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Upload: 14 December 2010
(A Very Odd Romance)
BY WALTER D. REIMER
Moonlight and Mayhem
(A Very Odd Romance)
© 2010 by Walter D. Reimer
(Chef Joseph and Louis Morpion courtesy of E.O. Costello. Thanks!)
July 9, 1935:
“Send it back.”
The waiter, a thin rat whose naked tail showed signs of tropical sunburn, gaped at the short fox in the well-tailored but cheap suit. Around them the other diners at l’Etoile d’Argent paused, their dinners momentarily forgotten at the enormity of the faux pas.
“You heard me,” Max Vreeland said. He was a Catalina fox, one of the smallest of the red fox species, and those who knew him well knew his ego was considerably larger than his five feet four inches (minus his ears). “I said take this slop back. It’s overcooked.”
“M’sieur – “
“Don’t give me none of that foreign talk. This veal’s overcooked, and I’m not eating overcooked veal.”
“Sir, Chef Joseph prepared this veal au poivre himself. He would never overcook it.”
“That so?” Max tossed his napkin onto the table and stood up. He picked up the plate and said, “Let’s go talk to him and see about that.” The rat resumed his former posture of slack-jawed disbelief as the vulpine started to head for the kitchen.
Max paused. “Yeah, Sam?”
Samantha Rain Sky, a statuesque badger femme who stood five inches taller than her dining companion, gave a slight smile. Her gray, black, and white coloration was offset by the splendid ecru silk evening gown she wore. She glanced around the restaurant. Shepherd’s was one of the best hotels on the islands, with a dining room to match. “You’re not going to create a scene, are you? After all, you’re spending a pretty penny bringing me here.”
“Sam, this is the last night of our shore leave,” Vreeland said earnestly, “and I’m not having anything spoil it – least of all overcooked veal.” He blew a kiss at the badger, who pantomimed catching it and eating it as the fox resumed his course to the kitchen.
The head waiter, a gray squirrel with a supercilious manner, tried to bar his way. “Monsieur,” he said in a thick French accent, “I do not see – “
“You don’t see? Here, let me help you,” and with that Max poked a finger in the squirrel’s eye. As the waiter reeled back Max said, “You might want to have that looked after,” and headed into the kitchen.
“Andre!” the rat exclaimed as the kitchen doors closed. “Are you all right?”
“Hey! Where’s the head chef and bottle washer around here!” Max sang out as he drummed the palms of his paws on the prep table. “I need to ask a question!”
“What’s up?” the salad chef asked.
“Where’s the head hash-slinger around here?”
At the term the canine blanched and started waving his paws in an effort to quiet the fox, who shrugged and walked past him. He started opening cabinets, slamming the doors closed one after the other as he looked in each. “Aha!” he cried, and a frying pan flew out and landed on the prep table with a clang. A pair of tongs and a spoon joined it soon after.
“Now, for the ingredients,” and the vulpine plunged into the refrigerator as the salad chef retreated.
Max came out with an acceptable cut of veal and a pint of cream to be confronted by six feet of Parisian-trained black poodle, looking even taller and more imposing with his fluted chef’s toque. “What is the meaning of this?” he thundered.
“Ah! You the head hash-slinger?”
“Does everyone here have trouble hearing?” Max asked. “Tell you what, I’ll speak a little louder. ARE YOU THE HEAD HASH-SLINGER?”
“I am Chef Joseph, vous petit batard. I am the head chef here.”
“Good,” Max said cheerfully. “I’m here to teach you how to cook veal au poivre without overcooking it. See, you start with a fine cut of veal, like this one – “
Chef Joseph swelled like a bursting boiler. “I never over cook my veal!”
“No? Well, there must be some other reason. You must use frozen veal, then.”
A spate of howled maledictions more worthy of the docks of Marseilles than the best culinary schools and restaurants of Paris erupted from the poodle’s muzzle, culminating in the shouted declaration, “YOU ACCUSE CHEF JOSEPH OF FREEZING HIS VEAL!?”
Max took the scream in stride and started busying himself with preparing the veal. “Look, I’ll make it real easy. You start by pounding the veal to a uniform thickness – “ He picked up a small frying pan.
Chef Joseph took a step forward and promptly fell backward, clutching at his bleeding nose as Max drew the frying pan back and struck the poodle in the face. He started striking the piece of meat gently but with a firm, equal pressure. “You don’t want to hit it too hard – you’re not making paper, you know,” he said. “But this is an essential step, especially if the veal’s been frozen.”
There was an inarticulate sound of pure rage as Chef Joseph tossed aside two sous-chefs who had been trying to help him up and the poodle charged at the fox, who turned toward the stove. The charge was ended by an anguished yelp as Max started to remove his coat, only to have his fist slam into Joseph’s nose. The fox turned and redirected the poodle’s momentum, sending Joseph careening into a pot rack. The rack and the chef went over with an ear-flattening clangor.
Max finished taking his jacket off as a sous-chef came at him. “Here, hold my coat, will you?” and he flipped it over the surprised boar’s head, pulled the sleeves around so they crossed behind the head and knotted them just under the man’s chin before spinning him around a few times. The sous-chef wandered off dizzily while Max industriously started melting a pat of butter.
As soon as the butter had stopped foaming he dusted the half-inch-thick piece of veal with salt and pepper and started sautéing it. “You want to be careful with this,” he said, flipping the tongs around and deflecting thrown fists and knives in the process. “You just want to get some decent color on it, then finish it in the oven.” So saying, he squatted and turned on the oven as two assistants collided head-on over him.
“I’ll just let it warm up,” Max said, his brush flicking up and blinding another assistant just long enough to make the mouse crash into the prep table, “and I’ll show you how to make the sauce.” He blocked another volley of punches from various directions and at least two attempts to tackle him and started collecting a few other ingredients, including a bottle of fine cognac.
By the time he was back at the stove, the oven was ready. Max flipped open the oven door and executed a fast pawstand, kicking another sous-chef in the muzzle as the rabbit moved to grab him. The rabbit reeled back into two of his fellows and Max set the veal in the oven. “This’ll be a nice sauce au poivre vert, but first we let the veal finish a bit.” He busied himself with whistling the Rain Island patriotic tune Our Land while defending himself, and after two repetitions of the song he opened the oven and took the veal out, stepping back as a beagle tripped over the open oven door and went flying.
“I’ll set the veal aside to rest – that’s an important step,” the short fox said, slipping the meat onto a plate. He turned up the heat on the frying pan and poured a measure of cognac into it, letting it boil while scraping the pan with a metal spoon. He then tipped the pan, letting the gas flame ignite the alcohol fumes. The resultant small fireball nearly singed the whiskers off a feline busboy, who ran screaming for the relative safety of the dining room. Max added shallots and green peppercorns, then stirred the mixture with his spoon while a savory aroma rose from the pan.
“DIE!” Chef Joseph roared, charging at Max with a huge butcher knife drawn and held in his paw.
“What?” Max turned, and the blade caught where the bowl of the spoon joined the handle. A flick of his paw and the butcher knife went flying from Joseph’s paw toward the door that led to the dining room.
“What’s going – “ Andre, the head waiter, said as he opened the door, only to have his words die in his throat as the knife embedded itself in the doorjamb at eye level and scant inches from his head. Andre’s eyes rolled up in the back of his head and he sank to the floor in a dead faint.
Max added cream to the shallots and peppercorns, then let the mixture reduce a bit before putting the meat back into it, carefully spooning the sauce over the veal until it had warmed up. He then placed the meat back on the plate and spooned the sauce over it before shutting off the oven and the stove. He grabbed the boar, still struggling with his suit jacket, and untied it, sending the hapless porcine spinning into another knot of assistants.
The fox shouldered into his coat and picked up his plate. “That’s how you make a decent veal with sauce au poivre vert – or would, if you wouldn’t overcook it. And don’t expect a good review of this flophouse, either.” He headed for the door as Chef Joseph charged at him, jaws agape and slavering.
Max swung the door open, sidestepped and shut the door, and walked into the dining room as a resounding thud announced the impact of the head chef’s head with the wooden portal.
Samantha looked up and smiled as her friend resumed his seat. “My, that smells heavenly,” she said, sniffing.
“Tastes good, too,” Max said. He cut a piece and offered it to her at the end of his fork. “Try it.”
The badgeress took the morsel and chewed. “Mmm, that is wonderful, Max. You’re quite the cook.”
From the kitchen there came another resounding crash of pots and pans.
Max shared his meal since his date had finished hers, feeding Sam small morsels while the two made eyes at each other. This activity caused a few of the more staid couples to call for their checks and leave the restaurant. Finally Max signaled for a waiter and as the rabbit walked over he said loudly, “Hey you! We’re ready for dessert!”
“I’m very sorry, sir, but the management has asked that you pay your bill and leave,” the rabbit said. “Now.”
“Oh, did he?” Max said.
“Max,” Sam warned. “Behave.”
“For you, my sweet, anything. Okay, give me the check, you fascist.”
The rabbit’s ears dipped and he presented the check on a small tray. The short fox took it and his jaw fell open. “THIS MUCH!? For two dinners? We didn’t even have dessert!” He crumpled up the check and threw it at the rabbit, missing him by feet. The wad of paper landed in another diner’s crème brulee. “And what the hell was that garbage about damages?”
“Max!” Sam exclaimed in a scandalized tone. “You didn’t damage anything in there, did you?”
“I swear upon my mother’s grave, Sam – “
“Your mother’s alive, Max.”
“All right then, I swear on my grandmother’s grave that I didn’t damage a single, solitary thing! Honestly, what’s the use of a good reputation in this country?”
“Nothing at all if you keep eating its head off for lack of exercise,” Sam said gently. To the lepine she asked, “What is it he’s supposed to have damaged?” Off to one side, a red fox looked up from his own meal and cocked an interested ear as his wife, a stately vixen, promptly stopped talking and started looking bored.
“A pot rack, along with all the pots that were on it – “
“Liar!” Max said. “Your clumsy chef ran into that. I had nothing to do with it!”
“One waiter’s whiskers – “
“Those’ll grow back. Any idiot could have told him you don’t get too close to a pan when you’re deglazing it with cognac!”
The rabbit said, “Sir, if you refuse to pay – “
“You bet your tailfur I’m not going to pay!”
“In that case, I’ll have to call the Constabulary.”
“Do that,” Max sneered. “I want to press charges.”
That made the rabbit pause, and the red fox at the nearby table stood up. “Charges?” he asked.
“Yeah, and what the hell is to you, Big Nose?” Max said.
The vulpine looked as if he deliberately chose to ignore Max. He reached into a pocket of his coat and produced a badge. “My name’s Pickering.”
The tod-fox drew himself up, standing nearly as tall as Sam, but not as well-built. “I’m the Chief Constable here.”
Max rolled his eyes. “Oooh, I’m so impressed. You going to arrest these rubes?”
“Well, I could – “
“But I heard the commotion in the kitchen. Practically everyone out here did. I can guess you weren’t entirely innocent back there.”
Max dismissed this with a wave of a paw. “I could care less what you thought you heard. I was in there, and all I did was show these unsophisticated rejects how to cook a decent piece of veal.” He raised his voice in the direction of the kitchen. “WITHOUT OVERCOOKING IT!”
There was another muffled collection of sounds from the kitchen, a mingled spate of French pejoratives and a scuffle as if the assistants were holding Chef Joseph down. “See what I mean?” Max said. “That hash-slinger wouldn’t know an omelet from an ocelot if you went and put Senorita Hilda de Tigre Negro smack in his lap!”
Sam raised an eyebrow. “Max?”
“Hilda de Tigre Negro. You know her – she dances at the Diamond B . . . “ his voice trailed off and his eyes went wide and scared as he realized he’d said a bit too much.
Sam’s voice went silky as the badgeress smiled sweetly and asked, “Max, you mean to say that we’ve been seeing each other, and you’ve been going to that dive?”
“Um . . . “
“ Watching the Amorous Amazon dance?”
“It’s like this . . . “
“In her trademark Aztec priestess costume?”
“Er . . . “
“The costume that’s mostly feathers?”
“Well . . . “
“And you DIDN’T INVITE ME!?”
Max flinched. “Sam, it’s not what you think – she’s way too short for your taste, and you’ve always said that you can’t abide a spotted hide – “
“That’s a Scottish hide, you dolt!” Sam swung, smacking Max full in the face and sending him flying.
Max stumbled and recovered, and ducked behind Chief Pickering, using him as cover as he whined, “Now, Sam, remember your blood pressure . . . “
“My blood pressure!” Sam snarled. “It’s YOU who keeps my blood pressure up, Max!” and she threw a punch.
Max grabbed Pickering by the shoulders and moved him to the side as the smaller fox ducked, and the fist impacted solidly with the Chief Constable’s nose. That worthy yelled, grabbing at his abused muzzle as his mate sat and sarcastically applauded. Sam threw several more punches, all of which Max blocked with the taller fox’s body. Finally he released Pickering and the tod-fox sank unconscious to the floor.
“NOW I have you!” and Sam swung a roundhouse kick that landed solidly on Max’s hip. The Catalina fox practically bounced as he went flying into the hapless waiter. Max picked himself up first as Sam advanced on him, grabbing him by the scruff of his neck and the root of his tail. She started to swing him around, faster and faster, and released him just as Chef Joseph came out of the kitchen, clutching an ice pack to his head.
“Que le - ?” was all the poodle had time to get out of his mouth.
Max and Joseph collided, the smaller fox landing square in the canine’s stomach and causing Joseph to give a “Woof!” as his breath left him. The two went down in a heap as Sam again grabbed her erstwhile dinner companion.
She dragged him out of l’Etoile d’Argent by his ankles as she growled, “When I get you back aboard, you little excuse for a toilet brush, you’re going to NEED a priestess!” Once they were out of the restaurant and in the lobby of the hotel, she released his ankles and aimed a kick at his rump. He dodged and she started chasing him, eventually running out into the street.
Sam caught up with Max as the fox dove into a water taxi and cried out, “Moon Island, the base, and snap it up!” He flinched as her larger frame came down, straddling him.
The badgeress smirked, leaned over and kissed him on the top of his head, twice. “That’s two for flinching, Max.”
He grinned cheekily up at her. “That was fun, Sam! Shall we try going back tomorrow for dessert?”
“No. One show per month keeps the audience hungry for more,” she said. She took a breath, straightening the bodice of her ecru gown. She smirked at Max, who openly leered at her and tried unsuccessfully to peek up her dress. “Now now, none of that.”
“Aw, Sam, you’re no fun.” He picked himself up and winked at the water taxi driver. “You were a bit rough, though – I think my tail almost got dislocated.”
“Sorry. I did the move exactly as you wanted it – “
Max sat up as Sam moved away from him, steadying herself instinctively against the pitch and roll of the boat. “Sorry, honeyfur, but no,” he said as he delicately massaged the base of his tail. “You’re supposed to grab me by the seat of my pants. Remember: The object of Apache dancing is to look like you’re beating me up.”
“I was tempted.”
The fox twitched his ears at the badger. “You were?”
“Yes, I was. You got up and left me at the table, Max.”
“He overcooked my veal – “
“And is that an excuse for leaving the woman you’re hosting for dinner just sitting at the table? Especially when you were planning on asking her to marry you? Again?”
The fox swallowed nervously. “So – “
Sam nodded. “That’s right, Max. The answer’s No, again. I will not marry you.”
The short vulpine sat on the deck and put his muzzle in his paws, looking glum. The water taxi driver glanced back at Sam and gave the badger a sympathetic smile as he piloted the boat to the Moon Island dock.
“Quit sulking. Trouble.” The fox leaped to his feet as the taxi neared the dock. Three bulky furs in standard dark blue jumpsuits were standing at the dock waiting for the boat. Two bears and a wolf, Army Union by the look of the rank flashes on their sleeves, and all three were wearing Military Police armbands. Sam waved, and bit her lower lip pensively when she got no response from the trio. “Yep. Trouble.”
“Trouble, Sam? Far from it!” Max enthused, leaping from the boat to the dock easily. “You recognize our fellow comrades from the Army? Don’t tell me you don’t recall Sergeant Brown?” and he leaned against one of the bears. “How’s things, Tony? How’s your wife and my kids?”
Brown grumbled, “They’re fine, Max. Alice was wondering when you plan on coming back on leave.”
“Yep. She’s bought a new cast iron skillet, just for you.”
“She’s a wonderful girl, Sam, you really should meet her sometime. So! What brings you three out here in the warm tropical night air?”
“You,” the wolf growled, unclipping a short truncheon from his belt and tapping it ominously against his palm. “You and Commander Rain Sky are under arrest, and we got orders to take you two to the Syndic.”
Max looked scandalized. “Arrested? Little old me? That’s the first time this year!”
“Yeah,” Tony said as he offered a paw to Sam to help her out of the water taxi. “You can put it in your date book, Max. You know – the one that lists the girls in alphabetical order.” He gestured to the badger, who obligingly put out her wrists for the pawcuffs. “Sorry I have to do this, Samantha.”
“No problem, Tony. You’re doing your job. Tell you what – I’ll arrest you the next time my name comes up on the M.P. roster, just to keep things even, you understand. Max?”
“I always do, my sweet. I’ll go quietly.” The wolf took out a pair of pawcuffs and laid a paw on the fox’s shoulder to turn him around. There was a swift movement and the lupine screeched and toppled backward, the cuffs falling into the water as the wolf curled into a fetal position, paws hugging his crotch. “I said I would go quietly, Billy, and I meant it. Cuffs aren’t necessary.” He started walking in the direction of the base’s administration building, forcing the others to trot to keep up with him.
“Max, my dear.”
“Yes, Samantha my darling?”
“You have to stop punching people in the crotch like that. Gives strangers the wrong impression.”
“I can’t help it if I’m short, Sam, and the wrong impression is exactly what I aim to do with that.” He glanced back and grinned at her, his brush snapping to and fro. “Besides, it works on both persuasions.”
“Not all of us, Max my dear,” and Sam grinned toothily. “Remember the day we met?”
“Sure, it was at that dive bar in - oh, yeah. You’re right, Sam.” The Catalina fox flinched a bit at the memory of the one person who took his trademark opening punch and still beat his tail.
The fact had immediately made her attractive to him, and she’d spent the next months deflecting his repeated entreaties to marry him.
The group headed into the administration building, followed (at a distance) by the wolf Max had punched.
They were ushered into the office of the Base Syndic, a bear named Carl Masters who immediately growled, “At attention, both of you.”
“Why? We’re still on leave!” Max protested. “The Rules specifically state – “
“Except when the person on leave is facing charges,” the bear rumbled, the silver petty officer’s stripes on his sleeve flashing as he rounded on the fox. “And BOTH of you are facing charges, LIEUTENANT Vreeland.”
Max had his mouth open to speak; he closed it and snapped to attention. Sam was already at attention as the M.P. took off her pawcuffs. “Lt. Vreeland, Commander Rain Sky,” the Syndic said in a severe tone, “I got a set of interesting phone calls from the Spontoon Constabulary just a few minutes ago. Can’t you two go on leave without starting a ruckus?”
“Don’t know,” Max shrugged. “It’d take the fun out of it.”
“The Spontoonies take a dim view, you little troublemaker, of people defrauding merchants and beating up the Chief Constable.”
“Oh, so that blowhard was the Chief, huh?” Max chuckled. “He certainly can’t take a punch. If it hadn’t been for me holding him up, he’d’ve been out cold after Sam’s first hit.”
“Think nothing of it, Sam.” He stiffened and barked, “Permission to speak freely, SIR!”
“Am I going to regret it?”
Masters sat down heavily, causing the swivel chair to creak in protest. “Go ahead, Max.”
“Look, Carl, I had perfect justification for everything.”
Masters leaned back and gazed up at the ceiling, as if asking some unseen entity ‘Why me?’ “Go on.”
“In the first case, doesn’t Rain Island law require a restaurant to offer quality food at a reasonable price, and to offer a customer a refund if the job’s botched?”
The bear had closed his eyes; now he opened one and said, “You can’t be serious. We’re in the Spontoons, you nuisance – “
“And you’re telling me we can’t hold our allies to the same standard? Honestly, what’s become of Rain Island’s egalitarianism? Are we turning fascist all of a sudden?”
“Uh huh, I see where this is going. Look, you’re telling me that you’re under no obligation to pay your dinner check because of an obscure law you insist should be applied even to the Spontoonies? You do know that a major part of their economy’s tourism, right?”
“Of course I do!”
“Then think about this, Max – suppose Spontoon adopted that law. How long do you think their economy would survive if they had to give people back their money if they weren’t satisfied? They’d go under.”
“Or maybe they’d improve their quality, like not overcooking veal.”
“Okay, then.” Masters sat up. “I’m going to present a motion to the local that the cost of the bill be deducted from your pay – “
“Over a period of about six months – “
“WHAT!? Nothing doing! I’ll complain to the shop steward – “
“I’m the shop steward, or have you forgotten?”
“Then I’ll complain to – to – Hell, I don’t KNOW who I’ll complain to!”
The bear smiled. “There is an alternative.”
“Yeah. Get demoted – BACK to petty officer.”
The Catalina fox’s muzzle fell open, and it took a moment for him to collect his lower jaw and his wits. “You can’t DO that!”
Max seemed to sag a bit, and mumbled indistinctly.
Carl cupped a massive paw to one ear. “What was that? I couldn’t hear you.”
“I said, I’ll take the pay garnishment.”
“Splendid. That’s one problem, all taken care of. See how fast this goes if you’re reasonable? Now, what about hitting the Chief Constable?”
“That was completely accidental,” Sam said.
“Yes. I was trying to punch Max, you see.”
“And why were you trying to punch Max?”
The badgeress’ short tail twitched. “I was trying to hit Max.”
The bear looked puzzled. “While I can understand that - I mean, there's hardly anyone in the Union or the Syndicate who hasn't wanted to - shut up, Max - weren't you two out on a date?”
“Well, after dinner and dancing, what else is there to do in the Spontoons on a Friday night?”
The fox raised a paw. “I know!”
“Shut up, Max.”
“So, um, what was the general principle, Sam?”
The badgeress regarded the bear coolly. “You don't leave a date sitting at the table. That's first principles.”
Sgt. Brown nodded. “Damn straight.”
“I'm training Max to be a gentlefur,” Sam said.
“Aren't you an optimist,” Masters remarked. “Are you using a whip and chair?”
“Hey! She gets to use a whip? Sam! You never . . . “
“Shut up, Max.”
“So, let me get this straight,” Masters said, summing up, “you two were out on a date when Max goes into the kitchen, causing a ruckus – “
“It wasn’t MY fault!”
“Max, the only reason why you haven’t been shot at dawn yet is because bullets are expensive and I like to sleep in. And the reason the Chief Constable got beaten up is because you, Sam, were trying to punch Max in the snout.”
“That’s about right,” Sam said primly.
There was a sudden knock at the door and an orderly poked his head in. “Sorry for the interruption, Boss,” and the mephit passed a short note to one of the M.P.s, who gave it to Masters. The door closed as he read it.
“Says here that the Chief’s wife has made her statement. She says that she and Chief Pickering were at dinner, off duty, when he got in the way of a lover’s quarrel. Says it’s all his fault for barging in where he wasn’t needed.”
“See? TOLD you it wasn’t my fault.”
“You ever been muzzled?”
The Catalina fox studied his fingerclaws. “Came close once,” he mused aloud. “There’s this little place – er, tell you later,” he said hastily as he caught Sam looking at him.
Masters chuckled. “I think we can conclude things. Max, your pay is garnished to cover the cost of the meal. Sam, your penalty is being saddled with this sawed-off furball, and it’d be cruel of me to add injury to insult. Answer me this, though – when are you two going to get married and save us all this trouble?”
The short fox and the tall badger looked at each other before Samantha turned to Masters. “I haven’t decided to say Yes yet, Carl.”
“Do us all a favor, Sam – make it quick, okay? Dismissed.”
The two turned and headed for the door as the M.P.s made a path for them, and as they walked back to the longhouse Max asked, “You were going to say Yes?”
Sam smiled, but said nothing. The fox seemed to wilt a little, and for once he shut up as they entered the barracks longhouse to get some sleep.
“And if you
call for a song of the
Ignoring the growls and muttered curses from the lighter sleepers, Max continued his shower, singing at the top of his baritone voice as he massaged lather into his fur.
in a howling breeze
The Catalina fox started to growl at the yank on his tail, but shut his muzzle as he saw who was yanking it. “Good morning, Sam.”
The badgeress was standing there in her fur, the shower’s hot water soaking into her fur. “Good morning, Max. I have a question.”
“Why are you singing?”
The fox looked genuinely surprised. “I always sing in the shower, Sam.”
“But at oh-four-hundred?”
“Well, I needed to clean up. I have duty – “
Sam smiled, an expression that stopped short at her muzzle. “And who, pray tell, is Nancy?”
“It’s from the song, Sam,” the fox protested, slipping his soap-slick tail from her grasp and rinsing it off. “Honest, I don’t know anyone named Nancy.”
“Uh huh. Well, now that I got you to shut up, I’m getting all wet. So I guess I’ll take a shower too,” Sam said.
Max leered at her shamelessly. “Need someone to scrub your back, Sam?”
The badgeress gave the tod-fox an arch look over her shoulder as she faced into the stream of water. “Got a box to stand on, Max?” She turned back to the shower and started to lather up as her beau grumbled and padded out of the bathroom area.
A few moments later there was a thump behind her, followed by his damp scent and his paws on her shoulders. “Why, Max,” the badger purred.
“Good morning, Sam,” and he started to soap her back. He kissed and nipped at one of her ears as he whispered, “You’re cruel, you know – picking on me about my height like that.”
“Well, you know, Lover Boy, sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.”
“So you’re really being nice to me?”
Again, a cool look as he rubbed her back. “Maybe.”
He leaned closer until their noses touched. “You do love me.”
“Don’t sound like you’re accusing me of a crime, Max. Of course I love you – if I didn’t, I would’ve killed you months ago.”
The short fox grinned. “I’ll treat you to breakfast after you get cleaned up.”
“Fine. But we eat in the mess hall – after all, we do have duty today.”
“Take your paw off my tailfur, or I’ll break it.”
“Breaking your own tail, Sam? You might want to talk to a shrink about that self-destructive streak.”
“Destructive, yes,” Sam said as she saluted the flag, then the Officer of the Deck. “Self, no.” The pair finished ascending the quarterdeck gangway on the RINSS Orca as the cruiser basked in the summer sunshine. The ship, one of Rain Island’s two flagships, was moored stern-first to the quay. “Hi. Anything going on today, Sally?”
“Hi, Sam,” the chow replied. “We’re still planning on sailing before lunchtime. Captain’s upstairs waiting for you.” The badgeress headed for the bridge and the canine’s blue-black tongue lolled as she grinned at the fox. “Hi, Max!”
“Sally, as I live and breathe – heavily,” Max said as he took her paw and bowed over it. “My engines are still where they usually are?”
“Waiting for you, you foxy boy you.” Sally batted her eyes at him. “You and Sam still an item?”
“Hate to disappoint you, my dear, but yes.” The chow looked crestfallen, but she caught the kiss Max blew at her as the vulpine made his way below.
Sam stepped into the bridge and glanced at the daily reports. The captain, a badger like herself, grumbled, “It might be nice if my Executive Officer would be awake and on the bridge when in port. Just for the variety, you know.”
The badger frowned at her, then kissed her cheek. “Enjoy your leave, Sam? You kill that red terror yet?”
Samantha grinned and returned the kiss. “No, Dad. We’re still seeing each other, and he’s still asking me to marry him.”
Captain Bill Rain Sky shook his head. “Your mother doesn’t like him.”
“She’s not marrying him, Dad, I am. That is, if I say Yes.”
“Yeah, I know.” The older man sighed. “I just hope you know what you’re doing. I’m headed down to the wardroom for more coffee. Commander, pass the word to make preparations for getting underway.”
Samantha nodded. “Yes, sir.” She crossed the bridge to the telephones and flicked a switch. “Officer of the Deck.”
“OOD here,” Sally said.
“Sally, Sam here. Stop mooning over Max and tell me: How many more need to come aboard?”
“Just a couple, Sam.”
“Good. Keep an eye out for them. We’re leaving soon.” The badgeress flicked a few more switches and pulled a whistle from a pocket of her jumpsuit. She blew a harsh blast on the whistle and as the echoes reverberated around the cruiser she announced, “Now all hear this. Make all preparations for getting underway.” She repeated the orders twice more and hung up the phone as furs started scrambling.
After a few minutes the phone rang; Sam picked it up as the bridge crew went about their business. “Bridge.”
“Engine Room, Sam,” Max said over the sound of heavy machinery and hissing steam. “Let the Old Man know that steam’s up. We can leave any time he gives the word.”
“Good job, Max.”
“You always did manage to get my father steamed in record time.” She hung up as the helmsfur chuckled.
The OOD reported that everyone was aboard as Captain Rain Sky entered the bridge. “Commander, report.”
“Sir, all departments report ready to sail at your order.”
“Good. Signal the Spontoon harbormaster that we’re leaving at nine o’clock, and we’ll need one tug.”
“Yes, sir. What course through the lagoon?”
“Due west. We’ll loop south – “ He broke off as a rating pressed a message into his paw. Rain Sky read it, then looked curiously at his daughter.
He passed it to her and she read it:
10JUL350600 RINSHQ SEATHL TO RINSS ORCA MESSAGE STARTS COMMANDER SAMANTHA RAIN SKY LIEUTENANT MAX VREELAND ON DETACHED DUTY SYNDIC RINSB MOON ISLAND UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE STOP SORRY BILL STOP WILL EXPLAIN LATER OVER BEER STOP VICE-COMMODORE PRZYBYLSKI SENDS
“What the hell is that sawed-off runt up to?” he demanded as she reread the message.
Sam shrugged. “No idea, Dad. And Przybylski’s my height. Imagine what he was like to begin with.”
“You know who I’m talking about.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing Max did.”
“Oh? What about that thing with the barrel of tar?”
“He had a good reason for that.”
“And the chickens?”
Sam kept a straight face while the rest of the bridge personnel snickered. “He was drunk.”
“Uh huh. Well, get the Syndic up here so we can come up with a new Exec and Engineer. I want to see both of you before you go.”
The cruiser’s Syndic was a petty officer in the gunnery division, and the ram was talking with the badgers and drinking coffee when a sooty paw appeared in the compartment doorway, waving a pawkerchief. “Is it safe to come in?” Max asked.
“Get in here, Max,” Sam said. “We’re being put off the ship.”
“Hey, don’t look at me. It’s nothing I did.”
“That remains to be seen,” the ram said quietly. “Read this, Max,” and gave the fox the message. “Any ideas?”
“That old wolf’s had it in for me ever since I got promoted,” the fox said.
“Do you think the vegetarian pierogis might have had anything to do with it?” Sam asked.
Max shrugged. “Dunno. He’s got the mental capacity of – “
“Save it, Max,” the Syndic said.
“It just draws interest that way, Jim.”
“Never mind that. We need a new Engineer and Exec before you two leave, so start banging your head against the bulkhead and see what comes out your ears.”
“New Engineer? No problem – Jane.”
“You sure about that?”
Max grinned. “What she doesn’t know about those engines hasn’t been thought of yet, and she’s the one who rigged the sauna in the petty officer’s wardroom for you.”
Jim blushed. “Oh, okay then. We’ll put it to a vote, of course.”
“She’ll get it. I have confidence.”
“Then go see the doctor and take something for that, Max. Now, Sam, any idea for your replacement?”
The badgeress looked thoughtful. “Hmm.”
“I think she’s thinking.” Max said. “I can hear gears grinding.” He ducked out of the way of her father’s swipe at him.
“Vasili,” Sam said.
“Kirov?” Jim asked. “The new navigator?”
“Yes. That’s my choice,” she said firmly. The ram jotted both names down and said, “Fine, then. You two get packing.”
“We hoist anchor and leave in a half-hour,” the Captain said, “so you two need to be off or you swim for it.”
“Well, it is a nice day – “
“Enough, Max. Let’s go.”
“One moment.” Captain Rain Sky looked the two over carefully for a moment, then kissed his daughter. “Sam, take care of yourself. And you, you bushy-tailed little creep – “
“You say the nicest things, Bill.”
“You give my daughter any grief and you – or what’s left of you – will answer to me.” He extended a paw, and Max looked at him.
“Are you going to shake my paw, or not?” the badger asked irritably.
“You giving us your blessing, if she says Yes?” Max asked warily.
“I don’t have much of a choice,” Bill grumbled. “Sam always did have a mind of her own.”
“And she’s got a – “
“Shut up, shake Dad’s paw, and get ready to go ashore.”
“Sure.” The badger and the fox shook paws, and Max left the compartment.
The pair met up again at the gangway, and Sally signed them off the ship in her logbook. “I hate to see you both go,” the chow said. “The place won’t be as lively with you two gone.”
“Don’t worry, Mittens,” Max said as he shouldered his sea bag. “We’ll be back.”
As they walked down the gangway Sam asked, “Why did you call her ‘Mittens,’ Max?”
“That’s simple, Sam. She’s got quite a pair – “ he broke off and stared wide-eyed at her. “Eep.”
“Why, you little – “
Deckpaws paused in casting off the ship’s lines to cheer as a red-furred shape in a Naval Syndicate jumpsuit hit the water.
“What the hell’s going on, Carl?” Sam asked after Max had reached dry land and dried off. Through the office windows she could make out the cruiser’s masts and funnels as the Orca made its way out of the lagoon. “The Chief Constable pressing charges anyway?”
“Nope,” the bear replied. “The Vice has a job lined up for you two.”
“Oh? What’s the job?”
Masters looked at a sheet of paper. “You two recall a guy named Louis Morpion?”
Max growled. “Louie the Louse?”
“The very same.”
Earlier that year in Singapore, Louis Morpion had attempted to scam the Naval Syndicate by selling shoddy merchandise. The adulterated solvents would have raised havoc with whatever machinery they had been used on.
Max had particular reason to dislike the French feline. In the course of arguing about the bad solvents, the cat had hurled a can of the pure stuff at Max.
It had taken weeks for his fur to grow back.
“Where is he? I got a score to settle with that little – “
“The score was even. You did wreck his warehouse.”
“That was nothing, Sam, compared with what I’m going to do. Damaging the fur hurts the pride, you know.”
“Well, now you can arrange a rematch,” Masters said. “We spotted him, and we have a warrant for his arrest.”
“So why not send the cops around?” Sam asked.
“Yeah, are they on their coffee break?”
“Shut up, Max,” Carl said. “Morpion’s been spotted on Krupmark Island.”
Sam’s eyebrows drew together as she frowned. “Krupmark? Who spotted him there?”
The bear gave her a look. “Never mind who. But he’s been seen there. We want you to go after him, and bring him back to Seathl for trial.”
“So, who’s coming with us?” Sam asked. “Landing Forces?”
“Two cranky Boy Scouts and a trained seal?” Max asked.
Masters shook his head. “Just you two.”
Max howled, “I KNEW IT! That stupid, goggle-eyed, kink-tailed wolf is trying to get me killed!”
“It wasn’t his idea, Max.”
“Stout fellow, tribute to his species, backbone of the Service,” Max declaimed without missing a beat.
“Max, stop kissing up,” Sam suggested.
“I’m short, Sam. I can’t kiss any other way.”
“Hmm. We’ll see about that. Carl, who thought this up, and why us?”
“The plan – which was set up by the Intelligence Service, by the way – “
“There’s a laugher for you. Rain Island Naval Intelligence Service: three nested contradictions in five words.”
“Shut up, Max. Anyway, The Intel Syndic thinks that a small group, two people, have a better chance than going in force. And as a plus, you both know what Morpion looks like.”
“There’s a lot who know what Louie looks like,” Max said. “Cockroaches, sewer rats, fleas, a guy in Great Wolf Lake named Sorenson – “
“Yeah? Well, they’re not here, and you two are,” Masters countered.
“What’s the plan, Carl?” Sam asked, taking a seat on one corner of the desk. She fended off an attempt by Max to sit in her lap.
“We plan on having you two board a submarine at Blefuscu. From there you’ll travel to Krupmark – Max!”
“Stop trying to sit in my lap, for God’s sake!”
“Why? Aren’t I allowed to sit comfortably?”
“Then take a seat on the floor, you little miscreant, or I’ll ask the sub’s commander to deliver you to Krupmark via torpedo tube.”
“Hah. That blast of compressed air doesn’t scare me,” Max said. “Wouldn’t be the first time I had a blow – “
“Come over here and have a seat on my lap.”
“Goody!” The badgeress took up a more comfortable position on the desk, and Max took a seat in the lap thus offered. “Now, Carl . . . “
The fox and the badger shared a long kiss before Max asked, “Since you and the Intel boss are so dead set on trying to get me and Sam killed, when do we leave?”
An errant breeze stirred the torch, making the flames gutter and dance and sending gold and orange-red reflections sparkling over the gentle waves. The canine in the boat crouched a bit lower as the hull rocked in the swells while rechecking his lines.
Nothing. Not a nibble since the waning Moon set earlier that night.
“Come on,” he said to himself in an irritated tone.
Another wave rocked the boat, and he waited for the swells to subside. Instead they increased, causing the boat to bob rather sickeningly. The man grabbed at the gunwales and hung on, his lines now forgotten.
A vast dark shape broke surface less than a yard to port. He would have capsized had he not instinctively thrown his weight to one side to counterbalance.
He scrabbled for his torch, and the light illuminated the slickly gleaming gray surface of the shape. A stray gleam of white and the characters "S-2" revealed themselves.
The man, teeth bared in anger, waited.
The surfaced submarine steadied itself and there was a metallic clang as a hatch was thrown open. As a shadow came into view along the conning tower rail the man shouted, "Took you long enough! You damned near swamped me!"
"Crybaby," a voice sneered. "This place isn't the easiest harbor in the world to try submerged and at night."
It wasn't. Smuggler's Cove (more bay than cove, it was over a mile across) was the remnant of a volcano that once dominated the southwestern corner of Krupmark Island. Untold years earlier the volcano had expended itself in one massive eruption before the empty shell had collapsed. Soundings suggested that parts of the caldera were two hundred feet deep; other areas hadn't been sounded yet.
"So?" the man asked scornfully. "I always thought you Syndicate types were daredevils. Besides, it’s been over an hour since you last poked that damned scope up at me."
The sound of hatches opening was loud. "Daredevil yes, stupid no," another voice said. "Had to make sure you were the only one here. You our ride?"
"You got the money, I got the transportation. Tight union, you know."
"Yeah, that's why the Teatotallers Society had to fold.”
“Nice to see anarcho-syndicalism has a long reach. Sam, my dear?”
“Mind your step.”
“You mind yours, Max. You’re closer to the water than I am.”
“Now, that hurt, Sam.” He stepped into the boat, helped Sam aboard, and money changed paws. The fox sat next to the canine and the two started rowing.
“So, how do we get on the island?” Sam asked, eyeing a looming bulk that occulted the stars. The maps called the feature Traitor’s Ridge, and best estimates held it to be five hundred feet high. “I don’t think we can climb the ridge.”
“Won’t have to,” the man said as the S-2 slowly sank out of sight. The submarine would pick its way out of the cove, then surface a discreet distance away and run the diesels to recharge its batteries. It would return to the cove each night. “We’ll go around the south point of the island and land near The Beach. I hope you two ain’t wearing uniforms.”
“Nope. Just good ordinary clothes. No plaid, either.”
“I’ve heard about The Beach!” Max enthused. “They got girls there who’ll do anything, they say.”
“Sam, you are determined to not let me have any fun.”
“Maybe later, Max. You know, you’re pretty oversexed – even for a fox.”
“Well, the Almighty made me short. He had to throw me a bone somewhere.”
“Uh huh. We’ll talk about bones later. Where was Morpion last seen?” Sam asked.
Their informant grunted, and spat into the water. “He was seen drinking up in the Thieves’ Bazaar two nights ago. Could be anywhere by now, but still on the island.”
“You know, Sam, I was thinking about the Thieves’ Bazaar.”
"How much do you think I could get for you?"
"What? You'd consider selling me?"
"If the price was right, and they paid cash."
Sam sniffed. "And what would MY cut be?"
“Oh, I’m sure we can negotiate something. Sixty-forty?”
“So long as I get the sixty.”
“I claim the finder’s fee, then.”
“Hmm. Will you take it in trade, Max?”
“You know I will, honeyfur.”
The canine cleared his throat diffidently and asked, “Are you two, um, married?”
“Not for lack of trying,” Max said as he bent to his rowing. The water was growing choppy as the relative calm in the cove met the Pacific.
They beached the boat and concealed it under a pile of brush before picking their way through the dunes to a rough track that made its way past several buildings. Lights were on, and there were sounds – music, laughter and occasional shouts. “This is The Beach?” Max asked. “Looks like a boom town, like you read about in those old books.”
“Only you read those, Max.”
The fox snorted derisively. “I
only read those nice mauve-backed books from Gaslight Press in
Seathl, Sam. You know, like The
Trolley Conductor’s Daughter? She
was really a
“Max,” Sam growled.
“What? What’d I say? I mean, it’s not Good Soldier Schweik, but it’s great bedtime reading!”
“Do you want to get hit in the head, Max? Again?”
“Only by you, my sweet.”
Sam immediately obliged, punching the fox in the back of his head. Max rolled with the punch and executed a somersault, rebounding to his feet and acting as if nothing untoward had happened.
The trio had been passing the house on the end of the road, a ramshackle affair with twists of black wool streaming from the porch. A wolf femme wearing a leather overcoat paused in her smoking to wave and call out, “Fraulein!”
“Yeah?” the badgeress said.
“You haff a good right hook, nicht wahr? You perhaps vant a job?”
“No, thank you. I already have one.” In the glow of the lights Sam pointed at Max. “Hitting him.”
“Ach, so,” the wolfess said. “Enjoy yourself, then.” She then opened her overcoat, revealing that she wore nothing but a belt under it. She removed a riding crop from her belt and went back into the house.
“Takes all kinds to make a world,” their canine guide remarked. The light had revealed him to be at least part Japanese, with a shiba inu’s dense coat of fur.
“You bet!” Max said enthusiastically. “Can we stop by there on the way back, Sam?”
“What, aren’t I enough for you?” Sam replied, affecting a hurt tone.
Max whirled and leaped at the badgeress, landing on his knees at her feet and pressing his head against her stomach while hugging her tightly. “You are everything to me, Sam - the sun, the moon and air and light and – “
“You stole that line from The House Guest, didn’t you?”
“Sure!” He grinned up at her. “I only steal from the best. Besides, the playwright was a rich guy. He could afford to miss a line or two.”
“Get up, Max. Let’s concentrate on the task at paw, shall we?”
Max got to his feet and the group slipped into a roistering mass of drunken furs who, having exhausted the possibilities afforded by the houses, were headed up the road to the main settlement, Fort Bob. A few fell by the wayside, cushioned in the thick beach grass and already snoring.
At one point they passed a large warehouse with a sign over its door. Max took one look and shouted, “I’ll sue!”
“What for, Max?” Sam looked up at the sign, which displayed a dragon that could charitably be described as ‘well-endowed.’
Sam tsked, shaking her head as she took the vulpine’s paw. “Max, my dear, that . . . can’t be copyrighted. Either you have it, or you don’t.”
He cocked an eye at her, one ear dipping.
The badger femme smiled sweetly. “And you definitely have it.”
The shiba inu rolled his eyes as Max started blowing kisses at Sam. “Look, should I leave you two alone? Do you want a room for the night? Or would you prefer a stage with floodlights?”
“No!” Max said. “I want something to eat, and then we have to track down Louie! Where do you go to get some grub around here?”
A shrug. “Most of the food shops are up in Fort Bob. There’s one here, at the Lucky Dragon – if you don’t mind the other things they do here.”
“Oh? What else do they do here?”
“Gambling and women.”
“Women!” The fox’s eyes lit up, then he realized who was looming behind him. “Er, maybe some other time . . . Sam?”
“Are you getting ready to hit me?”
“Do I have a reason?”
“Hmm. Not yet. I think we need to get up the road and get some food.”
“Wonderful idea, Max.” Lights could be seen at a distance north and slightly inland from the warehouses, and they headed up the track towards them. “Tell me something, Max.”
“Have you – “ she broke off, suddenly staggering a half-step back and waving a paw in front of her nose. “What the HELL is that smell?"
Max raised his muzzle and sniffed, then sniffed again and crested, like a wine connoisseur sampling a rare vintage’s ‘nose.’ "Hmmmm. Body odor - mephit,” he said judiciously. “Bootleg hooch, and a failed effort to use the WC...what? What?" he asked, catching Sam looking at him.
"How do you KNOW this, Max?"
"I'm just a font of useful information."
"Too much information, more like." She poked the shiba inu. “What the hell’s causing that stink?”
The canine’s tail thrashed. “We need to get under cover! C’mon, hurry!” He led the badger and the fox into a clump of bushes. “Stay quiet and he might not see you.”
“Who, dammit?” Sam asked.
The canine’s voice dropped to a whisper.
Max sniffed. “He’s getting closer. So, ‘Mad, Mac,’ eh? How’d he get that name? He a professional boxer or something?”
The canine shushed him. “He’s crazy – beats people to death with his bare paws. He must be on his way down to The Beach.” He looked back at Sam. “He occasionally goes down there and grabs one of the girls for the night. Most of them,” and his voice dropped lower, “don’t survive.”
Sam raised an eyebrow at that, and drew her pistol.
Their guide shook his head. “Don’t shoot him – you’ll just make him angry.”
Just then, silhouetted against the lights from the Lucky Dragon, a skunk-shape lumbered into view and the stink increased exponentially. He was a mass of oily, unkempt fur, almost naked and his bare feet stamped on the rutted earth. He paused, sniffing, and headed further down the road.
Doors could be heard slamming shut at his approach.
The canine sighed and straightened up. “Coast is clear, I think. If he’s headed down there, we might not cross paths again.”
Max emerged from the undergrowth, picking dead leaves from a sleeve. “Sounds like a fun guy. Any more like him around? I’ve got a cousin I need to warn never to go near him.”
“You have cousins, Max?” Sam asked.
“About a dozen or so, Sam.”
“If they’re anything like you, family reunions must be lively.”
“Well, Sam, you know what they say.”
“No fair,” the short fox said. “I was asking you. Anyway, one Catalina fox is trouble. Two is a brawl, and three is a riot.”
“And four, Max?”
“Close harmony, Sam.”
“Well, I’m not listening to you sing tonight, Max. We need food and a safe place to bed down,” Sam told the canine.
“Safest spot’s going to be with me,” the half-Japanese fellow said. “But keep whatever weapons you have very close at paw. I live on the outskirts of the place – “
“Not the upskirts?” Max asked, and ducked a swing from his inamorata.
“I try to avoid certain places,” the canine continued. “People like us don’t have a long life expectancy on this rock.”
“Places like what, exactly?” Sam asked as he showed them into a nondescript shack.
“Well, I don’t go anywhere near the Hill – that’s where the big shots live.”
“They got private armies,” the shiba inu replied, “and some of them are ex-cops and ex-military. Good chance one of ‘em might be ex-Syndicate, and spot me.”
The badgeress nodded. “Sensible. What else?”
The canine shivered. “The church.”
“They got a church here?” Max asked. “R.C., C. of E., or undecided?”
“I heard plenty about the place, and it’s definitely nowhere you want to go,” the informant said. “They do sacrifices there.”
“I hope it isn’t virgins,” Max said. “There’s a shortage of those.”
“Only near Great Wolf Lake, Max,” Sam said.
“Why only there, Sam?”
“Well, it gets dark early up there. Now, you’ve seen Morpion here, right?”
“Up in the Thieves’ Bazaar,” the canine replied with a nod as he lit a small kerosene lamp. “’Morpion’ – French guy?”
“Morpion’s an alias,” Max growled, “and he’s a louse, straight through. Now, I say we split up tomorrow and go looking for him. First one that finds him lays him out and calls the others.” He sat down in a corner with a smug grin.
"That's an interesting plan, Max. Tell me, have you been sniffing paint fumes again?"
"No, Sam. The glazed look in my eyes is me being awestruck by your beauty, as always."
"Don't change the subject, Max. Save it for when we get out of here."
"Besides, you changed the lock on the Orca’s paint locker,” Max said. “Again. What's the matter, don't you trust me? Don't answer that!" he said hastily.
The tod-fox and the badgeress unrolled their bedrolls and settled down, and their guide put out the light.
The next day the trio wandered into the teeming market known as the Thieves’ Bazaar. Despite its romantic name, the sellers were rapacious and nowhere near honest, and the buyers were just as bad. There were two knife fights and at least one shooting before lunch.
“I never get any fun,” Max said disgustedly as he munched on a skewer bearing some kind of roasted bird.
“We don’t want to be discovered, Max.”
“YOU never let me have any fun, Sam.”
“Oh, you want fun, Max? We get out of here and I’ll give you all the fun you can take before your spine snaps.”
The fox batted his eyes at her. “Promises, promises, my sweet.” He was still eyeing her as he finished gulping down the last of his (grossly-overpriced) meal, and hence wasn’t looking where he was going.
Max staggered from the force of the collision, and glared balefully at the man he’d bumped into. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?”
The other fur snarled, “You watch where you’re going!”
Sam stood back and watched with some interest. Max was five inches shorter than she was, but this other fur – also a Catalina fox, like Max – stood an inch shorter. “Get outta my way, Shorty!” the stranger growled.
“Look who’s calling who Shorty,” Max sneered. “Who lets kids in this place?”
Shorty said, “Your mother’s so ugly the doctor slapped HER when you were born!”
“Hah,” said Max. “Your mother’s so ugly your father takes her with him to work so he won’t have to kiss her goodbye.”
Sam looked around as a crowd started to gather. Two started collecting bets and one began keeping score with a piece of chalk on the side of a stall.
“Your mother’s so fat she was on both sides of your family!” Shorty said.
“Your mother’s so stupid she tried to drown a goldfish,” Max said.
“Your mother’s so dumb she . . . “
“Your mother’s so ugly she . . . “
“Your mother’s so fat she . . . “
After perhaps thirty minutes of this, the crowd was cheering each sally as the two vulpines stood toe to toe. Fistfuls of money were changing paws and Sam had gone for a beer. The badgeress threaded her way through the crowd and saw Max and Shorty still facing off, now insulting each other’s fathers. “Max! Either throw a punch or kiss him!” she called out.
“What, Sam?” A concerted whoop went up from the crowd as Max half-turned, and Shorty saw an opening. The fist connected solidly with the left side of Max’s face and he spun almost completely around. The fight was on at that point, and the crowd started cheering more lustily as more bets were taken.
At one point Max went reeling from a well-placed punch to his muzzle and fetched up against Sam, who held him up. He looked up at her, both of his eyes starting to sport well-bruised areas visible through his fur. “How’m I doing, Sam?”
“Not bad, Max, but you need to keep your left up. Now, get back in there, Momma needs a new pair of boots!” And with that she practically hurled him at Shorty.
The fight degenerated into a wrestling match and the crowd lost interest as Shorty went down for the count. Max staggered to his feet and brushed himself off as Sam offered him a beer. “Good job, Max. What was that last little maneuver?”
“What maneuver, Sam?”
“That thing you did with your right paw, Max.”
“Oh, that. I just – “ and he stood on tiptoe and whispered in her ear.
“You’re a pervert, Max. I’m in love with a pervert.”
“Hah! You love me! You said so!”
“What the hell for?” asked their guide. He was busily cramming a fistful of cash – a welter of banknotes from nearly a dozen nations including China, Rain Island and Spontoon – into his pockets.
“Well, he’s very much a force of nature,” Sam explained. “He doesn’t let anything stand in his way.”
The shiba inu nodded, glancing back at Max. The glance turned into a double take and he yelped, “He’s deformed!”
“Hm?” Sam looked at the fox. “Max?”
“Take your mind off your bloody nose for a second and answer a question.”
“Don’t swear, Sam.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Don’t you ever wear underwear?”
“Huh?” Max glanced down at his pants and suddenly went into a passable imitation of the tarantella. “What the hell happened to my pants!?”
“That’s what you get for buying cheap, dear.” The badgeress sighed. “I suppose we need to find a pair of pants now.”
Finding a replacement for Max’s sadly abused trousers was simple.
Finding an affordable replacement proved more difficult. Sam found, much to her amusement, that there were several furs willing to buy Max.
In order to, as one put it, “Take him off your paws.”
“You hear that, Max?” Sam asked. “No offers for me, but I might be tempted to sell you.”
“Make sure you get a good price for me, Sam.”
“If I sell you, I might be able to afford to buy you a decent pair of pants, Max,” the badgeress remarked. She looked over another pile of castoff clothing and glanced up. “Max.” Her voice had lowered to a hiss.
“Battle Stations. My ten o’clock.”
The change that came over the fox was immediate. He immediately disregarded his rather dilapidated trousers and focused on the direction she indicated. “Got him,” he murmured as he caught sight of a chubby gray-furred feline dressed in a grubby shirt and pants, with a pistol slung in a holster under his arm. He fanned himself against the summer heat, and his shirt showed a succession of dried sweat stains at the armpits. “Looks like he’s fallen on hard times.”
“Might just be blending in. When in Rome, you know.”
“Maybe. I’ll be discreet.” Max started to move off to one side, avoiding one elderly fur’s grab at his exposed rear.
Sam moved to the other side in an effort to box the feline in, and the shiba inu advanced from a third direction.
Max walked up to the feline, who was mopping his brow with a rag. “Hey Louie!”
Morpion didn’t seem to recognize the fox at first. “Hein?”
“Got a magic trick to show you.” The fox displayed that there was, in fact, nothing up his sleeve, while the feline stared at the pantsless apparition. Then, with the air of a conjuror, Max clenched his fist and said, “Ta-da! It’s Mister Fisty!”
Louis Morpion finally recognized him, and before he could back away or draw his pistol Max socked him square in the nose. The larger feline staggered backward and fell on his tail, and Max followed it up with a hard kick to Morpion’s crotch.
“Great technique, Max.”
“Ahh, you always say that, Sam.”
“No, really. The only way you could do better would be to have brained him with a baseball bat.”
“Well put, Sam.” He and their canine guide lifted the semiconscious feline to his feet and started to carry him off.
“Discreet, huh?” the canine asked, rolling his eyes. “You’re about as discreet as a brick through a window.”
“Thanks,” Max said cheerfully.
A passerby asked, “Is he okay?”
“Oh, never mind him,” Sam said, nodding toward Morpion. “He’s a hypochondriac.”
“Really,” said the man, eyeing Max’s decided lack of trousers. “I thought he was Reform.”
“Hey!” The fox tried to cover up, which turned into a rather comical dance as he tried to cover up and help hold Morpion up at the same time. He finally gave up the effort to shield himself from prying eyes and Sam led the group back to their guide’s shack.