ArrangementsThe mansion was an eighteen-room villa, done in the Edwardian style and gleaming white in the bright summer sunlight as it nestled among trees and carefully trimmed hedges. It was situated high up on one of the hills overlooking Victoria Harbor while beneath it the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong kept up its constant pace, a living embodiment of perpetual motion full of vehicles from boats to bicycles and a seemingly endless bustle of people.
© 2008 by Walter D. Reimer
( Art by Seth C. Triggs - http://www.bibp.com )
(Rosie Baumgartner and Chauncey Fleetik courtesy of M. Mitch Marmel. Thanks!)
(Inspector Stagg courtesy of Eric O. Costello. Thanks!)
(Keith Lawton and the Chang Brothers courtesy of John Urie. Thanks!)
The pullulating crowds seemed a bit nervous, though, as a scant trickle of refugees from the north joined with the latest news releases to paint a disturbing picture of the Japanese invasion that had started a month earlier.
The summer was a particularly brutal one this year, and every window in the mansion stood open. At the back of the main house stood an American innovation that many of the neighbors considered a bit parvenu, a swimming pool with an adjoining cabana. On the patio between the pool and the cabana a young woman wearing a bathing suit (the latest fashion from Paris) reclined under the shade of an umbrella, reading a book.
The woman was a red panda, the two-tone yellow color of her suit contrasting starkly but well with her fur, and the book wasn’t one of the trashy romances her schoolmates had usually favored.
It was Sun Tzu’s Art of War, in the original with commentaries. Her father had suggested it as an introduction to business strategies, and the eighteen-year old was finding it interesting as a primer. She looked up from her reading as her ears twitched to the sound of footsteps.
“There you are, Xiu,” her mother said as she sat on a nearby chair. In contrast to her daughter she was wearing a light blue cotton dress. “Your father and I have been thinking.”
“What about, Mother?” Hu Xiu asked, her banded tail swishing as she sat up straighter and laid the book aside. A paw lifted to brush an errant lock of long brown headfur out of her eyes before removing her sunglasses.
“What about it? Honored Chu’s got it set up. I’m to marry Ni Hao.” She favored the older woman with an almost impish smile. “I hope he looks better than his picture.”
“I’m sure he does,” her mother, Hu Qing, replied reassuringly. “What your father and I were discussing was the possibility of us leaving Hong Kong for a few weeks and going to Spontoon.”
“To meet with the Nis?”
“For you to meet with your intended bridegroom,” Qing said gently. Her daughter, her and Renmin’s only child, had been educated to succeed her father and had attended several excellent schools. Now eighteen (and having blossomed over the past few years into a beautiful young woman), she at first had adamantly refused to have any part in such an old and traditional method of matrimony.
“Good Lord, Father!” Xiu had raged. “I’m not a – a crate of bowls you’re shipping off to America!”
Her father had smiled patiently (more patiently than Qing would have) and had explained matters to Xiu. The Ni Clan had fallen on hard times, that much was admitted, but they were well on their way to regaining their former prominence.
And the alliance between the Red Talons and the Black Dragon was definitely both potentially lucrative and necessary. Once she had understood the circumstances, and she had been given time to read the dossier compiled by the matchmaker Chu tse-min, their daughter had agreed to it.
She had been a bit perturbed that she was better-educated than Hao, but chalked that up to the fact that the young man lived and worked on the famous (some said infamous) Krupmark Island. There, surrounded by violence and criminal enterprises of every kind, one learns things for which diplomas aren’t ordinarily received.
Such an education would certainly make him a lot more interesting than most of the young men she knew, she reflected.
And she was at an age where she would find such a young man interesting.
“So you and Father think it’s time we actually met?” Xiu asked.
Her mother nodded. “You’re both close to the same age, and although both of you agreed to the traditional contract, there’s nothing wrong in letting the two of you actually see each other before the ceremony.”
The red panda smiled. “So. When will we be going?”
It was close to mid-August on Spontoon, and the depths of the tourist season. Despite her occasionally-voiced sentiments about shooting tourists, Rosie was grateful for their appearance.
Especially so with Speed Week approaching fast.
Luchow’s, of course, was doing a thriving business with its usual clientele and the added influx of foreigners. She’d toyed with adding another waitress to the staff, and figured she’d hire one to help out during the races.
Business was already good and would most likely get a lot better.
She noticed a spill on the tiled patio and was stooping to wipe it up when she noticed a pair of shoes stopped beside the patio gate. "Excuse me," and Rosie looked up to see a tall feline smiling down at her. "You're Rosie Palmer, aren't you?"
The cheetah femme smiled. "A long time ago."
"Well, I saw your . . . portrait, and I was just so sure it was you. Can I get your autograph?" He held out a picture postcard.
Rosie took the card and stared at the picture for a long moment before saying, “Erm, sure,” and signing the back of the card. “Where did you get this?”
“The Grand,” came the reply and the man walked off.
Rosie stood and watched him walk away, then stirred as the first early members of the lunchtime crowd started coming in the gate.
Later that night, as the sun was starting to set and the last customers dawdled over their pie and coffee, Rosie sat down at the small table reserved for Inspector Stagg. “Inspector,” she said brightly, her tone belying the fact that it had been a long and very hot day.
“Yes, Miss Baumgartner?” the whitetail buck asked.
“Do you feel up to a short walk?”
As the cheetah and the buck entered the Grand Rosie could feel eyes on her. It was no great embarrassment to her since she’d spent part of her life in burlesque, but it felt odd. After all, only a very few people on Spontoon knew her stage name from back then.
And the sign out in front advertising an art exhibit ‘To the Memory of an Anonymous Artist’ interested her.
One tourist couple walked past her and Stagg, the woman remarking, “It’s certainly a remarkable work.”
“In more ways than one,” her husband replied, earning himself a gentle smack on the wrist.
Rosie and Stagg entered the bar and the cheetah stopped dead.
“Scheisse . . . “
Several of the furs admiring the portrait heard her, glanced back at her and did a double take.
The portrait was an oil painting of a cheetah femme in an odalisque pose, leaving little to the imagination. The artist had clearly displayed a great amount of attention to detail in rendering his subject.
A table set up near the bar held an assortment of postcards, all bearing a likeness of the painting, and a few paw-carved wooden sculptures based on the cheetah in the picture.
While Rosie fumed, blushing, Stagg walked up to the painting and looked at it for a long moment, his head tilted slightly. The work had been cleaned and repaired, but was clearly . . .
“Spot pattern is off," he declared.
"Darling! You noticed."
"Well, after all the times we played connect the - "
"There's a pattern shaped like the constellation Virgo near your . . ."
"Ahem.” There were people nearby, and some had ears canted to catch the conversation. She frowned as she looked into her likeness’ eyes, remembering.
"Hmm . . . Toni and me were performing at the Bijou in New Haven City, way back in ’27. This young guy, artist from Collegiate named Teddy Goreck wanted to paint my portrait - but I posed in my showgirl outfit,” she protested. “Strictly from the neck up.” She smiled into her younger self’s eyes ruefully. “Guess he found another cheetah in New Haven City for . . . well . . . "
“Spotting the spots?” Stagg asked with a quiet grin. “I must say, I venture that the work scarcely does justice to you.”
Rosie purred at him, then looked around. Spotting what she was looking for, she reached out and plucked at the bartender's sleeve. "Could you tell me where that picture was found, and by whom?"
The bartender paused, looking from her to the painting and back before replying, "A friend of the hotel found it, Ma'am, and donated it."
Stagg raised an eyebrow. "A . . . friend, eh? Odd bit of flotsam to wash up on a distant shore."
Rosie's voice was sweet as honey. "Would you mind telling me the name of the . . . friend? I'd like to . . . find out more about that . . . lovely painting."
The bartender looked dubious. "I don't think . . . " SPROING! " . . . that there's any problemtellingyouitwasWoFangattheMahaKahuna!"
“See, Franklin? It's like I keep telling you. You can get more with a kind word and a pawful of sharp claws than you can with just a kind word." She waved said pawful at the bartender, who faded fast, intent on finding a customer or some other excuse to get away from the cheetah.
Stagg chuckled. "Indubitably. You know, Rosie, I think we should go home. I have something in mind."
Rosie grinned. "Going to connect the spots?"
"No. Show you the stars."
15 AUGUST 1937
TO: NI HEI C/O NI AND SONS INC
WOULD LIKE TO BRING FAMILY TO SPONTOON FOR MEETING STOP XIU AND HAO CAN MEET STOP SIGNED HU RENMIN STOP
17 AUGUST 1937
TO: HU RENMIN C/O WEST ASIA EXPORTS LTD
HOTEL SUITE ALREADY RESERVED FOR YOUR FAMILY STOP LOOKING FORWARD TO MEETING STOP SIGNED NI HEI STOP