Stealing a map from a sea captain’s home hardly seemed like a challenge for a shapeshifter, and Dennis Dupper was a master. He liked to take the form of a rat because it fit his personality closest, and he liked to prove his lack of pride by admitting it.
He kissed his wife Mabel on the way out.
“Be careful, dear.”
“Always,” he said.
Captain Martin Ramsey’s house was in the respectable Hornsbury district, full of semi-wealthy people owning lots of booty with little reprisal in the taking. He’d found many a treasure there. Dennis walked into the back alley on the captain’s block, careful to avoid watchful servants. He skulked into the back yard, pulled the cellar door, and slipped into the walk-up stairs going down to the interior door.
He squatted and squeezed his shell and inner organs, getting smaller and smaller, eventually growing a coat of hair and a scaly tale. Closer to the size of a woodchuck, his clothing fell off him. The interior door was in disrepair enough for Dennis to nose his way in at the corner. Inside, he scampered along the wall looking for stairs, turned a corner and came nose-to-nose with a cat.
He jumped two feet in the air and squeaked. The cat meowled and pounced on him, rolling him backwards, cat over rat. They separated and Dennis scampered for the door. The cat bit him above the tail and scratched as he forced himself through.
Back home, Mabel dressed his wounds, two gashes in his lower back. She hissed. “Cut you to the bone, he did.”
“I’ll be fine. We heal very quickly.”
“No more tonight,” she insisted.
He crawled into bed and tried to dream the pain away.
The next evening Dennis changed into a red-tailed hawk, sharp talons and hooked bill ready to take on any cat. He took off from the roof of his single-room house and spiraled down to land on Captain Ramsey’s chimney. He squirmed down the flue, then broke free at the end, falling into a pile of ash.
He hopped out and shook himself, snapping his wings, then stopped suddenly when he realized the noise they were making. He was in a sizable living room with rugged wooden and leather chairs, a number of implements strewn about, landscape scrimshaw on display, and crocheted doilies here and there. Dennis spied a passageway next to a stairway going up, so he hopped and glided through the door, turning sharply to see where it lead, then dropping. Third door down was a room with shelves and shelves of books. It had to be the study.
Dennis hopped inside and up into the chair in front of the captain’s desk. He heard a deep, gurgling growl under the desk. Dennis jumped and took flight as some gigantic teeth between monstrous jowls snapped at him. He cracked his head on the ceiling and fell to the floor. The dog charged him, so he took fight again, swerving out the door and down the hall.
When he broke into the living room, Dennis lost his orientation, a loud ringing piercing his ears. The dog came around the corner and he hopped into flight again, this time controlling it before hitting the roof, but bouncing around the living room as the dog chased him. Dennis finally recognized the fireplace and scrabbled inside, leaping into the bottom of the flue, and clawing his way out. Below he heard a muffled cry, probably the captain, yelling at his dog for causing such a ruckus.
“You have to give this job up,” said Mabel.
“I can’t. I have a reputation to protect.”
“What are you going to be next, a bear?”
“I’ll figure something out,” he said.
The next evening Dennis stood in the back alley behind the captain’s shed and stared at the house for a long time, considering all the different creatures he might become. Finally he smiled and crept toward the house.
After turning into a rat, he pushed his way through the door again, then changed into a kitten. He gamboled into the cellar, batting at spiderwebs before remembering why he was there. Eyes glowed next to a crate. Dennis bounced up to the cat and batted at its face. The cat looked to the side, ignoring him with a long-suffering forbearance.
Dennis felt so care free, he cavorted for a while before remembering his mission. He scuttled up the steps, then pressed his body to the floor, chin on the ground, looking around warily. There was something here, and he must stalk it.
No. What fun to be a kitten. Life was so simple. He returned to himself and changed, his pointy ears becoming floppy. Soon Dennis was a puppy, and suddenly everything he saw was amazing. He sniffed a shoebox, licked a scrimshaw, and chewed up a slipper.
Something growled. Dennis dropped the slipper and looked up toward the sound, then bounded in its direction. The growl turn into an inquiry. It was a playmate! A playmate! He gamboled up to the dog and leaped up toward his face. The dog whined and licked him on the head, eyes, and nose.
His puppy self leapt with joy. Don’t yip. Don’t yip. He let out a happy cry, but his human self recoiled in revulsion. Get the map. Yes, yes. Get the map.
Dennis bit a side drawer handle on the desk and pulled it open, the big dog still grooming him. Deep in his doggy brain he remembered what to look for. A compass rose set atop a horse-head shaped island in the lower left hand corner, and a row of men on horseback sketched in red ink in the upper right margin. He pulled it out with his teeth and licked the compass rose.
The dog followed him into the hall, nudging, licking, and nipping, and Dennis realized he would not be able to turn into a squirrel to get out through the chimney.
He thought he was going to get a full body dog bath when he got one last idea. He was too much puppy to think it through, he just started transforming until he was a little boy, integrating clothing into his new shape. He scratched the dog behind the ears and it nuzzled him on the cheek. He loved this pooch and snuggled up next to him on the floor.
Light flooded the room and woke him up. Dennis sat up and looked up at the captain walking in with a lantern.
“What’s this?” he said.
Dennis only had one thing in his mind. Wrapping his arms around the dog’s neck, he said, “Can I keep him?”
“No, young man, but I might let you visit if you tell me where you came from.” He scratched his beard. “Better hand me that map.”
Dennis played dumb about getting into the house. “I was just out exploring and heard this dog, so I followed the sound.”
After some fruitless discussion, the captain gave Dennis some cocoa and delivered him to his Aunt Mabel’s house. When Mabel offered him coffee and sat him down to chat, Dennis thought she was messing with him—forcing him to keep shape for a while longer.
“You’re quite charming, Captain Ramsey. I would love to introduce you to my husband, but he just isn’t himself today.”