The Giant Gnat of Sinatra(The Three Writers are © their respective parents, and damned if they aren’t
© 2009 by Marmel, Costello and Reimer
the most compelling arguments ever known for eugenics.)
(Leonard and Susan Allworthy © Walter Reimer.
Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is largely coincidental,
and we’ll be taking steps to correct it as quickly as possible,
but you know we’re all just so gosh-darned busy at the moment . . . >bonk<)
- Act Four -
Doin' What Comes Gnaturally;
Inocenta beamed. “Such a man, my Leslie-puppy. To no punish the young deerie, but to let her win at the backs-gammon. Is thing of the gentlefur to let the lady win.”
Les’ ears flickered at the context in which Inocenta used the word ‘thing.’ Of late, Les had been looking rather baggy under the eyes while Inocenta had been looking excessively happy with herself.
Which added up to them keeping long hours.
Probably not playing backgammon.
“Shall I continue?” I asked.
Cupcake clapped delightedly. “Oh, si, si! Inocenta is most interested!”
I had just finished having a wonderful breakfast in my room when I heard the sound of automobile engines and the tooting of horns.
I went to the balcony overlooking the courtyard and saw two trucks being unloaded. One had a crew of felines in sailor suits, superintended by the same gaunt feline I recalled at the Ruffles bar in Humapore, and the other was a battered old jalopy with two furs, both canine. One of them, wearing jodhpurs, a safari shirt and a flat cap and puffing a cigar, was shouting at the other, who was . . .
Well, he was more like a mountain of fur and muscle, well over six feet and hunchbacked. He wasn’t dressed as well and walked – well, staggered, really – as if his knees were unnaturally swollen. He moved as if to a syncopated rhythm that only he could hear.
What could this be?
The Sultan excused himself shortly after congratulating me on not putting his daughter over my knee and administering ten swats under her flag for cheating, leaving me with a breakfast that had rapidly lost any accompanying appetite. I set the tray aside and started getting dressed.
I was tying my shoes when there was a knock at the door. I opened it, expecting anything from Willow to the Rhum Baba – Sally – coming back for a rematch, and I was actually relieved to see a member of the palace guard standing in the doorway.
The civet cat grinned at me. “Captain Bannerjee wants to know if you want him to settle the bet now, or wait until you leave.”
I asked the feline to lead me to him. If I waited too long, there was a possibility that the Princeton fur would conveniently “forget” the wager, or the added lucre.
We went past the Guards barracks, a couple of whom congratulated me on winning the game, with one opining of the girls that “They hardly need the strength of thirty / When they can win by fighting dirty.”
I was tempted to say “Burma Shave” after that, but we took a turn and started down a flight of stairs.
Presumably into the palace’s oubliette.
“The Boss’ on duty at the moment,” the cat said as we made our way down a whitewashed hallway, “although he ain’t been moving around much.” He laughed. “I bet he still feels a lump in his throat after that kick.”
We moved on past a series of cells and paused as an arm and a dark-furred canine muzzle protruded. The arm, which I could see was attached to a Shepherd, waved frantically. “Guard! Guard! Is there an update yet?” a voice asked.
“Yeah,” the civet growled as he slapped at the protruding paw. “The Sultan decided he’s not going to impale you tomorrow.”
“No. He’s just going to have you all skinned.”
The arm withdrew. “Oh,” the police dog said, “that’s all right, then.”
I looked curious. "Who have you got locked up?"
The guard grinned unpleasantly. "Oh, just a trio of writers."
"Writers? What are they in for?"
“Quite a bit, actually. See, they take sharp knives and – “
“No,” I interrupted before he got too graphic. “What are the charges?”
“Oh! Lessee . . . plagiarism, lese majeste, claim jumping, four-flushing, pogo-sticking, square dance calling and aggravated mopery with intent to gawk.”
“Is that all?” I asked.
“No. Close harmony in the first degree.”
“I have to agree with the Sultan. Impalement’s too good for them,” I said. “Mind if I look inside?”
The guard shrugged his shoulders. "Better you than me," and unlocked the door.
The room didn't have a window in it, but it didn't lack for
One wall was covered in doodles of naked cat-femmes, trolleys, and naked cat-femmes in trolleys. A chubby, placid looking ursine in a motorman's uniform was sitting in front of it, paws folded on his lap.
He was watching in great interest as the police dog was engaged in a loud and confused conversation with a silver-furred mink in a worn seersucker suit and straw boater. Nearly every inch of the wall behind the canine was covered in a tiny, precise scrawl. The only portion of the wall behind the mink that wasn't covered in scrawl featured a large drawing of a minkess, dressed only in a garter belt and stockings, playing a Wurlitzer organ.
I looked around, and found there was nothing written near the cell door. The bear twitched an ear.
“I'll bet you're wondering why it's blank over there."
"Well, that's reserved for our readers. It's the fourth wall."
The mink turned away from his argument and walked briskly over to the bear.
The ursine complied graciously, handing over his lid to the mink.
The mink, with his paw, administered a sharp smack to the bear's head, and then passed the chapeau back.
"Your hat, sir."
"Thank you." The motorman put it back on as if nothing had happened.
The police dog dragged the mink back over by his tailfur, and their argument, which seemed to revolve around some abstruse timeline, continued with much paw-waving.
“They’re like that all the time,” the civet remarked as we walked past them. “Yap yap yap. It’s like a regular chat room in there, but they think it’s the Adirondack Round Table or something.”
If I said under oath that Arnie was glad to see me, I would probably be in the cell with those three furs, charged with perjury. As it was, he moved as he was still a bit tender (I didn’t blame him) and he looked at me sourly as he counted out fifteen hundred dollars, American.
Just to needle him a bit I counted the money again before shoving it in my pocket, and then I got the hell out of there.
I spotted Willow on the opposite side of the courtyard from where I emerged, and she waved me over. “Good morning, Les. Seems the Sultan has company.”
The Sultan nodded. “Oh yes, this was set up weeks ago. Your arrival just drove it out of my mind.” He bustled forward to shake paws with the feline crew.
I resisted the urge to give my opinion of a Princeton man’s mental capacity, if just our arrival was enough to make him forget something.
“The only way to bring these dashed natives out of barbarity is to deny 'em civilization," the schnauzer in jodhpurs was declaiming to his giant assistant, and he rapidly shut off any further statements to adopt a warm smile and shake paws with the Sultan. He suddenly narrowed his eyes at us. “Who are these rubes? Taking in indigents, Your Majesty?”
“Hardly,” the muntjac said. “Willow Fawnsworthy, Leslie duCleds, this is – “
“Captain Spaulding, Thomas G. Spaulding,” the canine said heartily, doffing his flat cap and offering a paw. “I bet you can’t guess what the ‘G’ stands for.”
“George?” Willow asked.
“No no, Albert. You were close though – and I bet we could get you a lot closer,” he added with an undisguised leer.
“Captain Spaulding’s a noted explorer, one of four that I invited here,” the Sultan said.
“Yes, that’s right,” Spaulding said while flourishing his cigar. “Why, I discovered the Lost Tribes of Evanston by tracing their ancestral migration routes from Lansing.”
“And who’s that?” Willow asked, pointing at the massive furry hulk standing beside the jalopy. He looked vaguely canine, although his head was about a foot lower than his shoulders.
Capt. Thomas G. ("G for Albert") Spaulding - finder of the lost tribes of Evanston;
and his assistant, Morbo.
Art by Seth C. Triggs - http://www.bibp.com/
Her tone of voice insinuated that instead of ‘who,’ she meant to say ‘what.’
“Eh, don’t worry about Morbo over there,” Spaulding said heartily. “He’s a friendly grelb, just as meek as a kitten.”
Yeah, a friendly four-hundred pound shaggy kitten capable of ripping my arms off.
“Where did you find him?” I asked. “The wilds of Tibet?”
The schnauzer shook his head. “Didn’t need to go that far. I found him in the wilds of Piscataway.”
“Ah. A Rutgers man.”
Morbo smiled at Willow, who shuffled her hooves nervously.
I tore my eyes away from Morbo, but kept at least a quarter of one eye on him and prepared to bolt in the opposite direction. As it was it took an effort to avoid flagging in alarm at the sheer size of him.
If Collegiate had him on the defensive line – hell, he would have BEEN the defensive line.
The skinny French cat saw us making the rounds and advanced on us, taking my paw with a gallant smile and bowing over it. “Enchante, mademoiselle. Ze Captain is pleased to meet you.”
I glanced around. “Where is the Captain?’
The feline smiled. “Ze Captain is here, holding your paw. He is ze redoubtable Jean Coustard, explorer of ze oceans.”
I smiled. I’ve heard of this guy, and who hasn’t? He was a pioneer of underwater photography and was featured in a bunch of cinema shorts under the title of The Underworld Water of Jean Coustard. “I’ve seen several of your films, Captain,” I said. “Didn’t you discover the Backward-walking Crab?”
“Oui! He did zat thing, ze Captain did,” Coustard said with a grin. “With his gallant crew of brave, stout-hearted lads, ze Captain delves into the secrets zat dwell under ze water!”
The brave, stouthearted lads were taking a break from unpacking their equipment from the Renault and were smoking Gauloises with great dedication. The praise sent their way by their leader was met with smirks and the occasional Gallic shrug.
A large flatbed truck with what looked like a bamboo framework and several dozen natives on its back pulled up to the gate and a primate figure climbed down from it. He thanked the driver and waved to the passengers as his long prehensile tail scooped up his haversack. He walked in, spoke with the gate guards and was ushered in.
A chamberlain whispered something to the Sultan, who beamed and rushed forward to greet the newcomer. “Friends!” he exclaimed, turning to us after shaking paws with the spider monkey. “May I present the renowned Finder of Lost Worlds, Roy Rama.”
Now, if you’re a fan of the adventuring type (as Les is), you know the name Roy Rama. International Hydrographic covered his discovery of the legendary Scotsmen of the Serengeti. The monkey smiled politely and shook our paws. When he came to me he blushed and murmured something in Spanish.
“Roy, great to see ya!” Spaulding cut in, the schnauzer grabbing the monkey’s paw and shaking it violently. “Too bad about Egypt.”
The primate looked angry and snatched his paw away. “What happened in Egypt?” I asked.
Spaulding replied, “He tried to find the source of the Nile. Couldn’t find it, so he had to make do with catsup.” He laughed, while Coustard looked irritated and Rama looked pained and embarrassed.
The Sultan whispered something to his chamberlain and said to all of us, “Apparently one last member of our group is late, whether delayed or not coming, I’m not sure. We will be having dinner at six tonight, even if they don’t show up.”
Being royalty (despite his education) the Bey provided us with formal wear for dinner.
‘Formal wear’ being clothing customary to the culture and locale.
“I said No, Les,” Willow said, stamping one hoof angrily. She gestured toward the clothing the Rhum Ba had sent up. It consisted of fine silk dyed a flattering champagne color and worked with silver thread.
And it was also in two pieces which would leave her bellyfur exposed.
“Sari. Wrong number.”
“What? Don’t you like the color?”
She looked at me crossly. “Don’t play innocent, Les – you’re no good at it. I refuse to go half-naked to dinner.”
“Look, it’s a formal occasion, and you don’t want to insult our host, you know. Besides, I was at dinner last night in a cheerleader’s uniform.”
She grumbled, flagging agitatedly, but eventually she conceded.
My own costume was a pair of slightly baggy trousers in black silk and a matching jacket in red. I knew from Hong Kong that red and black were lucky, so I was happy to wear it.
At least it didn’t have a skirt.
We all sat at separate tables, arranged in a horseshoe shape around a stretch of bare floor where members of the harem would dance to native music. Morbo sat in a corner and ate with surprising daintiness while Spaulding gorged himself and ogled the girls shamelessly.
I was tempted to tell him about the mouse femme with the high kick, but I figured he’d want to learn for himself.
All part of the spirit of adventure.
Roy Rama ate quietly and politely refused all attempts to serve him the date wine. He also didn’t smoke.
Which, of course, made him a target for Spaulding.
“Hey, Roy!” he called out from across the room. “Where does the monkey keep his gnats?”
Rama winced, and soldiered on patiently, while I wondered what the heck the schnauzer was yammering about.
My brother canine leaned back in his seat and took a deep draw on his cigar (which I recognized from the stink as a Ropa del Manura – one guy in my dorm smoked them, until we dissuaded him by throwing him into the river). “Sinatra is God’s country,” he said in a declamatory tone, “and he can have it.”
Willow had at first looked distinctly uncomfortable showing up in her dress, but the praise she received from the Rhum Ba and her daughter seemed to have mollified her. She looked up from her sautéed banana blossoms and asked, “Captain Spaulding, are you saying that you think the population of Sinatra is undeveloped?”
“Depends on how you define it,” and he leered at the Rhum Baba. “You know, that reminds me of something – hey, Coustard! What’s this business with the crab that walks backwards? No sense of direction, or what?”
The French feline sipped his wine before replying. “Eet is all ze rage, you know. Ze great Suisse physicist Einstein, he say zat c'est possible to grow - how you say - younger by ze walking backwards."
"Chronologically or mentally?"
Coustard refused to rise to the bait. He smiled and said, "Zut! Perhaps ze crab is trying to recapture its youth, hein?"
"Get it a fancy car." Spaulding puffed on his cigar a bit more, then turned to me. “So, duCleds eh? Famous name, if you’re interested in blowing things up. Who’s the doe? Your gun moll?”
I was about to get up and shove that cigar down the smirking schnauzer’s throat when I yelped at a sudden pain in my instep.
I withdrew my hoof after kicking Les. I wanted to handle this. I smiled sweetly at Spaulding and said, “I'm sorry, Captain. Mr. duCleds didn't watch where he was going a few days ago, and he stumbled in the dark."
"Oh, dear, well I hope he doesn't develop a limp." That seemed to sidetrack him, as he turned to the Sultan and said, “That reminds me, Majesty. I always thought that Krakatoa was west of Java.”
The muntjac grinned. “Oh, it is. We just say it’s east to throw off the tourists – and it sounds better, y’know.” He ate in silence for a moment before asking, “Where are you currently exploring, Captain?”
“Well, I’m not sure how it came back to me,” the schnauzer said, “but I’m being sponsored by my alma mater to look around for the legendary island here in the Dutch East Indies that was settled by Irish missionaries centuries ago. You know, Bali Atha Cliath.”
“Who’s your alma mater?” I asked.
“Notre Dame, of course.”
"Notre Dame?” Les asked. “You mean the football team has a college?"
"Yes, the Fighting Irish. We used to be the Fighting French, but we wised up. No one believed us. Our colors are green and gold. And one of these days, we'll stop wearing cheap costume jewelry."
“Be careful that you don’t lose your trousers,” I warned. “The natives might see your South Bend.”
He grinned. “That’ll depend on who’s watching.”
There was a pause as a servant hustled in and leaned close to the Sultan, whispering urgently.
He looked concerned, then brightened and clapped his paws for quiet. “Friends, honored guests, the other members of our group are here. May I present Mr. George Patagarang and his wife, Laura.”
“Crikey, Your Majesty! Just call me Skippy, okeh?” a booming voice echoed along the marble floors as a kangaroo wearing short trousers, boots and a short-sleeved shirt fairly bounded into the room, followed by a femme of the same species who looked quite a bit less cheerful. “G’day, all,” Patagarang caroled. “Sorry we’re late but we had trouble getting a flight out of Darwin.”
A table and two chairs were swiftly placed between me and Les and the couple were seated. “I’m sure your being late wasn’t just because you couldn’t get a flight, Skippy,” the Rhum Ba said as she buttered a small roll.
“Well, that was only part of it,” the ‘roo said. If anything, his voice was almost as loud as Spaulding’s. “Laura and I, we spent the past two weeks on the Great Barrier Reef.”
“What do you do, er, Skippy?” I asked.
“I’m a hunter, Missy.”
“Oh? And what do you hunt?”
“Publicity, mainly,” his wife murmured. She was seated next to me (the only reason I heard it) and I smothered a laugh.
“I track down wild an’ exotic animals, Missy,” Patagarang announced. “Laura an’ I were searching for the legendary Whim-Wham Whistling Shark.”
Coustard looked immensely unimpressed. “Zere are zose who say eet has never been seen by man.”
“I heard it a few times,” Skippy averred, “but I also ran up against the Leaping Stingray. Crikey! That was touch and go!”
“A Leaping Stingray, eh?” Les said. “I imagine that with one of those around anything can happen in the next half-hour.”
“Too right.” He finally seemed to notice me and Les, and turned to the Sultan. “Who are these two fireballs, Majesty? Friends o’ yours?”
I made the introductions before the Bey could offer a reply and asked, “So did you catch the Shark?”
“Nah, he got away. Charged me – I had to jump him or he’d’ve had me.” The ‘roo ate for a while, then asked me, “You a Yank, are ya?”
“Sorry, the accent’s a tricky one. Me an’ Laura went to the University of Woolloomooloo.” He smiled proudly. “I was a legacy – me Dad Bruce was tops in the Philosophy Department.”
“And what did you study?” I asked his mate.
“Business,” she replied tersely. “Someone has to look after the money.”
“Laura’s a great gal,” Skippy said. “A right Sheila and not a bit stuck up. She carries all of our gear when we’re out in the field.”
“Except for his ego,” Laura muttered to me. “I let him handle that himself.”
“I also graduated from the Paul Revere Institute for Concatenating Knowledge,” the kangaroo boasted. “You’ve heard of it, I’m sure.”
“Well, PRICK’s a sort of academy for trainin’ up explorers and adventurers. Our motto’s Hardly a Fur is Now Alive.”
I was inclined to believe that.
My ears perked as the Sultan tapped his fork against the side of his wine glass. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I want to welcome you all here as my guests. You may consider this your home for the duration of our expedition.”
“What expedition?” I asked.
“Why, the hunt for the Giant Gnat of Sinatra.”
I saw a certain look come to Les’ eyes.
I’d seen that look before, and I didn’t like it.
See, Les fancies himself a bit of an adventurer in the best Frank Buck or Henry Squeke tradition. It serves to get him in a bit of trouble at times.
“What Leslie-puppy do in the Cairo?”
“Some fur tried to get him into an expedition to find the lost tomb of the Pharaoh B’ankh.”
“Oh? What he get?”
“Thirty days with the option of a 1,000 pound fine. But, anyway, let me continue . . . “
Les ignored my look and asked, “The Giant Gnat of Sinatra?”
“Yes,” Spaulding said. “Not to be confused with the Sherman’s Gnat, which smells like cigars.”
“Or ze Washeengton Gnat, which always – how you zay – is first in ze war, first in ze peace, and last in ze American League,” Coustard supplied.
The Bey snorted. “There are those who say the Gnat confers peace and prosperity. Don’t ask me why. I have enough aggravations.” He regarded the wine in his cup before adding, “But it might help put Sinatra on the map, nation-wise. Maybe get those slugs in the League of Nations to pay attention. With that in mind, I made a few arrangements.”
“Yeah, with Barry Schloque of Obscurity Records,” the Rhum Ba sneered. “See, this bug’s supposed to be a great mimic – can copy any tune you care to name, and play it back note-perfect. Schloque’s offering fifty grand to anyone who brings one in alive.”
“Intriguing,” I said. “What’s it look like?”
“Never seen it myself,” Roxie said, “but it’s supposed to be about two inches long and absolutely black. It’s known in some circles as the King Coal Gnat.”
Wing Fat, the Bey’s avian councilor, piped up. “I think I heard it once, as a boy. They say that the sound of the King Coal Gnat is unforgettable.”
“You know,” Coustard said before Wing Fat could say anything else, “ze ocean, she is quiet and peaceful. Zo why aren’t you?”
The avian subsided, reddening slightly.
“So where’s the Gnat located?” Les asked.
“It can usually be found in the Rhudee Valley,” the Sultan replied. “I take it, then, that you’re interested in joining the expedition?”
Just then Les caught my look and I saw his tail droop. “I’ll have to discuss it,” he said. We excused ourselves and headed off to our rooms.
“Look, Willow . . . “
“Come on, we’ll be looking for a bug, for God’s sake! What could go wrong?” I asked.
“Let me count the ways.”
“Willow,” I said patiently, “We have a few more days before we absolutely have to be in Batavia. I can do a deal with the Sultan here, and I swear I’ll make it up to you. Besides, it might be fun.”
For a doe, Willow’s more assertive than most I’ve met. She’s very useful to have around, whether it’s taking dictation or spotting a potential swindle.
"So you expect me to go with you?" she asked, giving me my first indication that I was persuading her.
"Sure! I don't want to leave you alone, Willow."
Willow raised an eyebrow. "I'm touched. I think."
I found myself blushing. "...I mean I'm afraid I'll come back and find out you've taken over the whole country."
Willow snickered, low and sinister. "Yeah. The same thing we secretaries do EVERY night, Les. TRY TO TAKE OVER THE COUNTRY!" She put two fingers to her nosepad and flicked her bangs over her left eye a la a certain European dictator. "Heute Sinatra...morgen die Welt!"
She giggled, smoothed her headfur back into place and walked off to her room, singing something softly to herself.
It sounded suspiciously like When Secretaries Rule the World.
Ever since Cairo, I’ve gotten in the habit of carrying a few essential items with me in the Ercorsair.
Naturally I felt more comfortable in my own kit – long trousers, sturdy boots and a tough work shirt, all of which had so far managed to fend off everything I could have thrown at them, from desert sand to jungle mud and everything in between.
And of course I made sure that Willow had the same gear I had. It only made sense as I was dragging her along with me while I saw a bit of the world and sounded out new markets for the company.
Besides, she did look good in long pants.
The Sultan was enthusiastic about having a fifth party joining the hunt, so he offered to give me any additional equipment Willow and I needed. He ordered Wing Fat to lead me to the Sultanate’s principal supplier, a fellow named Suleiman who kept his business down in the center of Doubi Doubi Dou.
Much to my surprise, ‘Suleiman’ turned out to be a short, portly porcine gentleman. “Ah-LO!” he caroled as Wing Fat and I entered his shop. The interior of the place was full of items you’d consider essentials in a jungle climate – tents, mosquito netting, pith helmets and so on. “Zo, vhat are hyu doink here, Ving Fat?”
Wing Fat gave him a list and the porker bustled off, racing from one part of the shop to another as a pile of equipment started to grow before our eyes.
“Um, he’s not from around here, is he?” I asked.
The duck shook his head. “No, he’s Austrian.”
“Ho yass,” Suleiman remarked as he added a small pack containing a camp stove to the pile.
“Let me guess – he went to Princeton?”
“Nein,” Suleiman paused in his headlong flight. “Hy vent to Eton, zo Hy did. Not bad fer ein Yiddische Zohn, eh?”
I thought my eyes were about to cross.
“You’re Jewish?” Last time I checked, the Dutch East Indies were predominantly Muslim.
“Ho yass,” the pig assured me. “Hyu a schmott guy!” and he hared off to get another item on the list.
“His real name’s Schlomo Guderian,” Wing Fat muttered.
He looked deceptively fast to me.
“Und finally,” Suleiman said, “hyu needz hyu a hat!” and he placed a last item on the pile.
I shook my head. “No. Absolutely not.”
The ‘hat’ was a leather football helmet, painted in orange and black stripes.
“Ho, hyu gotz to haff hyu a hat vhen hyu in der jungle!”
“I already have a pith helmet!”
“Nein! Hyu have a pot here,” and he indicated the camp stove packet, “zo hyu haff a pot to pith in. Don’t need pith helmet.” He chortled at his own joke while I started to seethe.
“Iz no difference,” Schlomo said with a nonchalant wave. “Iz NIZE hat! Any zafari hyu goes on vhere hyu don’t got no hat, ztinks az zafari. How vill people know hyu iss leader of zafari?” Before I could frame a reply he grinned and yelled, “Hyu gots der BIG HAT!”
It was free, anyway.
I figured I could always ditch it when we reached the Rhudee Valley.
I stomped out of the shop to find that Willow had assembled a small group of bearers and a guide. The bearers grinned and chorused, “Hey, Infidel Dog! Nize Hat!”
“That’s it,” I muttered to myself.
Everything’s going to go boom.
I did carry a sample of the family’s wares in the Ercorsair; it wasn’t much, just a bit larger than a firecracker.
A very junior sample.
“Salute!” Willow shouted, and the bearers obeyed as she grinned cheerily at me. “Let’s get going, Les.”
I couldn’t stop smiling at Les as he stomped along beside me. The helmet fit him well enough, but I expect it was the paint scheme that was putting him off his usually ebullient mood.
After a few miles he found an excuse to get rid of the offending headgear and soon was wearing his customary lid.
The bearers looked disappointed.
A truck was waiting at the crossroads, with a sign on its doors: Royal Sultanate of Sinatra Transportation Ministry. Available for Hire, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Dial BIgelow 6-5000.
It seemed that the Bey had imported quite a few Western ideas into the East Indies.
We loaded up our gear and headed up a different road than the one that led to Isore. The ride was a bit bouncier than an Indo-Chinese bullock cart, but at least we weren’t plagued by mosquitoes.
I figured that would change once we entered the jungle.
The truck made its way laboriously up the dirt road into the mountains and soon we stopped for a bit of a break. Our guide, a binturong named Ali, assured us that it was safe to drink from the nearby streams (and to watch the bearers they agreed with him) so we topped off our canteens and took a look around.
Isore was to our north, sitting on its mountaintop about ten miles away. Even from here we could see it, and it didn’t improve from a distance (at least it was being consistent).
The guide beckoned us to a small rise and gestured to the west. “Is Rhudee Valley,” he said.
The valley started narrow in the highlands and widened out toward the sea. It was very densely forested and was shaped rather like a megaphone.
We all got back into the truck, but paused at the sound of horns.
Three more trucks were coming up the road to us. In the lead was Spaulding, with the huge bulk of Morbo driving; Coustard and the Patagarangs brought up the rear.
Apparently crowded out of the truck by his assistant, Spaulding was hanging onto the passenger door frame and standing on the running board. He waved his flat cap at us as they drove past. “Hi, kids! Getting an early start, huh?”
Coustard waved as he and his crew went by us, and Skippy waved cheerfully as his wife drove the truck. She didn’t appear very happy, probably at the prospect of lugging all the gear I saw on the back of the truck up hill and down dale through the jungle. In addition to the usual hunter’s equipment (high-powered rifles, explosives and what looked like a Great War-era trench mortar) were a collection of butterfly nets.
Roy Rama sat on the tailboard of the Patagarang’s truck, his tail securely coiled around a support. He just nodded, and nearly jounced off the tailboard as the truck hit a rut crosswise.
“Looks like we started early, but they’re making up for any lost time,” I said.
Les nodded. “We’d better catch up to them.”
We loaded back into the truck and set off again.
We caught up with the others at a spot where the road ended and a number of trails headed downhill. The Valley stretched out below us, and we busied ourselves getting packs filled and strapped on. Roy Rama waved to us, and the spider monkey headed not down a trail, but into the jungle.
(Never saw or heard of him again, but there was talk about two months later that he had found the legendary Lost Chord.
Whatever the hell that might have been.)
Spaulding set off down a trail with his net at right shoulder arms, and Morbo following behind him with a huge pack that seemed to weigh hardly anything at all to him. Coustard and his crew went off down another trail, the felines moving with almost military precision.
Laura Patagarang looked dolefully at the equipment she had to carry, which included a camera and cans of film. “What, isn’t he carrying anything?” I asked her.
“Nah,” she replied. “Wouldn’t look the intrepid explorer and great hunter carrying a pack, now would he?” With much muttering she shouldered the pack (she was definitely built for it – exploring must build up the muscles) and followed her husband down another trail.
“Almost ready to go, Les?” I asked.
Leslie shouldered his own pack, adjusted a strap and said, “Ready when you are, Willow.”
The trail thinned out after about a mile and I made good use of my machete as we made our way through the forest. The guide helpfully pointed out what plants might be safe or unsafe to eat, and also what might be of interest to collectors.
The binturong pointed out a cluster of orchids growing near to the ground, their white flowers almost glowing in the gloom. “Is Light Blooming Ground Flower,” the man said.
Willow looked the plant over hungrily and the guide added, “Get away. No safe to eat.”
She looked disappointed.
We hiked about three miles before pausing for lunch, and we were finishing up when there was a shout off in the distance.
“Help! Get me outta here!”
There was a collective perking of ears, and one of the bearers pointed, chattering excitedly. We all went running to the source of the sound.
As we got closer to the source of the noise I was able to make out who was yelling. It was the Schnorrer Schnauzer, up above his ears in a pit while Morbo stood by, chuckling wheezily to himself at his boss’ predicament.
“Damn you, Morbo!” Spaulding was shouting. “Either let me out of here or throw me in a magazine!”
Morbo just grinned like a fool, wheezing and chuckling.
We all looked at each other, then secured ropes to a couple of trees and tossed Spaulding a line.
“Thanks,” he said after he clambered up out of the pit. “I was doing some reading while we were walking, and this guy lets me fall into this old tiger trap!” He glared at Morbo, who smirked.
“What were you reading?” I asked.
“The poetry of Edna St. Louis Missouri,” he replied promptly. “There’s those that say that she left clues to the Lost Treasure of M’dula of Blongatta in her latest writings.”
I couldn’t help but feel skeptical.
“And you believe this.”
“Of course! Her last work enabled me to piece together the lost brewmeister recipes of St. Joe.” He sighed nostalgically. “St. Joe . . . how they loved me there!” He suddenly swept off his cap and started chasing Morbo, hitting him with his hat whenever he got in range.
We headed back to our camp without further comment.
We hiked on after collecting our gear. I was determined to put a few miles between us and Spaulding before either Morbo or I decided to shut the fool’s muzzle for him. I had to admit, though, Morbo took the frequent verbal (and occasional physical) abuse in stride, as if he were used to it.
I put my paw against a tree to steady myself while I stepped over its roots.
And an arrow thwacked into the wood an inch from my fingertips.
I recall hitting the ground rather hard and scurrying for cover as more arrows started to fly. Everyone else in the party hit the dirt as well. Willow was digging her pistol out of her purse and the others had out machetes and rifles.
A final arrow whirred into the trees, and then there was silence.
Ali poked his head up, then got to his feet. “They gone, maybe,” he said softly.
“What the hell was that all about?” I asked.
“Not know,” Ali replied, plucking an arrow from the tree trunk and studying the feathers on one end. “Is Ookabollawonga tribe arrow. Ookabollawonga tribe of giant pygmies.”
“Do they practice cannibalism?”
Ali shook his head no, his tail swinging in counterpoint. “They good at it. No need to practice.” He looked skeptically at the arrow. “Not understand; Ookabollawonga not live or hunt here.”
“Then what were they doing here?” Willow demanded.
Ali shrugged and retrieved his pack.
After that, we kept a more careful eye (and ear) out.
Our party descended a ridge into a smaller valley that fed into the Rhudee Valley and we could see that the sun was starting to set. “Where do we camp for the night, Ali?” I asked.
“I think we camp at village of Yingtongtiddle i-Po.”
“Oh? Where’s that?”
The binturong smirked and pointed up.
I looked, and my jaw fell open.
When I saw Les gaping I figured he was trying to use his mouth as a gnat trap until I looked up as well.
The village was up in the trees.
Ali called out in a native tongue and several voices rang out in answer. As I squinted up into the forest canopy I could make out several large huts, connected by rope bridges. Sounds that I had at first associated with the usual sounds one hears in a forest were, in fact, made by a group of children who stopped their playing among the branches to look down at us and wave.
I waved back, and a few of the younger ones giggled at the sight of our group.
“Why are the bridges made from rope?” I asked Ali.
He shrugged. “You can’t get the wood, you know.”
A stairway-like assemblage of wood and vine ropes was lowered and I got a close look at the villagers as several mels came down, a couple grasping spears.
They were kangaroos, but bore only a slight resemblance to Skippy and Laura.
First, they were little fellows, barely coming up to my throat, and second their feet weren’t as large.
Les finally closed his yap and shook his head. “Wallaby darned!”
The obvious head man of the village, a stout little fellow with a bone through his nose and a kilt adorned with bird-of-paradise feathers, talked to Ali for a moment before introducing himself as Nidal Nadal-nu. Like Ali he was Muslim, as were all the others in the village, and after another conversation we were given permission to camp for the night.
Which posed a tiny problem. Binturongs like Ali and Malay fishing cats like some of our bearers can climb trees, and I know Leslie can in a pinch.
But a whitetail doe’s hooves aren’t quite up to the standard.
Nidal smiled when this was explained to him, and he replied that his village traded with others and were prepared to accommodate furs who were relegated to the ground. We were invited to pitch our tents near the base of the central tree.
His invitation broke the ice and some of the other villagers soon came down to see us. The women sported teeth stained red from chewing betel nut and the children ran around unclothed.
Heads turned as a voice cried out, “Oy! G’day, everyone!” and Skippy and Laura emerged from a thicket. Laura looked as if she was about to collapse, and I went to help her with her pack as her husband charged forward obliviously to greet Nidal.
We gathered around a communal fire that night as the villagers shared with us a dinner of assorted fruits and vegetables, with some meat for the others. A guest hut was being prepared up in the trees for Ali and the bearers, and Les gallantly volunteered to stay on the ground with me.
In his own tent, of course.
Skippy spoiled much of the night by loudly boasting of how he had singlepawedly found unmistakable signs of the Gnat’s presence a few miles away, and his determination to go hunting for it before dawn. He caught Les’ eye and suggested that they leave the ‘Sheilas’ at the village to rest for the day.
Laura looked irritated by the condescension, and I agreed with her. But I could think of better things to do than traipse through the jungle at an ungodly early hour, so I agreed to stay.
Later that night I awoke to hear a creaking sound. I lifted my tent flap in time to see the stairway we had seen earlier lowering, and Laura sneaking up the steps on tiptoe.
I recalled that during dinner I had seen her being the object of attention from several of the village mels.
An attention that was being returned, with compound interest.
I figured that Skippy was skipping his marital duties somewhere (or his wife wanted to do some exploring on her own), so I went back to sleep.
At the aforementioned ungodly hour I roused in time to see Les and Skippy headed into the jungle, butterfly nets at right shoulder arms. Bearers were with them, carrying packs that held capture jars.
Points for optimism.
Les spotted me looking out at him and asked, “Good morning. Do you know if Laura went anywhere? George – er, Skippy can’t find her.”
I considered. Feminine solidarity runs deep, particularly when the husband’s a bit of a blowhard.
“Nope. Have fun beating the bushes, Les,” and I closed the tent flap.
“Never mind, Les,” Skippy was booming as they headed off, “Laura’s probably taking pictures of the locals . . . “
Something told me that, if she were doing art studies, they were the kind of prints one wouldn’t see in legal magazines.
Well, maybe in Paris.
What am I getting myself into?
Up early, saddled with an Aussie lunatic and poking through a rain forest . . .
Looking for a gnat, of all things.
I squared my shoulders and kept walking, searching for signs of a two-inch long, jet-black bug that makes music with its wings.
While looking over my shoulder for any sign of arrow-wielding giant cannibal pygmies.
At least it was a nice day.
Skippy whistled as he hacked away with his machete, mostly Waltzing Matilda but also snatches of other tunes. Amazingly I started humming along, and caught myself when he started looking at me.
“No worries, mate,” the ‘roo said. “The Rhudee Valley seems to have that effect on furs. The deeper you get into the Rhudee Valley, the more the music gets a hold of you.” He smiled. “You might say it gets you . . . under your skin.”
A bearer tugged at his sleeve and pointed, causing the ‘roo to start furiously brushing at his boots. He grinned at me sheepishly. “Whoops, sorry, that'll be the leeches.”
After that we kept a short distance from each other.
I smacked a bush with the flat of my machete and flinched as a large insect flew out at me. Showing a form that would have impressed the Penn baseball coaching staff I smacked the bug a good thirty feet, then went to investigate.
If it was the legendary Gnat, I hoped I hadn’t killed the thing.
Skippy was drawn to the commotion and joined me as we looked at it.
It wasn’t the Gnat, but a sort of very hard-shelled beetle, which was white with a series of dimples and a long, curving projection sticking from its head.
George clapped me on the shoulder. “Good on ya, Les! That’s a sign we’re getting close!”
“What the hell is that?”
“Oh, that’s the Ski-nosed Beetle,” he explained. “It’s usually seen hanging around with the Bee.”
This insect business was starting to drive me buggy.
In more ways than one.
“I thought we were looking for a Gnat.”
“Oh, we are. But one way to look for something as elusive as the Gnat is to look for animals that compete with it,” he said, looking around as his ears flicked back and forth. He held up a paw. “Shh! Can you hear that?”
My own ears flicked.
After a moment I heard a deep, almost crooning buzzing sound.
I pointed to my left. “It’s coming from over there! Let’s go!”
We headed deeper into the bushes with George in the lead, and I stopped when he raised a paw. He beckoned me forward and pointed. “There’s what we’re looking for – the Gnat’s competition.”
What I saw was a largish bee that was drinking from a flower. Call me crazy, but it almost seemed to be drinking moodily. It was about the size of a golf ball with a buff-colored thorax and an abdomen the same shade of green as a Master’s Tournament jacket. “What the hell is that?” I asked.
“The Bingkros Bee,” Skippy replied. “It’s usually native to the Tinpan Valley, about ten miles or so away from here. It gets moody at times, and it’s known to sting its own young.” He gripped his machete and smiled again. “That’s why I was so pleased when you found the Ski-nosed Beetle. The Bee’s often found in close proximity to it and the Sarong Butterfly.”
“So it’s the Gnat’s competition? What does it compete for?”
“Food, mainly, as well as the most ladybugs. Come on. Let’s follow it and see where it leads us.”
I joined George in trailing the Bee’s erratic course, following the crooning buzz while the phrase ‘fool’s errand’ started to flit through my mind.
Yeah, there is something about this place.
I started humming, then whistling, and our walking pace through the dense jungle acted as accompaniment. Words started to string themselves together in my head.
Amazingly, I started to sing, softly at first, then louder. The song was inspired – if you could call it that – by my thinking of what Willow was doing back at Yintongtiddle i-Po:
“Typing typing typing
There's no use in griping
Keep your fingers right on those keys
It's hard to keep the traffic
In matters sten-o-graphic
When your Boss is so darn hard to please.
File 'em up!
Mail 'em out!
File 'em up!
Mail 'em out!
(Here I made a fair imitation of the ping sound of an Underwood’s carriage returning.)
My brain's calculatin'
My paycheck should be waitin'
Should be waitin' at the end of the week;
With pen or pencil flying
It's sometimes awful trying
Writing as fast as the Boss can speak . . .”
I stopped, my ears starting to grow hot as one of the bearers started giving me a funny look. I walked on a bit longer when it dawned on me.
He hadn’t been looking at me.
He’d been looking past me.
At a bullock, dimly seen through the underbrush.
I froze, looking the bull over as he gazed at me.
He was wearing a ring in his nose and a makeshift rope bridle. The rope dangled down, trailing away.
My eyes followed the rope, and I glanced down.
A loop of the rope was coiled around one of my boots.
My blood ran cold as Skippy yelled, “See anything, Les!?”
The bull took off through the jungle.
And I, perforce, went with it.
It was well after lunch when Les and Skippy returned from the jungle.
I could tell that things had gone . . . well, rather badly.
Skippy looked none the worse for wear, but Les . . .
My employer was covered in dirt and dead leaves, his clothes looked tattered and he was limping, supported by two of the native bearers.
He looked as if he’d just been dragged through a fence.
By a flea of Unusual Strength.
One of the villagers watched him being half-carried back to his tent, then pulled a bottle from his clothes, laid his right paw over his heart and murmured something with his eyes closed, and finally hurled the bottle into the village’s trash pit.
I was inclined to agree with him.
“What the hell happened?” I demanded as Les was laid gently down on his bed.
Skippy shrugged. “He got dragged ‘bout halfway to the river by a buffalo, Missy. Guess it dragged its picket or someone didn’t tie the bugger fast. Finally some shepherd named Wong stopped the bull about long enough so we could untangle him from the rope.” The ‘roo shrugged. “I think he sprained his ankle, but either ways he‘s not too bad hurt. He’ll be orright.”
“I hope so.” I rapped my boss on his noggin with my knuckles, and he opened one eye. “Are you going to be okay, Les?”
“Leave me alone,” he grumbled.
Yeah, he would be all right.
It wouldn't be the first time Les has followed a line of bull.
I walked out of the tent to find that there was a soap opera in progress.
Given the jungle locale, it might have been titled Mau Mau Kenya Hear Me?
Never heard it before? Too bad; I remember Mau Mau.
And no sign of a sponsor, although I half expected a native to swing down on a vine with an advertisement for a fur treatment.
From the conversation (carried on at a noise level about the same as Penn Station’s) I gathered that Skippy had turned away from seeing to Les to find his wife, smelling rather strongly of a night and most of a day’s, um, exertions, coming down from the native village.
It seemed that Laura had been conducting a bit of applied anthropomorphology.
‘Applied’ as in Tab A into Slot B, but let’s not belabor the details.
“But you love me!” George was protesting.
“Yes, I do,” Laura agreed, “but a girl needs a few things, you know George – other than a trip to some benighted corner of the ruddy planet!” Then hitting flagrantly below the belt she added, “Crikey, that last guy was a big one!”
She didn’t lay a paw on him, but I could tell that hurt. “Love – Laura, sex without love’s an empty experience – “
The ‘roo femme deflected this line of attack effortlessly. “Yeah, but as empty experiences go it’s one of the best!” She stomped off with him following, begging her to come back to him while she loudly announced that her mother was right about him, and that she should have really taken up with that nice fellow Bruce – he was a doctor, you know . . .
Just as well that very few people in the immediate vicinity understood English.
I guess the moral is that if the bough’s breakin’, don’t go wakin.’
Later that night Laura showed up for dinner, but not George. After a few minutes I dared to ask her why.
She gave a none-too-cryptic smile. “Well, we kissed and made up, a bit,” and she waggled her eyebrows to indicate that they’d done substantially more than just kissed. “He’s sleeping it off.”
“Les is asleep, too,” I said. “He managed to eat, but I think he’ll be flat on his back most of tomorrow. He did mention something odd, though,” and I repeated what he’d told me about the effect the Rhudee Valley had on him.
Laura nodded sagely. “George and I researched this place pretty thoroughly before leaving Australia.” She tapped the side of her muzzle. “First order of business when exploring – do your homework. Be glad you’re not over in the Tinpan Valley.”
“The Tinpan Valley’s got a problem with illness, a type of disease the locals call Boogi Fever. It comes on sudden and furs get feverish, so bad that even the removal of clothes can't help. The sarong may be ended, but the malady lingers on.”
On that note, I decided to go to bed and leave Skippy and Laura to make up some more.
The next day saw Les up and moving about again, hardly even limping.
“I was thinking, Willow,” he said over lunch.
“Well, I think we should head down to the river, and follow it until we reach the end. From there we can get a boat back to Doubi Doubi Dou.”
I had to admit that this actually sounded sensible.
For a change.
“We look for the Gnat along the way?”
“Sure. Now that Skippy showed me what to look for, we can strike out on our own. You know,” he remarked, “this is a deceptively big island.”
“Ja,” Ali said. “If you no can make it here, you no can make it anywhere.”
“You should spread that news,” I said.
After another day of rest and recuperation, we started out early in the morning, headed up a ridge in the direction of the river. Leslie and Ali led the way, Leslie laying about himself with a machete when the brush got too dense.
Suddenly the breeze freshened from the west, and my nose tried to crawl up into my head and cower in fear.
Whatever it was, it smelled like rotting meat.
Leslie smelled it too, and stopped as if transfixed, his nose raised as he sniffed deeply. An eager look came to his eyes.
His machete hit the dirt as he took off running in the direction of the smell. Ali and I looked at each other as we watched my boss’ retreating tail.
The binturong shrugged.
“Is corpse plant.”
I’d read about these things. They’re supposedly the worst-smelling plants in the world.
And from what was assaulting my sense of smell, it sure lived up to its name.
Ali and I went after Les as the other bearers downed packs and took a break, a few laughing as others lit clove cigarettes to chase away the stink.
Finding Les was simple.
Just follow your nose.
We found him about two hundred yards off the trail. Les had found the flower, a huge leathery sort of thing growing out of a tree root. I was amazed at the size of the flower, nearly a yard across. I was also amazed at the stench. It didn’t smell any better up close.
Not that Les seemed to care.
He was rolling around on it, his tongue lolling out the side of his muzzle in a silly grin as if he was drunk.
Willow, Ali the guide, and Les - rolling in the Corpse Flower (Rafflesia sp.)
Art by Seth C. Triggs - http://www.bibp.com/
Despite the urge to vomit I found myself trying not to laugh.
Les rolled in it again, snuffling and growling, when he caught sight of me and Ali looking down at him.
He stopped, and his ears dipped in embarrassment.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, “don’t know what came over me . . . “
As a result of his lapse into his ancient canine nature, Les spent the rest of the day at the rear of our party.
About twenty yards back.
I called back to him, “Hey Les! Care to tell me what OTHER canine habits of yore you indulge in? No. Wait. I withdraw the question. I don’t WANNA know that.”
(I had hoped that Willow wouldn’t have brought that up. It’s not something we civilized canines do, as a general rule.
I glanced over at Inocenta and she seemed to have paid little attention. I was glad, because I’d found something a great deal more appealing to roll around in.
Doe-musk, of course.)
We paused at a small stream, where I bathed and put on clean clothes.
I had to bury the stuff I had been wearing.
We followed a trail headed north and downhill toward a small creek that emptied into what our maps called the Bengdadrum Solo River. The river ran east to the ocean and the chief village of the Rhudee Valley, Ohmigoshgolli. Since the trail had been used a lot over the years for trade and to reach the water, it was well-worn and smooth.
Even this far up, the river was nearly fifty feet wide and was churned into a froth by occasional rapids, which made it nothing I wanted to try and raft down, especially in the monsoon season.
As if to make sure we didn’t miss any of the attractions of the rain forest, our uninvited guests the Ookabollawonga seemed to be shadowing us a bit, if the occasional arrow landing near us was any indication.
And sure enough, it started raining while we walked, so I pulled out an oilskin poncho to keep from getting soaked. Willow pulled a poncho out of her pack, and I boggled at it briefly.
Unlike mine, this looked to be made of very closely-woven wool dyed in a pattern of bright colors. “Where did you get that?”
“Oh, this? I picked it up a while back. It’s a poncho.”
“I can see that. Mixtecan?”
After a few hours the rain slacked off, then stopped altogether. We still wore our ponchos so they could dry out a bit, and I had to admit that not only did Willow’s poncho look better it also seemed to be cooler (I was walking around inside a portable sauna within minutes after the sun came out).
The trail dropped away and ran beside a small waterfall before leveling out again and forking. The right-paw track led uphill and was marked with a sign in two languages. One was a native dialect, while the other was English.
It read The Village, but it was a rather odd script.
“They might speak English,” Willow said. “Should we go up and say hello?”
Much to my surprise, Ali suddenly stepped forward and put his back against the sign, shaking his head vigorously. “No,” he said with a definite air of finality.
“Why?” I asked, tapping a hoof.
The binturong gave me the eye. “What you want?”
“You no get it.”
I smiled. “By hook or by crook, I will.”
His ears flattened as he made up his mind.
“Furs may go in, but not come out.”
That sounded cryptic and vaguely ominous.
“I suppose there’d be no harm in going up the trail a ways,” Les said. “Ali, you and the others stay here, and I’ll take a look.”
“I’ll go with you, Les,” I said.
I kept one paw under my poncho, close to my Starr 9mm. It might not stop a water buffalo, but it might give another fur something to think about.
And if this was the Ookabollawonga’s village (or some equally un-neighborly group’s) I wanted to be prepared.
Les and I walked up the trail a short distance when we paused, hearing soft whistling coming from the bushes.
The bushes shook and a canine stepped out, doing up his trousers. Obviously we had almost intruded on his call of nature, and he jumped back two steps when he laid eyes on us. “Hello,” he said (in English, with a wary tone).
“Hello,” I said. “Is The Village nearby?”
“As near to you as the veins in your neck,” he replied. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Willow,” I said, looking him over carefully, “and you, it would seem, are Number Six.”
He had to be.
It was written on an enameled metal tag he wore in his left ear, like an earring.
He gave me an angry look. “Who told you that?” he barked. “I am NOT a number! I am a FREE FUR!” he shouted. He whirled away from us in a sulk and pulled a wheeled contraption out of the bushes.
It was a tricycle, with two small wheels on the rear and a main wheel that was about six feet in diameter. I recognized the design from old copies of Furrier and Hives – it was a type of bike once known as a pennyfarthing.
A license plate on the rear read KAR-120C.
The canine who loudly protested that he was not Number Six mounted his tricycle and sped off up the path without another word, leaving Les and me looking at each other.
Our ears twitched at a sound and another tricycle appeared from a side path, this one being ridden by a smug-looking feline in a Dutch Army uniform with a cigarette dangling from his muzzle. He paused at the intersection, took a drag on his cigarette and intoned, “Verrry eentah-restingk . . . but schtoopid!”
“What unit are you with?” Les asked.
“F Troop,” the feline said, and he turned his conveyance about and headed up the trail after Number Six.
Les looked at me.
I returned the look.
We started back down the path.
We rounded a bend and were immediately confronted by a bright red umbrella with a short, taciturn muskrat underneath it. The muskrat wore the kiltlike native garment with a vest and a small bowler hat.
He gravely tipped his hat to us, then slipped an envelope from his vest and offered it to me. I put out a paw to take it from him.
As soon as I had it, he tipped his bowler again and proceeded up the path without a word.
I turned the envelope over in my paws. Heavy white rag paper, but utterly blank. The flap was sealed with a blob of wax, also white and not showing any impression.
Les looked over my shoulder as I carefully opened the envelope and extracted a small card.
It read, in the same odd script as the sign, “It’s the oldest trick in the book.”
I looked at Les.
He looked at me.
We quickened our pace down the trail.
Ali and the other members of our party looked relieved as they caught sight of us. As Les assured them that we were all right, I noticed that the village’s sign had writing on the back of it, too.
It read, “Be seeing you.”
Yeah, that sounded ominous, too.
I think we made excellent time getting back to the path that ran beside the river. In fact, we took advantage of a ford about a mile downstream and crossed it, determined to put some distance between us and The Village.
We must have put over five miles (nearer ten) between us and ‘The Village’ before we camped for the night, requiring us to pitch our tents in the dark.
And then it rained again, and all I can say is thank God for mosquito netting.
Willow was looking increasingly more put out at the prospect of roughing it further, and I was starting to secretly sympathize with her. At least she could dine al fresco from the various plants in the forest, where I had to either hunt for my dinner or face whatever tinned goodies Suleiman had given to us. Ali’s face when he saw the labels told me they were Michelin standard . . . white sidewalls, not red guides.
Luckily Ali and most of the bearers were also carnivores so I at least had some company while hunting.
The next day we had to cross the river again as the trail petered out into an almost impassable goat track. While Ali looked for an acceptable ford, one of the bearers started waving and yelling in his language, pointing upriver excitedly. We all turned our heads to look.
A couple of shallow draft boats were making their way down the river, both flying the French tricolor and with the inimitable Jean Coustard in the bow, scanning the banks of the river with an intense gaze. He saw us and waved, then gave orders to his crew and shortly both boats were drawing up to the bank near us.
“’Allo!” Coustard said as his men rested on their oars and a couple of them lit cigarettes. “Are you looking for ze river crossing?”
I allowed that we were, and he smiled. “We can very easily take you across ze river. We too are headed zat way, looking for ze Gnat.”
“Have you seen any signs of it?” I asked, remembering what Skippy told me about the Bingkros Bee.
“Non,” came the ready reply. “But we are exploring ze river as we go, zo ze trip will not be ze – how you say – loss total, hein? Zis river, she has the bumps and rapides, but is far better than ze river to ze south.”
“Oui. Away to ze south is ze Frankee Valley, and ze river zere is tres difficile to explore properly. Eet is ze Moon River – wider zan a mile.”
We gratefully accepted the offer of a trip downstream, and Coustard swore that as he was a gentlefur (and out of respect for the beautiful lady) he would take us as far as Ohmigoshgolli. From there, he said, he would regretfully leave the lady in the company of her employer, l’industrialiste Franco-americain, because he and his crew had to search for the elusive King Coal Gnat.
Willow seemed grateful for the lift, as was I.
The trip was fairly uneventful, if by ‘uneventful’ one means the occasional shower of arrows from our unseen accompaniment. One of the bearers got a graze on his leg but that was the extent of the damage. All of us, including Coustard’s French sailors, shot back in the direction the arrow had come from, and after that we were no longer bothered.
There’s something to be said for applied firepower.
True to his word, Coustard dropped us off at a small settlement on the outskirts of Ohmigoshgolli. His lads then bent their backs to their oars while their commander flourished his cap and bade me farewell with a gallant kiss on my paw.
Ordinarily I don’t believe a word of it when a mel expresses such sentiments (although I’ve had reason to change my mind about that).
But this time he seemed genuine.
The spot we were dropped off at was a series of stone steps (I recall a man in Hodeermybad called them ghats) leading from the water up to a temple. The stonework was ancient, eroded and nearly black with age with splotches of color as saffron-robed monks moved around.
“Um, Les? Company.”
There was a rustling of cloth as Willow spoke and I turned away from the river to see three rats in monk’s robes emerge from the temple and walk down to the edge of the stone steps.
At least I thought they were monks.
One was tall and trying to retain his dignity although he was very decidedly drunk, the second (just as tall, but not as old and nowhere near as dignified) was carrying a half-full bottle in one paw while a lit cigarette dangled from the other.
The third (a bit on the short side) looked wall-eyed and had an oddly lopsided grin on his muzzle.
I looked at the pack of rats, unsure if they were a threat or not. "Hello?"
"Hello," said the demonstrably drunk one, while the tipsy rodent took a swig from his bottle and the shorter one danced a few steps.
"What the blazes are you three doing out here? Looking for a fourth for bridge?"
“No,” came the reply, “but I’m sure we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
"Bridge? Where? I ain’t crossin’ no bridge less it stops movin.’ Anyhow, we’re c-celebratin,'" the tipsy one slurred. "We're celebratin' our beloved Sultan - our Chairman - and his - hic! - embrace of our native religions." With that, he started to sing:
"Let's all bow to Glorious Allah
There's no need to hoot or holla
You won't see His face on the dolla
But that's just fine for me!"
The shorter one started to dance as he sang:
"We will venerate the Buddah
Comes in silver, brass or pewta'
He ain't quite the Lion of Judah
But he's good enough for me!"
And if that wasn't bad enough, the drunk sang, with clear diction and an air of solemnity:
"We will go and worship Brahma
Like a Saddhu or a Lama
Clad in less than a pyjama
And that's good enough for me!"
With that, the trio turned to wander back into the temple as bells started to ring.
The short one abruptly paused, turned and gave me a cylindrical object. “With six you get egg roll, man,” he said, and he joined his friends in returning to their sanctuary.
I started wondering just how much crazier this valley could get.
The egg roll was tasty, though.
I gave Les a glare for his pains and got an egg roll for myself. I politely turned down an offer for duck sauce.
After our snack we headed for the town along a well-traveled dirt road. With no one shooting arrows at us, we were able to relax a bit.
Only a bit.
Bullock carts and the occasional bicycle (no pennyfarthing trikes, thank goodness) moved past us as we hiked onward, and we paused when the road forked abruptly.
The sign that pointed left read Fu Lee, and the other read Ku Lee.
Les turned to Ali and asked, “So, which way? Is it Fu Lee or Ku Lee?”
A fur of Chinese ancestry loped past, his belongings balanced on either end of a long pole he held across his shoulders. He paused. “Coolie?” he asked. “Whatcha want?”
When we clarified the question, he pointed to the left-paw road, and we thanked him and went about our business.
The village of Ohmigoshgolli, it turned out, was a port that did a lot of business between Sinatra and the rest of the Dutch East Indies. It straddled both sides of the Bengdadrum Solo River. In the estuary at the mouth of the river sat Krupa Island, home to another, much smaller village.
We were heading toward a small hotel that Ali assured us was at least adequate (not being either the Splendide or the Palace) when I heard a voice singing.
It was a very pleasant bass baritone, and whoever was singing was putting their soul into it:
“Strangers in the night
Wand’ring through the night
Down mountain passes – “
Just then an all-too-familiar voice cut through the song.
“Well if they exchange glasses, what do you expect? You know, your problem is you don’t know when to shut up. I swear, you sound sometimes as if you’d been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. Well, well! We meet again, the Explosive duCleds and Party!”
It was Spaulding.
I looked around. The schnauzer couldn’t possibly have been singing, which only left . . .
The huge shaggy splodge of a guy blushed like a puppy when he saw me staring at him.
I felt bad that I’d misjudged him. Anyone who could sing like that and be saddled with a boss like Spaulding deserved at least some sympathy.
The intrepid and loudmouthed explorer was being his usual self – loud and at times insulting. “So, Dynamite, you here to look over the mines?”
“Is there an echo here, I mean apart from the vast chasm between Morbo’s ears? Sure, didn’t you know? There’re iron mines up in the hills. So why don’t you head for the hills, and leave exploring to us professionals? At least when we get shot at, we know enough to run away quickly.”
I refrained from kicking him, despite the information that he’d been shot at, as well. Les looked to be about a second away from shutting Spaulding up forcibly.
With a flourish of his cigar, the canine prattled on obliviously. “Went up there myself,” he said, “but there’s nothing but holes in the ground. They told me ‘Don't go down the mine, Daddy.’ But I persevered. I looked for the ore, but there was no one underneath the lamppost, by the barricade. In fact, I found nothing down there . . . other than the seam from shaft.” He took off his cap and mopped his brow with it. “I tell you, that shaft was one bad – “
“Will you hush your mouth?” I snapped. I couldn’t help it – everything about this fur set my nerves on edge.
“Just talking about the shaft,” the schnauzer said.
A tree kangaroo dressed in an odd combination of native dress and a claw-hammer coat walked up to us. He had a bag slung over his shoulder and he wore a strange cap and dark glasses.
“I’m outtasite,” he said cryptically.
What is it with people around here?
The little fellow soldiered on. “For a nominal service charge, I could reach Nirvana tonight."
Spaulding asked accusingly, "Look here, buddy. Who you jiving with that cosmic debris?"
The kangaroo started looking nervous. He reached into his bag and pulled out a small leather shaving kit. “I have it right here,” he said. “It has the Oil of Aphrodite and the dust of the Grand Wazoo . . . “
We took advantage of Spaulding arguing with the odd mystery fur to sneak away.
After we had made good our escape I turned to Les and said, “I suppose the worst thing you could say about him is that he’s an underachiever.”