The GiftPart One
© 2012 by Walter Reimer
- illustrated by WhiteMantis -
(Willow Fawnsworthy Buckhorn and Rosie Baumgartner courtesy of Mitch Marmel; Grace Stagg, Reggie Buckhorn and Franklin Stagg courtesy of Eric Costello.)
"Bernyce as a Geisha" - art by WhiteMantis
(Larger file here - 3.2 MegaBytes)
November 12, 1937
So glad to hear from you! Your last letter arrived about Halloween, but we’ve had a bit of tsuris around here lately, so I haven’t had the time to write back.
Now, before you start getting into a state about nothing, your father is JUST FINE. So rest easy in that. You know that if anything was wrong I’d cable you in an instant (and you know how fast I can move when I want to!).
It all started oh, about a month or so ago.
I was at Luchow’s getting things set up for the breakfast crowd and in walks Durian Face. Brush takes me aside and asks, “Hey Rosie, yez seen ennyone lookin’ ‘round here, kinda suspicious-like?”
“No more than usual,” I say. “Why?”
“Caught a window-peeper last night ‘round here,” he says. “Lookin’ fer th’ Inspector.”
Now THAT got me interested. If he were looking for me, I just might have foregone wearing my robe or closing the shutters. “Go on. He wasn’t from New Haven, was he?”
Brush chuckled. “Nah, they knows better. We starts in rousting the guy an’ he pulls a badge. Private dick, from Los Antelopes.”
I raised an eyebrow. “And why was he looking for the Inspector?” Both of us know that it isn’t because he has a doe in every port and a fawn in every bassinette.
“Tol’ us he had ‘structions ta look fer th’ Inspector an’ report back whether he was still livin’ or not.”
“Is he still here?” I wanted to ask him a few things. You can get more with sweet words and a pawful of claws than you can with just sweet words. Ask Al Capon.
“We give him th’ bum’s rush and had him on the first plane outta here,” Brush said. He drew himself a cup of coffee, sipped at it and said, “Just keep botha dem peepers o’ yers on the look-out, hanh?”
And that, Willow, was that.
A couple of weeks ago a bad storm hit, and Nerzmann’s Books got some roof damage. Nothing really serious, but water started leaking, and as luck would have to have it, it started leaking directly over poor Franneleh’s head. Chinese Water Torture isn’t his thing, so he moved in with me (oh, come on – you mean you DIDN’T see this coming?) until repairs could be completed.
Besides, we both need the company, nu?
Anyway, the big news around here, other than the storms, was a small ring of thieves who were lifting airplane parts. Your Da came home more than once in bad need of a hoof rub, which Yours Truly was very happy to administer. Business at Luchow’s had a falloff, but that’s the off-season for you. Just the Meeting Island bureaucrats to feed. Lots of time to get things painted or fixed.
So I’m upstairs waiting for Franklin to get home, when there’s a knock at the door. “Come in!”
In walks Vicky, carrying a package under her arm. “Special delivery, Rosie.”
I give the vixen a look. “Who’s it for?”
“Inspector Stagg.” Vicky gets a sly look on her vixen muzzle as she passes me the package. “Gonna open it?”
“Not on your life. The Inspector would have my hide for poking my muzzle where it shouldn’t.”
Actually there ARE places I poke my muzzle, but you don’t need to know that.
She laughs and walks out, and I look at the package.
Delivered by courier; no return address except for a post office box number in San Francisco. Heavy, and sounded a bit hollow when I rapped it. No ticking noises, either. I really wanted to open it, but you know about curiosity putting the kibosh on felines.
Besides, it was all tied up with string and the edges of the wrapping paper were all gummed securely. No way to even steam it open and hope to close it back up.
I shrugged and set the package aside. Franneleh could open it himself.
Just before suppertime I hear slow, halting hoofsteps coming up the stairs, and I get up to open the door. Just before I do I slipped my robe off one shoulder to show off a few more spots.
Franklin looked tired, but he smiled when he saw me, and I wafted him in on the layer of pink fog that suddenly sprang up. Dinner was waiting for him (one of Nick’s specialties, carrots braised in honey and red wine, with a salad on the side) and after he had eaten I gave him the obligatory hoof rub.
While he was getting his massage he started telling me about his day. In addition to the usual, a group of VIPs were coming from Tillamook, a whole mess of Wise Ones coming for some sort of confab with their counterparts. I didn’t know priestesses had conventions, and I wonder if they wear fezzes.
Probably best if I don’t know what they drop out of hotel rooms, a la that giant cake in Sons of the Dessert.
I was massaging his bad hoof and said casually, “A package came for you today, dear.”
Franneleh was sprawled flat on his back on the bed, and he looked up. “A package?”
“Yes, delivered by courier from ‘Frisco. Were you expecting something?” I gave him a look. You remember that those damned red pandas tried to put your Da in an early grave with a package way back in January.
He looked troubled, obviously recalling the same thing. “Could . . . could you open it, Rosie?”
“Sure thing.” My hoof-rubbing duties done, I got up and walked over to the package. The paper was fairly thick, but my claws made short work of it.
“What is it?”
“A box.” I held it out to him. Fine wood, well varnished with small brass hinges and a latch. I flipped the latch open, then raised the lid gingerly.
“Huh! Look at this.” The box was lined in plush purple velvet. There was a book in it. Fancy leather binding with gold inlay.
I looked at the spine. “A Singular Life, by B.”
“Interesting,” Franklin said.
I nodded and flipped it open. There was an inscription (mauve ink) inside the front cover written in a very strong feminine paw. Very flowing script, easy to read.
I cleared my throat and read aloud, “To my dear Franklin: In memory yet green of those days at Collegiate – and the nights that I once wished for. B- “
“Bernyce.” The name came out as a gasp, and I looked up to see Franklin’s eyes gone wide as saucers.
Oh, I say to myself, there HAS to be a story here.
“Who?” I asked.
He didn’t say anything, just held out his paw with a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face.
“Uh-uh,” I said. “Tell me who she is, first.”
“I need to see the paw-writing in order to verify that,” Franklin said.
“Okeh.” I sat down beside him, the book firmly in my lap. I showed him the note.
He took one look and sort of sagged a bit. “Yes. Yes, it’s her.”
Franneleh’s voice went all quiet, like he was digging out (or up) a memory buried a long ways back. “Bernyce Euterpe Pratt-Wallingford.”
“Sounds like someone’s maiden aunt.”
“She was from the New Haven Wallingfords. Very old family, made their money in textiles.”
“Friend of the family?”
Franneleh snapped a bit. “I should damned well hope not, at this point.” He relaxed a little. “She never had anything to do with politics. Proof positive of her intelligence.”
I raised an eyebrow and started flipping pages. “Looks like she did plenty with everything else.” There were pages of photographs, all paw-tinted reproductions separated from each other by sheets of onionskin paper to protect them. From the scenery, this Bernyce had been all over the world – there were pictures from Africa, Europe, Asia and both Americas. There were also several art studies, and so I studied one of them.
Bernyce was a raccooness, it appeared.
And she was all woman, let me tell you. The setting for this picture was an artist’s studio, with the girl in her birthday suit and standing in a pose that was at once demure and come-hither. Made my tail twitch, a fact that Franklin noticed, so I held the book open for him to see. He closed his eyes as a pained look crossed his face.
“Yes, that’s her.”
“I really must ask.”
A sigh. “If you must.” He sat up and ran a paw through his headfur. “I met her when I attended Collegiate. She was a year senior to me, and was already considered a bit . . . well, the expression used in those days was ‘wild.’”
“I can see that.” I had turned to a photo of her in full geisha regalia, kneeling in a lane bordered by cherry trees as blossoms floated around her. Another picture (the caption read Mombasa) showed her in native dress. And I do mean native.
A third showed her with a very tall and dapper-looking canine wearing a gaudy uniform. The caption identified him as Prince ______, the Duke of Aosta, a cousin of the King of Italy.
“Huh! She sure got around.”
“She took the Grand Tour after she graduated in ’04, or so I heard. I only saw her intermittently and at fleeting times after she graduated.”
I scanned some of her writing, whistling. “Grand Tour indeed. Including the Crown Prince of Japan as a landmark.”
“Her tastes were always exotic.” Franklin was wrapped deep in thought as memories came back to him.
“So how does she know you?”
He looked at me.
“Well . . . not in any Biblical sense,” I hastily added.
“Thank you. Anyway, I was taking a seminar in Romantic German literature,” he said. “I was the only junior in the class, and was still quite shy and self-conscious. I was barely seventeen at the time, you understand. Professor Doktor Bartrop was a good teacher, but he had us get up and recite passages from various works as part of the course. He had Bernyce and I alternate stanzas during one recitation.”
“From what?” I was pretty sure it wasn’t Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.
“The works of Heinrich Heine.” I must have looked a bit blank, because he added, “The greatest of the German romantics. The poem he chose was one of his earliest, Allnachtlich in Traume.”
I thought a moment. “Nightly in Dreams? Sounds pretty.”
“It is.” A pause, a long one. And then, to my surprise, he closed his eyes, tilted his head and spoke:
“Allnachtlich im Traume seh ich dich,
Und sehe dich freundlich grüssen
Und laut auf weinend sturz ich mich
Zu deinen süssen Füssen.”
“I recited the poetry, but Bernyce – it was like she caressed each line, looking straight at me the entire time. I – I must confess that I was quite enthralled by the attention, so much so that the rest of the class’ laughter was the only thing that brought me back to myself.”
I nodded. Your father has told me a bit about his childhood. Diana, rest her soul, was the best thing to ever happen to him.
Franneleh sighed. “Afterward, she . . . she asked me out. Extraordinary behavior for the times, but then, that was Bernyce. She was never one for convention.”
Now THAT was an eyebrow-lifter. “And?”
“I . . . declined the invitation.” He looked troubled. “In hindsight, probably not the best course of action, as it led to some rather coarse comments by others when the news got around – as it was bound to. Directed at both of us, I’m sorry to say. I didn’t give a damn about myself, but I was sorry about what they said about her. I don’t think she meant any harm by what she did.”
I nodded, flipping through another photo section.
I stopped abruptly.
There, in black and white, was a young whitetail buck standing in the middle of what I remembered from the time I was there the Collegiate quad in New Haven, a solemn expression on his face. Very thin, and his rack not quite fully grown. But what an expression in the eyes!
He was in white tie and tails.
I glanced at Franneleh. “This is what you looked like then? You looked pretty good there, Franklin - ” I showed him the open page.
The expression on his face changed to one of pain, almost loathing. “I really wish she hadn’t kept that picture. I had asked her to burn that thing.”
“Would you like - ?”
One helluva wound there, even after all these years.
“Well,” I said, “I think it’s a lovely gift, to send you a copy of her memoirs. Wow, it’s a limited edition, see? There’s even a number.” I showed him the publisher’s page, which indicated that this copy was Number Seven of only Seventy-Five copies.
Franklin took the book out of my paws and regarded it, then gave it back to me. “Put it carefully back in its box, please,” he said. “I may read it later.”
Something in his tone of voice told me that ‘later’ might mean sometime after Hell froze over, but who am I to judge?
Things went by pretty quietly the next few days. Franneleh didn’t mention the book, but didn’t seem to mind when he saw me reading it.
Quite the lady, this raccooness. She had money, taste, and apparently when she had an itch, she scratched it. Vigorously. Guess after her husband got killed in the Great War she decided to visit every cabin on the Ark.
Her impressions of your father were – interesting. She thought he was very handsome (which made two of us), and spoke of him in glowing terms.
I guess him standing her up only whetted her appetite.
I also had the nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I’d seen her somewhere before.
Anyway, a couple days went by.
Next morning, a bit after the breakfast rush I was having a cup of coffee and Vicky said, “Hey, Rosie?”
“Come look at this,” and she pointed out at the patio.
I looked and saw that the patio was filling up with a chattering gaggle of women. Remember, I said that there was some kind of convention of Wise Ones going on. This looked like the Tillamook or Rain Island group, since they were either in street clothes or bark-cloth clothing.
They were all cervines, too – a mix ranging from moose to elk, to pronghorn antelopes and whitetails.
Vicky headed out to give them all menus and I gave Nick the nod to get ready for a bunch of vegetarian meals.
Things looked pretty okeh at first. They all ordered, and spent some time just eating and talking among themselves.
All separate checks, too. Poor Vicky.
I was bringing a tray of dirty dishes back when I noticed something.
One of the Wise Ones, a tall moose cow, had gotten up from her seat and walked over to the table I kept reserved for Franneleh. She sniffed the air around the table, and waved to the others.
In a Gnu York minute there were twenty of them gathered around the table, chattering in their native languages with big smiles on their faces.
Then they left.
Good tips, too.
I wondered a bit about the way they were acting, though. Suspicious.
It only got weirder at lunch, and supper, and breakfast the next day.
One of the Wise Ones was always there, having a meal and keeping a close eye on Franneleh’s table.
When he showed up to eat they watched him like he was a prime patch of fescue.
Good enough to eat, in other words.
Now, you know I don’t have a jealous bone in my body, but this behavior was making me curious. And you KNOW how I can’t stand being curious. (See above.)
So, one day after lunch, I decided to follow the woman who’d been eyeing up Franneleh. This one was a cute little whitetail doe (not as cute as you, Willow, so don’t go all jealous on me), and she made a beeline for the water taxis.
I had to bite my tongue when I got on the next taxi, or I would have said, “Follow that boat!” to the driver.
I saw her heading off into the jungle after we reached Southie so I followed her. I have to admit I almost got lost a couple times, but Little Miss Wise One had been flagging, so all I had to do was follow the doe-scent.
The jungle opened out into a clearing and I thought I’d ended up in the middle of a combination Girl Scout jamboree and slumber party. Some of the women were in tents (very intense, judging from the sounds I heard coming from one of them – yum!) while the rest were listening avidly to what the Doe Detective was saying. They all turned to look at me as I stepped into the clearing.
“Hi,” I said. “How’s things been going?”
One girl, the moose cow I’d seen that first day at Luchow’s, stepped out of the group and eyed me. Lordy, she was big, and I mean in every direction. I actually felt my tail twitch.
She asked, “What are you doing here?”
“Well, I’m Rosie Baumgartner, owner at Luchow’s over on Meeting Island,” I said, “and I couldn’t help noticing at least one of you watching for Inspector Stagg.”
“Is that his name?” the moose asked. She smiled. “Do you know anything more about him?”
I cocked an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“I know that he is a widower,” the moose replied. “Does he have any women?”
I cocked one leg forward and rested a paw on my hip in a classic sculptor’s pose. “What am I?” I asked. “Chopped liver?”
The other women started to mutter amongst themselves and the moose shushed them. “You are a meat-eater,” she said.
“Nu? Your point being?”
“He should have a choice, if he is to be herd buck.” The others nodded in agreement.
I knew that some does had slightly dippy ideas about matrimony (not you, of course) but Oy. Vey. Iz mir.
“I thought you lot were from Tillamook and Rain Island, not Utah.” I tried to smile, but my ears kept wanting to stay back. “Look here, Inspector Stagg already has a girlfriend – me. Suppose you all just leave him alone, okeh?”
The moose quirked an eyebrow at me. “Suppose we don’t, little cat?”
Heh. Didn’t even have to look.
A couple of the smaller and younger girls stepped back and I said, “You don’t want to know the answer to that. Just leave him alone, okeh? He’s taken.”
I turned my back (and the rest of me) and departed the scene with a rapid dignity. I mean, twenty-seven on one may be good in a few VERY limited contexts, but this wasn’t one of ‘em.
And that, I thought, was that.
I shoulda knowed better, so the saying goes.
The next day we couldn’t get the stove lit. I mean, there was gas flowing through the line and all (B’onss almost lost his eyebrows checking the line with a box of matches), and although we did finally manage to get it lit we had a hell of time making sure it stayed lit.
That set the mood for the whole day.
Things got weirder when I saw K’nutt sweeping the storeroom energetically and actually making progress. “K’nutt?” I asked.
“Yes, Rosie? What would you like?”
That brought me up short.
The little carbuncle isn’t exactly known for high intelligence (actually, he’s not known for any), but I was pretty certain that this was the first time he’s said anything that didn’t include a stuttering statement of undying love for cocoanuts. I gave him the job I had for him and watched him walk off.
He actually got the job accomplished, correctly and quickly.
Things got even more verklempt. B’onss started making sense and managed to fix the refrigerator without blowing it up or having any parts left over. Vicky started acting a bit clumsy – which wouldn’t be noticed in most people, but she’s a knife-thrower; Lord help anyone if she gets fumble-fingered while chucking a blade.
And Nick seemed to lose his ability to launch a one-liner.
What really convinced me that Something was definitely Up was the sight of Mooch at the bank. No, not trying to convince a teller that he had a money order coming and could he please borrow off it. I mean at the bank, as in a teller’s booth. Depositing, would you believe, a pay check.
With a *job*?
Right then I knew that those Wise Ones had put what could be described as a curse on me.
Well, a few days after the weird stuff started happening, the sun decided to make its appearance. It actually looked like it was going to be a good day.
I was on guard for trouble.
Franklin looked quite nice today and after he finished getting dressed he went to the windows and threw open the shutters.
Only to close them again.
He then peeked out, and turned to put his back against the wall beside the window as he looked at me with a very odd expression on his muzzle. “Erm, Rosie?”
“Is there something you’d like to tell me about?”
“Well – “
“Because there are several dozen women in your biergarten.”
“Yes. And they’re all looking directly at this window.”
“Um.” I blushed. “Well, I didn’t want to tell you, Franklin – you have enough on your mind already – “
“I think the time for secrecy is past. Out with it, Rosie.”
I then proceeded to tell him, and he sagged a bit, shaking his head. I finished up with a helpless shrug and said, “I dunno. Maybe they think you’re their messiah or something.”
“It’s a mess all right, but no messiah. In the offing or otherwise.” He risked another peek out the shuttered window.
“Didn’t they have a ‘herd buck’ type arrangement in New Haven?”
“I doubt it very strongly,” your father said. “If they had, I'm sure my half-brother Prescott would have been all for it.”
I took a peek. “Yep, fifty, count ‘em, fifty. Good full house. I’d like to give them the bum’s rush, but I'm not sure I like the odds." (See above for my grip on odds.)
Franneleh smiled thinly. "They seem to." He swiveled an ear as I giggled. “I was always led to believe that if the odds were long on one side, they heavily favored another's."
"Yeah, but your favors are spoken for, thanks very much."
"Do you think if I leaned out the window and said, 'Sorry, girls, I’m taken,' that'd help any?"
He snorted and said contemptuously, “Herd buck. I wouldn't have been qualified for the job when I was twenty and healthy."
"You sell yourself short, Franneleh," I purred, giving him a warm look and a hug.
He smiled at me. "Fifty? Even that maniac Reggie Buckhorn couldn't do it."
"Mebbe they'll take numbers, like in a deli?"
“Hmm. Now that I think of it, though, Mrs. Buckhorn would not have allowed it."
"H'm. I dunno. Willow's fairly open minded..."
“I don't wish to know that.” He peeked out the window again.
"...but, neh, you're probably right." My tail swished as I started to consider options. "But, we still got a problem, Franneleh. I mean, they're not rioting, so we can't exactly call the riot squad..."
"Well, Chief Sapper will probably take this excuse for not going to work with a straight face..."
"He's good at that," I grinned. "I’ll sneak you out the back way after you’ve had your breakfast and I’ll talk to a few people who might know how to help.”
Franklin ate in the kitchen and Nick showed him out. After I was sure he was away and safe, I stepped out into the biergarten and stared down at the sea of unfriendly faces. “Shove off, girls. He’s mine,” I said, and they made way for me.
“Okay, let me get this straight,” Kara said a few minutes later.
(So who else did you think I was going to talk to? Rebbe Steinmink?)
“You have four dozen women in your biergarten who are intent on – well, showing their affections to Inspector Stagg?” Kara shook her head. “Rosie, unless they’re breaking the law the worst we can get them for is trespassing, and as an official delegation from Tillamook they have immunity from prosecution.”
“Anything, Kara,” I said. “Can’t you rig up a court order telling them to stay away?”
“I could,” she said, “but it’d end up costing you business. See, they’d probably end up clogging the sidewalk and the street, and the Constabulary would likely cite you for it – “
“Huh? ME?! Why?”
“The charge would be ‘maintaining an attractive nuisance.’”
Well, I’d have to confess that Franneleh is attractive, but he’s far from being a nuisance.
She thought a moment. “Talk to my brother and see if he can get you in touch with one of our Wise Ones.”
"You gotta be kiddin'," Durian Face snorted after I told him. “I gets problems dealin' wit ONE Wise One. Fifty?!”
"Well, they can't stay camped out in my biergarten," I said. "We have the brunch crowd coming in."
“Heh. I t’ink dat *is* the brunch crowd.”
"Yeah, you have a point there. And I think we all know what they want as the main course."
“Yeah. Th’ Inspector clued me in. Well, Rosie, I’ll ask around, but you knows dames – once they get somethin’ in their heads there ain’t no shiftin’ it.” He grinned and evaded my grab at his tail.
A day later Brush excused himself past the phalanx of Wise Ones and got a cup of coffee. He sipped at it and made a face. “That slop’s worse’n what the street vendors sell,” he spluttered. “What gives, Rosie?”
“Ask them,” I said with a jerk of the thumb in the direction of the Thundering Herd. “Things have been going odd around here ever since this started.”
Brush promptly got a shifty look, which I caught.
He waved me over, where none of the Wise Ones could see us. He whispered, “I hadda idea, an’ spoke ta Kiki ‘bout yer problem.”
“You’ll see,” and with a wink he let himself out.
The next day I could see what he meant, as Luchow’s acquired a ring of defenders to stare down the Wise Ones.
Okay, I hear you asking, “But who in the Spontoons – in their right minds – would be willing to face down a herd of Wise Ones?”
More Wise Ones, in this case the home team. And all vixens, showing teeth. Words were being exchanged, and I couldn’t hear (I was safely inside and upstairs, thank you). But what I could see was a lot of paw-waving and a lot of gum-flapping.
Finally someone got their point across and the Tillamookan Team started to disperse, a few of the does and cows looking sad and frustrated.
I didn’t quite blame them. Franneleh would have been a heck of a catch.
But I *had* seen him first, after all. Finders, keepers.