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  11 August 2008
  Charlie Bellman: Picnic With Pistols
by Antonia T. Tiger
A luncheon at a Spontoon Atoll shooting range

Picnic With Pistols: A Charlie Bellman Story
A luncheon at a Spontoon shooting range.
Antonia T. Tiger

"Look, Charlie, do you think I'm stupid? I know how to shoot."

Bellman grinned. "I'm sure you do. But do you know how to kill?"

It was the third or fourth time they'd had that exchange since Bellman had revealed that his plan for a picnic involved the shooting range on Eastern Island. And he should have realised that Lady Helen, as a commercial pilot, wasn't a stranger here. In some ways, she probably knew more about what there was on Eastern Island than he did.

And he wouldn't have dressed quite this way if she hadn't, oh so gently, insisted. He felt vaguely like an artist, though the cravat was comfortable. And she did know a really good tailor. The jacket didn't just hide his shoulder-holster, it was hiding that slightly low shoulder which he shared with three of his brothers.

He wondered why he'd never bothered to check Casino Island for tailors before. Had he thought they charged tourist prices?

It was, he suspected, where Helen's clothes had come from. The culottes were not quite European in style, but they were only part of the whole; the slightly severe shirt, or was it a blouse, and the loose jacket, also hiding a shoulder-holster, did more than match. They sort of flowed together, ripples in the same stream.

Bellman had a bias, but somebody had done more than decorate a cute vixen. And the staff had known Helen as a friend, not as merely a distinguished customer.

So they walked over the ridge, and they both signed the book at the gate, because you really do want to keep track of the people around a shooting range. It's not a good place for aimless wandering: neither for gunsights nor people.

There was the row of firing points, much the same as any other pistol range. Bisley with palm trees, Helen thought, and smiled slightly. About twenty yards behind the firing line were some tables, mostly laden with food, and there was a samovar-like contraption simmering gently on a portable gas burner. A couple of Spontoonie girls were arranging the food, but one of them was wearing a holster rigged for a cavalry draw, and the other... Helen blinked: she was sure Coco Chanel had never made clothes in an Hawaiian print that was that loud, but the cut was her style.

Maybe she should ask if Coco had ever thought of designing a flight suit?

And then somebody called a greeting to Bellman, and a mutt with a voice as strine as they come was calling, "Hey, Helen, you want to watch that Bellman--those diplomats can talk you into anything!"

"Mickey, you bastard, I thought you were still dodging Albanians."

He grinned cheerfully. "Should have hired you as co-pilot, but Shoshone had already grabbed you. Hey, Charlie, I didn't know you Brits had to hire pilots."

Bellman shook his head, mock sorrowfully. "It's called implausible deniability. We hire the daughter of a Duke to fly guns to Chinese communists in Kuo-Han, and of course nobody believes we had anything to do with it."

Helen turned on him. "I thought they were Nationalists!"

A Panda, dressed in casual shirt and chinos, which were nevertheless crisply pressed and spotless, chuckled. "Lady Helen, my ancestors were enjoying court intrigue when your naked ancestors were fighting Julius Caesar." He winked.

"Naked?" Mickey's leer was hardly subtle.

Helen explained: "It's so much trouble getting the bloodstains out of your clothes."

A rather short, almost scrawny, bear broke in. "Charlie, introduce us to the lady, before these pilots bury us in bullshit."

Bellman was thinking more of them knew Lady Helen than he had realised. "Sergeant Baginski, gentlemen, ladies..." He paused. "And, I suppose, Australians. May I present to you The Lady Helen Todd, daughter of a gen-you-ine British Duke, able to fake being a snooty Euro, and, she tells me, the best pilot in the Spontoons."

Mickey, the panda, and a couple of other furs, almost in unison, shouted, "No, I'm the best pilot!"

Baginski grinned. "Of course you are, you drunken no-hoper excuses for aviators. You're still alive." He turned and winked at Helen. "Lady, even I know of you. So, do you shoot?"

Helen took a moment to consider her reply. "I had the basics hammered into me by my father's Head Gamekeeper. And, since I sometimes have to carry a pistol, I took lessons in London. But Charlie thinks shooting people is different, and maybe he's right."

"It is different. Let's go pop a few targets. Ever done a Running Burglar?"

"A few, Though Geoff Mulliner said the only burglars who'd come on like that when the shooting starts are likely on drugs."

"Geoff Mulliner? Used to be in the Shanghai Municipal Police?" Helen nodded. "I think you might be better taught than Charlie realises." He shrugged. "OK, set yourself up. Then we'll start off with a couple of five round strings at ten metres and twenty. You'll know the drill, but..."

"You're going to run through the range rules anyway. Go ahead. I do the same sort of thing when I'm flying."

"Lady, I've seen ya on the airfield..."

Bellman was, mostly, doing the usual male thing, bitching about work, telling tales of not insignificant height, and generally catching up with the gossip. Some of it was even of professional interest. Murchison, for instance, had RSVPed the last Embassy party, pleading a cold as his reason for absence, but Mickey had flown him to Hawaii, and Murchison had had a heavy briefcase cuffed to his wrist. But everyone was keeping half an eye, at least, on Baginski and Helen.

"Mulliner," said Farkas, a greying wolf who had been an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Navy.

"Yep, Mulliner." That was Mayer, a lean cat with too much Jewish ancestry to go home now.

There was something about their reaction that was reassuring. Helen was carrying her gun in a cavalry-draw rig, right side and butt forward, and as he watched she did a left-handed draw and six shots at a Running Burglar--a triplet of fast bang-bang pairs which almost sounded like singletons.
Fetia nudged Bellman in the ribs, and passed him a spiedie. "I don't think Sarge has cussed once."

Slowly, Bellman nodded. He had Fetia tagged as Spontoonie counter-intelligence: she was a fine cook, and savagely dangerous to whatever she chose to point a pistol at. "Who is this Mulliner guy?"

Farkas explained. "He was in the Shanghai Municipal Police, until a rather nasty incident which exchanged a leg for a hatred of pandas. Runs a shooting range in Surbiton where he teaches people how to kill. I understand one of your newspapers gave the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police a lot of hassle over him."

Bellman chuckled. "I've met Sir Humphrey. I doubt the newspaper got anywhere." He explained. "My brother George introduced us."

"I only saw what Mr. Crane's people chose to print. They seemed to think Mulliner was stating the obvious, bur Mr. Crane is an American."

"Well, it is, isn't it?" Fetia rearranged her smile around a rather fat speidie.

Bellman shrugged. "There are people in my country who have been terrified of bloody revolution since they realised they sent six million young men to war, killed a million of them, and left five million of them looking for jobs." He glanced at Farkas and Mayer. "Letting ordinary people have guns?"

"Politics," reminded Mayer.

"Sorry," said Bellman.

Mayer nodded.  "An interesting point, though."

There was another fusillade of shots, Helen shooting right-handed this time. "Is there a pistol range on Casino Island?"

"Pettigrew's." Farkas went on. "Bit of a tourist trap, They'd probably give a Lady Helen Todd a discount just to lure in the snobs."

Bellman chuckled. "She'd take it, too."

"Bred in the bone aristocrat," said Farkas. "And she's flying freelance commercial work out here. You're a lucky man." He sighed. "What will her family say?"

There was an awkward silence.

"Her brother," said Bellman, carefully, "is a Mosleyite."

"And she's here," said Mickey. He brightened. "No black shirts, no parades to Althing Plaza, no angry speeches and chanted salutes by the multitude?"

"Not that I've noticed."

"Not even a small one?"

Bellman shook his head.

"I reckon she's right, then."

Baginski and Helen had cleared the firing point. Baginski walked over, and snagged a spiedie. "She'll do," he said. "Fetia, I think you might win a cooking contest."

"I heard that!"

Baginski grinned for a moment, and winked. "Lady, Bellman here can cook and sew."

"Sure, he was a soldier. I wouldn't expect him to be totally helpless. But I swear, he likes Macanochie's!" Somebody gave a mock scream of terror. "And don't let him make you a curry."

"That can walked into the kitchen cupboard under its own power. And that curry was an authentic recipe."

Eventually she nodded. "OK, but it was still a tad fierce. There's a reason some of those Indian dishes use yoghurt."

"Bellman, maybe you ought to do the cooking next week." Baginski sounded half serious.
"Not the stew," said Mickey.

Helen smiled sweetly. "I'll arrange something special for you." She winked. "Charlie, if you're cooking, I'll help out. Everyone at my school had to be in the Girl Guides."

"We're all doomed," said Bellman.

"Very likely," agreed Baginski.

"If you're really good, I'll show you my woggle, said Helen."

Fetia, wasn't sure what a woggle was, and she wasn't sure if anyone else really knew, but she was sure of one thing. It needed a special sort of man to suit a woman like Lady Helen. And she had a feeling that Bellman might just make the grade.

Not that there was anything wrong with Rahiti...

But some people definitely were in a class of their own. "So," she asked, "how do you cook woggle?"

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