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Update 23 April 2006
Leslie duCleds created by M. Mitchell Marmel
"Inocenta Until Proven Guilty"
by E.O. Costello & M. Mitchell Marmel
Inocenta Until Proven Guilty
by E.O. Costello & M. Mitchell Marmel
"Okay," Willow said, putting down the phone. "I've arranged for Les' airplane to be guarded and the terminals watched. He won't get off the Islands by commercial means, in any case."
I nodded. "Lov...er, the patient is doing fine, Doc says."
"Well, then," my charming cervine friend replied, "let's go see Reggie!"
A way to end a year so dreary! Cooped up, cramped, and goddam weary,
Hiding inside a rusted, bent and discarded iron oven range
While I grumbled, failing napping, I heard the sound of something tapping
As of someone gently rapping, rapping on the oven flange.
"Who's that S.O.B.," I wondered, "slapping at the oven range?"
Scratching myself, as if I had the mange.
Ah, this hellish bleak December, how long I will remember
How I longed to give a certain doe the miss-in-baulk
Eagerly I sought to dismember, nay, to quench this love-stuck ember
Of the fair Inocenta, who never ceased to stalk
And the gossip of the other furs, that never-ceasing talk
Never ceasing, even if I fled to Gnu Yawk
Reaching up I moved, with moaning, the range-top to let in gloaming
And to confront that sod, with his never-ceasing rap
What's this? No, it isn't foaming, but it's rather something roaming
Roaming in fact, to my cramped and soot-encrusted lap.
How comes a clam, a bivalve, wandering to my weary lap?
Far from home, and without a Standard Oil map?
Then to my vision fairly blurry, and with feathers in a flurry
Came a sea-bird, peering into the oven's hellish dark
No safe refuge for me to scurry, none to flee him in a hurry
Fearlessly he peered, disdaining my fevered snarl and bark.
"Get lost," said I, "you refugee from Noah's fabled ark!"
Quoth The Gull: "SCREEEEEEE-ARRRRRRRKKK!"
It was at this point that we were at something of a Mexican standoff, or so I thought. The damn Gull couldn't get into the oven to get back his stupid clam, and I couldn't get out to jam the damn thing down his laughing beak.
"Yeah, I've got your damn dinner, feather-brain. Whatcha gonna do about it?"
The Gull peered down through the circular hole in the range top, and began hopping up and down, screeching threats at me. A close-up view did give me pause. For a minute it seemed as if this Gull was disturbingly familiar, that I had seen it somewhere before. I decided that was probably impossible, as all gulls look alike to me. Same beady little eyes, same long beak, same arrogant "screeee-ark!" yelled in your direction.
The Gull leaned down inside, but I was just out of range of his beak, and he was too smart to put himself into a position where I could grab his neck. He resumed hopping up and down on top of the range, hurling insults at me.
The Gull vanished from view, but he was nearby, as I could hear his wings flapping, and some varied cawing sounds. I wasn't all that concerned, until I looked up and found that I was looking into the eyes of about a dozen seagulls, including The Gull, who were all peering inside at me.
There was a brief flurry of activity, and their faces were replaced by a view of twelve sets of tail-feathers, which immediately cocked into the air.
Too late, I figured out what this meant.
I hurled the clam out of the range, missing the gulls, but it didn't stop them from their intended actvity. I frantically looked about for some sort of shield, but all I could find inside the range was an old desktop fan. I held this over me...
And right then was when...no, I'm not going to say it.
Let's just say that in the space of about fifteen seconds, I looked like a very badly frosted cupcake.
The Gull leaned down into the range, and jeered at me with a loud series of squawks and screeches, before flapping off. No dinner for the Gull, but he'd had his fun, nonetheless.
And so I lay there in the oven, my prison since last night. I was hungry, thirsty, covered with seagull manure, and I had to pee something terrible. On top of that, I had two does after me, one that wanted to hug me to death, and the other wanting to do something to death to me, the exact means not being important.
I figured things couldn't possibly get worse.
That's when I heard the rolling boom of thunder, and found that an intense tropical downpour had chosen that very moment to get started. And that the range-top lid I'd moved aside couldn't be got at.
Things started to get very fuzzy right after that realization.
You know, I rather think this evening was a first: usually, it's not until *after* midnight strikes on New Year's Eve that I get a headache. Whereas, I woke up on the morning of New Year's Eve with a frightful pounding between the antlers, and a nasty itching on the scalp. A test with shaking paw revealed some professionally done stitching. The thought crossed the mind as to how on Earth they managed to get my head under a Singer to do this. It made me glad no one thought to put a zipper up there.
I prudently spent most of the day in bed, sipping at some orange juice. Anything stronger, surely, would sorely test the strength of the stitches. Some aspirins later, and a good long nap, and I felt at least restored to some semblance of cervine-hood. I was going to need all of my strength, since I had promised Willow I was going to escort her to the New Year's Eve Ball being held in the lobby here at Shepherd's.
The sound of a gentle tapping at the bedroom door reverberated like the Crack of Doom. It proved to be Lodge, looking as inscrutable as ever.
"Miss Fawnsworthy and Miss Baumgartner, Sir."
I winced. I preferred not to have this confrontation, as I was unsure how much these two knew about the events of last night. I decided to brazen it out, and say as little as possible.
Willow clip-clopped in quietly, but Rosie padded in like she had eaten an entire store's worth of canaries. She turned to Lodge, who had stayed behind.
"Oh, Lodge? Lay out the bustier and the high-heels. Your employer will be dining out tonight."
I really could have done without both the knowledge that All Was Known, much less the piercing laugh that this order occasioned. Mercifully, a look from Willow cut the laughter short.
"Aw, c'mon, Willow. The sight of Lover-Boy...it *is* Lover-*Boy*, I hope...dolled up last night was the biggest laugh I've had in months."
"Hey, he looked *adorable*!"
"Say, Reggie, wanna exchange tips on lipstick and makeup?"
Rosie quieted down, but the smirk on her face told eloquently of the fun she was having at my expense. I drew the covers over my head, and sulked.
There was about a minute of blessed silence, and I hoped they had all gone. The stillness was broken by a paw drawing down my covers, a paw belonging to my fiancee. The ears drooped, as I saw Willow look at me a bit gravely, and shake her head.
"Reggie, if I asked you what on Earth you were thinking last night, would I regret it?"
The ears drooped further, and I sighed.
"Willow, as God is my witness, I thought that was going to work..."
My inamorata pursed her lips. "Well, I'll be the first to admit that at a distance, and in the dark, it was pretty convincing. How'd you learn to dress up in drag like that?"
Rosie purred. "Can I guess?"
Two cervine glares indicated that was not in the offing. Rosie grinned and shrugged.
Lodge coughed gently. "A good portion of what Mr. Buckhorn wore last night was originally purchased for an amateur production while he was at University. Mr. Buckhorn was a member of Mask & Wigge. He was rather a sensation his junior year in the company's burlesque, so to speak, of "Carmen.""
The mind spun back. Oh, days of youth, when one could play opposite Artie (Tons of Fun) Wisent, barely stuffed into a soldier's outfit as Don Jose. And as for "The Scrum of the Toreadors," well, you would have had to have been there to appreciate it.
The realization that it was Lodge that had intervened, just now, brought me back to the present.
"Lodge, I wish to ask you a straightforward question: did you, or did you not, drop nickel on me regarding my plans for last night?"
Lodge thought for a minute or so. "The answer to your enquiry, Sir, can be given with what is believed to be a high percentage of certainty that the individual responsible for the furnishing of the information in question regarding certain activities that took place in the recent past can be identified using the grammatical usage of a pronoun expressed in the first person singular, as opposed to other usages involving different numbers and tenses."
I thought about this.
"Having given you a straightforward question, I omitted to ask for a straightforward answer."
"That is true, Sir."
"Lodge, a simple answer, in two words or less: did you fink on your employer?"
Paw was applied to self-forehead, an operation that was perhaps not the wisest for a chap in my condition. Willow, however, took my paw, and squeezed it.
"Don't be mad at Lodge, Reggie. He's actually telling the truth. He didn't tell me outright that you were doing something last night."
"He just dropped some hints, like one of those acrobats in the newspapers?"
Willow blinked, and eventually figured out I meant "acrostics."
"Reggie, listen to me. Lodge explained all to me, while your head was getting stitched up. He really *is* on your side, you know."
Said with arms folded across chest, and eyes glaring at aforementioned. "Hrmph!"
"No, really. It was the only way your plan could actually work."
Lodge coughed discreetly. "You see, Sir, it was foreseeable that your disguise would be penetrated by Mr. duCleds, and that under such circumstances, Mr. duCleds would inevitably take offence. I was rather counting on the fact that Mr. duCleds would take aggressive action, though I admit I foresaw the use of his paws, and not a banjolele, on your person."
Rosie smiled. "Show me anyone who could predict the use of a banjolele as a weapon. Other than anyone who's ever seen George Formless play."
Lodge continued after this interruption. "I relied upon the psychology of the individuals, Sir, to formulate a plan supplementing your own. The key element of this supplementary plan was the fact that Miss Fawnsworthy has a great deal of devotion to you, and the sight of you getting administered rough justice by Mr. duCleds would stir her emotions."
Rosie again: "Yeah, like a bottle of nitro." Willow merely grinned, and quietly shushed Rosie.
"In light of the fact, Sir, that Miss Fawnsworthy's employee relationship with Mr. duCleds had suffered some decided alterations in character over the last few days, it was predictable that Miss Fawnsworthy, a doe of great spirit, would express her views with some vigour toward Mr. duCleds. Mr. duCleds, of course, being aware of Miss Fawnsworthy's combined interests, temper and experience with weaponry, would likely take flight. Indeed, I am informed that he has not been seen since the events in question."
"All jolly good, Lodge, but what does that have to do with the price of tea in Cipangu?"
Lodge coughed again. "Perhaps, Sir, you have not fully appreciated the fact that Mr. duCleds has been under a great deal of psychological strain, lately. This has most likely come about from a combination of a lack of sleep, the wreck of his aeroplane, three appearances in rapid succession before the magistrates, and getting caught with Senorita de Ciervos..."
"With his pants around his ankles. Whoops, my mistake, no trousers!" Rosie, at least, seemed to be in the New Year's spirit a few hours early, and was clearly enjoying it.
"The fact, Miss Baumgartner, that Mr. duCleds was forced to make an undignified exit under threat of physical violence would no doubt add more stress. In any event, Sir, the raison d'etre of the supplementary plan was an attempt to give Mr. duCleds one last push, if you will, that would force him to take action to relieve his troubles. Knowing Mr. duCleds' psychology, it would be predictable that he would do the right thing, and make an "honest doe" out of Senorita de Ciervos."
"Which ain't easy, and he's welcome to it." Rosie collected a gently tossed pillow on the nose from Willow as a reminder to rein her schadenfreude in.
I thought for a bit, a process which was aided by the fact that Willow had chosen to scritch the backs of my ears. Clearly, no bridges were burnt between doe and self, and we were as one. The logic of Lodge's actions was impeccable, as usual.
"Lodge? How much in the way of currency is on my dresser table?"
"95 pounds, 11 shillings and fourpence, Sir."
"Collar the lot for yourself, Lodge, you've earned it once again."
"Thank you, Sir."
"And when you've finished tucking that away under your mattress, draw my bath and lay out my evening clothes."
Rosie held up a purse. "I've got something that's simply *darling*, Reggie, and will coordinate in a perfectly charming manner with your white tie..."
This time, Rosie collected two pillows on her nose, one from each deer.
Rain. Deer. Rain. Deer. Raindeer. Deerain. Dear God. God help me. Gulls. Crap. Deer. Deer. DAMN ALL DEER!
Must find deer. Must find deer. Finish...finish this off. Once and for all.
The party was going full swing at 11.30, and you would never have thought that this was the off-season at Casino Island. Tout L'Isle du Casino was there, dressed to the nines. Willow was on my arm, looking fabulous. I admit I am biased on that score. Rosie was also there, looking both attractive and obnoxious. I admit I am also biased on that score.
"I still wanna know WHY you kept a dress from your college theatrical days in your wardrobe," that lady was saying to me.
"What's this about a dress?" boomed Pierre duCleds, Leslie's uncle, the only one of our little group who had been truly enjoying himself over the past few days. This was, to some extent, because of Toni DePantera, Rosie's burlesque partner and fellow bartender at the Double Lotus. The slim tigress had taken a liking to Pierre and they'd been keeping each other company.
"Never mind the dress, Rosie," I snapped, a trifle agitated.
"Speaking of dresses," the elder duCleds boomed happily, "I still have fond recollections of your farewell performance, my dears. How DID you do that effect?"
Toni and Rosie exchanged glances. "Well..." Toni said slowly. "Youse remember how we backed up against th' curtain while we was doin' that final can-can?" A nod from Uncle Pierre. "Okay," Toni continued. "When we was up against da curtain, dey hooked us up troo dere to dese hooks onna backa our outfits, which was held togedda by thin t'reads. We hadda be careful wit' our moves in da last number so's we din't fall out early or something. Anyhow, on cue, dey yanked onna hooks, and th' breakaways broke, an' dere we was in our birt'day suits for halfa second 'til they killed da lights."
Rosie grinned reminiscently. "Man, oh man, what applause! They loved it..."
Uncle Pierre grinned back gallantly. "Well, *I* for one enjoyed it immensely." He leered a bit. "Don't suppose you two have ever considered reviving the act?"
Toni's grin was mischievous as she tickled the old rogue under his chin. "Maybe I could...in private, like..."
I had a bad moment of nerves when the next table over, which had been reserved, was filled by the de Ciervos clan. Senora de Ciervos was looking regal, and oddly satisfied for some mysterious reason. Senor de Ciervos looked at me with a great deal of concern, silently pointing at my head. I gave him a weak thumb's up.
Inocenta got up and strolled over to our table, wearing an extremely flattering and low-cut gown, accented by some very stylish jewelry. She put her paws on our table, and leaned toward me.
"¡MARICÓN!" she hissed at me, and flounced off back to her table to sulk. Willow and Rosie had an extremely difficult time keeping a straight face each, and had to hurry to the powder room before they lost it. They almost made it. It was enough to put a chap off his Pol Roger, and I stared through the windows, which were showing the effects of an ongoing monsoon-in-miniature.
Willow came back, and put a paper hat on my head. "Penny for your thoughts, Reggie."
"You'd be getting gypped, Willow. Only thing on my mind, right now, is wondering what that is."
"What what is?"
"That." I pointed to something whitish that was weaving toward the front entrance of Shepherd's, barely visible in the precipitation.
Willow tilted her head, and took a closer look, squinting. It took her a bit, but then she put paws to mouth. "No. It *couldn't be*!"
"Couldn't be what?"
Willow was about to answer when the front door to the hotel opened with a crash, just as there was a similar crash of thunder from outside. What presented itself to us could only have been expressed by a poet.
"And into the din, and into the glare
From the night dark with tropical rains
There staggered a canine, fresh from the dumps
Dog-dirty and covered in stains.
He looked like he had one foot in the morgue
Or perhaps he was thirsting for bier
He sank to his knees, put his paws to his bean
And wailed for a feminine deer..."
This may once have been Leslie Donnedieu duCleds, of the City of Wilmington, State of Delahare, and heir to the duCleds chemicals moolah. But at the present time, what staggered across the lobby, and sank in supplication, was a thoroughly frazzed pooch, clad only in an undershirt and some oddly stained trousers. A good chunk of his face was sooty, as if he had been interrupted just as he was about to go on stage as Mr. Bones. The dark of his muzzlefur accentuated the wide-eyed, crazed look with which he was scanning the house. The haunted, semi-shrieked appeal rang to the echo in the now silent lobby, until the doe in question rose from her table, and padded over to Les.
She padded over. On my knees, I took her hand. Looked deep into her lovely dark eyes. And said the thing topmost in my mind.
Mercifully, things went black at that point.
"H'm. Wish I'd said that."
"Shut up, Reggie."
Inocenta grab napkin from table, make the wipey-wipe of face of poor Leslie-puppy. Papi take Inocenta by shoulder, he want to pull Inocenta away from Inocenta's precious Leslie-puppy.
The skunkie doctor say that Papi will be out of the wrist-plaster in two week.
"Nothing but the finest care for my nephew, Doctor. He's been through a lot lately."
"Naturally, Mr. DuCleds."
"What about that Spanish doe?"
"Refuses to leave his side. Already have one orderly out with a deeply bruised shin."
"Heh. A gal with spunk. Okay, move a cot in for her. Probably do Leslie good to wake up to a pretty face."
I swam up from the blackness and moaned quietly.
A gentle paw across my brow. "Is okay, Leslie-puppy. Your Inocenta is here."
I smiled feebly and closed my eyes again, falling into a deep, natural sleep.
"What Inocenta do to Leslie-puppy, Doctor? Inocenta no do anything special. Inocenta just herself, yes?"
Something murmured from Doc Meffit I didn't catch.
"Leslie-puppy so sweet and innocent."
Another half-heard comment from the medico.
"Pouf! You, the doctor, call it madness, but Inocenta call it love."
H'm. Could be...
"¡MARICÓN! You keep away from my Leslie-puppy! I keel you! I keel you TWICE!"
"Dash it all, Inocenta-"
"You are not to be addressing Inocenta, maric—n!"
"I think she's still annoyed with you, Reggie," an amused voice came from above. "Best wait outside."
A cervine sigh. "Blast it all...very well, my sweet."
I whimpered a bit and tried hiding under the sheets. This didn't work well, as a feminine
paw drew back the covers. "Hey. How you doing in there?"
I tried to keep myself from wetting the bed. "C-come to finish the job?"
Willow sighed. "Damn, but you ARE messed up, aren't you?"
"Is being a-okeh, Leslie-puppy," Inocenta assured me. "Willow-doe no kill you. Today."
Somehow I didn't find this terribly reassuring.
Willow looked at me with concern. "How you feeling? You've been out like a light for three days."
I turned my head away. "Why should you care? You quit, remember?"
Willow chuckled. "Not gonna abandon my honorary little brother like that. Besides, I got rehired."
I sighed. "Uncle Pierre."
"Yep," Willow nodded. "He says he hasn't enjoyed a business trip this much in years." She snickered. "Largely due to Toni, no doubt."
I managed a faint smile. "I think I need to make some apologies..."
Willow waved her hand. "Forget it. Doc says you were operating on nerves so long, it's amazing you hadn't keeled over days earlier. Reggie's probably forgotten what you did to him, anyway."
I nodded faintly. "Well, I do feel a little better. Guess sleeping three days straight helped out."
"Leslie-puppy look MUCH better," Cupcake agreed. "No more blackie under eyes. Do good beddie-bye."
"And this one," Willow patted Cupcake on the shoulder, "has been by your side the whole time."
Inocenta blushed. "Well, Inocenta do leave to make visit to little doe's room."
Bit more information than I really needed, but what the hell...
Willow saw that I was fading, and got up. "Okay, get some more sleep. Doc says you'll be good to go in a coupla days."
I nodded. "Okay. And Willow?"
A thumbs up from my trusty companion as she walked out the door. A faint "Sorry, Reggie, but-" as the door closed behind her.
I sighed and lay back on the pillow. A sudden weight to one side as Inocenta climbed on top of the coverlet, snuggling up to me with the covers providing a chaperone. "Bundling", I think it's called.
Incidentally, Inspector Stagg is dead right about the backs of doe's ears.
Also, does are quite cuddly. Even through a couple of layers of sheets. And other things.
I checked out of hospital a couple of days later and headed back to the Grand. Amazing how a few days of rest can make a new man out of a fellow.
When I checked back into the suite, Willow was nowhere to be seen. I shrugged and headed into my bedroom for a shower and change of clothes.
A note on my pillow with a single red rose. "Room 313". H'm. I grinned and hurried through my shower.
Inocenta, she make DAMN sure the door bolted this time. Olé!
Damn, what a dear deer!