“Thanks for keeping an eye on things, boys. We’ll take it from here. Feel free to come back when we’re full, though I can’t promise there’ll be anything left.”
Hera the squirrel looked up at the bird feeder. The inside of the tall cylinder was packed with hulled sunflower seeds. The outside was covered in birds: a grackle, a cardinal and a half-dozen sparrows. Hera delivered a threatening bark and the birds exploded from the feeder.
Every heist was different. They might all look the same — jump on feeder; take seeds — but each job had its own challenges, complications and dangers.
Get complacent and you would go hungry — or worse. Hera had the scar to prove it: a strip of fur-less skin on her left shoulder. She’d lost it to a hawk she hadn’t seen coming. If it hadn’t been for Athena …
Athena — trusty Athena — was among the three squirrels awaiting Hera’s instructions. Hera knew Athena was probably the most important member of the crew. Hera had the organizational skills — the ability to oversee the entire heist — but Athena had the brains.
Then there were Artemis and Daedalus. Artemis had the brawn. And Daedalus …
Well, Hera wasn’t sure what to make of him. Even now he was nosing around Artemis, playfully chasing her.
“Knock it off!” Hera shouted. “You can do that later.”
“What’s the plan, boss?” Artemis asked.
“Can’t we just jump on the feeder?” Daedalus said. “That’s what we did yesterday.”
“Today is different from yesterday,” Hera said. “And tomorrow will be different from today. If you learn nothing else, learn that. Athena?”
The silky black Athena came forward, a large, folded maple leaf held in her jaws. She took the leaf from her mouth and spread it out on the ground. It was covered with a diagram that roughly approximated the back yard: trees, bushes, the feeder, the outdoor furniture, a hammock, a woodpile. Between each landmark were lines: distances, angles, vectors.
Athena had made the blueprint in the drey, using the sharp nails of her paw to scratch figures into the leaf’s cuticle layer. At a casual glance — the sort a human might give it — it looked natural.
“Yesterday we launched from the back of the patio chair,” Athena said, sweeping a paw across the leaf. “Well, last night the humans pushed the patio chair back half a meter. I don’t think even Artemis can leap from its new position. Now, moving to the feeder pole …”
“The pole!” Daedalus exclaimed. “I can climb that easy! Watch!” He sprang at the black wrought-iron staff.
“Daedalus, no!” Hera shouted.
Daedalus ignored her and started shinnying up the pole. When he was about halfway to the top, he began to slide down, his paws scrabbling at the metal.
“It’s greased,” Athena said. “I was just coming to that. Vaseline, I think.”
“Ick,” Daedalus mewled miserably when he’d slid back to earth. He raised a gummy paw. “This is disgusting.”
He licked at the grease.
“Oh! It burns! It burns!”
“Cayenne pepper,” Athena said. “Try not to get it in your eyes.”
A crowd had gathered. The birds watched from the branches. Chipmunks scurried in the underbrush. All would have some seed, but the squirrels would have the most. That was the natural order.
Hera turned to Athena. “Okay, the patio chair is out,” Hera said. “The pole is out. Other options? What about the tree trunk?”
“It rained last night,” Athena said. “The bark on the tree nearest the feeder is wet. With a thickly-barked tree — a hickory, an oak — that wouldn’t be a problem. You could get a paw-hold in the ridges. But that’s a holly, smoother. Add the moisture and I think it will be too slick.”
“So what’s that mean?” Daedalus interjected. “No breakfast? Well that’s just great, man.”
“Calm down,” Hera said. “Athena, are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
Athena nodded. “Aerial insertion. Up the fence and along the fence post. Jump into the hammock and trampoline into the crotch of the holly. Then out that overhanging branch to a position two meters above the feeder.”
“Two meters?” Hera said. “That’s risky.”
“But doable,” Athena continued. “There’s a breeze but I’ve factored for that. As we know, the cage encircling the feeder is tripped by weight. Either hang down by your back feet from the wire or just gnaw through the plastic at the top. Up to you.”
It sounded easy enough. It always did, until it wasn’t.
“Okay,” Hera said. “I’ll take the first stab at it. Artemis, you follow me. Athena, you count me down for the drop.”
“What about me?” Daedalus asked. His paws were still a mess, useless.
“I need you to watch the skies, Daedalus. You see as much as a shadow, you start screaming bloody murder. You got that?”
“Yes,” Daedalus said. “Gotcha. Bloody murder.”
Hera rubbed the scar on her shoulder. “Places, everyone,” she said, her voice calm, but strong. “It’s go time.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.