PART 32 - SEA URCHINS
Between the quartet of male felines subdued to The Gaze's will and a bevy of Janes, it had been a simple matter to lead the terrified sailors below decks and secure them with their crew mates. The martin, in fact, almost seemed relieved to be chained up in the boiler room rather than someplace much hotter. Compelled by the power of the Eye of the Guardians to obey, the leopard, caracal, and cats stood guard over the other seagoing thugs, even serving them a ration of cold leftover beans and water from the ship's galley on Dorothy's order.
The sun was hanging low on the horizon when Jane and Dorothy returned with a boat laden with boxes and packs, supplies looted by the sea raiders and now reclaimed. Loretta and Gwen came out to the beach to assist, and soon the supplies were offloaded and returned to their rightful place, with a portion of them broken out to prepare supper. A hearty fish stew with canned vegetables was prepared by Jane and Loretta and served with plenty fruit and a large bowl of one-finger poi, which even the vixen and raccoon didn't decline.
Gwen gave a smile after she swallowed a mouthful of the thick purplish paste. "Here's another Songmark habit... This gunk is usually the first food to touch a student's lips after one of their wilderness survival exercises. As much as Lori and I hate this stuff, it's like you haven't really come back safe from an ordeal without the taste of poi..."
Loretta grimaced as she dunked a finger-full in a bowl of water. "Or lack of taste, to tell the truth."
The assembly laughed, even Kaleia, as Gwen wryly translated what had been said into Spontoonie.
The young vixen had been gently checked over and then tenderly bathed, brushed, and wrapped in a fresh sarong by Gwen and Jane, who she now looked on with budding admiration and gratitude instead of fear. Having been cleaned up and gotten some food and a little rest in her, she had begun to regain a bit of animation, although she was clearly quite worn out.
As was Junko, who spent most of the evening nestled close by Jane's side, holding her hand tightly as they fed one another bits of chopped carrot and apples. Heywood Cord was also looking a bit haggard as he sat stiffly at the table, but ate heartily. Like all of his kindred around the world, the taste of fish was all it took to lighten any otter's mood.
Zoltan and Vanya sat at the stricken Marta's side and refused to be budged, so supper was brought to them in the sleeping hut, and eaten with relish by the young canine while her hulking companion ate sparingly. They managed to get a little fish broth into the wounded female, as Zoltan gently propped her head up and spooned it between her lips while Vanya sat nearby, ready with a kerchief to dab at her chin.
The feline let out a sigh as she ran her finger along the edge of her coffee cup. "A whole 'nother half day lost. At this rate I'm beginning think we're not gonna make it in time."
Her expression darkened. "I hate this. Knowing something terrible is going to happen and not being able to do anything about it."
Jane leaned her chin on her palm and gave her partner a meaningful look. "That's th' story of my life these days, darlin'."
Loretta gazed across the table at Dorothy with an analytical expression in her grey eyes. "What did you expect to be able to do against that submarine anyway? Were you planning on shooting it with those mouse guns of yours?"
The feline pursed her lips as she met the raccoon's gaze. "Of course not." Her shoulders slumped as she let out a sigh. "I don't know what I'm going to do, honestly. Back when I thought we were looking for a stationary base I was planning to send along the location to various navies and let them take care of it, or at the most take Jane and run a little sabotage mission or so. But now that we've got a moving target, I've got a sinking feeling the navy will be too slow to save the Palomino Bay, and there's no way Jane and I could infiltrate a submarine as readily as we took down that pirate freighter today."
Gwen took a sip of coffee and nodded at the X on the map. "We can at least warn the guys on the freighter, provided we can find them."
The feline looked gravely over at the vixen. "Sure, and that's at least something, but what about the next ship the wolves decide to hit? This is a prime opportunity to catch these marauders in the act, and we just don't have the firepower to stop 'em."
Loretta nodded ruefully. "Yeah. You'd need some heavy-duty torpedoes or depth charges to take that monster out." She scowled and cocked her head out the window toward the deserted dock stretching out into the lagoon. "All we've got are mines, and they're a lot more dangerous to our side right now." She propped her chin in her hands and leaned on the table. "Don't forget, we've still got those nasty things to deal with yet."
Gwen nodded sympathetically as she absently stirred her coffee. After a beat a look of sudden inspiration settled on her face. She turned to the others with wide eyes and pricked up ears. "Wait... Why don't we just turn the mines into depth charges? They can't be that much different, can they?"
The cat, rabbit, and raccoon all reared back and stared at her in shock.
Dorothy's eyes flared. "You're joking."
Jane cocked an ear. "Y'all're crazy!"
Loretta's face settled into a weary, blasé expression. "She's serious." She let out a sigh. "And she IS crazy." She closed her eyes and shook her head, taking a sip of her coffee.
As the vixen settled back on her haunches with a crestfallen expression on her face, Loretta's grey eyes snapped suddenly open, and she set the coffee cup down with a pensive look on her face that quickly bloomed into one of deep, complex thought.
The raccoon turned to look at her companions with sudden energy animating her movements. "She's also a genius!"
This time, the others' heads snapped around to stare at her as she surged to her knees and slapped her dark furred hands on the table. "Yes! We could kill two birds with one stone!"
Jane gave her a wary look. "Killin' birds is jest what I'm worried about, darlin'. A goose in particular..."
Loretta climbed to her feet, and beckoned to Dorothy. "C'mon Missus
Pearl, you and I need to take a little walk over to the docks right
Loretta stopped midway along the dock and extended a hand to Dorothy. "Okay, Missus Pearl. I need you to do that thing you did with GeeGee's engine. I need to see the insides of one of these mines clearly so I can formulate a plan of attack."
The tabby nodded, and she grasped the dark-masked engineer's hand in
her own. Her ice blue eyes gleamed as she peered into the darkened water
at one of the narrowly-avoided spheres-of-death that bobbed mere feet
below the surface.
Gwen looked at her partner hopefully. "So what do you think, Lori? Can you do something with these things?"
The raccoon nodded absently. "Yeah. It'll be dangerous, but I think we can disarm it and jury-rig it as a depth charge. It looks like these things have a hydrostatic switch on 'em, probably to scuttle 'em if they get dumped too shallow. We're lucky they didn't set 'em, 'cos I think I can work 'em into the detonation circuit with a little tinkering. We'll need to pull those horn things on top first if we want to do anything with 'em. It looks like there's some kind of breakable glass flask inside. I'm assuming its battery acid to fire off a detonation pulse when it bangs into a ship's hull. They're just threaded into the shell, so I think we can remove 'em with a crescent wrench and some elbow grease, then cut the wires."
She let go of Dorothy's hand and peered across the lagoon at the sun as it hovered close to the distant horizon. "Although I think we probably should wait until we've got better light to even try it."
Jane nodded to her, cocking an ear. "Ayep. I reckon it's a better idea t' flirt with death after a good night's rest."
Loretta rolled her eyes. "Oh, as if I'm going to get any sleep tonight."
Gwen planted her hands on her hips and gave her companions a wry look. "Once Lori gets a problem churning in her head it's tough for her to think about anything else."
The raccoon shook her head. "Well, that's not true in this case. I'm also thinking about a million ways we could get blown to smithereens messing around with these things."
Jane gave her a grin. "Hey, we already missed out on one of 'em today, thanks t' Junko, Gwen, n' Dorothy. So thar's one less fer y'all to fret about."
Dorothy gazed into the water at the deadly devices. "I'd much rather you focused your thinking on ways we could NOT get blown up, Miss Pike."
The raccoon let out a sigh. "They're one and the same thing, Missus Pearl. But Jane's right. Shaky hands from being over tired shouldn't be one of them. Lets turn in."
The other three females nodded in agreement, and they made their way back the dock to the huts.
His brow furrowed as he pricked his ears to listen, pursing his lips as he realized the voices were too far away and indistinct to hear clearly. With a sigh, he tipped himself out of the hammock and put his webbed feet on the floor, wincing as a thousand aches and pains from the preceding day and night's ordeals made their presence known. He stretched his muscular frame, adjusted his loincloth, and pushed through the curtain separating off his and Zoltan's third of the hut, noting as he passed that the hulking canine's hammock hung empty. He made his way down the curtain-flanked passage to the door and stepped out into the sunlight.
Her ears were laid back as she spoke to her companions. "Look, don't make me put all y'all in a headlock. I oughta be th' one t' do it. I got backups in case somethin' goes wrong."
Loretta planted a hand on her hip and gestured with a large crescent wrench she held clutched in her other hand. "The whole plan hinges on something NOT going wrong, Miss Early. I'll readily bow to your unsurpassed ability to break things, but this job needs someone who knows their way around a wrench, and that's me."
Gwen reached out and snatched the wrench from her hand. "Yeah, but I'm the best swimmer among us, and I know how to use a wrench as good as anybody. I should go."
The raccoon frowned indignantly and crossed her arms in front of her. "Absolutely not, Gwen! We're going to need you in the pilot seat for this caper."
Jane nodded decisively. "Yeah. And anyway, I hate t' contradict y'all, darlin', but Junko's th' best swimmer."
Dorothy glared at her. "Oh? Are you volunteering her?"
The tan-furred rabbit bristled. "Heck no! I'm jest settin' th' record straight. I'm gonna make damn sure Junko's safe down in th' cave when I go n' pull them detonators."
The feline's eyes flared. "You're gonna be down there with her if I have to immobilize you with The Eye and drag you down there myself. I should do this. I can see inside the damn thing."
Jane shook her head. "Y'all been sneakin' 'nip someplace while we weren't lookin'? Y'all're a lousy swimmer. Remember that kidnappin' down in th' Salt Marshes?"
Dorothy's eyes flared angrily. "We agreed never to speak of that case ever again..."
The rabbit doe glared back. "I also agreed t' watch yer back n' keep y'all from gittin' hurt."
She assumed a businesslike attitude. "And anyhow, jest like Gwen here
we need y'all fer a different job. It's gonna be yer responsiblilty t'
spot that sub n' drop these babies dead on target usin' that amazin' aim
Before Dorothy could reply a cheery voice called out to them from down the dock. "Good morning, ladies! What seems to be the trouble out here?"
They rounded on the otter as he walked casually up the planks toward them. He gave them a broad smile as he approached. They all paused in their arguing and admired the view, in spite of themselves. Battered and bandaged though he was, he was a fine figure of a male.
Jane stepped forward. "Mornin', Handsome. Oh, no trouble here." She cocked her head in annoyance at the other females. "We're jest havin' a li'l disagreement about who oughta go down n' do somethin' 'bout them mines by th' dock."
The otter nodded gravely and scratched at his bandaged nose as he cast a long gaze at the water lapping against the dock. "Mines, eh? Well I daresay I've had a little training in that department." He gave them a grin. "Ol' Haheka knows, you wanna get da sea urchin, you gotta pull da spines off it first."
Loretta snatched the wrench out of Gwen's distracted hands and pushed the vixen aside. "Well, you'll have to get in line, Mister Haheka or Cord or whatever your name is. Nobody's touching those things but me."
The otter gave her a warm smile, and stepped forward, taking her hands, wrench and all, in his own. "And a delicate touch it is. With all the hustle and bustle yesterday, I haven't gotten the chance to thank you for your kind ministrations. I count myself extremely fortunate to have been the recipient of such tender care from such a lovely daughter of the rivers."
With that he leaned forward and planted a kiss on her muzzle.
The living part of Loretta's tail frizzed out as a hot blush spread
across her cheeks, forming a line of red beneath the dark fur of her
mask. The otter slipped the wrench out of her hands and bounded away
across the dock, slipping into the water with the barest of splashes
before any of the females could react. He popped up to the surface and
jauntily saluted them with the wrench as they all clustered at the edge
and stared down at him.
Loretta's reddened face contorted with anger as her grey eyes flashed, her fists shaking down at her sides. "You... you FINK! That was a dirty trick!"
The otter chuckled and bowed his head to her as he bobbed effortlessly in the water. "Not a bit of it, my dear. I meant every word I said, you are truly a lovely specimen of the procyon kindred, and I am genuinely grateful to you for the care you've given me. I'm grateful to Miss Early as well."
He winked at the rabbit. "I hope you don't mind my seeming to favor Miss Pike. I've seen what you're capable of when you get in close."
Jane planted her hands on her hips and snorted. "Feh. T'ain't nothin' t' what y'jest showed y'all're capable of. Y'all ever try that sorta thing with me n' I'll fix yer kisser right proper."
The Spontoonie intelligence agent let out a laugh. "I'm sure you would. Now speaking of fixing things, could I trouble you for that pair of wire cutters I couldn't help but notice you're carrying, Miss Pike?"
The raccoon scowled and fished down the front of her swimsuit, producing a the requested tool from her cleavage with a faint blush on her face and tossing them to him. He caught them deftly out of the air and gave them a grin, waving toward the beach with the wrench. "Much obliged, my dear. Now, I'm going to have to ask you lovely ladies to vacate this dock until I give the all clear signal. You'll definitely hear otherwise if I fail to do it properly."
With that he clamped the wire cutters between his teeth and ducked below the water with a faint plunk. As the quartet of females hurried off of the dock, they watched his sinuous brown grey body knife through the water and come to a floating stop next to one of the mines.
A growing plume of bubbles rose from the deadly floating sphere as it began to settle gently toward the bottom of the lagoon, its tether going slack as its floatation compartment slowly filled with water. The otter carefully guided the mine's path away from the pilings of the dock and down to the soft, shifting sands below, making sure to keep the remaining horns pointed where they wouldn't get bent or broken. He spotted the one he'd already removed and grabbed it, then darted toward the surface for a breath of air.
A moment later, he slid down through the clear water and settled his feet on the ocean floor, and got to work unscrewing the other four horns, cutting their wires, and piling them in the shifting sands at his side, pausing at intervals to breathe.
When he had finished removing the last horn, he looked ruefully over his shoulder at the row of its siblings hovering along the dock behind him. Shaking his head, he shoved off from the bottom to get more air and repeat the process with the next mine.
He looked up through slitted eyes with a smile at the silhouettes of four females standing over him. "All done. You can drag them wherever you like now. I'd suggest you take them out to deeper water where they won't do any damage to the absolutely stunning reefs you have out here."
Dorothy's eyes glittered. "We've got other plans for these things, Mister Cord."
Loretta nodded and peered out into the lagoon. "Yeah. Next thing we need to do is drag them in to shore where I can work on 'em."
At this the Spontoonie otter sat bolt upright, turning and staring up at the assembled females. "Wh... WHAT!?" His eyes narrowed as he gave them a searching look. "What are you girls planning to do with these beastly things?"
Jane reached down and tousled his sodden mop of dark hair. "Don't y'all worry yer purty li'l head 'bout it none, darlin'."
Cord's face set in a scowl and he rose to his feet. His web fingered fists clenched down at his sides as he rounded on them. "Don't you DARE patronize me after I just spent two <accursed by the gods> hours down there risking my already <chewed on by sharks> hide, you <vexing outlander female who I would turn over my knee and spank if I did not fear pulling back a bleeding stump for my troubles> !"
The rabbit doe held up propitiating hands. "Okay, okay. Cool yer jets, Heywood. Lets jest say me n' th' gals are plannin' on doin' a li'l shark fishin', and we're gonna turn these bobbers into sinkers, if'n y'all catch my drift."
A dumbfounded look spread across the otter's face, and he turned and looked over his shoulder at the lagoon, then back at them. "You... you're feeding me a load of hooey! No... You're serious!?"
He slumped down in the surf and sat back with his arms propping him up, shaking his head and gazing into space. "<My honored grandmother spoke in wisdom that outlanders are all crazy. The females even more so...>"
Gwen gave him a searching look. "So are you gonna help us?"
The otter shook out of his reverie and grinned up at her. "Oh,
absolutely. This is gonna be a whopper of a fish story."