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14 February 2006
Link added: 4 October 2009
Duet for Pride and Piano
by M. Mitchell Marmel and EOCostello
"Duet for Pride and Piano"
by M. Mitchell Marmel & E.O. Costello
Fr. Augustus Merino, Inspector F.J. Stagg, Sgt. Brush (c) E.O. Costello
Rosie Baumgartner, Willow Fawnsworthy (c) M. M. Marmel
Whitney St. James (c) E.O. Costello and M. M. Marmel
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been four days since my last confession."
Behind the concealing screen, Father Augustus Merino nodded patiently, unseen. His congregation was small these days, and he knew the voices of all of them, particularly the quiet voice of this one.
Idly, he wondered what the minor transgression would be this time. More anger at the Chief? Having spoken harshly to his subordinate? In any event, the ram cleric mused, it would not be anything earth-shattering.
"Today, I had impure thoughts."
Precedent shattering, definitely.
Father Merino sensed the penitent's reluctance to continue. "Go on, my son."
"I arrested a woman a few weeks back. I had gotten a call from some youths who had seen her climbing on the clock tower of Shepherd's Hotel."
Merino grinned wryly. He had, of course, heard something of the incident via what local wags referred to as JT&T, the Jungle Telephone and Telegraph, also jokingly called the Shell System. The woman involved, Rosalie Baumgartner, was, from all accounts, an essentially decent sort and devoted to those she loved. If those she loved represented something of a violation of Leviticus 18:22 upon occasion, well...that was Rabbi Steinmink's territory.
"...and when she came down from the tree, the branches had torn most of her outfit off. It...was rather tight to begin with, so she wound up basically wearing a couple of tatters and nothing else. I...she had left a coat lying on the ground, so I quickly covered her up, but before I did, I had a rather good look at her nakedness, and for a moment, I was sorely tempted..."
Merino's grin widened incrementally. He had met Rosie Baumgartner recently when he was warning Reggie Buckhorn to stay away from Willow Fawnsworthy for six weeks, and again before the rather outre' formal duel that had, in part, resulted from that warning. Miss Baumgartner had conducted herself fairly well at those meetings, but Merino would daresay that, unclothed as Mother Eve was, Rosie Baumgartner'd tempt St. Augustine himself. A quote came to mind unbidden: "Give me chastity, O Lord, but not just yet!"
"...I knew wrath later, Father. Ros...that woman was humiliated in a public contest, and..."
"...and when the motorbike hit her, I...I felt so helpless."
"...imagined myself as unfaithful to my beloved wife."
Merino sat and thought for a moment. Undoubtedly, the penitent had noticed other females in the past, but had successfully suppressed any notion of being unfaithful to his wife, dead and gone these four and more years. This could be a sign that the penitent was starting to realize that he could get on with his life. The cleric was going to have to play this one very carefully.
Merino sighed. "And your beloved wife...?"
Both in the confessional booth knew all too well what the answer was. However, the pretense had to be maintained. "My wife...and my children...have been called to the Heavenly Host. Four years ago."
"May the Lord bless them and watch over them," Merino said, reflexively, which is not to say without feeling. He paused again. "My son..." Definitely a tough one. "The period of mourning for beloved ones...varies from person to person. It may be that, for you, this period may be drawing to a close."
"Never." The voice was suddenly cold and determined.
"Do not confuse mourning with blessed memory, my son," Merino chided mildly. "Keep your loved ones in your heart and cherish their remembrance. But also consider what they might wish for you." Silence from the other side of the screen. "Consider your life. Do your beloved ones of blessed memory look down upon you with love and approval? Disappointment? Accusation?" The silence deepened. Merino sighed. "Very well, my son. Your penance for your sins is to say ten Ave Marias. And, before the next time we meet, I would like you to carefully consider the traditional wedding vows. Particularly the final lines."
Mechanically, from the other side of the screen, the penitent began to make an Act of Contrition. Father Merino sighed again. "Give thanks to the Lord for He is good."
"For His mercy endures forever."
"The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace."
"Thanks be to God."
A limping shuffle told Father Merino that the other side of the confessional was now empty. He leaned back with yet another sigh. "Lord," came the silent thought, "that family has suffered so much. Please give them some small measure of comfort. Please?"
"Penny for your thoughts."
"Wouldn't want to cheat you." I looked at Willow and grinned. "Actually, I was thinking about your Da."
Willow looked at me thoughtfully. "You still mad about him arresting you?"
I shook my head. "Nah, that was the highlight of the night. Your Da is quite a guy."
Willow snorted. "Join the club. He's got half the does on the island making eyes at him. It'll never happen."
"Oh, I don't know about that," I mused, a dreamy look on my face
Willow stood there with a strangled look on her face. "...Rosie."
Butter wouldn't melt in my mouth. "Yes?"
"Ye-ees?" I smiled beatifically.
"You weren't... FLIRTING with my father that night, were you?"
I gave her a stern look. "Now, child. Show proper respect for your future stepmother."
Dead silence for fifteen seconds.
Then we collapsed in each other's arms, giggling furiously.
"Seriously, though," Willow said.
"Seriously?" I regarded her. "You know how you have problems with needing affection?" A nod from Willow. "Your Papa is ten times worse off. That man needs a hug worse than anyone I've seen in a looooong time. And not from Orrin Brush, either."
Willow sighed and sat on the bed. "He misses Mama and my sisters. And yours truly." She looked at me. "You planning on doing something about it?"
I nodded slowly. "Damfino what, though. He's already seen me naked, or near enough."
An amused hiss through cute doe teeth. "Oh, boy. What did he do?"
I snickered. "Handed me my trenchcoat and called me Madame Onca." I smiled. "A gentleman with a sense of humor. I like that."
"A gentleman who's still faithful to my mother--look at his ring finger," Willow reminded me.
I sighed. "I know. I know."
"Well, for God's sake, Rosie, be careful..."
"That, I know, too..."
As a general rule, the Double Lotus was women-only. Indeed, during tourist season, one doorkeeper or other would be guarding the door and politely (but firmly) keeping stray males out. This was the slack season, though, and the gals were off doing their wintertime thing. Business was traditionally slow and the Lotus was empty that early in the day, so I was sitting behind the bar and wryly rereading my latest writeup in the Spontoonie edition of the Daily Elele (tailshot not nearly as nice as the tennis one) when the visitor entered.
I glanced up and glanced sharply at the figure standing in the doorway. Definitely male. "Father Merino! What can I do you out of?"
With a small smile, the ram seated himself at the bar. "Good day, Miss Baumgartner. Small brandy, please."
I poured him a cognac. "On the house, Padre." I repeated myself. "So, what brings you to our humble little establishment? Not your customary haunt."
Merino took a sip and chuckled. "Assuming I made it past the customary Cerebus at the door, I daresay my presence would cause some small commotion. Even without a Virgil to guide me."
I grinned. "Clear the joint out, you think? You might be surprised." I raised an eyebrow. "So...?"
The ram in the cassock looked at me speculatively. "Well, I could be coming in as a concerned fellow creature enquiring after your health following your misadventure with the motorbike..."
"Fine, fine," I assured him. "Doc says the cast can come off after New Year's. Not why you're here, though."
A chuckle from Merino. "True, true. This concerns...Miss Fawnsworthy."
H'm. I decided to rattle his cage a bit. "A lovely woman, Willow. So full of...Grace."
I fulfilled a lifelong dream I never knew I had: I actually surprised a Jesuit. I could tell: *both* his eyebrows went up. He peered into his snifter. "She...TOLD you?"
I shook my head. "Nope. Deduced it."* I briefly described the detective work I had done in the wake of Willow's rather unusual reaction to 'Red Light Frankie'. "She hasn't...?"
Merino shook his head. "The subject has never come up."
I nodded. "Gotcha. "
Merino finished his cognac. I poured him another. "I was the one who basically booted her in your general direction," I continued.
Merino took a careful sip. "Now THAT I was aware of. I must admit to being slightly surprised."
I grinned sardonically. "What, because of my preferences?" A brief nod from the ram. "Padre, I'm surprised. You've been on these islands nearly as long as I've been alive. You SHOULD know how things work here by now."
Merino snorted. "That's why it was only a SLIGHT surprise." Another sip. "Excellent cognac. But that's not why I'm here, either." He looked serious. "This concerns your nocturnal expedition of a few weeks back. Since you were in the general vicinity of Mister Buckhorn's rooms, would it be fair to assume this concerns Miss...Fawnsworthy?"
I thought for a few moments. "Well, what the hell, you're a member of the GVS Secret Society, so I suppose I can let you in on the story..." I recounted the Quest for Drawers, including the weird characters I'd met enroute.
"So you risked life and limb for a set of Mister Buckhorn's unmentionables?" Merino looked incredulous.
I nodded. "The upshot is that Grace...Willow has something to hold, and it's letting her sleep without drugs. So, no regrets on my part."
"You're in love with her." A flat statement of fact from the ram.
I stared at him directly and honestly.. "Completely, deeply and absolutely. I'd take her to a priestess tomorrow and get Tailfast if we could. But...it's not the right thing for her."
Merino chuckled briefly. "Professionally, I must agree, even if a very small voice within me...wishes to ponder the matter further." He gave me a warm smile. "A wise man told me once that love is the condition under which another's happiness is essential to your own."
"Ah!" I grinned. "You've met Admiral Bob, too, then."
Merino nodded. "He and Ginny were most gracious to me last time I was in San Dingo." He rose. "Well, my curiosity is satisfied and," he added at a look from me, "this is, of course, strictly confidential between us."
"Naturally," I answered, shaking his paw. "Stop in any time, My treat."
A grin from the ram. "Somehow, I don't think your regulars would approve."
I grinned back. "As I said, you might be surprised."
Merino, chuckling, waved a farewell. He paused in the doorway. "Ah, Miss Baumgartner?"
Merino paused, trying to formulate something in his mind. "Someone else has taken notice of...well, your charms. Handle that someone with great care, Miss Baumgartner, lest you accidentally destroy them." And with that, he padded out before I could get a word in.
I settled back in my seat. "Well, now, ain't THAT interesting?" I said, picking up the Daily Elele.
After half an hour, I noticed that I hadn't read a single word.
"You've got to be kidding."
"Nope," I shook my head.
"You're just guessing!"
I grinned. "Well, I'm a damned good guesser, remember?"
"He's fifteen years older than you!"
I looked at Willow. "Nu, I'm eight years older than you. Your point being?"
She pinched her eyes together. "Nothing, nothing. It's just..."
I nodded and gave her a hug. "I know. I know."
A wry smile and a sniff. "Hrm. So, now what?" A speculative look at me.
I shrugged. "Gonna be myself. See what happens."
"You're going to be yourself?"
"Heaven help us all."
I grinned cheerfully. "Your utter faith in me is inspiring."
Even during the offseason, Meeting Island had enough traffic to keep the shops and cafes going (after all, even bureaucrats gotta eat...whatever it is that little shell-less gastropods eat), so it was merely a matter of picking a likely table at Luchow's near Police HQ near lunchtime and waiting for my prey to go by. I'd dressed casually for the occasion, peasant blouse and pleated skirt with hints of cleavage and leg but nothing obvious.
Eventually, the buck I came to see hove into view. "Inspector!" I waved.
A hat was raised in an old-fashioned greeting as he continued on his way.
I stood. "Er..could I have a word with you?"
A raised eyebrow, and he made his way over to my table. I indicated a seat. "Please."
Stagg sat, looking at me with a pleasantly bland expression. "You appear to be out of costume, Madame Onca, er, Miss Baumgartner..."
"I suppose I have that coming," I snorted ruefully. "That's why I wanted to talk to you. I figured you deserved something of an explanation..."
I called for tea for us and told Stagg of the Quest, this time leaving any mention of Willow's actual ancestry out of the story, Stagg listened attentively the whole time. "So, that entire escapade was over a pair of boxer shorts?"
I nodded. "She sleeps at night, now, and doesn't need any drugs to do it. So...I think it was worth it."
A faint grin from the Inspector. "She's fortunate to have a good...friend?"
My answering grin only partially covered my gulp. "Friend." I leaned forward and lowered my voice. "Nothing more. Much as I might..." I sighed. "No, she's not meant for me."
"I'm...sorry," Stagg said politely. Ever the gentlebuck.
I sighed. "Eh. I'll find someone. Someday." A brave smile. (I WON'T collapse blubbering in front of this mel I WON'T collapse blubbering in front of this mel. I WON'T. I WON'T. The HELL I won't.) I rose, throwing some coins on the table. "I'd better go."
Stagg rose, a little stiffly, and took my arm. He peered at me a bit more closely. "I'll see you back...to the Grand, still?"
My vision had gotten rather blurry. "Lotus. (snif) Closer."
The next few minutes were a half-blind stumble (for me, anyhow) through the streets. Probably just as well I had a guide, as I'd probably have wound up curled up in a doorway, weeping, Undignified. Or, maybe, I would have fallen off the dock trying to catch a watertaxi back to Casino Island. Even more undignified.
As it was, Stagg, cane in one hand and my elbow in the other, saw me safely to the outside door of my room at the Lotus. I fumbled in my purse for the key, got the door open and turned to thank him. He gently but firmly guided me inside to the bed, turned the blanket down, got me situated and pulled the cover over me. Pulling up a chair, he sat at my bedside, patting my shoulder until my sobs subsided a bit. Reluctantly, and with a visible effort, he stood. "Um...I'll check and see how you're doing later. In the meantime, call me if you need something. Headquarters knows where to reach me."
Oh, I needed something, all right. Virtually every fiber in my body wanted to scream at the silly sonuvabuck to get his damned clothes off, get in the damned bed and comfort me properly. But...no. I could see from the look in his eyes that this wasn't quite the right time. Not yet. So, I gave Stagg a teary-eyed nod instead. "Tang you, Inspeggor. I'd be awighd. (snif),"
With a worried nod, Stagg closed the door behind himself.
Eventually, I managed to cry myself to sleep.
Still a trace of buckscent on the chair cushion next to my bed. It was duly confiscated for hugging purposes.
Willow was right. It helped.
"YOU HAVE DONE GOOD".
I didn't tell Willow, but I had a pretty good hunch who had sent the rose in the vase and the note.
"Ka-nay-dlock?" Brush asked, wrinkling his brow.
"Knaidlach," Stagg corrected, smiling gently as I doled out soup from a vacuum flask and matzohballs from a covered dish. "Dumplings made from unleavened flour, correct, Miss Baumgartner?"
I nodded, grinning. "Old family recipe. Figured it was the least I could do for you, Inspector, after your kindness the other day."
Stagg nodded. "Well, it's quite thoughtful of you, Miss Baumgartner." He took a spoonful of dumpling. "Delicious."
Brush eyed his suspiciously, but a few bites had him hooked as well. Three bowls were scrupulously clean shortly thereafter.
I hefted the flask. "Seconds?"
*****"Wot's she brought today, Inspector? Looks like noodles and...grit?"
"Kasha and bowties, looks like, Sergeant. Delicious."
"...Potato kugel, Sergeant."
"Careful, Inspector. That's how my Kiki landed me."
I just gave Durian-Face a sunny smile.
Christmas eve at Casino Island Police Station. The girls were tucked away snug in their cells. And seemed to be taking care of the sugar-plum bit all by themselves.
I grinned ruefully, sighed and snapped my briefcase shut. "Okay, bright and early for the Magistrate." I stood and stretched. Normally, that would cause a wolf-whistle or two, but the distractions were, to be fair, pretty distracting. "Care to join me for some eggnog, Inspector? Sergeant?"
"No, thank you," Stagg said politely. "I need to finish some paperwork. And the Sergeant comes back on duty at two, so he needs to get some rest."
I nodded. "Well, I'll be up late, so feel free to come by after your shift..."
Stagg demurred with a polite smile.
A doe clad in white slouched miserably towards midnight Mass.
"Fine. I can take a hint, Lord. But if You won't grant me what I want, will You at least find it in yourself to give something to Da? ANYTHING? Please?"
A cheetah slipped on a silk robe in her room at the Grand, sat in front of the mirror and sighed.
"Like daughter, like father. Oy. Wish I *did* have Lodge's brains. He's got enough brains and heart to figure out a way..."
A ram frowned thoughtfully in the robing room at St. Paul's, Casino Island, where preparations were being made for Midnight Mass.
"Do you see the Inspector out in the crowd...?"
"...Nooooo, I don't see him. Perhaps he's stayed home? Or he's still at work?"
Merino sighed. "I should have insisted he come. I don't like him to be alone, Tim. It's very bad for him. It's eating away at him. I just wish..."
The whitetail buck stared at the pile of paperwork blearily. Perhaps a moment to rest his eyes? Surely the nightmares wouldn't come if he was just resting his eyes.
Apparently an incorrect assumption. The talkies had started in earnest, tonight.
The ghostly form of Whitney St. James was sprawled in the long-familiar manner in the chair opposite, a merry twinkle in his one eye, familiar rakish patch over the other, smoking a cigar. "You look like hell," the bulldog informed Stagg affably.
Stagg cocked a jaundiced eye. "Good evening to you, too, Whitney. How, exactly, have you developed such an expertise on what hell looks like?"
Whitney chuckled, stroking his pencil moustache in a mock-primping gesture. "Now, now. None of that for me."
Stagg sighed. "Well, I do have to admit that this is better than the usual nightmare apparitions. At least *you're* speaking to me."
St. James looked somberly at Stagg. "You do know that's pretty much all in your head, don't you? Diana and the girls wouldn't dream of tormenting you. I'm told it's much more satisfying to make the lives of those Red Fist bastards miserable."
Stagg's blood ran cold, then the detective recovered somewhat. "Do tell," he said cooly.
Whitney blew a smoke ring, which hovered eerily in the air. "They had to chop down a certain elm tree on the Green, you know. Queer things were happening there. And there's a few nearby government offices that aren't nice places to be at night. One of the gang had to take a... 'rest cure' after a particularly vivid night."
Stagg slumped in his chair, pondering the ramifications.
"'Course, the whole country is run by lunatics anyway, now, but..." The bulldog's voice trailed off at the expression in Stagg's eyes.
"So," Stagg said, in a tone with a twist of bitter sarcasm, "you've come a long way to gossip with me, Whitney. Aren't spirits from the afterworld employed in unfinished business and such?"
Whitney looked thoughtful and blew another smoke ring, which merged with the first. "You're not much for ghosts, are you?"
"According to an expert," Stagg replied bitterly, "they're all in my head."
"Touche! I daresay I had that coming," the bulldog said wryly. "Anyway, as I understand it, ghosts are generally the spirits of those who died under...unpleasant circumstances," another slump from Stagg, "or, as you say, have unfinished business of one sort or another. In my case, though, well...these islands are sort of strange. Let's leave it at that for the moment."
Stagg eyed the apparition of his old friend, and his tone softened. "I'm sorry to snap at you, Whitney. After all you did for me...I should be asking what I can do for you. Am I supposed to help you into the Great Beyond?"
Whitney smiled. "Doesn't work that way, interestingly enough. Hopefully, you won't find out first-paw for quite a while." A rueful snort from Stagg. Whitney grinned. "Anyway, I can come and go as I please. I ought to haunt the Mirror. Maybe I can possess a copy-editor. God knows they need all the guidance they can get, supernatural or otherwise. Anyway, to tonight: I'm here because of a favour."
Stagg raised an eyebrow. "Oh? What sort of favor?"
"Wellll..." Whitney said hesitantly. "It's Christmas Eve, and you're alone, and feeling grumpy and sorry for yourself and all..."
"Oh, heavens, Whitney."
The bulldog blew a third smoke ring, to join the other two, and chuckled. "What?"
"Don't they have copyright laws in the Hereafter?"
"No. That's what they use to torment artists and authors. You're well-read, so you know how it goes, the three spirits coming calling and such..."
Stagg sighed, and gazed out the (dirty and cracked) window.
"Anyhow," Whitney said, as he slowly faded away, like a Cheshire Bulldog, "I have to be going. I'll send your love to Diana and the girls."
Stagg came to with a start, but realized, too late, that his old friend had vanished. A message died on his lips with a sigh.
Through the cracked window, a church bell rang midnight.
When I start seeing ghosts when I'm awake...
Must have been something I ate.
I have eaten something lately, haven't I?
Stagg whirled to see a pretty tanfurred feline with raven hairfur in a flowing white robe. She seemed to be in her early forties, with a somewhat matronly look and streaks of white at each temple. "The Ghost of Christmas Past, I presume?"
The Ghost nodded. "I am guilty of this as charged." Stagg couldn't quite place her accent, but her voice was pleasant enough.
Stagg sighed. "Listen, I've read the book, seen the play and heard the radiocast. Is there any chance we could skip to the end?"
The Ghost folded her paws, and smilingly shook her head. "It is not for you, Franklin Stagg, to fix how your journey tonight will go. That's been decided by others, who made the requests for you..."
Stagg decided it would be pointless to enquire precisely WHO was doing the requesting. "And if I decline?" he asked with a spirit of enquiry.
"It will be slightly more pleasant for you if I am not to bring you by force," the Ghost said, frowning prettily.
"Only slightly?" Stagg sighed again. "Very well. Lead on, MacDuff."
The Ghost looked a trifle puzzled. "That is not my name."
Stagg shook his head ruefully. "Naturally not."
For a Ghost, her paw-grip was warm and firm. At once, a bluish haze surrounded their bodies. Outside, Stagg could hear the church bells chime one-
A small fawn, curled up on a bedspread, intently reading a small magazine. One instantly recognizable from the four-colour illustration on the front as a "Morgan Quarterhorse, Minkerton's Detective" from the Daring Detective Dime Library.
A youngish buck, listening to a tutor explain the components of various types of mammalian blood.
A slightly older buck, standing a little awkwardly at a Collegiate School social.
A doe, a young and beautiful one, slicing a piece of pie at a moonlight picnic. A question would interrupt that action...
Three other fellows, joining in the words: "so solemnly swear to protect and defend-"
One other doe, quietly joining in the words: "I do."
"The General Assembly voted war last night, Detective. I've been asked to give you this order..."
"...It's really fairly simple, once you get the knack." "Amazing, Stagg; Jerry would go bonkers if he knew you were reading his mail..."
-adame Onca staggers and falls. Single bullet, through the heart...
"Chief Inspector!!! Chief Inspector!!! Can you comment on the capture of the assassins...?"
'-G LIVE THE GLORIOUS PEOPLE'S REVOL-"
"-little fire, Chief?" Screams-
"Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it-"
Three figures dangling from a tree-
"-ff to a fast start, Inspector..."
Stagg was back at his desk, wildeyed, staring, his clothing sweat-soaked. An agonized look at the Ghost. "But why??? Why have you done this? Why have you made me live my life again?!?"
The Ghost eyed him sympathetically and reached to pat Stagg on the shoulder, pausing as the buck shrank back from her touch. "Because, Inspector, the past is prologue." She shrugged. "Do not fear. Much. Two more Ghosts, and you are-"
"Merry Christmas!" the voice boomed.
Stagg whirled around. A figure clad in red, head to toe, white fur trimming, black boots, belt and gloves. Species undeterminable behind a bushy white beard and, incongruously, dark tinted aviator-style glasses of the type just introduced by Ray-Ban earlier that year...
"The...Ghost of Christmas Present, I presume?" Stagg croaked.
"'Fraid so, Inspector," the figure boomed, handing Stagg a large glass of iced water.
Stagg gulped the water. It was real enough. "N-now what?"
The Ghost held out his gloved hand. "Oh, a little Walkabout..."
Again, the blue energy crackling about them...
"New Haven on Christmas Eve. Kinda gloomy with the Red Fist in charge."
The boarded-up and scrawled-upon windows of All Saints Cathedral leered out. "And you wish to rub this in?" Stagg asked with some asperance.
The Ghost shrugged. "Thought you might want to see the old home town."
Stagg snorted contemptuously. "There's a current of opinion that that is no longer the case. See my passport."
"Buck...er, brace up, old bean," the Ghost drawled in a flat Mid-Atlantic accent, "nothing lasts forever."
"Death does," Stagg muttered, clearly irritated at the Ghost's fatuous platitudes.
"Not really," the Ghost remarked cheerily. "More of a transformation. You'll see at some point."
Stagg looked unconvinced.
"Back in the Islands," the Ghost said. "Everyone snug in their beds."
"Dang, them gals are STILL at it! Now that's energy. Whups! Sorry, Inspector, didn't mean to make you blush. Just wanted to show you all was well there."
All isn't quiet at the Brush household, as three young fox kits are gleefully pouncing their sleeping parents, squealing Christmas greetings and bouncing on the bed. The father of the family is taking this rude awakening with resigned amusement. The memory of similar scenes, long ago, causes pangs...
Well, Rosie Baumgartner had certainly changed into something more comfortable. A red and green silk kimono, very festive. Even if the dragon on the back wasn't totally within the holiday tradition.
Stagg raised an eyebrow, turning to his guide. "Trying to tell me something?"
A brief shrug from the Ghost, but an eloquent wiggle of the eyebrows.
Rosie sighed, looked at a carafe of egg nog in an ice bucket, grinned wryly and stood, seemingly unaware of her audience. Or, for that matter, the time or the neighbours, as, walking over to the upright baby grand piano in the corner of her room at the Grand, the cheetah sat down and gently began playing, singing in a credible imitation of Mae Kestrel as Birdy Boop:
Oh, honey! Oh, honey!
Why is it that you act so funny?
When we should be making love?
Oh, I'm willing, I'm so willing,
But nothing that you do seems thrilling,
I long for your pettin';
Where am I gettin'?
There's the moon, way up high,
Here are you, and here am I,
Oh, do, do, do something!
I ain't been hugged, and I ain't been kissed,
And I want to see just what I've missed,
So, oh do, oh do something!
I got the time and the place, and the place and the time, I know,
I got a bench and a park, and a park and a bench, and all.
You know, other pairs, they're making haste,
But look at me, I'm just going to waste,
So, oh do, oh do something!
Summer night, the stars are low,
Oh, tell me, what are we waitin' for, huh?
Oh, come on, honey, oh, come on, do something!
You know, it's been told, and explained
That nothing tried is nothing gained,
So, won't you do something?
Got a hug and a kiss and kiss and a hug or two,
I want to give them away, and I'm gonna give them away, to you!
Sittin' around just seems so dumb,
And look at me, I'm gettin' numb,
So, won't you, oh, do something!
All alone, just we two,
And I feel so boop-boop-a-doo,
So, oh do, do, do, do, do bup-a-dup-a-dup-a-dup,
With an exasperated grin, the raven-haired cheetah sighed and settled back on the chaise, closing her eyes for a brief nap...
Back in the office. Stagg gave the Ghost an ascerbic look. "The art of the subtle is not your forte, I take it."
The Ghost shrugged. "I just read the lines, I don't write 'em."
Stagg sighed. "So, next up is the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Be?"
"Something like that, yes," the Ghost nodded. "After this one, you're all-"
The third Ghost, at least, lived up to reputation. A figure clad in a black robe, cowl pulled up to cover its face. Again, no species could be immediately recognized.
Stagg sighed heavily and finished his ice water. "Shall we get started?"
An imperceptible nod from the silent Ghost, who extended a paw...
Hardened as he was, Stagg still had to repress a shudder. The paw was as naked of fur as any rat-tail or mange victim, and as pale white as any corpse's skin... Steeling himself, he gingerly took the paw (again, he noted, surprisingly warm-)
"-only one who can do it-"
"-oing my best, Minister, but codes don't break themselves-"
"-rking too hard, Franklin. Shouldn't you-"
Hospital smell. Stagg hated hospital smell. The combination of carbolic soap, fear-sweat and despair always clogged his nostrils and numbed his soul. Somewhat impatiently, the Ghost tugged his paw and they floated down the corridor. The corridor was dark, lit only here and there by small red lamps. Faint rumblings and the occasional boom hinted at the reason for the caution.
Two fems were weeping there. "I tried. God Almighty knows I tried." With a slight start, Stagg recognized Rosie, a little older, a little heavier, considerably greyer, her face lined with grief and pain. The other fem was sitting in a wheelchair in the darkness, and could not be heard clearly.
Rosie turned a tear stained gaze heavenwards. "The stupid bastard never let me get close, never let me help..." The cheetah bent down to hear something the darkened figure was saying. A shadowy pat of paw upon paw could be seen, even if only a soft murmur could be heard. The scent of the carbolic soap overwhelmed any other odors.
"I tried my best, yeah, I tried my best..." Rosie's face was ugly with despair. "Wasn't good enough. Stupid sonuvabitch let those Althing BASTARDS work him to death. Frigging murder, you ask me. Frigging murder."
Both fems looked upwards as the ceiling shook to distant explosions. "Yeah, I know. if it wasn't for him, those explosions would be on our heads. I hope they take some Meeting Island arslochen with them, though."
Stagg looked at the Ghost. "I...can see where this is leading. Do we need-"
Apparently so. The Ghost tugged on Stagg's paw and they drifted, unseen, through the door and into the room.
Under a sheet, a figure lay, still in death. Stagg paused. "Must I?"
Angrily, the Ghost pointed to the sheet. Reluctantly, Stagg turned it down and stared into his own face, drawn with illness and fatigue, dead eyes glazed over and staring at the ceiling blankly.
Unlike the original, this Ghost spoke in a hissing female whisper. "This is YOU, sir..."
Stagg sat upright. "Huh? Wha-?"
Sergeant Brush released his boss' shoulder. "Are yez okay? You was muttering and shakin' somethin' fierce. Want me t'call Meffit?"
"Eh? What? Oh. No. Just another bad dream, Sergeant." Stagg glanced at the clock. Twelve-thirty-six. "You're here a little early, Sergeant."
Brush laughed. "Couldn't sleep, thanks t'certain kits who've been at th' choc'lit a bit early. I figger might as well earn my sal'ry, hanh?"
Stagg nodded, trying to clear his head by shaking it a bit.
Brush looked concerned. "You sure you're okay, boss?"
Stagg was staring at a glass full of ice cubes on his desk. Needless to say, the office at the police station was not equipped with a refrigerator...and the nearest ice machine was at one of the hotels. "I...think so, Sergeant. I think so."
*****On a Christmas Eve so dreary
While I pondered, weak and weary
Over a quaint and curious volume
From the Woolworth's store
While I nodded, nearly napping
Suddenly there came a tapping
As of some one gently rapping
Rapping at my chamber door.
Ooo! Company! Yay!
I flung open the door to behold a somewhat disheveled looking Inspector Stagg. His face looked a little strained, and his suit had fresh sweat stains. Nice musk, actually. I had to restrain my tail with a conscious effort; even with the lightweight cast on, it was doing its darndest to lock in the sideways position. "Inspector! Merry Christmas! Come on in for some egg nog!" The "Do Not Disturb" sign was discreetly placed on the doorknob as he walked in.
Stagg smiled wearily and fiddled with his hat in his paws before I took it, and his jacket, from him. "Most kind of you, Miss Baumgartner. It's been a...strange evening..."
I grinned. "Yeah, my gals are something, all right."
"Oh," Stagg said, settling on the couch, "nothing to do with...that..." As if for the first time, he seemed to notice my Cipangu Special. He gave a start as I sat down next to him. It's amazing the ways you can cleverly tie a kimono...
I gave him an eggnog, by way of encouragement and hospitality. He took a small sip at it, set down the glass on a nearby table, and began to clench his paws together. I could tell this was going to require some very gentle handling. Merino was right. One bobble, and this buck was going to shatter like a Dresden plate.
Stagg closed his eyes and pinched them. He opened them again, and looked at me. Like father, like daughter. The same look of sadness and despair. The same sense of trying to articulate something. The same feeling of longing in my gut, too. He looked down again at his paws, and the ring on one of his fingers. He sighed, and looked at me. I reached out, and gently stroked his back with a paw. Gottenu, the ribs. Oy, so thin under the shirt. And I could feel his hide, something wrong with it...
"Something happened tonight."
Stagg quietly nodded. "This time of year...well. It...happens. The holiday and all. So many in my life. So many things I wanted to say to them, and now I can't say them." He turned to me. "Have you had the problem of trying to express something, but you can't find the words?"
"All the time," I said, gently, giving his shoulder an encouraging squeeze.
Stagg's eyes started to glisten with tears. "I...saw them again. Tonight."
"Diana. And the girls. And..." he sighed.
I patted him on his knee. "Tell me about it."
Stagg closed his eyes and shivered. He remained silent for a minute or so, and then turned to me. He started by talking about the Red Fist killing the Governor of New Haven, in broad daylight, while sitting in a sidewalk cafe. The long nights that followed, trying to piece together the strands of the conspiracy. The raid on the warehouse, and the netting of most of the gang. Stagg had executed their arrest warrant, and, in doing that, had signed his own death warrant...
Stagg hadn't wanted the job of Chief of the State Police. He wanted to get a job with Minkerton's, to move away. He got the post because a bribery scandal had caused such an uproar that they needed a "clean" figure. And so he took the job. Right on time for the Crash. There was nothing Stagg could do to stop the Revolution, short of machine-gunning the furs in the street, and he wasn't going to do that, ever.
Not that his restraint won him any favours. Too many of the gang had been busted out of prison, and were eager to get their own back. Stagg hesitated for a minute, and then slowly unbuttoned his shirt.
I knew about his hoof and all, and I got the details on how that was done. But the sight of his chestfur and back... They were covered by a constellation of small, angry, circular scars. I ran my fingers over them. I lost count at forty. Stagg described to me how this was done. Hearing him speak, I could feel the darkness of the cellar. I could see the ends of the cigarettes glowing in the murk. And I could feel the ends digging into my fur with a sizzle.
Stagg refused to give in. He wasn't going to give in. He didn't want to shame himself at what he knew was going to be his show trial. And so he endured everything they dished out to him. Day after day.
"And you didn't give into them. I read what you said at the trial."
Stagg looked down at his hooves. "It wasn't worth it."
"Why? You did what you should have. You stood up for yourself. You defended yourself."
Stagg turned to me, and I could see his eyes turn moist. "That's just it. I defended *myself*. I was so wrapped up in my own damn ego, my own heroic...martyrdom...that I overlooked something very important. My mate and fawns. If I had simply remained silent, and said nothing, maybe it would all have been different. But I gave into my vanity, and my pride, and fought the bastards..."
"But you didn't know what was going to happen...I mean, with your escape..."
"I still don't. I never will. I faced the firing squad, even if it was with less smirking confidence than Madame Onca had. The guns fired, and I fell unconscious. I woke up just over the border in Gnu York State. How I got there, I'll never know. But it was in the prison cinema that I saw...saw the newsreel footage."
The tears started to trickle down Stagg's cheeks, as he described the sensation of seeing the deaths of his loved ones played out before him on the screen.
"I failed. Had I fired on the crowds, I might have stopped the Revolution before it got started. Had I let myself die in the cellar, no one would have known. If I'd kept my damn mouth shut, I wouldn't have made Diana and the girls such targets for revenge. They're dead. So many others are dead, or ruined, because I failed..."
A shaking paw came up to his eyes, and rubbed at them to wipe away the tears.
"I'd go through all of what happened in the cellar again, if I could reverse things somehow. I'd trade my life, whatever little it's worth, just to bring Diana, Grace, Margaret and Helen back again for one day. Just *one* day. I want to tell that it was my fault, that I'm heartsick every day at the realization of what I did to them, and to all the others. I want to see them, and tell them I'm sorry..."
Here, he gulped, and began to sob.
"I want my girls. But I can't have them, ever, because I can't truly face them."
I gathered him, very carefully, and held him against my chest. He put his arms around me, and gripped me tight.
I wasn't holding the mighty scourge of criminals.
I wasn't holding the possessor of a razor-sharp mind.
I wasn't holding a loving mate and father.
I was holding a frightened and lonely old buck.
I didn't have the words, but maybe Cole Porterhouse did.
"I was a humdrum person
Leading a life apart
When love flew in through my window wide
And quickened my humdrum heart
Love flew in through my window
I was so happy then
But after love had stayed a little while
Love flew out again
What is this thing called love
This funny thing
Just who can solve its mystery
Why should it make
A fool of me?"
I was surprised to hear the soft rumble of a baritone answer.
I saw you there
One wonderful day
You took my heart
And threw it away
Thats why I ask the Lord
In heaven above
What is this thing
I chimed in for the chorus.
What is this thing called love
This funny thing
Just who can solve its mystery
Why should it make
A fool of me?
Stagg lifted his head, and stared into my eyes.
I saw you there
One wonderful day
You took my heart
And threw it away
Thats why I ask the Lord
In heaven above
What is this thing
"You have a lovely singing voice. You should use it more often, it's something to be proud of."
Stagg stared at the floor. "I was raised not to be over-proud of myself. As Father Merino would tell you, Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. I've learned the hard way the price to be paid for Pride. No good can come of it."
"Baloney." I hugged Stagg a little closer. "You took all the hell you went through, you acted the way you did at your trial..." A puzzled look from Stagg. I grinned. "There's this guy named Whitney St. James, see?. I usta read his stuff back in Gnu York. He died around here just recently."
"What?" I asked.
I shrugged. "Anyway, you took all that tsuris because. You. Had. Pride. Pride in your profession, pride in your country, and pride in your family. You didn't want to let any of them down by being a coward. You were prepared to die. That's why you quoted Socrates in your speech, wasn't it?"
"One of my co-defendants was right. I was showing off. Foolish pride."
I lifted Stagg's chin again. "Not every one thought so. Whitney St. James for one. Me, for another. Pride is a sin when it's done for empty, selfish reasons. But when it's done for a reason close to the heart, it isn't a sin anymore. You know what else is like that?"
Stagg's eyes got moist again.
"Love," I said, firmly. "Franklin. I've seen that window at St. Anthony's with my own eyes. There isn't a soul alive who could see that window, and know its history, and not understand your loyalty. And your love."
A balling of fists, and the welling of eyes.
"But that's just it! A soul *alive*! It's Diana! It's Helen! It's Margaret! It's Grace! I don't know where they are, I can't reach them, I can't touch them. I can only see them in my nightmares..."
Stagg turned to me, as the tears rolled down his cheeks. "I was so absorbed in my own damn self tonight, when Whitney visited me-"
Whitney VISITED him? I shelved that thought for later.
"-that I didn't give him the message. That I wanted to see them once more, to smell their musk, to hear their laughter...to feel the touch of their muzzles."
His thin shoulders began to shake with his sobs.
"I don't know how to tell them I love them, anymore, because I can't face them. I don't even know what the hell love is anymore. I want my girls. I want my love back..."
I leaned back against the arm of the sofa, and, as I did for his daughter before him, I held Stagg tight as he sobbed out his grief and his anguish.
Eventually, we both fell asleep, still holding each other.
*****Somewhere, around 4am or so, we moved things to the bed by silent agreement.
*****And just slept, thank you very much. Hate to disappoint the prurient amongst you, but sometimes us over-30 dinosaurs just want to cuddle.
Mostly. 'Nuff said.
*****Since I'm the only person on Earth qualified to make a comparison, I will go on record as saying that the daughter is better padded (the buck is in dire need of some fattening up. I'll take care of that, though), but the father has a much firmer embrace.
I was taking off my du Cleds Special (as opposed to my Cipangu Special) the next morning after lending my support as the cheering section for the Lotus Gang (making their grand appearance before C.K. Spaniel). It was an altogether successful morning, and it was a happy cheetah that was admiring her form in the mirror. Cast be damned, I looked good.
There was a stirring sound in the bed behind me. Inspector Stagg blinked in confusion, looked around, and saw where he was, and who he was with. He looked like he was groping for words. Seemed to be the norm for members of the Stagg family. I idly wondered whether Willow's cousins WOULD have the same family reaction to waking up with me as I sat down on the edge of the bed, leaving my shirt unbuttoned, and tousled Stagg's head.
"Good morning! Didn't want to wake you. You looked cute, sleeping there like that."
A lovely blush. "Um. Yes. I suppose I was out..."
A slow blinking. "Well, to be honest, no, there weren't any. First time since...well, I've forgotten."
A finger to the deer nose. "Nu. A lesson, maybe?"
Stagg blushed again, and covered himself with the sheets. I lowered the sheets back.
"An observant detective like yourself will notice that you're still wearing your boxers. There's only one witness, but she'll testify that the boxers were in place all night."
Stagg looked down, and gave a faint smile. "The witness is very sensitive."
"I'll say she is." Eyebrow wiggle followed. A heartfelt one. There's more than one way to make a cat purr.
A finger waggle also followed. "I had the hotel look after your suit. A handsome buck like you should look sharp."
Stagg looked shocked. "Er...then the staff knows..."
"That two friends spent the night together?" I shrugged. "This is Spontoon, not Peoria. Anyone who gives a damn will be glad for us, nu?"
The good Inspector took the lecture in good spirit, as well as the orders to take a nice, long shower.
****Gotta say that the buck cleaned up good. He looked a thousand percent better than he had when he showed up, and it wasn't all because his suit was now clean, pressed and the frayed edges neatly repaired.
I let the Inspector know what I thought.
So did he.
Oh, MY. Rowr.
And so it came to pass that the soon to be Mrs. Reginald Buckhorn did approach the rooms of Rosalie Baumgartner to invite her to brunch celebrating a joyous event, and, lo, she did see the "Do Not Disturb" sign and she was most perplexed. She cast an ear to the door, and, lo, did she hear the sound of two voices giggling and murmuring endearments, and, lo, both voices did sound familiar, and she did breathe in the scents and, lo, her tail did start flagging...
"DA?!" came the sotto voice cry.
The doors at the Grand are fairly well soundproofed. Still, Willow could hear Rosie's sweet contralto joyously singing out.
Oh, sweet mystery of life
At last I've found youuuuuu...
The five year old Gracie Stagg would have been confused. "What's Da doin' in there?"
Grace Victoria Stagg, college student, would have been scandalized. "Father? In a strange woman's hotel room?!"
Willow Diana Fawnsworthy, the one-day Lady Buckhorn, simply smiled joyfully, wished nothing but happiness for two of the people she loved best in the whole world, and happily strode away to explain to her fiancé that Rosie was otherwise occupied and would be unavailable for Christmas brunch...
* See ": It's Not Just For Breakfast Anymore"