PART 4 - CATCH AND RELEASE
Back on South Island, Don
Kapua, the heavyset rabbit water taxi driver, had made fast his boat
to the pier and was lounging on one of the benches, taking a deep
pull from a bottle of Nootnops Blue as the shade of a larger tour
boat cast his relatively tiny craft in deep shadow. A darker shadow
fell across him, causing him to twitch one of his long, ragged ears
and look languidly over his shoulder at two figures who stood on the
dock above him. He sat up and turned himself around to face them.
In the lead, an imposing, hard faced wolf dressed in a slate grey linen suit, a pair of smoked glasses gleaming under a sharp brimmed fedora. At his side, a drab-furred female dog with clipped ears and a docked tail stood looking at the boat pilot impassively with her grey eyes. Her dark hair came to a peak on her smooth forehead, and was cropped close to her scalp. She wore the plain, simple long sleeved dress of a maid, with the addition of a slim leather collar secured by a lock around her neck.
The wolf took a puff from a cigarette he was smoking and flicked it into the water between the boats, and turned his gaze upon the rabbit. "I vould like to retain your services."
The heavyset buck shrugged his shoulders, taking another pull from his bottle. "Sorry Mister Mister. Dis taxi out of service. Go down dock, find plenty more to take you wherever you go."
The wolf clasped his hands behind his back and rocked back and forth on the heels of his fine brushed fawn skin shoes. "I see. Vould you perhaps care to answer a qvestion or two, then?"
The rabbit shrugged again, showing his scrimshawed buck teeth in an easy smile, shoving the brim of his cap up with the mouth of the bottle in his hand. "I dunno if I care, but I can answer questions if dey not too hard." He gave the wolf a wink. "And if da money's good."
The grey furred interlocutor nodded and looked at the rabbit with the emotionless lenses of his glasses. "You've been ferrying two females around all day. A she cat and a member of your numerous kindred. Vhere did you take them after you brought them here?"
The rabbit flicked an ear, taking another pull from his bottle. "Dunno who you talkin' about, Mister Mister. Didn't take any pretty ladies anyplace. Only kitty I ran was neko fella. Figger he not like da boat ride, decide to walk over to Casino Island himself."
The wolf inclined his head. "Ah. I see." After a pause, he turned his attention to the female canine standing at his side. "Marta?"
She clicked the heels of her sensible shoes and did a brief bow with her eyes downcast. "<Yes, your excellency?>"
He took a searching look around, then nodded in Don Kapua's direction. His lip curled back, showing a single fang. "Sic."
In a single bound the female leapt from the dock and landed in the boat next to its startled pilot before the portly rabbit could even cry out in alarm. All he could manage was a strangled squeak as she grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket and dragged him to the deck, where the spinning bottle of Nootnops stained the planks with its watery blue contents.
Her grey eyes narrowed and the corners of her mouth pulled back in a grimace as she straddled him, squeezing his throat with her thumbs until he turned an alarming shade of purple. When his eyes rolled back in his head and he went limp, she released her grip and allowed him to slump to the deck.
Letting out a breath, she bent down and felt his throat as a feeble moan escaped the stricken rabbit, and then gave a nod of satisfaction. Then she stood, smoothed down the hem of her skirt, and turned to face the wolf with a curtsey. The grey-furred figure turned his black reflective gaze on the inert form of the taxi pilot.
He spoke to the female in Steppesprecht. "<He still lives?>"
The canine nodded, her eyes downcast. "<He does, your excellency.>"
A faint smirk crossed his features. "<Good girl.>"
He gave a slight jerk of
his head, and she hurried to the bow and knelt down, allowing him to
step down onto her shoulder and into the boat. She then moved to the
front of the craft, settling herself behind the wheel and turning the
keys as she brushed off her shoulder. The wolf sat down on the bench
and propped his feet on the unconscious rabbit's chest as the water
taxi pulled out of the shade of the larger tour boat.
About an hour later, Dorothy Pearl and Jane Early were walking briskly down the dock as the sky flushed with glorious yellows, oranges, and reds on the western horizon. Behind them, the lights glowed in the D Tails Excursions shack, with Gwen Riley and Loretta Pike hunched over the desk, where they'd taken down the map and drafting tools from the wall and were plotting flight paths.
As the black clad feline and her companion hurried past, intent on finding a water taxi to take them back to South Island, they seemed to take no notice of a muscular male otter clad in the barest loincloth who sat next to one of the dock's thick pilings with his tapered tail wrapped around its base. He flicked his wrist and cast a fishing line into the darkening water below, and gave the barest of glances from underneath his ragged straw hat at the receding females.
The otter jiggled the line and looked lazily out over the lagoon toward the tall mountains of Main Island, idly kicking his webbed feet as they hung over the pier. His line creaked slightly, and he smiled languidly to himself as he began to reel it in.
The sound of an approaching boat motor drew his attention, and he looked impassively over at a water taxi gliding toward the end of the ramp at berth 243 by the tail of the sky blue seaplane that bobbed at the pier. Kapua Don sat at the wheel, his ears down, looking a bit drawn and nervous. There were two passengers with him. A wolf sitting at the front next to the rabbit, and a female dog sitting with her hands folded in her lap on the other side.
The otter's eyes flickered as the ghost of a frown crossed his broad muzzle. He glanced down at his line, and let out a small sigh as he saw a fat fish wriggling fiercely on his hook. With a shrug, he reached out and pulled the line toward him, leaning out and biting it through with his sharp teeth. As the fish plopped into the water below, he set his rod aside, followed by his ragged straw hat, and pushed off from the edge of the pier, slipping into the water with the faintest of splashes.
The menacing wolf leaned in next to the trembling water taxi driver. Marta sat quietly to his side, her grey eyes focused levelly on the dock. Her master spoke to their captive in a low growl as he folded his dark glasses and tucked them into a coat pocket. "Very good, rabbit. Very good. You may yet live to see another day." His steely glaze searched along the crowded pier until he spotted what looked like a fairly secluded spot between two tugboats. He gave a nod in their direction. "Take us over there..."
A splash of water at the side of the boat caused all three occupants' heads to whip around in surprise. A pair of web fingered hands gripped the edge of the boat, and the otter pulled himself up, the water gleaming off of his sleek hide as his face lit up in a broad, white toothed smile. "Aloha, brothers and sisters. Hey Kapua, you mind takin' me over t' Meetin' Island? I'll pay ya when da next tour boat comes in."
With that he swung his legs up over the railing and brought them around, his trailing tail splashing the wolf and dog in their faces with a stream of water as he landed on the bench with a splat. Both of the canids' ears levered back as they blinked the water out of their eyes. The wolf spluttered indignantly and clenched his fists, jabbing a finger at the otter as he leaned back with his elbows on the boat's railing, a broad grin on his face.
The grey-furred male's lips curled back, showing his fangs. "Marta! Sic!"
Without a word, the
female tensed and sprang at the sleek furred interloper. She let out
a startled yelp as he caught her in the midriff with one of his
broad, flat feet, ducking down in his seat and pivoting his leg so
she flew up and over him, over the rail, and into the water with a
tremendous splash. She thrashed and spluttered frantically a couple
of yards from the boat, choking on the mouthful of oily sea water
she'd just swallowed.
The wolf's eyes flared with rage as he reached into his coat and pulled out an elegantly decorated luger, the bridge of his muzzle bunching up as his grey fur bristled.
He pointed it at the otter, who brought his leg down and laid it across his other knee nonchalantly. "I don't know who you are, but..."
The otter gave him a steely eyed grin. "Good, dat means I'm doin' my job right."
He pushed off with his powerful legs and flipped up and backwards over the rail as the handgun roared, the bullets narrowly grazing the tip of his tail as he slid feet first into the water and vanished. The three sharp reports echoed and died away in the sleepy dockside twilight.
The wolf half stood with his jaw dropped in disbelief, balancing as the boat rocked back and forth under him. He glanced frantically over at the vehicle's lapine driver, who crouched in his seat with his eyes clamped shut and his hands over his ears, breathing rapidly through his nose and shaking like a leaf.
Suddenly, the water exploded behind the wolf and the grinning otter surged up behind him, planted a webbed foot on the edge of the boat and grasped him firmly by the root of his tail and the scruff of his neck. The wolf howled in alarm and dismay as the otter flipped him bodily through the air and slammed him headfirst into the water on the other side of the boat. The otter tumbled into the boat and sat down in the spot where the Steppelander had just vacated, patting Don Kapua on the shoulder.
The rabbit popped an eye open and looked around furtively, then turned to see the grinning mustelid sitting next to him. A look of immense relief flooded over the buck's features, and he began to laugh with tears running down his face.
The otter cocked his head nonchalantly and drawled at the trembling rabbit in Spontoonie. "<Kapua son of Katoa, more careful in choosing they who trade shells for passage in thy canoe must thou be...>"
He turned and looked over his shoulder, to see the wolf splashing and kicking in the dark water of the lagoon, cursing furiously in Steppesprecht. With a half-stunned, urgent look on her face, the female dog was paddling over to help him.
The sound of a door slamming up on the pier grabbed the otter and rabbit's attention as the sound of running feet thundering down the planks of the ramp soon followed. Ears perked up and tails frizzed, Gwen Riley and Loretta Pike screeched to a stop on the ramp by their plane, the raccoon carrying a sawed off shotgun as the vixen brandished a baseball bat.
The vixen looked over at the water taxi's occupants, cocking a hip and leaning the bat across her shoulder. "Hey, what happened out here? We heard gunshots."
With a glance at the struggling wolf and dog, the otter gave her a broad smile and shrugged as he called back to her. "Nothin'! Somethin' backfired, I guess."
The two females looked at him quizzically, and Loretta jerked her muzzle toward the wolf and dog thrashing loudly in the water past the boat. "Do those two need a hand?"
The otter chuckled and shook his head. "Naw, they're fine. Dey couldn't pay da full fare for da taxi, so dey had t' get out early."
Gwen set the bat down and started to untie the sleeves of her coveralls from around her waist. "They look like they need help..."
The otter held up a webbed hand and shook his head again. "Don't worry. I got 'em. No need t' get yer pretty tail all wet."
The vixen looked at him dubiously as Loretta shouldered her weapon and tugged at her arm. "C'mon, Gwen. This doesn't have anything to do with us."
Reluctantly, the sandy haired female shrugged and followed her dark haired companion, plucking her bat up from the planks of the ramp and staring uncertainly over her shoulder as they returned to their office.
Once the two females were out of sight, the otter leaned forward and tapped the rabbit on the shoulder, cocking a thumb toward the two canids who still struggled in the water. With a hesitant nod, the portly rabbit revved the boat's engine and brought it around, easing the boat alongside the thrashing wolf and the female dog who was patiently trying to pull him toward the pier.
The otter leaned over and reached down into the water with a lightning-fast strike of his webbed hand, catching up the spluttering wolf's tie and yanking it tight, dragging the hapless Steppelander's head up until he was muzzle-to-muzzle with him. The female canine snarled and made a grab for him, but was unceremoniously shoved under water and held there by the sleek mustelid's other muscular arm.
As he brought the wolf's face up and made eye contact, the otter's cheerful, smiling face contorted into a terrible, scowling, sharp toothed mask, and he spoke to him in flawless Steppesprecht with a low, menacing growl. "<I'm a pretty carefree guy. I don't care who you are, or where you come from. I don't care if all you foreigners want to murder each other for reasons I don't care about. All I do care about is that you follow two simple rules, if you're going to come here to play your little games. Keep your nose out of island business, and keep your hands off of the natives. This is your only warning. Next time, you'll be bait for the sharks.>"
As the wolf's eyes widened in terror, the otter's savage face relaxed into a merry smile once more. He released his hold on the female canine, who burst to the surface with a frantic, choking sob, and patted her master's sodden cheek with his webbed palm, before releasing his tie to let him drop back into the water.
The sleek islander patted the shaken rabbit taxi pilot on the shoulder with a grin, and the water taxi wheeled away, leaving the wolf and dog clinging to one another in the choppy wake.
The otter pulled himself up onto the dock with a smile and a wave over his shoulder to a grateful Don Kapua, as the rabbit called out blessing upon him and his hearth in heartfelt Spontoonie. As he reached for his battered straw hat, he was brought up short by the sight of a pair of tan furred feet clad in low canvas deck shoes.
The sleek pelted native looked up sharply to see the smiling face of Jane Early, leaning casually against the dock piling, looking at him with a cocked ear as she pushed up the brim of her Cactusberg Buckaroos ball cap. "Howdy, handsome. Y'look like y'all had a nice swim, which is more'n I can say fer some folks."
She glanced over her shoulder down the dock at the figures of the wolf and his maidservant, who struggled to drag her cursing, spluttering master up onto the docks with a look of weary patience on her face. The otter tensed, giving her a halting grin as he looked her over. He picked up his hat and cautiously stood, placing it on his head. "Hello, Miss Lady. What... what you want from ol' Haheka? You wanna buy a fish, maybe? I sorry, I ain't got none right now."
The tan furred doe cocked an eyebrow. "Really? Seems like y'all been trawlin' all day..."
The otter planted a hand on his hip, assumed a nonchalant posture and scratched his broad nose, his brow slightly furrowed. "Well, da fish luck, it come and go. Dey don't tend to just jump into ol' Haheka's lap that often."
The doe's eyes sparkled as she glanced down and back up again, batting her eyelashes. "Aw, that's a durn shame. An I bet it's a mighty fine lap too." A slight blush played across the mustelid's features, as he cleared his throat and shifted his footing on the planks. The rabbit chuckled. "Don't fret none, darlin'. Y'all got too long a tail and yer ears're too short fer me to take any real interest."
She gave him a level gaze. "So what would y'all do if'n a fish DID jest land in yer lap?"
The otter bent down and picked up his rod, leaning it across his broad shoulders while giving the rabbit a searching look. "Dat depends on how much da fish wanna stir up da waters round here. Maybe ol' Haheka just let them swim away. Maybe he have to use them as bait for other fish in lagoon."
She nodded warily. "Say they're jest passin' through, headin' fer deeper waters, lookin' fer bigger fish?"
The otter adjusted the pole on his shoulder, looking down the dock. Ravenholt and Marta scrambled away into the gathering darkness, trailing water behind them, as the grey furred Steppelander cast a last fuming glance in their direction.
Haheka looked back at the smaller female, who in spite of her long ears only came up to his chin. "Bigger fish, huh?"
Miss Early's face became grave. "Ayep. Big enough t' sink ships."
The otter let out a low whistle, an impassive look on his face. "Dats a big fish alright. Of course, ol' Haheka, he not know if Miss Lady's pullin' his tail with a big fish story."
The rabbit doe shrugged nonchalantly. "Well, whatever y'all choose t' believe ain't no nevermind t' me. I jest wanted t' make sure our lines didn't git fouled while we were here." She cocked a thumb at the large, bobbing outline of the Glass Goose down the pier. "Me an' my partner, we're gonna be on that plane thar and outta here tomorrow mornin', and headin' south t' see what we can catch."
She brought her hands together and loudly cracked her knuckles. "If'n anybody wants t' make a problem fer us, then they can go on ahead, but I jest oughta warn y'all, we're a l'il tougher t' catch off guard than them varmints y'all jest ducked in th' drink."
At this, the otter threw his head back in a deep belly laugh. He wiped a tear from his eye with a webbed finger and shook his head. "You got me confused with someone who cares about dis and dat, Miss Lady. I just catch fish."
The rabbit doe gave him a thin lipped smile. "Sure." She shrugged and pushed off of the piling and turned, waving to him as she started to walk away. "Well, don't let yer line git tangled, pal. Later."
Haheka's eyes narrowed and the pleasant expression faded from his face as he watched her head off down the docks. When she'd gone enough distance, he started walking purposefully after her, but was stopped in his tracks as a wind whipped up on the dock, nearly blowing his hat off of his head. A rustling sound came to his ears from above, and he spun on his heels, his jaw dropping in shock to see a figure perched atop the dock piling that Miss Early had just been leaning against.
She wore a grass skirt and cape, her face hidden under a wooden mask with bottomless black filling the mouth and eye holes. The mask inclined toward him, and he felt a shiver go up his spine from the tip of his tail to his scalp.
A clear female voice spoke to him in Spontoonie. "<Haheka son of Preston Cord, cease thy tracking of the outlander females this night. Go back to the lair of he whose name is not spoken to outlanders and tell him that these ones are of interest to us. We shall send word if he must take interest in them once more, after we have taken their measure.>"
The otter snapped his jaw shut, gulped, and gave a hurried nod, setting the butt of his fishing rod down at his side as if he were at parade rest with a rifle. "<It shall be done as thou declare in guidance, o Wise One.>"
The masked head nodded, with a rustle of her grass raiment, and leapt lightly down to the dock, scarcely making a sound as her bare feet hit the planks. She hurried away into the deepening twilight, with the barest rustle marking her passage.
Haheka let out a long, relieved breath, and glanced down the dock in the direction Jane Early had gone. With a shrug, he turned, shouldered his fishing rod, and headed the opposite direction.