© 2008 by Walter D. Reimer
(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!)
“I learned something rather interesting today,” Rosie said the next night as she took off her shoes. She sat on the bed she shared with her buck and massaged them gingerly, then with increasing pressure until she purred. “About the benefactor who found that painting.”
“Really? What did you find, Rosie?” Stagg asked. Her rooms over the restaurant were cooler than his usual room at the book store.
The cheetah grinned at the buck. “Seems that Wo Fang has a wife – and she’s someone you know.”
“I supposed something like that,” Franklin said with a short, judicious nod. “Wo isn’t a very common surname in the Spontoons.”
“I guess your detective skills are rubbing off on me then,” and she kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Anyway, I had an idea on how to get back at her.”
“Tread carefully, beloved. While your claws are formidable, they’re scant protection from bullets.”
“Cats step lightly naturally, Franneleh.” She kissed him again. “And you’re a dear deer for reminding me.”
“She – they’re coming here?” Ni Hao asked, his breakfast temporarily forgotten. His question was punctuated by the sound of a distant gunshot from somewhere up around Fort Bob.
He was happy that he’d managed to keep his voice level.
His father nodded, and reached across the table to clasp his wife’s paw. “Not necessarily here, Hao,” Ni Hei said, “although there’s a chance that Hu Renmin will want to look over the books when it comes to the business aspect of this wedding. If that happens, we’ll be glad to act as hosts. They’re coming to Spontoon, and will be staying at the Grand.”
“With dinners at the Great Pagoda,” Ni Peng added with a grin. “The Changs will be thrilled.”
“And they’ll be staying over Speed Week,” Hei remarked. “It’s perfect; I’ve always wanted to see the races.”
“Bet on them, you mean,” Peng teased.
“I always bet on them, every year,” Hei riposted smoothly while giving his wife’s paw a squeeze, “and you always put the tote board up in the Casino. How much did we clear last year, Peng?”
“Over a thousand dollars, U.S.,” she promptly replied. “Even after paying squeeze to Shen.”
Hei laughed. “And who is favored, my dear?”
Peng smiled. “It’s felt the British have the best chance to hold off the field, while Rain Island is the sentimental favorite.”
“Rain Island’s competing this year?” Hao asked.
“Yes, and rumor has it their chief designer himself will be there this time around.”
“I hope they do well, then,” Hao remarked, returning to his plate. His expression was stoic, and his parents exchanged glances.
He was certainly trying hard to hide his anticipation.
Rosie smiled at her friend as she finished explaining what she wanted him to do. “There you are, Chauncey. Think you can do it?”
Chauncey Fleetik, known throughout the Pacific as the only man who immortalizes his models in green baize, snickered. “For you, Rosie, only the best. There’s this cutie I know over on Casino who’ll be happy to pose. You got a snap of the girl?”
“Huh. Looks like a mug shot.”
“That’s her school picture.”
The mustelid looked sidelong at her, then nodded. “Uh huh. Give me a day or two, Doll.”
“Pretty place," Xiu commented days later as she looked out the plane's window. Below their Imperial Airways plane the Spontoons were spread out like swatches of wrinkled carpet, irregular splotches of vibrant tropical green against the deep Pacific blue. "Hardly seems big enough for people to live on."
Her father chuckled. "I daresay it'll seem big enough when you're on the ground." He took his cigarette holder and a pack of Fortunas from his suit jacket, and after lighting up added, "Xiu, best behavior, please. This isn't just a marriage we're arranging, you know."
The young red panda smiled. "Father, I know. I was there when Hai Fat explained it, remember?"
"Yes, I remember - and I also remember a certain young lady getting quite angry at the idea."
She kissed his cheek. "And I'm over that now. Mother?"
"I hope that you and Mrs. Ni will have something to talk about."
Qing chuckled as she and her mate exchanged grins. "Xiu, you're marrying her son. We'll have a lot to talk about."
A small group of seven furs (eight, if one counted the babe in arms) stood slightly apart from the rest of the people in the Eastern Island airport's arrival area. Despite the somewhat open architecture and the electric fans, it was still stiflingly hot and the small crowd of tourists awaiting celebrities arriving for the Speed Week festivities only made it feel hotter.
"You're grinding your teeth again." He glowered at his sister, who grinned and added, "And your face will freeze in that expression, if you're not careful."
"I could really use a cigarette," he admitted, "but I left the pack in my room."
"You don't need that, Hao," Fang said. "Look at Shin - school broke her of her habit, and her fur's never smelled better – apart from the stink of burned motor oil." The powerfully-built tiger took her punch to his arm in good humor, and smiled down at her.
She grinned up at him, and they shared a kiss as Hei walked back from the Customs desk. "I asked around, and they'll be landing shortly. Shall we all go out to see?"
As soon as they walked out into the bright afternoon sunlight Peng-wum opened an umbrella to shield his wife and their infant son from the heat. A drone of engines made them all turn in time to see an Armstrong-Whitworth AW.15 come in for a landing, its two main wheels bouncing a little as the plane made contact on the concrete runway.
It taxied to a stop at the terminal and the four engines shut off. The ground crew came out and set some stairs in place as the steward opened the door.
The plane was the eleven-passenger variant of the type, and as the passengers descended the short staircase Hao caught himself craning his neck to see.
Peng waved. "There they are!"
Coming out of the plane were a trio of red pandas, a man dressed in a very light gray cotton suit and followed by two women. The older of the two wore white, and the younger ...
Gods, is that her? Hao asked himself.
Their daughter was wearing a pale cream dress with a large matching sun hat that hid her face. Her headfur was a cascade of brown curls falling almost to the center of her back, and her figure made the tip of his tail twitch.
He started taking back a lot of the things he had said or thought about her.
If, of course, that was her.
Another wait while they went through Customs, and finally the Hu Family emerged into the arrival waiting area. A porter trailed behind them pushing a cart piled with suitcases. The male walked up to Hei and removed the cigarette holder from his muzzle while offering his free paw. “Esteemed Ni Hei, I believe?”
Hei took the paw and both bowed very correctly. “Honored to meet you at last, Esteemed Hu Renmin. May I present my family? My wife, Peng.”
“Honored, Madam Ni. My wife, Qing.” The two women bowed, then took each others’ paws and began to converse in whispers, moving to one side.
Hei continued the introductions and finally said, “And this is my youngest son, Ni Hao.”
Hao stepped forward to find himself facing the young woman he’d seen disembarking from the plane. She still wore her sun hat, obscuring her features.
“You are to be congratulated on being blessed with so many children, Esteemed Hei,” Renmin said, following the protocols etiquette demanded. “May I present my only daughter, Hu Xiu.”
Xiu said nothing, but only bowed slightly, correctly.
Hei smiled. “Come, Esteemed Renmin, let us get to the hotel. You and your family must be tired after the flight. Fang, will you and Shin secure us a water taxi, please?”
Shin knew better than to refuse or try to argue, and so did her husband. “At once, Sir,” Fang said, and the tiger and his wife started moving through the crowd.
The manager of the Grand, resplendent in his best morning suit, was at the front door to welcome the two families to his establishment. Behind him the entire staff of the hotel was turned out in their best. After a round of bows, respectful greetings and pawshakes the families were conducted up to their rooms as a few curious tourists (and at least one news reporter, who hoped to sell the picture to the Constabulary) snapped pictures of the tableau and the occasional airplane roared overhead.
The Nis and the Hus had the entire top floor of the hotel to themselves. The previous tenants of the suites, wealthy furs from America who were visiting for Speed Week, had been coerced into leaving the rooms after a judicious application of itching powder in their laundry.
The inevitable loud complaints by the guests were followed up by a visit from the hotel’s exterminator, who poked his long and inquisitive opossum’s nose into various dark corners before gravely announcing in the most professional tones that the entire floor was infested with Giant Patagonian Striped Ear Mites.
The Americans had been moved (after a great display of apologies and fumigating their luggage) to the Maha Kahuna, at a reasonably reduced rate.
Ni Hei was always in awe of American gullibility, and was determined to take advantage of it at every opportunity.
An hour later, Fang and Shin were heading to the water taxis to go back to their home on South Island. They were expected at the Great Pagoda for dinner, but Shin wanted to make sure that everything was in order at their hotel, and Fang agreed.
As the red panda and the Manchurian tiger made their way through the crowd, Shin felt a paw glide very lightly over her left buttock. She whirled to see a Spontoonie woman give her a wink and a grin. “Problem-emphasis you have?” Shin asked in Spontoonie.
“Negative problem,” the lepine said with a smile, “save femme creature with ringtail outlander emphasis excess clothing wearing,” and with that she winked again and walked off.
“What the hell was that about?” Fang asked.
“I don’t know,” Shin replied, rubbing her skirt with a paw as if brushing dirt from the light gray silk.