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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
Most editors will tell you that the best way to get a story consigned to the wastebasket is to open it with a paw or hoof reaching out from under the sheets to silence an alarm clock. In this case that wasn’t QUITE what was going on; there was no alarm clock, never had been. It was a peculiarity of Katie MacArran’s that if she tried to sleep with one of those things by her bed, she would be unable to sleep at all; the prospect of being rudely jangled out a pleasant slumber would keep her awake all night. So it was that if the pinto mare needed to be roused at a certain hour, she would leave the task to her housemaid, Hsing.
Such however was rarely the case. More often than not, Katie’s internal clock was so accurate, it might well have been crafted by Patek Philippe. And that was how it was on this fine, Spontoonian morning. At almost the precise moment that she had wished to awaken, Katie MacArran’s hoof was reaching out from under the sheets...not to grab for the alarm clock but for her cane-sword.
“You better NOT be in here, Raibassu!”
He wasn’t, and actually, she knew he wouldn’t be. There were some sanctuaries even THAT lion dared not violate.
She turned sideways on the bed, and sat up, the sheets falling to her waist as she stretched and treated herself to a good, hearty yawn, then turned and scooped her watch from the little bedside table. She smiled Almost spot on 6 AM...perfect. Had Katie been in Burlington, Strathdern, or her house in London, she would have next gone to the window and pulled the curtains aside to greet the day. This, however, was South Island, in the Spontoon archipelago, and Speed Week was almost here; so who knew who or what might be out there when she opened the drapes?
And so, grumbling at the inconvenience, she grabbed her robe from the clothes rack, next to the dresser.
As things turned out, she might just as well have remained au naturel. When she pulled back the curtains, no one was there. By then however she didn’t care. In front of her was the gorgeous panorama of a perfect tropical sunrise, the sky dotted with fluffy, cottonwool clouds, all of them painted in riotous hues of pastel orange, yellow, and pink, together with a lagoon whose surface was as smooth as polished glass. Capping the vista was a distant pair of outrigger canoes, tinted pink by the burgeoning light of dawn as they glided easily across the lagoon.
It was, Katie decided, the perfect scene to begin her first full day in the Islands. Too bad Winston Churchill couldn’t see it; he’d be out there with his paintbox and easel, like a shot...the ungodly hour be damned. ( Well, that was HER opinion, anyway. )
She closed the curtains and shucked off her robe once again.
Amongst furs of her class, it was common practice to send for a maid or valet to assist oneself in dressing. In Katie’s case however, the silver bell placed on her bedside table remained conspicuously untouched. This had nothing do with any social rebellion on the pinto mare’s part; she simply preferred to keep her morning ritual a solitary exercise; it gave her an opportunity for some thought and reflection.
Today, her thoughts were centered upon the tasks she had set for herself this morning, and for the first of these, she selected in a pair of khaki pants and a matching short-sleeved shirt from the closet, shirt, slipping her hooves into a pair of rubber sandals when she was done dressing. She did not bother to comb out her mane or tail, however. It would only need to be done all over again anyway.
After giving herself a quick appraisal in the mirror, she returned to the bedside table to retrieve what she called her ‘certain items’, each of which was carefully wiped off before being returned to its proper place in the crushed leather case where they were kept. Though Katie had not been in an intimate relationship since her breakup with Carl almost two years previously, she still had her physical needs...and she found that she always slept much more soundly if she satisfied them before retiring for the night. Looking down at the soaking wet towel laying next to the bed, she felt a heat rising in her ears, wondering if perhaps she had overdone it a little.
But then again, after the scene she’d observed upon exiting the Etoile....well, perhaps such had been inevitable.
The dinner with Jim and Mary Spanaway had gone wonderfully. As fate would have it, the fur assigned to their table was none other than Andre, the very squirrel with whom Maggie Bronstiel had (literally) knocked heads. Why a maitre d’ had been given a task normally reserved for a waiter, she had no idea. Perhaps, it had been because the pinto mare’s reputation as a generous tipper had preceded her. Much more likely, it had been due to the fact that Katie was here for the Schneider as a competitor, not merely a spectator; as a rule the red carpet was always rolled out for race-plane pilots during Speed Week
The reason for this was simple -- racers attracted tourists, and tourists spent money. In this case however, the Etoile soon had ample reason to reconsider this policy. When Andre had approached their table, looking smarmy as the average pimp, she had immediately raised a hoof with two folded c-notes clipped between the middle and index fingers. And when Andre had grabbed for them, he had discovered that clipped was a more accurate description than he’d realized. The folded bills were only HALVES of Franklins.
“You get the rest,” Katie had informed the squirrel, “if, and only if, this table receives a great meal and excellent service,” Andre had just stared with his whiskers twitching, and the pinto mare had continued, to the barely stifled sniggers of her tablemates, “Yes, yes...I know; it’s the chef who’s responsible for the quality of our meal, not you.” She’d held up the half-hundreds again, “So in that case, you had better stroll into the kitchen and see if you can cut a deal with him...coz my guess is even a hundred smackers is the biggest tip you’ll get all week.” (That hadn’t been true and Katie had known it, but it had been good to throw in a calculated insult – to let bushytail-boy REALLY know who was calling the shots.) Katie’s tone had then changed to the honeyed lye that never failed so produce an uncomfortable quiver in all who knew her, “Oh, and by the way, if you choose not to follow my suggestion, I can assure you that word of your refusal will also be relayed to the directly to the chef. Got that? And be glad you’re not waiting on Howard Hughes’s table; HE has a habit of buying restaurants and then firing any staffers who tick him off. Now, va t’en!”
Andre had moved---sullenly, and reciting oaths to himself---but he had moved, and very quickly.
After that, as anyone might have predicted, the meal and the service HAD been excellent...and Andre had ending up splitting a third C-note with the chef, this one courtesy of the Spanaways.
But then afterwards, Katie had remembered something she wanted to tell Drake before turning in...and on the way to his room, she had been treated to the sight of Maggie Bronstiel leading Zeke into the front door of the their suite by way of his tie, which was laying draped across her shoulder.
It was the expression on their faces that had done it; after that, Katie had known there was only ONE way she was getting any sleep tonight...and so the crushed leather case had been swiftly removed from its hiding place as soon as her bedroom door had closed.
She picked up her Shikomi-Zue from beside the bed, and went to the door.
Exiting the rear of the cottage, Katie closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply, enjoying the fresh, salty tang of the morning air.
She then kicked off the sandals and rapidly drew her sword, moving with stylized grace through her morning Tai-Chi exercises, feeling her muscles stretch and limber as she whirled and pranced through her routine, her movements becoming faster and smoother with every one that she made.
Out of the corner of her brown eye, she became aware of something....her daily ritual had caught the attention of a boatload of tourists, and two of them were snapping pictures. She made herself ignore them. Nothing must break her chain of thought; nothing must interrupt the flow of energy; she must focus her mind entirely on the exercise, nothing but the exercise. She must relax and let go of her surroundings, she must become what she was doing.
Katie could feel her internal dialogue stopping, her senses becoming aware of only of her own motions. The sword seemed to be cutting the air of its own accord now...she could almost see the designs it was tracing in the air. She was also wielding it at what seemed like far too fast a speed for her abilities. Was she really moving this quickly, this precisely, or was it all in her head? Two more moves to go...now one more, the silk wind. Then the sword snapped up high over her head, and disappeared into it’s scabbard once again.
It was only when she looked at her watch that she became aware of how long she had been at it; a little more than 20 minutes, not bad.
A sound made its presence known then, a beating tattoo, like rain on a thin, wooden roof. Turning towards the water, Katie saw that the occupants of the tour-boat were applauding her. She smiled, clasped her hooves together in the Chinese fashion, and bowed slightly in their direction, then turned on her heel and went to the back door. As per her instructions from the previous day, Hsing had laid out her favorite pair of runners, as she called them, beside it.
They were shoes of her own design, a pair of canvas-top tennis shoes onto which had been grafted a lighter version of the soles of safari shoes. She had them made up especially for her by the small firm of Jaczenyk and Sons, New York.
She slipped them on, grabbed her sword again, then stood up, and turned towards the back gate, inhaled a short breath, then took off at a sprint in that direction. Upon reaching the gate, the pinto did not pause to open it...or even pause at all. Instead, she just leaped over it, clearing the top with a good eighteen inches to spare.
She was, after all, part English Hunter.
Upon reaching the road, she turned right, heading up towards North Bay Point at a good clip, her trusty Shikomi Zue held firmly in her hooves.
Coming around the point, she passed group of Spontoonie kits, sitting on a small jetty and staring through rolled paper tubes at the Italian cruise liner, Imperator, just making her passage through the strait. She felt her ears going backwards. Three months earlier, in May of that year, a squadron of B-17 bombers from the US Army Air Corps had successfully intercepted the Imperator’s sister ship, the Rex, 700 miles out to sea in the Atlantic.
It had been a stunning coup on the USAAC’s part, to say nothing of a brilliant feat of flying...and what had been the reaction in Washington?
A flurry of angry memos from the Navy Department, castigating the Army Air Corps for poaching on THEIR turf...and then an angry order from the War Department, restricting all Army Air Corps to operations to no more than a hundred miles from the American coast.
Idiots, idiots, IDIOTS! Katie had heard the story from Jack Finlayson, who’d been sputtering like a teakettle as he’d relayed the news. “I hope NOW you see why the Diva project has to stay under wraps,” he’d said, and though the pinto mare already had appreciated the need for keeping the true nature of her race-plane a secret, afterwards she’d been doubly convinced of the necessity.
A noise in her wake abruptly pulled her from these thoughts. Glancing quickly over a shoulder, she saw that the gaggle of youngsters had abandoned the jetty and were running along behind her.
Katie smiled and waved, but did not say anything; she needed to conserve her breath. Coming around the back of the turn, she spotted a large, black boulder embedded in the earth beside the road, a thing the size of lean-to. She realized at once that it was a jetty-stone; probably fell from the truck that was delivering it and been left there as an orphan.
She changed course at once, maintaining her speed, but increasing her stride with every step until she almost resembled a ballet dancer performing a series of jetes. She was two feet away from the rock, when she went into a fast half crouch and launched herself over the top, clearing it easily, and landing smoothly on the other side, continuing on without a second’s pause and only one quick backwards glance. Yep, the kits were still there...in fact now there were a few more of them, the larger members of the group clambering up and over the top of the stone while the smaller ones moved around it.
She turned her attention back towards the road. Now it was beginning to slope upwards at a gentle angle, and running beside the roadway was a shallow drainage ditch, about three feet from side to side.
Katie veered in the direction and jumped sideways over the ditch, using her shikomi zue as a makeshift pole vault, then shifted back the way she had come and vaulted the trench a second time. Next, she began to move in a zig-zag pattern, vaulting back and forth across the ditch, again and again...changing direction and leaping back across the instant that she touched down. She repeated this pattern twenty times, then resumed her sprint down the road, glancing backwards over her shoulder a third time.
The number of youngsters following her had now doubled.
“Just call me the Piebald Piper.” she thought, allowing herself a silent snigger....and then began scanning the left side of the road. It should be here somewhere, according to what Mary had said over dinner last night. Wait, yes...there it was; a narrow, winding trail leading upwards through a meadow of tall, deep-green grass, and then into the hills overlooking the North Peninsula. Supposedly it came down the other side and connected with a gravel road, about 1/4 mile east of the Tapotabo Hotel.
Supposedly. Oh, well...only one way to find out. She turned and sprinted up the path, about a third of the kits deciding that this was apparently far enough for them.
The trail rose at a gentle angle as it meandered towards the treeline, but then, as soon as it penetrated the canopy, everything changed; the pathway thrust upwards in a series of steep, needle-sharp hairpin turns. The foliage was close here, blocking out most of the sunlight, and though the air was pleasant enough, Katie felt an all-too-familiar chill, snaking it’s way up her back.
Oh, THIS was familiar territory; though the green surrounding her was soft and lush, the insects conspicuous by their absence, and the trees not quite so soaring, it would not greatly have surprised the pinto mare to observe the diminutive figure of an Ayon stepping into the pathway.
Katie felt her hooves involuntarily clutch her cane-sword a little more tightly, and she gritted her teeth and snorted. What the heck was she doing, thinking about the Snakeheads now? That had been more than six years ago...no, three WARS ago.
She banished the thought and forced herself to press on. Up, up, and up the trail went, at one point becoming a rock-strewn staircase where the rain had washed away the topsoil. Out of an unbreakable habit, Katie found herself glancing down at the trailbed, searching for that telltale, precious-yellow glimmer. Of course there wasn’t any here, but old tendencies die hard
The trail switched again, and now looming up above her, like a mother with open arms, Katie could see a break in the trees, with no more ascension behind it.
She made herself pick up the pace.
When Katie crested the top of the ridge, no breathtaking view awaited her; she was still surrounded by a thick wall of the local flora. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed that she was now alone, the youngsters having apparently decided, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’, at some point during the climb.
The descending trail was at a much shallower angle than the one on the reverse slope, and the switchbacks much looser, which was just how Katie wanted it. By now, she was sweating profusely. When the trail broke out of the trees again, and onto the gravel road, much of her perspiration had turned to lather, but she did not let up until she reached the main road again, slowing first to a jog trot and then to a cool-down walk for the last 100 yards of her trek.
When she entered the Blue Pearl cottage again, Ewan Barclay was there, waiting with a fluffy face towel and a tall glass of cool, not cold, water. (Katie had better things to do at the moment than deal with a case of colic.)
“Good morning your Grace.” he told her, smiling, “A pleasant run this morning?”
“Yes, excellent, thank you Barclay,” she answered, wiping her face with the towel while taking, measured sips from the glass of water.
“Very good, Your Grace.” said the rat, with a short bow, “Your equipment has been set up on the pier for you, per last night’s instructions.”
“Thank you, Barclay.” said Katie, taking another sip, “And have the breakfast reservations for this morning been taken care of?”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Barclay replied a small note of self satisfaction in his voice, “Luchow’s will be happy to reserve the private garden this morning for you and your guest; the hostess assures me that you may count upon the utmost privacy. Mr. Hackett further promises me that you shall both find the fare quite to your liking. There is also a note from Mr. Shang. He will be waiting for you when you arrive at Eastern Island for your flight. In the meantime, I have taken the liberty of preparing a map of Meeting Island, detailing how to get to Luchow’s; it will be awaiting you in your water taxi when you are ready to depart.”
“Excellent.” said Katie, returning the towel and the glass to her valet. “And has there been any message from the McCraddens?”
The corners of the rat’s mouth turned slightly downwards.
“Not as of yet, Your Grace. If you wish, I can send a messenger to Superior Engineering to remind them of your appointment this morning.”
Katie pursed her lips and slowly shook her head, “Noooo...I don’t think that’ll be necessary Barclay. From what Zeke tells me, Malcolm McCradden’s a thoroughly reliable otter.” She grinned, “Like all good Scots.”
“Yes indeed, Your Grace,” said the good Scot, Ewan Barclay, barely suppressing a smile of his own.
The equipment waiting for Katie on the pier consisted of a low bench, a pair of Indian clubs, and a set of dumbbells. Seating herself on the bench, Katie started with the five pound bells, doing three series of ten repetitions with each arm, then working her way upwards to the ten, fifteen, and twenty pounders. A series of swings with the Indian clubs followed, and Katie finished by performing four hundred push-ups, four hundred sit-ups, and finally four hundred deep knee bends.
Entering the cottage once again, she heard the shower bursting into life as soon as the passed through the door. Hsing, as usual, was on the job. A quick clean up followed, with only a light application of body wash and no shampoo. When she came into the bedroom again after giving her mane and tail a quick brush, she found her clothes there, laid out and waiting.
As always, today’s ensemble was in silk, a bronze-colored charmeuse wrap blouse with a sash-belt, shawl collar, and matching pants. It was another of her all-purpose outfits; casual enough for a rambling jaunt around the souvenir shops, yet chic enough for a side-trip to the high-stakes tables at the Imperial, if that so struck her fancy.
Arriving at the small, thick-topped table in the sun-room, Katie found a small bowl of Buckhorn’s Steel Cut Scottish Oatmeal awaiting her, and a glass of sun-colored fruit-juice. Since settling in Vermont, she had adopted the New England farmhouse habit of eating two breakfasts -- a light repast to sustain her through the morning chores, (or in this case, a morning flight) and then something more substantial afterwards.
Seating herself at the table, Katie took a tentative sip from the juice glass and found it much to her liking.
“Barclay?” she called through the open door to the main salon, “What kind of juice is this?”
“Mango and Papaya, Your Grace.” came the answer.
Katie took another, longer draught. “Well tell Mrs. Guarada that it’s excellent, and I want her to stick with it.” Though no martinet when it came to dictating her breakfast menu, the pinto mare did insist upon two points: the maple syrup had to be REAL maple syrup, and NO juice from a bottle, thank you. It was to be either fresh squeezed, or nothing, a habit which often led to the necessity of trying new types of fruit juice in her various travels.
She drizzled her oatmeal with honey, and picked up her spoon. Almost immediately, the radio in the next room came on. This time it was tuned to radio LYRC, one of the two Spontoonie stations, with a local weather and fishing report. Katie listened to this with intent interest; a few squalls were possible later in the afternoon, but pleasant conditions could be expected for the remainder of the morning. Excellent. This was followed by the morning news broadcast. Nothing new about Czechoslovakia; Prime Minister Chamberlain still had no comments regarding the rumor that he had developed some sort of secret plan for dealing with the crisis. There was however, one bit of local news that most definitely made Katie MacArran’s ears prick up.
“...and the Rain Island Naval Syndicate confirms that His Majesty’s aircraft carrier, HMS Courageous has cleared the outer Nimitz islands and is expected to dock at Moon Island Naval Base, approximately 10 AM, local time.”
Oooo, that meant the Courageous would be within easy flight distance by the time Katie took off from Eastern Island. Perfect! She couldn’t have arranged this any better if she’d tried.
The news, and Katie, were just finishing up when Barclay entered the room once more.
“Your water-taxi has arrived, Your Grace.”
“Excellent, Barclay.” Katie responded, dabbing her lips with a napkin as she rose from the table. “Now, if anyone from the crew calls by, I’ll be gone until this afternoon. Tell them I want the gear from the Republic put away in our hangar, and the fuel stowed over at Superior -- have Geoff see to that -- and tell them we’ll be giving the Little Engine a full inspection and tune-up later this afternoon.” She picked up her shikomi-zue, “However no rush on that; I won’t be taking the Engine up today, so if we can’t finish the tune-up by tonight, no worries.”
“Very good, Your Grace,” said the rat, clicking his heels, and then switching to the archaic third furson, something he always did when wishing to be diplomatic, “However, if your humble servant may make one small suggestion? Her Grace might also wish to have a message to that effect sent round to Shepherd’s front desk. One never knows, after all. Her Grace’s crew members might come to call somewhat later than she anticipates.”
“Oh yes, by all means.” said Katie, very quickly. Barclay was right, she had left no instructions with her crew the previous evening, except to tell them about the pub date with the McCraddens. And besides, given the way Zeke and Maggie had been carrying on when the pinto mare had seen them last, they might STILL not yet have gone to sleep. “Send it over right away, but leave instructions with the staff not to disturb the boys with it, just make sure they get the word as soon as they’re up.”
“You may consider it done, Your Grace.” the rat replied, bowing once again.
“Thank you, Barclay.” Katie replied, then turned on her hoof and strode purposefully towards the door.
Her morning workout had only just begun.
“Good Morning, Your Grace,” said her driver, Laluu’pa-ti, with that broad grin typical of Polynesians, as he helped her into the boat, “Where we off to, dis fine morning?”
“Eastern Island.” Katie answered at once, “But not the air-race hangars. You know the International Air Cargo Company?”
The bearcat nodded, briskly.
“Oh yeah, dat’s an easy one, You Grace. Only air cargo hanga’ got it’s own taxi dock. Dat’s de one you own, right?”
“Yep,” said the pinto mare nodding. Actually, it wasn’t quite true. On paper at least, the IACC had been a publicly traded concern ever since it’s genesis as the International Dirigible Company... and for the last three years, it had been public in practice as well.
Lalu nodded back, and went to cast off the moorings, assisted by the dour beaver, Grumlie, Katie’s resident handyfur.
Seating herself on one of the Seahorse’s cushioned chairs, Katie found the map of Meeting Island Barclay had prepared placed on the seat next to hers, along with a copy of this morning’s Spontoon Mirror and the most recent copies available of her owns papers, the London Daily Observer and the Evening Mirror.
As soon as the motor grumbled into life, Katie settled back and began to read, starting first with the Spontoon paper.
The quality of journalism was excellent, surprisingly so for a local paper. One reporter in particular, name of Mooney, seemed especially impressive in his work, clear and precise in his prose, with not a hint of over-dramatization. There was something familiar about that by-line, though. She could swear she’d seen it somewhere once before.
She set the Spontoon Mirror aside and picked up the copy of the Evening Mirror. Here, she ignored the headlines and went straight to the editorial pages. ( There was nothing on the front page that wasn’t old news. ) Reading Sir George Stafford’s latest editorial, she nodded in satisfaction at what she found. To the point, as always. On the opposite page, she found an op-ed column by Winston Churchill, “Will Hitler Stop At The Sudetenland?”
After reading the editorial with avid interest, she set it aside with a small horse-chuckle, and shook her head.
“Max...except for letting David Low get away, that was the dumbest mistake you ever made.”
Six months earlier Max Aitken’s ( Lord Beaverbrook’s ) Evening Standard had abruptly terminated their contract with Mr. Churchill, who had been penning a bi-weekly column for them up until that point When Katie’s own editor and publisher, George Stafford, had gotten wind of the cessation of WSC’s contract, he had promptly offered to pick it up at a 20% rise in compensation... with the result that the Standard’s net circulation had dropped, while the Mirror’s had risen in similar proportion. In his pique at Winston, The Beaver had apparently forgotten one small but crucial fact: However much furs might detest Churchill and deride him as a war-monger, they still read what he wrote.
She set aside the Mirror and picked up the Observer. Sir George’s words here were considerably more caustic than they had been in the previous evening’s column, and though no names were mentioned, by end of the third paragraph, the target of the tiger’s diatribe was as obvious as an inkstain on a tablecloth.
Katie snuffled, then read on. She was beginning to feel the same way about that particular individual herself.
Despite their rivalry, Katie MacArran and Lord Beaverbrook held no animosity towards one another; the sea mink understood that her publisher’s decision to hire Churchill as soon as the Standard had dropped him, as well as Stafford’s wooing of cartoonist David Low to the Observer had been strictly business, nothing more. Up until now, all fursonal antipathy had been reserved for Lord Casterley, and that conflict had been entirely between the grey cat and Katie, with George Stafford remaining quietly on the sidelines.
Now, however, the tiger seemed to have found his own bete noir... and it was none other than Geoffrey Dawson, publisher of the London Times.
Dawson, a beagle, was an ardent disciple of appeasement, a position he made clear with every editorial he wrote. George Stafford didn’t hold that against the canine, a fur was entitled to his opinions, after all. What had rankled him to no end was that Dawson was deliberately spiking any and all stories that came across his desk detailing the Nazi depredations in Austria. Even worse, from Stafford’s point of view, the beagle was consigning any and all photos cataloguing these atrocities to the dustbin... all for the sake of NOT provoking Hitler
To the editor and publisher of the London Daily Observer and the Evening Mirror, this was irresponsible journalism in it’s lowest form; one did not cherry pick the facts to suit one’s politics. The truth was the truth, and must always be reported as such, the editor’s personal whims be damned... or even the owner’s. Once, while Katie had been in Spain, flying for the Republicans, the Observer had published a blistering article depicting the wholesale slaughter of a Spanish town’s male population in the local the bull ring.
Their killers had been Loyalist soldiers, and not guerilla fighters either, but part of the regular army.
Katie later found out that the Observer and Mirror’s editorial staff had all but gotten down on their knees and BEGGED Stafford not to publish the story; “When Her Grace finds out, you’ll be sacked for certain.”
George Stafford’s response to this would in time become a classic of British journalism.
“It happened, so we run it.”
Katie had NOT given her editor and publisher his walking papers for printing that story, though admittedly, she did come close... nor had the reporter who had written it, an Australian canine by the name of Drake Hackett, been required to update his resume. In fact, when the pinto mare had read the account of the atrocity, it had been the first step down a path that would eventually lead her to quit the Espadrille Espana and renounce all ties to the Loyalist cause. True, she had felt like ordering Stafford to clean out his desk, when she’d first read the account...but that feeling had lasted for all of half a minute. She knew her publisher and she knew his standards; integrity over all. He would never have run a story like that unless it he was completely certain of its accuracy.
And so, in the end, Sir George Stafford had not only kept his job, but his stock amongst his Fleet Street peers had risen dramatically. Like him or loathe him, you had to admire that tiger’s courage.
Which was why Dawson’s latest antics particularly nettled the big cat. He’d been going around his Pall Mall club, dropping hints that Sir George’s decision to step down as editor of the Mirror and Observer the following year ( though he would remain on as publisher ) was a tacit admission that his papers’ opposition to Chamberlain’s appeasement policy was a failure. Nothing was said directly of course; Geoffrey Dawson knew how to play that game, but the message, and it’s implication were clear: Stafford had lost and now he was running away.
His species notwithstanding, George Stafford was a levelheaded soul, and very slow to anger...but when you DID incur his wrath, watch out for the claws on all four paws, and why Grandma, what sharp fangs you have. Though the Times’ editor and publisher had not yet pushed the tiger quite that far, things were rapidly building towards an eruption. And when it happened, Katie fully intended to back Sir George, and back him right to the hilt.
These musings were interrupted by the familiar roar of twin aircraft engines passing low overhead. Katie knew without looking which plane it was. She should have -- the North American NA-40 Skypacket was one of hers; in fact, it was her most successful concept to date. Designed and built as a dedicated cargo-aircraft, the Skypacket was employed as a freight hauler all over the world, and was especially prized for it’s toughness, it’s long range and it’s ability to land and take off from short runways with a full load of cargo. It was the plane that formed the backbone of International Air Cargo Company’s fleet, and indeed, the one now coming in for a landing on the Spontoon Island airstrip bore the distinctive Pegasus-as-a-packmule logo of the IACC.
It was a mid-sized plane, about on a par with the Douglas DC-2, but with a twin tail and high, slightly gulled wings, a legacy of it’s ancestor, the Boilermaker Special, the plane Katie had flown first to Hawaii and then to Cape Horn...and as this one touched down easily on the runway, she nodded in silent approval. Good landing that, very good. And when the pilot and co-pilot disembarked, she knew there would be a pair of fast rickshaws waiting to take them straight to the tower to file their flight reports, then back at the IACC dormitory, they would find hot showers, a good breakfast, and soft beds awaiting them.
Katie MacArran, who knew all too well what it felt like to come off a long and difficult flight wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Even without the Republic, the Schneider Cup was always a good money-maker for the IACC, and for a very simple reason: Anything that broke down during Speed Week needed to be replaced right NOW, no time to wait for it to be brought in by ship...and who could match the International Air Cargo Company’s record for both speed and reliability?
Nobody. Pan Am couldn’t do it. Neither could KLM. Both they and all the other airlines were primarily passenger carriers...and it was an unwritten rule amongst airline pilots that if there was insufficient space in the hold for both the cargo and the passengers’ luggage, it was the cargo that got left behind.
The IACC, which didn’t carry passengers, never had that problem...and so did a tremendous amount of subcontracting work for the other airlines, handling the overflow whenever their planes ran short of cargo space.
A large building loomed on their right, a long, three story, red-brick structure that would have looked more appropriate to the English Midlands than to a Pacific atoll. At almost every window, a face was watching...something only to be expected, Katie supposed. What wasn’t anticipated by the pinto mare was that all of the watchers were both young and female.
“Hey, Lalu?” she called, addressing her boat-driver in the diminutive,” What’s that building we’re passing by, just now?”
The bearcat glanced over.
“That Songmark Academy, You Grace. One of the dorms.”
“Ahhh, so that’s the place, eh?” the pinto mare responded, as much to herself as to Laluu’pa-ti. She had been wanting to get a look at Songmark for quite a while now. Songmark, in fact, was where she was planning to make that announcement of hers tomorrow. Truth be told, if she had it to do all over again...she would have done exactly the same thing and gone to Purdue, let’s be honest here. Nonetheless, everything she had heard about Songmark had been highly positive. In fact, Songmark’s aerodynamics lab and wind tunnel had been built with funds contributed by Katie MacArran... though she had steadfastly refused to allow her family’s name to appear on either one of them.
She turned and waved up at the dorm, watching as the students waved back, many with kerchiefs and several even applauding
When they came within sight of the IACC dock, sure enough, there was Shang Li-Sung, waiting to greet her. What surprised Katie was that he was not alone. There, standing beside him, was the familiar, sharp-muzzled figure of Toby Moran.
“Toby?” she asked as he and Shang assisted her out of the boat. “What the heck are you doing here?”
“I was on my way down to the lobby to grab a paper,” the packrat told her, “and bumped into Shang here, in the elevator. He said you were gonna take the Other Plane up and I thought I’d tag along and give ya a paw.”
“You’re not too tired?” Katie asked, one eyebrow rising in reproach.
“Nahh,” said the rodent, fanning a palm back and forth, “I went right up to bed after dinner and conked. Really, I’m reet this morning, Miss MacArran.”
“Okay, Toby.” Katie responded, concealing her amusement at the rodent’s ‘hep’ talk.
“Besides,” he said, his expression becoming sly grin as he reached behind his back, “Someone hadda go wake up this guy, right?”
His paws returned holding a very familiar doll-figure, and Katie’s face lit up like a filly’s on Christmas morning.
“Linc!” She cried, taking her good-luck charm in a pair of reverent hooves, “Oh yeah, can’t go flying without him. How thoughtful of you, Toby.”
“No sweat, Nanette.” said the packrat, fanning a paw at her again.
The International Air Cargo Company’s terminal was midway down what the locals called Air Freight Row, on the north side of the runway, just opposite the dock. It was easily the largest establishment of the lot, a sprawling facility, painted in the company scheme of ivory white with slate-green roofing and enclosed by a tall, cyclone fence. It consisted of two hangars, one for mechanical work and another for parking idle planes, each with a familiar ‘half-moon’ ceiling. On one side of these were the dorms, commissary, and rec room, and on the other the two cargo warehouse, a larger one where freight was sorted and staged for transhipment, and a smaller one for where cargo for delivery in the Spontoons was held, pending delivery.
Katie and the others were just coming abreast of one of the smaller cargo facilities, when a young red-panda femme in shorts and a flying jacket came out through the gate, heading in the opposite direction. As she passed by Katie, the pinto mare noted the razor-sharp creases of her shorts and shirt, together with the new coat of paint on the facility, still fresh enough to have a faint pungency, and the fact that there was still as yet no sign out front or on the building
“Mmm-mnh-mnh-mnh-mnh.” the pinto mare mused to herself, “I wonder if she’s got her operation up and running yet. Helluva good time to get started if she has, right with Speed-Week coming up.”
She turned, and was about to remark on this to Shang..and instead found herself gaping in surprise.
Shang had stopped dead in his tracks and was staring in the opposite direction, his eyes firmly locked onto the area just below the base of the red panda-femme’s tail.
Katie almost pinched herself. Now THERE’S something you didn’t see every day, brother. As a matter of fact, now that she thought of it, Katie had seen a solar eclipse about as many times as she’d observed Shang Li-Sung’s head being turned by a female. And now this particular female glanced over her shoulder at the other red panda watching her, and smile, wiggling her backside a little while lifting her tail just bit.
The next thing she did was raise her left paw above her shoulder and make a small, fast gesture with her fingers. Katie recognized it as some sort of Triad sign, but had no idea what it meant.
Shang Li-Sung did, however. He made a small, rueful rumbling sound, and turned to continue on his way.
“Ahhh, isn’t that the way it always goes?” said Toby, placing a brotherly paw on the red panda’s shoulder. He was, after all a bachelor himself.
But Shang just looked at him with very weary eyes, and when he spoke, his voice was uncharacteristically halting and uneven.
“She...reminded me...of....someone.” was all he said.
An inquisitive look promptly came over the packrat’s face, one that Katie quickly scotched with a reproachful look of her own. She could guess who it was the young red panda femme must have resembled...and if that was the case she had just unwittingly conjured up a painful memory for Shang Li-Sung.
“Come on, guys” she said. “Time waits for no one.” and then added silently to herself, “And you had BETTER believe that applies to Lady Pamela Fenwick.”