PART 15 - THE HATCHING OF THE GOOSE
Soon, they had all gathered around a low table made from planks of sanded deck wood, held up over the floor of woven palm-frond mats on a pair of short- legged saw horses.
Gwen and Loretta divested themselves of their boots and coveralls, and the white blouses and socks they wore underneath. The vixen was indeed wearing a green and white swimsuit, its plunging Jardinais style back passing beneath her tail, with crisscrossing laces across the small of her back, while the raccoon was dressed in a much more demure swimsuit in a white and blue checker pattern. The pilot knotted a colorful wrap at her hip, while her engineer partner shrugged into a white linen shirt that she left unbuttoned.
They both sat down cross-legged by the table with Malakeia settling down opposite, draping her thick, tapering tail in her lap as Junko folded her knees smoothly underneath her in characteristic Kokorojin fashion at the dark furred otter's side. Gwen indicated to Dorothy and Jane that they should sit at the head of the table.
The feline crossed over to the pegs where they'd hung their flight clothes and hung up her jacket, then proceeded to unstrap her hideout rigs from her forearms, turning to Jane with a cocked ear as the tan furred doe was busy removing her boots and socks and dropping them to the mats. "I presume you took my guns while I was... uh..."
The rabbit patted the pockets of her fatigue pants and nodded matter of factly. "Yep. Got 'em right here, safe and sound."
With that, she ran her thumbs up under her suspenders and shrugged them off of her shoulders, and then unbuttoned front and taillet and let the olive-drab trousers slip to the floor. She lifted them by the suspenders and hung them on the peg with Dorothy's gear. She smiled to the tabby as she began to unbutton her shirt, revealing the crisscrossing bands of cotton wrapping around her chest and her boxer shorts. "Thar. Now y'all can git 'em anytime y'all like."
Dorothy glanced at her as she took off her own boots and socks. "I'm surprised you didn't get yourself a bathing suit when you were out shopping, Miss Early."
The rabbit scratched at her ribs. "I'm already wearin' th' best bathin' suit thar is under my skivvies, darlin'."
She let the shirt hang open and hung her ball cap on the peg, then stretched her taut, athletic frame. As she did so, she cocked an ear, a slight blush on her face, as she stole a glance at Junko, who had averted her almond eyes toward the table, her delicate eggshell colored features reddened a bit across the cheeks and nose as well.
Dorothy rolled her eyes and walked over to take her seat, with Jane following, a searching expression on her face directed at the demure usagi. She dithered a bit, then sat down next to her feline cohort on the far side away from her.
Dorothy smiled at her hosts with her ice blue eyes glimmering. She cast Jane a flicker of a glance and smirk as she spoke. "Well, I must say you certainly put on quite a show."
She turned to the dark-furred native otter. "So what do you think of all this mermaid business, Miss Malakeli?"
The otter shrugged, a white toothed smile playing across her face. "Oh, fun easy work, it is. These we four, turns we take, one at fish-tail-girl playing, one in water the fish-tail-girl watching and keeping safe, other two at standing on dock welcoming."
She rolled her eyes breezily. "Much better than for Aunts and Mother keeping house all summer. Good paying the work is too, especially when the shells we leave off our bosoms. Either way, tourists to all many tips give. Even fish-tail-girl is tips given to. These we with watcher split fair-and-square, both end up with more than girls on dock get."
At this Gwen interjected. "We tell the tourists that it's good luck to throw coins off the pier." She gave them a wink. "Silver dollars are a guaranteed mermaid attractant."
Malakeli smiled merrily,
a chuckle escaping her throat. "One time, Kaleia-dear a golden
big money coin got from Westinglander dog. Out of water she popped
and a kiss she gave him on his cheek." She broke into a
melodious giggle. "Into lagoon she almost pulled him, his
clothes all wet she made. Him he minded not, his pockets he search
busy fast for more gold coins. No more he found, and he wife she no
give him any out of bag. Looked big mad, ready him to smack with it.
We all for many days laugh and laugh after."
Loretta gave her partner a wry glance as she shook her head and chuckled, and the vixen leaned her elbows on the table with a grin, her eyes sparkling. "Yeah, we're lookin' at our financial picture to see if we can hire on a couple of 'mer-males' for the benefit of the female tourists. It's only fair."
Jane cocked an eyebrow at her with a lopsided grin. "Oh yeah, and whut would yer 'blue flag' tour entail with one o' them, darlin'?" This brought the vixen up short, and she opened and closed her mouth a couple times as a hot blush spread across her features.
A moment later, the whole table to burst into laughter, save for Junko, who looked puzzled. Malakeia chuckled and came to her rescue, whispering what had been said in her ear in Spontoonie. The usagi blushed softly and bunched her shoulders, hiding her muzzle behind her hands as she grinned and let out a soft giggle.
As the laughter settled down, Jane cast a look at Malakeli. "So I hope y'all don't have too much trouble with th' tourists behavin' themselves way out here."
The otter solemnly shook her head. "No no. We good and safe. No trouble. Miss Gwen and Miss Loretta a sharp eye on guests they keep. If too fresh they get, they take to beach for talk. If talk no settle them, Miss Gwen got brass sleeping charm in pocket."
A grin played across Loretta's face. "Yeah, and we screen our customers before we even let 'em aboard Gee Gee. It's not that hard to spot the ones who're gonna be a problem and send 'em on their way up to Red Lantern Dock to get whatever itch they have scratched."
She let out a little shudder at that, then glanced over at her partner. "Gwen's only had to use her 'sleep charm' a handful of times, and they generally get really polite and apologetic when we make it clear to them that they're welcome to swim back to the Spontoons if they don't like how we do things out here."
Malakeli nodded toward the pale-furred usagi. "And Junko-dear, her home island's way of catching wrists and throwing she knows, we three others she shows a little. Keep grabby boys off 'til Miss Gwen and Miss Loretta come help."
She turned and repeated what she had said in Spontoonie to Junko, who brightened up and bobbed her head in an earnest bow, and spoke a brief phrase in accented Spontoonie, the word "judo" emerging from among the carefully worded syllables.
At this, a rapid thudding came from under the table where Jane sat, causing Dorothy and Loretta to look over at her questioningly. The tan furred doe started embarrassedly and hunched her shoulders, averting her gaze, and the thudding stopped.
Before anything else could be said, Kaleia and Nolakeli came with platters of food, and proceeded to serve it amidst a chatter of native language between the two otters and two vixens. A wide green leaf was laid out on the planks in front of each of them, and a steaming leaf bundle placed atop each. A bunch of ripe bananas was laid in the middle of the table, and a bowl of thick purplish poi, which Malakeli and Junko proceeded to scoop out onto their leaves with two fingers. Dorothy thought she detected a slight shudder from both Gwen and Loretta as they glanced at the bowl of glutinous paste, and neither reached out to dip their fingers in.
Nolakeli set out cups from a nearby shelf and went out, returning presently with a teakettle with which she filled each cup with steaming, fresh brewed tea, then set out a chipped china cream pitcher and a sugar bowl. Dorothy picked up the creamer and added a dollop to her cup, detecting a faint hint of coconut scent rising from the rich white liquid that poured out and clouded the amber of the tea.
As Malakeli pulled the reed ties on her leaf bundle, she smiled to Jane and Dorothy. "This laulau is. Fish from lagoon, coconut meat, taro leaves, all chopped and steamed on fire with spices and salt. For rabbit-dears fish it is not. Squash, it is."
Jane opened her bundle and smelled the contents. "Mmm. If'n I git th' chance, I'm gonna have t' make a study of th' cookin' out here. So far it's been mighty tasty."
Loretta looked up at the tan furred doe as she took up a three fingered scoop of her laulau and daintily dipped it in a bowl of water that the slender otter had laid before her. "You didn't strike me as the sort who likes to cook, Miss Early."
The rabbit shrugged as she broke a banana loose from the bunch and started to peel it. "A gal don't live by beatdowns alone, darlin'. I kin' whup up a purty good mess o' fried chicken an' biscuits if'n I can git my hands on some lard and a skillet."
The raccoon cocked an eyebrow, swallowing her mouthful of fish as a dubious look stole across her face. "But... but aren't rabbits vegetarian?"
Jane smiled across at her as she broke the tip off of the banana and popped it in her mouth. "Jest 'cos I don't eat it don't mean I don't know how t' cook it, darlin'. My Granny learned how t' cook con carné in th' kitchens at Camp La Grange back in W-W-Two..."
At this she caught herself and exchanged a nervous glance with Dorothy, then continued before what she had said sank in on their hosts. "And after that she cooked fer the roughnecks out on th' oil fields fer years. Taught me everthin' I know 'bout fixin' vittles and then some."
Dorothy hastily nodded with a fond smile toward her companion. "It's true. I'd have never believed a rabbit could make a squab sing like she can if I hadn't tasted it myself."
Gwen swallowed a mouthful of laulau and shook her head. "Geez, you're makin' me homesick. I'm a southern gal myself, and I haven't had decent fried chicken since I came here."
Jane nodded with a grin. "I thought I heard a l'il bit of an accent, where in particular y'all from, darlin'?"
Gwen smiled. "Fort Mudge, down the Cypress Peninsula. Mama never cared for us talkin' like the swamp folks, so she sent us up to Magnolia Academy to learn good diction and turn us into proper ladies." She gave the table a grin. "Didn't really take, 'cept for the diction part, so they cut their losses and sent me to Songmark."
Dorothy nodded as she sipped her tea. "Well, you learned that really well. I never would have noticed."
The vixen shrugged. "Oh, you get enough bourbon in me and it don't take much to guess where I'm from..."
Loretta gave her partner a wan smile. "You wouldn't know it to hear her tell it, but Gwennie has this infuriating ability to pick things up fast and make 'em look easy without even trying hard. Sports, piloting, languages, getting people to like her, getting boys to like her, you name it."
The vixen rolled her eyes. "Yeah, but if you want it done right, you need to go to Lori here. I'm just winging it most of the time. I can't tell you how many times she's kept me out of trouble by checkin' my math and makin' sure all my i's are crossed and my t's dotted." She nodded out the open windows of the hut toward the bright blue sea plane bobbing in the surf. "And Gee Gee's pretty much all her doing."
The raccoon smiled as she dipped a bit of banana in her water bowl. "Well, she was your original idea."
The vixen snorted. "Yeah, and Miss Devinski was ready to laugh me out of her office until I showed her your notes and blueprints." She looked at Dorothy and Jane and explained. "Miss Devinski's the headmistress at Songmark."
She nodded to the brown furred tabby. "When Missus Pearl was staring us down in our office yesterday, it was like I was back in front of that hound's desk again." She gave a wry grin. "Maybe not so intense, I wouldn't dare reach for a bat in Miss Devinski's presence even if one was sitting next to me in a golf bag and she'd just told me my mama swam after troop ships. No offense intended, Missus Pearl."
The feline nodded with a bemused expression as Loretta chuckled and shook her head. "She wouldn't say that unless she wanted you to calculate the time it would take your mother to make it from the dock to the boat, accounting for current, tide level, and prevailing winds, and then ask you to show your equations and write up a paper on how she might more efficiently cover the distance."
Gwen laughed, and smiled fondly at her partner. "Yeah, so you can imagine I almost peed myself a little when she just threw her head back and started laughing at my third year's business plan. I think it was my heart shooting down past my stomach and landing on my bladder."
The raccoon shook her head. "I told you not to go with it, I told you that was what was gonna happen. You should have gone with the package delivery thing."
Gwen rolled her eyes. "That was boring. Fortune favors the bold."
Loretta snorted. "Until the scariest canine this side of the Duchess of Blood flunks the bold and puts their whole dorm on midnight gate duty for a month."
The vixen leaned toward her partner and swallowed another mouthful of laulau. "But that's not what happened, thanks to you. I showed her your stuff, and she stopped laughing. She just raised an eyebrow and gave that little nod she gives. The one Paula used to call the 'Stay of Execution'."
The raccoon rolled her eyes. "I was just joking when I drew those up. I never imagined in a million years you'd show 'em to Miss Devinski."
Gwen rolled her eyes right back. "Who jokes with diagrams? Honestly?"
She turned to Jane and Dorothy. "Well, my heart did an immelman and shot right back up in my throat, and thank goodness I've got a thick skull or it probably would have popped out of the top of my head. As it was it was pushing up on my brain and making it all squishy because I couldn't quite focus as she sent for Lori."
Loretta chuckled as she took up the story's thread. "I was out with Oksana doing maintenance on one of the link trainers when I got the call. Ox was one of our dorm mates, big white she bear from Upper Tundra. Well, she looks at me and says 'Is Gven...' in that deadpan voice of hers, and I nod back at her. 'Yeah, is Gwen.' And sure enough when I got to the office there she was, standing there with her tail looking like she'd grabbed hold of the wrong end of a magneto, and so I fall in next to her, drenched in sweat and reeking of hydraulic fluid, and get grilled for the next half hour on the material properties of plexiglas and fuselage design and water pressure and a million other things, and then I was spun around and sent on my way. As I was walking down the stairs, I heard a yelp come outta Gwen, and all I could think of was what I was gonna have to say in a letter of condolence to her parents."
The vixen smiled as she reminisced. "All Miss Devinski said was one word. Just one word. 'Impressive.' It still makes me feel all warm and tingly inside." She hugged herself, a dreamy look on her face. "You've gotta understand, ladies, that for a Songmark student, hearing that word from the headmistress is like hearing a chorus of trumpets while you're being suddenly crowned the Queen of Everything."
Loretta let out a
chuckle. "Yeah, but there's a guillotine waiting in the square
outside her majesty's palace if she screws up."
She dipped more laulau in
the bowl and ate it. "So I'm walking back to the hangar, and all
of a sudden I'm getting tackled from behind, face down in the gravel
with someone or something bouncing up and down on my back, gripping
my coveralls and screaming 'Impressive!' over and over again. I
remember watching the first years all running for cover, and Ox
coming over with a spanner in that big mitt of hers, and wondering to
myself if I'd just been struck by a king-griffin turned food critic.
But it was just Gwen, and she rolled me over and started talking at a
thousand RPM about plan views and cross sections and material
engineering reports and business plans and all I could think was
'What have you gotten me into now?'"
Gwen picked up her tea cup and held it out to her partner. "And the rest is history."
The raccoon cocked her head with a wry smile and clinked her cup against the vixen's "May the good Lord help us."
She downed a sip of tea and set the cup back down, and then cast a look at the four Nobikini Mermaids. "And speaking of what we've gotten into, I think we should take a minute to explain to the 'maids here our current contract with Miz Pearl and Miss Early. If you'd please translate, Gwen?"
The owners of D Tails Excursions then proceeded to explain that they would be flying a series of scouting missions over the Jade Sea and parts south over the next month, using Nobikini as a base of operations. Since they wouldn't really be needing their services, the girls would be paid their full rate for the remaining month of tourist season, and they then had their choice to go home or stay on the island, in which case they'd only be expected to help out with cooking and cleaning. In Kaleia and Junko's case, home was a bit further away than a quick canoe trip to Pipikaula, so Gwen and Loretta were willing to ferry the two girls back to Spontoon in the Glass Goose. For free if they were willing to wait for their planned mid month supply run, or for the price of the extra fuel and oil if they wanted to go back right away.
Malakeli turned to her cousin and held a brief consultation, then turned back with a shrug. "The money we'll take and to home village be on our way, but back we'll be probably as Aunts and Mother start Nolakeli-dear and I to nag."
Gwen turned her attention to Kaleia and Junko, and after a brief exchange, turned to Loretta, Dorothy and Jane. "Kaleia said she's willing to hang around until we make our supply run. Junko says she'll stay as long as we want her."
The vixen flicked an ear as a couple of thumps came from under the table near Jane.
The pilot looked at her partner with a nod. "If you'd be so kind, madam CEO, would you please take care of the payroll?"
The raccoon gave her a nod and stood, crossing over to where her coveralls hung and pulling a zippered wallet out of one of the large pockets on the legs.
She brought it back to the table and proceeded to count out four stacks of brightly colored Spontoonie 5 shell notes, while an expectant look spread across the three native girls' faces. The pale-furred usagi merely sat demurely, her hands folded in her lap and her eyes fixed on the table. She received her stack with a curt bow and neatly folded it in half, sticking it into the pocket of her pinstriped jersey, while her fellow mermaids took their pay with much more excitement, Malakeli grinning and spreading hers on the table while Nolakeli and Kaleia giggled and fell to chattering about what they planned to do with the money. Gwen clapped her hands and broke in on the celebration with a few smiling phrases in Spontoonie.
Three composed themselves, still smiling happily, and all four rose to their feet. The native vixen and younger otter excused themselves and headed out the door and into the other hut, while Malakeli and Junko briskly cleaned off the table.
Loretta and Gwen stood, and the raccoon smiled invitingly as she turned to Jane and Dorothy."Well, while the mermaids here are cleaning up, how would you two like a little tour?"
The quartet of Sylvanian females fell into step behind Loretta as she led them across the small compound past the fire pit that was rapidly cooling in the ocean breeze that rustled the coconut palms overhead. She led them over to the other hut, stepping aside as Kaleia and Nolakeli came out, bobbing their heads and smiling.
She held aside the curtain in the doorway and gestured inside. "This is the sleeping hut. It's not the Ritz but it's waterproof, and we've got screen up over the windows as you can see."
The room was hung with hammocks that swung lazily from the ceiling beams, over woven straw mats on the floor. Clotheslines hung with colorful lengths of native cloth criscrossed the room, and discarded sarongs and loincloths lay chaotically around the floor.
The raccoon looked around with a weary look on her face. "Those girls... If they were Songmark first years they'd be on kitchen duty scrubbing out pans for weeks."
Gwen chuckled and cocked an eyebrow at her partner. "They already are on kitchen duty, and remember, we're paying them to be here, not vice versa. Ease up a little, Lori."
The raccoon rolled her eyes. "Fine, but if the four of US are gonna be staying here too then they're gonna have to pick up a little." The vixen nodded in resignation. "I'll tell 'em, I'll tell 'em."
Jane jerked her chin at a corner of the room. "One of 'em seems to know how t' keep it neat n' clean."
In the corner she'd indicated, a Kokoro-style futon was laid out, with a small cedar box sitting at one end atop a neat stack of folded clothes. Dorothy's eyes gleamed as she looked inside, and saw a stack of cash wrapped in a rubber band, a couple of folded documents, and a small ivory carving of a jolly feline figure in archaic Kokorojin robes with a fish under one arm and a fishing rod in his hand. A tattered ukiyo e print of a seascape with a castle was pasted to the inside of the lid.
Gwen nodded to the rabbit with a grin. "Yeah, that's Junko's spot, in case you hadn't guessed. She's got a few years on the rest of 'em and knows how to behave herself" A wistful look crossed the vixen's face. "She's odd girl out in a lot of ways."
Jane's gaze lingered on the simple bed as Loretta beckoned them to follow her.
She led the group away toward the shed by the dock which up close could be seen to have been painted red before time and weather had worn it back to its current mottled brown coloration. "Over here's our fuel dump and equipment shed."
She stopped and glanced at Jane and Dorothy. "Do either of you smoke?"
When both cat and rabbit shook their heads she nodded in satisfaction. "Good. If you did we'd have to tell you that if we caught you lighting up over here we'd be forced to keel haul you under Gee Gee and charge the rest of the group a nickel apiece to watch from inside."
Jane nodded. "Point taken."
Loretta gave a thin lipped grin. "Yeah, 'cos you both have brains in your heads. One time we caught this bunny twit from Poneville who came out with a family excursion trying to sneak a smoke out of sight of her aunt. Couldn't go hide behind the huts or in a million places in the forest, had to duck behind the gosh darned fuel dump."
A look of annoyance crossed her face, causing her dark facemask to compress beneath her brows. "Didn't string her under the plane but we did each grab an ankle and dunk her stupid head in the lagoon a few times while her brothers and sisters watched. The old lady actually slipped me n' Gwen each a fiver afterwards."
Dorothy nodded as she looked inside, seeing multiple stacked steel drums of gasoline, some canisters of machine oil and hydraulic fluid, a couple spare tires, and some crates of machine parts.
Gwen jerked her head toward the forested hill cresting to their north. "Now c'mon, we'll show you the Mermaid Cave."
The she-cat and rabbit doe followed the vixen and raccoon along the beach around the tiny island, where the terrain became increasingly rocky in composition until they were leaping from large flattened boulder to large flattened boulder up to a cliff face running along the northwest face of the islet. Palm trees and cycads sprouted from cracks in the rock, their snakelike roots winding across the surface of grey brown stone.
Gwen and Loretta lead them to a crevasse in the rock leading down into a hidden grotto sheltered by a lush growth of vines and roots dipping their tendrils into the ocean water that washed in-and-out with the tide. Pulling aside this green curtain and lighting a battery-powered lantern perched on a cleft of stone, the partners revealed an opening that led into a winding tunnel that in turn led into a cave carved out by the timeless work of the waves, with natural rock ridges around a bubbling pool at its center that rose and receded with the tide.
Gwen's voice echoed in the hollow space as she played the light around. "Here it is. That pool opens into a tunnel that comes out in between a couple of reefs in the lagoon, so the mermaids can come and go without being seen from the beach. We've got an old diesel compressor that pumps air out to a hose we've got set up, so our fish girls never have to come up for air. Between the thickness of the rock around here and the sound of the surf, you can't hear it from above."
Dorothy glanced across at
the battered mechanism the vixen had indicated, then looked around
the cave. On one ridge, the split open mermaid tail laid on an
oilskin tarp, like a big empty lobster shell. Jane walked over to it
and crouched down to examine its interior network of straps and
clasps. "So whar'd y'all git a hold o' this thang?"
Gwen shrugged breezily. "Oh, we got it from a film crew who were out on Pipikaula filming some kind of island romance picture. That's where we met Malakeli and Nolakeli. They were working as stunt doubles for some olympic swimmer they'd gotten for a leading lady."
Loretta nodded as she chimed in. "They hired Gee Gee for some aerial shots." A scowl crossed her face, compressing her dark mask. "Scuffed the heck out of the floor with their camera setup too. Had to replace four panels on that job, and barely broke even." Gwen rolled her eyes and smiled at Dorothy and Jane. "Well, they made up for it by giving us the fish tail and the air compressor setup for free."
The raccoon pursed her lips. "Yeah, reel generous. They were just gonna throw the tail away, and probably the compressor, too, for all the work I had to do to get it running reliably."
The vixen shrugged. "Hey, never look a gift horse in the mouth, or a gift fish in the tail, I guess. You never know what can come in handy."
Dorothy nodded pensively, and looked across at the opposite ledge, which was stacked with several small crates and boxes on palettes, covered in more tarpaulins. Looking inside, she saw stocks of canned food and water and other survival gear, including a paraffin heater and a well sealed stockpile of guns and ammunition.
She jerked her head in their direction. "And those, emergency supplies?"
Loretta nodded solemnly. "Yeah. You could weather a typhoon in here if you had to, but that's the least of our worries. There's pirates, slavers, and who knows what else floating around the wide ocean out here. If any of that sort of scum comes floating into the lagoon the girls have standing orders to duck in here and wait it out. You could hold off an army from here."
Jane looked around with pursed lips. "They ever have to?"
Gwen shook her head. "No, thank goodness, but it's better to be ready for the first time than to just hope it never happens."
The feline and rabbit nodded in agreement as they looked around the cavern. Presently, Loretta spoke up again, jerking her head toward the entrance. "Well, speaking of supplies, we've got a load of 'em to offload from Gee Gee. We should probably get to it. I think we've got enough daylight and fuel to fly a sortie this afternoon, if you're feeling up to it, Missus Pearl."
Dorothy let out a sigh. "Up to it or not, that's why we're here, Miss Pike. I'll just have to make the best of it."
Gwen gave her a sympathetic look. "I'll talk to Nolakeli while we unload the plane. She might know some native remedy that'll help." The feline shrugged. "I hope so, or it's going to a long month."
With that, the four of them proceeded to exit the grotto.next