It was quiet when I walked in with only Karl at the bar, a table of four crew members in a semi-circular booth to one side of the room and another table with Rutter sitting alone, studying a data pad. He was enjoying a raktajino but glanced up as I walked in and smiled.
"Two breaks away in as many days?" he chirped.
I laughed lightly at that.
"Yes, but I'm here for a reason."
"Oh, really," he smiled, getting up and joining me at the bar. "What's that then?"
I turned and pointed towards the dish on the shelf but, to my surprise, there was just an empty space.
Rutter grinned and indicated the party of four.
"Oh!" I repeated but in a lower tone.
The four crew members were eating lunch, laughing and chatting merrily. Perched by the side of them, on the end of the padded seat was Beastie. She was squatting in the way that cats do, munching away at a plate filled with food.
Gobsmacked, I approached, my jaw slightly open. Karl's laughter made me turn to find him standing behind the bar polishing a glass.
"That's Beastie!" I exclaimed, pointing out the obvious.
Rutter slapped me on the back.
"You really have no idea, do you?"
It was a statement rather than a question.
"Idea? About what?"
"About what your cat gets up to."
I gawped at Beastie for a while before I asked the question.
"Is she in here often then?"
"Often enough that she has her own plate," piped up Karl.
"But I feed her. She doesn't need any more food! She'll get fat!"
"Get fat? I think she's past that stage."
My face said more than I intended I guess because Rutter suddenly put his arm around my shoulder and gave me a squeeze.
"Come on. Let's get you two home."
Having excused Beastie from her dinner guests (much to her protestations), I carried her back to my quarters, Rutter walking with us. Once inside, I put her down. Normally, I would have fed her, but seeing as she'd already eaten, I ignored her demands.
"Tea?" I offered.
Rutter sat on the sofa. Beastie, realising she was going to get nothing from me, went to him and began pirruping, rubbing up against his legs and begging for food. He put down his data pad so he could sweep her up into his arms and cradle her like a baby. As he cooed at her, I pondered how easily Beastie could worm her way into almost everybody's affections, even Rutter's.
"So what's with the collar?" he asked.
"Oh that! It's to track her."
"Excellent idea! So where else has she been?"
"Um, well I know she's been to engineering once or twice," I said, recalling the incident the other day, "and the Captain's quarters, but I only put it on her this morning so I don't know what she's been up to today ... other than Starboard-7."
Rutter, meanwhile, picked up his own data pad and tapped something into it.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Just making a ship wide request to report any sightings of Beastie over the last few weeks—see where else she's been. Can we check the tracker now?"
I put the tea down on the coffee table and picked up my own data pad to call up the tracking program.
"Starboard-7 ... Engineering ... and Sick Bay," I scowled.
"That's not bad for one morning," smiled Rutter, and then he giggled.
"I've got some responses to my query."
"She's a sociable little kitty, isn't she?"
I snatched the data pad from him, but Rutter immediately snatched it back, slapping my hand at the same time. I screwed my face up at him.
"Manners!" he teased.
"Then don't keep me in suspense. Tell me!"
"Well ..." He dragged the word out and then, leisurely, picked up his tea and took a sip. He leaned back into the sofa and crossed his legs. He was stretching this out and thoroughly enjoying it.
"So how many friends do you think Beastie has?"
"Yes. People she visits."
"I wasn't aware she had any until recently—"
"Take a guess."
"I dunno. Ten?"
He motioned with his hand that the number should be higher.
"No!" I exclaimed like a schoolgirl hearing some totally unbelievable gossip.
"More? How many more?"
"Well," and he snuggled into the side of me to share his piece of delicious information. "I have sixteen responses—"
"—from crew members."
"What do you mean, from crew members?"
"I mean I have other reports from Sick Bay, Engineering, Starboard-7, Maintenance and Transporter Room Two."
"But how is she getting out? I don't understand it. This room is totally secure!"
"Obviously it's not."
"I know that, but how? I have to find out before I go back to the Academy!"
"Only one way to find out."
I looked at him quizzically.
"We have to do a stake-out!" he said excitedly.