“The Vasty Deep”
By E.O. Costello
(The characters of Franklin Stagg, Orrin F.X. Brush, James Meffit and Charles Foster Crane are © E.O. Costello)
(Athena Meffit originally created by J.T. Urie. Rosie Baumgartner originally created by M. Mitchell Marmel. Kara Karoksdottir originally created by W.D. Reimer.)
I have had enough experience with bolting barely edible rations at Zero Hour to instill in me a deep appreciation for a breakfast eaten at true leisure.
Given that I have someone of great charm and devotion sitting across the dining room table from me certainly puts one in the mood to enjoy one’s toast and marmelade in peace and serenity.
P’ina, my housefur, is under rather strict orders not to disturb either myself or Mrs. Meffit while we are at the table. My mate and I often discuss and plan things while we are together, though I will say with some very mild chagrin that Mrs. Meffit often chooses a subject matter that is quite remarkable for the hour, and sometimes necessitates changing into fresh clothes. I forebear details, I’m sure you can fill them in for yourself.
On this particular morning, Athena was busily devouring a rather large bowl of berries and cream. Given that she was now eating for three1 I was not terribly surprised, and indeed was pleased at her hearty appetite. I, myself, was engaged in reading the morning edition of the Elele, which was rather more interested in presenting news, as opposed to the undraped femmefurs such as the leopardess on the cover of that day’s Mirror. Not that I perused it with any great depth, mark you.
A shadow fell across my newspaper, and given the fact that I had not heard any fur come in, I assumed that P’ina, as is his wont, was defying my standing orders when it was convenient for him. I was in the process of ignoring the intrusion when I heard a shrill squeal and the clatter of spoon against wood floor.
I lowered my newspaper and glared through my glasses. However, I did not see a smallish native fox in white linen jacket and trousers. What I saw was rather different.
Perched on one of the other chairs of the dining room suite was a fur. Or at least I suppose it was a fur, their species was indistinct. This was largely because they were wearing a gigantic tiki mask. The tiki mask was carved out of what appeared to be ebony, with certain portions of the mask highlighted in a vivid red-pink.2 The face, as it were, of the tiki-mask was more like a death-mask, with a skeletal visage of some indeterminate species. As for the part of the body not hidden by this grotesque mask, it was hidden by a mass of glossy black plumage, except for a pair of arms which were covered in wooden devices that were like gloves or bracers. All topped off, mark you, by a twisted black metal rod that was held in one paw.
It took me more than a few seconds to regain my composure, which is not to say that I regained my temper.
“Blast it, what kind of a joke is this?! I…”
The response to this was silence, and a pair of pointed fingers, in a downward “V.”
I looked down. Where there had been, a minute before, a hot cup of coffee and fresh milk was something that was decidedly neither, and defied description, save that if I had had any doubt what my table would have looked like had P’ina not attended to his duties for, say, ten years, I now knew.
The apparition withdrew its paw, and spoke in a rather ghastly echo through the mask.
I blinked at that. There were very, very few furs who knew my birth-name, before I had had it changed to James Meffit some years ago, after coming to the Islands. Still fewer would actually have the brass to address me as such. I’m afraid my only response was to open and shut my mouth, silently. The apparition, having concluded I was paying attention, continued.
“It is foretold that there will be a defilement of a sacred place by a body killed in anger and spite. You will prevent this defilement.”
“I…I…what? A murder victim?!”
I resumed my previous posture of slack-jawed astonishment.
“You will seek out both Karok-son-Karok, and the lawgiver creature-with-horns-outlander. You will prevent this defilement. How, it is your business. But you will not fail in this, ere there will be consequences.”
The visitor took the spluttering sounds I was making as a lack of protest.
“Get you hence. The hour of defilement is nigh. Karok-son-Karok will guide you.”
I looked at Athena, whose face was frozen in shock and horror. When I turned back, the apparition was gone, though there was a very unpleasant musty order where they had been.
“Athena, get to bed. P’INA!!!!”
My housefur padded in with a coffee pot, smiling sunnily at me. His expression quickly changed when I began to give him the benefit of my Great War experiences in listening to sergeant-majors dressing down recruits. After about two minutes, I got to the point.
“And who, blast it, told you you could let that horror into my breakfast room, let alone my house?! It scared Mrs. Meffit half to death!”
P’ina blinked in alarm.
With gritted teeth, I asked the ceiling to give me strength and patience, and I rather crisply described both the visitor and their little party trick with the coffee and milk.
P’ina’s reaction was of interest. His ears flattened against his head, he dropped the coffee pot with a metallic crash to the floor, and he convulsively reached into his shirt to grab at something he wore about his neck.
Cross-examination was futile, as P’ina fell to his knees, shaking, when I pressed him for details on the visitor. With a rising sense of disgust and rage, I stormed out of the dining room, and in fact out of the house, bent on briskly walking the short distance to the Spontoon Constabulary HQ.
After marching past the desk sergeant, who saw that it would be a very poor idea indeed to deal with an enraged skunk, I opened the door to the Detective Bureau with a crash.
My friend Inspector Stagg was there, indeed, though he had a dazed look on his muzzle, and he was fiddling with his cane in a rather distracted fashion.
“Good God, Inspector, do you know what just happened to me?!”
The Inspector turned slowly to me, and nodded.
“You were given a geas by a native priestess.”
I briefly stumbled over the word that the Inspector used – it can be very difficult dealing with a fur of his extensive vocabulary, sometimes – and asked him how in blazes he knew.
“Approximately a half-hour ago, I has tasked in a similar fashion, quite possibly by the same priestess.”
“Upstairs at Luchow’s. I was engaged with Miss Baumgartner.”
“How did she take it?”
“Rather poorly. I was, as I say, engaged with Miss Baumgartner.”
There was a subtle shade of emphasis in one of the words which indicated to me that the timing on the part of the priestess had been poor, indeed.
“Well, when I was disturbed, she mentioned Sergeant Brush. Or, rather, his native name.”
“Unlikely, Doctor, that they would use his “Euro” name.”
“Hmmm. No, I s’pose not. Where is he, anyway? Not on duty?”
“It was his day off, Doctor. I suppose he was in his longhouse in the Uplands.3”
I thought for a bit. “Doesn’t he have priestesses on both sides of his family?”
The Inspector slowly nodded. “Indeed. Though I suspect that would make things worse, not better. Sergeant Brush, I understand, does not fare well against massed priestesses. Few mels do.”
The wisdom of Inspector Stagg’s remark became apparent about twenty minutes later, when a badly shaken Detective Sergeant Orrin F.X. Brush entered the Detective Bureau. He bore the air of a fur that had been subjected to an entire battalion of sergeant-majors in full voice.
No enquiry was necessary as to whether he had had a visitor that morning, too.
“Sergeant,” came the voice of his superior. “Did your visitors say where we were going? Neither Doctor Meffit nor I were given any details.”
There was a tightening of vulpine jaw, and I could see that the Sergeant was wearing, most unusually, a type of amulet outside his shirt. He now gripped it tightly with one paw.
“We’re gonna be goin’ t’Hen an’ Chickens.”
This was hardly a masterpiece of information, and I rather brusquely said so. Inspector Stagg merely swiveled in his chair, collected a local atlas, and surveyed the pages with a magnifying glass.
“Oh. Here it is, I think. Hen and Chickens Shoals. Let’s see…hmmm, based on this map scale, it looks like it is about twenty-file miles north…northwest of Moon Island. Rather close to the ship channel. Small craft advisory, I see. Is it dangerous there, Sergeant?”
The reply was in a voice rather louder than necessary.
“You ain’t got no idea…sir.”
Hardly a promising way to start.
The Constabulary arranged for the RINS to ferry us out to the vicinity of Hen and Chickens. Emphasis on the word “vicinity.” There was a rather terse statement that no member of the RINS patrol-boat was willing to get near the position.
I finally button-holed Sergeant Brush, who was (uncharacteristically) trying to fade into the woodwork.
“I asked you earlier, and got a rather unsatisfactory answer: is Hen and Chickens dangerous?”
Sergeant Brush kept his muzzle firmly shut, and for yet another time this morning, I cocked my tail and stamped my feet.
“As the Chief Health Officer of the Spontoon Islands, I am ordering you, damnit, to tell me what the hell is wrong out there. Is there some sort of infectious disease?”
A headshake no.
“Is it used as a leper colony or quarantine site?”
A headshake no.
“Is it used for the storage of harmful bacteria or other similar substances?”
A headshake no.
“Well, damnit, what is wrong?”
After a long interval, Sergeant Brush addressed his shoes.
“It ain’t clean.”
Inspector Stagg, who had clumped over early in the conversation and had been listening quietly, ears swiveled, spoke.
“I take it, Sergeant, by unclean you mean something far beyond that which gloves and Wellington boots would defend us.”
A headshake yes.
Now, I’ve lived in these islands for many years; I came here not long after the Great War. So I have gotten around, and heard things.
For example, I know that one of the legends is that, far back in the mists of time, some furs were tinkering with forces that they shouldn’t have been tinkering with, and some sort of catastrophe had occurred. That is about as much as a “Euro” is going to learn, so unless I went truly native, I would have to settle for that.
Which didn’t let Sergeant Brush off the hook with me.
“Kindly explain to me, then, how it is that Inspector Stagg and I are being sent to Hen and Chickens.”
Sergeant Brush shifted on his footpads very uneasily, took his hat off, and began fiddling with it in his paws until I smacked it away from him and insisted on an answer. Under ordinary circumstances, this might have tempted fate in the form of his well-known toy, “Headache Maker.” The fact that I did not collect a leather sap behind my ear was indicative of something or other.
Inspector Stagg saw that this admission of my status, and the Inspector’s, as cannon fodder was on the verge of pushing me past the limit of my temper, and he quickly grasped my elbow and steered me away. And it was about thirty seconds before I could splutter anything, and most of it was a resounding denunciation of the Wise Ones for abusing me like this.
There was a gentle tap on my shoulder, and a quick glare indicated that we had been joined by a rather shortish, melanistic wolf in an RINS uniform.
“You will pardon me, Doctor. I could not help but overhear your last remarks.”
I indicated, through gritted teeth, that I wasn’t surprised, and that I would be pleased to repeat them, louder, if necessary. The wolf gently raised a paw, and said that it would not be necessary.
“I understand you are greatly upset by this, Doctor, but I can assure that there are very good reasons for sending both you and Inspector Stagg out to Hen and Chickens.”
I turned to the Inspector, who merely flicked his eyes. It was at that point that I saw, for the first time, that our interlocutor was a shaman. As such, he could well be classified as an expert on the matter.
“Sergeant Brush is quite correct: the Hen and Chickens – I will use your name for it, the native name is a bit distressing – is a very unclean place for those of the native faith. It will be hundreds of generations before a Spontoonie can set foot there in safety of his spirit. We Rain Islanders are quite sympathetic with that point of view.”
He raised his paw again. “To address your specific grievance, Doctor: why send you and the Inspector there? I was advised this morning by one of the Wise Ones…”
“Dressed in black?”
“In point of fact, yes, Doctor. There is a reason for that. If Hen and Chickens is defiled again, it could cause problems. Not catastrophic ones, to be sure, but it never pays to tempt fate.”
The Inspector cleared his throat. “I was told, as I am sure the Doctor was, that the worry was that the Hen and Chickens would be defiled by a fur killed in anger and spite. Do you know what the Wise One meant by that?”
The shaman pondered. “It is, alas, not clear from context. Prophecy rarely is, you know. However, I can guess that the Wise Ones foresaw the need for Law-Guardians, as the Spontoonies say. I have heard Wise Ones refer to Inspector Stagg from time to time, with respect. They told me of a case the Inspector handled very discreetly, involving violated idols.4”
“As for you, Doctor…well, your habit of treating the natives for free has not gone unnoticed.”
My ears turned red from embarrassment, and I began to regret my previous comments. The shaman sensed something of this.
“I admit the mode by which you were summoned, Doctor, was rather harsh, but that is a centuries-old practice in circumstances such as these. It would be greatly upsetting to somefur not used to it, especially for a fur in…well, your position.”
“Hrm. Well, yes.”
The shaman reached out and patted my shoulder. “I am confident, Doctor, that if you do your professional duty, everything will work out just fine. By the way, the patrol boat is here. Shall we go?”
The voyage out to Hen and Chickens was very quiet, outside of the fact that Sergeant Brush was fiddling with a small carved idol around his neck and muttering something over and over. It was something of a relief when one of the crew silently pointed out Hen and Chickens on the horizon, and we began to prepare for our task.
Inspector Stagg, Sergeant Brush and I all descended from the RINS patrol-boat, and boarded a small skiff to which an outboard motor had been fitted.
I noticed two things during this operation: the first was that it was clear that the shaman was not dissembling: the Rain Islanders wanted to stay well clear of the Hens and Chickens; the second was that Sergeant Brush had donned a particularly ugly-looking carved tiki mask. It was rather hard to miss the latter, actually.
The ride to Hens and Chickens, which I should think was about 2,000 yards or thereabouts, was fairly uneventful. Rather, it was as uneventful as a trip can be when you have a fur wearing a tiki-mask driving an outboard motor.
Inspector Stagg, for his part, was scanning the waters with a pair of field-glasses. He had also taken out a waterproof chart of the area, and had been making marks on it with a china pencil.
I spent much of the journey attempting to keep my tailfur out of the way of the salt-spray and the bilge in the bottom of the boat, with only middling success. I was, to say the least, disenchanted with the whole matter.
We were still a few hundred yards off –shore when Inspector Stagg pointed to a pile of rocks that neither looked natural, nor native. “What is that, Sergeant?”
The voice from behind the tiki-mask was rather distorted, and combined with the good Sergeant’s thick accent, made it impossible for me to understand him. The Inspector relayed to me the information that the formation was the remains of a light-buoy that the “Euros” had tried to install on Hens and Chickens. In spite of long-standing efforts, the attempts failed. No one knew why, though I had my own suspicions (the shaman’s tale notwithstanding) that it was vandalism dressed up as native legend-bearing. I was not brave enough to voice these out loud, however.
There was, of course, no dock on the island. Sergeant Brush turned off the motor and lifted it clear, allowing the boat to ground gently against the surf. I was thus able to step onto the islet without getting either my tailfur or my trousers soaking wet. I assisted Inspector Stagg off the skiff.
Sergeant Brush refused to get off the boat and, indeed, used an oar to push the boat back out to sea, where he anchored a few yards off-shore, and sat, glowering through his tiki-mask with his arms crossed over his chest.
I asked for, and was given, the waterproof chart that the Inspector had brought. I oriented myself, and looked around.
The main islet itself, the “Hen,” was shaped like a half-circle, almost a crescent. It was very narrow, probably no more than fifteen feet at its widest in the middle, and from tip to tip of the crescent, it was no more than about a hundred yards. One could have walked a circuit of the islet in two minutes or less. The land slanted up noticeably at its widest, and the highest point formed a ridge. According to the map, there were smaller islets (the “Chickens,”) completing the circle at intervals, though these formations were barely rocks above the water at high tide.
There was no vegetation on the island, and indeed there seemed to be little flotsam of any kind about. The Chickens, rather unusually, were bare of any gull guano. For that matter, as I stood there, I realized there were no birds of any kind in the vicinity. Other than the pounding of the surf, there was no noise whatsoever.
I walked up the ridge to the highest point on the island. The chart was bare at this point; oddly, there were no depth soundings taken for the area.
Looking over the ridge, the water here was unusually still and placid. The prevailing currents, the chart indicated, were on the other side of the islet. The stillness of the water produced a very unusual colour, a somber blue-green shading into violet.
I stared at the water for…well, I’m not sure how long. I was wondering how deep it was, and what was there, when I felt a very firm grip on my arm and a sensation of being pulled.
Inspector Stagg looked at me with great concern for a moment, before letting me go.
“Do watch yourself, Doctor. You almost fell over.”
I blinked, and found myself stumbling a few steps down the ridge, back toward safety. The eerie feeling I had made we want to get off this damn island as fast as possible.
My own thoughts did not cloud me to the fact that Inspector Stagg himself had raised his tail and was flagging, which was a rather easy insight into his own feelings.
Each of us began to scan the waters off the islet with a pair of field-glasses. I could not speak for the Inspector, but I had very little idea of what, precisely, I was searching for. The words of the Wise One had not been very specific, after all.
Sergeant Brush stayed in the skiff, immobile, his arms across his chest and his head hidden by the tiki-mask, though I have few doubts the expression reflected his inner feelings as well. The RINS patrol-boat kept its distance of about a mile and a half beyond.
As time wore on, I began to have the uneasy suspicion that I’d been played for a fool by the Wise One, and I resolved to have words with Father Merino as to the best way to get redress. I kept my thoughts to myself, however, as it did not feel safe to voice them out loud.
It was thus that my voice gave a peculiar cracked quaver when I finally spoke.
“Good God, Inspector, what’s that? Over there, about two o’clock!”
The Inspector followed my (shaking) finger, and swiveled his glasses over. He focused them, and peered through them for what seemed like an eternity, before he spoke.
“It is, Doctor, what we came for. That is a body. Signal Sergeant Brush, and let us collect it.”
“Errr, isn’t it going to reach us…?”
Inspector Stagg lowered the glasses briefly. “I believe, Doctor, it would be inadvisable if we let the body touch the shore.”
Mad as that seemed, it had a bizarre logic to it.
In the final analysis, it was up to me to bring the body on board the skiff. Sergeant Brush was tending the motor (and wearing his tiki-mask), and I felt it was somewhat unfair of me to impose on the Inspector, with his dodgy health and bad hoof.
The body was feline, calico fur, and floating face down in the water. It was also nude, which was slightly surprising to me. The deceased was also comparatively small, so it was not difficult to hoist what turned out to be a him onto the boat.
The Inspector and I looked over the body while we continued back to the patrol boat. The body was in good condition. It did not appear to have been fed upon by non-anthrops. While there were few traces of blood, there was obvious and severe bruising to the head, one on the right side, just below the ear, and another and deeper bruise above the right eye. The wounds were not oozing blood.
The immersion of the body in the water made any analysis of body temperature futile. It was also not particularly clear if rigor mortis had worn off naturally, or conditions had inhibited it.
I noticed the Inspector peering very closely at the tailfur of the deceased, so I did myself.
“Other than the chap wasn’t Tailfast, Inspector, I’m not sure I see anything there.5”
“Well, actually, Doctor, that is what I was looking for. Hardly conclusive, of course. The deceased might not have pledged himself. But it is interesting. You’ll note as well, Doctor, that the body doesn’t bear any tattoo marks or other native fur styling.”
I have seen enough native bodies in my time to know the truth of what the Inspector was saying. While not universal, many Spontoonies bore marks that told of their family affiliations.
The Inspector asked Sergeant Brush if he recognized the body. The tiki-mask moved from side-to-side, which I took to mean “no.”
With the assistance of the RINS, the body was first brought back to Meeting Island, and then delivered to my clinic for examination. The results were interesting.
There was evidence in the stomach that the deceased had eaten a substantial meal of fish and vegetables not long before he died, which pointed to a death that was either after lunch or after dinner, depending on how you viewed it.
Immersion in the seawater had not washed away the evidence on his paws. The claw-tips were mostly intact, except on the thumbs, where there were old breaks, and the deceased had not done a very thorough job of keeping himself clean, as there was some oily grit in the claw area and what looked like metal powder or shavings.
Both wounds on the head were the result of some sort of blow with a narrow object, rather than something broad, like, say, a club or an iron skillet. X-rays showed the blow on the front of the skull was harder than the one on the side of the skull.
The finding that I, personally, found most disturbing was that there was water in the lungs. Evidence that the deceased was alive when they were in the water.
Now, I will grant you, this was no evidence of foul play, looked at in isolation. I’ve dealt with dead fisher-furs who had received blows from a wildly swinging boom and had been knocked unconscious into the water. Still, I was concerned.
The Inspector, who watched me perform the autopsy, pointed out a few other pertinent facts. For one thing, the deceased’s fur was not sun-bleached, indicating that they had spent comparatively little time outdoors. This tended to argue against a fisher-fur livelihood. He also noted the teeth were clean and in good condition, which at least suggested that the deceased had the money to look after them. There was also a small, matted spot on the left wrist where a wrist-watch seemed to be habitually worn. More evidence of his Euro-ness, in my view, since the natives for the most part didn’t care for watches.
The Inspector left to go a few streets over to the Constabulary HQ, to see if any reports had been filed. For my part, I cleaned myself up and went back home.
Athena, thank Yahweh, did not appear to be the worse for the morning shock, though she told me quite firmly that if it was the same with me, she would be staying in our bedroom for a few days. Quite understandable, and I readily concurred.
My wife, for the most part, does not ask about my cases (professional or civic). However, as I was moving about the room, fluffing her pillows and fetching her some ice-water, she seemed to have something on her mind.
“James? What was it like out there?”
“Eh? Oh, you mean the job?”
“Mmmm-hmmm. I take it you and the Inspector found something.”
“Yes. Well, we did.” I gave her a summary of where we’d been and what I’d seen. I left out the part about leaning over and being semi-hypnotized.
“Kiki Brush stopped by while you were gone.”
This was a great surprise to me. Sergeant Brush’s mate not only very rarely ventured off the Main Island: to my knowledge, she spoke no English. I’ve met her only on one or two occasions, though she is a very warm-hearted vixen that adores her cubs. (And vice versa.)
“How is she?”
“Oh, fine. She brought me some stewed breadfruit. It was very nice. She brought two helpings.”
A look of spurious innocence on her muzzle indicated to me that my helping existed no more. Forgiveness was easy, and was appreciated by both parties.
“Did she say anything, Athena?”
Headshake. “No, James. She just delivered the food, pointed at my stomach, smiled rather mysteriously, and left.”
I pondered. Kiki Brush was the daughter, sister, grand-daughter, niece and grand-niece of a number of Wise Ones. Perhaps this was significant, perhaps not. Still, she had gone out of her way, and that was a comfort. Motherhood bond, I suppose.
There were some afternoon appointments to take care of on Casino Island, and I got through with them as quickly as professionally possible. I was hoping for a telephone call, and indeed, I got one just at the end of my last appointment. The Inspector wanted to see me, if I was free, at Luchow’s.6 I needed no second invitation.
The Inspector, it transpired, was finishing a late meal (or perhaps, an early dinner) as I walked in. I ordered a small sandwich from Vicky7, and sat at the table that Miss Baumgartner reserves for the Inspector’s exclusive use.
“Any luck, Inspector?”
“Sergeant Brush thinks so. A missing fur report turned in by a landlady on Eastern Island. The Sergeant was going to talk to her, and then drop by the Interior Ministry to check on the files.8”
The presence of a flat cap and an extremely loud tie heralded the appearance of Detective Sergeant Brush, right on cue. He had a folder in his paw, which he gently tossed on the table in front of the Inspector. The latter read the name on the tab.
“Thomas Rattner? The name is vaguely…ah! Plumber, isn’t he?”
“Dat’s right, sir. Gotta shop over on Eastie. Ya musta seen his adverts.”
“Yessss, yes, no doubt that’s where I’ve seen the name, Sergeant.”
Sergeant Brush opened up the folder and extracted the file photograph. I leaned over for a closer look. There was little question in my mind that it was the fur the Inspector and I had retrieved. The Inspector, true to character, consulted one of the many index cards he keeps in his pockets, and carefully examined the photograph, before nodding at Sergeant Brush.
“I suppose, Inspector, that that might explain the condition of his claws…the broken and oily ones, with the metal powder and bits?”
“Well, some furs are in the habit of using their claws as tools, to be sure.” The Inspector turned to his subordinate.
“What do you propose to do next, Sergeant?”
The tod hefted the folder. “The stiff ain’t got no next a’ kin, ‘cordin’ to dis here file. Figger first thing t’do is have a look-see ‘round his room. Shop’s gonna either be closed, or he’s a one-fur shop, ain’t gonna make no difference, see?”
This seemed sensible to the Inspector, so the Sergeant trotted off, and I started in on my sandwich. I had had only one bite when I saw the Sergeant wave to a vixen coming in. The vixen was very well-known to me: it was Kara Karoksdottir.9
When she came in, on a whim, I caught her eye and beckoned her over. The Inspector briefly raised an eyebrow, guessing at what I was doing, but let me be.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, I put the question to her. She narrowed her eyes.
“Well, yes, Mr. Rattner is a client of mine. Why do you ask?”
I eyed the Inspector, who nodded.
“Past tense, I’m afraid, Miss Karoksdottir.”
It’s rare to catch a bright vixen like her off-guard, but I managed to do it. She was startled for about a half-beat, before she caught herself.
“Poaching on the Inspector’s turf, Doctor?”
A wintry smile from the same. “Doctor Meffit was with me when the body was retrieved off Hen and Chickens this morning, Miss Karoksdottir.”
The penny dropped somewhere for the lawyer. “So that’s what was eating Karok this morning. Everyone was being all mysterious at the longhouse. Must have had a Wise One visit. He hates those.”
I neglected to mention that I was not overly fond of them, myself.
She sighed. “Well, I suppose you have questions for me. I’ll try to answer them without breaking any confidences.”
The Inspector nodded, and took out one of his cards.
“Was Mr. Ratter a regular client, or only in isolated matters?”
“What kind of work did you perform for him?”
“Debt collection.” (I noticed she was keeping her answers brief and to the point.)
“Business related? Or personal?”
“Were any of these matters contentious?”
“Well, you know the old saying “neither a borrower nor a lender be?” Kind of a good reason for that. Folks can get a little upset.”
“Oh? Had anyone threatened him, recently?”
“Not that I know of, Inspector. Fur took a poke at him a few years ago. It’s probably in the records, somewhere. My partner handled that one.10”
“But bill collection work in the last few years, correct?”
“Had he put any matters in your paws in the last few weeks?”
“No, Inspector. And to anticipate your next question, he hadn’t advised me of any pending matters.”
“Does he have a will, to your knowledge?”
She shook her head. “Well, we haven’t been asked to draft one, and we handle all of his legal affairs. We’ll have to trace his family. I haven’t heard about any relatives here in the Islands.”
The Inspector graciously thanked Miss Karoksdottir, who promised to check her files for any further information that might be useful. After all, she noted, they hate to lose a client.
The Inspector noted that he and the Sergeant would drop by my home later, if it was all right with me, and keep me posted on the matter. It was slightly curious that he would do so, but on the other paw, I was rather flattered by his attitude, and I indicated that it was quite all right.
P’ina advised me that Athena had gone to bed early; just to be on the safe side, I looked in, and she was resting quietly and peacefully. After the morning’s adventure – that is, if I hadn’t dreamed it, and I was starting to suspect I had – it was probably best that she did. Perhaps it was Mrs. Brush’s breadfruit preparation.
My study’s clock had just struck nine when I heard my doorbell ring. A glance outside of the window showed that, indeed, it was Inspector Stagg along with Sergeant Brush. The latter was hefting a pair of suitcases that seemed to be closed with the aid of some string and a few belts.
When unpacked in my study, the suitcases proved to contain an assortment of ledgers and file folders, evidently taken from the Rattner residence.11 Sergeant Brush gave me a toothy, vulpine grin.
“I figgers, Doc, ya can help us wit’ dese here papers. I know it ain’t like openin’ up a fur, but…”
Certainly, there was an air of novelty to the operation, and I assented.
“Still had ‘is breakfast onna table. Fish bones an’ greens.”
I found that interesting, and it explained one thing to me. Still, there was one thing that made me curious.
“Inspector, it’s now Thursday night, and we found the body this morning. Are there any indications of when the deceased was last seen alive?”
The Inspector, who was busy marshalling the materials into one large pile (for himself), one medium pile (evidently for me), and one smaller pile (for the Sergeant), nodded.
“The operator at Spontoon Telephone told me that Mr. Rattner had received and placed a number of calls through Tuesday, and very early on Wednesday. The last call placed from his workshop was just before seven, an order for some pipe. I spoke with the fur who took that order, and he confirmed it was Mr. Rattner. We have yet to find any further witnesses of his movements after that, though we are still looking.”
As in a game of poker, we took up the hands we were dealt by the Inspector, and began to sift through the documents.12 As luck would have it, about forty-five minutes into our review, it was I who found something interesting. Sergeant Brush noticed me reading intently.
“Whatcha got, Doc?”
“It appears to be some sort of balance-sheet, with a specific listing of furs to whom the deceased had lent money. Most of these names mean nothing to me, of course. Perhaps you…?”
A pair of vulpine eyes soon began squinting at the sheets. “Yeah, I recognize most of dese guys.”
“There are no native names, there.”
“Yeah. Spontoonies ain’t gonna borra money from no Euro, Doc. No offence, I mean, but it’s pretty sensitive, y’see? If a fur on th’ main Island needs money, like as not, he’s gonna talk it over wit’ his chief, see?”
The Inspector swiveled his ears. “So you would not, I imagine, expect to find a native fisherfur on that list.”
“Nope. I see a buncha Althing guys…buncha guys runnin’ small shops on Casino…buncha smallfry shop guys on Eastie…hunh….”
A sooty finger was running up and down the list, on multiple pages.
“Sorta funny. Doin’ a lotta business wit’ the navy boys over at the Moon Island base. I sees…oh, nine, ten names here, all officers.”
“Hrmph. Well, if they run their mess like my old army unit ran their mess, shan’t be surprised if officers fall short of money.”
Stagg reached out for the list and began to review it. He moved some papers and opened up a ledger he had not yet reviewed, and began comparing it to the list.
“Rather stiff interest rate, I see. Must be to compensate for the risk of repudiation, or a fur going back to Rain Island without paying. I rather doubt the RINS syndics would be pleased to know of these arrangements.”
Brush shrugged, and picked at his teeth. “Yeah. Somea dem RINS officers, dey got expensive tastes. A few go inta th’ casinos, some like t’run up bar bills. You knows how it is.”
The Inspector gave his subordinate the eye from under an eyebrow. “I doubt that they would compare with my old unit, Sergeant.13”
The Sergeant chuckled, but it had me thinking.
“I say, Inspector? An RINS fur would have fairly easy access to a boat to dispose of a body.”
A pursing of the lips. “There is the question, Doctor, of how one would get the body onto the boat without exciting notice. You’ll recall the body showed signs of being struck, and there might have been blood.”
“Errrr…yes. Quite. Sorry.”
“Still,” said the Inspector, scratching an antler, “let’s step back and look at the facts. We found the body in the water, with little evidence it had been there for a long time. We have a gap of about 26 hours from the last known location of Mr. Rattner, until his body was fished out.”
“Shouldn’t be dat hard t’get a lista RINS boats what left Moon Island, hanh?”
“No, I suspect not, Sergeant. If we talk to the RINS, we may also find out which of these furs are shore-based, and which have strong alibis for the time. Granted, I’m assuming here the strength of your argument that no native fisherfur would have been a borrower, and therefore a suspect. Indeed, we’re basing our work on a guess that money was the motive here.”
“Cherchez l’argent, Inspector?”
The Inspector gave a wintry smile. This was, after all, the fur that had brought Madame Onca to justice.14
The next morning, I had resumed my normal profession of a doctor, after tending to Athena, who was well-rested. And, judging from the way she grossly interfered with my examination of her, in a good mood as well.
I had disposed of some Althing paperwork when a messenger from the Constabulary stopped by, with an invitation to lunch at Moon Island, the principal RINS base in the Islands. Inked on to the card was the notation that uniform was not required on my part. Just as well. I find that my old uniform is harder and harder to get into as time goes on.
The mess at Moon Island is rather egalitarian, especially as compared to the Canadian Army. One lines up with an enameled tray, and passes down a line of assorted entrees, beverages and desserts. No particular order: I saw a pawful of Landing Force fellows waiting patiently behind a diminutive enlisted fur who was taking his time over the cheese selection. All rather like a Child’s or Schrafft’s, really.
Inspector Stagg and Sergeant Brush were already there, deep in conversation with a fur that, judging from the insignia he wore, was with the RINS’ judicial branch. The shaman that I had seen the day before was also at the table, quietly working away at his lunch.
Introductions were made, and the judicial officer wiped his beak.
“You do realize, Inspector, that there’s a strong possibility I’ll eventually have to take the case away from you, if your theory holds water?”
“I understand that, sir. There is the matter of the treaty, and the agreement governing the forces. It is also quite possible that the crime was committed on RINS property.”
The fishhawk grimaced. He clearly didn’t like the implications of an RINS fur killing a Spontoonie, even a Euro Spontoonie.
“Well, hopefully, you can clear things up quickly, if the theory is a washout. We’ve run down the list of RINS personnel you gave us, and here it is.”
Avoiding a “boardinghouse reach,” I craned my neck to read over the Inspector’s shoulder. Sure enough, a number of the RINS furs listed were shore-based. The Inspector thought those would be moderately easy to check up on, and his subordinate noted down the names in his book.
There were a few sea-going names left on the list. However, the democratic nature of the mess asserted itself; it was easy for the judicial officer to get up, walk to a nearby table, and confirm a few facts. I will say this for the RINS: their setup certainly minimizes the red tape you would normally associate with the armed forces.
There was one card in the pack that stood out. A Harold Snow. He was not in the mess. In point of fact, he was not on the base at all. He had shipped out along with his crew-mates Wednesday morning.
On a submarine.
My understanding is that the submarine that Lieutenant Snow was on was recalled to base by the RINS. It had, apparently, been on some sort of a testing run after a lengthy period of refit at Moon Island; therefore, it wasn’t likely that the sub was very far, though it would still most likely take a day or two, at least, to return to base. Since today was Friday, that meant most likely Snow would not be available until perhaps Monday.
Sergeant Brush girded up to interview many of the other parties who had owed money to the deceased, judging from the records we had seized. Something of a long and dreary process, but of understandable necessity. Unless the Inspector could show that the field of suspects was a narrow one, that afforded a lot of room for any defendant to point the finger.
I would also imagine that the water-taxi drivers were going to have their logs checked. The Constabulary also needed to pin down when was the last time Rattner was seen alive. As it happened, I may have stumbled across that point early on Saturday morning.
I wear a number of metaphorical hats here in the Spontoons. Aside from my private practice, I am also the Medical Examiner (witness Mr. Ratter’s autopsy), the Coroner, and the Chief Health Officer. The Althing, you will see, gets good value out of me.
The food carts that vendors use are subject to my inspection, not that they like it very much. You would be shocked at some of the conditions prevalent in the little box that sells coffee or Nootnops Red or the like.
One of the few Euro food cart vendors in the Islands (it’s a profession dominated by the natives) operates on Moon Island, selling sandwiches. Cranky old Scottie, a former Cameronian Highlander. He tolerates me largely because I was at Vimy Ridge, and therefore am another Old Soldier.
“Aye, ye’ve been aroond, then, Doctor, on th’ base?”
“Hmmmm?” (I was busy inspecting the dates on his sandwiches. Some were of a surprising age.) “Oh, you mean the RINS base? Yes. I was there a few days ago.”
“I dinna ken ye were part of th’ police, Doctor.”
“Eh?” (A particularly fragrant specimen was discovered at the bottom of the case, and I suspect I was the subject of a distraction attempt.) “No, no, Inspector Stagg just had me along. Investigating the death of that workfur who washed up.”
“Aye, read it in th’ noospaper, I did. It’s murder, ‘tis.”
I admit I was now completely distracted. “What?”
“Och, aye! Your man was in fine fettle aarrly on Wednesday.”
“Eh? You saw him?”
“Aye, that I did. Sold him a cup of caaaafee, and did you know what he did, Doctor? Paaaaaid with a slug.” The Scottie scowled, and nodded sagaciously, as if he linked the palming off of a bad coin with the murder.
“And what time would that have been, Hamish?”
“Ooooh, it waaaas about just getting on six in the maaarning. In a rush, he waaas.”
“Did he say anything?”
“A wee bit of a tiff aaaver gettin’ ooot of a nice bed at thaaat hour, t’go oop to th’ base. Had his little bag of tools, he did.”
While it was not deserved, I gave Hamish enough marks to pass his inspection, though I did have some of his stock destroyed as a precaution.
After this attempt to save the stomachs of the customers of Moon Island, I telephoned the SIC headquarters, and managed to speak to the Inspector. The Inspector listened to Hamish’s story, and I was asked to repeat it. I was slightly surprised by the next question.
“Sergeant Brush is running down some leads on Casino, Doctor. Since you are on Moon Island as it is, could I trouble you to check the logs of the base gates? Both coming and going?”
An odd request, but I had no problem with it. It seemed rather reasonable, so I rang off and walked over to the base, explaining myself to the officer on duty. The logs were readily produced.
Sure enough, Rattner, consistent with what Hamish had told me, signed into Gate A on Wednesday morning at 5.58. I was puzzled by something, however.
A careful examination of the log book showed that Rattner had not left by any of the base gates. I had the duty officer come over and double-check my reading. He confirmed that was indeed the case, and he was not best pleased about it. He picked up the gatehouse telephone, and not only requested that some of the “Alfies” do a thorough search of Moon Island for anything out of place or discarded, but that the guards on duty Wednesday morning be assembled.
My own memories of guardroom interviews told me that it was not likely to be a pleasant interview for any of the furs concerned.
After the morning inspections, and a round of patient visits all that afternoon, I was happy to be back home for a leisurely Saturday dinner. P’ina had ordered a trifle from one of the local bakeries, and there had been the delivery of a few back numbers of Punch in that day’s mail. Any plans to amuse myself with literary diversions, however, were themselves diverted when I saw Inspector Stagg was having a cup of tea with Athena.
“James? Do you think we should give the Inspector a room of his own? We’ve had lots of his company in the last few days…”
“I rather doubt, my dear, that Miss Baumgartner would approve. First call and all that.”
The Inspector’s ears turned red, an indication that I was correctly, if mildly indiscreet. He hurriedly changed the subject.
“I spoke with the base commander just now, Doctor. You’ve stirred up a small hornet’s nest over there.”
“Oh, dear. Bad?”
“Well. I’m led to believe some furs have their ears ringing, yet. In any event, the late Mr. Rattner was, in fact, seen entering the base just before 6 on Wednesday morning. He was sighted about to leave the base just after 9 that same morning, but he somewhat abruptly turned around and headed back where he had come from. No one, it seems, challenged him as to what he was doing. Hence, I suppose, the lecture.”
“Was he carrying anything, Inspector?” This from Athena. Both the Stagg and I were mildly surprised.
“I asked that question specifically, Mrs. Meffit. Yes, he was carrying his tool bag. Cream-coloured canvas bag with a leather bottom. Expensive American type.”
I nodded. “Did anyone come running after him? Call him?”
“Not that anyone saw or heard, Doctor.”
“What about the search of the base?”
“The Landing Force squad found nothing out of the ordinary, which I find somewhat interesting. A few, I’m told, even searched the rubbish bins and rubbish pits, but found nothing.”
“Thorough chaps, those Landing Forces.”
“Training, I would imagine, Doctor.”
“So, it’s known he was on the base just after 9 Wednesday morning, and we found him dead some miles away 24 hours later.”
Athena tilted her head. “But Inspector, what was he doing on the base? Fixing something? Wouldn’t he have had to say why he was on the base to somefur?”
“Apparently, Mrs. Meffit, Mr. Rattner was well-known on the base, and wasn’t challenged as to his specific reason for being on the base that morning. Another reason, I believe, that some of the officers there are upset.”
“And the telephone call? James told me there was a telephone call.”
I was starting to suspect that if Inspector Stagg wanted assistance from the household, he was better advised to get it from Athena, rather than myself.
“The telephone operator couldn’t identify the voice. The call did come from a call-box on the base, however.”
“A public call-box?”
All of us sipped our tea in silent thought, until Inspector Stagg broke the silence.
“Doctor, I would be very much obliged to you if you made yourself available when Lieutenant Snow’s submarine returns and docks. It’s best to be prepared for multiple contingencies.”
I had no idea what he meant by that, exactly, but I agreed to it.
I heard the next day (Sunday) from Mr. Crane15 that Sergeant Brush’s enquiries had, on the surface, been as fruitless as the searches by the Landing Forces on Moon Island. That is to say, nothing was found, and that the other debtors of the late Mr. Rattner were able to account for themselves, one way or the other, for Wednesday morning on.
The publisher also intimated to me, over lunch at Luchow’s , that Sergeant Brush was of the view that it was down to either Lieutenant Snow, or a random crime not connected with Mr. Rattner’s side business of moneylending.
“Perhaps,” he said, “Rattner had been carrying a large amount of cash with him.”
I reflected on that. Somehow, it didn’t match. For one thing, Rattner had seemingly left his place of residence in a mild hurry. For another, he left the house at an hour where one would not expect to visit a bank. For a third, and I think Hamish would have agreed with this, a fur who pays for his breakfast with a slug is not likely to be carrying a bankroll.
It certainly wouldn’t explain how Rattner’s body ended up near the Hen and Chickens, some miles away.
All speculation, of course, and I told Inspector Stagg this when I saw him come into the restaurant as I was leaving. He swiveled his ears a few times, as I’ve often seen him do when thinking, nodded, patted my shoulder, and reminded me to be ready the next day, as it was expected that the submarine would return.
I was watching the RINS submarine R-316 glide into port the next morning through my binoculars. One of the RINS legal officers told me that for all its age, it was still a good vessel, with a cruising range of well over 9,000 miles, and capable of either torpedo or mine warfare. With the addition of the 140mm deck gun, the forty crewfurs on board could prove quite a pawful for any enemy in the area.
The crew were lined up on the deck of the submarine, in the usual naval tradition, but what they were thinking as they saw an escort of small motor-boats, I couldn’t say. I did see that many were craning their neck to watch their flankers.
Inspector Stagg and Sergeant Brush were acting discreetly (in the case of the latter, as discreetly as you can be wearing a tie like his), by standing in the back of the group of RINS officers. Most of them were grim-faced, with the exception of the shaman I had seen already a few times. He seemed to have his thoughts elsewhere, and was wearing a very placid, even dreamy, expression on his muzzle.
The captain of the R-3, a stoat femme, was met at the gangplank almost as soon as the submarine tied up against the dock. Before she could open her mouth, or even lower her paw from the salute, she was told to have all hands come ashore, and all belongings would be searched. The log books were also to be produced at once.
She seemed rather taken aback by the order, but began to carry it out with efficiency, as did the other officers. Snow was quietly pointed out to me by the shaman: he was a lynx. Not hard to spot him, as he was one of only four officers in the ship’s complement. He was both the torpedo and mine officer.
The officers and crew were marched, under guard, to a barracks while the ship was sealed and guards posted. Snow looked concerned. On the other paw, so did practically every member of the crew.
The log books were presented. There were an enormous number of entries for Wednesday and the immediately preceding days, including at least three other visits by Rattner. Nearly fifty furs not members of the crew were signed onboard Tuesday, and even on Wednesday, there were about two dozen visitors.
Interestingly, the officer of the deck between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. was Lieutenant Snow himself. He signed Rattner in around a quarter after 6 in the morning. Rattner was signed out by another officer at 8.40.
My earlier understanding was correct: the R-3 had been undergoing a refit. Apparently, there was quite a lot of last-minute provisioning and punch-list work to be done, some of it pushed until the last minute. Dockyard workers confirmed this to Inspector Stagg, Sergeant Brush and the RINS legal officers. Rattner had been engaged to do some plumbing work on the vessel when dockyard resources had gotten stretched.
Sergeant Brush asked to see the work order, and it was produced. The work Rattner was doing was in one of the ship’s heads, forward. Rattner had a good deal of experience in these matters (not surprising, given the number of ships on Eastern Island, where he had his shop).
Inspector Stagg asked to see a diagram of the layout of the submarine, and that also was produced. The head was close to, but not adjacent to, the area of the torpedo room where Snow was stationed. It was also in an area that one would expect to be heavily trafficked, as it was next to the coffee pot. I admit that I did not see the logic of that statement at first. It was explained to me that the coffee pot was one of the most important features of any RINS vessel. I have heard that Rain Islanders take their coffee quite seriously, but this was remarkable to me.
Most of the crew were given fairly straightforward interviews by the RINS legal officers, and I watched about the last half of them. Many did not recognize Rattner. A few vaguely recalled seeing Rattner at various times. One of the cooks in the galley, two of the torpedo crew, and two of the crew that had been loading supplies Wednesday morning recognized Ratter, and confirmed that he had been on the vessel Wednesday morning. None, however, could give precise times as to his arrival and departure without reference to the log-book.
The officer on deck from 8 a.m. until the ship got underway at a little after 11 was the engineer, a voluably chatty minkess. She certainly recognized Rattner, as he had been aft briefly to deal with a leak in the fresh-water condenser on Wednesday morning. She also confirmed that Rattner and Snow had talked to each other at various times during the previous meetings, though it didn’t seem to her that anything was out of the ordinary. As for her shift, she admitted that things had been chaotic in the hours before the submarine left port. She had been pulled away from the deck for a few minutes shortly after 9 by the captain on an urgent matter relating to the fresh water condenser, a fact that was confirmed by the captain and the executive officer, both. The engineer stated that had she seen Rattner back on board, she certainly would have tried to get a hold of him to send him to the captain.
Snow himself said very little. He readily admitted to knowing Rattner, and to owing money to Rattner. He pointed us to the log-book regarding Rattner’s arrival on board, but could not say when Rattner had left the vessel, deferring to the engineer. More than that, he could not say.
The shaman told Inspector Stagg that Snow was a fur under a great deal of self-control, something the deer agreed with. Sergeant Brush snorted, and said the lynx was quote lying like a hall rug endquote.
My own view was that he was sticking to statements that were verifiably true and capable of corroboration. Inspector Stagg observed that that was neither inconsistent with the shaman’s observation, nor necessarily with Sergeant Brush’s.
The three other officers were quizzed about Snow’s behaviour from Wednesday evening on, and nothing out of the ordinary was noted. The minkess engineer noted that Snow was tight in the muzzle and tight on the other end. Not short of colourful verbiage, she was.
The RINS legal officers, after the interviews and re-interviews were over, conferred with Inspector Stagg and Sergeant Brush. There was an oddity to be resolved: how was it that Rattner had been seen turning back from the gate just before 9 Wednesday morning, and vanished without a trace, with neither any trace of him or his gear found on the base? And yet, there was his body in the Hen and Chickens area Thursday morning.
Inspector Stagg asked to see the ship’s position charts. The submarine had, once it left port, gone out a few miles and had run patterns roughly in the shape of a parallelogram to test the engines. According to the logs, tests of the torpedo tubes had also been undertaken later that day.
While it was plausible that the body of Rattner could have left the sub at one of a few different points in sufficient time to drift near Hen and Chickens the next morning, one couldn’t pin down a precise time it would have been possible.
I noted that at one point, the submarine had gotten rather close to Hen and Chickens, this very soon after the submarine left port: a distance of perhaps a few hundred yards. Sergeant Brush made a tight-lipped gesture at this bit of news, and declined to speak further.
There was a general consensus that an inspection of the submarine was essential. My wartime experience in cramped, confined quarters made me look forward to that prospect with a feeling of dread.
Indeed, I had to bite my lip as we went down the hatch. The smells of unwashed furs, the darkness, the ladders, all brought evil memories of twenty years ago. Of course, that was when we were going up ladders, and not down them. Still, it was hard not to sense that Zero Hour was once again about to strike, and we would cross foggy, cratered ground.
The Inspector looked at me out of the corner of his eye as I was trying to control my breathing. Well, it was easy for him. He had been in the open air, being an intelligence officer. Well, that’s not fair. He did have his rack, which made things rather slow for him.
The engineer proved to be an infernal chatterbox, which I suppose was illuminating to the Sergeant, the Inspector, and the RINS legal officer, but it was making me highly irritable.
Telling me to suck in my gut to allow others to go by did not make things any better.
It was damnably and infernally hot, with stagnant air in the submarine, as Stagg, Brush & Co. trooped back and forth. Some of the spaces that we visited were obvious, such as Snow’s quarters. (Good Lord, how does a fur live in a place scarcely bigger than a telephone booth?) The search, by the way, of that room turned up nothing out of the ordinary.
A detailed search of the torpedo area failed to turn up anything. There did not seem to be any evidence that Rattner had been present, and the group took its blessed time going over every damned surface.
No, the kicker was when we all trooped back to search the other areas of the ship that couldn’t have had any bloody use or connection to the crime. Tugging on my collar didn’t help cool things off. Pausing in the engineering department didn’t help matters, as I realized, to my fury, that engine rooms are different from surgical theatres.
Inspector Stagg, who was becoming uncharacteristically annoyed, turned to me, and rather sharply asked me what the matter was. I told him.
“This bloody floating coffin is hot as a volcano’s anteroom, it’s way past my tea-time, and I’VE GOT GREASE AND BILGE ON MY TAILFUR!!!!”
The Inspector tightened his grip on his cane, and snapped that if I was feeling out of sorts, I could get out of the way and let the actual investigators do some work.
It was with no small amount of dudgeon that I stormed out of the engine room, and went to the deck of the submarine. Pounding on the conning tower with my fist had a surface appeal, but considering the value I put on my paws, I decided that was a foolish and temper-addled thing to do.
I sat down on a wooden crate. This might have afforded me some relief; however, I discovered that it was a crate of cabbages, which were rather past their peak of freshness. Luckily, something out of the corner of my eye distracted me and stopped another explosion of temper.
There was a largish canvas-and-leather bag some feet away. I had recalled that Rattner was last seen toting a bag like that for his tools, so I got up, collected it, and sat down again with it, so I could take a closer look.
I was disappointed: the bag was clearly marked as “R-3,” and the marking showed signs of age, nothing that would have recently been applied. Still. I fetched some canvas that was folded nearby, and a pair of gloves marked “Lake – Engin.” which I presumed meant the chatterbox minkess.
The canvas was unfolded, the gloves put on (I was damned if I was going to get my paws as greasy and dirty as my tailfur now was), and I began to remove the tools one by one from the bag, slowly, and place them on the canvas.
Mindless, but it was at least a distraction. It also afforded amusement to Miss Lake, who came on deck, leaned against the conning tower, and lit a cigarette.
Obviously, she was of the view that she was the first to engage in such humour in my presence. I ignored her.
“Aw, come on, tubby, cheer up. I’m sure your pal the deer won’t hold a grudge…”
I bestowed upon her a brief glare, and a snort.
“Hmmm. Guess you will. Oh, well, I don’t mind you playing with my toys. Just remember to put them back where you found them, okeh?”
That was ignored, too.
She had quite a selection of tools. Most of them had seen long use, and were clearly marked with a particular logo: “STW.” The hammer bore the name in full: “Seathl Tool Works.”
Sergeant Brush sauntered up to join the minkess in a cigarette. He seemed grumpy, and looked over my work.
“Play th’ black nine on th’ red ten, Doc.”
The temptation to apply a large wrench to his toes was something that crossed my mind, when the minkess stopped, and tilted her head, looking at the bag.
“That’s not mine…”
The Sergeant ear-swiveled. “Hanh? What ain’t?”
Lake pointed at her bag. “That tool, right there. The one poking out. Looks like an 11/16ths wrench. I wonder…”
Sergeant Brush immediately grabbed her wrist. “Waitaminnit. Doc, wheredja see dis here bag?”
I pointed to where I had found it. Lake nodded.
“Yes. I put it down there as we were coming into port. They made me keep it there when they got everyone off.”
“Dat bag been near youse all t’ru th’ sailin’?”
“Well, no. I mean, I use it a lot, but it’s not attached to me.”
“Outta yer sight, den?”
“Seen dat tool before?”
“No…remove it and let me get a closer look.”
Sergeant Brush disappeared and reappeared a minute later with one of his “Murder Box” cases.17 He first took a picture of the bag, showing the tool in situ, and then, snapping on a pair of rubber gloves, he carefully removed the wrench.
The minkess whistled. “Nope, not mine. But that’s a beaut. That’s a top of the line Milwaukee Tool wrench, part of a set. Replacing that would run you twenty American dollars, easy.”
I could see the lightning bolt logo on the wrench quite easily, but Sergeant Brush was not looking at that. He was looking at something else, something that made him extract some tissue paper from the Murder Box and gently put the wrench on it.
A rhythmic clatter announced the arrival of Inspector Stagg’s cane, followed by the buck himself. “Have you found something, Sergeant?”
“I didn’t. Doc did. Bag b’longs to dat minkess. Her tools. But dis ain’t one of ‘em. An’ lookit…”
The Inspector peered, and then fumbled in his pocket for a loupe. While the Sergeant held the wrench carefully, there was a long, slow examination of the wrench. After a minute or so, the Inspector stood up.
“Sergeant, I want you to wrap that wrench very, very carefully.” He turned to the minkess. “I will need a statement from you regarding this tool bag and its contents, Lieutenant Lake.” He then turned to me. “I’ll also need a statement from you, Doctor, as to where you found the bag and what you did.”
Before I could ask a question, he had disappeared down the hatch again. A few minutes after that, Sergeant Brush was called, urgently, by the RINS legal officer to bring his Murder Box. I was left alone with Miss Lake.
“Must be fun working with a genius, huh?”
I grumbled, and stalked off the boat, slamming the gloves to the deck. I was going to give the Inspector his blasted statement, all right.
AFTER I had gone home and cleaned my tailfur, and not one damned moment before.
The bathroom was steamed up. Most of it was due to the hot water in the tub. But not all of it.
I had to empty and refill the tub before I could get all the oil and grease removed from my tail, but once that happened, I was able to sit back and simmer in peace.
The door opened without a prefatory knock, which meant only one fur, and sure enough, Athena padded in quietly. She lowered the seat of the toilet, and made herself comfortable, or at least as comfortable as one can be under such an undignified posture. Well, it would be undignified to most, not me.
“Well, Achilles. Feeling less toothsome?”
“Oh, James. Now you know you would get just as irritated at Franklin or Orrin if they got underfoot in your operating room.”
I was about to reply, when I realized Franklin, with all his experience, wouldn’t get underfoot in the operating room. I saw the clever verbal trap Athena laid for me, merely gave her the eye, and lathered up.
“How’d you find out, eh?”
“Something got you irritated, James, since you’re saying “eh.”” Perfectly true. I have a tendency to slip into the linguistic habits of my youth when I get angry. “The constable at the water-taxi dock here on Meeting also told me that he made sure he stayed upwind of you.”
A gentle finger-wag by my mate. “James, you can’t excel in everything, you know. Why do you go out on these expeditions with the Inspector and the Sergeant, anyway?”
Actually, a good question. I scrubbed my chest for a while, thinking.
“I s’pose, love, it’s when you see the results of the “bad guys,” that you actually want to go out and get them.”
“Hmmm. Well, I suppose that’s true. Still, James, you shouldn’t get frustrated and angry when you can’t be a genius and solve things. You’re much cuter when you’re smiling.”
“You’re the very devil, Athena.”
“I have more than one way of making you smile, James.”
She was in the midst of a long and leisurely demonstration of one of these ways when there was a knock on the door.
Athena raised her head and looked at the door with some irration. “All right, James. You can get angry, now.”
“What is it, P’ina?”
“Sergeant Brush downstairs, sir…”
“Tell him to wait…errr…about five…no, make that ten, minutes, P’ina. Serve him coffee.”
As I was putting on my robe over my pyjamas, I realized that I had kept the Sergeant waiting twenty minutes, and that my bath had been rather longer than I thought it was. Athena does have a way of making time fly.
Sergeant Brush, judging from the empty plate and nearly empty carafe of coffee, had passed the time constructively. He also looked somewhat disheveled.
“Good Lord, Sergeant. What happened?”
“I bin crawlin’ in topreda tubes, Doc.”
“’cause I don’t got antlers, dat’s why.”
“No, I mean, why were you inside a torpedo tube?”
“Lookin’ fer somethin’. Found it, too. Had a helluva job gettin’ th’ camera in dere, but I done it. Lissen, youse goin’ t’bed?”
I looked down at myself. I certainly looked that way. On the other paw, I felt a bit refreshed.
“Well…why do you ask?”
“Snow’s comin’. Here, I mean. Sorta a compromise. HQ was out, but wanna get him offen th’ base, too. Th’ Inspector, me, Snow, shaman, RINS guy, and you. Sorry. Shoulda given youse warnin’, an’ all, specially after…”
I held up my paw. “Never mind, Sergeant. I’ll have P’ina order something from Luchow’s, and get coffee ready. I confess I’m curious as to what’s in store for this conversation.”
P’ina and I arranged things in my study so that there were, we assumed, sufficient numbers of chairs and refreshments for our guests. It was late (and, frankly, too hot) for me to change into a suit, so I contented myself with silk pyjamas, dressing gown, and ascot. Athena helped put that last item on, with the result that I was late for the meeting.
The Inspector sat at my desk, with Snow opposite him. Sergeant Brush leaned against the door leading out. The RINS shaman and RINS legal officer sat on the sofa. I took the last seat on the sofa.
The Inspector was fiddling with a stack of papers: I recognized the financial records of Mr. Rattner that we had examined earlier. I also saw that he had spread out a few charts of the waters near Hen and Chickens, and the logbook from the submarine.
Snow was sipping a cup of coffee with an air of a fur about to go into a long and dull meeting. Astounding self-control.
When the RINS legal officer had readied his shortpaw book, the Inspector gave Snow the traditional cautions, which were waved off, and the questioning started.
The early questions walked through Snow’s background, career in the RINS and assignment to the submarine. These were followed by questions regarding his duties as torpedo and weapons officer, and the routine on board the ship. It was established that the torpedo tubes, typically, were empty. No surprise there.
There was also a discussion of the refit the submarine had undergone, and Snow (truthfully, I believe) discussed how the process was very hectic in the hours leading up to the departure of the submarine for testing.
Snow was shown the evidence of his debt to Rattner, which he acknowledged. Stagg pointed out something that I had not noticed before: the debt was to become due in a few weeks. Snow indicated that Rattner and he had discussed the matter, but that no final decision had come on rolling over the debt.
Snow indicated that he had signed Rattner on board the submarine the morning he was last seen alive. Snow also pointed out that the engineer had signed Rattner off the vessel. He asked, with a trace of a smile, whether anyfur had seen Rattner on board the vessel after he had been signed off? The Inspector countered with a question as to whether Snow and Rattner had discussed the debt, and Rattner, shrugging, indicated that had been the case, but that no decision had been reached by the time Rattner had left the submarine.
The shaman eyed me at that point, and slipped me a note to the effect that Rattner was telling the truth, as far as he was speaking.
The Inspector unwrapped a small object: it was the tool that I had found in the tool-kit on board the submarine. He asked Snow if he recognized it. Snow stated he did not see a name on the tool (which was true). He also added that if the tool had been lying around, anyfur could have picked it up and placed it in the tool-kit. What’s more, he argued, the tool could have been lost at any point Rattner had been on board the submarine, or he could have left it behind in the rush.
I raised a paw. The Inspector, with a gimlet eye, nodded at me.
“Have you seen any of Mr. Rattner’s effects on board the submarine?”
Snow narrowed his eyes.
“Well, it seems with the possible exception of this unidentified tool, you haven’t shown me anything. Do you have anything, Inspector?”
“The tool in and of itself, Lieutenant, is quite informative. There are traces of feline blood and hair on it.”
“Cutting yourself with tools happens a lot. Ask Joanie Lake. And you know how cats shed.”
The Inspector shuffled his papers a bit. Looking up, he asked Snow to describe the torpedo system, its state of repair, and its post-refit testing.
The torpedo command system had been refurbished, and the lining of each of the torpedo tubes changed. The seals on the tube doors has been changed. The doors of the torpedo tubes were supposed to be watertight, of course, and were rather thick. The tubes were flooded, cleared with compressed air, and then loaded with dummy torpedoes. Testing had shown no problems, and the log book reflected that. (I looked at the log book. Snow was right.) Snow sat back, arms crossed, with a look of hostile satisfaction. Interestingly, the Inspector looked satisfied as well.
“When you examined the body of Mr. Rattner, in what condition were his paws?”
I fetched my report, and reviewed my notes.
“Well, the deceased had worn paws – manual labour, y’know, some old breaks on his thumb-claws – probably using them as tools…”
“And the rest of the claws?”
“Errr, yess, mostly.”
There was a long silence after this, the loudest sound in the room being the ticking of the mantelpiece clock. Snow began to fidget, and then he glared at the RINS legal officer.
“You going to get a shaman to cross-examine Rattner’s spirit?”
Poor taste, but the RINS shaman smiled.
“I can call spirits from the vasty deep. So can any fur. But will they come when I call them?"
Snow evidently missed the literary allusion18, and glared at the legal officer.
“Look, I’m going to take this up with the base syndic. I don’t know why I’m being harassed. Certainly I saw Rattner that morning; furs saw me with him. Yes, I owed him money; lots of furs knew that. But you’ve got no evidence as to where he went after he was signed out. Nofur’s seen him. And I know you’ve had the Alfies scour the base for any trace of him.”
He turned to the Inspector. “Am I free to leave?”
The Inspector leaned back, and nodded. “After one more question, Lieutenant. I’d like to have you look at this photograph taken by Sergeant Brush some hours ago. It’s from torpedo tube #2.”
The Inspector handed Lieutenant Snow a photograph and a magnifying glass.
“It’s about the upper left of the photograph.”
Snow’s paw shook slightly as he took up the glass, and looked through it.
He dropped the glass.
The shaman got up from the sofa, picked up the glass, and put it on the desk in front of the Inspector.
“Doctor Meffit’s examination showed that Mr. Rattner did not die of his head injuries. He drowned. He was alive. But where was he?”
The Inspector folded his paws.
“The answer, now, is obvious. He was in torpedo tube #2. What you see there are scratches on the inside of the tube, written there by a dazed, wounded, and frightened fur desperate to do something.”
I couldn’t contain myself, I admit. I went over and took the glass from the desk, and took the photograph from Snow’s paw and examined it for myself.
Brush must have used some kind of powerful illumination, because quite clearly visible, scratched into the steel, was a very shaky, but clear pair of letters. T R. Thomas Rattner.
“It’s not unknown, Lieutenant, for furs trapped in prisons to carve their initials. There are also many, many documented cases where furs trapped in rooms or in enclosed spaces have broken their claws in an attempt to escape.”
He picked up two more photographs.
“By the way, would you like to see some photographs from torpedo tube #1? No? Doctor, since you have the glass, would you mind looking at the photos, and telling me what you see?”
I did indeed examine the photographs.
“A great many scratches and nicks, it looks like.”
“Odd, isn’t it? In tubes that had recently been replaced? And if those had been caused by a dummy torpedo, why in one and not the other?”
Snow had recovered himself, but the clenching of his paws indicated inner turmoil. The Inspector turned, and looked out the window.
“I think, I fancy, I can reconstruct what had happened. You and Mr. Rattner had discussed your debt while he was on-board the vessel Wednesday morning. The discussion probably took place some time between 8 AM, when you were relieved from duty as officer of the deck, and a little before 9 AM, when Rattner was signed out.”
“The discussion must have been an intense one, even if it was not loud enough to attract notice, because Rattner changed his mind about leaving the base. This is known: the guards saw him turn around. I theorize that Rattner approached the vessel in the brief period when the engineer, Lake, was otherwise distracted by her commander.”
“In the hustle and confusion of the imminent departure, Rattner’s presence would not have excited notice. Indeed, since he had been on board the vessel scant minutes before, it would have been difficult for any fur to pin down when, precisely, they had seen him.”
“I further theorize that Rattner, at that point, had told you he was not going to renew your note. I do not know what your financial condition is, Lieutenant, but I’m sure it will not be difficult to find out. Any fur that has to borrow money not from his Union, but from a moneylender, may well be hard up.”
“It’s not clear how, precisely, you might have had access to the wrench that we found. Rattner would have had his tool-kit with him, of course, since he had used it that morning on the vessel. Perhaps he had, unwisely, turned his back for the moment. We know there was one blow to the back of his head. There was a second, harder blow to his front, which may well have stunned him. Is that possible, Doctor?”
I came to with a start, since I was visualizing the Inspector’s theory quite vividly. “Eh? Yes, that’s quite so. First blow could have dazed Rattner, but that second blow was hard enough to knock him out.”
Stagg nodded. “By the way, there’s another photograph of interest. You said, I believe, Lieutenant, that Mr. Rattner could have injured himself at some time in the past, which would have accounted for the blood. However, it would not have accounted for this…”
The Inspector produced a few more photographs. “Blood spatter, Lieutenant. Not a great deal of it, but high up in the torpedo room. Likely spray from the wrench as it was being poised for that second, deadly strike on Mr. Rattner’s skull. We are going to test the blood, Lieutenant, but I am quite confident it will turn out to be feline. It’s not in an area where one might expect blood. You would have overlooked it in ensuring the scene was clear.”
“And, indeed, you did sanitize the crime scene. You would have had scant minutes to do so, but with an unconscious victim, it would have been easy. Doctor Meffit, by the way, remarked at the time we found the body that Mr. Rattner was comparatively small. Indeed, he is, in fact, slightly smaller that Sergeant Brush, over there. And Sergeant Brush was able, after he stripped down, to enter the torpedo tube to take the photographs.”
“You stripped Thomas Rattner, Lieutenant. His unconscious form was stuffed into torpedo tube #2. His property, including his watch, clothing and tools, was placed into torpedo tube #1. The doors, those thick, watertight doors, were then closed.”
“I would imagine that Mr. Rattner would have had little air and time in the torpedo tube. Indeed, it’s remarkable that he lived as long as he did. Most likely, the fact that he was not moving for a period of time saved him. But when he came to, and realized his fate, he did the only thing he could do: instead of screaming and pounding for help, which would have been futile, he left evidence behind. His initials.”
“Later on Wednesday, you started the torpedo testing. You flooded the tubes, and then cleared them by compressed air. It was at that point that Rattner likely died from drowning, and his body would have been ejected from torpedo tube #2. His possessions would have been ejected from torpedo tube #1 at nearly the same time…but the tools must have scratched the tube as they moved about.”
“The tools and clothes are most likely at the bottom of the Nimitz Sea, and I doubt we shall recover them. The body, of course, was intended to float far away from where it might be found.”
“And the wrench? I’m inclined to think you overlooked the wrench, Lieutenant. It was likely picked up by an unknowing fur who assumed it belonged to Miss Lake, and deposited it in her tool-kit. It was only a mixture of luck and Doctor Meffit, here, who is an extremely stubborn and persistent fur when he has to be, that found it. When he found it, it made Sergeant Brush and I re-examine the torpedo room. By visualizing how somefur might have used a wrench in a deadly assault, I guessed where blood spatter might be – and found it. By also guessing how the body could be disposed of, I had Sergeant Brush examine the tubes.”
He turned back to Lieutenant Snow.
“And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil – by telling the truth. Tell the truth and shame the devil.”
From Lieutenant Snow, only a shocked silence. He barely even felt the paw of the RINS legal officer as it was placed on his shoulder.
Of course, Stagg had no role thereafter. Since the crime had been committed on board an RINS vessel, on an RINS base, he had no jurisdiction. The Base Syndic, however, was not slow to see his duty. Harold Snow was arrested on a charge of murder.
The arrest got little play in the newspapers; even Charles Foster Crane was leery of stirring up trouble between the RINS and the Althing. Surprisingly, the sequel got even less play. Snow died in his cell two days later.
The base’s medical officer, in performing the autopsy, became violently ill when he opened up Snow’s body. That’s all I was told, though I do know he absolutely insisted on the RINS shaman performing a purification ritual in the autopsy room.
Things settled down to the familiar routine, and once I again, I was occupying my early morning by having breakfast with Athena.
I had glanced over the headlines in the newspaper, and while my eyes were thus busy, I fumbled around for the muffin-cover.
Upon removing the muffin cover, there was released a most remarkable scent. While it was not of hot buttered muffins, it was no less pleasant. Putting my newspaper down, I found that I was staring at some live blossoms on my plate.
I was going to remark on this to Athena, when I saw her blinking at her own plate. Instead of eggs and bacon, there was a cowrie shell, one of the largest I had ever seen, of a very odd pale blue, almost robin’s egg blue, colour.
Both of us turned to the dining room door, but all we heard was a soft rustle before the door closed, leaving only a flower bloom floating gently in the air and landing on the floor.
When we turned back to our plates, we were confronted by a still steaming muffin, and a plate of eggs and bacon. Which, by the way, were delicious. The cook had excelled herself that morning. She could not explain anything she had done that would make the food different. Curious.
A few days after that incident, and as the final coda, I received a package in the mail. Upon opening it, it turned out to be a small wooden shadow-box with a glass top. The wrench that Harold Snow had used to murder Thomas Rattner was mounted inside.
The accompanying card, in a very familiar paw, noted simply:
“Truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long.”
I am sure the author did not mean to imply that I was a fool in someone else’s service.
New York, New York
June 3 – July 23, 2011
Footnotes to "The Vasty Deep"