by Simon Barber
It was tourist season on Casino Island. Every pier had a tour-boat docked to it, and the minute the crowds of brightly shirted sun-worshippers finished waddling down the gangplank, the lower hold doors were thrown open for the panting Spontoonie dockers to start refilling them for the return trip. What with the crowded waterways and skies as flying boats touched down sometimes at the rate of two an hour, it was not a time to be shooting a Nature film.
“Ey, lass, reckon we’ve a week we can give to us selves, likely.” Casino Island was clearly visible from South Island, specifically from the terrace bar of the Topotabo Hotel where authentic grass skirts and flower leis not only fitted the dress code but bought their wearer the first drink free. The speaker was Prudence Akroyd, newlywed and graduated that week from Songmark Aeronautical Boarding School for Young Ladies. “Then we’ve got to get us selves down to work.” Her broad Lancashire accent was not what the average tourist associated with traditional grass skirts and ritually oiled and combed fur - but Prudence was not exactly the average Native girl.
Neither was her bride, despite being born on Main Island - any Spontoonie would have recognised the distinctive combings the slim canine shared with the broad-shouldered spotted Hyena girl at her side. Tahni’s voice was deeper than most women, but she was definitely female, as far as spotted hyenas went. “A week! We could sail out to visit my kin in the Kanims - or hide away from the crowds on Main Island. A palm thatched hut for two, and tourist Guides staying clear.”
Prudence brushed back her long, elegant ears. “Reckon we could. But we’ll see enough lonely jungle the rest o’ the year.” She was silent for a minute imagining the dripping Main Island forests in December. She and Tahni had a longhouse now with Tahni’s kin in the settlement the tourist maps called Vikingstown, and in September like all the other Spontoonies she would get busy re-thatching it preparing for the rainy season. There was a good reason why September was the end of the tourist season.
It was four o’clock on a hot sunny day and approaching cocktail hour at the Topotabo Hotel. There was a loud group of thirty tourists in from the “SS Kalulah Hawaii” cruise ship to judge from the “borrowed” ship’s towels two of them were wearing as fancy-dress turbans. Just as Eskimos had a hundred different words for snow, Spontoonie had evolved two dozen words for obnoxious tourist behaviour. None of them would be showing up in the dictionary any time soon, any more than would the words embroidered on many tourist souvenir hats.
“Hala-paramashu,” Tahni cocked an ear at the sound of an imported cocktail glass shattering on the marble floor inside, to the sound of derisive cheers from the rest of the group.
“Dances-on-tables, not throwing-ashtrays-at-windows yet,” Prudence translated.
Tahni giggled, the sound seeming odd from such a solid carnivore. “My wife has the gift of tongues.”
“Aye, right. And I’ve tha’ to thank for keepin’ me in practice.” Prudence grinned. Though not a borzoi or saluki, her canine muzzle was certainly one of the longer breeds and her tongue naturally matched it.
“What say we go and shock tourists?” Tahni asked brightly. “Say … we two Native girls in from jungle, or just off boat from far island, amazed at sight of Euros. Never seen such before.” She grinned. “Must be from far, far, island. Could see that XXXXL size yellow pineapple shirt, long day’s sail away.” Tahni paused reflectively. “Could use shirt as boat sail home, but scare away all fish.”
“Mmm. Reckon if we were yon Albert Islanders from a century back, we’d ask them home for dinner.” Prudence winked, and licked her lips. “One of ‘em, pot roasted, that’d feed us village for a week!” She contemplated. “Rendered down proper, make that soap for a year.”
Tahni’s eyes lit up. “And Albert Island not answer to Spontoonie tourist Ministry! We go tell them tourist season like tuna fishing season - and we have fishing license.”
It might have happened that way, as the couple stood up ready to put their Spontoonie Custom skills to the test, had Prudence not spotted three familiar figures walking up the track from Haio Beach on the southern side of the island. Her ears went right up, and her tail thrashed in recognition. “’Ey up, it’s t’ rest o’ the girls! Ada, Belle and Carmen!”
“Three Songmark girls, of dorm most Euros would have bet would never marry.” Tahni marvelled. “And two weeks after finish graduation - three of them married! Should have taken bets, from Casino Island Euros.” She smiled at the sight of the canine, the rabbit and the Mixtecan anteater now all wearing grass skirts and flower leis. It was a comfortable costume in the climate, and cut out laundry bills entirely.
“Nah. Chances are, they’d a’ spotted a left-twisted Tailfast ring, same as us wore, and mebbe know what it meant.” Prudence waved happily. She had been the leader of the dorm for three years of gruelling work at Songmark, and was extremely pleased how things had turned out for them all. Even Ada had been Tailfast, and carried a Spontoonie family name. “We could ‘a tekken their bets against Ada being the first one of our year to have a kitten, though but!”
“Adopted counts.” Tahni nodded. “Little Kama, she the sweetest kitten. No mother hope for better from own flesh.”
“Pru! Tahni!” Belle’s long lepine ears were right up as she spotted her friends. “You’d never guess who turned up. Miss Morgaine Melson! And - she’s filming this week!”
“This time o’year?” Prudence’s own ears went up in surprise. Spring was the usual time for the film teams, before the tourists and their noisy transport got in the way. Miss Melson was a frequent visitor to the islands, and famous for making hay of the American Hays code on film censorship. It hardly mattered that none of her films would play in Peoria, if enough people came to Spontoon to watch them there.
“Yes, it’s not a “wild jungle epic” this time. She needs some distant crowd scenes.” Belle nodded happily. The Althing was very keen on promoting Spontoon as a filming venue, and had regulations far more relaxed than many countries. “She can film Spontoonies or tourists as background without paying them a cowry, as long as their faces aren’t recognisable in the finished film.” It made production costs so much more affordable.
“We’ve volunteered as extras,” Carmen put in, the anteater’s voice quiet as ever. “We mentioned you and Tahni were on the island. Do you want to join in?”
Prudence’s long canine jaw swung open in an alarming grin. “Oh, aye. Count us in, lass. Miss Melson, she makes the best films ‘ereabouts - and she gives the best parties!”
South Island was a place that many film crews came to love or hate, depending on how well they could cope with the occasional leeches. Anyone wanting to shoot a scene in the Spontoon jungle and yet still return to their Casino Island hotel in time for dinner every evening was almost obliged to shoot there - Main Island had major restrictions as to how many “Euros” could go there even with a guide, and Eastern Island was in places “starting to look too much like Long Beach, California - we coulda stayed home and filmed that” as one Producer had muttered over his pineapple brandy cocktail in Shepherd’s Hotel.
Even so, in tourist season there were restrictions besides any the Althing had provided. Haio Beach after nine in the morning had a dozen conspicuous ice-cream and hot dog stalls, plus “Genuine Native Canoe lessons” in the calm waters behind the reef. The canoes were authentic, but the brightly clad and generally stout tour-boat tourists splashing valiantly at the oars were not. It was generally not an Olympic class performance - or as Prudence often commented at the sight - “Eeeh, tha’s neither use nor ornament.”
In fact, if deserted beaches were wanted there was only one corner of the island far enough from civilisation to get a good day’s filming done without having to keep cutting out accidental shots of Dornier X and China Clipper flying boats heading into the central waters for the landing run - the South-East corner, within distant sight of Sacred Island. Eight o’clock the next morning saw Melson Productions assembled with two camera-girls, the Director and a dozen local actresses including Tahni, Prudence and her friends.
“Now then, ladies - here’s the script.” Miss Morgaine Melson was a grey-furred rabbit doe in her late thirties, whose professional footsteps had tracked from the Atlantic coast in the silent movie years first to Hollywood and then away to the Pacific Islands in 1934 when the new Hays Production Code had threatened to shut her down. “Mister Avarius has done us proud!”
“I’ve met him,” Prudence whispered to her mate. “Only gent in Miss Melson’s regular team. Big walrus chap - loves writing for us.”
“Strange, having a man writing on her team,” Tahni mused. “You said, he wrote “Jungle Queen’s White Bride””.
“Oh aye. But tha’s safe on set wi’ him. He likes lasses, aye – but only walrus lasses - and none of us here look owt like.” Prudence winked. Her own dorm were trained down as fine as racing greyhounds - in their last meeting with Songmark’s nurse Mrs. Oelabe, they had been measured as Olympic athletic fitness levels.
“So! Here’s a copy for everyone. We’ll be filming some of it on Casino Island, but most of it here and in Haio village, early in the mornings before the crowds arrive.” Once she started work, the lepine transformed into a whirlwind of energetic action, moving as inspiration struck her. “Basic story - secretary comes to the island, her boss dumps her there and tears up her return ticket in spite when she won’t raise her tail for him - the old story. She’s stranded and alone, with her money running out. Think you’ve heard it all before ? Now take a look at the twists Mister Avarius has built into that for us. Page seventeen - I think you’ll like it. “
There was an eager rustling of paper, and more than a few gasps of shocked delight.
“Eeh, Tahni lass - shame the star’s already chosen, or we should ‘a tried out for t’ role.” Prudence’s eyes went wide in shocked delight as she read the script.
“Oh my.” Next to Prudence and Tahni, Belle shook her head admiringly. “Miss Melson’s onto a winner here.”
Just at that moment there was a shout from up the beach - too distant to make out, but in the same tones Prudence associated with gamekeepers on the Lancashire fells having spotted trespassers. She turned to see a group of about twenty furs striding up from the Haio Beach direction. Even two hundred yards away she could see that one of them was carrying a movie camera and tripod.
“Incoming…” Ada Cronstein muttered. She was carrying a pair of binoculars, and pressed them to her eyes. In a few seconds she gasped, and handed them over to Carmen. “Tell me that’s not who I think it is.”
Carmen adjusted the binoculars to fit her much narrower head, and her neck fur rose as she focussed. “Si. Is film producer Mister Stanton Sturdey – It is a year and more since we go to Albert Island with him on sailing ship Liki-Tiki, but that snout I remember.”
“Oh, aye. I remember you tellin’ us. ‘E ‘ad a pair of pups, right twerps they were too.” Prudence growled.
“Them, I don’t see. Maybe absence makes the heart grow fonder – for them a year is not enough. Nor a lifetime.” Carmen scanned the group. “Maybe they stay home this time, annoy someone else. Mister Sturdey, without them he not so bad.”
But though Mister Sturdey was certainly in the group storming up the beach, he was not the one in the lead. A tall weasel in an expensive tropical twill suit set his eyes on Miss Melson, and a flash of unwelcome recognition set both their ears flat down as they glared at each other.
“What’s the big idea?” The weasel demanded. He stood with his hands on his hips, his gaze flashing over the opposing filming crew. “We gotta license from the Allthing to film here. So clear out!”
“Well, if it isn’t Tony Rigattoni, the terror of Burbank,” Morgaine Melson arched an eyebrow. “What brings you here? Is it the IRS or the FBI on your tail this time? You don’t worry us, mister “new-blood-in-Hollywood and the old blood running down the gutters”. We have a license too.”
“Mine says “to film without let or hindrance” So shift it, sister.” The weasel’s narrow muzzle wrinkled.
“What a coincidence! That’s just what ours says. So like it says, let us – don’t hinder. We were here first.” Miss Melson stood her ground.
Tony Rigattoni jerked his muzzle up in contempt. “Don’t mean a thing. In this business, doll, it’s your latest movie that means everything. And we’re shooting the start of the big new trend.”
“To coin a phrase, “oh yeah?” True-life tales of Hollywood corruption?” Miss Melson cast an eye over the filming team standing behind him. “So – you’ve got a production team. Those two alligators – if they’re the lead role it’s got to be a horror flick.”
“Let me introduce Pablo and Gomez – from Florida. You wouldn’t like it if they introduced themselves to you the way they’d like to, I bet? They did good work in Florida for some of my – business associates. So I brought ‘em along as – troubleshooters.” Tony Rigattoni smiled, exposing a gold tooth.
“I know their kind – you know my father he serve in Police, in Mixteca,” Carmen whispered into Prudence’s long ear. “Pistoleros. The way they stand, the way they move. They shoot trouble, oh yes.”
“Mister Sturdey, we’ve met before. Last year.” Ada nodded warily.
Toni Rigattoni spun round to look at the canine film producer, who twitched slightly. “That so?”
“Other times, other circumstances. Before the takeover.” Stanton Sturdey held his voice level. “They were hired hands. I had a ship full.”
“Smooth.” The weasel turned back and surveyed his rivals, as if carefully reckoning up numbers and potential. “So, you get this chunk of island today. Make the most of it. Come on, guys! We got us a film to shoot. Other things – later.”
Prudence watched as the new arrivals turned round and headed back towards Haio Beach. As they did, Mister Stanton Sturdey was scribbling on a notepad – he dropped to the back of the crew and something white fluttered down to the beach. There was a blur of yellow as sand was kicked over it.
“Well, there’s drama for you.” Miss Melson watched till they were out of sight. “Prudence – be a dear and find me that note?”
Prudence and Belle departed at a jog, and after a few seconds studying the tracks Prudence dived on a particular spot and held up the paper.
“I thought Mister Sturdey looked none too cheerful,” Prudence’s ears went up as she read it.
“What’s it say, Pru?” Belle was the equal to any cat in curiosity. But her friend held the paper shut till they re-joined the rest of their film team.
“Any road, ‘ere’s what the man says. “Can’t talk. Hostile take-over this year of X-An-Do studios. Rick the Camera, Noloele bar, tonight. Help.” Aye, that’s clear enough.” Prudence nodded thoughtfully, passing Miss Melson the paper.
“Noloele bar. That’s the one in the service block by the slipway here, isn’t it? The one the staff from the tourist places go to.” Miss Melson said thoughtfully. “The Spontoonies go there. Not the tourists.”
“Aye. But ‘is film team were a good bunch last year, they ‘ad a few days on t’ island before we sailed.” Prudence said. “Happen, this Rick the Camera, a local friend showed ‘im the place.”
The rabbit smiled. “So. We have a friend in the enemy camp, it could be. If two or three of you could head over tonight – I‘d be grateful.” She drew herself up. “Now, we have a film to make. Betty, hand out the scripts please – and let’s get learning our lines!”
A busy day on the set had Prudence and Tahni working till after six, helping put the filming equipment away safely in the cellars of the Topotabo Hotel. This sat on what looked like a natural rock outcrop; in fact it was a reinforced concrete structure that officially did duty as a tornado shelter for the staff and guests. All big Spontoonie building projects had “tornado shelters”, even though truly devastating storms were rare.
“We are expecting trouble, with this Mister Rigattoni,” Tahni announced. “Carmen, she is telling me – he is coming into film industry with “new money” to invest. Dirty money, I am thinking.”
“Like enough. Carmen she lives and breathes Hollywood, allus has,” Prudence agreed as they strolled towards the Nolele Bar. “Ask her owt, she’s got t’ answer. She could tell ‘ow many co-stars yon Little Shirley Shrine’s put in t’ loony bin. And not to t’ nearest dozen, either!”
Their destination was the only open premise on a back row of shop rears and storehouses that served the hotels and enterprises of South Island. It had no bright neon signs, or indeed anything that would draw in wandering tourists from afar. Prudence knew it well, and the South Island Formation Swimming Club often finished up there after a long day’s practice.
“’Ey up!” Prudence waved cheerfully to the otter barmaid, an occasional swimmer with her formation team. She dropped her voice, and spoke in Spontoonie. “Searching for Euro expected here – Rick, film camera-worker with outlander new arrivals,”
“Arrived ten minutes back, drinking one root beer. Big spender.” The waitress wrinkled her nose. “Meet in private booth, there.” She indicated an alcove with curtains, which someone had already drawn to hide from casual gaze.
Prudence drew back the curtain, and nodded in recognition. “’Ow do, Mister Pauling.”
“You know me?” The cameraman was a slightly built grey squirrel, whose tufted ears went up. “I was here last year on the sailing ship to Albert Island – but I don’t remember you.”
“Me pals Ada an’ Carmen were on it, they remember you,” Prudence sat opposite him and pulled the curtain shut, while Tahni sat outside to guard against any intruders. “They said you were a decent gent.” She paused. “An’ Mister Sturdey wasn’t bad, if you left out those pups of ‘is. So – what’s the story?”
“Last year.” Rick closed his eyes, relaxing as if recalling a pleasant memory. “It was different then. I’ve been with Mister Sturdey ten years – his regular gopher was promoted, and he gave me the job even though I’m a squirrel. I’ve been behind the cameras six years for X-An-Do productions. It was great – till last Autumn.”
“Hostile takeover bid. We got that part,” Prudence nodded. “What happened?”
Rick shrugged. “The common Hollywood story. Studio invests a lot in a couple of films that don’t sell so well – studio’s in trouble. Banks only lend to the top dozen studios – they’re rock solid. When “someone” made an offer of cash for creative control of the films – the studio bosses jumped at it. They’re not the ones being controlled.”
“Aye. I see the picture. So, just what sort of film are you makin’ here?”
Rick reached inside his jacket and pulled out a punched folder. “Here’s the summary of the series. It was based on another pulp fiction series – but Mister Rigattoni decided he likes it better his way. He likes everything that way.”
“The Crimson Corona. Comic-book hero.” An hour later, Carmen held the script folder at arm’s length, back at Prudence and Tahini's home. “He fight crime with unbelievable powers. Turn himself into ball of living fire, takes no hurt from it.”
“Unbelievable is right,” Belle agreed. “Anyone who believes that – maybe Beryl would give us a commission if we pointed them her way. She could sell them a bridge or two.” She took the comic from her friend and leafed through it. Her eyebrow raised incredulously as she read through the back-story inside the front cover. “Thought so. Like all of them, he’s just an ordinary Joe when he’s off duty. Literally. Joe Cadarassian, last heir to the secret of the Temple of the Eternal Flame. Came to America with last ancient priest of his Caucasus mountain homeland when the Reds took over and suppressed the cult.”
“Ah.” Carmen nodded her long muzzle sagely. “Ellis Island must be slipping.” She gave her small smile. “I not saying Ioseph Starling is right, most days – but nobody wrong all the time, either.”
“Well, chap looks good enough on paper,” Prudence conceded. “He’s also written as a super-genius, so he’s built a costume and face mask of asbestos that conceals his identity. Regular clothes they’d burn off every time ‘e uses the talent, folk’d see right away who it were.”
Ada sniffed. “That secret identity thing is getting so old. So 1935.”
“Any road, it gives ‘im something to paint ‘is symbol on.” Prudence grinned, exposing sharp teeth. “Reckon someone wants to sell the toys, costumes and breakfast cereal rights?”
“Crimson Corona porridge… bursts into sorcerous flame when you eat it. Perfect for those chilly Winter mornings!” Belle nodded, her ears going right up.
Prudence leafed through the folder. Suddenly she stopped. “Oh ‘eck. I’ve spotted it. I know the stories this is pinched from. I didn’t see it at first – they’ve cut out half the characters, and there was no Crimson Corona in it!”
***It was breakfast time the next day, when the two film teams met again on South Island.
“Tha’s taken plot o’ “Wings of Steel”, changed half t’ characters and re-made it into a costume drama?” Prudence was incredulous. “That were a decent story! The writers’ll sue you if tha goes to Hollywood with this!”
“Oh no, they won’t.” Mister Rigattoni gave a thin smile. “I’ve done business with the author. He sold us the exclusive rights to all his plots. Didn’t cost us much. He found out he needed the money, suddenly.”
“He had medical emergency.” Pablo said woodenly. “He had... accident.”
“Accident.” Gomez nodded happily, the alligator’s tail thumping the floor.
“Expensive things, accidents. He had to pay a lot for – teeth.” Pablo polished his knuckles.
“Teeth,” agreed Gomez, grinning to expose a huge number of very sharp examples.
““Wings of Steel” is already famous.” Belle tapped the book. “You can’t just – take a running story and change everything. People already liked the original. It has fan clubs, even.”
Mister Rigattoni gave his two reptilian troubleshooters a paternal wave. “Don’t matter none. We’ve got scripts hashed out for ten five-part stories with the Crimson Corona. By the time the public’s had that lot shoved through their eyeballs – my version’s going to be the way they remember it. Read ‘em and weep, sister.”
***Despite the tourist season, there were parts of Casino Island that were fairly uncrowded. The Althing had compiled statistics on tour-boat tourist behaviour; the “half-distance” a statistically average tourist would walk was twenty yards past any conspicuous point of interest. A hundred yards past the last hot-dog stand only a fifth of the brightly-shirted guests were still exploring – and two hundred yards past that, near the Technical High School, hardly any were seen. There was an inconspicuous café, Mama Volomoa’s, which was currently the headquarters of Melson Productions. Prices were a half of the main South-facing strip, and the “Pineapple Krakataoa” cocktails were a secret not revealed to guide-book writers.
“Well, ladies, that’s another day’s film safely in the can.” Morgaine Melson patted the toughened aluminium briefcase that was chained to her wrist like a bank courier’s case. She relaxed, her long ears twitching as she cast her eyes over her cast and production team. On one table Erica the forlorn heroine, an ice-white Arctic vixen, was enthusiastically rehearsing the next day’s scene with Conchita, a Brazilian jaguar lady who had already starred in several of her films. One of the many reasons Melson Productions were unpopular with the Hays Office was that in many ways its actresses were not acting.
“Aye, Miss Melson.” Prudence relaxed on her own table with Tahni. A tall Nootnops Blue with crushed ice and two straws was on the table between them. “And no trouble yet from us competition. South Island’s big enough for two teams – and there’s Casino Island we’re both filming on.”
“Talk of the devil, here he comes,” Belle pointed along the road that curved round the coast towards Market Ferry Square. “Not Mister Rigattoni – but Mister Sturdey. On his own, looks like.” Sure enough, a canine in a somewhat dusty tropical white suit could be seen approaching them, from time to time glancing down at what seemed to be a sketchmap in his paw.
“Lookin’ fer us, tha’ reckons?” Prudence shaded her eyes.
“Not much else for him on this part of the coast,” Ada considered. “If it was Saturday and the Missing Coconut had their hula classes, it’d be a different story.” The traditional dash of overheated dance students across the road to the beach after classes was a semi-official tourist attraction that exposed a lot of profitably sold and developed film in tourist cameras.
“Miss Melson!” Stanton Sturdey waved, his ears perking up as he spotted the dozen women relaxing on the terrace. “Rick gave me a list of places you might be. There’s not that many on Casino Island that aren’t tourist traps.”
“And you’ve found us. Can I help you?” Miss Melson rose, an eyebrow rising to match. “It’s not usual for rival film companies to trade much besides lawsuits.”
Mister Sturdey snorted. “I brought my own rival along, I don’t need another. No – I have to admit Mister Rigattoni’s not my rival either – the way things are, he’s my boss. And he knows nothing about the business. Nothing! Except that he’s got the money and the muscle behind him to make it so.”
“That’s generally persuasive enough to do most things a fur wants to get done,” Muss Melson gave a thin smile.
“You can’t make a film the public want to watch, that way,” Mister Sturdey sighed. “X-An-Do Pictures is in enough trouble as it is. I’ve put years of my life into this business. When Mister Rigattoni turns out films that fall flat, and he will, we’re history.”
“That’s Hollywood – as I remember it. Another good reason why I’m not there these days,” Miss Melson nodded. “As I said earlier – can I help you?”
“Maybe you can. I can’t do anything but say “Yes Sir!” and grit my teeth whenever that weasel has another “bright idea” that nobody dares tell him stinks clear out to Pittsburgh.” Mister Sturdey’s tail drooped. “Rick gave you the script, I know – here’s the plot behind the series.” He pulled out a loose-leaf folder, which was avidly seized and read.
“You’re managing this with only the six actors and they keep swapping costumes just to make the place look crowded?” Miss Melson’s nose twitched in derision five minutes later. “Some island. It’s got six species on it.”
“”Wings of Steel” had crowd scenes, but you could have shot them free in Spontoon, distant ones at least” Ada pointed out. “You’ve filmed here before – you know that.”
Stanton Sturdey waved his paw defeatedly. “That’s the way Mister Rigattoni wants to play it. He’s got something against a lot of species. I know the hero of the…former plotline was a duck and his sidekick was an equine. Mister Rigattoni, he was very keen on changing that. Don’t ask me why.”
“Si! I know that answer.” Carmen tapped her long snout. “It was in Film Frolics, in our first year, Hollywood society pages. Mister Rigattoni, his first wife she divorced him – for a zebra gentleman.”
Tahni winkled. “Against a weasel? You Euros would call that, “trading up”, I think.”
“Oh, aye. An’ I remembers what happened t’ year after, when ‘e’d remarried.” Prudence’s eyes were sparkling with mischief. “Second wife, another weasel lass – she left ‘im fer a drake!”
Miss Melson smiled. “And for that to be “trading up” – it tells you a lot about Mister Rigattoni.”
Stanton Sturdey shrugged. “It makes sense. He was very keen to get his paws on that particular series. Ninety percent of species – in his film they just don’t exist. Never did.”
Ada’s muzzle wrinkled. “Never existed in the first place. I’ve family who got out of Germany,” she commented. “I never thought I’d hear a worse idea than the Government there are pushing. Well, today’s the day.”
“I’ve got to get back. We’ll be on the islands for a week – the volcano is what he wanted it for, the scene the Crimson Corona defeats the Native fire-god. We’re doing the wrestling scenes in the studio, but we need to shoot the outdoor ones here.” Stanton Sturdey said. He sighed. “That’s the way it goes, in Hollywood.”
Tahni winced. “He come to Spontoon and defeat Keyho Raha-Raha? The Althing never say yes to that!”
“The Althing like money. And the costumed scenes aren’t filmed here, so they’ll not find out till the film’s released,” Ada pointed out. “To you, it’s blasphemy. In Peoria, it’s what they want. The heroic Euro adventurer conquering sinister primitives. When did you ever see the Natives win against Euros?”
“Last time I see “Jungle Queen’s White Bride”,” Tahni quipped, nodding respectfully towards Miss Melson. “Conchita make great Jungle Queen.”
“Which is another reason the Hays Code want to shut you down,” Stanton Sturdey said. “I have to get back. I’ll … oh hell! I thought I’d shaken them off my tail!” He moved back into the shadow, and pointed along the road to where a pair of alligators were obviously searching.
“Back door, quick. Tahni, you show him the way through Luakinakina Park.” Miss Melson nodded and pointed towards . “Take the folder. You were never here.”
“You don’t know those two,” Mister Sturdey gratefully grabbed his hat and the compromising plot folder. “Pablo and Gomez, they’ll take some stopping!”
Prudence grinned. “You leave them to us. Now get thissen’ movin’!”
As Tahni ushered their visitor out through the kitchen heading along a service track to the park and the Southern side of the island, Miss Melson looked at her production team. She smiled. Songmark graduates had so very many uses.
The next day, South Island was left to the tourists while filming took place on Casino Island – and the scene on Page Seventeen was filmed in passionate detail. Eventually the cast broke to shower and lunch – to spot a familiar squirrel hurrying across with a can of film from the photographic wholesalers on Ferry Square.
“’Ey up! That’s filmin’ on Casino Island today same as us?” Prudence’s ears went up in alarm.
Rick paused, looking around. “Yes – you’ve not seen the team? They’re just around the corner. I’ll show you.” There was a Pandanus palm frond screen shielding the café from the busy street outside, and he pointed out his team from the shelter of the screen. “I’m the only camera fur there. I don’t have a Chief Grip – even an assistant.”
“Someone’s losing their grip,” Ada murmured.
“That’s Hiram, the accountant – he’s the only one Mister Rigattoni brought with him from out East. He knows where the money comes from.” Rick shivered. “Cold son-of-a-bitch, and he isn’t even canine. He knows where all the bodies are buried, too – and if he ever opens his mouth...”
“He knows he’ll be buried right alongside them. I’ve met the sort,” Miss Melson’s ears dipped. “Who else?”
“Louie, Barks, Eddie, lights and sound. Mack, Fritz, Dutch, Izzy, Bernie and Lou – special effects. That’s the lot.” Rick shook his head. “Weirdest bunch I ever worked with. Three chemistry grads and Bernie was in the Chemical Corps in the War. Made suits for guys who used flamethrowers. But when you’ve got a lead character whose main line is “Corona on!” and sets himself on fire every scene – I guess you need the support team for that.”
Miss Melson blinked. “Who’s the writer? Don’t tell me you came out here without a writer?”
“Too dear. With six special-effects crew, Hiram put his foot down. We bought the script off a ghost-writer, cash down after Mister Rigattoni got hold of 'Wings Of Steel'.” The squirrel shrugged. “No rewrites. This isn’t a film where the cast talk back to the Producer about their lines. What’s in the script is what goes in the can.”
Ada’s tail twitched. “Like my Uncle Jacob would say, “Oy!” And this is the next big thing in films? I’d rather bet on furs going back to silents.”
“Mmm.” Belle’s muzzle was twisted briefly in a sour expression. “More fun than sticking pins in your eyes.”
Rick’s ears dipped. “Can’t do nothing about it. The only way Mister Sturdey can get out of making the fifty shows is somehow the whole thing don’t work no matter what the team do. That happens, it’s Mister Rigattoni who gets an escorted ride back East to explain to his boss.”
“Eeeh, I don’t think chap gets a return ticket on that ride,” Prudence contemplated the idea. “Shan’t lose sleep on that score.”
“The Sturdey boys, they not on Spontoon this trip?” Carmen asked innocently. “On the Liki-Tiki, they made it a trip to remember.”
“Oh, that’s our one ray of sunshine. That pair! Mister Sturdey, he’s packed them off to a ranch school in Northern Montana. They yelled about it clear to Maine – but they’re staying till he gets a good report of them. However long that takes.” It was the first time they had seen Rick smile. “Don’t ask me what they did to get sent there – but their Pa finally caught them out.”
There was a massed sigh of relief.
The squirrel stood up, grabbing the blank film reel. “Got to go! We’re shooting offshore tomorrow morning – the script calls for long-shot pictures of the volcano erupting when the Crimson Corona defeats the Fire God. So I’ll see you around.” He hesitated. “If there’s anything you can do for Mister Sturdey – I’d thank you kindly.”
The next morning saw Miss Melson filming on Main Island, on the North-western ridge above Vikingstown. There was a small team, just the actresses playing the heroine and the Chief’s Daughter, and the cameras Miss Melson handled herself. Tahni had been a Guide and was officially qualified to lead Euros around Main Island even if two of the four Songmark graduates had not been full Spontoonie Citizens by marriage.
“There’s plenty of special effects you can do with stock footage,” Miss Melson mused, looking at the distant cone of the Main Island volcano as they took a mid-morning break. “You could overlay a firework effect on the background frame by frame. It’d be expensive, but Hollywood could do it.”
“And so can we on Main Island!” Tahni announced proudly. “The Althing has not been sending film technicians overseas to film school for nothing. It makes the Islands more money, keeping the work local.”
Just at that moment, something happened that had not been seen on Spontoon since before the first Polynesian lizards paddled ashore a thousand years before. The Main Island volcano suddenly belched a billowing plume of black smoke!
“Yipe!” Belle’s ears went rigid. “It’s erupting!”
But Miss Melson was looking at the sight critically. “Ada, dear, your binoculars.” She took them and focussed on the gouts of black greasy-looking smoke that were billowing out. “As I thought. That looks more like a refinery blaze than a volcano. I’ve seen volcanoes letting rip from Hawaii to Japan. There’s no ash falling out.”
“Mix o’ aviation spirit and waste bunker oil, is my guess,” Prudence shaded her eyes. Inside a minute, the smoke died down and began to drift away in the wind. “We’ve a water heater at Songmark as burns waste oil. Hard job, burnin’ it clean.”
“That is in area forbidden to Euros!” Tahni’s neck fur was crested up in fury at the sight. “Whole area sacred to fire-spirits. Althing never give permission for anything like that!” She paused. “It two miles away. Who’s coming with me, take a look?”
A forest of paws shot up. “Nah, den. We wants us fastest runners, on ‘t job” Prudence cautioned.
“Tahni and your girls. Songmark graduates.” Miss Melson nodded. “Let me know what you find. We’ll be at the Topotabo.” She smiled as Tahni and Prudence leaped away, with Belle, Ada and Carmen at their heels.
Twenty minutes of fast running down well-known jungle trails brought them to the steep volcanic cone. There was a definite scent of burning oil in the air.
“We’re not t’ first – didn’t reckon we would be,” Prudence panted. “Hey! Paulahe! Tonobao!” She waved to two Spontoonie Guides who were standing on top of the crater rim. “What’s t’ story?”
Paulahe, a surprisingly slim bear from Main Village, frowned. “Villagers heard aircraft fly over before dawn. We found where it dropped six drums of oil fuel – they burst on impact, volcanic ash on ground soaked it like candle wick. Heavy fuel, most of it wouldn’t evaporate in a day. There’s tracks of some fur coming in from North and returning the same way, and on crater rim we found this.” In his paw was a large-calibre brass cartridge case.
“Flare pistol,” Ada nodded. “Makes sense. You’d need a dozen porters to haul that much fuel up from the coast – but you only need one pilot to drop the fuel and one man on the trigger. Neither hung around.”
“Aye, an’ I know who done it, an’ all.” Prudence was scanning the seas with the binoculars. “Who’d ‘a thought it? Take a look out Northwards. There’s a boat wi’ film team half a mile offshore, packin’ up and getting ready to head ‘ome with footage in their cans. Guess who.”
“But proving it is another story,” Belle’s long ears went down. “They know how illegal it is. If the Althing seized their film they’d just say they were shooting background and when the smoke started, they filmed it. Any camera team would. Imagine if it was a real eruption, what a scoop it’d be!”
“Bet the aircraft was already heading out, not returning to Spontoon,” Tahni gritted her teeth. “And fur with flare pistol would be picked up by a different boat. Not to link him with film team. Bets the aircraft was hired last night down near Devil’s Reef pub for cash under table, too. No point looking in harbour flight records for who loaded up with fuel drums.”
“We take this to Constabulary,” Paulabe wrapped the cartridge case in a clean handkerchief. “They look for prints. But looks very clean to me.”
The Songmark graduates looked at each other. “Well, we knew he was clever,” Ada shrugged. “Nothing wrong with his technique. If I really had to do something like that – I’d plan it that way. And – there’s probably nothing official we can do about it.”
“Aye, like enough,” Prudence’s ears were down. She looked at the two Guides; although they were officially listed neither as police or military, they served Spontoon and anything said in front of them would be heard by those who needed to know. “But – one slip and we’ll be onto ‘im!”
“I think,” Miss Melson nodded grimly “that we’ll have to join a rather long queue.”
The next morning, filming resumed at eight on South Island. Tahni had asked her village Constable about the fire in the volcano (which had caused predictable tourist alarm as well as outrage amongst the Spontoonies now cleaning up a scorched and oil-spattered sacred site) but was only told it was “under investigation” still. The chances were depressingly great that the pilot of the aircraft was already in Hawaii, and the flare pistol was at the bottom if the Nimmitz Sea along with any paw-prints.
“They’ve got here ahead of us. Twenty of them.” As they got off the water taxi near the Topotabo Hotel, Tahni had asked the other water taxi boatmen. Mister Rigattoni was by all accounts a very poor tipper. If the Tourist Ministry had not been so adamant about the tourist customer always being right (however obnoxious) the tipping might have involved some of the passengers into the lagoon.
“The whole cast of the Crimson Clot?” Ada blinked. “Oh, sorry – we did a lot of first-aid at Songmark. It sort of rubs off on you.”
“Yes, actors and costumes and all. First time they see the actors out here.” Tahni conferred in Spontoonie with the water-taxi furs. There were few tourists so early in the morning; most of them were still asleep or calling Room Service and ordering staggeringly strong black coffee after too many pineapple brandies the night before.
The far corner of the island was predictably where both film crews were headed. Miss Melson kept the rest of her team back out of sight and slipped along a jungle trail just inside the forest edge with Ada, Prudence, Belle and Carmen. At the sound of voices they slowed – and blessed the wind direction that was carrying their scents away from X-An-Do Productions.
Songmark training had a class that was not listed on the timetables as How Not To Be Seen, but that was its main subject. Prudence dropped to all fours and peered from the shadows under a young palm bush.
“It’s alreet, Mister Rigattoni’s on t’ far side, two hundred yards away,” she whispered back. “Talking to a daft-looking wolf in a silver suit and red cape. Reckon that’s hero of t’ show.”
“And there’s the director, Mister Sturdey,” Ada passed back the word. “Do you want to talk with him?”
“Yes – if you could?” Miss Melson whispered back.
Stanton Sturdey was standing ten yards from the forest edge looking on glumly at the filming when a foot-long stick hit the ground just by his feet. He started, then bent down as he noticed and read the note tied around it. Without turning round, he backed towards the forest edge.
“Mister Sturdey!” Morgaine Melson’s voice spoke from the bushes. “You’re filming costume scenes today?”
“Yes – it’s make or break time. We get to test the Crimson Corona’s costume outside the testing lab. Here’s where we first see his super-powers in action, fighting the evil witch-doctor in the surf,” Mister Sturdey nodded resignedly. “If this works – the series goes ahead.”
In the distance they could see Mister Rigattoni gesticulating at a strangely dressed actor mostly hidden behind a garish “fright mask.”
Belle shuddered. “What is that meant to be? If that’s supposed to be a Spontoonie priest or priestess – he really can’t do local costumes at all.”
“Ey, tha’d prefer ‘e got it right?” Prudence whispered back. “Bloke in the mask gets ‘is tail kicked proper, in this script.”
“Mmm. Point taken.” Belle touched her combed fur marking reassuringly. Traditional Spontoonie weddings did not involve wedding rings.
“I’d better get back there and make the best of it,” Stanton Sturdey said. “I couldn’t have got away this long but those alligators are still in hospital. They’re Mister Rigattoni’s eyes and ears – and strong-arm guys too.”
“Whatever could have happened to them?” Miss Melson asked innocently. “Such big tough guys, they can take care of themselves on a friendly tourist island like this surely?”
Stanton Sturdey looked at his shoes. “The “troubleshooters” were found laid out in an alleyway by the Old China Dock, night before last. No bones broken – but they’ve both got two dislocated arms, and bite marks in their tails. The Constable told me the bites match their own teeth. I heard they’re not pressing charges, or telling anyone what the story is there. Do you know what happened?”
“We’ve not seen them since... ooh,... about ten minutes after you had to leave Mama Volomoa’s. All I can guess about the bite marks … is maybe they were knocked out, someone put their tails in their mouths and jumped on their snouts.” Ada looked up at the clear skies, a serene expression on her face. “That’s only a pure guess, of course.”
It was the first time that trip when anyone had seen Mister Sturdey smile. “The hero of the original “Wings of Steel” comic did that once.”
The four Songmark graduates looked at each other, faces kept deadpan. “We know,” they chorused.
***“Well. Short of heading in there and laying them all out with kilikiti bats, I don’t see that we’re going to stop them,” Ada shrugged, as they watched Mr. Sturdey rejoin the film crew. “I don’t think the Tourist Ministry would approve, somehow. And I left my bat on Main Island.”
“It’s too bad. Twisting that weasel’s whiskers would have been fun.” Belle’s long ears went down.
Miss Melson gave an inscrutable smile. “I’m not religious, you know. But they’ve flouted the local deities, and brought some plots to Spontoon that really don’t belong here. I have a funny feeling they’re going to regret it.”
Belle looked out through the trees where Mister Sturdey was filming on the beach. “We’ve seen the airport rescue teams with those asbestos flameproof suits. They’re not waterproof.” Her eyes suddenly went wide. “Pru! I’ve just thought of something! Shouldn’t we tell them?” She lifted the canine’s long ear and whispered urgently. Miss Melson nodded significantly, as if she had reached that conclusion herself a minute earlier.
Prudence leaped to her feet - then slowly sat down again. A slow smile spread across her muzzle. “Tha’ reckons they’d listen to likes of us? Unnatural us?” She gave Tahni a squeeze.
From the beach they distantly heard the shout of “Roll film!” then a minute later the amplified booming of “Corona On!” as the star of the show triggered his powers. There was a scream and a billowing plume of steam rose above the treetops.
“Flameproof suit, check. On a beach. Non-waterproof. Triggering flame effect standing in the surf.” Belle shook her head wonderingly. “Live steam and boiling water goes right through it. Who’d have guessed?”
“Natural is as natural does,” Prudence nodded, gathering up her film costume. It looked as though Miss Melson would have the beach free for filming that day after all. “But tha’ knows summat? Mother Nature, she always has the last laugh.”