Terris Strefagi was in a night club somewhere near the Autodromo. He wasn’t exactly sure where it was, but that was often the way when you let someone who’d been there before but wasn’t quite sober now navigate for the group. The sponsor, more particularly the sponsor’s owner, had insisted on taking the team out on the town to celebrate the lead driver coming third in today’s race. He was generous but he didn’t seem to understand that what the drivers really wanted was to get to bed early and have a good night’s sleep because they needed to be up at four for the move to the next circuit. Baltasar Schneider, the team’s lead driver, rolled his eyes at Terris in resignation as he took another club soda from the waitress. It was already past midnight and it looked like the older Badener had resigned himself to not getting to bed at all. Fortunately neither of them had to drive to Mogyorod.
It was two in the morning when the drivers managed to escape, ruthlessly sacrificing the team manager and accountant to the sponsor. At least Baltasar seemed to have a fairly good idea where they were. Even so, there were no vacant taxis around and it took them over half an hour to make it back to the hotel. By the time Terris had washed the nightclub stink off and made sure he had his bag packed he had barely an hour in bed before the alarm went off, but at least he had that. He’d be sleeping in the cab of the truck between the truck driver, Giancarlo, and his mechanic, Loren, from here to the border if he was any judge.
He was bleary eyed when he threw his bag into the cab of the car transporter and went to grab coffee and a pastry with the rest of the crew. All the teams were moving out this morning so it was worth the little café’s while to be open early. Terris, Loren and Giancarlo were walking back to their truck when they saw them, four small figures at the back of the truck with the largest desperately trying to open the back door. Terris and Giancarlo looked at each other and began to jog. The would-be door openers froze, clearly children, all wearing hooded tracksuit tops and carrying backpacks. The smallest looked about four, the tallest was probably only just a teen.
“What do you think you’re doing?” That was Giancarlo with his deep, rough voice.
“We, we need somewhere to hide,” from the voice the tallest one was a girl. “We had to get out of the house, Grandfather said he’d found a man who wanted to buy a litter of kittens.”
“What?” Giancarlo was puzzled.
“Oh, shit.” Terris stepped forward and pulled down the hood on the child’s purple tracksuit top. A pair of pale cat’s ears tipped the dark brown of her hair made it clear that she was a feline transgenic. “Your grandfather is planning to sell you?”
“We don’t really know him but our parents died in a car accident and he turned up to claim us. He said that,” her voice caught, “the money he could get for us would educate his real grandchildren.”
The next tallest child, also a girl, added, “He said that because we’re part cat we’re not really people.”
“What are we going to do?” Loren had walked up behind the two men but her question was directed to Terris.
Before he could answer there was a cry in the pre-morning dark, “There they are!” Two men in late middle age and two policemen carrying torches came pounding towards them from the direction of the road. The children tried to shrink together. When men reached the group at the end of the truck the man who’d called said to Giancarlo, “I’m sorry if my grandchildren have been a nuisance to you. As you can see we’ve been looking for them. We’ll just take them home with us now. You can be assured that they’ll be punished for the trouble they’ve caused you.” He reached out towards the oldest of the children and she shrank away from him.
Terris stepped forward. “I wouldn’t have thought that you looked like a man who advertised underage kittens for sale,” he remarked casually, “but here you are in the company of Luigi Marcconi, a known procurer…of exotica.”
One of the policemen took a look at the eldest girl’s ears then looked at the two older men with narrowed eyes, “Hang on a moment.”
“You can’t make accusations like that!” The man with the children’s grandfather was indignant.
“Actually, I can,” Terris stuck his fists in his front pockets to make sure he kept his hands to himself, “seeing as I’m a connection by marriage of that kid your people tried to grab last year over in Patavio. I see you’re doing business in person now, I do hope that’s because you lost your entire snatch team over that business.” He turned his head to look at the children, “You four get in the cab of the truck. Loren, if you could help them please?”
“Who do you think you are? You can’t just take them!” That was the grandfather.
“I am Don Terris Strefagi and I am seeing to the welfare of my wards. A matter has been of no concern to you.” Terris’ face was cold as he pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Officer, my lawyer will call your captain during business hours. Which police station should he contact?”
“Brizzoni, Don Terris.” The policeman cleared his throat. “Do you have some identification?”
“Certainly.” Terris made a notation on his phone and produced his wallet. The phone went back into his pocket. He pulled a laminated card out of the wallet and handed it to the policeman. “Here you are. Also,” he pulled out a business card and handed that over as well, “my contact details for your records. We will leave you to deal with these…gentlemen. Giancarlo, come!” He nodded in the direction of the front of the truck and Giancarlo followed his lead, walking to the cab.
Loren had secured the children’s backpacks with their own bags in the sleeping cab’s cargo net and the three youngest were back there as well in the sleeping straps. That would still leave four of them on the seats but although it would be tight it was doable. As Terris climbed up to sit next to Loren, it seemed he was getting the window with this arrangement, Giancarlo growled, “We’d better get going before they realise how much you’re pushing your luck.”
“I agree,” said Terris tiredly. “We’ll need to go via Patavio, I’ll pay for the extra fuel.”
“What’s in Patavio?” That was the little catgirl sitting between Loren and Giancarlo. She still sounded scared and Terris supposed she was worried about what he was going to do with them.
“Who.” He corrected her. “My parents. They’ll keep you safe while we sort this out.”
“It’ll be fine, Stasia,” Loren assured her. “The Count and Countess are very nice and they’ve got lots of room.”
“You really are a Don?” Giancarlo, most of his attention on turning the car transporter safely onto the road in the early morning traffic, sounded surprised.
“Oh, yes I am.” Terris looked sleepily in his direction. “Not really relevant to driving racing cars though, is it? That reminds me.” He pulled out his phone again, tapped out a message then sent it and then pushed a few other buttons.
Stasia asked, “What are you doing?” Her pink shirt under the purple tracksuit somehow made her look even younger than he thought she was.
“Sending a message to one of my brothers-in-law to tell him where to find Signor Marcconi. Setting the alarm to remind me to ring my father at six. He’ll be up by then and you and I, Signorina,” Terris flashed a smile at her, “need to be lawyered up before business hours start. He can arrange that. And now, if all of you and the universe don’t mind, I’m going to get some sleep.”
And he did.