am! I knew having Kitten around would pay off. Kit, Wildcat, let’s do it! We’ve got skies to cross and cargo to haul before we trip the floor fantastic! Kitten, you coming along today?”
       “Actually, I’d like to snag her for lunch today,” Rebecca said. Baloo looked at his boss, confused. “You sure have changed your tune. All righty, then. See you on the flipside!”
       The guys headed off, and after the morning business Kitten and Rebecca shared a light business lunch in town. Kitten was more than a little surprised at Rebecca’s offer, and wondered just what this was leading up to. “Thanks for taking me to lunch, Rebecca. I know it’s been rocky so far, but maybe now with this new contract things will go better between us.”
       “You’re right,” Rebecca said, poking over her salad. “I apologize for the terrible way I treated you last night. You salvaged a deal that was slipping between my fingers and I resented you for it. Thank you.”
       Kitten was entirely taken aback. “You’re...apologizing to me?” Rebecca nodded. “It’s always been difficult for me to admit my mistakes, but you saved that deal last night and I’m grateful. Very grateful. Baloo’s been saying that you’re not who you were before, and I think last night proved it.”
       Kitten’s eyes started to fill up. “Rebecca...thank you. But you don’t owe me for anything but the day’s work. I want to know what I’m worth now, and not be a power-drunk actress like I was. I know you must’ve thought I was wacky to be doing all that work, but I was proud before and look what it got me! I’m not proud like that anymore, and right now I just want to be useful any way I can.”
       Rebecca paused for a moment, realizing that what William had said was true. “You’re welcome to stay at Higher for Hire. With this contract we can afford to take on another person. We’ll find something for you to do.” Kitten clasped her hands. “Really? Oh Rebecca, that would be great! You don’t have any more Polish clients on the list, do you?” Rebecca found herself laughing. “No, so my home won’t have to be filled with the aroma of boiled cabbage in the near future! One of the first orders of business is to find you a real place to stay. Sleeping on the couch or in the Sea Duck isn’t too comfortable, I’m sure.”
       “I’ve seen worse in my time. Once I get my financial records in order, I might be able to settle with my old studio and get enough dough to pay for a place of my own. They’ve promised me a settlement, but so far all I’ve gotten are excuses.”
       Rebecca knew a financial swindle when she heard it. “Let me look over your records when we get back. Maybe we can persuade them to be more accommodating.” Kitten shook her head. “I’m sorry, this is all so sudden. I’m not used to people wanting to help me.”
       “And I’m not used to helping people that tried to deep-six me, either,” Rebecca said. “But I think in both our cases it’s time for a new start. Kitten, I need you to be frank with me. What are your intentions here? I’m not talking about revenge or anything like that, but what are you plans and what’s your relationship with Baloo?”
       Kitten had been about to start on her salad, but at that question she dropped her fork. “Oh, I didn’t think that...are you and Baloo involved?”
       “NO! Uh no, Baloo and I aren’t involved. We’re good friends but there’s nothing more than that. But as his friend I want to make sure things go well for him, and for Kit too. Baloo’s been acting strangely, even for him. He’s been doing a good job and finishing his cargo runs on time, and frankly that has me concerned.”
       “It does? Why?”

       Rebecca allowed herself to grin some. “I’ve never seen Baloo act this way before. It would appear to me that he’s become very attached to you. Your entering his life will also cause some conflict with Kit, who can be very protective of his Papa Bear.”
       Kitten put her hands in her lap, staring at them, not exactly sure what to say or do. “Well, I am grateful for what he did for me back on the island. If it had been anyone else, they’d probably have taken advantage of me. I haven’t met anyone like Baloo in a long time, and I do care about him.” Kitten looked up at Rebecca. “I’m not sure what he thinks about me, though. But I did notice that Kit seemed jumpy around me. Maybe I ought to talk to him first.”
       Rebecca nodded. “That would be a good idea, but don’t come on too strong or try to be too friendly. Kit is suspicious of new people and you’ll have to earn his trust. Not monopolizing Baloo’s time would be a good place to start. Try to find things all of you can enjoy. Baloo and Kit eat, sleep and breathe aviation, so if you’re serious about staying you should start to learn about it.”
       “This means a lot to me. You’re the first female friend I’ve had like this,” Kitten said. “Same here.” Rebecca extended her hand to Kitten. Kitten shook it, and strangely they began to laugh, mixed with giggles. That drew the attention of a couple of other diners. Oleg walked over. “Ah, it is Miss Cunningham and wonderful cook! We are glad to be meeting you again.”
       Lech followed him over. “Yes. We have friends here we brag to about ladies who know how to cook and talk business. They do not believe us, but now here is proof! Come over here, my friends, and see!”
       Soon, Rebecca and Kitten’s table was surrounded by business suits, and for the next hour they were both introduced to some of the bigger movers and shakers in town. Kitten’s natural flair with the boys plus Rebecca’s brain for business garnished them nearly a dozen new contacts. When they left, it was with the feeling they’d accomplished something.
       Kitten smirked as she put away a pack of business cards. “The way those old cronies acted, you’d think they’d never talked to a woman before, or at least never expected to have an intelligent conversation with one.” Rebecca put away her daybook. “Business ladies are still strange and mysterious to them, Kitten. They haven’t made up their minds whether to take us serious or not. So I try to take advantage of their uncertainty. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
       “I think they found out we were the serious type. I enjoyed that a lot more than arguing with cranky directors or sleazy agents.”
       Rebecca knew it wasn’t that easy. “That was catching the old boys in a good mood. You’ll find just as many cranky and sleazy guys in business as you will in entertainment. Probably more, in fact.” Kitten took on a sly look. “Fodder for the intrepid businesswoman.”

       They headed on back to Higher For Hire, where they completed the day’s paperwork. Rebecca found now that she’d reconciled with Kitten that she was glad to have her around. It was good to have a fellow female who knew the workaday world. Rebecca looked over Kitten’s records and found her agents had been swindling her for years. Kitten had suspected something like that, but with Rebecca’s prodding she called a lawyer and they set up a time to talk about reparations.
       When Kitten hung up, a telegram came for her:


       Can I have a second chance? Call me at the Sterling Towers hotel and I’ll treat you to a night you’ll never forget.

       Yours faithfully,


       Kitten immediately crumpled the paper up and threw it over her shoulder into the corner of her room. It gave her a feeling of supreme satisfaction, and she realized just how fortunate she was to be in her situation now. She’d make it work, and she had a feeling things would work out with Baloo as well. All it would take was time.

Chapter 12 – The Buck Plots Here and Some Serious Talk

       At the penthouse of the hotel mentioned in the telegram, an obsessed mouse paced the floor. Two rhino henchmen watched him, there more for their size than their intellect. “But boss, should we even be up here? You know if your dad catches you here in his private penthouse—” “My dad don’t care!” Buck said. “Besides, he’s off in the tropics somewhere. Something about trying to buy Java and Krakyertoa and monopolize the coffee market. If this don’t work, he’ll bail me out like always so quit whining.”
       “You think she’ll come?” the one who asked the initial question, whose name was Bruno, inquired.
       “She’ll come,” Buck said. “That overgrown fluff ball won’t take her in permanent. He’s too smart for that. Kitten’ll come all right, and then we do exactly what I told ya.” The other rhino, dubbed Brutus, scratched his head. “But that ain’t legal, boss. Suppose we’s caught.” “How many times do have to tell you!” Buck shouted, then composed himself. “Money can buy you anything, including the cops. If she resists, I’ll have her arrested on a trumped-up charge and then spring her on my recognizance.”
       “I thought we was taking her up here,” Bruno said. “And there ain’t no springs.” Buck jumped up and down. “You meatheads! Look, just do what I tell you. Now, I have to plan a distraction for that ham-it-up bear. Baloo might try to save her.” Brutus pounded his fist. “Leave him to me, boss. I’ll take care of him real good.”
       “Oh sure, and have you get caught and trace the crime to me? Do I look stupid?” Buck asked. Bruno snorted. “Well, when you wear that goofy hat and all…”
       “Shut up!” Buck said, then pulled out a photo album. “I had my detectives do a little workup on this Baloo. I know who his enemies are.” Buck spent a minute looking over faces and names. “This will be so perfect! Baloo won’t be rescuing his fair damsel, because I’ve hired someone who would just love to wipe him off the map!”

       Back at Higher For Hire, the sound of the Sea Duck’s engines came within earshot and she and Rebecca went out to check on the boys’ progress. Baloo felt a little uncomfortable at the looks he was getting from them, but decided to put on a bold front. “Beat the clock by three minutes, Beckers! You two ready to head out? I radioed Louie and he said he’d have the fatted calf ready for us if he could catch him.”
       “I’m ready to go,” Rebecca said. Kitten took a step toward the building. “Let me change into something more ro...more appropriate. Then we’ll party till the sun comes up.” Baloo watched her run off with curiosity. Had she been about to say...naw. It was just his imagination. Once Kitten returned in a sleek and silky blue evening gown, they all piled into the Sea Duck and headed for Louie’s.
       As Baloo had predicted, their friend’s reply was more than positive. “A toastest to the friends with the mostest—dough that is!” The regulars got a good laugh out of that, as Louie was the unofficial stand-up comedian of the joint. The orang came over and saluted Rebecca’s hand. “It’s about time someone recognized your flair for the entrepreneurial world, Re-becc-ah.” Rebecca eyed the ape who was eyeing her in an amused light. “Flattery will get you nowhere, pardner.”
       “Will it get fuzzy here to pay his tab?” The patrons laughed again, and then Louie rounded the table to Kitten. “Mad-mo-zelle, I am greatly honored to see you once again at my humble establishment.”
       “Why thank you!” Kitten replied.
       Baloo butted in. “Cut the sweet talk, Louie. She ain’t that kind.” Kitten looked up at Baloo, taking advantage of his coming to her defense again. “And what kind of a kind am I, sweetie?” Baloo stammered for a moment. “Sorry, Kitten. I didn’t mean nothing by it. My bad, Louie. I just got carried away there.”
       “Oh now, don’t fight over me, boys!” Kitten chided. “Louie, why don’t you get Montgomery over here to get things started?” Louie bowed low. “It’ll be my pleasure, my pretty little treasure.”

       Kitten laughed at his antics, and before Baloo could think about it she’d grabbed his arm and pulled him out on the dance floor. The band started up, and that was all the invitation Baloo needed. The bear danced like there was no tomorrow and while looking into Kitten’s eyes it felt like nothing else existed or mattered. For years he’d had a crush on her, a crush that had ended when she’d tried to kill him. But now he found that his crush was returning and his dream of being with her was unfolding at this very moment.
       Baloo looked down into her eyes. “Did I ever tell you how good you dance, Kitten?” Kitten reacted, her voice becoming lower and softer. “Just now. It’s fun dancing with you. Where did you learn all these moves?”
       “I’ve been a dancing fool all my life. Music’s in my blood.” Kitten decided to take it one step further. “It must be. Baloo, when I got to Higher For Hire, Wildcat showed me the scrapbook you made of my acting career. I must say, I was flattered. It was even better than the one the studio gave me.” Her revelation caused Baloo to lose his step and fall down. He quickly recovered and pretended nothing had happened. “Well, uh, it was nothing. I’m sure lots of guys had huge crushes on you.”
       “I’m sure they did, but I doubt if any other guy collected every single clipping ever done on me. You must’ve had clippings from every country on the planet!” Then she got serious and looked him in the eyes. “I know I spoiled your crush the first time, and I’m sorry I didn’t live up to the kind of person you thought I was. Maybe now, things can be different.”
       Baloo found the room was suddenly very warm. “Baby, you could crush me with those beautiful eyes of yours. Yeah, startin’ over sounds good. I got those pictures from all over the world, ‘cause my flying takes me everywhere.” Kitten was surprised he was being this forward, and yet pleased at the same time. “You’re quite a contrast. On the outside, you’re a rough and independent-looking person, but inside, you’re one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. Why do you care, Baloo? What made you look after me on the island when you knew I was taking too much catnip?”
       The big guy shrugged. “Everybody deserves a second chance. If I held grudges I wouldn’t have Kit with me, Rebecca would’ve fired me ages ago and Louie would’ve bounced my furry butt out the door. I don’t hold grudges and I hope others don’t hold ‘em against me.” “Thanks, Baloo. You’re a real gentleman.” She reached up and kissed him on the cheek, which grabbed some ribbing attention from the nearby tables.
       Louie waved at them. “Hey, cuz! Smile!” Baloo and Kitten turned in time to see Louie snap their picture. “A photographic memory for the ages, my man. Only fifty cents, and it’s yours.” Baloo flipped four bits his way. “Yeah, that’s one for the old scrapbook. Those fancy-pants actors in Starrywood can eat their hearts out. You hungry, Kitten? I’m starved! Let’s get some more of that celebration goin’ here!”

       The Higher For Hire gang headed for one of the larger tables, and Louie brought the delicacies. The dinner talk was stimulating, and the desserts were even moreso. Even Rebecca got into the spirit of things, letting Louie put a party hat on her and dancing with her around the room. By the time night changed to twilight, the party had been swinging for hours. Kitten looked over to find Kit all alone, drowning in a bowl of triple-decker ice cream, and decided maybe it was time to have a talk. She walked over and Kit’s first reaction was to look away
       “Hello, slugger. Your appetite gone astray?” Kitten asked.
       Kit folded his arms and still refused to make eye contact. “I’m not feeling very good lately.” Kitten sat down by him. “You know, Miss Cunningham and I were talking, and she said that you might be feeling bad about my being around and taking up time with Baloo. If you’re feeling threatened, please don’t be. I’m not sure where all this is leading just yet, but I want you to know I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you. I’m not that way anymore.”
       “I know you don’t mean any harm, but Baloo’s my Papa Bear and my best friend besides and I don’t want anything bad to happen to him. Don’t hurt him or break his heart. I don’t know if I could deal with something like that.”
       Kitten took his hand in hers. “I’d never do that, Kit! I owe him, more than you can know. I care about him, too, and I know he cares a great deal about you. He’s lucky to have someone like you around, always there for him. I wish I’d had that kind of loyalty when I went off on my own. Things might’ve been different.”
       Kit set his jaw. “Life’s like that. When you find a good person, you should never let them go. I’ve been very lucky. When I’ve been dumb enough to think I didn’t need him, he always was there to rescue me and always forgave me for doing dumb things. I don’t know what I’d be or where I’d be without Papa Bear.”
       “Sounds like you and I are in the same boat. Say, where did you learn that cloud surfing trick? I’ve never seen anyone do that before. I know a few Starrywood stuntmen that would be envious of a few of the moves you made out there the other day.” Kit turned to face her. “I learned that when I was with the air pirates. I learned other stuff too, but not much of it’s fit for decent company. Cloud surfing is fun, but it takes nerves of steel like mine to get good at it.” Kitten nodded. “I know. It nearly made me faint, just watching you!”
       Kitten looked down, collecting her thoughts. “Look, I just wanted to say I’m sorry about the other day. I was the one that got Baloo to reel you in when you were cloud surfing. I was afraid for you, and thought it was too dangerous for someone your age. I didn’t understand, but I think I do now. You’re as much a free spirit as Baloo is, aren’t you?”
       “Darn tootin’! Are you going to try to get Baloo to settle down?”
       Kitten shook her head. “I think you and I both know that’s a waste of time. If I do stay around, then I’d go with the flow. I have an adventurous spirit too, and it’s been a long time since I’ve done anything daring. I haven’t decided if I’m staying yet or not, though.”
       “Adventure seems to follow us everywhere. You’ll have more adventures in one month than most people have in a lifetime. I’ll give you some slack. Baloo gave me a chance, so the least I could do is give you the same shot.”
       “Thanks, Kit. I really appreciate you giving me that chance.”

Chapter 13 – A Flight of Fancy and Kitten Makes a Confession

       Kitten spoke with Kit for a few more minutes, then looked back at Baloo, who was hamming it up with Louie. Her eyelids closed halfway and she got a dreamy look on her face. From the time of that last kiss she gave Baloo on the island until now, her liking of him had been increasing. In her eyes, he couldn’t have been more gallant, and while she was mature in most ways, in relationships all Kitten knew were the magical ones of Starrywood.
       When she’d learned that he wasn’t in love with Rebecca, it was like a door had opened for her. And now, the way he was treating her coupled with the replies he’d given to her questions, she felt certain that her hero who’d rescued her from the depths of despair was close to sealing the deal and asking her to be his alone.
       Across the room, Baloo waved when Kitten waved at him. He was having a great time, and he was glad to see Kitten was more upbeat these days. She’d been kind to overlook his old crush on her, and now he felt that she was close to getting back on her feet and being able to handle her own life again. He had no illusions when it came to her—besides, he was a lone eagle and liked it that way. She’d never like the hum-drum life he had or doing the guy-things he enjoyed. And likely she’d want to go back into films before long, too.
       That was the way of things when the first rays of the sun penetrated the windows at Louie’s and signaled the party’s official end. Baloo gave his old pal a high-five. “Louie, my man, you’re still the king when it comes to celebrations!”
       “Don’t I know it, and don’t you forget it!” Louie said. “Well Fuzzy, you don’t get where I am in life without learning how to enjoy what you got. And I gotta say I’m pretty envious of what you got, cuz.” Baloo didn’t quite catch the whole meaning. “Yeah. I gotta admit, Louie, I thought I was nutso when I stayed on with Becky, but it’s paid off. A guy couldn’t ask for a better job, or better friends.”

       Everyone was yawning as they headed back, and as today was Saturday everyone slept in. Baloo caught up with Kitten on the docks after lunch, where she was checking some of the mooring ropes. “Hey there, Kitten! Some party last night, huh?” Kitten walked up and wrapped her arms around his neck. “I’ll say. Thanks, Baloo. You’re such a caring guy.” Kitten smooched him and then waited to see the effect. “It was great, I haven’t had that much fun in ages. Every day with you gets better and better and after yesterday, I’ve made peace with Rebecca and Kit, so now we’re all friends.”
       “That’s great, kid!” Baloo said. “Well, I’ve got the rest of the day free. C’mon, name what you’d like and we’ll go do it. How’s that sound?” She hugged him tighter, looking into his eyes and giving him a seductive tone. “A-ny-thing?”
       Baloo gulped and hesitantly replied. “Uh...yeah. Anything.”
       “Baloo...I want you...I want you to teach me about airplanes.”
       Baloo instantly brightened, relieved. “Hey, that’s my number-one thing! Sure thing, kid. Let’s head for the Sea Duck and I’ll learn you how to tell a clockenheimer from a glockenspiel, no matter what the time of day!”

       Baloo took her into the plane, and started explaining the basics of aeronautics and how a plane could fly. Kitten was totally absorbed in it, mainly because it was Baloo who was doing the explaining. After about a half-hour, Baloo sat down in the pilot’s seat and motioned her into the co-pilot’s seat. “Okay, now I’ll show it to you in action. C’mon baby, we’ve got skies to see!” Baloo turned the engines over and a couple of minutes later they were airborne. Baloo got them high enough and far enough out to where they wouldn’t hit anything, then turned to Kitten. “Okay co-pilot, it’s time for your first lesson. Take hold of the stick in front of you.”
       Kitten looked at the controls and back to Baloo. “Are you crazy? I can’t fly a plane!” “Sure you can! Anyone can fly, and I’ll prove it.” Baloo took his hands off his controls and Kitten gasped in panic, then grabbed the yoke in front of her. Baloo got up and stood next to her. “See, you’ve got it in the palm of your hand! Now, turn the wheel left and we’ll go left. Give it a try.”
       She hesitantly turned the controls, expecting at any moment for the plane to burst into flames and crash to the ground. She wanted to close her eyes, but knew that would only make it worse. “If we die in a horrible fiery crash, I’m not speaking to you ever again!” Baloo laughed and the Sea Duck obediently turned. He attached her pilot’s seatbelt. “There ya go! You’re a natural. Now, down on the floor you’ve got rudder pedals and next to them’s the brakes for when we get back down. Put your feet on the rudder pedals...nope, the left and center one, that’s it...and turn the wheel right while pushing in on that center pedal.”
       Kitten did so, and she noticed that Baloo went back and strapped himself in. Then the plane began to go into a roll, heading upside down and she began panicking. “Baloo, take the controls! I don’t know what to do!”
       “You’re doing fine, kid! Just keep that rudder pedal down and turn her through!” Kitten gulped and watched as the plane finished its roll. She was so flustered that she forgot to stop and the plane started rolling again. She yelled like she was on the scary part of a roller-coaster, and decided to try to right the plane. She took her foot off the pedal and straightened the wheel. Now, they were totally upside down. Baloo leaned back in his seat. “World’s a weird-looking place from this angle, ain’t it?”
       “Come on, Baloo, take over!”
       Baloo did so, and righted the plane. Then he unstrapped himself and came back over. “Now, I’ll show you how to bank and turn!” He got behind her seat and put his arms over and around her, guiding her movements. She was still panicky from the last escapade, but she had to admit that she was liking this part more.
       Then Baloo took off his pilot’s hat and put it on her. “Looks good on you, too. I’d say you’re a natural-born pilot, just looking for a place to fly.” Kitten looked back and up at him. “Oh please. I’d run this plane into the ground in ten seconds if you weren’t here, Baloo. But I have to admit it’s exciting once you’re passed the blood-curdling terror part.”
       Baloo laughed again and took over the controls, using a crowbar to serve as a makeshift autopilot. “Kid, there’s been days where it’s just me and the sky and I’d swear I’d hear music like the angels of Heaven up here. Flying’s what it’s all about for me. This little baby’s like a part of me, taking me up to where I need to be. There’s nothing quite like it.”

       Kitten turned toward him, relieved to be free of the responsibility of keeping the plane in the air. “It must be nice to be at the controls of your own life. How long did it take you to become the great pilot that you are?” Baloo leaned back in his seat again. “Well, I’d always wanted to be a pilot. I grew up hearing stories all the time about the great pilots like Whistlestop Jackson, and Rick Sky and his Squadron of Seven. When I was old enough, I worked odd jobs and earned enough to take flying lessons and get my pilot’s license by the time I was seventeen.
       “I started out flying cargo with a fella who taught me the business and I gradually earned enough until I could afford to buy my own plane. I’ve known the Sea Duck ever since she rolled off the assembly line. As for flying skills, well, some of that came natural and the rest of it came by necessity of beating the air pirates.”
       Kitten smirked. “By the time I was seventeen I could pick over two hundred pounds of potatoes in a single day. I have lots of skills, though. Most of them totally useless. Did I ever mention that I can play the harmonica really well? I can play the spoons pretty good too. My dad played them and taught me.”
       “Oh, don’t tell that to Louie!” Baloo said. “He loves a good harmonica and spoons player. He’ll be trying to hire you own for his band before you know it.”
       “Guess I shouldn’t mention that I’m also good with an accordion.” Baloo laughed. “Sounds like you’re regular virtuoso! You don’t happen to know ‘I’ve Got Them Flat Broke, Sticky-Shoed, No Banana Boogie-Woogie Blues’, do you?” Kitten began whistling the song. “My dad used to have that record, before we had to sell the Victrola.”
       “No kidding!” Baloo said, intrigued. “My dad had that record, and I’ve still got it and the Victrola! That is one song with class.” Then Baloo appeared to get serious. “Um, kid? There’s something I’d like to ask you.” She leaned over and looked deeply into his eyes. “Yes, Baloo?” Baloo tugged at his collar. “Well, I don’t know just how you’re gonna take this, or if you’ll even like the idea...”
       “Baloo, don’t be afraid. Ask me.”
       “Oh, okay then. Would you like to stop over at Breakwater Cove and do some fishing?”

       Kitten’s heart seemed to stop for a moment as a million different things went through her mind in a moment, but she kept her smile. “Sure, Baloo. I haven’t been fishing in ages.” They spent the rest of the afternoon at the back of Sea Duck’s open cargo door with a couple of fishing poles. Kitten and worms didn’t mix, but Baloo was right there to stick them on for her. When they got back, Kitten thought about going to talk to Rebecca, but she was too embarrassed and thought maybe she’d done something wrong.
       That was when she spotted Wildcat. The eccentric mechanic began working on the Sea Duck and she decided a couple of innocent questions wouldn’t hurt. “Hello, Wildcat.”
       “Oh, hi!” Wildcat said. “Say, you and Miss Cunningham have sure hit it off, or at least Kit says so. Wish I knew where you’d hit it off to.” Kitten decided to press on. “Wildcat, if you wanted to get Baloo’s full attention, how would you go about it?” Wildcat scratched his head. “Oh I dunno. I think I’d drop something on his foot, or maybe his head.” Kitten shook her head. “No, no. I mean if you wanted to impress him.”
       “Oh! Then I’d drop something really fancy on his foot. Maybe a Ming vase or something, but not something edible. It would attract ants.”
       Kitten could see this was getting nowhere fast. “Uh, Wildcat? I don’t want to hurt his foot, just let him know that I...well, care about him. I’ve tried to tell him, but he doesn’t seem to understand. What should I do about it?” Wildcat thought again. “Maybe you should give him a telephone call. I call my mom all the time and tell her that I care about her. Maybe you could send Baloo a telegram.”
       With a groan of frustration, Kitten realized what many others had. Never ask Wildcat for advice. “Thanks, Wildcat. I’ll think about it.”
       “Okay, you’re welcome, Kitten. And if you do drop something on his foot, make sure it isn’t very heavy or he might get hurt. Nothing bigger than an ashtray.”

       Kitten thought about what to do about Baloo for the rest of the day and on into the night. She was confused that he hadn’t responded to any of her advances, and she was starting to fear that maybe he didn’t really have any feelings for her. No—she knew there had to be something there. She’d be up-front with him. After all, they were both grown-up and mature. No reason to beat about the bush. She’d just tell him that she...she what?
       That idea took a few more hours to think on. She knew she cared about Baloo deeply, and had no end of respect for him. But was it more? Was After all, Baloo wasn’t the most handsome guy she’d ever met—far from it. He wasn’t wealthy or stylish or sophisticated or any of the things she’d always dreamed of loving in a man when she’d left her farm and headed for Starrywood. But there was something about him that all the rugged faces and the sculpted bodies she’d flirted with didn’t have.
       It was hard to place at first, but the more she contemplated it, the more she realized it was simply that she felt good about herself when she was around him. Baloo didn’t treat her like a goddess, but like the rest of his friends. He was always having a good time, and let her join in. He didn’t ask for anything from her for it, either. Not even a kiss.
       It was like—she didn’t know what it was like, because she had nothing to compare it to. He was just kind and caring, and she realized just how wonderful it made him. Yes, tomorrow she’d tell him and then they could stop all this posturing and everything would be rosy.

       Still, when she saw Baloo by the Sea Duck alone that next afternoon, she hesitated. All of her life she’d been used to teasing and playing with men, using her natural attributes to turn them into a collective pile of mush. But this was different, and now she was the one having problems concentrating and coming up with something to say. Slowly she walked toward him, carrying the album he’d made of her clippings.
       “Oh, hi there, Baloo. Busy?”
       Baloo shook his head. “Naw, I’m just giving the Sea Duck a going-over. You can never be too careful when it comes to your plane. Say, you doing okay now? You know, with the, uh…” Kitten nodded, showing him a half-empty bottle of pills she’d kept in the pocket of her coveralls. “They really did the trick. The cravings quit a couple of days ago, and for the first time in a long time I feel good.”
       Kitten gulped and continued. “Baloo, I just wanted to say that I finished looking through the album and it’s really an amazing collection. If it’s not too embarrassing, what did you think of me when you were collecting all of these—before you met me that first time, that is?”
       Baloo blushed a bit and turned back to the plane to hide his embarrassment. “Well, I thought you were the most beautiful woman that ever was.” Kitten forced herself to look into his face. “Like...a goddess?”
       “Well, as close as this side has to anything like that. You were just, well, there weren’t no one to compare you to.”
       Kitten sighed, and resolved herself to continue. “There was a time when I thought I was a goddess, Baloo. I wanted to be worshipped, and I would’ve drunk up this sort of thing like a vintage wine. But when it was all said and done, it was just like the shine in a pair of shoes. After a while it wears off and you have to face what’s beneath. Baloo, please don’t take this the wrong way, but despite the way I look I’m just an ordinary person on the inside.”
       Baloo turned back around and put a friendly hand on her shoulder. “Kitten, I know that. When I look at you now I don’t see the glamorous movie star. I see a friend, and a woman.” She put her hand on his. “Oh, I hoped you did! I can’t tell you how I’ve enjoyed our time together and what it’s meant to me. You’ve treated me like a person, and that’s the first time I’ve been able to say that in years.” She was still scared, but his face was so kind and welcoming. She began to cry. “Baloo, I think I’m in love with you.”

       Baloo’s eyes bulged and he gasped, but quickly regained his composure. “Um, er uh, K…Kitten, don’t you think you’re just overreacting a bit? That stuff on the island was just my way of helping someone. A girl like you has class, I ain’t got none.”
       Kitten took his hands, or rather a couple of fingers of each hand, in hers, smiling up at him. “Oh Baloo, you couldn’t be more wrong! I know all the glitz and glamour made me look like I was a classy person, but I’m really just a farm girl from the sticks who enjoyed the big lights for a while. You’re the real classy one. I don’t know another man who would have come close to treating me the way you did. Your gentle ways, your kindness, your selflessness. I couldn’t help but love you.”
       Baloo began getting very nervous now. “Well, that’s real touching and all, Kitten, but I think you got me all wrong. I’m just a chump cargo pilot. I ain’t goin’ nowhere in life...and I’m a slob besides!” Kitten chuckled. “I know, Baloo. I’ve seen you at your best and worst, and I’m willing to take it. I just want to be with someone who’s real, and knows how to have fun and doesn’t mind going off somewhere at the spur of the moment. Baloo, I don’t want to change your life; I want to be a part of it.”

       She reached up and kissed him, giving it all the love she’d come to have for him. Baloo broke away, the fear evident in his eyes. “Uh, I have to go somewhere. It’s an emergency!” He broke free of her embrace and jumped into the Sea Duck. Kitten’s mouth dropped open in shock. “Baloo? Baloo, please don’t be scared! Don’t run away!”
       It was too late, though. Baloo fired up the Sea Duck faster than he ever had, and the plane had him out of there within seconds. Kitten ran along the docks, yelling for him to stop, but to no avail. She watched through teary eyes as Baloo headed between the cliffs and felt the weight of a broken heart. Kitten sank to her knees, crying.
       Rebecca came out when she heard the Sea Duck taking off. She knew that Baloo had planned to stay around all afternoon, and found his change of plans strange. When she saw Kitten, she knew something was terribly wrong. “Kitten, are you all right? What’s wrong?” She turned to Rebecca with tears in her eyes. “Baloo’s gone...I told him I loved him and...and he ran away!” Rebecca stood there, amazed. She knew that Kitten liked Baloo, but love?” Rebecca put a friendly arm around her shoulder. “Kitten, you probably just scared him. I know I would’ve been scared if someone had just told me they loved me out of the blue.”
       “But it wasn’t out of the blue! At least I think it wasn’t. I thought my feelings were obvious to him...and his to me.”
       “Kitten, Baloo’s used to being on his own,” Rebecca said. “I don’t know what he told you or what you heard, but I know Baloo, and getting into a relationship’s not a sacrifice he’d make easily. Maybe he does have some feelings for you, but if he flew off that might mean he just needs time to think about it.”
       Kitten didn’t want to hear that. “But this isn’t supposed to be how it works! We both proclaim our love and we kiss. He doesn’t really like me, it was just pity!” Rebecca held up her hands. “Now wait, Kitten. Wait until he comes back and—”
       “NO! He hates me! He hates me!”
       Kitten ran off to her room, all emotional, and locked the door. Rebecca tried to gain entry, but she just cried and refused. In the midst of her despair her eyes came to rest on the crumpled-up note that Buck had sent her a few days before. She picked it up and smoothed it out. “If Baloo doesn’t want me, at least there’s one guy that still does. He’s no Baloo...but neither is Baloo!”

Chapter 14 – Trouble, More Trouble, and Why Not a Little More Trouble For Good Measure…

       It took several minutes for Baloo’s heart to quit racing. He’d never been in a spot like this—not even the worst times he’d spent with Don Karnage or any other villain had put such mortal terror into him. Kitten loved him, and he knew it. How had it happened? He didn’t do anything to make her love him, and hadn’t been looking for love. Now what would he do?
       Baloo didn’t know at first, but then his mind cleared enough that he realized he had only one place and one person he could talk to about this, so he headed out for Louie’s. The orang was glad to see his old friend fly in, but the haggard look on the bear’s face gave him room for pause.
       “Hey, Fuzzy! You look like the guy who just came in fourth in a three-man survival match. What’s the word, cuz?”
       Baloo sat on a stool and slumped forward on the counter. “The word? Louie, the word is ‘love’. And Kitten’s got it for me, real bad.” Louie got a worried look on his face. “Oh, that’s rough, cuz. And you think she’s out to slip the anchor around you and haul you in?”
       “I don’t know, buddy. She doesn’t seem like the Suzie Homemaker type, but with women you can never tell till it’s too late! All these years of the two of us chasing pretty girls and getting dragged into all those kooky adventures and treasure hunts—none of them would give us the time of day, but now one of ‘em’s called my bluff. I don’t know what to do!”
       Louie walked around the bar and motioned Baloo to a table. “Hey man, I saw you two in here the other night. I know she digs you, but if my peepers didn’t deceive me you were enjoying her being around too. I know we have sort of an unofficial pact when it comes to dames, but you gotta admit this kind of lady doesn’t come along every day.”
       “But I ain’t never had anything like this to deal with! I’m a free bear; there are no strings on me! I don’t want to get tied down with all the responsibilities and stuff that come from having a girl around. There’s only room in my life for one person, me! I don’t need the hassles a dame would bring and all that. All I need are the bare necessities and I can live free and happy anywhere!”
       Louie headed back for the bar. “It’s no skin off my nose, cuz. For my money, I like her. She’s a good egg. You do whatever you want, but you’re the one who’s gonna have to fly back and tell her what you decide.”

       Meanwhile, Kitten had made it to Sterling Towers and a waiter escorted her to a reserved table. Buzz was dressed to the nines and stood up when she approached. “Baby, you don’t know how glad I am to see you here.” Kitten had gotten dolled up in her most glamorous attire and she looked every bit the seductive movie star. “Hello, Buck. Thanks for the invite. I see my making you wait didn’t dampen your spirits.”
       “Not at all, not at all! Take a load off, babe, and let me drink you in. Wowie, wow-wow! You are definitely the best view in Cape Suzette tonight!”
       She flipped her hair in an inviting manner and sat down, resting her chin or her hands. “So Buck, do we eat first or discuss our business?” Buck looked incredulous. “After the dough I spent on this? We definitely eat first! Bring it on, boys!”
       Three waiters came out and brought forth the most expensive foods and wines in the place. One waiter handed over a bottle of champagne and he and Buck exchanged meaningful looks. “Try the bubbly, Kitten. It’s the best in the city, a very special blend.” Kitten was reluctant to drink anything like that, but decided to be sociable. “I really shouldn’t, but well, just a little bit.”

       Back at Higher for Hire, Rebecca was pacing. She always paced when she was nervous, and now she was nervous, angry and worried all at the same time. She’d tried to stop Kitten from going, but the feline just wouldn’t stop to listen. She’d called out to Louie’s, but one of the band had answered as usual and she’d gotten nowhere. Kit, Wildcat and Molly watched as Rebecca worked herself up into a frenzy.
       “How could he just go off and leave her without saying anything!” Rebecca said. “Of all the insensitive things to do, and now she’s out with someone else trying to console herself! Baloo, you’d better get back here...”
       At that moment, a knock came at the door.
       “Kitten?” Rebecca asked, hopeful. Kit went over and opened the door tentatively. “Papa Bear?”
       It was neither—just a delivery boy making a special delivery. It was addressed to Baloo, but since it was late the kid decided to leave it with his friends. Kit took the note. “Maybe it’s from Kitten. Maybe she’s telling him she’s leaving. I better open it.” Kit did so, and what he saw there made his eyes bulge in surprise.

       Dear BulletHead,

       Remember me? You’d better, because I think about you and that dumb plane of yours every waking moment! Well now I’m getting my revenge. You know that cute little kitten who likes you? My employer is going to marry her tonight till death do them part, whether she likes it or not, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it!

       That is, unless you’d like to come to the Sterling Towers and try. I’ll be waiting, and so will a new and improved MEL! If you think I was mad before, well wait until you incur my wrath this time!

       Dr. Axl Ottl - oh, and have a nice day.

       Kit felt the fur on his back bristle. “Uh, Miss Cunningham, you better call Louie’s again...and I better find a cab. I need to find that inventor friend of Baloo’s and like pronto!” Kit shoved the telegram into Rebecca’s hands and once she’d read it she gasped and grabbed the phone. “Come on, Baloo, this is getting dangerous! Kit, wait!”
       But Kit was already gone. He hailed a cab and went directly to Khan Tower. It was late, and Kit was arguing with the person at the front desk, but fortunately Buzz was just finishing for the evening and had entered the lobby via the elevator. Kit ran up to him. “Buzz! Are you Buzz?”
       The avian inventor turned and faced Kit. “Hello, young fellow. Have we met before? Oh, you’re Baloo’s son, aren’t you?” Kit caught his breath. “Not exactly. Look, there’s not a lot of time to explain. Do you remember when Baloo asked you to help him pretend to be BulletHead a while back?”
       Buzz rubbed his chin. “Um, yeah.”
       “Listen, I need your help! Baloo’s in double-serious trouble!” Kit explained the problem with Dr. Axl Ottl and MEL as fast as he could, and Buzz absorbed it, thinking. “So can you help us?” Buzz pressed the up button on the elevator. “Come on, I know just the thing!”

       Buzz took him up to his private lab, where he opened a closet and brought out two costumes. One was Baloo’s BulletHead costume and rocket pack, and the other was a scaled-down version of the same thing. Kit gazed at the costume. “Wow, why’d you make that? Looks like it’d fit me!”
       “I wasn’t supposed to tell you, but Baloo had me make this for you for your birthday. Said something about you being down and this might help,” Buzz said. Kit felt a pang of guilt for how he’d treated Baloo and Kitten, but shoved it aside. “Baloo wanted me to have a BulletHead costume? But he won’t even let me fly the Sea Duck! Well, I guess it’s time to put my money where my mouth is and see if I’m as good a flyer as I always tell people.”
       Kit hurriedly began putting on the suit. “Buzz, how do I fight a MEL? I haven’t a clue as to what I have to do to beat it, and this one’s supposed to be even better than the last one!” Buzz cleared his throat, taking on a professorial manner. “I made some additional devices for the suit to handle problems like this.”
       Buzz unlocked a cabinet and took out several strange looking devices and attached them to Kit’s suit. “The button on the left sleeve cuff activates what I call a Magna-Ray. Press it and it’ll send out waves of electromagnetic energy. It should at least confuse the robot. The button on the right sleeve cuff is a launcher for one of two heat-seeking missiles I built into the new rocket pack’s casing. If the first one misses, press it again for the second one. I’m hoping to mass-produce this one for the home market in time for Christmas!”
       Kit looked from the controls back to Buzz. “Something tells me that the return of MEL didn’t come as a complete surprise to you.”
       “Actually, no. Dr. Axl Ottl vowed revenge against Khan and me, but first he said he wanted to defeat BulletHead. I thought he was just kidding, but just in case I modified the BulletHead costumes. Seems he wasn’t kidding, after all.”
       Kit put on his helmet. “Miss Cunningham’s trying to get in contact with Baloo and she’ll probably call the cops too. A girl that loves Baloo was kidnapped and the guy has MEL to keep Baloo from rescuing her. I have to keep MEL busy till Baloo gets back!”
       “Oh my goodness!” Buzz exclaimed. He pushed a control on the wall and one of the large windows facing the outside rolled down. “You’d better get going, then! Oh, and there’s also an infrared filter built into the helmet’s visor. Press the button on the side of the helmet, and you’ll be able to see in the dark.”
       Kit started to head out the window, when he realized he didn’t know the first thing about riding a rocket pack. “Uh, how do you steer this thing?” Buzz was only too glad to explain, since he wasn’t the one flying. “I’ve added a rudder to the helmet. Make sure to use your eyes to look around; when you turn your head, it’ll make you turn with it.” After Buzz gave him a few last-minute pointers, Kit headed for the window and after opening it he stood on its ledge “This thing will work, right?” Kit asked.
       “Sure! It should work with no problems!” Buzz said. Kit paused for a moment, certain he’d heard that line before somewhere. “Great. All right, here we go. Skyward, ho!” Kit fired up the rocket pack and launched himself out the window.

       Back at the hotel, Kitten and Buck had just finished dinner. She was feeling good, after several servings of that champagne. Just how many had she had? She was trying to remember when things seemed to be getting fuzzy. She tried to concentrate, but found she couldn’t. Then all went black.
       “Honey? Sweetiekins? Ohmigosh, she’s fainted!” Buck said, his voice full of alarm. “Quick, we’d better call a doctor. Get her upstairs, fast!” The hubbub in the room surrounding the happenings would’ve been louder had they realized what Buck had in store. Instead of the penthouse, Buck had his boys escort the unconscious Kitten to a waiting car. Buck went outside and looked upward toward the penthouse, giving a sinister laugh before joining his entourage.

       Outside Khan Tower, the night lit up as a blaze of fire shone, lighting a path through the city. Kit was learning to maneuver with the BulletHead costume and now he headed for Sterling Towers. Depressing the button on the side of his helmet, Kit activated the infrared and found he could easily see the obstacles in his way. When he neared the towers of the hotel, he saw something else.
       “Get BulletHead...get BulletHead...get BulletHead...” The robot was back, and meaner-looking than ever. Before Kit could react, it too showed it had some modifications. From its hands, a burst of lightning pulsed out and nearly singed Kit’s fur. Kit frantically dodged the attacks of the robot, flying evasive tactics to avoid it while he tried to think of a way to get the chance to use any of the weapons he had.
       “Come on, Baloo, where are you?”

Chapter 15 – The Return of BulletHead Baloo

       Back at Louie’s, Baloo was surrounded by eleven empty root-beer-float glasses and he’d just started slurping on his twelfth when Louie got his attention. “Hey, Baloo! Didn’t you say that BulletHead was a comic book hero?”
       “Well yeah, but I was BulletHead for a while. Nearly wrecked the Sea Duck saving Shere Khan’s furry backside from a crazy robot.” Louie turned up the radio. “Sounds like somebody’s trying to save it again! Listen up!”
       An announcer’s voice filled the room. “...and though it’s hard to tell in the night sky, we can make out two figures flying over Sterling Towers. Reports from witnesses who saw them flying low said that one is a robot firing strange rays from its hands and one looks like miniature version of the comic book hero BulletHead. Stay tuned to this station for further updates.”
       Baloo stood up, in an instant out of his personal doldrums. “Who would be crazier than me to put on that outfit and fly around on one of those packs?”
       “They’d have to be really small and be a great flier,” Louie said and Baloo laughed, but only for a moment. “KIT!” Baloo shouted, falling off the barstool. “Louie, I gotta get to Cape Suzette!” Baloo threw some money at Louie and rushed out the door. Louie followed him out. “Hey Fuzzy, where’s the fire?” Baloo was already to the Duck. He knew who was in that suit, and what it meant. “Oh baby, I wish I had that overdrive one more time!”

       Baloo flew the Sea Duck as fast as it could manage back to Cape Suzette, where he ignored all good sense and landed right in the street next to Khan Tower. Fortunately, it was the middle of the night and there was no traffic downtown at the moment. Baloo pushed past the guard at the door and in the lobby he was met by more of Khan’s guards, whom Buzz had told to escort him to the lab. The bird was glad to see his old friend. “Baloo, you made it! You’d better hurry. From what I hear, Kit’s having a lot of problems with that robot!”
       Buzz explained the situation about Kitten, the forced wedding, and Dr. Axl Ottl to Baloo as the bear hurriedly dressed. He quickly talked him through the weaponry and steering as he’d done with Kit. Baloo struggled with the gear, so great was his determination to get into the skies. “So help me, if anything happens to Kit or Kitten, I’m gonna ram that Axl Ottl guy all the way through Khan Tower! Okay, I’m ready to roll!”
       Baloo started up the pack and flew out the window. “I’m comin’, Little Britches!” He rocketed off into the night, dodging buildings, until the lights of Sterling Towers came into view. When they did, Baloo saw a lightning arc and knew something bad was up.

       Outside the hotel and overhead, Kit was starting to tire. The young flyer had used up a lot of his energy evading the robot’s beams, and so far he hadn’t been able to get in a solid strike on his opponent. He’d just thought of going for help when he saw another burst of flame appear and the robot turned its attention. “Get BulletHead...get BulletHead...get BulletHead...” Kit put on a burst of speed and headed for Baloo. “Papa Bear! You don’t know how glad I am to see you!”
       Baloo hovered next to Kit and took a defensive posture against the robot. “Get outta here, Kit! It’s too dangerous for you. Get back to Higher For Hire where it’s safe!” Kit stayed where he was. “No way, Papa Bear! I’m your co-pilot to the end.”
       The robot attacked, trying to zap first one then the other with its lightning ray. On the roof, the wacky scientist Dr. Axl Ottl watched, joyous. “That’s it! Get him, get him! Waitaminit...since when are there two BulletHeads? Oh well—get them, get them!” The two flyers played dodge-em for another minute, then Kit signaled for Baloo to come closer and yelled over at him. “Baloo, I’ve got an idea!”
       “It better be a good one! We only got them four missiles and the magnadoohickies.” Kit hovered next to him. “I need you to distract him with your missiles. Make him fire just at you, and I’ll work in behind him and hit him with a big dose from the Magna-Ray!” Baloo shook his head, confused. “But what good will that do?”
       “In science class, they taught us that when you expose metal to a magnet long enough, it takes on the characteristics of a magnet, too! If I hit MEL with the Magna-Ray for a minute or so, that ought to be enough to turn him into a magnet and then all we have to do is lead him to a big piece of metal. He’ll stick right to it!”
       Baloo didn’t have long to think it over. The new and improved MEL wasn’t in a playful mood. “Okay, I’m countin’ on you, Little Britches. Don’t let me down, ‘cause it’s a long fall off a short plank otherwise.”

       Baloo angled away from Kit. “Hey MEL, come and get me! Your mother was a toaster and your father was a blender!” MEL turned, seemingly annoyed. “Get BulletHead...get BulletHead...get BulletHead...” Baloo fired one of his missiles and MEL used his lightning ray to detonate it. In the confusion, Kit slipped behind MEL and activated his Magna-Ray. MEL started to pivot toward Kit, but Baloo fired his second missile. MEL was forced to deal with it, then Baloo began taunting him again and MEL became more agitated, trying to shoot Baloo down.
       After a minute, Kit flew off. “Okay, let’s try it! Lead him through the superstructure of the Cape Suzette bridge!” Baloo moved as fast as his pack could move him, thinking that maybe it was time to start losing weight. He dodged lightning bolts, air traffic and buildings in his mad rush to get to the bridge. He hadn’t seen what happened to Kit back at the Towers and said a silent prayer that Kit was safe as he closed in on the bridge.
       MEL followed, and Baloo used his innate pilot skills to advantage, dodging in and out of the metal girders. Soon enough it happened—MEL came too close to one of one them, and the magnetic force pulled him in with a resounding clang. He struggled, trying to get free but to no avail. Frustrated, the robot began loosing lightning bolts and struggled wildly to get loose, but soon the effort began sapping its power. “Get BulletHead...get BulletHead...get BulletHead...getrrrrrrrrrrr....

       Baloo flew up to the now-defunct robot. “Rest in pieces, you flying junk pile!” Kit flew into view, his hands full of lab coat and the struggling Dr. Axl Ottl. “Hey, Papa Bear! I think he’s afraid of heights!”
       Grabbing the mad scientist, Baloo shook him violently. “Okay, where’s Kitten? Tell me or you’ll end up broken like your robot pal!” Axl Ottl took one look down at the water hundreds of feet below and promptly spilled the beans—oh, and he talked too. “Buck took her to Opulence Island! You know, the private one? His dad owns it and he’s got her there and he’s going to make her marry him!”
       Baloo dropped him. Then after a fall of about a hundred screaming feet, Baloo flew down and caught him again. “You’re going to spend the rest of time in jail this time!” Baloo flew to the police station and dropped him and the robot off, then addressed Kit. “Tell them about the island and what’s going on, then get back to Becky and the others, okay?”
       Kit wanted to go right then, but nodded. “Okay, Papa Bear. Be careful, and I hope she’s all right.” Baloo stepped clear of the building. “If she ain’t, I’m gonna make a doorstop outta that snooty mouse! Don’t worry, Kitten! Baloo’s on his way!” Baloo took off at top speed toward the island. Once Kit explained the situation to the cops he turned and fired his missiles at the robot, blowing it to smithereens. He did a brief aerial victory dance and flew off into the night.

Chapter 16 – Showdown and Another Confession

       On Opulence Island, Kitten started to come out of her stupor. Meanwhile, Buck was having his own problems, and accosting one of his hired goons for it. “Whaddaya mean the preacher ain’t here!”
       “Just what I said, boss,” Bruno said. “He called to say he was delayed, but was on his way. We couldn’t tell him, ‘hurry because the law might get suspicious’.” Buck started pacing. “No, of course you couldn’t. All right, then, but I want everything in place so when he gets here we can get it over with right away!”
       Buck paused in his ranting and headed over to Kitten, who had just stood up from the sofa she’d been lounging on. “And how are you, my fair bride-to-be?” Kitten raised her hand to her head, feeling it throbbing. “I feel like an anvil fell on my head. Where are we? What happened?”
       “Dont’cha remember? You left those losers to come be with me! Time passed, the drink got to you, and now all we’re waitin’ for is the preacher. Congratulations, dollface. You’re marrying the richest guy around!” Buck said with pride.
       Kitten quickly came to her senses. “Hey, I just agreed to dinner! No one said anything about getting married!” Buck smiled wickedly, for wicked he was. “Maybe you didn’t, sweets, but I had it figured different. Let’s face it, you ain’t got no future out there, and what with the pics my boy took of you at the hotel and here you ain’t never gonna have one again with anyone else but me! You think anyone would take in a dame who’s addicted to catnip and can’t control the urges? Even those cabbage heads you hung out with wouldn’t want you around once they see these pics.”
       Buck showed her the photos they’d got of Kitten passed out and of one at their current locale, with Kitten’s arms wrapped around a bottle of catnip. Kitten kicked him in the face. “You little slime ball! You should be a theatrical agent. I’m leaving!” She turned in a huff and marched for the door.
       “Go right ahead, babycakes. We’re on my dad’s private island, and it’s twenty miles of ocean and sharks to shore. There ain’t anyone around to bail you out, but just in case you got any ideas on getting your feet wet...” Buck snapped his fingers and two of the MEL robots immediately came in through the door, their arms sporting lightning emitters that were at a low spark at the moment.
       “I’d sure hate to see that pretty fur of yours singed by one of my robots. You can look around all you want, but if you try anything like escaping we’ll be on you like fleas on a dog. Not to mention the robots might take exception to it.”
       Kitten glared at him. “This isn’t the end, Buck. Baloo will come for me! Somehow he’ll know about this and come for me!” Buck crossed his arms, a smug look on his face. “Oh, I wouldn’t count on that either, toots. You see, my friend who invented these robots had a little grudge against your overgrown teddy bear. By now, he’s stuffed and mounted on a wall somewhere!”
       “I think it’ll take more than a mad scientist and a pathetic little momma’s boy like you to stop Baloo.”
       Buck jumped up and down. “I ain’t no momma’s boy! I’ll teach you ta talk to me like that! Go on, and think about being nicer to me, glamour-puss. ‘Cause if ya ain’t, I’ll make sure your precious Baloo does get stuffed and mounted!”
       Kitten’s eyelids narrowed. “You’re not half the man he is, even if he was half your size...or something like that. You’re gonna have to keep dreaming, Bucky, because you’re never gonna have me! Show the pictures, I don’t care! Baloo already knows about the catnip.”

       Buck just growled and dismissed her. Kitten went outside, the MELs following her. She got far enough away from the house and the other goons to the point where she felt they wouldn’t notice what she was doing and pulled a harmonica out of her purse. “Baloo, I know you’re out there somewhere. I hope you’re listening.”
       Kitten wet her lips and began playing “I’ve Got Them Flat Broke, Sticky-Shoed, No Banana Boogie-Woogie Blues”. The robots looked on, but apparently didn’t consider that action a threat. They had cameras attached to their visors, and Buck secretly watched as she played. “You’re wasting your breath, Kitten. No one’s around to help you.”
       Relatively nearby, Baloo reached the island and landed. He decided to try approaching by stealth, and once he saw the large house he began creeping along. That was when he heard a familiar tune and had to fight the urge to start dancing to the music. “Oh man, that’s gotta be Kitten! Ain’t no one else on the planet that likes that song other than me.” Baloo worked his way through the underbrush, and found Kitten surrounded by two MELs.
       He was about to attack when he saw Kit approaching in the sky from the opposite direction. The MELs saw him too and with a “get BulletHead…” they blasted up into the sky. But so did Baloo, and he hit them from behind with his Magna-Ray, causing the two of them to stick to each other. Their rocket packs ended up burning holes through each other, and the robots fell into the sea. Baloo and Kit landed back on the beach by Kitten.
       She didn’t know for sure who had saved her at first, but when Baloo took off his helmet her face lit up and she ran over to him and hugged him. “Baloo, I knew you’d come! I’m sorry I scared you like I did, and for running away.” Baloo was just thankful she was okay. “I’m sorry about gettin’ scared and runnin’ away too, but we’ll talk about that later. Let’s get you ta safety and then deal with Buck!”
       “Not so fast, Baloo!”
       Buck and company had come out, armed with rocket packs of their own. Oh, and about a half-dozen MELs too. “Take your hands off of my bride! She’s gonna be mine, now that the preacher’s arrived! I just saw the boat get here, so shove off or prepare to look like a bad grade of Swiss cheese!”
       Baloo put his helmet back on. “I ain’t afraid o’ you, punk. I ain’t afraid of nobody! Kitten’s not yours. She loves me and that means that all this is real personal. Prepare to get pounded, runt!”
       “Oh yeah? Well I says I love her and she’s mine! Whadda you say?” Buck challenged. Baloo stared him down. “You’re lucky I don’t have any missiles left. I say let’s rumble and finish this thing.”
       “One moment, if you please!”

       All heads turned to find that the preacher was indeed there, but he was by no means alone. The police had come along, as well as Buck’s father. It was he who had spoken. Buck glared at his father. “Dad, this is my problem!”
       Chester Fendlemocker was a self-made mouse, but perhaps that had been the problem. He’d expected the same of his boy, and now he was seeing the result of that assumption. “Son, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times! All of your problems are mine. Now you’ve gone and messed up again, but thankfully for you I’ve worked things out. Simply allow the lady and her friends here to leave unmolested with the police and nothing more will be said about it. Then you and I will have a long chat about the proper use of your allowance, Bartholomew.”
       Baloo was annoyed at the prospect. “What? We were just about to rumble!” Chester walked over to Baloo. The mouse was richly dressed and used a mahogany cane with a gold handle. “Oh yes, and my apologies to you and your lady friend there. I’d like to make it up to you. Shall we say ten thousand apiece? That should cover your imposition and make up for my son’s imprudence.”
       “T...t...t...t...” was all Baloo could manage.
       “Ten thousand?” Kitten asked. “That sounds like a good price for hush-money to me.” Chester had just forked over the moolah when Buck’s personal volcano blew its top. “No way! I ain’t putting up with this no more!”
       Chester didn’t even turn. “Boy, you’ll do as you’re told, and for the moment that’s quite simple: be quiet and don’t try my patience. I knew I should never have allowed you to sponsor that movie in the first place. It would seem you’re quite imbalanced after all. Must come from your mother’s side of the family.”
       Buck’s eyes bulged in rage. “Imbalanced? IMBALANCED AM I! I’ll show you imbalanced, dad!” Buck grabbed a remote on his person and immediately the half-dozen MELs were joined by about fifty more, hovering in the air. Chester assumed his fatherly authoritative voice. “Bartholomew! I will not tolerate such infantile behavior!”
       “That’s all I am to you, isn’t it! Just a wittle-bitty baby who never learned to grow up! Well, now I’m gonna show you just how grown-up I am, because me and this private army’s gonna reduce Cape Suzette to ashes! And while I’m at it, I’m gonna find that bear’s plane and do the same to it too!”

       Baloo decided he’d heard enough. He used his Magna-Ray to yank the remote from Buck’s hand to his. “Kid, you were outclassed the day you met me.” Buck stood there, mortified. “What! You can’t do that! Give it back!” Baloo smiled nastily. “You want it, rich boy? You got it!”
       Baloo pressed a button on the remote, and instantly the MELs went into action. One of them grabbed Buck by the seat of his pants and flew him over to another MEL who was in the traditional spanking position. The flying robot dropped him and the other took hold, but just as Baloo was about to administer corporal punishment, the tip of a cane tapped his shoulder from behind.
       “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, sir,” Chester said.
       “Oh, and why not?” Baloo challenged.
       Chester stretched out his hand for the remote. “This time, Bartholomew’s gone too far. I meant well, trying to buy the boy’s problems away, but now I see that I might have been hasty.” Baloo rolled his eyes. “Aw, you think?”
       “So I think it’s time I took responsibility for the boy myself.”
       Baloo held back. “And what happens the next time he gets in trouble or wants revenge on me?” Chester grinned slightly. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem. I’m going to ground him until he cleans every window in my mansion. That should keep him occupied for the next five years.” Buck’s mouth dropped. “NO! I won’t do it! You can’t make me do it!” Baloo handed over the remote, and for once a MEL was put to good use. Baloo looked at the wad of cash in his hand. “Here, take this back.”
       Chester shook his head. “No, I think you earned that—you and that young lady over there who seems quite enamored with you. Oh, and you probably want these photographs too, the negatives are in there as well. Take it with my best wishes and leave Bartholomew to me.” Baloo was more than willing to do so, and turned to find Kitten standing there, her eyes shining.
       Baloo reached out his hands for hers. “You okay, Kitten? I was really worried when I heard something had happened to you.” Kitten took a step toward him. “Were you, Baloo?”
       “Yeah, a whole lot. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you’d been hurt, besides really putting the hurt on Buck and that wacky mad scientist.”

       Kitten closed the distance between them, taking his hands. “I knew you’d come to my rescue, but why would you have felt that way if I’d been hurt?” There was a note of challenge in the question, and Baloo knew why. He’d run off on her, and now she wanted to know what he thought of her. Baloo tried to find the words, ending up rubbing the back of his neck. “Kitten, I like you more than any other girl I ever met, and that’s what’s scarin’ me.”
       A ray of hope showed in Kitten’s eyes, but still she wasn’t moved. “And I like you more than any guy I’ve ever met, and it scared me too at first. And it really scared me when you left—I’ve never cried like that before in my life and I knew then for sure that I loved you. I don’t want you to be scared of me, though. I want you to be happy, and if you don’t love me then just tell me so and I’ll take this money and start over somewhere. But whatever you say, thanks—thanks for saving me and everything.”
       Kitten started to back up, fearing the worst. Baloo bit his lower lip and held onto her hands. “I don’t want you to go.” Kitten looked him in the eyes. “Why, Baloo? Why don’t you want me to go?” Baloo started fidgeting. “Well, I just don’t, that’s all!”
       “That’s no reason!” Kitten replied. “Why don’t you want me to go. Why!”
       Baloo was finally riled enough to say it . “Because I...I think I might be in love with you!” Kitten’s voice lowered to a shaking whisper. “Please, say it again so I know I didn’t imagine it.”
       Baloo wondered if he could, but he did. “I think I love you, Kitten Caboodle.” She was starting to cry again, but this time it was pure joy. “Oh, Baloo!” She jumped into his arms. He lifted her and swung her around a couple of times while she squealed with delight. Then he set her down and took her face in his big paws, and she did the same with his and her dainty hands.
       “I was hoping you’d say that,” Kitten purred. Baloo took on a sober look. “Now don’t expect miracles here, Kitten. I’m a real fixer-upper. I like my life and the freedom I have and I don’t want to lose that, but I’d be willing to share it with you.” Kitten hugged him. “I was hoping you’d say that too. What say we go home and surprise Rebecca with the news, and then we’ll head out to Louie’s and show him how to celebrate!”

       With a sigh of relief, and the knowledge that he’d finally jumped into the deep end, Baloo held out his arm, gentleman-like. “Well, that sounds like a mighty good idea. Baloo’s rule number one: there’s always time to stop at Louie’s.” Kitten chuckled and hugged him tightly. “I’ll have to remember that one.” She took Baloo’s arm then looked over at Kit. “Thank you too, Kit. You’re a real wonder.”
       Kit walked up to her. “Thanks, Miss Caboodle. If Papa Bear says you’re on the level, then you’re on the level.” Kitten took his hand in her free one. “Come on. I think today’s going to turn out pretty good after all. But don’t call me Miss Caboodle anymore.”
       “You want us to call you Zelda?” Baloo asked. Kitten wrinkled her nose. “I never really liked that name much. Just call me Kitten.”

Chapter 17 – Epilogue

       Baloo picked up Kitten and, with Kit flying next to them, they rocketed back to the mainland. Baloo had never felt so free and light as he did now, and when he landed by the Sea Duck he realized that a gap in his life that he really hadn’t thought about had been filled. They piled into the plane, and fortunately it wasn’t too difficult to get up enough speed to take off.
       When they landed back at Higher For Hire, Rebecca, Molly and Wildcat were there to greet them. “We heard about the battle with the robot and all on the radio! I hope you’re...all...okay,” Rebecca said, noticing that Baloo and Kitten were holding hands. Kit leaned back against the side of the Duck, satisfied.
       Molly got Rebecca’s attention. “Mommy, why are they holding hands if Baloo’s a big coward who doesn’t know what’s good for him?” Rebecca had to remember not to confide so much in her daughter. “Maybe he’s not afraid anymore, pumpkin.” Kit wondered how this was going to affect his relationship with Baloo. If things got serious, would it be a “three’s a crowd” or would they be a family? He wondered about these things as he counted out his share of the hush money that Chester had paid him. He didn’t get as much as Baloo and Kitten did, but it would go nicely with the rest of the money he was saving to buy his own plane with.
       Baloo knelt down by Molly. “She’s right, kiddo. Even us sky jockeys can learn a trick or three every now and again.” Molly looked over at the newbie. “Does that mean Kitten’s staying?” Kitten knelt down as well. “It sure does, honey.”
       “Yay! Now I have someone to play DangerWoman with!” Molly said. The group got a good laugh out of that, and then Molly spoke up again. “Baloo?”
       “Yeah, kid?” Baloo asked.
       “Are you gonna marry Kitten?”

       Baloo blushed and rubbed the back of his neck. “That’ll have to wait, Molly. But maybe one day.” Kitten came up next to Baloo. “He’s right, dear. After all, we’re just getting to know each other.” Molly thought that over. “Well, okay. But if you do, I want to be there!”
       “That’s a deal, honey,” Kitten said. “Rebecca...Becky, if you’ll have me, I’d like to help you with getting some more clients in for us. I think I’d like to invest some time here, and some other things.” Kitten showed Rebecca the wad of money she’d been given. Rebecca looked on, amazed. “Where’d you get all that?”
       “It’s a long story, Becky,” Baloo said, showing off his own roll. “Let’s just say that crime doesn’t pay, but justice does.” The capitalist wheels in Rebecca’s brain began moving. “Oh Baloo! Do you know what we could do with this kind of money? We could go after the real fat cats in town! Why, we might could even hire on more pilots! Wait, this’ll take a lot of thought.”
       Baloo laughed. “Just what I figured you’d say, Becky. There goes the bankroll…”
       Rebecca went over to Kitten. “You’re welcome to stay, and we can discuss a business arrangement tomorrow.” Kitten was satisfied with that. “Good, I look forward to that. And I also want to learn how to fly. Hey, maybe I could be your second pilot!” Baloo’s brows furrowed at that. “Fly! But there ain’t but a couple of gals who’re cargo jockeys and they don’t look anything like—”
       “Please, Baloo?” Kitten asked. “Don’t you understand, I want to be with you! I want to do the things you do, and I want to have the kind of life where I can jump into a plane and just go if I want.” Kitten walked over to Kit. “Besides, I’ve got lots of new friends now and I’d like to share their lives, and share mine with them.”
       “That will take time, ma’am,” Kit said. “You’ll have to be patient.” Kitten knelt down by Kit. “I know, Kit, and I’m not going to rush it. Besides, it seems like I have a lot of time on my hands now. A whole lifetime’s worth.” Baloo tried to take this all in. Kitten seemed to be moving this much faster than he would have liked. This was a serious issue and he knew it wasn’t one to rush into. He’d need to talk to the most responsible person he knew, Rebecca.
       “If it goes well, then it’ll be a crazy ride,” Baloo thought out loud. Kitten stood back up. “Well, it could be worse. You could’ve gotten Buck at Higher for Hire instead of me. I wouldn’t wish that little troll on anyone!” Baloo laughed at the thought. “He always has a future as a no-talent leading man in Z-movies!” Kitten chuckled. “I hope his father knocked some sense into him.” Then she noticed how uncertain Baloo looked. “Baloo, you aren’t still afraid of me, are you?” Baloo shrugged. “Well, you make it sound like you got the whole future already planned and I ain’t even thinkin’ about tomorrow yet.”
       “Oh, that’s just a woman’s way, Baloo. I don’t know what’s ahead any more than you do. I’m just saying that if you’re willing to stick it out, I’m willing too,” Kitten said.
       “Okay, but let’s just take it nice and slow. I can teach ya how to fly and Kit can teach ya how to navigate. Then we’ll see if flyin’s in yer blood.”
       Kitten nodded. “Fair deal. I’ll even teach you some about acting if you like. And how to play the harmonica, of course.” Baloo smirked at the idea of being a trained actor. “That acting might come in handy. I got them suave and deboner looks and manners of them leading men in the pictures.”

       Rebecca crossed her arms, grinning. “Well then, why don’t you take your looks and manners and inventory the cargo for tomorrow’s runs? I need to talk to Kitten about a couple more new clients who are interested in meeting her for a business lunch. Seems that the word’s gone around about her soup, and a couple of friends of our newest clients want to trade recipes.”
       “I’m sure it doesn’t help that I’m a former glamorous movie star too,” Kitten said, winking. “Okay, Rebecca, let’s get down to business. See you later, Baloo.” Baloo watched the two of them head off, and then the guys all sat down on the edge of the dock. “Oh, baby...” Baloo said, the weight of what had just transpired sinking in. “Kit, looks like things ain’t gonna be the same no more. You ain’t mad about it, are ya?”
       “I just don’t know, Papa Bear,” Kit said. “I’m not sure how this will affect us. I’m not mad, more just scared a little of the unknown like you. You were willing to let me be part of your life, so I guess I shouldn’t try to monopolize yours.”
       Baloo rubbed Kit’s head. “Hey, you’ll always be my co-pilot. I guess maybe it’s just time to have some fe-male-ness around. Sure is going to make for interesting times when vacation comes. I wonder if Kitten’ll like globe-trotting with Louie and me. But if it don’t work out, I won’t have it said we didn’t give it a shot. What do you think, Wildcat?”
       Wildcat gave it a moment. “Uh, well, I hope she stays around. She’s really pretty. And maybe she likes jellybeans and we could go see if there’s more dinosaurs around and—“
       “Uh, Papa Bear,” Kit chimed in. “I think that might have to be one of the changes. When vacation time comes, do you think she’ll just want to tag along while you and Louie wander around the world?” Baloo thought it over, and he had to admit it worried him. “I dunno, Kit. I dunno. She might, but then again she might want for the two of us to go off someplace like the Fidgety Islands.”
       “Just remember that she has likes and dislikes too.”
       Baloo pushed his flight cap back. “Yeah. I ain’t got no illusions about it, Kit. I know it won’t be no bed of roses, and that’s why I’ve avoided getting involved with anyone up till now. But Kitten... well, I think she needs me. And when she was gone, I found out I needed her, too. I don’t know how or when it all happened, but there it is.”
       Kit lightly punched Baloo’s arm. “I guess people just aren’t made to be alone.” Baloo put his arm around Kit. “Nope, I guess they’re not, Little Britches.”

       A short time later Rebecca finished up with Kitten, and Baloo knocked on her office door. “Come on in, Baloo,” Rebecca said, looking over next week’s work. Baloo tiptoed in, feeling awkward. “Becky, can I talk with you, private like?”
       “Sure, no problem,” Rebecca said, sharing a look with Kitten. She nodded and walked out, and Baloo took a seat across from Rebecca. Rebecca knew that they’d talk eventually, what with all that had happened.
       Both of them started the same. “So what’s on, you first.”
       “Go ahead,” Rebecca said.
       “Becky, what am I supposed to do?” Baloo asked. “I ain’t never been close to a girl before! Sure I flirted with ladies, but deep down I knew they’d never take me seriously. But now one has and I don’t know nothin’ about relationships and stuff like that.” Rebecca folded her hands, easing into friend mode. “Baloo, I don’t know how much I can advise you here. You see, relationships are different for everyone. You just have to take it a day at a time and find a way to strike a balance between each other. You’ll have to give some and she will, but if you’re both committed to it, it can work.”
       Baloo cringed. “But the ‘C’ word is scary. I’ve always tried to live life with as few obligations as possible. I didn’t owe anyone anything and no one owed me. I wanted to be free as a bird.”
       “She’s not going to try to tie you down, Baloo. She knows who you are and what you like. You’ll have to make some accommodations, but so will she. I think she wants to fly with you and be a bird too, so give her a chance to do that. Let her know how you’ll expect it to be, and then start talking and keep talking. It’s the only way you’ll know what to do.” Baloo wasn’t placated. “But from what I hear, women change over time. They play interested at first just to hook you and then once they get you hooked you discover that they were just pretendin’ to like what you like, but by that time you’re stuck!”
       Rebecca stood up. “Baloo, you know better than that! If Kitten was reeling you in, she’d be using all that artillery she has to do it. There will be change, but you’ll both change. If you stay together and get married, you’ll become more than just two people who love each other. There’s a big difference, but I think it’s a good difference. There’s a strength and a bond there that’s hard to explain without experiencing it.”
       “Ma... ma... hitched?” Baloo said, nearly fainting at the prospect. “Whoa! Well, that’s one place this old gray bear’s never planned on going. The ol’ ball and chain never was my cup of tea.”
       “Well, you’ll have to think about it if she stays around and you two remain an item. Besides, getting married’s not the end of anything. It’s just a new beginning, but you’d better know for sure what you’re doing before you do. Don’t agree to marry her just to make her happy, Baloo. You’ve got to want it, too, and for the right reasons.”
       “Becky...I know this is a personal question and I’ve never wanted to stick my nose into your business, but...were you happy when you were married? Was it worth it?”
       Rebecca took a moment to collect her thoughts. “Harry and I were only married two years, but they were good years. He supported my dreams and if it weren’t for him I’d never have finished business school. He was there for me and for Molly every minute, until...well. The person I am today, I owe partly to him.”

       Baloo was glad he had Rebecca to talk all this over with. “I think I’m just afraid that after a while she’ll go back to bein’ like she was before. You know, manipulative and stuff. Or what if she decides she hates flyin’ and never wants to be in a plane again?”
       Rebecca came over and took his hand. “Baloo, I know the unknown’s the scariest thing there is, but you could come up with a thousand reasons not to let yourself get close. But I think you and I both know that Kitten loves you, and you love her. I worked that girl like a slave and she didn’t flinch a bit. I think at heart, she’s a very lonely person who needs someone to give her life some stability, direction and support. If she stays, I believe she’ll never leave you or want to go anywhere else.”
       “But what if she’s really clingy and possessive? What if she’s hangin’ on me like a she’s made of glue, never lettin’ me outta her sight for a minute?” Baloo asked. Rebecca looked him in the eye. “That’s why you need to talk to her now, before you make a commitment. Tell her what you’re comfortable with, and also remember to ask her the same. She’ll see that as a sign of great respect and sensitivity.”
       “I just don’t know if I can do the sensitive thing, Becky. I’m a shmoe,” Baloo said, letting his shoulders sag. Rebecca grinned. “I’ve got two words to prove that you’re not: Tan Margaret.” Baloo had a feeling she’d bring that up. “Okay, I guess I can be a bit sensitive when I have to, but can I be enough for someone else in my life?”
       Rebecca smiled up at him. “If I’m any judge, you can. You’re the best friend I have, Baloo, and I know despite your rough exterior, lazy habits and partying attitude, you’d move heaven and earth if I was in trouble. And I’ve always appreciated that.”
       Baloo smiled back. “Well, friends are the only family I got. You really think I could do okay?” Rebecca gave him a friendly hug of encouragement. “You better believe it!” Baloo hugged her back. “Thanks Becky.” He took on a playful smile. “Too bad, Beckers. You shoulda grabbed me when you had the chance!”
       “Don’t think I haven’t thought about it a couple of times, but it took me a long time to get over Harry. And now I have someone else in my heart, even if for now he’s only in my dreams.”

       Baloo put his arm around Rebecca and they walked outside. Kitten saw them when they came out and had a questioning look until Baloo put his other arm around her. With his best friend on one side and his ladylove on the other, Baloo headed for the Sea Duck and the rest of his informal family. It was the start of a new day, and the start of a lot of things. Just what would happen next would have to wait for certainty, but one bear and one cat had both decided that waiting was something they could easily handle. As the Sea Duck flew off into the golden light of dawn, the wait seemed short for good things to come.

Buck Fendlemocker, Chester Fendlemocker, Oscar Huston, Bela Lugrosi (who is not an alien), Lech and Oleg Kabinski are original creations of Indy and Chris Silva. Baloo, Rebecca Cunningham, Kit Cloudkicker, Molly Cunningham, Wildcat, Louie L'Amour, Plane Jane, Dr. Axl Ottl Buzz and Kitten Kaboodle are all copyright Disney and used without permission, but with the utmost respect.