Once upon a time, there was a humble FBI section chief who died suddenly, of a heart attack. He was very poor and he left rather a pitiful estate behind him. And the fact that what little there was must be split in thirds among his three surviving children did not help matters at all.
His oldest son, Paul, received all of his case files, as well as his office and his extensive supply of patent medicines. His middle son, Will, was bequeathed his pension checks and his valuable collection of rare crime scene photos.
There was nothing left for his youngest child, Clarice, but a large black cat that the deceased section chief had acquired years earlier, and had never succeeded in getting rid of.
This was a paltry inheritance indeed. The cat was not only known to be an abominably finicky eater, but was also prone to biting, was said to be a particularly ill-tempered brute, habitually left the mangled carcasses of birds and other small prey on the doorstep, and wouldn't play with any of the cat toys he'd been given. This troublesome cat was also completely crazy, according to all accounts, and had been kept isolated in a stout cat carrier for the past eight years.
Just after the reading of the will, before they even left the probate attorney's office, brother Paul wasted no time in making his position in regard to the disposition of the estate known to Clarice.
"Hit the road, little sister," he said. "Take your stupid cat and go make your fortune elsewhere. The office and the files are mine."
Brother Will was not quite so rude, but he was equally unhelpful, since he was completely hammered on Cuervo at the time, just as he always was.
"Better shee if you can shell that cat to a medical lab for exshperiments or shomething, shis. Hic!"
Clarice, having no better option available, went to the Baltimore Boarding Kennel For Badly Behaved Pets to pick up her cat. There, a smarmy Humane Officer named Chilton tried to hit on her three different times as he led her down to the basement where the really naughty animals were kept.
"Well, here's your new cat, Miss. Can't say I'll be sorry to see him the last of HIM! Just bring him upstairs to the office and we'll settle the boarding bill," Officer Chilton said, somewhat gruffly. He was quite annoyed that Clarice had ignored every one of his efforts at flirting, and intended to overcharge her on the bill to get even.
"Just make sure you keep your fingers away from the grill. He's the meanest cat we've ever had at the kennel!"
He showed her to a large grey plastic cat carrier with a padlock on its grilled gate. Clarice peeked inside the cat carrier. She saw a sleek black tom looking back at her, faint glints of red in his eyes. He was bound in a specially tailored kitty-straitjacket and a muzzle was strapped securely around his jaws.
She picked up the heavy cat carrier as best she could and hauled it up the stairs, following Officer Chilton. She paid the bill he gave her with money she couldn't really afford to spend, and he gave her the key to the padlock. Then she lugged the cat carrier out to her Mustang, the only thing of any value she owned, other than this useless cat and his oversized carrier, which she could not quite fit into her front seat.
"Damn!" Clarice exclaimed, as she determined that the carrier would not fit in her trunk either. "Some inheritance! Paul got the office and the files, and he's well on the road to promotion with that. Will can cash his checks and sell those photos for enough bucks to keep him in tequila until the last trump. And all I got was this stupid cat! He's not even fixed! What the heck am I supposed to do with a cat like this?"
"Well, you could let me out of this carrier, to begin with," the cat suggested, surprisingly clearly, considering that he not only had a muzzle on, but was undeniably a cat, a species not well known for verbal ability.
"Huh???" Clarice said, astonished, and suddenly not nearly so dissatisfied with her legacy as she had been only moments before. Inheriting a black cat with a nasty disposition was one thing. Inheriting a TALKING cat was quite another matter.
"You'll see that I'm not such a bad inheritance as you might think, young mistress. Or, may I call you Clarice? Let me out of the carrier so that we can talk, all right?"
"You seem to be talking just fine already, cat," Clarice pointed out. "And everybody says you're a very bad kitty to boot, and that you shred drapes and bite people and other bad things. Why should I let you out?"
"Quid pro quo," answered the articulate feline. "I'll help you make your fortune if you let me out. I'll give you what you want most, advancement. Besides, I'm SICK of wearing this muzzle. It's been wrinkling my whiskers for years and I can't clean my paws properly! And don't even get me started on this straitjacket; it's playing havoc with my coat."
"How can you help me make my fortune? You're just a cat."
"But I'm an exceedingly intelligent cat. Exceedingly. And I'm a particularly good planner. I can help you, Clarice. But I won't say another word unless you let me out of here and get this jacket off me."
Clarice really did want to hear what the cat's proposal would be. Certainly her prospects were not so rosy that she could afford to turn down any potential opportunities out of hand. So, she turned the key in the padlock and let the cat out.
As he emerged from his carrier, she saw that he was a handsome specimen with a glossy black coat and quite a regal bearing. She noticed that his eyes were an odd color for a cat, a sort of ruddy maroon.
"Now the jacket, please, Clarice," the cat said.
"Oh, okay, " she said, and unloosed the straps on the back of the canvas garment.
He wriggled out of the jacket in under a second, and immediately extended a set of wicked claws to slash his muzzle off the moment he was free. Clarice noticed that his claws looked VERY sharp, and that he had one too many on his left forepaw.
"Ah-hhhh, at last, " he said, and set to unkinking his whiskers and combing his fur with his claws at once, purring contentedly the whole time.
He would say no more until he had groomed himself thoroughly, and was completely satisfied with his appearance. Then he jumped through the car window into the front passenger seat of the Mustang, sat down, and turned around to gaze at Clarice quizzically, tail tucked neatly around his paws.
After a moment of annoyed glaring at the presumptuous puss, she got into her car.
"Well, cat?" she asked. "What's the big plan? How am I going to make my fortune?"
"I'll want a few things from you, first, Clarice," the cat said, gazing at her intently. "Right now, I want some broiled salmon and liver, and I want some heavy cream, none of that half-and-half swill, mind you. I've been living on plain wrap cat chow and tap water for far too long. And a flea collar would be nice, if you don't mind. And then I'll want a large canvas sack, a snap brim fedora with a feather in it, and some decent boots, too. Any Italian maker will be fine."
"Anything else, cat?" Clarice asked sarcastically. "Feather bed? Braised sparrows? Angora mice?"
"Well, I'd really prefer it if you wouldn't call me just "cat"," he complained. "That's really a bit uncivil of you. I do have a name, you know."
"Really? Nobody mentioned it to me. Is it 'Blackie', or something like that?"
"Oh, please . . . nothing that pedestrian, of course. It's Hannibal."
"That's a dumb name for a cat. I really kind of think 'Fluffy' or 'Charcoal' or 'Midnight' would be cuter."
"Hmmph. That just shows your fundamental lack of originality. I'm not just ANY black cat, and I certainly have never been accused of being CUTE before. No wonder you need help to make your fortune."
"You have a pretty bad attitude for a pet, you know," Clarice retorted, annoyed. "And you haven't explained yet how you think you can help me make my fortune, either."
"And if I'm a PET, I must point out that you have not been looking after me very well so far. You haven't fed me and you haven't once . . . petted me."
"You want me to pet you?" Clarice asked, a bit surprised.
"Only if you want to. I must confess though, it would be nice if you would. No one has petted me for a very long time."
The cat, although clearly an exceptionally egotistical creature, even for a feline, did look rather lonely.
"Are you sure you DESERVE to be petted, cat?" Clarice said. "Let's talk about it some more another time, hmm? After you explain about me making my fortune?"
The cat seemed perfectly satisfied with her stance in the matter of petting. He even nodded his wedged shaped head approvingly.
"An equitable arrangement. Very well then, just get me the boots and the hat and I'll do the rest. All right?"
"How will a hat and a pair of boots help you make my fortune?"
"You never ask," the arrogant kitty said smugly, busily sharpening his claws on her dashboard. "It spoils the surprise."
After further negotiation, Clarice promised to get him the boots if he would only agree to lay off the upholstery in her car. And so it was that an Italian special-needs shoemaker was found, and a fine pair of eelskin boots was made for the cat.
Once the feathered fedora and the large canvas sack he'd requested had been secured, and once he was finally satisfied with the fit of the boots (after fifteen separate minute adjustments), he was ready to set his plan in motion.
He directed Clarice to drive to a very bad section of the city, and put on his fine new hat and pulled on his exquisite new boots as they drove.
"Just drop me off here," the cat requested when they reached a slummy city block with a fleabag transient hotel called the "Chesapeake Arms" at the corner. He leapt out the car window as soon as she pulled in to the curb. Clarice had to admit to herself that he did look quite handsome, if a bit peculiar, in his finery.
"Meet me at that nice little park by the river in three days," said he, standing on the sidewalk in his new Italian boots. "And we'll see about your fortune."
Clarice really had nothing to lose, so she did as the cat instructed and drove away.
The unusually intellectual kitty not only had the power of speech, he was quite a literate feline as well. He had read about a series of stabbings in this part of town; a serial killer had been slashing derelict squirrels. He had also been able to make an educated guess as to the identity of the murderer, just from what he had read. He really was amazingly perceptive, as cats go, and had keen predatory instincts of his own to assist him in his deductions.
He slipped inside the seedy hotel, and waited in the lobby with a newspaper until he saw a fat, slovenly albino rabbit come lurching in off the street. He quietly followed the rabbit as it hopped up the stairs to its room and went in.
The rabbit was the murderer, of this the cat was certain. He knocked on the rabbit's
door, called out "Henry's Hamburger House delivery!" and quickly hid himself inside the canvas bag.
The rabbit opened the door and said in a loud voice: "I didn't order any hamburgers! I only eat lettuce!"
The rabbit saw no one, just what looked to be promisingly full a sack outside the door. He looked up and down the hall a moment, then furtively took the bag inside his room.
"Damn cosmetics testing!" the white rabbit said to himself, once he'd gotten what he took to be a bag of hamburgers safely inside. "I USED to eat only lettuce, 'til they tried out that new line of mascara on me back at the lab. Now I can't get enough meat! These free hamburgers will come in mighty handy tonight. I won't have to hunt for squirrels for supper."
Alas for the white rabbit, the bag did not contain hamburgers at all. No sooner had the rabbit opened the sack, than Hannibal the black cat flew out and knocked the carnivorous rabbit senseless with a flying hind paw kick to his head and three deft forepaw blows. Then Hannibal stuffed the unfortunate rabbit into the bag, and hoisted it over his furry shoulder.
Half an hour later, in the best part of the city, at the palace, a servant spoke in a somewhat perplexed tone of voice to the ruler of all the realm, Queen Martin, who had been playing a game of Scrabble with her son, the Prince.
"There's a strange talking cat outside who has requested an audience with you, your Highness," said the servant.
"What's so strange about this cat, aside from the talking part?" the Queen asked.
"Well, he's the best dressed kitty I've ever seen, for one thing," answered the servant. "Simply exquisite boots."
"Hmm, now that's something you don't see every day, anyway. I'll see him," the Queen said. "Have this puss-in-boots sent in."
Hannibal the cat swept into the Queen's audience chamber grandly, fine boots clicking on the floor, and doffed his feathered hat with a graceful flourish as he bowed to greet the her.
"Your Highness," said Hannibal. "My mistress, the Marquise of the FBI, bade me make her respects and convey her warm greetings to you, and also asked me to bring you this token of her esteem."
He upended his sack abruptly and the albino rabbit fell out to the floor, still unconscious and dreaming, perhaps, of mutagenic mascara and juicy T-bone steaks.
"This rabbit, my discerning mistress has determined, is the very malefactor who has been killing innocent homeless squirrels in your fair city. She captured the homicidal creature and now sends him to you with her compliments."
"The Skid Row Squirrel Slasher? Why, we've been trying to track him down for months! How very clever of your mistress - what was the name again?"
"The Marquise of FBI, Highness. And she is, indeed, very clever, as well as charming, beautiful, and quite well off."
Hannibal noticed that the Prince perked up when he heard the word "beautiful" mentioned. He was quite satisfied to note this reaction on the Prince's part, and was also surprised to discover a small spark of possessive jealousy burning somewhere suspiciously close to his cattish heart as well. His tail swished with minor irritation until he rigorously controlled it.
Queen Martin, for her part, did not doubt that this Marquise of the FBI must be very rich. Not just anyone could afford to lavish such a fine wardrobe on a mere cat. Even a talking one. She was quite impressed.
"She must be very polite, your mistress, to have sent us such a thoughtful gift," said the Queen. "I just can't tell you how much trouble he's been causing around here, killing squirrels right and left. Please tell your mistress how very grateful we are, and give her our warmest thanks."
Hannibal bowed very deeply, and left the Queen's audience chamber knowing he had accomplished the first and most important part of his plan to secure Clarice's fortune.
Over the next three days, the cunning cat captured a gang of bank robbing toads, an ostrich that had run amok and shot up a convenience store, a perverted badger that had been killing prostitutes, a number of gang-banging geckos and a score of their mortal enemies, the peregrine falcons, and an albatross that had been the mastermind behind a counterfeiting ring. Each of these criminals the cat presented to the Queen, all in the name of his mistress, the Marquise of FBI.
Queen Martin and her son the Prince were really very impressed with the apparent resource and exquisite courtesy of this Marquise, just as Hannibal the exceedingly intelligent cat intended.
On the third day, Queen Martin and the Prince were making ready for their monthly Sunday drive, a regularly scheduled activity of theirs that Hannibal had read about in an issue of Town and Country. Now it was time to meet Clariceat the park, and to put the second phase of his scheme into action.
He scampered ahead of the Queen's slow moving motorcade easily, and met Clarice in the park by the river where he'd told her to wait for him three days earlier.
"Now, Clarice, you must do your part," the cat instructed. "You have only to take those cheap, tacky clothes of yours off and enjoy a brief swim in the river."
"Jump in the river?" Clarice inquired doubtfully. "Nude? I don't know, cat . . . And just what the hell do you mean, tacky?"
"Do you trust me?" he asked, ignoring her pique at his description of her clothes.
"Do you want to make your fortune or not?"
"Oh, all right, all right" Clarice grumbled. She really didn't know what else to do, and the imperious kitty really did seem to have a plan. She began peeling off her clothing. "I must be crazy. And you - quit peeking!"
Hannibal showed his white fangs in a mocking feline grin and turned his back as she undressed. From what he'd already seen, however, he privately thought she was actually quite beautiful, for a human. Although he rather pitied her shortage of fur and lack of a fine, sleek tail, like his.
Once Clarice was safely immersed in the river, Hannibal ran to the road and waited for the motorcade of the Queen. As soon as he saw the stately cars approaching, he began to caterwaul at the top of his lungs.
"O, help, help, help," he meowed wildly, pretending to be very distressed. He waited until the Queen's car stopped and the rear window rolled down, then went on with his charade.
"O, your Highness, my Mistress, the Marquise of FBI, is drowning. A band of thieves robbed her of her wallet and identification and clothes and threw her in the river! Please help!"
He made all his fur stand on end and puffed his tail out to make himself look alarmed.
The Queen had not forgotten all the fine gifts and many courtesies the excellent Marquise of FBI had bestowed upon her. She ordered her servants to rescue the Marquise at once.
Clarice was soon brought to the car of the Queen, dripping wet and wrapped in a blanket. Nothing would do but that she must accept the loan of some of the Queen's own elegant apparel, and join them in their Sunday drive whilst she recuperated from her harrowing experience. Queen Martin was delighted to have an opportunity to repay some of the Marquise's many favors, and the Prince was clearly quite taken with her winsome appearance. Soon, the motorcade resumed its progress, and Clarice, decked in borrowed finery and much cosseted by the two Royals, rode along with it in the Queen's car.
Hannibal the clever cat, satisfied with the results of his machinations so far, ran ahead of the motorcade.
He came to a great pistachio nut plantation, and called out to all the workers in the groves.
"If anyone should ask you to whom this plantation belongs," said he, "You must say it belongs to the Marquise of FBI, or you'll all wind up in a ragout before this day is done."
None of the pistachio pickers wanted to argue with a talking puss in Italian boots. And there was something about the toothy way he smiled as he said the word "ragout" that gave them all the heebie-jeebies.
So, when the Queen came driving by and saw the rich nut plantation, and asked the workers to whom it belonged, they all answered exactly as instructed.
"This is the pistachio plantation of the Marquise of FBI, your Highness," said all the workers in unison.
And so it went. Hannibal the black cat scampered ahead of the motorcade, and instructed all and sundry he met to say that they worked for the Marquise of FBI. In this way, the "Marquise" acquired a cinder-block foundry, a computer chip manufacturing factory, a stockyards, a mushroom farm, three real estate development projects, a particularly popular tattoo parlor, a Starbuck's franchise, and a rare book store.
Queen Martin grew more and more impressed with her guest as the trip progressed, and at one point whispered a word of advice in the ear of the Prince.
"This Marquise is clearly a woman of substance, my son. You could certainly do worse for a match . . ."
Hannibal the manipulating feline, running far ahead of the motorcade, came to the luxurious castle of a local ogre, and set about the final phase of his nefarious plan. He went directly to the castle gate and requested the opportunity to pay his respects to the ogre.
The ogre, a great galumphing creature called Dolarhyde, was extremely susceptible to flattery. When he heard that an articulate black cat with expensive boots and a feathered fedora had asked to see him, he granted the unusual request at once.
"I'll see this puss-in-boots in my dining hall," said Dolarhyde to his servants.
Hannibal the cat did not fail in massaging the ogre's ego. He bowed very deeply to the ogre upon admittance to Dolarhyde's great hall and gazed admiringly at the ogre's fine furnishings.
"O, great Dolarhyde," the manipulative kitty purred pleasantly. "Truly, the reports I've heard of your impressiveness were hardly overstated. Why, they barely do you justice. Thank you so much for seeing me. I'm completely overwhelmed."
Dolarhyde positively puffed up with ego gratification.
"And I've heard tell that you can do magic, too," Hannibal said, widening his dark red eyes guilelessly. "Can it be true that you can really change your shape, as I've been told? Assume the form of a lion or bear or other ferocious beast?"
"Indeed I can, cat," the ogre said proudly. "Just watch this!"
He transformed himself into a large polar bear on the spot, and Hannibal pretended to be terribly frightened and arched his back and hid under his chair. The ogre was immensely pleased by this reaction, and showed off shamelessly, assuming the forms of a white rhino, a killer whale, a German Shepherd, and a giant wolverine in rapid succession.
"That was truly amazing," Hannibal declared breathlessly, once the ogre had finished showing off and resumed his natural form. "I'm awestruck by your skill, really I am. Yet, I've also heard tell of other magics you can do, though I'm not sure I can credit ALL of the stories I've heard . . . "
"I can do anything!" the ogre argued. "What stories are these?"
"Well, I'm told that not only can you transform yourself into large beasts, such as I've already seen, but that you are also able to compact yourself into tiny forms; smaller creatures, such as mice, for instance. Surely that can't be true? I hardly see how you could, considering your great size."
"My magical skill is quite without limit, cat," Dolarhyde stated with grandiose hauteur. "Observe, and you shall see for yourself what I am capable of."
With that, the conceited ogre transformed himself into a small brown mouse, and scampered mousily across the floor.
Hannibal had been waiting for exactly this opportunity. He launched himself out of his chair like a feline missile and immediately pounced on the ogre-mouse. Before the foolish ogre had a chance to squeak, Hannibal devoured him without mercy, and found him very tasty too.
When the Queen's motorcade pulled up before the deceased ogre's castle, they found Hannibal waving his hat at the driveway gate and smugly picking his fangs with an extended pinky-claw.
"Welcome to the home of my mistress, The Marquise of FBI," announced the cunning kitty, waving his fine black tail like a banner. "Please do come in and be her guests."
The Queen and the Prince were eager to accept the Marquise's hospitality, and had their driver deposit them at her door. The two Royals walked out of the car and went ahead of the "Marquise", appreciating the rich carvings on the front door of the well-appointed castle as they went inside.
Hannibal and Clarice had a moment to compare notes before they followed their Royal guests.
"How in the name of God did you do all this?" Clarice asked him, half appreciative, half dismayed. This cat was as tricky as the Devil himself, it seemed. Woe betide his enemies.
"Oh, it was all very easy, really," he answered casually, licking a few errant mousehairs off his muzzle. "A bit tedious, actually, to tell you the truth. No real challenge at all. I told you I could make your fortune for you, Clarice. I expect that great oaf of a Prince will make you a marriage proposal before much longer."
"Yeah, he was sure making some major sheep's eyes at me in the car. I imagine you're right. Do you advise I accept the proposal, cat?"
"I'd want a look at his tax returns for the past three fiscal years at least before making any commitment, myself," the cat said. "Personally, I think you could do better, but that's your affair. And I thought we agreed you weren't going to call me just 'cat' anymore. If you won't use my name, could you at least call me 'MISTER Cat'?"
Clarice smiled. "You're right, we did agree on that. I apologize . . . Hannibal. Is this wonderful castle really mine?"
"It is now," he answered, declining to explain further. And Clarice, the new made Marquise of the FBI, decided it was wisest not to ask.
"We should go in," the sleek kitty added. "They'll be waiting for us. I took the liberty of putting together a simple luncheon before you arrived."
"You know, you really are an amazingly resourceful cat," Clarice admitted. "I'm . . . I'm really glad I inherited you, after all. I'm very grateful for all you've done. And I'll get you that flea collar we talked about as soon as possible, too, AND the grilled salmon. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
He stared at her at her for a moment, tail waving slowly above his sleek black head, an almost shy look in his dark red eyes.
"I wonder if you'd consider petting me a bit before we go in?" he asked, quietly. "Maybe you'd scratch under my chin and rub my ears a little? I really like those things. A lot."
Clarice considered. It was true that he was just a cat, and he had a silly name, and he was way too smart for anyone's comfort. It was undeniable that he had absolutely no concept of ethical behavior or tender mercies, and that he wasn't at all cute, and that he would probably always shred the drapes and scratch the furniture and demand gourmet cat food. The fact was, he wasn't really a very nice cat at all, and would not make a very good pet, all things considered.
Yet, in a strange way, he had proven himself to be the very best friend she'd ever had.
So Clarice stroked the smooth black fur on his head, and he purred like a runaway cement mixer. She scratched the tender spot on his jaw just under his muzzle, and he writhed in typically feline sensual abandon and purred so loud it sounded like distant thunder. She scratched behind his pointy ears, and he impulsively leapt into her arms and cuddled into her breast and nuzzled insistently at her chin and licked her face with his rough, pointed pink tongue and purred like a Boeing 747 engine just prior to take-off.
Clarice had never known a more responsive male, not of any species. She felt as though a great mystery of life had just been revealed to her.
In years to come, many would speak often of the famous and fabulously wealthy Marquise of FBI. Her beauty was much admired by all, and her cleverness at catching criminals was a matter of legend. Her extensive holdings grew healthily every year, and her net worth continually expanded. She was much lauded for her patronage of the arts, and her castle became well-known as a center of learning and culture throughout the kingdom. All agreed that she ALMOST had it all, that her life was as NEAR picture-book perfect as could be.
The only apparent lack in her exceptionally happy existence, most could agree, was the sad fact that she had never married. She remained a spinster into old age, living alone, with only her cat, Hannibal, for company. Almost everyone thought this was a great pity.
Those few suspicious souls who occasionally whispered that the Marquise's relationship with the articulate black tom seemed a mite too intimate to fall squarely within the bounds of interspecies propriety were invariably shouted down by their peers. They were also frequently told, quite emphatically, to get their dirty minds out of the gutter and to stop spreading such absurd and malicious rubbish about the Marquise.
Hannibal, puss-in-boots extraordinnaire, and Clarice, the Marquise of FBI, took no note of such gossip, nor of the heated debate it spawned.
They just met on the terrace of the castle every night for feasting and dancing and various other pleasant activities that they both enjoyed.
And that is how, despite all the myriad factors that would seem to preclude such a resolution, the two lived happily ever after.