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Posted 3 January 2011
The Gaze: The Glass Goose
Story & art by Warren Hutch

Spontoon Archipelago, 1939
Story & art by Warren Hutch
© 2010 Warren Hutch
(Songmark Academy is the intellectual property of Simon Barber
& is used with permission)


    About an hour later Dorothy Pearl and Jane Early walked out of the front lobby of the Pelican Hotel. Both were freshly showered and brushed, and had reduced their outfits somewhat to account for the late afternoon heat that rippled off of the crushed coral paved thoroughfare outside.
    Mrs. Pearl wore a fresh slip of dusky lavender directly beneath her charcoal grey jacket and skirt, her low brimmed hat still draped with it's black gauze veil. Her hair was pulled back in a simple, loose bun. Another piece of diaphanous, deep purple gauze was bound around her throat like a kerchief, clasped by her silver brooch with its limpid, glittering jewel center. Her legs were bare, showing the faint stripes on the brown fur of her legs leading into her patent leather shoes, worn without socks.
    At her side, Miss Early wore a simple, loose white male's shirt with the sleeves rolled up over her elbows and the top buttons unbuttoned, revealing the upper edge of a much looser, lighter roll of cloth binding her chest. She wore the same khaki pants and hobnail boots she'd worn before, with an olive drab canvas satchel slung over one shoulder. A cloth baseball cap bearing the interlocked VC logo of the Vale Clippers covered her orange hair, with the leather bill pulled low over her eyes.
    The rabbit doe hooked her thumbs into the loops of her suspenders and glanced over at her companion. "There, now don't y'all feel better without fifty pounds o' foundation garments weighin' y'all down?"
    The tabby shifted her shoulders under her jacket and tugged at the sleeves with a guarded expression. "It's definitely much cooler, I'll grant you that, but I also feel a little... I don't know. Exposed?"
    The rabbit doe let out a soft snort. "That's mighty comical comin' from a gal with X ray vision."
    Mrs. Pearl pursed her lips. "X Rays have nothing to do with it. All right, not exposed, really, but still a little... unprotected."

     Miss Early cocked an ear and gave her a smile. "Don't fret about that none, darlin'. I'm watchin' yer back."
    The feline smiled at her companion, then glanced around warily with her striking blue eyes. "And for that I'm grateful, Miss Early, but I'd be happier if you were the only one."
    The rabbit pursed her lips and nodded. "Yeah, I hear y'all. Now lets git a'hoppin'. Which d' y'all prefer, water taxi or ferry?"

     The she cat thought for a moment, then replied. "Water taxi. Maybe we can get the driver to take us directly to Pier Seven for a little extra and avoid any more... well wishers."
    As they stepped off the sidewalk and headed up the thoroughfare toward a dock shared by the grouping of smaller resort hotels to which the Pelican belonged, the doe twitched her nose and cracked her knuckles . "A good firm handshake's all y'need t' deal with those." She absently tugged at an ear. "Speakin' o' deals, whut's th' deal with this tour outfit we're a'goin' t' see? I looked 'em up in the guidebook, and I gotta say two stars on a scale o' seven ain't too encouragin'."
    Her feline companion pursed her lips and cast her a sidelong glance. "Well, I got my research from other sources. Their route, and their plane, are just what's called for on this mission."
    The rabbit shrugged, her long ears cocked pensively. "I'd'a figgered y'all'd wanna let Frankenthaler hook us up with a scout plane, but after th' hotel I'm glad y'all're makin' yer own arrangements." She glanced around warily. "But do y'all reckon y'can trust these flyboys?"
    The tabby gave her a slight smile. "That remains to be seen, Miss Early."
    With that, they stepped onto the long boardwalk, dodging nimbly through the crowds.

    As the two females receded down the thoroughfare toward the docks, a collection of shadowy figures watched them from the doorway of a nearby building. The one eyed fox called Aggie flicked his notched ear as he peered around the door frame, his glass eye now oriented more or less forward down his long, pointed muzzle.
    A choked sneeze behind him indicated the presence of the bedraggled neko, now clad in a slightly damp floral print shirt that clashed loudly with a lava lava whose intricate native pattern caused Spontoonies he passed to do everything from barely suppressed snickers to bursting out in loud belly laughs. The cat's short, curled tail was set in rigid spikes, from a combination of dried salt water and a state of profound irritation mirrored in his flattened ears, the bunched muscles on the bridge of his nose between simmering orange eyes, and the way he fingered a fish gutting knife he'd picked up somewhere to replace his lost dagger. A darkening bruise under the fur of his left cheek was doing nothing to improve his mood.
    His eyes narrowed as they followed the two females' progress. "That is impossible! They were never on that water taxi! I would have seen them. They would never have even made it to the hotel. No gaijin wenches are clever enough to slip past Kurogata Ichi."
    The fox rolled his eye, while the other stared fixedly ahead. "Sounds t' me like the only slippin' that went on was you offa the dock, Itchy." He nodded toward their quarry. "A fact's a fact, those dames have been at the Pelican all afternoon."
    The feline growled through his teeth. "Don't be so smug. You and your little native flunky didn't have any more success than I did."
    Aggie flicked his ear again but ignored the neko, watching intently until Mrs. Pearl and Miss Early had gotten far enough away, then nodded with satisfaction and turned to his glowering companion, cocking his head in the direction the females had come from. "C'mon chowderhead. Lets go."
    With that, he made to scurry toward the hotel, but was brought up short by a sinewy, grey furred hand gripping his scrawny shoulder in an iron like grasp. The neko stopped as well, his fierce expression softened by a trace of fear, as he glanced over at the slate colored linen sleeve contianing a powerfully muscled arm.
    The long, grim muzzle of a wolf leaned down by the cringing tod's ragged ear and whispered instruction in an ominous, rumbling growl, "Vait a moment, little red. Give them more time to get clear. These are formidable females, for a mere rabbit and cat."
    At this, the shivering neko stiffened, but relaxed almost instantly with another fearful glance at the looming creature. The wolf stepped into the light, looking like an art deco statue in his immaculately pressed suit and tie. His amber blonde hair was shorn back to where it blended neatly into his pale grey fur.

  "Unfriendly Observers" Aggie, Herr Ravenholt, Kurogata Ichi, Zoltan from "The Gaze: The Glass Goose" Part 3 - art & story by Warren Hutch
Unfriendly Observers  - by Warren Hutch - (larger file here - 1.4 MBytes)

    Aggie swallowed hard and spoke in a tremulous voice. "D-don't you want we should tail 'em, B-b-boss?"
    A sneer crossed the wolf's features. "And have to pull you out of the lagoon as vell? No... I don't think you are as good a svimmer as our little catfish here."
    At this a low growl escaped the feline's throat, but he put on an impassive mask as the wolf shot him a glare. "What are your instructions then please, Herr Ravenholt?"
    The wolf furrowed his brow as he looked across at the hotel. "For now, I think ve vill content ourselves vith searching their room." He turned and barked a command at someone standing patiently in the shadows behind him. "Zoltan! Come forward."

     A hulking male dog stepped forward and stood with his head bowed and his eyes cast downward. He was a drab, greyish tan male with a blunt, wide muzzle, docked ears and tail, and dark brown hair shorn back to the same centimeter length as his fur. A loose set of brown coveralls wrapped his muscular frame. He was shod in cheaply made leather boots with metal studs poking forth from reinforced toes, which matched a thick spiked collar held closed by a metallic lock around his sinewy neck. His voice was soft, almost a whisper, but so deep the other two almost could feel it in the heels of their shoes. "Vhat is your command, if you please, your excellency?"
    After giving him an appraising look, the wolf nodded toward the cat and fox. "Go vith these two idiots and make sure they don't foul this simple task up. Observe and listen closely and report back to the boat. Understood?"
    The burly canine bowed deeply, as Aggie and Ichi looked at each other warily. With a final glance down the street in the direction the two females had gone, the wolf gave an impatient wave of his hand, sending the fox and cat on their way with the stolid dog following impassively. Ravenholt shot his cuffs with a scowl, and vanished into the shadows of the doorway.

    Mrs. Pearl and Miss Early had found the same water taxi that had transported them from Eastern Island to South Island, its portly lapine occupant dozing on one of the benches in the cast shade of a nearby tour boat's awning. It hadn't taken much more than a sawbuck to convince him to run them directly to Pier Seven as his sole passengers. As they neared the address listed in the guidebook, gliding through the oily water past rows of tour boats and seaplanes, a strikingly painted sea plane hove into view.

    It was a flying boat of a fairly common type, painted a bright, sky blue, with artistically rendered fluffy white clouds mimicking a glorious tropical sky over green and brown islands painted at the waterline. The effect was slightly ruined by the glaze of harbor grime that crept up the sides of the hull. Near the front, by the craft's registration number SP-P-713, the nose was decorated with the white outline of a waterfowl taking flight with blotchy highlights indicating it was made out of some shiny, polished material, accompanied by flowery cursive writing declaring the aircraft's name as "The Glass Goose" with dark blue edging under the white script. Underneath, in block letters, the names "G. Riley, Captain" and "L. Pike, Chief Engineer" were written.
    The female rabbit leaned over on the bench next to Mrs. Pearl and whispered to her with a wary expression. "I cain't say I'm rightly encouraged by a plane with "glass" in it's moniker. Brings up a lotta... unfortunate connotations..."
    The brown furred tabby smiled slightly as she looked at her companion. "All will become clear, Miss Early." She straightened up in her seat and called out to the boat pilot, waving to get his attention. "Here's our stop Mister Kapua." She pointed toward the wooden sign at the end of the catwalk that extended out from the main pier under the wing and past the plane's hatch, bearing the the number for berth 243.

    At this, the heavyset rabbit turned in his chair with a shocked look on his face. A beat later, the shabby furred lapine grinned from ear to long, upraised ear, as he exploded in raucous laughter, displaying the tiki face scrimshaw carved into his prominent buck teeth. The rabbit doe and feline stared at him, ears levered back aghast, looked at one another, and then back at him as his belly shook with mirth.

"A Dubious Seaplane" Miss Jane Early, Mrs Dorothy Pearl, Mr. Kapua, The Glass Goose (in background) - from "The Gaze: The Glass Goose" Part 3 - story & art by Warren HutchA Dubious Seaplane - by Warren Hutch - (larger file here - 1 MByte)

    He draped his arm over the back of his seat and fixed them with a bemused gaze. "You pretty ladies fly in Glass Goose? Must REALLY want to see da mermaids!" He wiped a tear from his eye, glancing around, then leaned forward conspiratorially, laying a stubby finger alongside his wiggling nose. "Lissen. You pay extra, ask for blue flag tour. See a whole lot more of mermaids. Maybe tell dem all about it when you back at da Double Lotus, if plane don't break and sink in ocean."

    Mrs. Pearl took this in for a moment, blinking in consternation, as Miss Early's brow furrowed suspiciously, glancing at the driver and at the bright blue plane. The rabbit female cocked an ear. "Double Lotus?"

    The driver nodded, chuckling to himself. "Yeah yeah, nice fancy lady likes lady bar. Can't say how good da drinks are, of course. No males allowed. Didn't know you pretty ladies tailfast. Would have given honeymoon discount. Too late now, pay da full fare plus roaming cost for extra distance."

    As these words sunk in, Mrs. Pearl's face flushed a bright red as her tail went fully frizzed behind her. Miss Early drew herself upright and crossed her arms in front of her, rolling her eyes. "Guess again, tubby. I don't swing crosskin."

    The feline rounded on her incredulously. "Did... did he just imply that you and I are lesb..."

    The rabbit doe cut her off impatiently. "He didn't imply nothin', darlin'. He jest came right on out an said it. Now calm down and pay th' feller. It ain't like he's th' first t' think it." She turned and looked appraisingly at the seaplane bobbing nearby. "Again, I'm more worried about th' other stuff he said, like about th' plane breakin' up and sinkin'."

    Fuming, the she cat fished around inside her pocketbook and pulled out twenty dollars, which she handed to the driver with her icy blue eyes flashing. "Here. Cost for the trip, plus "roaming charges" plus a little more to keep this trip and your speculations about our private affairs to yourself, MISTER Kapua."
    The rabbit took the bills with a grin and a shrug. "Hey, we all open minded here. I like da ladies too. Don't care what others take to bed." A thought struck him, and he laid his finger aside his nose again. "Oh, one last bit of advice for free. Keep hands to self on plane ride, get thrown into da ocean otherwise, have to swim home for sure."

    The rabbit doe and feline glanced at one another again in consternation as he eased his boat up to the pier.

    Soon, the pair were picking their way up the bobbing catwalk toward the pier, in the direction of a couple of wooden shacks on stilts, connected by a short catwalk, all roofed in bright blue corrugated metal of a similar tone to the float plane parked around back, with a neatly built scaffold holding aloft a radio antenna and trailing the Sylvanian flag, red and white stripes with a branching, seven leaved tree on a field of blue, and a colorful fish shaped windsock. A sign facing out towards the lagoon read "D Tails Excursions" with the D underlined by a dash and two dots.

    As they rounded the corner, the sounds of two female voices in a level toned but insistent argument reached their ears. They were greeted by the sight of a shapely, sandy haired vixen perched on the top tier of a wooden ladder in front of an elaborate carved sign hanging over a bank of windows at the front of the foremost shack. She held a large white scallop shell in one hand and a hammer in the other.
    Standing in a nearby doorway, a female raccoon leaned out, peering up at her with an exasperated look on her face, a pair of safety goggles pushed back over dark, almost black hair in a pert bob cut. Both were clad in dirt and grease stained coveralls, neatly buttoned up beige on the raccoon and faded blue denim on the vixen, which was worn half off with the sleeves knotted around the waist over a blue and white knit bathing suit. They were mid-argument as Mrs. Pearl and Miss Early came within earshot.

"Fixing the Sign Again" Gwen Riley & Loretta Pike at D Tails Excursions - from "The Gaze: The Glass Goose" part 3 - art & story by Warren Hutch
Fixing the Sign Again - by Warren Hutch (larger file here - 1.5 MBytes)

    The raccoon rubbed her temples with work gloved thumb and forefinger as she responded to the vixen. "I don't care. Just nail 'em back up there and quit complaining about it."

    The female fox gestured in the air with the hammer. "They'll be off by Morning Song tomorrow once the bars close down tonight, and then it'll be your turn to climb up here and put 'em back."

    The raccoon drew herself up and crossed her arms in front of her. "Then I'll put 'em back. Then it'll be your turn again, and so on so on so forth."

    The vixen shrugged. "I say we just leave 'em off. That's how Takky made it in the first place."

    The raccoon rolled her eyes. "Against our express instructions, or I guess I should say against MY express instructions. I should have known what we'd be getting when you volunteered to model for it."

    The vixen raised her nose and huffed. "Well I like it, and it was a bargain at twice the price."

    The raccoon waved her comment away. "That's neither here nor there. If you like it so much, pay back the cost to our promotions budget and hang it over your bunk for all I care." She cut the air with a flattened hand, bringing it emphatically down on an upraised palm. "Bottom line is this... If you leave the shells off, we don't get any white flag traffic."

    The vixen tossed her head. "Sure, but it attracts the blue flags like flies, and they pay more."

    The raccoon stamped her foot impatiently. "Yeah, and the 'maids get a bigger cut of that, AND we need BOTH the white and blue flag tours if we're gonna make payroll and put gas in the tank. So I repeat, quit your bellyachin' and nail those shells back up over 'Finny Gwennie's' floatation devices before they chase away any more church groups."

    The female fox grumbled under her breath as the sound of her hammer tapping rang out over the deserted dock. The raccoon nodded to herself in satisfaction.

    Her eyes went wide as the tentative sound of Mrs. Pearl's voice sounded out next to her. "Um... Excuse us. We'd like to talk to someone about chartering a flight or two."
    The startled raccoon spun on her heel, flustered. "OH! Hello there! Can... can I help you ladies?"

    At this a sound like a tea saucer breaking sounded from above as shards of broken seashell clattered to the planks of the pier. The vixen looked down from atop the ladder, as surprised as her raccoon companion. "Oh golly. Customers!"

    She hurriedly hung the hammer over the edge of the sign by its claw end then planted her hands on the top step of the ladder, kicked her legs back over either side like she was dismounting from a pommel horse, and slid down the back of the ladder in one fluid move, landing lightly on the balls of her bare feet. She turned and gave them a bright smile, pulling her leather work gloves off of her dark furred hands and extending one in welcome.

    As she took the vixen's proffered hand, Mrs. Pearl glanced up bemusedly at the source of the pair's contention. The large sign was beautifully carved in bas relief, probably by a local craftsman, and depicted a creature who was from the waist down a sinuously curving tropical fish with orange and gold scales and flowing fins in a rainbow of colors, and from the waist up was the perfect, saucily smiling likeness of the sandy haired, mellow orange furred female who stood before her shaking her hand, although the carved version was quite au natural save for a real scallop shell nailed by carefully drilled holes to cover one of her buoyant looking breasts. The other was uncovered, and quite lovingly detailed by the look of it, marred only by a protruding nail and a couple of small holes. Flowing, art nouveau styled text in Westcommon and Jardinais  exhorted customers to "See the legendary mermaids of Nobikini Atoll!"

    At her side, Miss Early looked up and snorted in a burst of sudden mirth. "Nobikini Atoll..." The rabbit grinned at her companion, but then her brow furrowed and her ears drooped slightly as the feline cocked an eyebrow at her. "Dang. Guess that ain't gonna be funny fer another ten years or so..."
    The felines attention was drawn back to the vixen, who pumped her hand as she introduced herself and the raccoon with a nod of her head. "I'm Gwen Riley, and this is my partner Loretta Pike. If you want to arrange a tour, we can definitely help you."

     The tabby nodded her head, her piercing blue eyes gazing from behind her black gauze veil. "Missus Dorothy Pearl, and this is my assistant Miss Jane Early."

    She released the vixen's hand and turned to shake the raccoon's. After they'd both shaken the tan furred rabbit doe's hand as well, Loretta motioned toward the door. "Won't you please come in?"
"A Curious Tail" Gwen Riley (background), Loretta Pike & curious tail (foreground) - from "The Gaze: The Glass Goose" Part 3 - story & art by Warren Hutch
    Mrs. Pearl nodded, and they all filed inside.

    As she fell into step behind the young raccoon, the feline noticed something odd about her hostess'  tail. It was a thick, dark and light striped brush, typical of Miss Pike's kindred, but there was an wide gap in the fur about halfway down its length, marked by a leather band decorated with tooling of colorful little tropical flowers and held closed by a delicate, heart shaped gold clasp. Normally, this would have struck her as merely an odd fashion statement, until her preternaturally sharp eyes picked up the way the bottom half of the raccoon girl's tail was a bit less glossy than the striped fur above, and hung rather stiff and lifeless. The feline gazed trough the band and saw the truth.

    It was a fastener, not a decoration. The lower half of the young female's tail had been severed at some point in the past, and was now worn as a taxidermied prosthetic.

    The unconsciously self-conscious way she moved it was further confirmation, as the dark masked female swung hastily around and indicated two chairs reupholstered in bright native cloth. "Please, have a seat. Would you like something to drink?"

    The vixen hurried over to a chugging icebox in one corner, throwing open the door and releasing a cloud of steam into the muggy air. She smiled a winning smile and went about listing its contents with the verve of a beauty pageant contestant giving her acceptance speech. "We've got Nootnops, Colala, Foxie, Doctor Fortiscue's Fizz, or plain old ice water."

    Her partner pulled out a rolling office chair from the battered desk facing the two padded chairs and sat down, leaning forward and expectantly interweaving her dark furred fingers, her grey eyes gleaming in the dark face mask. "So, what can we do for you ladies? Are you interested in a sightseeing tour? I can promise you that an island tour, day trip, or even multi-stop junket aboard our amazing aircraft is one you'll never forget. And you'll find our rates quite reasonable."

    The vixen chimed in, her voice brimming with enthusiasm. "Perhaps you've heard about the mysterious mermaids of the exotic Nobikini Atoll. We offer you a unique view of a pristine island lagoon with its colorful reefs and beautiful marine life, a truly magical experience never before seen by westerners until now."

    At this, the raccoon's grey eyes rolled impatiently, and she took on the air of someone humoring an over-imaginative kit. "Yes yes, of course Gwen. It's definitely a... unique experience."

    She grinned at the rabbit and she cat, then glanced over at her partner, her smile becoming a bit fixed. With a kick to the wall she rolled herself rapidly sideways over the scuffed hardwood floor, grabbed the refrigerator door and slammed it shut, cutting off the cloud of billowing steam.

    She cast a scowl up at the vixen as she berated her through clenched teeth. "Close that up, dummy. You want the condenser to blow out again?"

    A whispered argument ensued.

    "Well they didn't say if they wanted anything."

    "Well maybe they're not thirsty."

    "Well maybe you can take a long walk off a short..."

    The two young females caught themselves and glanced up at their potential customers with nervous smiles. An awkward silence ensued, as the brown furred tabby gazed about impassively with her gleaming eyes. She had been studying her surroundings ever since she'd sat down, scarcely heeding their sales pitch, or their bickering, as she absorbed all the details around her.

    The small office was neat and tidy, if fairly utilitarian. Whitewashed walls under the crisscrossed timbers of the roof, the floor tightly joined timber like a ship's deck, its blonde varnish crisscrossed with scuffs, scratches, and worn paths from foot traffic. Pleasing native woven curtains in bright hues hung in the window, of a very similar pattern to the ones in the feline and rabbit's room in the Pelican Hotel. A pair of lamps dangled down from the rafters, each with a green plastic shade and a currently unlit bulb.

    The desk was mahogany, but battered and dented with numerous signs of repair. A cheap desk set sat atop it, of fake red and gold leather with one of the pens missing from the brass pen holders. An art deco styled travel clock. Marbleized cardboard for the blotter in a swirl of black, red, and wine tones. A wire inbox with stacks of bills and notices, atop a nearly empty outbox with a few invoice slips and envelopes. A hotel ramikin with a natural sponge in a small puddle of greyish water for wetting stamps. At the front of the desk blotter, two charming hand carved name plates with a tiny, flower framed portrait of the girl who's name it bore, declaring Gwen Riley the President and Loretta Pike the C.E.O, with subheadings in Spontoonie.

     Inside the desk's top drawer, the usual clutter of stubbed pencils, gum eraser wheels with small brushes, brass paper clips, matchbooks, and a box of 12 gauge shotgun shells, which presumably went with the break action sawed off crowd killer stowed in the large desk drawer next to a half empty bottle of Glenberry Glade Aged Bourbon and two shot glasses with their bases glued to poker chips from the Laughing Parrot casino.
    Behind the desk in the far left corner, accessed by spinning in the chair, was a sturdy table with a bulky radio set seated atop it, a bundle of thick wires running up the corner and into the framework above. The numerous dials were dark, and the two sets of padded earphones lay unused next to the box microphone with some fraying wires and a telegraph unit for sending messages in signal code.

    On the wall next to the radio, a large map of the local island chains was tacked to the wall, festooned with colored pins and marked up with pencil, a knife-whittled stub of which hung from a thumbtack by a string off to the side, next to a metal yardstick with etched numbers and matching steel protractor hanging on a tack of their own.
    Next to the map, near the dead center of the room, were two framed certificates written in delicate calligraphy beneath a stylized musical note in a black circle, surrounded in a gold leaf sunburst, declaring Gwendolyn Hope Riley and Loretta Evelyn Pike as graduates of the Songmark Aeronautical Boarding School for Young Ladies, with all honors, responsibilities, and privileges afforded to the same, followed by the signatures of the schools' senior officials.

    Surmounting these, a photograph of the vixen and raccoon standing in front of a heavy wooden gate, all smiles, with a cryptically smirking female leopard and a towering, white furred she-bear with an even broader grin, the four of them dressed in dark blazers with the note emblem on the breast pocket with white blouse and dark tie, medium tone knee length skirt, and patent leather flats.

    Next to these highly prized mementoes, various and sundry framed licenses, titles, and certificates from the Spontoon Althing and the Sylvanian Government granting G. Riley and L. Pike permission to run a business on Spontoon territory on extended visas with full legal status, and declaring them fully qualified pilots for a variety of aircraft.
    Beside the licenses, a heavily varnished door with the word "Private" spelled out in Westcommon, Spontoonie, and Jardinais. Peering through it, Mrs. Pearl saw the bridge leading across to another door, that in turn lead into a small machine shop with a cluttered worktable in one corner and several large crates and metal canisters in the other. A brass plate with a two button style light switch hung by the doorway.

    On the right of the door, a file cabinet that appeared to have been painted and re-painted a couple times, judging from the tree ring like patterns around it's manifold dents and chipped corners, with the expected folders full of important papers inside. An adding machine with some missing keys sat tangled in it's paper tape in the bottom most of the cabinet's three drawers. A wooden duck decoy sat on a stack of papers atop the file cabinet, painted sky blue with clouds similar to the seaplane out back. Over the decoy in a frame on the wall, a colorful Spontoon fifty shell note, mounted beneath a much more drably printed Sylvanian hundred dollar bill. A yellowed sheet of note paper hung from a thumbtack nearby, with the words "In case of emergency, break glass." in scrawled pencil.

    Past the file cabinet, in the corner opposite the radio, the chipped, dented white surface of the icebox, with it's laboring cooling coil humming on top. The vixen had already obliged Mrs. Pearl with a view of the contents, so she didn't bother to gaze inside. An old bell jar half filled with coins of various countries sat up against the compressor, rattling slightly as it ran. She noted that in the four inches or so of space between the file cabinet and the ice chest, a baseball bat with a tape-wrapped handle had been secreted.

    Next to the ice chest around the corner from the back wall, a small window looking out onto the sky blue seaplane outside, bobbing gently under a much more brilliantly azure tropical sky. A collection of soda bottle caps, loose screws, tiny shells and interesting stones had accumulated on the windowsill, and a Colala branded bottle opener had been bolted to the window frame.

    Beside the window, framed under glass, a set of technical drawings of the aircraft, with details regarding some kind of modification to the hull, with various notes on water pressure and material load bearing that Mrs. Pearl didn't have the expertise to decipher. The signature of the draftsman, or in this case, draftswoman, declared that Loretta Pike had made this document. Next to the technical drawing, several more certificates from the Spontoon Althing's Aeronautical Safety Commission and the Ministry of Tourism.

    In the front right corner of the small room, taking up the space between the wall and the door outside, another office chair sat next to a low stand on casters that supported a fairly new looking typewriter, with a supply of foolscap visible inside a low metal box with a lockable latch on the front resting on a shelf beneath the stand's top surface.

    Hanging on the back of the door was a calendar from last year, that hadn't seen the page turned since December of 1938. The artwork was of a winter scene with paired off members of several kindreds ice skating together in old fashioned finery on a pristine country lake among pine trees. A set of coconut halves tied together with bright red cotton twine hung from the same tack as the calendar.

    The two partners stared uncertainly at the brown furred tabby who sat primly in her seat, silently scanning the room with gleaming eyes under her dark veil. Her rough and ready looking rabbit doe companion sat quietly next to her with her legs crossed and her arms draped over the back of the chair, looking around the room with a gaze that was every bit as intense as the feline's from underneath the bill of her cap.

    The two young entrepreneurs traded a puzzled glance, and Gwen Riley tentatively cleared her throat. "Uh... Missus Pearl? Is everything all right?"

    At this, the rabbit looked at her sharply and held up a warning hand. "Jest keep quiet for a second while th' lady looks y'all over."

    Suddenly, the she cat's roving gaze settled on them, and sent a shiver up both girls' spines and down the length of their tails. The fur on Gwen's shoulders bristled as her hand instinctively groped back behind her to reach between the ice chest and file cabinet. She stopped as the rabbit shifted in her seat, uncrossed her legs and propped a booted foot on the edge of the desk with a decisive clunk.

    She fixed the vixen with a hard stare and gave a slight shake of her head. "Ut! I wouldn't..."

    Meanwhile, the tabby peered at the two females with her uncanny vision, taking a full accounting of that which was hidden from view, and there was much to see in that respect.

    The vixen wore a collection of amulets on a lanyard around her neck which was tucked down the front of her swimsuit. The largest was a circular white patch with a black musical note bearing three bars, triple stitched with fishing line to a leather backing ringed round with cowrie shell beads. Hidden underneath the patch was a fish hook and a thin metal washer with one side ground razor sharp. Joining the patch on the lanyard was a St. Beauregard's medal with a highly polished back, and a poker chip with a hole drilled in the top, painted with the likeness of a brown furred male fox with a bright smile and blue eyes, with a groove around the edge which held a small braid of brown and mellow orange fur. She wore a short, flat bladed knife strapped to her upper calf, and had a special pocket at the right hip of her coveralls that contained a set of brass knuckles tied to a length of boot lace.

    The raccoon carried a lock back knife with a horn handle in one of her back pockets. In double seams and inside pockets all over her coveralls, and concealed in the hems and stays of her undergarments, were all manner of small serrated blades, lengths of coiled steel wire, screwdriver heads with the handles cut off, and rat tail files. A tight roll of bills was tucked down into her cleavage, about as big around as a female's thumb, and comprised of the currency of several countries, with a majority being Spontoon shells, Sylvanian dollars, Westinglish pounds, and Jardinais francs. The core of the preserved tip of her tail held a small compartment with a slender saw blade and a tiny spool of thin wire.

    Both girls were in excellent physical shape. The vixen was the taller of the two, with a swimmer's physique and measurements that were not much exaggerated by the carving out front. Her mellow orange fur was bleached across the shoulders and arms from long days in the tropical sun, and by the patterns of fading it could be seen that she often forwent the bathing suit she wore beneath her coveralls. The raccoon was more stocky and tightly packed, but still graceful in her bearing and well suited to her curves. While her partner showed signs of extended time outdoors, the nicks, singed spots, small scars, and rough patches on the fur of her arms, hands, and knees, showed that the dark masked female spent her hours in workshops and repair bays.

    Gazing past the physical into their auras, Mrs. Pearl was gratified to see two very capable, honest, and intelligent young females. She could sense they were unsettled by her scrutiny, but also a fair bit stressed by other matters, probably business related. Gwen was the dreamer of the pair, her mind brimming with ideas, schemes, and plans, while Loretta was practical almost to a fault, a careful thinker and a diligent problem solver. It was clear they were as fiercely devoted to one another as two sisters from different mothers based on the subtle spiritual linkages her vision revealed. These two would serve her purposes nicely.

    Mrs. Pearl's gaze softened as she gave the nervous proprietors of the tour company a reassuring smile. "I'm sorry about giving you both the eye. I had to make sure you could be trusted, and I'm glad to say that you passed my little examination with flying colors."

    Miss Early relaxed her posture with a lopsided grin as she waved at the framed documents on the wall in front of them. "Heck, darlin' I coulda told y'all that right off soon as I laid eyes on them diplomas up thar. Any gal that comes outta Songmark is guaranteed t'be top notch talent, and right straight shooters as well. One o' my best friend's granny was a Songmark gal."

    At this, Loretta's natural mask shifted upwards on one side as she cocked an eyebrow and looked at her incredulously. "Flattering as it is, that story doesn't add up, ma'am. Songmark's only been open for nine years. How could anybody's grandmother have graduated from there?"

    The rabbit's ears drooped as she furrowed her brow and shuffled her feet and murmured to herself. "Right... Nine years. Meant t' say grandaughter. Dunno whut I was thinkin'... "

    Gwen crossed her arms in front of her and leaned against the front of the icebox, while Loretta rolled her chair back across to behind the desk and leaned forward with her fingers steepled in front of her. "Neither do we, and if you'll excuse my being brusque, I think maybe it's time you two came clean about who you are and what you want with us."

    The brown furred tabby nodded gravely. "Of course. For starters, since I'm a guest in your establishment..."

    With that, she lifted her arms and flicked her hands sharply downward, her twin pistols snapping into her hands with a clack. The vixen and raccoon tensed, then relaxed again as she deftly popped the magazines and taking care not to point them aggressively, laid them gently on the blotter pad atop the mahogany desk with their muzzles pointed at one another, then folded her hands in her lap once more.

    The raccoon's grey eyes narrowed in her dark mask as she studied the pistols in front of her.  "Very nice. Holt nineteen oh eight Vest Pocket, point twenty five ACP caliber, with the post nineteen seventeen magazine safety disconnect, if I'm not mistaken."

    The feline nodded and smiled. "You're not. I hope you'll take my disarming as a gesture of goodwill on my part."

    Gwen turned her attention to Miss Early. "What about you, bunny? You got anything you all wanna lay on the table?"

    The rabbit shrugged, showing her upraised palms. "I ain't packin' no hardware, darlin'. Don't need none. I could climb up on that thar desk if'n y'all like, but I reckon it'd make conversation a li'l awkward."

    The vixen nodded warily. "All right, so lets get the conversation started."

    With a nod, the feline replied. "Have you ladies heard of the HMS Millwray?" The raccoon glanced at her partner then back at Ms. Pearl.

    "That was a Westinglish ship. We know a few pilots who flew search and rescue on that one. It... it sank last month with all hands."

    Miss Early twitched an ear. "More like it was torpedoed, same as the USS Hammond, the HMS Trevor Fitzwilkin, or the SS Celestial Ox outta the Eight Kingdoms."

    Mrs. Pearl took over from her cohort, cooly explaining as her ice blue eyes shifted between the young vixen and her raccoon partner. "Over the past three months, at least seventeen ships have been sunk at the hands of submarine raiders, and it can only be assumed that they are operating from a hidden base somewhere south of the Spontoon Archipelago. It's my intention to discover the location of that base and see these attacks stopped."

    The young raccoon female's brow furrowed, making a cleft in the dark outline of her mask. "And you want us to fly reconnaissance with our plane, am I right?"

    The feline nodded. "Right. Your plane is uniquely suited for scouting. We can pay you quite handsomely."

    Loretta sat back in her chair with a glance to Gwen, whose face registered a glimmer of excitement, then collapsed into disappointment when the raccoon crossed her arms in front of her with a shake of her head. "Our plane is uniquely suited for sightseeing. I'm sorry, ma'am. We're not interested in that kind of work. You want to look for submarines, call the R.W.A.F, the Sylvanian Naval Air Corps, or the R.I.N.S. Air Task Force."

    Mrs. Pearl pursed her lips slightly. "Rest assured, they've all been quite busy looking for this nest of raiders, but they haven't been able to locate it. That's why I was called in."
    The vixen looked at her quizzically as the raccoon maintained a deadpan expression. "So what have you got that the military of two world powers and the biggest fish in the local pond don't got, if you don't mind my asking?"

    At this, the feline smiled cryptically. "Lets just say I've got powers of my own. I can see things others can't. Like that sawed off shotgun you've got in the bottom drawer of your desk, or that baseball bat between the ice box and the file cabinet."

    Miss Early cocked an ear as the two females glanced at each other in alarm, the fur on their tails frizzing a bit. The rabbit doe grinned at the vixen, removing her foot from the edge of the desk and setting it on the floor. "Baseball bat? Shucks, if'n I knew it was a bat y'all were reachin' fer and not a shootin' iron I wouldn't'a said nothin'." She gave the sandy haired female a wink. "How 'bout them Clippers, huh?"

    Gwen shifted her posture a bit and tucked her hands into the knotted sleeves of her coveralls around her waist. "So...Uh... say we were willing to... um..." She cast a glance at Miss Early. "... play ball. How much money are we talkin'?"

    At this, Loretta rounded on her with a look of annoyance flaring in her grey eyes. "GWEN! It's too dangerous, and we're too deep in debt to get our plane shot out of the sky."

    The vixen scowled back at her partner, pulling her hands from the coveralls and clenching them down at her sides in fists. "I'd rather she get shot down then repossessed by the bank, and I think I have as much a say in this as you do."

    Mrs. Pearl cleared her throat to get their attention as she opened her pocketbook. "We're able to offer you ten thousand dollars Sylvanian, up front, with an additional twenty five thousand if we find the raider base."

    With that, she pulled out a tightly wrapped stack of bills, and laid it on the desk between her pistols.

         The raccoon's eyes went wide, an expression made more obvious by the contrast of her grey pupils against her dark mask. She composed herself rapidly, casting a glare up at her partner as the vixen let out a long whistle, then turned to look at her with a pleading expression.

    Loretta rolled her eyes and looked Mrs. Pearl in the eye. "Would you like to see the plane before you make us such a generous offer?"

    A smile spread across the feline's face. "I'd be delighted."

    Moments later the vixen and raccoon were leading the cat and rabbit down the ramp, ducking under the bright blue wing of the Glass Goose as they approached the hatch.
    Loretta played the part of tour guide as she looked over her shoulder at the black veiled feline and her lapine companion. "Gee Gee here is a Grumhund G-twenty-one-A, with twin Wratt and Pitney R-nine-eight-five Wasp junior radial engines that I tuned myself. She's got a range of six hundred and fifty miles at a cruise speed of a hundred seventy knots. If you'll just look through here, you can see the very special modifications my partner and I have made to her."

    Gwen stepped around the raccoon and opened the side door, indicating for their prospective customers to look inside with a smile and a short bow. Mrs. Pearl and Miss Early stopped in the door and looked down in amazement as they peered into the passenger cabin.

    The normal rows of seats had been replaced with two long benches running down either side of the fuselage, upholstered in white canvas with five point harness' spaced down their length. The floor between the benches, which glinted in the light coming through the door and portholes, was sheets of glass in a sturdy metal framework. The waters of the lagoon rippled gently beneath as debris and the occasional shimmering fish floated past, with the pillars of the pier vanishing into the murky depths far below in the shadow of the floating aircraft.

    A wide grin spread across the vixen's face. "Behold and be amazed, at the world's first and only glass-bottomed sea plane!"

    Miss Early let out a low whistle through her buck teeth as she made to climb in through the door, but was stopped as the raccoon reached up and laid a restraining hand on her shoulder. "Ah. I'm sorry, but could you please remove your boots before you enter?" She shrugged apologetically. "We don't want the floor scuffed up."

    The rabbit doe nodded and ducked back out the door as the vixen and raccoon watched her warily. She gave them a smile and removed her hobnail boots, balancing effortlessly on one foot then another and dropping her footwear to the gently bobbing ramp before clambering inside.

    As she crouched down and knocked on the transparent panels, her feline cohort gazed around the cabin. "Hmm. Glass? Really? I'm beginning to understand the reservations some of the locals seem to have about this plane."

    At this, both the vixen and raccoon bristled slightly.

    Gwen tossed her head, causing her sandy ponytail to give a dismissive flick. "Totally unfounded. Gee Gee is perfectly watertight, more than I can say for half the crates that flit around these islands."

    Miss Early looked up from examining the floor. "This is plexiglas, ain't it?"

    The raccoon nodded with a satisfied smile. "Right. Custom manufactured in Brothersberg by the Holm and Ross Chemical Company, with a special laminate to increase its impact resistance. You can bang on it all day with a hammer and it won't crack. A fraction of the weight of an equivalent thickness of glass too."

    The feline nodded pensively. "I see. So it looks more fragile than it actually is." Miss Early looked up at her and gave her a wink. "I dig this plane's style."

    Mrs. Pearl nodded to herself decisively, and leaned against the fuselage, removed her patent leather shoes, and stepped through the hatch. As the feline felt the cool smoothness of the acrylic panels on the paw pads of her bare feet, Loretta crossed her arms in front of her, sulking as she looked over her shoulder out toward the busy lagoon spreading out behind her towards the looming hills of Main Island. "The Althing's safety board passed us after months of testing, while we just sat here paying rent and dock fees, but the damn boat jockeys and hotel staffers STILL have their damn betting pool as to when we're gonna shatter and sink. We've been slowly winning the tourists over by word of mouth, but even then we've had to resort to cockamamie schemes like our little water show out on Nobokini to draw 'em in."

    At this the vixen drew herself up indignantly. "The mermaids AREN'T cockamamie. It's a great idea! Takki says it's one of the best "custom" jobs he's ever heard of, and that's a lot coming from the nephew of the Hooey Kahuna!"

    The raccoon rolled her eyes, as Mrs. Pearl crossed the cabin and sat herself down on one of the benches. Her hypersensitive eyes detected the very faint outlines of several slightly yellow stains, vigorously scrubbed away, on the white upholstery.

    Her ears dipped slightly as she glanced at Miss Early and turned to face the vixen. "It must be quite a show when you take off."

    Gwen's tail flicked excitedly back and forth as she leaned eagerly in the doorway. "Oh, it's aces! Hold on a minute! Let me show you the light!"

    She leapt lightly through the hatch and made her way to the front of the plane through the doorway to the cockpit. Mrs. Pearl looked over at Loretta and noted a fond smile on the raccoon's face as she watched her partner skip lightly down the length of their aircraft. She chuckled to herself as she climbed in to join the others, setting her deck shoe clad feet confidently down on the transparent floor.
    The raccoon gave the cat and rabbit a smile. "More modifications. In a perfect world, stuff like this should be enough to pack 'em in here, but what can you do?"

    Gwen's beaming face looked around the side of the pilot's seat as she called back to the cabin's occupants. "Watch this!"

    She flicked a switch on the instrument panel, and the plexiglas floor lit up as a floodlight mounted in the trailing edge of the Glass Goose's front prow clicked on, scattering a shoal of fish and illuminating bits of flotsam that drifted lazily below.

    Miss Early planted her hands on her hips and whistled again. "Nice!" She looked up at the raccoon and gave her a wry look. "That bulb must be a pain in the tail t' change when it burns out though."

    The raccoon shook her head with a smug grin. "Not at all. The light is mounted up higher in the prow where we can easily access it. A special piece of plexiglas pipes the light down to the hull where you're seeing it right now. They've been using glass prisms on ships for that sort of thing for years, but if you configure the plastic right, it works even better."

    Mrs. Pearl stood up from her seat and extended a hand to Loretta. "I'm convinced. This plane and its crew are perfect for my mission. My offer stands, and I'll even be willing to offer five thousand afterward if we don't find what I'm looking for."

    Up front, the vixen climbed out of the pilot seat and hung in the doorway, looking meaningfully at her partner, while the raccoon thoughtfully stroked her chin.

    She let out a sigh. "Well, you might be able to tell both me and Gwen are really proud of our baby bird here, but she was awfully expensive to build and has been just as pricey to maintain. We've sunk everything we've got into this little tour business of ours, and we're running in the red a lot of the time. As much as I hate the idea of putting this plane, and ourselves, in danger, I hate the idea of having to sell it off and go back to Brothersberg with my tail between my legs even more." A troubled look passed over her dark masked features, and she hesitantly turned and reached behind her.

    A pained look passed over Gwen's face. "L-lori. What are you doing?"

    With deft, dark furred fingers, the raccoon caught up her striped tail and unbuckled the leather band bisecting it, detaching the bottom half.

    She held it up ruefully for Mrs. Pearl and Miss Early to see. "Especially since I've got a lot less tail to begin with." She shook the lifeless tail tip back and forth as if working a feather duster. "I might be able to find work as a maid with this, but I'm never gonna find a good husband."
    Mrs. Pearl lowered her hand slightly, watching past the raccoon's shoulder as the vixen looked close to bursting into tears.

         "Don't s-say that..."

    With a shake of her head, Loretta tucked the tail tip under her arm and reached up to take the feline's hand. "So I guess what I'm trying to say is, yes. If my partner agrees, we'll accept your contract."

    A smile came to the tabby's face. "I'm glad to hear it, Miss Pike." She looked over at Gwen as the vixen came slowly forward from the cockpit hatch and came to a stop behind her partner. "What do you say, Miss Riley?"

    The mellow orange furred she fox glanced at Loretta, composing herself, and then turned to meet the feline's gaze, forcing a confident smile onto her face as she extended her hand as well. "I'm all for it. It'll turn out great! I just know it!"

    As they shook hands, Loretta turned and buckled her prosthetic tail tip back into place.

    Miss Early stepped forward and nodded towards her with a searching look on her face. "If'n y'all don't mind me askin', darlin'... Whut happened?"

    The raccoon gave a practiced, breezy shrug. "Had a little accident in the machine shop in my second year at Songmark..." She turned and gave a pointed glance to Gwen. "... which was completely MY fault. I got careless, and am just grateful it wasn't worse, and that nobody got expelled over it."

    A cryptic smile crossed the rabbit doe's face as she reached forward to shake the raccoon's hand. "Well, I reckon if'n y'all can't end up in one piece, y'all should at least keep it to two."

    Loretta gave her a wry half smile. "Depends on the pieces, I guess. The only reason I brought it up is so you understand that this is a lot bigger gamble than I'd normally be willing to undertake. I've lost enough already."

    The ice blue eyes of the tabby flickered behind her veil as she nodded gravely, clasping her pocketbook in her hands. "I know all about loss, dear. That's why it's vital that this mission pays off. You'll be doing countless sailors... and their wives, a great service."

    Gwen's face became serious, as she looked shyly at their new employer. "I'm... I'm sorry. Was your husband a sailor?"

    A wistful smile came to Mrs. Pearl's features. "No... no. He was a district attorney." She shook her head as her expression hardened. "Even so, it was the sharks that got him..."

    The awkward silence that ensued was broken by Miss Early, who clapped her hands with a grin. "Well c'mon y'all. Lets not spend all our time livin' in the past." At this she exchanged a glance with Mrs. Pearl, before looking the young vixen and raccoon in the eyes. "We got plans t' make, and I reckon I'd like one o' them Colala's outta y'all's fridge."

    Gwen's expression brightened up again. "Of course! Lets go!" She dodged around the rest of the group and headed out the hatch, her bushy tail flicking behind her.

    Loretta turned and gestured for them to proceed with a wry smile, following behind the others. As she shut the seaplane's hatch, she gave her bisected tail a little shake with a rueful glance over her shoulder and followed them up the gangplank.

        The Gaze: The Glass Goose