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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
The faces around the table were hard enough to deflect a steel chisel, the atmosphere as deep as a London Fog. On the one side was Drigo Chavez, his black eyes glinting like two pieces of flint. On the other side was the ferret, gazing back at the coati with the unfathomable expression of a stone Buddha.
Now Drigo lifted his paw, moving it slowly, deliberately, as if the numerous gazes fastened upon it were trying to hold it back.
Then he grinned and turned over his hole cards.
“Ha, haaaa...nine an’ a jack, for a queen high straight. So, unless you got TWO more tens amigo, an’ I know you don’t cause Shang’s got one of ‘em, I guess this party’s over.”
His eyes narrowed and hardened again, “Or...unless you got two matching cards to make a full house?”
The ferret shook his head.
Drigo whooped, and then grinning salaciously, rubbed his paws, and reached out to rake in the VERY substantial pot, “Vengan aqui, muchachos.”
“Uhhhh, not so fast there, compadre.” The ferret’s expression, and his voice, were wholly insouciant as he reached out to turn over his own down-cards. None of them were tens, but ALL of them were hearts...as were two of the up-cards. Drigo’s paws fell away from the table, and his jaw nearly fell through the top. He had been so busy concentrating on the mustelid’s pair of tens, he had completely missed the possibility that his opponent might also be building a....
“Flush beats a straight, I believe.” said the ferret, throwing his arms open to haul in the pile...while Drigo jumped up from the table and began to rage the heavens.
“Ai, fregon! Kill me now, God! Kill me right, yiffin’ now!”
The others, of course, where wholly sympathetic to the coati’s plight; they dropped from their chairs, seized by fits of hysterical laughter.
The weekly poker contests had started right after the hydraulic extractors had uncovered their first pieces of gold, the game of choice being either draw poker or, (as tonight) seven-card stud, nothing wild. When the games had first commenced, Katie MacArran, then a novice at poker, had lost, and lost regularly. This occurrence had eventually prompted Striper McKenna, (who’d had one too many that particular evening) to suggest that they make the next game a round of STRIP poker. In response to this, Katie, Shang, Drake, Drigo, and The Battler had all exchanged glances -- and then they had gotten up from the table, grabbed the Tasmanian tiger by the arms and legs, hauled him outside, and unceremoniously dumped him in the river.
Eventually, of course, the pinto mare did get the hang of the game, and if she never did win back ALL the money she’d lost, after many diligent nights of two steps forward and one back again, she finally was able to get within what she called, ‘a reasonable distance.’
Ironically, his earlier loss to the Striper notwithstanding, the best player at the table was always Drake Hackett. In no time at all he had won back the twenty quid he owed the big marsupial and then some. It was Drake, in fact, who had finally taken enough pity on Katie to show her how the game was played.
“One godsend you ‘n I have both got in common, Y’ Grace is havin’ one eye that’s brown an’ another that’s blue.” Here, the red heeler had winked, adding, “Nothing better for makin’ a good poker face. Even Shang can’t do it that well.”
Now, with the laughter subsiding, Katie took the opportunity to study the ferret once again.
He was a wiry-framed chap, smallish in stature, but also one of those individuals whose sinewy build makes them look biggerer than they actually are. His fur was the color of cocoa,a nd to go with tit, he possessed a sharply pointed muzzle and quick, inquisitive eyes. Almost a month previously, he and his partner, a German Wirehaired Pointer named Ernie, he had arrived at the mine unannounced -- and uninvited -- aboard a DeHavilland Puss Moth that the mustelid had piloted himself.
As if the arrival of a strange aircraft at the landing strip wasn’t enough of a concern, when the door of the plane had opened, the scene that followed had reminded Katie of a clown-car in the circus. The DeHavilland Puss Moth was supposed to be three seater, but THIS one had been carrying no less than five souls on board. And that wasn’t all; every single one of them had arrived packing more baggage than a dowager on a world cruise.
“Cor, even the Battler never flies that overloaded.” Drake Hackett had observed, coming up beside her, and then adding with a wink and a grin, “Heh, HE’LL be jealous, won’t he?”
(If the Queensland Heeler could only have known how prophetic were those words....)
Upon exiting the plane, the ferret had strolled briskly up to Katie and stuck out his paw...as if the trench gun she’d had pointed at his chest didn’t exist.
Then and there, Katie had decided that this particular mustelid was either the bravest, the dumbest, or the craziest fur she had ever encountered....most likely all of the above.
But it had remained for Striper McKenna to pronounce the most accurate assessment of the interloper. “Huh, should have been an auctioneer, that bloke, he talks so fast.”
Indeed, after finally persuading Katie to lower the shotgun, the ferret had announced that he was a documentary film-maker who wanted to shoot a picture about the Iso mine, dropping no less than five reasons as to why it would be a great opportunity for her in the space of a less than minute.
“And I also want to get some footage of the Ayon.” he had added, with an excitement worthy of a chipmunk, “It’ll be the first footage ever shot of those boys.”
Katie had responded to this by offering the opinion that if the ferret tried THAT, the only thing that would be shot would be him, “through the heart, with an arrow. And the only thing you’ll GET is your head mounted on a skull rack.” Like many primitive tribes, the Ayon believed that taking someone’s picture was tantamount to stealing their soul.
“No problem.” the mustelid had laughed, and then turned to his partner, “Ernie? Show her the ‘special’ camera-box.”
This particular camera had turned out to have no protruding lens; it was recessed into a hole in the box in which it was seated...which was only one of numerous holes bored into the wooden enclosure. It was nearly impossible to tell in which direction the camera was actually pointing..or even to tell that it WAS a movie camera
“And now, for the piece de resistance.” the ferret had added with a wink...and then begun to turn the handle. At once the tinkling strains of “Amazing Grace” filled the air; the camera’s crank was also connected to a music box.
Katie was tempted to send huckster-boy and his merry crew packing right then and there...and she would have, except for one thing. By a quirk of fate, she knew both the ferret’s his name, and his work; he had directed at least two previous films that she had both liked and admired. The first, another exotic documentary called, “Chang, A Drama of The Wilderness”, had chronicled the day-to-day life of a Thai farmer named Kru, and his non-stop struggle against the encroaching jungle and the non anthro denizens within. The second had been a fictional drama, based upon one of the pinto mare’s favorite books, The Four Feathers. And so, with reservations, she had given the mustelid permission to shoot his film...but with the caveat that if the Ayon decided to take offense at what he was doing, “It’s on your head...literally.”
She had not bothered to warn him of the possibility of an attack by the Snakehead gang -- nor had such a caution been necessary. Just as Shang Li-Sung had predicted, word of her little ‘gift’ to the Snakeheads had quickly reached the ears of the Green Gang leader, Du Yue-Sheng. According to Shang’s sources, Du had not only been highly amused at her audacity, but also not a little grateful for the removal of Chu Lung Kuo, a rival gang member whom he had particularly despised.
And also, just as Shang had prophesied, Katie’s gambit had caused the negotiations between the Greens and the Snakeheads to become instantly (some said hopelessly) deadlocked. There would be no trouble from that quarter...not for some time, anyway.
Katie’s others conditions for allowing the film-makers to shoot their documentary were that there was to be NO interference with mine operations and no re-staging of events they failed to capture the first time around. (A frequent occurrence during the filming of Chang.) “What you miss, you miss.” she had told the ferret.
It wasn’t long afterwards that Katie realized that the film crew had come to Iso partially in the HOPE of filming an attack by the ‘air pirates’. (The fact that their enemy was actually the Snakehead gang was still a well-kept secret...)
The irony of that situation was that if the Snakeheads did come now, the ferret would likely be a big asset; he was no slouch when it came to a fight, far from it. Over the course of his sojourn at the mine, Katie had picked up his story in bits and pieces. It was a history recently confirmed in a letter from Jim Spanaway and impossible to tell as fiction.
A former Annapolis midshipfur, the mustelid had dropped out in his senior year and joined the Georgia National Guard, helping to pursue the legendary Pancho Villa in his flight across Mexico. (There had been many an argument between him and Drigo Chavez over THAT little escapade.)
In 1917, he gone to France to join the Lafayette Escadrille, serving as a bomber pilot. When America entered the war, he was transferred to the US Army Air Corps. Shot down and captured by the Germans in 1918, he had served out the remainder of the war in a POW camp.
Unlike many another former Air Corps pilot, the ferret hadn’t gone into barnstorming or become a mail-plane pilot after the Armistice was signed; in fact, it was only beginning of his career as a combat flier. In 1920, a newly independent Poland foolishly decided to invade the Western Ukraine, then a part of Soviet Russia, with aim of recapturing territories lost in the final partition. The Poles’ reasoning was that with the Bolsheviks in charge, Russia would be all but helpless against a well planned, well co-ordinated attack, even by a much a smaller force, such as their own.
It had turned out to be a grave miscalculation on the Warsaw’s part, and soon their armies were being hurled back in disarray towards the Vistula River.
Upon hearing of the Poles’ plight, the ferret had determined to do something to help. In this he had been motivated partially by a case of post-war ennui, partially by a long, anti-Bolshevik streak, and partially by his family history; one of his ancestors had served in the American Revolution under a former officer in the Polish Army, Count Casimir Pulaski.
And so, together with another Lafayette Escadrille alumnus, a bobcat named Cedric
Fauntleroy, he had put together a volunteer group of American pilots...which the two of them had immediately christened the Kociuszko Squadron, after another Pole who had served the Glorious Cause.
Almost immediately upon their arrival at the front, the members of the Kociuszko Squadron had begun to make their presence felt. One morning, while on a routine patrol over enemy territory, the ferret and his wingfur had spotted a large, white tent, and strafed it full of holes. That tent had later turned out to be no less than the command center of the entire Red Air Force.
And that wasn't all...the suddenness of the ferret's attack delivered a blow to Bolshvik morale from which the Soviets never fully recovered. So demoralized were the Reds, in fact, that they pulled their ENTIRE air arm all the way back to Kiev--400 miles behind the front lines, and much too far away to be of any practical value. With one, stunning blow, the American volunteers had achieved complete superiority in the air.
It would not be the last of their triumphs. On another patrol a Kociuszko pilot named Edwin ‘Ig’ Noble carried out a single-pawed strafing attack on a Soviet troop train. For this action, Noble was rewarded with an elbow wound that permanently crippled his arm...and also the Virturi Militari, Poland’s highest award for valor. (The train had been loaded with Polish prisoners of war, and the beaver's attack had allowed them to make good their escape.)
Not long afterwards, the Kociuszko Squadron scored another, even bigger coup, this one also involving a train. While flying over a line of tracks through a forest, Cedric Fauntleroy had spotted a Bolshevik cavalry unit mining the rails and preparing an ambush. Around the next bend, the bobcat discovered why; a Polish troop train was steaming straight into the trap. Through a series of frantic maneuvers, Fauntleroy had managed to catch the attention of the engineer, who pulled the brake and stopped the train. The feline had then landed in a clearing and come running to warn the Poles of the danger. Their commander immediately ordered his troops to disembark, and circle around behind the Soviet ambush. In the attack that followed, the Red troops were devastated, and for his gallant effort, Cedric Fauntleroy was also awarded the Virturi Militari.
“I have to admit,” the ferret had confided to Katie, after relating the story, “I was jealous of Cedric, real jealous. I wanted the Virturi Militari too...so bad I could almost taste it.”
Eventually, he would get his wish, but not quite in the way he might have imagined. In recognition of their successful air-campaign, the Polish commander-in-chief, Marshal Pilsudski, promoted Cedric Fauntleroy to full command of four squadrons, three Polish and the Kociuszkos...an unheard of honor for a foreigner. As for the ferret, he was promoted to Major and given leadership of Kociuszko Squadron...but it was destined to be a short-lived command. Less than a month later, he was downed by ground fire from a Soviet machine gunner. Crash landing behind enemy lines, he managed to emerge unscathed from the wreckage of his Ansaldo Balilla, only to find himself surrounded by a group of whooping, saber waving, Cossack cavalry furs.
“I figured that was the end, right then and there,” he would later tell Katie, “The Bolshie’s knew my name, and they had never forgiven me for shooting up that command tent. And I knew what the Reds did to prisoners they didn’t like. When they found out who I was, I’d be LUCKY to face a firing squad.”
What had ultimately saved the ferret’s life was his penchant for fast talking...and his underwear. Taking charge of the situation, the Cossack commander had ordered the prisoner strip searched...and the ferret, who carried no identification, was left standing in a pair of surplus US Army shorts with the name Cpl. Frank Mosher stenciled into the waistband. Thinking quickly, the mustelid had begun to spin a fantastic yarn; yes, he was Frank Mosher...and he had been living in Warsaw as an American expatriate, minding his own business, when one day, in the wee hours of the morning, a knock had come on his door. The next thing he knew, he had been drafted into the Polish Air Force and forced to fly against the Soviets.
Incredibly, the Reds bought the whole story. What they DIDN’T do was welcome the ferret into their ranks as ‘comrade mustelid’. Instead he was shipped off to a POW camp, deep inside of Russia, where he nearly died from a typhus infection.
While all this was going on, Marshal Pilsudski had become aware of a falling-out between the two most senior Soviet commanders. Taking swift advantage of the opportunity, the Arabian stallion had launched a series of stunning counterattacks that drove the Red Army from Polish soil once and for all. On October 18, 1920, an armistice was declared, and negotiations for a final peace treaty began in the Latvian city of Riga.
Meanwhile, the ferret, having nursed himself back to health, joined two fellow Polish prisoners in a daring escape, traveling over more than 1700 miles of Soviet territory to rejoin his comrades on May 10, 1921, just in time to be presented with his coveted Virturi Militari....
And also to attend the ceremony formally disbanding the Kociuszko Squadron.
It was only then that the Soviets learned the true identity of the prisoner they had known as Frank Mosher.
His real name was Cooper, Major Merian C. Cooper.
As a documentary film maker, Cooper had turned out to be every bit as daring, some said reckless, as he had been as a mercenary pilot. For the climactic scene of Chang, he had insisted upon filming a non-anthro elephant stampede from the INSIDE of the onrush, nearly getting both himself and his camera operator trampled in the process.
Now, as he gathered up his winnings, he remained seemingly unaware of the close scrutiny of Katie MacArran. Ever since receiving the note from Jim Spanaway, she had been waiting for just the right moment to make her approach...and now with Cooper in a particularly buoyant mood, her opportunity was finally at hoof.
She turned, and made a discreet gesture to Shang Li-Sung, then cleared her throat and spoke to the ferret.
“If you have a few minutes, Mr. Cooper,” she said, “I have something I want to show you...and a matter that I wish to discuss with you privately.”
“Sure thing, Miss MacArran.” he answered, with his customary enigmatic smile. (He never addressed Katie by her title; “My revolutionary heritage you understand.” he said...and curiously, she did understand.)
He closed the pocket of the photographer’s vest where he’d stashed his winnings, and gave it a loving pat. Then he turned halfway and gestured to his canine partner.
“C’mon Ernie, let’s see what the lady has to show us.”
Katie immediately raised a hoof.
“I’m sorry...but when I said in privately, I meant only you, Mr. Cooper. Mr. Schoedesack will have to wait behind, I’m afraid .”
The two film-makers regarded each other for a second. By this time, they were fully aware that when the pinto mare addressed then in such clipped and formal language, it meant she brooked no argument.
“Okay, I’ll see you in the morning, Mer.” said Ernie Schoedesack.
“Right, get the boys bedded down soon as you see them,” the ferret answered, jerking a thumb upwards at the (for once) starlight sky, “Looks like we may get some good light for shooting tomorrow. If we do, I’ll want to get started early.”
“Gotcha.” said the pointer, then turned and strode off in the direction of Storage Shed #2. Even at this distance Katie could hear their camera crew whooping it up. No surprise; their game was craps, not cards.
Yet another of Katie’s conditions for allowing Cooper, Schoedesack, and Co. to film their documentary in Iso had been the stipulation that they find their own accommodations. After a brief search, they had settled on storage shed #2, of all places. That particular choice of lodging had been a source of great amusement to all those in the know. Even now, Katie was wondering what Cooper would say if he knew what had recently been ensconced in the enclosure where he slept every night.
Of course, neither he, nor any of the others had even the slightest inkling; Katie’s newspaper account of the battle with the Snakeheads had been highly Bowdlerized. In that version, she had been beaten but not raped, and Chu Lung-Kuo had met his fate at the paws of the Gimi, not her. As for Le Ho-Chang, the treacherous rat, he had died after throwing himself out of the plane that was bringing him back to Iso. And in no instance was there any mention of the Snakehead gang; the enemy was always referred to simply as ‘the air pirates’. Only the murder of Brian Lu and the deadly fight with the cell leader, Ji Su-King, had been reproduced with a fair accuracy.
But that had been enough. When the story hit the papers, it had hit like a bombshell. In Britain, George Stafford had been obliged to put out two extra editions of both the Observer and the Mirror, in order to meet his readers’ demand. In America, William Hearst had been required to reprint the story in every single one of his newspapers’ Sunday editions. Upon reading it for the first time, one of Hearst’s usually less-that-regular customers, a ferret named Merian C. Cooper, had gone rushing to the library, looking up every single Dispatch From The Jungle story he could lay his paws on.
The next thing he had done was go rushing to Adolph Zukor at Paramouse...who had absolutely loved the mustelid’s proposal to shoot a documentary around Katie MacArran and the Iso mine.. (Zukor’s enthusiasm might have been somewhat dampened had Cooper bothered to reveal that he had not yet obtained actual PERMISSION from Her Grace to shoot his picture.)
Meanwhile Katie MacArran had finally become aware of the sensation surrounding her clash with the ‘Air Pirates’. When she flew in to Port Moresby to pick up the mail one morning, there was more of it waiting for her than the Fortuna could safely carry. She had been compelled to dash off a letter to her papers then and there, thanking all the senders for their support, but explaining that the jungle being the jungle, she could not possibly find the time to read, much less answer all of them.
And she wasn’t the only one being deluged with letters; Shang Li-Sung quickly found himself being hailed as a real-life Charlie Chan, and Striper McKenna, whose nick-of-time shot had saved the pinto mare from being poisoned, had his share of admirers as well...many of them female and quite well endowed, according to the snapshots they enclosed with their missives.
But there was one letter the Tasmanian Tiger would always cherish above all others. Upon seeing the return address he had thrown the rest of his mail to the ground, and opened it with a trembling paw.
After reading the first paragraph, he had dropped to his knees and burst into tears.
“It’s from me Da.” he had explained through his sniffles, when he was finally able to speak again, “First I’ve heard from ‘im in more than ten years. He’s FORGIVEN me.”
The publicity generated by the story was a decidedly mixed bag for the Iso mine. On the one paw, it provided yet another layer of insurance against an immediate retaliation by the Snakeheads; if they moved against Katie now, it would be regarded in London as an affront to the British Empire.
On the other paw, the story also served to stir the interest of the Mandate Authorities, particularly one Inspector Charles Pinch. If the wild boar had not previously viewed ‘the Iso incident’ ( as he euphemistically termed it ) as possible his ticket out of Papua, he certainly saw it that way now. He intended, he told his superiors, “to investigate the goings on up at Iso with all due vigor.”
But first he had to GET to Iso...and that was the rub.
“Sorry, mate.” Pard Mustar had laconically informed the boar. “Guinea Airways doesn’t fly into the Iso valley. Not much call for us up there.”
“All right,” Pinch had responded, with that haughty coldness common to all petty officials,, “Where can I find someone from Bulolo Gold, then? Perhaps they’ll be a bit more accommodating.”
The wallaby had just looked at him for a second.
“Uhhhhh, actually mate...you’re talkin’ to him. Didn’t you see the sign outside? An’ no, we don’t go to Iso neither.”
Actually, it wasn’t quite true, no sooner had the Inspector departed, than Mustar had ordered one of his pilots to fly up and warn Katie of his visit.
In the meantime, Pinch decided to try his luck with Battling Ray Parer. Unlike Pard Mustar, the Brumby turned out to be the soul of compliance. “Sure mate...fly y’ up there right now, if y’ like.”
Thoroughly pleased the boar had settled into the passenger seat of Parer’s venerable DH-9...which made it about halfway down the airstrip before the engine coughed twice and died.
“Cor...could have sworn I remembered to open that fuel cock.” the Battler told Katie later that night, while she lay contentedly in his arms. They had enjoyed a hearty horse-laugh at the Inspector’s expense, but then the pinto mare had grown serious.
“Listen Ray, I appreciate what you did...but if Pinch tries to cage a flight up here again, go ahead and bring him. If he gets the idea he’s being kept away from Iso intentionally, that’s only going to make him more determined than ever to conduct his investigation.” Sitting up with a sigh, she had pulled the blanket up to her shoulders, “And we can’t keep him out forever; if he wants to, he has the authority to commandeer any plane in Mandate Territory to bring him up here. Hell, he can even order ME to fly him to Iso, if he catches me on one of my telegraph runs. So next time, just go ahead and bring him...and don’t worry, we’re ready for that pinhead.”
Katie’s description of Inspector Pinch as a pinhead actually turned out to be something of an understatement. In an incredible display of tactlessness, his next move was an attempt to use his authority to secure passage on the Republic during her next cargo run. There was just one problem...Hollandia, where the airship always docked before making her final journey to the mine, was located in WESTERN New Guinea -- Dutch territory, and out of his jurisdiction.
Which didn’t stop Pinch from striding into Colonial Administration Headquarters and hotly demanding that he be put on board the Republic (currently parked at her mooring mast) immediately.
Instead, the boar was summarily thrown on board the slowest boat back to League territory the Dutch could find, (the Netherlands authorities being every bit at punctilious, and protective of their turf as the League Mandate officials). When Pinch finally stepped off the quay in Buna, he found that in his absence, the Governor had received an official protest regarding his actions from Hollandia...and that the Dutch were demanding his removal from the island forthwith.
“And I’m afraid, I’ve no choice but to accede to their wishes.” the Governor told him, grimly. “You shall be transferred to Tel Aviv, Palestine, effective immediately. I want you on the next plane to Moresby that will take you”. Pinch had looked properly penitent at this news, and shuffled to the door with his head bowed.
A moment after it closed the Governor had been startled from his chair by the sound of brakes screeching.
What he’d actually heard was a porcine squeal of joy.
“Christmas, he’s even stupider than you said he was.” Katie later told Ray when he delivered the news. If Palestine was anything like she’d heard, Pinch would shortly kicking himself to half to death for having left Papua to go there.
What she didn't tell the brumby was that the demand dor the Inspector’s removal had actually originated with the Royal Dutch Shell company...who just happened to be one the biggest customers of the International Airship Company.
...which just happened to be owned by Katie MacArran.
And no one in the Mandate Authority ever undertook to investigate the incident between the Air Pirates and the Iso mine again.
Now, as Katie and Merian Cooper strode down the camp’s main thoroughfare, they were serenaded every step of the way by what Striper McKenna jokingly referred to as the Papuan Midnight Chorale...a myriad cacophony of crickets, cicadas, tree frogs, and just about every other New Guinea denizen that confined its activities to the night-time hours. For just a hint of a second, on this particular evening, one sound became clear above the din, a weird keening, like someone crying through a penny-whistle.
“What the Hell’s that?” asked Cooper almost stopping in his tracks.
Katie didn’t stop, or even slow down, only looked over her shoulder at the ferret.
“Just a singing worm. You coming or not?”
As they came within sight of the bridge, different sounds began to overshadow the Midnight Chorale; somewhere, someone was strumming a moon guitar, an old Chinese love song whose title Katie could never remember. And from the direction of Ji-Su King’s former establishment, now under new, and very reliable management, came the clack and clatter of Mah-Jongg tiles, accompanied at varied intervals by either groans of dismay or hoots of delight. On the porch of one flat, a marmot, and a pair of yellow-throated martens were lounging about in long robes, smoking clay pipes, and engaging in that favorite pastime of all Chinese villages, a hearty round of gossip. As Katie and her companion went by, the three of them nodded, deferentially, and the pinto mare immediately returned the gesture. They were some of the best workers she had, especially the two martens.
There was a sentry stationed at the bridge, a Shar-Pei dog, and at Katie’s approach, he snapped instantly to attention, then proceeded to move aside. Immediately, the pinto mare waved him back. “No need.” she told him in mandarin, “We’re on our way to the hangar.” The canine nodded, and immediately took up his place again.
“The hangar?’ asked Cooper, who understood enough of the language to have caught the gist of what the pinto mare’s words, “What the Hell are we headed there for at this time of night?”
“You’ll see.” said Katie, turning around again. She did not look back to see if the ferret was following her; she knew he would.
There was another sentry watching the hangar, a wiry, white tomcat, his fur stained a sickly yellow by the glow of the hurricane lamp over the door. As he recognized Katie, he too went rigid with attention. “Your Grace!”
“I need a few private minutes in the hangar with Mr. Ku-Pa.” she informed him, by way of greeting, then angled her head to the left, “Why don’t you go over by that pandanus tree and have a cigarette while we talk?”
The feline bowed quickly, and then moved with alacrity. He had been on duty for a good five hours, and smoking was strictly verboten within ten feet of the hangar.
Katie took the kerosene lamp from its hook and reached into her pocket, fumbling for the key.
When they entered, Merian Cooper’s look of suppressed anticipation melted quickly into a mixture of confusion and disappointment.
“Uhhh, am I missing something?” he said, “What’s different in here?”
Indeed, nothing seemed to have changed...there, in the center of the room, was the replacement for the lost autogyro. At the moment, it was still in a state of partial assembly, its rotor and stubby wing set firmly in place, but it’s engine, wheels, and vertical stabilizer conspicuous by their absence.
Katie smiled, her teeth showing in the lamplight like an equine Cheshire cat. “Nothing in here...yet.” She angled her head slightly, towards another set of doors, set into the back wall, “What I have to show you is in the next room.”
What was behind those doors was nothing spectacular...but it was curious. There, propped on a line of six, stout sawhorses, was an airplane wing, painted such a resplendent red, the color was visible, even by the light of a kerosene flame.
“Hrm? What the Hell’s that for?” queried Cooper, his interest prickled once again, “Spare wing for the Fortuna?”
“Not hardly.” said Katie, before cryptically shifting the subject. “Tell me something, Mr. Cooper, you ever taken a really close look at the new autogyro?”
“Uh...no.” said the ferret, a thread of wariness creeping into his voice. Before tonight, he had been forbidden to closely examine ANYTHING in here.
Katie raised her lamp in the aircraft’s direction.
“Then why don’t you go do that, now?” It was not phrased as a question.
Cooper approached the aircraft as gingerly as if it might be booby-trapped. Katie watched as he ran his paw over the tail faring, and the rear of the fuselage. All the while, his face retained that same look of guarded confusion. He looked into the cockpit, checked the lower wing fillet.
Then his paw clasped around one of the main rotor struts. Katie saw it pull away rapidly, saw Cooper’s eye widen for a second. Then, he grabbed the strut again, more tightly this time. For several, long seconds he held his grip, then let go and reached up to brush one of the rotor blades with his fingertips.
Finally, he turned towards Katie, slowly, and with his mouth agape.
“It’s a fake,” he said, “That rotor’s a fake.”
“Yes, that’s right,” said the pinto mare, raising the lantern, and cocking her head over a shoulder towards the other room, “That aircraft isn’t an autogyro, it’s a sesquiplane. That’s...”
THAT was as far as she got before Cooper peevishly interrupted.
“A biplane with large upper wings, and smaller lower ones. I know, I KNOW!”
Katie snuffled in satisfaction. Good, she was finally starting to get under his skin.
“And now you also know what that other wing is for,” she said, then stepped around the ferret, laying a hoof on the fuselage, “What you’re looking at is an Armstrong-Whitworth Siskin..a Siskin Mark IV to be precise, the civilian racing variant. This is the only one ever built, actually.” She began to stroke the airplane’s body, as one might do with a favorite hunting dog, “Damn good plane...winner of the 1925 King’s Cup, the year before I first competed. Of course, it will need a few modifications.”
“Modifications?” asked the ferret, eyes blinking like semaphores, “What for?”
Katie pretended not to hear him, or rather to have heard him incorrectly. “First, we’re switching out the engine from an Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar to a Bristol Jupiter...more power, but not more weight.” She lifted the lantern towards one of the corners, revealing an object like an immense wedding band, laying across work-table. “We’re also adding a cowling and wheel spats, only those won’t be installed until after we finish modifying the wheel struts; they’re wayyyy too busy as it is.”
“Yes,” Cooper started to say, “but why...?”
Katie went on, as if he hadn’t spoken.
“We’re also going to lower the upper wing down to fuselage level, and give it a gull-wing slant towards the center. Same basic configuration as the Curtiss RC3.”
“All right, fine!” Cooper was almost shouting, “but why are you doing this?”
Katie sighed and shook her head. She should have known better than to try to let him figure it out for himself. Males! Why was subtlety always lost on them? Why did you always have to beat them over the head with what you were leading up to before they finally got it?
By way of response, she raised the light again and pointed towards a pair of long crates, laying parked against the left wall.
“Go take a look in one of those.” she said.
This time, there was no hesitation on Cooper’s part. He stalked across the hangar as if crossing a barroom to accept a fight challenge, then grabbed the lid of the first crate, and flung it back with a grunt.
The next sound he made was a gasp. Inside the box, glistening under a light film of Cosmoline, was a brand-new Browning .30 caliber machine gun .
Slowly, very slowly, Merian Cooper turned to face Katie again, his eyes so wide, he might have been a nocturnal species.
“Y-You’re converting it back into a pursuit plane? ”
“Brilliant deduction, Sherlock.” was what Katie wanted to say. She didn’t, she said, “That’s right, Mr. Cooper...and you’re not to say one word about it, not to anyone. As far as anyone else knows, this plane is another autgyro...period.”
The ferret’s ears went back and his voice became an irate hiss, “Then, why the yiff are you showing it to me, if I can’t tell anyone about it?”
“Wrong question.” Katie answered, moving the lantern, so that only her pale eye was visible, “You should be asking me what the goddam yiff I want with a yiffing, fully armed, pursuit plane.” She set the lamp down on a table and folded her arms, “Well, I’ll tell you, Cooper. You know as well as I do that those air pirates aren’t done with us. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here.” She turned, nodded at the Siskin, “No, they’ll be back, and next time, they’ll bring a lot more firepower than a pair of cast-off Loenings. So I need a plane that can match what they’ll have..and this is it.” She twisted her head in the direction of the second hangar, “The Fortuna might be faster...but she’s not nearly as maneuverable as a Siskin.” She patted the Mark IV’s fuselage again, “Matter of fact, almost nothing is. This is the plane used by the Canadian Air Force demonstration team...and they’ve been wowing ‘em at every air show they play.”
“Fine,” said Cooper putting his paws on his hips, “And you know what? You’re right. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think your air-pirates were game for a rematch. NOW, will you tell me why you’re showing me this?”
Katie leaned back against the Siskin. Okay, this was it.
“Because,” she said, her voice as even and cool, as a dark stretch of highway, “I’ll soon have a plane that can take on the air pirates toe to toe...what I don’t have are the skills.” and without waiting for a response, she quickly stood up straight again. “But you do, Mr. Cooper..and that’s why I brought you here. I want you to teach me what you know; I want you to teach me how to fly in combat.”
For a second, it looked as if the ferret were going to pinch himself; Uh-UH! No way! This has GOT to be a dream!
Finally, he managed half a word, “WHA...?”
And that was all Katie allowed him.
“Or, you and your crew can pack your gear, and be gone by sundown tomorrow.”
to be continued