PART 28 - FRIENDS IN LOW PLACES
The other figure was a sea otter, dressed in tattered work pants and the half- shredded remains of a tee-shirt, which was stained with blood down the chest. He was engrossed in working on the locks of a set of manacles that secured him to one of the pipes, with a piece of the prone rabbit's glasses frames clenched in his teeth as an impromptu lockpick. He sported a black eye, a nasty bruise on his forehead, a half- crushed, swollen ear, and a scabbed-over cut across his broad nose, with trails of dried blood down a bristling thatch of facial whiskers.
He gave a start and spit out his improvised tool when the caracal stepped into the light, and then let out a nervous laugh. "Ah... Heh... Hey dere, Firouz... Uh... I... I can explain all dis. Y'see, Mister Hattori here slipped on some grease n' slid all th' way over here... Yeh... And den... and den..."
He blinked, his brow furrowing in uncertainty, as the caracal flopped the unconscious husky down next to him and wordlessly turned and walked over to a metal chest.
The otter's jaw dropped, revealing he was missing a couple of teeth. "G... Guldenko? What did he do t' land down here? Hey Fir... ou..."
His words trailed off as he looked up to see the quartet of identical Jane Earlys step into the light, dressed in barely-concealing strips of cotton and dragging three more crewmen. The doe dragging the insensate sable by his belt let him flop to the deck and planted her hands on her hips. "So whut do we got here? Y'all must be a real peach if'n y'all're too much of a scumbag fer this bunch..."
The otter blinked his eyes and shook his head, then gaped at them. "It's YOU !?!" He looked rapidly back and forth between them, his battered face eloquent with shock and puzzlement, before he clenched his eyes tightly shut, hanging his head with a sigh. "I must have banged my head harder than I thought."
The tan-furred rabbit does lined the rest of their burdens up beside the husky, and stepped back as the caracal returned from the chest with several more sets of manacles and proceeded to fasten each unconscious sailor securely to the pipe.
One of the Janes crouched down in front of the otter, studying his face intently. "I don't rightly recollect ever meetin' y'all before, mister..."
The otter shook himself and looked up at her with a lopsided smile. "Well, ol' Haheka, he never forget a fish when it jumps into his lap."
At this, Jane reared back in shock herself. "Trawler boy?" She leaned forward and squinted at his battered face. "Dang, y'all sure ain't as cute as y'all were back in the Spontoons."
The otter slumped against the pipe, his manacled wrists sagging from the chain as he gave her a rueful grin through his bristling, blood stained whiskers. "Heh... Well, I'm hopin' some of that is this stupid disguise."
He glanced at the other identical rabbits who stood nearby. "I... I can't help noticing that there seems to be a lot more of you to look at, Miss Lady. Not that I mind the view from down here."
Jane shrugged and jerked her head at her duplicates. "Well, y'see one o' me y'seen 'em all."
The otter cocked an eyebrow. "And how many would that be?"
The rabbit smirked at him "As many as I want, times two. Now it's my turn t' ask y'all somethin'. How'd y'all end up down here?"
The otter looked up at her with a weary grin. "Well, I just got lucky."
He dropped into his thick, Spontoonie native accent."Dey thought ol' Haheka was just a sneaky crab tryin' t' snatch a l'il bait from da trap, and not da big catch o' the day."
Jane rolled her eyes, and reached up to grab the corner of the bristling whiskers, tearing them away with a ripping noise that caused the captive mustelid to hiss through his teeth as his natural muzzle was revealed.
She fixed him with a deadpan stare. "Okay, can we chuck the goldurned fishin' metaphors n' jest talk straight from here on out, darlin'? It was startin' t' git old back on Casino Island."
He let out a sigh, blinking back tears of pain as he glared at her, dropping easily into flawless Westcommon with just the slightest hint of a Westinglish accent. "All right; all right. What I mean to say is I'm lucky my disguise held up last night when that mong of a wolf's < crazy female who barks at the moon after evening song has ended > caught me sneaking into the cabin where they're holding the young vixen and proceeded to beat the kahooey out of me, because if either she or her master had recognized me they'd probably have had me skinned alive and fed the rest to the moray eels on the reefs around here."
He cast a dark glance at the row of slouched sailors being chained up beside him. "It's also a kindly blessing from the gods that when the Steppelanders were done with me this crew of vicious cutthroats and their idiot captain thought I was just trying to... uh..." He blushed a bit as he looked around furtively. "To... well... to sample the wares before they brought the poor girl to market, so to speak... If they knew I'd been planning to help her escape from this chum-bucket, I don't think I would have gotten off as lightly as I did..."
He rolled painfully onto his side and looked meaningfully over his shoulder at her, revealing crisscrossed lines of cuts and welts running down his muscular back and tail.
Jane let out a low whistle, and nodded to him, then scowled over at the caracal as he finished manacling his comrades to the pipe."Hey, slackjaw! Show me whar y'all keep th' keys fer these thangs."
The feline numbly turned and pointed toward the chest, where a ring of keys hung from a hook bolted to the wall above it. She stood and walked over, reaching up to pluck them off the hook. "Huh... Convenient."
The battered mustelid gave her a rueful grin as he rolled, wincing, back onto his back. "Yes, in a sadistic kind of way."
She hurried over to his side and unlocked the iron bracelets from his wrists, and extended a hand to help pull him unsteadily to his feet. "Th' name's Jane Early, by the way, in th' unlikely event y'all didn't already know that."
He grasped her hand in his and shook it. "Yes, I did." He gave her an
earnest smile. "I'm Cord. Heywood Cord. Spontoon Intelligence Service.
Fish and Wildlife Division."
He shrugged as he tried to work some feeling back into his wrists with his webbed hands. "A little of both, I think. You do seem to travel in a schools..."
She grinned at him, and proceeded to recombine with her doubles, the four becoming two, which in turn became one, who crouched down and gathered up the vacated loincloths and chest bands, shoving them into the capacious pockets of her trousers.
After a stunned pause, the otter continued. "And... and that's probably the wildest thing I've seen in my life."
She gave him a wink as she turned and beckoned him towards the door. "Y'all ain't seen nothin' yet, darlin'. Now come on, my partner and I are probably rescuin' poor Kaleia as we speak. Lets go lend a hand or two..."
Heywood gave her a slightly stiff bow and gestured for her to proceed. "After you, my dear Miss Early."
As the metal and planking faded to her view, she sighted a lone guard standing watch in front of the door into the wheelhouse. Her posture relaxed as she saw he was feline, a miserable-looking snow leopard carrying a gaffe-hook, who despite being shorn to quarters and dressed in cutoff shorts and a dingy tank-top was still matted with sweat and dabbing his brow with a filthy bandanna. She nodded confidently to Jane and casually walked the rest of the way up the steps, coming into the leopard's view.
The sailor gripped the shaft of his weapon in his blunt hands and let out a low growl, his ears levering back against his skull. Dorothy's eyes flared, and the thug's will and resolve melted away, the gaffe-stick slipping out of his hands and clattering to the floor. The tabby approached him with her rabbit companion in tow, and turned to peer through the door with her uncanny vision.
Inside, a heavyset black bear in a stained peaked cap and an ill-fitting shirt sat in a folding chair with a shotgun laid across his lap, his brow furrowed in thought. It looked rather painful for him. An angular far-eastern cat with a dark face and ears nervously paced back and forth at the bank of windows running along the front of the wheelhouse, peering anxiously down toward the decks below with his mildly crossed eyes. He clutched a heavy caliber revolver in his dark-furred hands.
Dorothy reached up and patted the enthralled snow leopard on the shoulder and turned him toward the door. "Your will is my will. Introduce me to your captain, won't you?"
As he raised his fist to knock, she wiped her palm absently on the leg of her pants as a look of mild disgust flitted across her lightly striped features.
A creaking voice came from inside. "What is it, Mister Chagnaa?"
The tabby leaned in and whispered in the leopard's ear. "Tell them you have a report to make."
The damp furred thug spoke in a dull, gravelly voice. "I have a report to make."
After a pause, the voice inside creaked again. "Enter!"
With a nod from Dorothy, the snow leopard turned the latch and stumbled inside, standing dumbly by the door as Phung and Captain Dao looked up expectantly.
The eastern bear peered at the slack jawed crewman suspiciously. "Well? What is it Sweaty? Report!"
He blanched and fumbled for his weapon as Dorothy and Jane stepped out to either side of the insensate thug. The tabby shot her gaze at the dark-faced feline as he raised his pistol, freezing him in place. His eyes uncrossed and grew wide and black as his grip went slack on his weapon.
The tan furred doe bounded across the space and leapt into the startled bear's arms, causing him to half-stand and drop his weapon as he instinctively tried to catch her. Her athletic body curled in his grasp, kicking her legs up over his head and scissoring her thighs together around his neck. As his grip slackened, she whipped her torso downward like a pendulum, her long ears brushing the floor as her momentum pulled the hapless ship captain into a forward tumble that ended with his face hitting the deck as she swung into an upright position. With a broad grin on her face, she landed on the balls of her feet and hopped clear.
Captain Dao let out a low moan as he pushed himself up off of the deck,
mixed spittle and blood dripping from his muzzle as his long tongue
dangled from the side of his mouth. He froze, with wide eyes, as he felt
a gun barrel press against his temple, and heard the sharp click of a
hammer being pulled back. With wide, bleary eyes, he looked over to see
his faithful first mate Phung standing rigidly beside him with his
finger hovering on the trigger. The angular cat's blue eyes were black
and hollow in the center like the gun's muzzle.
The bear's head jerked upward as a calm female voice addressed him. "Where are you keeping the vixen your crew captured yesterday?"
He looked nervously up and found himself staring into a pair of eyes that chilled him to his core, forcing the truth out of him like breath when one steps suddenly into freezing air. "We put her in Marta's room. It's one of the little rooms on the upper decks next to the boss' room. Marta's the boss' slave girl, so it seemed like a good place to keep her, slave girl with slave girl. The boss didn't mind and it was a good idea because it kept her away from the crew and she's more profitable if she comes to market unspoiled. As it was we had to give one of the new guys twenty lashes 'cos he tried to sneak in and have a little taste, not that I blame him 'cos she's a cute one. But business is business and the new guys need to learn that. Plenty of perfectly good fun can be had for the price of an unsullied red tail girl."
Dorothy's lip curled into a snarl. "Enough!"
She crouched down on her haunches and drew forth the Widow's Tears, and driving their muzzles into the matted black fur of his neck. The bear began to quake and whimper as the temperature in her luminous eyes became paradoxically hotter and colder.
Her voice came in a low, ominous growl. "I made a vow not very long ago, that I would never take life with these guns. That I'd never leave someone grieving from my hand." The faint tabby stripes on her forehead furrowed deeply over her chilling eyes. "I'm not sure if ending your miserable existence would violate my vow or not. I'm having trouble imagining anyone would grieve for you."
She looked over at her rabbit companion, releasing the bear from her gaze. "Jane, would you mind terribly?"
Dao looked fearfully over at the fuming doe, who looked at him like he were squirming slug laying half crushed on a garden stone. "Not in th' least, darlin'."
With that, she raised her muscular leg, her padless foot arching over her shoulder, and brought her heel down the back of his neck like a poleaxe, sending him thudding to the floor, unconscious.
Dorothy snapped her fingers at the mesmerized cat and snow leopard. "You two! Tie this fat boil on the face of the Pan Orient up, and don't worry how comfortable you make him, then wait here for further instructions."
As the stunned felines moved to comply, she spun on her heel and headed for the door, with Jane falling into determined step behind her.
"Crikey. It got quiet all of a suddin."
"I don't loike it. We oughta jist 'ide below dicks 'til this blows oveh."
"If th' Cap'n 'ears yeh saiyin' thet 'e'll stripe yeh like that ottah bloke."
"Well... 'oo are yeh more skired of? Th' Cap'n or them bihds in the jolley-boat?"
"Yeh tirnin' yelleh on us, Frazier?"
"Git stuffed, Simmons. I saw 'em dissapih with me own oys. Then outta noweh they shot me bloomin' gun outta me 'ands."
"Pah. Yeh bin 'ittin' th' chaep likkah agin', mate. More like yeh got th' shaykes n' dropped it."
"I sweh, Simmons. I'm gonna knob yeh hid wit dis bloomin' bat if yeh don't ease off."
"Jist yoo troy it, mate. I'll skin yer like a bleedin' rutabagah."
"Aw, don't y'all fight now, boys."
She chuckled as she sidled up to him and draped her arms around his neck. "Thar's a whole lotta other thangs t' do besides fuss n' fight."
The jackrabbit sniper, who now carried a cricket bat in his hands, nervously tugged at his crewmate's sleeve. "Kehful, Simmons. She's one o' them."
He and the other rabbit looked up at the sound of another voice from the doorway. "Oh, there ain't jest one o' me, honeybun. Thar's plenty o' me t' go around..."
Their buck-toothed jaws dropped as another tan-furred doe sauntered out the door, approaching the former sniper, who recoiled from her, interposing the bat between them as a blush spread across his face. She reached up and ran a finger along the length of the bludgeon. "Ooh. So hard! This ain't th' usual sorta bat I like playin' with, but I could learn..."
The third buck, who carried a length of steel pipe in his hands, gaped at them, then turned as a third female made her sinuous way out of the shadows and advanced in his direction. "Aw. Y'all feelin' left out?"
She stepped up to him, pushing her chest against his and lowering his weapon with gentle hands. "Is thar someplace y'all'd like t' lay this thang? Mmm?"
The first buck carefully set his hatchet down on the deck and laid his hands on his doe's taut hips. "Weh eveh did YEW come from, gihlie?"
A wide grin spread across her face as she laid back her ears and fluttered her eyes at him. "Maybe I came from dreamland. Would y'all like a tour?"
With that, she reared back and headbutted him, then brought her knee sharply up into his groin. A coconut like clunk rang out as another tan-furred doe grasped the shaft of the cricket bat and slammed it into the sniper's face, knocking him backwards and then spinning with the club and catching him on the back of the head. The third buck found his steel pipe had somehow turned into a trapeze handle as the doe slid between his legs and sent him flipping head over heels. The trio of athletic females landed on the balls of their feet in ready stances, two of them brandishing newly acquired weapons, but the jackrabbits lay stunned and moaning on the floor, down for the count.
The three Janes looked over at the doorway and relaxed at the sound of broad, webbed hands clapping. Heywood Cord appeared in the doorway with a wry grin on his face. "Smartly done, Miss Early. Smartly done indeed."
The battered otter sauntered out with a fully clothed duplicate doe following him and shaking her head. "Y'know, sometimes I gotta despair fer my kindred, Heywood. Y'all jest got a prime demonstration o' how thar can be so many bunnies around without us takin' over th' world."
The Jane with the cricket bat rubbed the back of her head ruefully
while the other two combatants stepped toward one another and became a
single rabbit doe, the steel pipe leaned casually across her shoulders.
"Yeah, It's kinda embarrasin' that that worked so well."
One of the jackrabbits stirred at her feet, and she casually dropped the bat on his head with a hollow bonk, knocking him cold. The otter and three rabbits turned at the sound of footsteps coming down the nearby companionway, tensing for action.
She nodded in Heywood's direction. "Hey! Izzat who I think it is under all that beatin'?"
The two tan-furred does standing among the sprawled thugs recombined, then crossed over beside their clothed double and vanished. She turned with a nod and a smile, planting her hands on her hips and cocking her head at the otter. "Ayep. Mister Fishin' Pole hisself, still chasin' after our tails."
Jane let out a chuckle and exchanged a merry glance with her duplicate as she and Dorothy approached. "Huh. Well I hope y'all will go easier on th' poor dope next time. I almost didn't recognize him."
Her double grinned over at him as he gave her a pained look. "That's 'cos he's got pants on."
As the identical rabbits recombined into a single, fully clothed doe, Dorothy rolled her eyes and extended her hand to him. "Just ignore her, Mister..." Her eyes flickered. "Or should I say Agent...?"
The otter pursed his lips and glared at Jane as she smirked at him,
then turned and gave the tabby a slight bow, taking her hand and giving
it a firm shake. "Cord. Heywood Cord. Spontoon Intelligence Service.
Fish and Wildlife Division. At your service, Missus Pearl."
He let out a small sigh. "If you don't mind my asking out of professional curiousity, when did you figure out who I was?"
The feline gave him a cryptic smile as her icy blue eyes flickered. "Why, as soon as I laid eyes on you, Mister Cord. The Gaze does see all."
At this, the otter's eyebrows raised. "The Gaze? Really? <The gods send wisdom like a coconut descending hard upon the heads of the foolish!> No wonder the Wise Ones were interested in you. Our contacts in Sylvania's capitol merely said two female "persons of interest" were coming to our shores and gave us the hotel you'd be staying at."
He glanced around and leaned in, speaking in a low murmur. "Our dossier on you is rather thin, but what there is is frankly incredible. Many of my colleagues think you're some kind of elaborate hoax."
Dorothy's eyes narrowed as a lopsided grin appeared on her face. "Well, if it's all the same to you, Mister Cord, I'd prefer it to stay that way."
The otter held up his webbed hands propitiatingly. "I'm happy to oblige you with that, Missus Pearl. My boss would have my berries for bait if he knew I'd told you these things."
Jane cracked her knuckles as she looked around the deserted deck of the Hei Long. "Okay, folks. Maybe we oughta quit talkin' shop n' git down t' business. We still gotta rescue Miss Kaleia, and take care o' that wolf varmint once n' fer all."
Dorothy nodded. "Yes, then figure out what to do about Jormungandr."
The otter cocked an eyebrow. "Jormungandr? From the old Fjordic myths? The great serpent who's coils encircled the world?"
Jane looked at Dorothy and jerked her head at the otter with a smirk. "Daang! Check out th' big brain on ol' Heywood here."
The Spontoonie agent crossed his arms in front of his chest and raised his bruised nose in the air. "Well I WAS educated in Seacastle, I'll have you know..."
Dorothy chimed in, her face grave. "Yes, just like Jormungandr from the myths, although this time the snakes going around the world are a crew of Steppenwulfs in a super-long-range prototype submarine, capable of circumnavigating the globe and sinking as many ships as a whole fleet of conventional subs."
Taken aback, the otter's brow furrowed and he gave them a curt nod. "Well, if that's the case, then I probably should get up to the radio room and try to contact my friends in the Rain Island Naval Syndicate with a priority alert code."
He winced as he flexed his back and shoulders, then reached up and laid his webbed hands on Dorothy's shoulders. "I'm not really in much shape to fight right now anyway. I'm trusting you to bear the conch and shield for my <sister of the land we share> and carry her safely out of danger."
The feline met his gaze and smiled. "Count on it, Mister Cord. I'll see to it."
As the Spontoonie agent turned to leave, a thought struck Dorothy and she caught him by the arm, gazing earnestly into his eyes. "One more thing! We have very strong reason to believe the submarine's next target will be the Spontoonie freighter SS Palomino Bay. Make sure you include that in your message."
The battered mustelid cocked a blood-clotted eyebrow at her. "All right, I'll mention it. Now get going."
The tabby gave him a nod, and motioned for Jane to follow her.
With that, the trio split up, the two females making their way toward
the entry to the upper deck, as the otter bounded up the companionway,
his broad, tapering tail waving behind him.