It was a hot Texas summer–the time of year when humans migrate either to the ocean or to cooler climates, without any apparent pattern. Some even choose to stay put, preferring to retreat indoors to hibernate until the fall when they’ve grown new, thick coats.
The heat didn’t bother Leopold. As long as he had enough food to fill his stomach and the shade of his favorite tree, he didn’t complain. All the same, he rather admired humans for their resilience. Despite their intolerance for extreme temperatures, they never accepted defeat. Year after year, they held their ground and battled the sun itself–inventing all sorts of clever contraptions to stay cool rather than surrendering to its rays.
Leopold stretched his rows of legs, then tore off a piece of the nearest leaf and stuck it in his mouth. It crunched in a most satisfying way as he chewed. Grabbing several more handfuls of leaf, he climbed back down into his hiding place among the twigs. The tree provided welcome shelter, but he had to be cautious of birds. Most considered caterpillar a tasty snack, and he had no desire to be eaten. Luckily, his green skin perfectly matched the surrounding leaves, which kept him from drawing too much unwanted attention.
Crunch, crunch, crunch went the leaf in his mouth in answer to his rumbling stomach. Why was he always hungry? Really, it was most inconvenient.
A loud bang caught his attention, and Leopold peeped down through the branches. One of the humans had left the house next to his tree. It was an adult female, with long brown fur on her head. She walked towards the street–brave of her, Leopold thought. He wouldn’t go near a street if his life depended on it. Too many friends and family he had lost to those huge, ravenous beasts that carried humans around. Insects seemed to be their primary diet–and even larger animals on occasion. Alas, Leopold bowed his head in memory of Jack, the squirrel who had shared his tree until the day he met his untimely demise. Nope. Leopold avoided streets as much as possible. They were rarely worth the risk.
The woman and her male had been Leopold’s neighbors since he was born. Not that they were aware of that, of course. Humans rarely notice creatures so much smaller than themselves. It was better that way, though. If the neighbors knew of Leopold and his true identity, his job would be much more difficult. Alas, that was the solitary life of a Special Agent.
Leopold had been recruited by the agency at a young age, starting out in several menial positions until he eventually worked his way up to his current level. He was proud of his quiet, but valuable role, and to be a member of such a prestigious organization–even if it did have the misfortune of a completely ridiculous name: the General Agency of Global Guardianship. GAGG for short. Or, as most referred to it, “Gag.”
Leopold rolled his eyes and wondered for the millionth time what wise guy had come up with that name. He had suggested on multiple occasions that they change the name to “the Global Protection Agency,” or GPA. It was simple, direct and professional-sounding. However, he was informed every time without fail that the Agency’s current name was already well established across the globe, and would be far too difficult to change. “Imagine the confusion a new name would create?” his superiors would say. Secretly, Leopold thought it was worth the hassle. The name “Gag” hardly inspired awe and fear in one’s enemies or respect in one’s allies. But he lacked the influence and the authority to make such a drastic change, so an agent of Gag he would remain.
The woman returned from the street with an armful of mail and disappeared back into her house.
Leopold chewed on until he felt himself beginning to doze. The muggy air made him drowsy. “Maybe I’ll take a quick nap,” he mumbled to himself. It was his day off, after all. He stretched again and curled in a circle until he found a comfortable spot carefully nestled under the shade of the leaves and away from the beady eyes of nosy birds.
With a big yawn, he let his eyelids close. The last thing Leopold saw was a ladybug fluttering by, then the world faded into black.
* * *
His eyes snapped open and his body twitched, startled by the rude awakening. Amidst the blurry world of green and brown, a large round face swam into view.
Leopold grunted angrily and turned away from the face with its blue feathers and sharp beak…
Leopold leapt groggily to his feet and produced a long thread of silk, which he tied with trained speed into a lasso.
“Keep away!” he shouted. “I’m a Special Agent, Level 2, and I know how to defend myself! Don’t make me use force!”
The blue jay cocked its head to one side and chuckled. “Relax, Leo. It’s me.”
Leopold blinked slowly, his brain still catching up. “Huh?”
“Joy, silly! Joy Lightfeather. Messenger for Command HQ. Any of this ringin’ a bell?” the bird hopped up and down with glee.
Leopold lowered his silk lasso and sighed. “Yes, of course,” he replied, feeling rather irritated. “You startled me is all. For future reference, you might consider a different tactic for getting my attention when I’m asleep. Waking up to a great big bird staring down at me is not my idea of a pleasant experience.”
“Don’t be such a grumpous!” Joy tittered. Then in her sing-song voice she said, “Look!It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, there’s a lovely breeze, and plenty of green things for you to eat. It makes me feel like singing! I–“
“Do you have a message for me, Joy, or did you just stop by for a visit?” Leopold cut her off. She really could be annoyingly cheerful at times.
“Oh, alright, Mr. Grouch!” Joy giggled and shook her tail feathers. “You’re being assigned to an urgent mission. I’m supposed to bring you in to Headquarters at once, where you are to report to Chief Mantis and receive your orders.”
“What?!” Leopold sputtered. “Why didn’t you say so sooner? Let’s get going! No more dillydallying!”
He ripped off a couple handfuls of leaves and stuffed them into the pouch tied around his abdomen. That should hold him over for the journey. Then he slung ropes of silk thread around Joy’s back and climbed up.
“You know, you really should learn to relax,” said Joy as he settled into place behind her wings.
“I’ll remind you of that the next time you wake up to find a cat staring down at you,” Leopold mumbled.
“Well, that’s different! Cats are just plain evil. Besides,” Joy added with a playful tilt of her head, “I filled up on seeds from that feeder down below so I won’t get hungry and suffer temptation on the way.”
Leopold knew she was joking, but that didn’t make it any more comforting. He wrapped the ends of the silk ropes around himself and tied them off as tight as he dared. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
“Okey-dokey, pokey!” Joy leapt into the air and took to flight.
Leopold, who was not fond of flying, held onto his silk harness for dear life. He closed his eyes and imagined he was back in his tree, relaxing under its shade. There was a sudden lurch, and Joy shot up several feet at a dizzying speed. Leopold fell forward and grabbed fistfuls of blue feathers.
“Hoo-hoo-hoo!” Joy giggled with delight. “Updraft!” she called over her shoulder. “That one tickled!”
Leopold groaned, then belched loudly. All those leaves in his stomach no longer agreed with him.
“This better be important,” he muttered to himself.
To be continued…