The ring-a-ding-ding of the bell dangling from the deli shop’s front door knob signaled the arrival of yet another customer. Felicity called out a welcome from behind the cash register as the calico made her way to the counter.
“Ooooh, corned beef!” squealed the calico. “What a lovely surprise. I’ll take a half a pound, please. Oh, and how about half a pound of the roast beef, a quarter pound of the salami and a whole meatloaf.”
From behind the deli case, Claude licked his paws clean, wiped them dry on his crimson-splotched apron then weighed and wrapped the calico’s selections. “Here you go, miss. Enjoy!” The calico eagerly accepted the four packages and sauntered over to the register. Felicity rang up her order and smiled as she watched the calico skip out of the shop.
Moments later, the front door jingle-jangled again as an orange tabby made his way in. Felicity beamed at her father. “My goodness! Business is booming. I don’t know how you managed to fill the deli case shelves, what with meat being so hard to come by these days, but ever since you did, it’s one customer after another.”
Claude gazed upon his beautiful daughter, his green eyes twinkling with pride and adoration. “I can’t take all the credit, my love. The shelves wouldn’t be full if it weren’t for the team.”
“Speaking of which, um, where’s Chuck? I thought he was going to work today.”
Claude flashed an uneasy smile. “Didn’t I tell you, honey? He’s moved on—to, uh, a better place. But, don’t worry. We’ll be filling his spot in the deli soon.”
Claude noticed the orange tabby lingering near the front door. “Welcome to DeliCat, Essen. What can I get for you, today, sir?”
The orange tabby glanced around the shop, taking in the deli’s lunch tables, which were filled with boisterous, buoyant customers, before approaching the counter. “Actually, I’m hoping I can do something for you. I noticed your ‘Help Wanted’ ad in the window. I’m new in town and looking for work. Name’s Lance.”
Claude gave the tabby a once-over and nodded. “I must say, you look like a big, beefy fellow, Lance. Someone who’d do well at the meat counter. Yes. Let’s give you a try.”
A few days later, on what was now a normal, bustling day at the deli, a group of regulars entered the shop and settled into their usual table. Felicity and Lance, completely absorbed by one another’s company, continued to whisper and giggle at the register. After trying and failing to get Felicity’s attention, Claude huffed in annoyance, grabbed a notepad and pen, and strode over to the table to wait on the customers.
“Hey, guys. Good to see you as always. So, what will you all be having today?” Claude prompted.
A Maine Coon looked over at his lunch companions, who, in turn, nodded their heads in unison, prodding Tristan to speak for them. “Ahem. Before we launch into our lunch order, we want to thank you for giving us a place to not only meet, but also m.e.a.t. After last year’s great cow die-off, we gave up hope we’d ever sink our teeth into a sumptuous, juicy burger again.”
Claude accepted their kind words with a bit of discomfiture. “Yeah, admittedly, things became tougher than a vending machine chicken-fried steak after the humans heated up the earth to such a degree the world’s poor, burpy cows spontaneously combusted.”
Tristan shuddered, “Abominable.”
“A bomb in a heifer, too,” pointed out Claude. “But thanks to the contributions of my employees, I’ve been able to keep the deli case fully stocked.”
The quartet of felines nodded. “And yet,” interjected Timothy, a handsome tuxedo cat, “I’m somewhat surprised you speak so highly of them. They don’t seem to stick around for long.”
Claude shrugged. “Working at the deli–with me–is not the slice of life everyone seeks. My employees need to be able to take a ribbing.”
“Well, here’s hoping your new guy stays on,” Timothy cheered. “After all, your daughter’s quite taken with him, I see.”
Claude frowned. “Maybe so, but he likely will be gone soon enough. The daily grind gets to them all eventually.”
The hair inside Felicity’s ears twitched. Grind? Ribbing? Slice? “Oh my gosh,” she muttered to herself. “The reason the deli’s down to a skeleton crew is because Daddy’s been giving our fellow workers the ax!”
Felicity raced to the backroom where she found Lance examining a piece of new equipment. “Lance! What are you doing?”
“Hunh? Oh, hi Felicity. I was just checking out the new meat slicer. Your dad promised to put me through a trial run tonight.”
Felicity shook her head. “No! Tell him no.”
“What? Why would I tell him no, Felicity?”
“Don’t you see? Don’t you get it? Daddy has plans for you.”
“Isn’t it great? I’ve been working here less than a week and he already wants to show me the guts of the operation.”
“Exactly!” shrieked Felicity.
Lance grimaced. “Felicity, you’re not making sense. This is good news, a great opportunity. Your dad wants me to be part of the deli.”
“Yes, I know. And that’s why you’ve got to leave and go far far away. Daddy’s been running through our employees—“
“Which is a lucky break for me.”
Felicity sputtered, “Please, let me finish. He’s not just running through employees, he’s been running employees through the meat grinder!”
“Felicity! That’s crazy talk.”
“Then where are they, Lance? They disappeared, and all of a sudden meat appears in the deli case.”
“Oh, Felicity. You’re so cute when you’re hysterical. Your father’s not a killer. Sure, he has sharp claws, sharp teeth, and spends his days with sharp knives, but he’s a pussycat.”
Claude poked his head into the backroom. “Oh, there you are, Lance. Are we still on to talk about the special project tonight?”
Lance called out, “Yes, sir! I’ll be here.”
“Great. Until then, we’ve got lunch to serve. Chop chop.”
Felicity sighed in exasperation. She would just have to take matters into her own two paws.
Felicity stormed out of the shop and trod upon the streets until she came to the spot marked on a map given to her long ago by a friend of a friend of a friend who knew a guy who was friends with an underground group of do-gooder rebels. She knelt down onto the asphalt, hoisted a manhole cover up and set it aside. Peering into the hole, she saw nothing but the faint shadow of a ladder. She gulped, pirouetted and started making her way down down down, into the darkness, until her feet sensed the presence of a platform. She positioned herself onto four paws and crawled her way through the city sewer system, looking and listening for signs of the Fortress of the Froglodistes, the legendary group of mutinous vegetarians she’d heard about but whom she’d never wholly believed truly existed.
As Felicity continued to paw her way through the black void, a raspy voice broke the silence.
“Halt. Who goes there?” A torch suddenly burst into fiery life, revealing two bugged-out eyes and a gigantic mouth.
Felicity stammered, “My my name’s Felicity. I’ve come to enlist the help of the Froglodistes.”
“Oh, ga ga good. Can you take me to your leader?”
The two buggy eyes blinked slowly, while the giant mouth announced, “He’s in the process of croaking.”
“Oh,” mewled Felicity. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Enh, he’s probably done by now. I’ll go get him.”
The light left with the eyes and mouth, leaving Felicity to wait and tremble in the murky emptiness.
“Crowohhhhoak. You called?” bellowed the Big Froghuna.
Felicity turned in the direction of the guttural voice. “Greetings. I come from the land above ground, where the great cow die-off led to a catastrophic meat shortage, which, in turn, led to desperate beings performing desperate, unspeakable acts.”
“Yes, I know of these grim events and dire times. I and my band of fellow Froglodistes fled your world to create a harmonious sanctuary underground.”
Felicity pointlessly nodded in the dark. “Yes, that’s why I’m here. Your peace-loving ways are well known. I’m hoping your commitment to kindness will spur you to help me.”
The Big Froghuna grunted. “And what is this mission you would have us undertake, missy?”
“It’s my father. I love him, and I don’t want any harm to come to him, but I also love Lance. I fear my father intends to kill him tonight for meat! As vegetarian rebels, I’m hopeful you’ll take up my cause and help me save Lance!”
The Big Froghuna chortled. “Where’d you hear that bit of baloney? Vegetarian? Pfft. Why would we be vegetarians when we can eat sweet, juicy insects? They’re a nutritious sustainable diet that’s all the buzz these days.” The Big Froghuna flicked out his long, pink, sticky tongue and lassoed a blue bottle fly. “Nevertheless, we’re happy to be part of your swat team. Count us in.”
Meanwhile, back at the deli, Claude locked the front door and turned the window sign from “Open” to “Closed.”
“Thank you for staying late, Lance. I’ve been impressed with what you’ve put into the business and would like to see if you’re cut out for a new position.”
“I’d like that, sir.”
“Great. Let’s go into the backroom and bone up on the new slicer.”
Felicity and the Froglodistes arrived at the deli to the grating sound of metallic whirring and the heavenly aroma of barbecue sauce.
“Follow me, guys. I’ve got a key to the back door.” Felicity and her green dream team sped around the building and, at Felicity’s “Now!” stormed into the backroom, where they found Claude clutching a knife dripping with dark red ooze.
Upon seeing the posse, Claude gasped. “Felicity! You shouldn’t be here…”
“Father! What’s going on? Where’s Lance?”
Claude pleaded, “Please, go. I don’t want you to see this.”
“Oh father, what have you done?” sobbed Felicity.
Claude crumpled to the floor. “I wanted to protect you; I’d hoped you’d never find out, although it was for you. I did it all for you.”
“How can you say that? I loved Lance. And he loved me. We were going to marry…”
“Hunh? Lance is here.”
“Hey, hi Felicity,” waved Lance, as he returned from the litter box. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the secret project. Your father asked me not to.”
“I don’t understand…?”
Claude bowed his head. “I’m so ashamed. I’m a sorry excuse for a cat. I’m supposed to be a carnivore, prey-driven, a consumer of meat, yet here I am chopping beets for their red juices and mixing them into my impawsible burgers, soysages and other deli-lites. And to make matters worse, I brought your beloved into this sham ham business. I’m so sorry.”
Felicity stared at her father in disbelief. “But what about Chuck? Stu? Good ol’ sloppy Joe?
“Oh, I thought I mentioned it to you earlier, honey. They’ve moved on and are now managing DeliCatLondon, DeliCatParis and DeliCatJerseyCity respectively. And if Lance here is the bit of fresh meat I believe he is, the two of you may soon manage a DeliCat of your own.”
Nancy Hayes is the mother of a Powell’s Bookstore bookseller.