home - contact - credits - new - links - history - maps - art - story
The Coral Curtain
An Entertainment by Simon Barber
The Coral Curtain Mystery
by Simon Barber
Sgt. Brush © E.O.Costello (many thanks for the dialogue coaching!),
other characters S. Barber, free for Spontoon use.
Nancy Rote reclined in the canvas deck-chair at the stern of the cruise ship, as she had done on sunny days for the past two weeks since starting her sea voyage to the Spontoon Islands. The squirrel girl had her bags packed already, all except her overnight bag; this was the final day of the voyage that should deliver her to the islands with a full month and more to acclimatise before her course began at the Songmark Aeronautical Boarding School for Young Ladies.
“Miss Rote, a Marconigram?” She turned at the voice to see one of the crew, a slick-furred young weasel in an impeccable white uniform carrying a silver platter, a spring clip holding down a note in the stiff breeze that whipped round the open stern deck. “Could you sign for it?”
She stood up, her long tail swishing, and smiled. “Certainly!” She reached for her pen and signed the receipt with a bold, flowing hand before taking the folded paper with its radio message. The pen went back in her bag firmly capped, to join the spare pen, pencils, notepad, magnifying glass, Kodak pocket camera and half a dozen useful items that were her constant companions.
Relaxing again in the deckchair, she unfolded the Marconigram. She smiled, looking out over the ship’s receding wake as she read the simple message. “Good Luck. Hope you find as many mysteries as wanted!” It was from her friend Bethany back in her old home in Creekside; she had left most of the things from her old life there and had “loaned” Bethany her smart blue roadster. It would have been a shame to leave it gathering dust unloved in the Rote family garage for three years, when her friends could get good use and enjoyment out of it.
Her ears went down as she heard the loud chattering of Mrs. Murgatroyd and the dozen stout matrons who formed a clique around the Captain’s Table every evening. The grey-furred hound had decided she was at the top of the social pecking-order on the ship, and with much reference to her husband’s millions (“the pork-rind Futures Baron of Idaho”) an eager crowd of lesser social climbers keen to bask in reflected glory had joined the hound who had assumed the post of social arbiter for the passengers onboard.
“Why, Miss Rote!” The familiar heavily refined drawl of someone who had taken expensive gramophone courses in elocution reached the squirrel’s ears. “I do hope you are well! We expected to see you for Sunday Services today. The ship’s chaplain is such a dear, most consoling.” Mrs. Murgatroyd affected a pince-nez along with much else, and peered at the young squirrel through them. “He had such kind things to say about forgiving sins – once one is truly repentant of them, of course.”
“Naturally.” Nancy felt her ears about to lie flat on her head; by a force of will that made her scalp smart she forced them to stay up. “But I fear I have parted company with his ideas, and I won’t be attending services. Especially ones about forgiving evil.”
“Well I never!” The pince-nez dropped back into the hound’s large but shapeless bosom. “Ladies, this is no company for us.” With that and some pitying glances from her entourage, a gross weight of approximately two tonnes of respectability left the after sun deck.
Nancy’s ears pressed flat to her head then, and she stood up abruptly in a burst of rage. It was unladylike to spit but she did so anyway, carefully over the leeward rail. Though she doubted Mrs. Murgatroyd read anything but Harper’s Magazine and that for the social columns, one of her group had an accent Nancy recognised as being from her home state, and had presumably whispered some version of what had been in the newspapers about her that Spring. That her “experiences” had been much talked about she was sure; she had had a growing reputation as an amateur sleuth which had shocked the more strait-laced socialites even before her … capture and escape. Some had doubtless whispered that a respectable girl should stay home and not poke around with criminal investigations, and that she had deserved what she got.
“Well, I don’t need their good opinions,” she declared to the unargumentative waves. “If not being “respectable” any more means not being invited to their bridge clubs and the Captain’s table – I can live with it.” Her long tail swished angrily as she paced across the deck. “Soldiers get wounded, they get up and carry on if they can – and I can. I will. I won’t run home to cry about it. And I won’t kneel and ask forgiveness for what other people did to me.”
She forced herself to sit calmly, and picked up her book. She had read it several times already; there were few books written about the Spontoon Isles that were not aimed at providing routes between tourist beaches, hotels and carefully staged entertainments, but she had found one. It had been a difficult search, but just before leaving home the postman had delivered “A Traveller’s Wanderings: The Marianas, Marshalls and Nimitz Sea” translated that year from the German account by Günter Edelman. He had been a Colonial Administrator in the German Marshall Islands Police until 1918, when the occupation of the colony and his homeland’s defeat had left him with no particular place to go except where his fortune took him across the Pacific.
The young squirrel furrowed her brow. The author had visited the Spontoons in 1919, 1928 and a six-month stay in 1933, and had some interesting observations as to how it had changed. The islands had a friendly, smiling exterior to be sure, but his last trip had ended rather abruptly and reading between the lines she picked up the hint that he barely got out with his life after some anthropomorphological investigations revealed more than other guide-books would believe. Exactly what he had found was not described deeply in the book and yet he had said his life would be forfeit. A former Police chief was hardly likely to be committing any heinous crimes, she told herself. And yet he had written down very plainly that “should I take a swim on even the fairest weather and the most crowded Spontoon beach, it would be my last exploration.” Significantly, the final paragraph was written “From my birth-place of Munich near the mountains, far from the deep waters and that which lies eternal beneath them.”
The sound of a brass gong echoed across the decks, announcing the evening meal. Nancy stood and brushed herself down, returned her book to her bag and squared her shoulders ready to face the tour-boat’s throng one last time. The trip was almost over – tomorrow her new life on Spontoon should begin.
“Hooey hooey! Pretty lady want number-one Guide on Island, see all best sites?” The cheerful voice came from a canoe below where she stood on the boat deck the next breakfast-time, as she watched the liner make its final approach to the Casino Island dock. She looked down, and suppressed a gasp. In the Native outrigger canoe were three young otters of about her own age, looking as if they might be brothers. All of them were dressed … well, un-dressed was the word that sprang to mind, in nothing more than shell necklaces and plaited grass loin-cloths that would certainly get them arrested on any public beach she had ever been to. From the look of them, she guessed that athletics must be compulsory in the local schools.
She smiled, feeling her tail twitch. “I’m not a tourist!” She called down to the boat thirty feet below. “I’m coming to study here at Songmark. Do you know it?”
Three otter faces ran a range of expressions between surprise, delight and a definite touch of fear. “Songmark? Oh, yes. We’ll certainly be glad to show you.” It was the same otter as had first hailed her, though Nancy noticed his speech was suddenly rather different.
“Well, I never!” The voice next to her was deeply shocked, though from the way Mrs. Murgatroyd was peering intently down through her pince-nez she was intent on surveying the full depths of the shocking local customs.
Nancy turned to look at her with a sweet smile. “Mrs Murgatroyd,” she addressed the hound “that’s perfectly respectable local dress. The same style’s popular with the ladies as well. Nothing but a chain of flowers as a bathing costume – it’s economical, practical and very healthy in the heat.” Her nose twitched at the canine’s scent, which several dollars’ worth of Parisian perfumes was not making much less unpleasant. “I’m sure the ship’s doctor would recommend it to you – for medical reasons. If you collapsed and died from heat-stroke I’m sure you know how many people would be very sorry.”
With that Nancy turned, her last view of Mrs. Murgatroyd being the matron’s mouth opening and closing silently like a landed fish. Now she was here – she had things to do.
Two hours later she stood on the docks with her steamer-trunk alongside, its “Not wanted on voyage” sticker already peeling in the humid heat. Nancy wore a pale blue blouse that matched her eyes, with a long loose skirt and a shady hat against the powerful late-Summer sun beating down. Unlike the rest of the passengers she had rather more to do than have her passport stamped; fortunately she had her Songmark acceptance papers with her and that had answered most of the questions.
“If you’ll sign here, Miss Rote?” A large bear in a Customs cap offered her a piece of paper. “We’re going to have to hold onto that revolver until you get a local license. Songmark will let us know.”
Nancy ground her teeth. “It’s Father’s,” she complained. “He made me promise to keep it safe.”
The bear chuckled. “We’ll keep it safe.” His squat head shook. “You Songmark girls. Two years ago, I remember one showed up from Chicago for her first term, a gangster’s daughter. She had a Thompson Machine-pistol with ten drum magazines of expanding shells, and HER father had said much the same thing. We didn’t let her take it through either. Fair’s fair.”
Nancy nodded, and signed the receipt. Two years ago? If she hadn’t been expelled, that meant a gangster’s daughter would be in the senior year about to start. Her eyes narrowed. There were evidently sides to Songmark she had not considered; a shiver ran through her tail as she realised that such a totally practical education could be used for whatever the graduates wanted. Rescuing missionaries or holding them to ransom; the skills needed would be about the same.
The bear smiled, and took the papers while he stuck the pen behind his ear. “That’s you cleared, Ma’am. There’s porters for your bags if you need them.” At Nancy’s nod, he gave a shrill whistle and waved a sturdy zebra over. “Hey! Shaka! The lady’s going to the Freya Hotel, Mimosa Street. Bring your cart.”
Politely refusing the porter’s offer to take her light valise as well as her trunk, Nancy stepped out of the port onto the crowded streets of Casino Island. It was certainly a lively place, she told herself – there were costumes and species here she had only seen in books and newsreels, and she heard several languages besides English. For a second her tail drooped.
Back home in Creekside, I could recognise crime, suspicious behaviour, she told herself. How do I know what’s suspicious, what’s normal here? The place is so different. She took a deep breath, and forged on following her porter as he headed past grand Hotels towards the quieter Northern side of the island. She took stock of what she had brought with her. Her Father was the newly elected Governor of his state as well as being a respected lawyer; his word carried weight and he had written her letters of introduction to various folk in the islands who might help her. She knew that once the term at Songmark began she was not going to have much time to socialise; by all accounts a Songmark girl lived only to work and breathe, generally in that order. Eating and sleeping came very low on the list of priorities.
Nancy nodded determinedly as they pulled up outside the Freya Hotel. She had less than a month to learn what she needed to know – and that time started right now.
“It’s really good timing on your behalf, Miss Rote,” the cultured tones of the American Cultural Attaché seemed rather out of place in the Embassy grounds vibrant with tropical flowers. That voice spoke of Boston families, old money. “It’s a pity you had the misfortune to miss the Schneider Trophy Speed Week last week – the Italians won it though – but we have this week before all the teams go home, you’ll get to meet everyone.” The cougar smiled. “But of course you won’t want to talk with us old diplomatic bores. There’s plenty of young folk like yourself on the Embassy staffs. Oh, and here’s the very young lady. Miss Ponsonby?” He waved over towards a neatly dressed tabby house-cat who was hungrily looking at an expensively chilled tray of smoked salmon reserved for her elders. “She is a junior at the British Embassy; one of their brightest stars.”
“The Right Honourable Miss Millicent Ponsonby. May I introduce you to one of our countryfurs, Miss Nancy Rote? Miss Rote will be studying at Songmark. I’m sure she’ll be grateful for any tips or advice. I know you’ve had dealings with them.” The Attaché nodded as the two shook paws, and he gave a surprisingly feral smile. “Now, I really must circulate. The new Vostok Trade Secretary’s here. His last four predecessors passed away very suddenly, in such tragic accidents.” With that, he bowed and vanished into the social whirl.
Nancy found herself studying the housecat thoroughly, and liking what she saw. A trim, smart girl with no time for ne’er do-wells, she decided. “Miss Ponsonby? I’m here early to find out what I can about the islands before term starts. From everything I’ve heard about Songmark, I’ll be too busy to take my eyes off my work till Christmas.”
“Call me Millicent.” The housecat smiled, looking over Nancy’s neat costume with an appraising glance of her own. “I’ve been here two years; I think I’ve found my way around by now.” Her whiskers twitched. “So, you’re heading to Songmark? That’s quite a zoo. You’ll have to watch yourself. There’s some bad eggs there all right but,” she shrugged “the Tutors don’t care. They’re honest in some ways; if you pay your fees and keep up with the work they guarantee an education like no other.”
“But it has such a good reputation!” Nancy objected, her ears going flat.
Miss Millicent nodded, her tail waving slowly. “You’ll learn everything on the timetable, it’s good that way. The very first year of graduates though? What did they do with their skills? Four of them are Air-Pirates, about the most dangerous in the South China Seas. Practical education, it’s strong on. Moral education – if you haven’t got it yet, you won’t get it there.”
“I’d be very grateful if you could let me know what to expect,” Nancy admitted.
A gleam came to the feline’s eyes. “Let’s sit down. You look like a girl who takes action. Decisive action. They could use more like you there.”
Ten minutes later the two were sitting in a small arbour screened from the hubbub of the diplomatic reception, while Millicent talked and Nancy made notes. The squirrel’s tail drooped slightly at what she was hearing.
“I’ve not been able to gather much information on your year yet, the new arrivals,” Millicent had commenced. “But the second and third years. Oh, yes. It’s amazing the Tutors haven’t thrown half of them out yet. And these are the ones who’ll be in charge of you, I’m afraid, when the Tutors aren’t looking. In the second year, you have one dorm that even the slack local Police keep interviewing about crimes – two Bolshevists, a Feinian whose family are smugglers, and the daughter of one of the most dangerous families of International Criminals around here. The others call the gang Red Dorm, and they’re bad news.”
She paused to draw breath. “But they’re not the worst. In the third year there’s one with two actual spies and a gangster. You’ll meet them soon enough. One’s the niece of the Italian Dictator, and you’ll find her sending coded telegrams home once a month – that’s just the ones we know about. Maria Inconnutia, that’s her. A great hulking cow, everyone says she’s what they used to call a “freemartin.” The other …” her nose wrinkled in distaste. “She’s one of ours, and a feline I have to say. Her Father’s a General, even! She had the best of schooling, but turned against us. Her name’s Amelia Bourne-Phipps. She had the gall to ask us for a new passport, after she’d sold hers to the Vostok authorities! You can imagine, I sent her away with a flea in her ear.”
Nancy nodded. “Are there any I CAN depend on?”
The house-cat considered. “We had one in, a Miss Forsythe, but unfortunately she had to go home. She was one of your type too, a squirrel. There is a French canine girl in the third-year, Madeleine; she’s of very good stock. Doesn’t stand any nonsense, mind. You’ll have to watch your manners with her. And there’s a couple in the second year I’ve had good reports of.” She smiled. “I’ve heard of your Father’s successes. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me sharing privileged information. After all, it’s from the Latin “privi lege”, private law. And that’s what diplomats really are, a private law between ourselves.”
“But they are what they say, the most talented and best trained around?” Nancy privately resolved to get a second opinion on her new friend’s information, although Millicent certainly seemed trustworthy.
“Oh, yes. I know of one third-year girl, Senorita de Ruiz, she writes poetry for competitions.”
A squirrel tail twitched. “But many people write poetry. I’ve written some myself, in school.” She did not add that it had won the school prize.
The house-cat gave a needle-fanged smile. “Yes. But not everyone can compose it straight into Morse code. Straight out of their head.”
Nancy gave a slow nod of appreciation. “I can see their reputation is well-founded. Thank you indeed for telling me.”
“Charmed.” Miss Millicent rose, smiling. “Here’s my card – and letters addressed to the Embassy will always find me.” With that she excused herself, and re-joined the party.
Nancy sat alone for a minute, looking over her notes. Of course, Songmark would never advertise that they were quite neutral on moral instruction; everyone would assume that it was part of daily life like everywhere else. Still – there could be some advantages to this.
“They surely won’t object to my hunting out crooks, wherever I find them,” she mused, as she re-packed her bag. “I’ll have to keep my eyes open though – it might be I won’t have to look outside my own classroom to find some!”
Back in the Freya Hotel, she showered and combed her fur while she thought of her next move. “Really, I need to find some other new Songmark girls,” she told her reflection, “there are surely some others arrived early.” She looked at her reflection critically, as she towelled her head-fur dry. Her body fur had re-grown, but her head-fur and tail was taking longer even three months after her escape. Still, in this heat she would be better off without a full winter pelt.
Just at that moment the windows rattled slightly as a four-engined aircraft flew over heading for the airstrip on Eastern Island. “Of course! It would be hard to tell us from tourists on Casino Island – but if anyone is looking around the airfield with their tongue hanging out and their tail locked sideways at the sight of an aircraft – that would be a better bet.” She threw herself down on the single bed, relaxing. “Tomorrow, that will be my first stop.”
Nancy had never been a girl to let the grass grow under her paws. Two weeks of necessary but unexciting rest aboard the cruise ship had left her starved for adventure, and after a brief nap she looked through her wardrobe and selected another blue dress; something practical and light, and less formal than she had worn at the Embassy party. She judged that she had an hour till sunset, and having measured Casino Island precisely on the map she could have walked all around its coast and back again in that time.
“And I’d better get the best use out of my good clothes, while I can,” she reminded herself, looking down at her trim shoes. A Songmark uniform was packed away in her trunk still with a thorough sprinkling of camphor flakes against tropical insects; she allowed that it was practical but it made her look like a policewoman or a soldier, with the tough shorts and heavy, steel-lined “adventuring” boots that came half-way up to her knees. “It won’t be so bad when everyone around me is wearing them,” she told herself severely as she set her sun-hat firmly on her head, her ears neatly peeping through the slots in the brim.
The streets on the Northern side of Casino Island were less crowded with tourists than the main resort strip with its amusements and hotels; she noted schools, neat houses and the occasional shop that had signs in the local language. She dipped her ears at that; although she had tried her best she had not been able to find a full and accurate Spontoonie dictionary or phrasebook, and indeed there were none listed in the catalogues. “I guess I’ll have to keep my eyes open for a locally produced one,” she declared, looking at the strange phrases.
One promise she certainly had to keep. There was a Western Onion Telegraph office on the corner of Market Ferry Square as her map indicated; just five minutes before closing time Nancy was filling in a telegram form destined for home.
“DEAR FATHER STOP ARRIVED SPONTOON HOTEL, WEATHER, HEALTH FINE MADE FIRST FRIENDS STOP LOVE NANCY STOP ENDS” She tapped at her front teeth lightly with the pencil, considering if there was anything that really needed adding before deciding to send that as it stood. She approached the barred window, her purse and the form ready.
“Missouri, USA, miss?” The clerk was some species of prairie-dog, who had popped up out of his cubby-hole as he heard the sound of her elegant heels on the wooden floor. “Sixteen words at fifty cowries apiece, that’s eight shells.”
“Certainly,” Nancy agreed, looking around with interest at the various clocks on the wall. “Could you tell me please when my Father might receive it, earliest?”
The groundhog scratched a whiskery chin. “We’re two stops from the International Date Line here, Miss, so that makes the Mid-West some… eight hours ahead. It’ll be on his breakfast-table tomorrow morning his time, ten o’clock tonight ours.”
Nancy handed over the form and local money, counted her change carefully and thanked the clerk, who shut the office up behind her. Having discharged her duty, she could start to look around.
A few hundred paces West along the coast road there was a long, low building with a crowd gathered around it, and from the distance she could hear the sound of a band. Drums and stringed instruments seemed to predominate, and she stopped for a few seconds to make a note of the rhythm. As she approached she made out the sign “Casino Island Dance School” and then a paw-written note “The Drumbahine Band and local Dancers” in both English and the native script.
The squirrel paused. She had read as part of the Songmark prospectus that some students had made a point of attending local cultural and athletic meetings, and this looked as if it would be both. There was a five-shell entrance fee, but she paid it without a murmur; her allowance was quite generous and once Songmark term started the prospectus had said the course fees covered everything.
The Dance School was a great open long-house with a slightly raised area at one end where bands were changing over between acts. The crowd was a good-natured mix of tourists and what appeared to be locals. One of the obvious tourists, a plump bovine lady in a brilliantly patterned sun-dress, gave her a friendly wave; Nancy recognised her from her tour-boat.
“Why, Miss Rote! Fancy seeing you here. We’d heard you were changing ships, or something.”
“Good evening, Mrs. Masson,” Nancy replied politely. “I’m studying here at Songmark, starting next month.”
The large bovine fanned herself with a palm-leaf fan that had some inscription in the local script on it. Whatever it said, Nancy noted that the Spontoonies used several exclamation marks where one would generally suffice. “Why, my dear. I’ve heard it said that even some Songmark girls come here to learn the local dances – as if our own ones were not good enough for them.”
“Indeed?” Nancy filed the fact for future use. Not a fact, she reminded herself; hearsay. Facts are what I have to find and prove myself. But just then there was a stirring in the crowd, and two Native women with drums came out followed by one with a guitar. Behind them, six Native males in flower and shell costumes joined them on the stage. Her ears swivelled forwards intently, as she listened to the Drumbahine band striking up.
“You’ll find your love on the Spontoon Islands
You’ll need a guide, to tell you which one
And when you’ve seen the wonder of my lands
You’ll never leave till your heart’s been won
Just let the tropical waves surround you
Just let the breeze play through your fur
You’ll keep coming back to the seas of sky-blue
Where each Hello is a tropical purr!
So come on, join us in the Island waters
Your heart’s all that you need to bring
Where Spontoonie sons and Spontoonie daughters
Will let your love feel free to sing!
After the third verse Nancy found herself watching the dancers, the music just washing around her like one of the tropical waves it described. She could dance, of course, well enough to be complemented at her home town’s social occasions – but she knew she could not move the way the locals were making look so easy.
But some Songmark girls do, she told herself firmly. If they can learn, I can. And given the chance, I will. Her eyes fixed on a young zebra male, tall and most striking in his stripes. She traced them with her imagination, stripe by stripe. Her research had indicated that the Spontoons had been settled by commercial companies importing plantation labour mostly from the Pacific rim but with a substantial draft from the British Empire: zebras she knew were Southern African, and a rare sight in her home town. Though of course there had been one …
“If you’ll excuse me?” Nancy felt her ears reddening, and squeezed past Mrs. Masson to find the powder-room. She ran the cold tap and bathed her muzzle again and again, realising her tail had been about to lock sideways at her memories. What a disgrace that would have been, in public too, she told herself scoldingly. But still – for a few seconds she imagined if the telegraph office had been able to send messages really back in time, not just as local clocks measured it. She had met that other zebra, the kindly Mr. Simmons, just half an hour or so before she had been captured and her old life had ended. He had been so nice to her; definitely the last time in a month that anyone had. Despite being such a different species, she had thought him very handsome – and she knew he had become a friend of her Father’s while everyone had hunted a month for her without avail, which was a sure test of quality. He had even been at her Father’s remarriage last month.
The squirrel sat herself down heavily in a vanity-chair, and stared at her reflection in the mirror. “What telegram would I send myself?” She asked the other Nancy Rote, as unreachable as her old self of that fateful day. “What could I say that I would possibly have believed, back then?” She had received enough mysterious or threatening letters, telegrams and telephone calls in her hobby as a sleuth to get used to the idea. A simple “Run and hide” would not have had that effect; she would have stayed around to work out who would have sent it and why.
Her ears blushed, and her tail really did lock sideways as she imagined sending the telegram she had in mind and having acted on it. Of course, the telegram company would not have accepted that one. A Good Girl decidedly would not have followed the advice she thought of sending, and a gentleman like Mr. Simmons would not have taken advantage of her offer even had she been brazen enough to make one. But even so, it Would have been the last chance she ever had. “Well, I lost my “virtue” that day anyway,” she addressed her reflection sourly. “I just wish I could have given it to someone I wanted to.”
Just then the door opened as some ladies entered as one of the songs finished, and Nancy beat a hasty retreat before they noticed her into a cubicle where she sat embarrassed with the door locked until her tail returned to its normal posture. When she did emerge, it was to find the afternoon’s entertainment drawing to an end, as the sun began to set. Being out alone at night had no fears for her, but she mentally pencilled that exploration for another evening. The Freya Hotel and a comfortable bed were waiting for her.
The next morning she rose with the dawn, as always. Running over to the window, she threw the curtains aside to drink in the view of Casino Island. “How thrilling,” she told herself, as she stood carefully brushing her fur at the window. “I have all day to explore. Or I can lie on the beach all day, and nobody will think anything of it.” She laughed; her friend Bethany would have been in heaven on a tropical beach with plenty of food at paw and a wide selection of Native costumed boys to look at, but Nancy was not the sort to lie idle when there was investigation to be done. And here, she told herself, I have everything to investigate. She glanced down at the tourist guide with its brightly coloured maps. Everything on here – and the interesting bits, that are not.
It seemed that the Freya Hotel was not accustomed to guests getting up at seven o’clock; when she went downstairs to the dining room Nancy found the tables still being laid by a pretty lepine girl in a maid’s costume.
“I’m sorry if I’m too early,” Nancy smiled, sitting down at a table for one. The maid curtseyed, and bustled over with a tray.
“That’s all right Miss! We get people up at all hours to catch aircraft connections. We didn’t expect to see you yet though; new arrivals are usually tired out. Can I take your order?” She offered a neatly printed menu.
“Well, I’m certainly well-rested,” Nancy laughed. “Two weeks on the cruise ship is a far better holiday than two days in an aircraft seat! I’m going to study at Songmark, and I don’t expect I’ll have much time to relax there.” She ordered a full breakfast of nut and grain porridge, fruit juices and round after round of hot buttered toast; it was a principle of hers to start the day with a good foundation for whatever adventures came along.
Two hours later she stepped off the small motor-boat that had brought her to Eastern Island for twenty cowries, wondering whether the water-boat furs expected a tip. She looked down at her neatly polished Songmark boots, acutely conscious of their weight. They had steel protecting the toecaps and under the footbeds; there was a lot of workshop time in the course and dropping an engine block on one’s paws was not recommended while wearing sandals.
After breakfast she had looked through her wardrobe for a light blue dress, then changed her mind and dug out the Songmark uniform. “After all,” she reflected, “If I’m seeking out other girls who’ve arrived early, this will be as good as waving a placard. And I do need to get used to the outfit.” She had worn hiking boots before, and realised a month was just long enough to break a new pair in. It would not do to be hobbling around on her first term with blisters.
Standing on the dock, she took a deep breath as she looked around. Eastern Island, Spontoon! That was to be her home address for three years. There were no towering hotels like those of Casino Island; the tallest building was the airport control tower and most of the other buildings were single storey. Just to her right was the seaplane terminal with a huge Dornier X just pulling out from the floating jetty, laden with international passengers.
“Just think. In three years I hope to be able to fly one of those.” The idea made her tail tingle. As soon as she had applied to Songmark she had devoured every book on aeronautics that Creekside Public Library could find her, and been for several rear-seater flights at the local aerodrome. Discovering she suffered from vertigo or air-sickness would have been a horrible blow to her plans, but happily she had been looped, rolled and spun with no more than the thrill of a fairground ride.
In three minutes she had followed the map to the compound just South of the airfield, where what looked more like a prison camp than a school covered about an acre and a half. The barbed wire fence was rigged both ways, she noted with interest, both to keep people in and out. Her eyebrow raised at the sight of six fierce-looking guard dogs running around freely inside the wire; but of course, she told herself, there is hardly likely to be anyone here.
“Who are you, sister, and what the hell are you doing wearing that?” A recognisably Texan voice made her turn round sharply. Emerging from a gate-house where she had evidently picked up a bundle of letters, was a tall tigress who was looking at Nancy’s outfit with suspicion.
“I’m Nancy Rote,” she said simply. “I’m studying here starting this term. I wanted to get used to the uniform and meet some other Songmark girls.”
“Well, you’ve found one. I’m Helen Ducros, and the rules say you don’t wear that until you’ve enrolled, or after you leave. I’m a third-year.” The tigress did not shake paws. “It’s written clear in the rules they send out. You break them, we get into trouble for not stopping you.” Her expression softened slightly as a large feline in Native costume approached from round the corner. “Hey, Marti!” She addressed him “Fresh meat for our Tutors!” Her thumb jerked in Nancy’s direction.
“Why Miss Ducros,” Nancy raised an eyebrow. “If I’ve not started the term and the Tutors are not yet responsible for me, surely their laws will not apply to me yet?” Having a lawyer for a father was often useful, she acknowledged.
“For a first-year girl, you’re a wise guy, you know that?” A striped snout wrinkled. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Barrack-room lawyers they come and go around here. Mostly they go.” She cast Nancy a sour look, and then turned to her gentleman friend. “Come on Marti; let’s get along home with these. Urgent ones are the only kinda letter Maria gets from Italy.” With that the tigress gave her house-cat friend a hug and they went off along the road to the docks paw in paw and tails entwined.
Nancy dipped her ears as she watched them go. A third-year Italian called Maria? Surely one of the ones she had been warned about. She turned back to the fence, and noticed she was not the only one who had been watching the meeting.
One of the guard-dogs was standing on her hind legs, forepaws braced on the fence as her eyes followed the third-year girl and her friend. The dog was a huge mastiff type, capable of being quite ferocious and nothing a burglar would want to tangle with. But her behaviour was rather odd. She was watching the couple embrace, her head cocked to one side and giving out a curiously yearning whine. Her eyes were very strange for a guard dog, and as she dropped down and turned her tail with an almost theatrical sigh, Nancy noted that she had other peculiarities elsewhere.
“Very strange.” Nancy stood undecided for a few seconds. If Miss Ducros had been telling the truth about the Tutors disapproving of wearing her uniform before being a full Songmark student, it might be better not to hang around the compound where the Tutors were presumably likely to be found. It was too hot to stand around in the full sun, so it was with a sigh of gratitude that she noticed a large two-storey building down the road, a sign proclaiming “Song Sodas.”
As she approached she noted that Song Sodas was curiously ill-matched to the buildings around. It was much older, forty or possibly fifty years, and built of brick and stucco ornately moulded rather than the mostly wooden buildings of Songmark. But there was an encouraging “OPEN” sign in the window and an open door held the promise of cool shade.
Inside, as her eyes adjusted she saw a serving counter with the familiar equipment of an ice-cream parlour, and felt a brief pang of homesickness for the many friendly ones she had frequented with her friends in Creekside. The main room had half a dozen large tables, mostly empty this time of day except for a party who looked like aircraft mechanics and a small, cheerful-looking mouse wearing an elegant red dress. As she entered, the mouse looked up and greeted her pleasantly.
“Good morning!” Nancy recognised an English accent.
“Good morning, indeedy.” The mouse had a long pony-tail of head fur that bounced as she stood up. “You’re a new student? You must have set your alarm clock a few weeks early!” Mouse teeth gleamed in a friendly grin. “I’m Beryl Parkesson. I’m a third year here, or I will be.”
“I’m Nancy Rote. Pleased to meet you.” Nancy looked the mouse-girl up and down carefully. The red dress was rather revealing and not something she would wear herself, but she acknowledged it was of excellent quality and obviously tailored by an artist in silk. “I’ve met one of your classmates, Miss Ducros, just now.” Her tail drooped.
Beryl noted the reaction. “Oh, Helen. She’s always on about something. She had a bash at me last term, just because I have a little business of my own.” She tapped a bundle of packets in front of her; the top one Nancy noted had stamps from Vostok. “We’re meant to show initiative, after all; our Tutors keep telling us so. Would you care for a look at what I do?” At Nancy’s interested nod the mouse opened up a sealed packet to disgorge wonderfully printed certificates that looked something between bank-notes and examination awards. “Here’s some of my latest investment opportunities. Gilt edged railway stock! Potentially several hundred percent return on investment!”
Nancy looked at one with interest. “Imperial Russian Railways, 1916 issue,” she read. “Are these still valid?”
The mouse looked at her, a friendly and open expression on her face. “That’s why it’s such a potential investment,” she explained. “When the Bolsheviks collapse and they have a Tsar or possibly a Czar again on the throne, they’ll be worth face value – possibly an awful lot more. Buying these will raise confidence in his return – it’s a moral thing with most people.” She paused. “Unless of course you’re on the Red side.”
“Heavens, no!” Nancy exclaimed. Her father had made much of his money from judicious investments; he had picked up literally tea-chests full of shares for very little after the 1929 crash and told her he was quite happy if three-quarters of them only went to wallpaper the local orphanages – in ten years time the other quarter would more than pay their way. Buying “on the ground floor” was risky but so was most of life.
Beryl nodded, retrieving the papers. “I’m afraid these are already spoken for,” she explained with regret. “And I’m really too busy in term-time to help people out like this. But if you’re interested, before term starts I might be able to put some opportunities your way.” She signalled to the waitress. “An ice-cream for Miss Rote! Whatever she likes – put it on my tab.”
Nancy noted the waitress looked somewhat sour at that. Then, Beryl was wearing a dress that probably cost more than a “soda-jerker’s” monthly wages and it probably rankled. She ordered a brazil-nut ice-cream with fresh pineapple, which was served promptly.
“All local ingredients, you know.” Beryl winked. “A piece of advice though – stay clear of the “Durian Surprise”. Let’s just say it’s a good description.” With that, she rose. “I have to get these to my investors right away – but I hope to see you soon!”
They exchanged farewells and Nancy sat down to finish her ice-cream. What a pleasant person, she thought to herself. Millicent was quite right – there ARE some I can rely on.
Half an hour later, she was feeling quite refreshed as she stood outside the airport terminal. Spontoon had an airstrip that some much larger nations would be proud to have serving their capital; nearly a mile of level paved strip. It had been scarcely five years since her home state had its first paved runway, and she recalled her father being called in on a bribery and corruption case on the huge construction project. The contractors had described themselves as “Good Fellows” but proven to be anything but.
“Can we help you, Miss?” The voice came from an eager-looking young Native fox wearing a “Pan Nimitz Airways” cap. “I’m afraid there’s no international flights till the two o’clock to Tillamook.”
“Oh! That’s all right, officer – I’m just looking.” Nancy flashed the vulpine a smile. “I’ll be studying here, and I wondered if there were any other new arrivals around here I could meet.”
The fox nodded. “You’ve come to the right place,” he agreed. “Those hangars over there are leased by Songmark. You’re not the first to ask about them this morning. There was one girl, took a look around just half an hour ago. You’ll recognise her.” He shuddered. “She’s a rare breed. I’ll just say she’ll have trouble buying an oxygen mask off the shelf.” With that he was called away by one of his superiors, and left Nancy scratching her head-fur in puzzlement.
Looking around the airport terminal, she noted with interest that Spontoon served as the transport hub to a huge range of exotic destinations half the planet away. There was the giant French submarine and seaplane base of Clipperton Island off Mixteca, the expected commercial flights to Hawaii, Humapore and Macao, and even a weekly connection heading down all the way to New South Thule, the new German colony and winter sports tourist resort in the Antarctic. Her ears raised in interest, looking at the exotic posters showing laughing families of clean-limbed and healthy furs enjoying the skiing and sledging under endless Antarctic Summer daylight. As the cheerful caption put it, “Come to Wotansberg – it’s SO bracing!”
“Excuse me?” A voice came from behind her. She turned, and for an instant her ears went right up at the sight. She had seen a star-nosed mole only once before; they tended to be Red Indians and folk from small villages in Central America. It would be hard to say if the one addressing her was a pretty one or not; the pink clusters of sensitive tentacles on her snout writhed like a bunch of animated baby carrots, and looked most disconcerting. The rest of her figure was dark furred, short and stout, though solid rather than plump. “Are you a Songmark girl too? I’m here for my first year.”
Nancy remembered her manners, and smiled graciously. “Good morning! I’m Nancy Rote. Yes, I’ll be a first year too. I just arrived yesterday.” Tomorrow was the first of September, she reminded herself; she was not doing badly in finding her classmates.
“I’m Isabella Rodriquez,” the mole’s accent was slightly Spanish, of the South American type. “Maybe we’ll be in the same dorm? I don’t know how the Tutors arrange them. Maybe the first ones to arrive go in together.”
Nancy’s tail twitched. “I’ve heard they put girls with similar interests in together.” She recalled the two dorms of bad apples in the second and third years, and hoped reverently that there would be fewer such in her year. “What do you do? Apart from flying? I’m studying to be a detective.”
“You are?” The bunch of snout tendrils writhed in excitement, like two outstretched hands with fingers waving. “I am from Mixteca, Guatalupez province; Father is the Police Commissioner there!”
Nancy dipped her muzzle respectfully. She had heard of the strange species’ talent; how they could tell if people were telling the truth or otherwise, and not by scent. It would be a marvellous skill for a detective or policeman to have, she told herself. And to have a friend who could do that would be a very great asset; despite the Mixtecan girl’s strange looks she found herself hoping that they were put together in a dorm.
“Why don’t we take a look around the airfield,” Nancy suggested. “There’s such a lot I need to know.”
Two hours later, they were sitting at luncheon at a small restaurant overlooking the seaplane docks. Nancy had ordered her usual, nut paste and watercress sandwiches cut very thin, with small cakes and a big pot of tea with lemon between them. Evidently there was civilisation at least on Eastern Island; she expected that she would be living on army rations and what local fruits she could find, at Songmark. The prospectus had made it very clear that comforts were not included, for any student at any price.
The two girls chatted for an hour; Nancy discovered that Isabella had already been on the islands a week and had watched the Schneider Trophy finals. “I try to register my skills with the Police here,” she said excitedly “But they no see me, too busy they say.”
“How does it … work, your talent?” Nancy asked curiously.
Isabella shrugged. “How you tell a blind man about blues and greens?” Her snout tendrils twitched. “Is like a bloodhound, a skill must be trained and practiced, never made perfect.” She paused. “Feels same way I feel electricity. Know wire to table-lamp goes … there.” She traced a line along to the corner of the table. “Only works when power is on.”
Nancy checked for herself; the insulated wire did indeed run under the table-top exactly as indicated. “Father’s mentioned experimental electrical machines that go onto your skin for lie-detecting. The courts aren’t convinced about them yet. Is that the same?”
“Yes! But not need to touch skin; feel from arm’s length. Is more than truth and lies; can feel moods, even in best actor never showing anything on surface.” Isabella had no visible ears, but her stubby tail drooped. “I not convince courts myself. One day, get license. Difficult thing to be certain of results with different species, ages, everything makes difference.”
Nancy’s own ears perked up. “Maybe I can help! I’ve letters of introduction to several people that Father wrote me. One of them is to the Chief of Police here. Let’s go and see him right away.”
With Nancy Rote, to decide was to act. Having enquired of a constable at the air terminal, ten minutes later they were on one of the little motor-boats that threaded the Spontoon waters, heading to the Police Headquarters on Meeting Island. As always, Nancy carried her bag of useful items including her six letters of introduction; they weighed little and one never knew who you might bump into.
“I’ve not been here before,” Isabella confessed. “Casino, Eastern and South Islands only. Main Island’s off limits to foreigners without a guide.”
Nancy laughed. “That won’t apply to us. We’re living here.” She tapped her bag which held her Songmark papers. “With all we’ve paid to get here, I shouldn’t think we’ll have any trouble. But that’s for tomorrow, perhaps.” Her long tail streamed in the stiff breeze. “Spontoon’s hosted International Detective Conventions before, the first one was in 1930 according to my Encyclopaedia so they must be used to making good use of talented folk. And anyway, once we’ve paid our respects to the Chief of Police, who’s going to stop us?”
As it turned out, finding the Police Headquarters was the only easy part of it. Nancy wrinkled her snout slightly at the sight of the building; even Creekside had a more imposing Headquarters, and the front desk area was badly in need of painting. She presented her Letters of Introduction to the desk sergeant, and with Isabella sat down to wait expectantly.
In a few minutes a short, rangy fox in a slightly battered tan suit set off with a glaring “tropical” tie appeared from the depths of the building, and politely took off his cap. “Ya th' ladies that wanna see th' Chief? Fraid he's on leave this week.” His expression changed when he spotted Isabella, and for a second his ears dipped.
Nancy rose gracefully, her tail sweeping. “Good Afternoon, Sir! We’re new Songmark girls. My name is Nancy Rote, and this is Isabella Rodriquez, we’d like to introduce ourselves. We’re both studying Detection. We’d like to register ourselves as available to help.”
“Name's Sergeant Brush, Orrin Brush. I'm onea th' detectives 'round here. You ladies are gumshoes, right? It's ya hobby?” A pained expression crossed the fox’s face as he said the word “hobby.”
Nancy gave her most winning smile. “I’ve had some successes before at home, Sergeant. I’ve managed to hunt down quite a few crooks and conspiracies. I’d be happy to help you.”
Sergeant Brush looked round at the desk sergeant with a “why me?” expression. “Lookit here, ladies. Ya wanna help? Ya really wanna help? Stick t' them aero engines an' props an' all that stuff. We gots enough troubles 'round here widdout no folks gettin' unner our footpads, runnin' round. I sez th' same t'yer pal last week. Th' Constab'lry's gots its paws full dealin' wit' youse Songmark... ladies enuff as 'tis. I'm gettin' grey hairs in my brush from dealing wit' yer mob.”
Nancy had faced down enough small-town sheriffs and deputies before, and was not deterred in the slightest. “Why, Sergeant. Spontoon’s hosted whole Conventions of Amateur Detectives before, famous names in our profession. I’m sure we could do a lot.”
The fox stood his ground. “Aw, jeez, don't get me started on THAT whole crew. Oughta be a law 'gainst them conventions. Rather have a convention of gun runners. They don't start chatterin' at ya, all hours of th' day, tellin' ya 'bout some master criminals on th' loose disguised as busfurs inna hotel kitchen. Takes weeks t'get things right after they moves on. I wanna see a "Baker Street Irregular," I'll get a copy of th' Strand, see? An' 'nother thing. It ain't right fer youse outlanders t'go runnin' about stickin' yer muzzles where they ain't wanted. If youse hadda hobby bein' a soldier, our Militia wouldn't like no runnin' round with rifles, so I ain't gonna be too happy wit' no amateur gumshoes from foreign parts, see? So unpacks your wrenches an' hammer, an' leaves yer magnifyin' glass, secret decoder ring, an' Junior G-Man badge in yer trunk.”
Nancy drew herself up. “Can I talk with your superiors?”
The fox pointed a thumb at himself. "Lady, yer talkin' t'fifty percent of th' 'tective Bureau of th' Spontoon Islands Constabl'ry. My boss...I ain't got but one, see...he's off duty now, an' I don't want youse bodderin' him. He's real busy this time a year, tryin' t'keep damn fool tourists from doin' stupid things. Stagg's an' old-fashioned gent, an' I wisht I had half th' learnin' he did. Now, he might spend a half-hour tellin' youse what I'm tellin' ya now, but wit' better manners an' grammar: ya Wastin' PoliceTime. Now unless ya gotta a real hankerin' fer seein' how we runs th' hoosegow 'round here, I'm gonna tell ya nice...this time. Hit th' bricks, sister. Unnerstand?” He then braced his paws on the counter with a glower.
The squirrel bowed, picking up her bag. “Certainly, Sir. I think I understand you very well. Good day.” She rose, and left with Isabella following her out.
Outside the Police headquarters there was a narrow alleyway where the cleaning teams had not been too thorough. Nancy selected a large empty can of pineapple, and took great pleasure and half a minute in loudly stamping it flat, feeling the tinplate squeal and buckle under her. The Songmark boots were heavy and not as elegant as her regular two-inch narrow heels, she decided – but they were exceedingly good for kicking things with.
“What we do now?” Isabella queried. “They not want us.”
“Isabella. He also said there’s only two people in the Detective force. Well, there’s two of us. They may have the rank, but we have the same numbers. All we need is recognition.” Nancy mused. “The Chief of Police is due back next week it seems, and next time I won’t try and meet him here. If we can make a good impression at the top - Sergeants take orders from their Chief.”
The rest of the afternoon Nancy followed Isabella’s guidance around Casino Island, taking in the tourist sights which would only be around for a few more weeks. She noticed with narrowed eyes the giant Casino; gambling was quite illegal in most civilised countries, and places such as Cuba and Monte Carlo where it was allowed were well-known as the favourite haunts of international crime. Her heart raced as she surveyed well-dressed figures in the crowds; some of them were sure to be criminals. She just needed to expose one, to establish herself on these islands. Between her and Isabella, it should be easy enough once she got a lead.
Suddenly she spotted a flash of red silk on the Casino terrace, and her eyes widened. There was the Senior girl Beryl, sitting relaxed on the terrace at a shaded table talking with a large and well-dressed young rat gentleman. Nancy hesitated; naturally she could not just walk up to the two and introduce herself. Walking past was another matter, and she was quietly pleased when Beryl hailed them and invited them up.
“Miss Rote! Glad to see you again!” Beryl waved them to two extra chairs. “This is my friend Piet Van Hoogstraaten; his family are in business here. I was just telling him about you.”
Nancy bowed as introductions were made. Mr. Van Hoogstraaten was a year or two older than Beryl, she guessed, and for a rodent he was a very powerful specimen; she was not surprised to hear he had competed in Spontoon’s Olympic rowing team. The brown-furred rat cast an enquiring glance at Isabella.
Beryl winked at her friend. “Piet. We’ll have to watch what we say. No secrets when there’s a star-nose around.” She relaxed. “How have you liked Spontoon so far?”
Nancy’s tail drooped. “It’s not gone too smoothly yet – but it will.” With that, she recounted her experiences on Meeting Island.
Beryl nodded sympathetically. “The Police here aren’t what we wish they could be,” she cast an appraising glance at Isabella, whose facial tendrils were twitching. “Piet’s Father has had a lot of trouble with them. In fact, we know there’s a lot of criminals walking around this island.” She nodded to her gentleman friend.
“Yes, we do,” Piet van Hoogstraaten had barely a trace of a Dutch accent. “But business is business, and some are important people on these islands. Even at our club, there’s quite a few.”
Nancy’s ears pricked up. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for!” She exclaimed. “If I could just get one good case solved before term starts – that’d help so much.”
“I’m sure Piet would be glad to help – and I would too,” Beryl suggested. “There’s such unfair competition around here. They say crime doesn’t pay, but some folk seem to be profiting rather nicely.” She smoothed her red silk dress down over her fur. “Still – if you really want to find crime, this isn’t the place. You should try Krupmark. There’s nothing but.”
Nancy felt a thrill going down her tail-bone; she felt like a gold miner used to sifting tiny flakes suddenly being told about a mother lode. “A whole island of criminals?” She wriggled unconsciously in her seat.
“A whole island.” Beryl confirmed. “Piet could tell you a lot about it. Of course, nobody’s officially allowed to go there. There’s no commercial routes. Our Tutors would throw six sorts of fits if they even knew I was telling you this.” She winked again at Piet, who took up the story.
“You really don’t want to go there,” the rat warned. “It’s the sort of place where people only smile when they see what you’ve got for them.”
“And if you’ve not got them anything?” Nancy’s eyes widened.
The rat shook his snout, sorrowfully. “Then if they smile – it means they’ve got you. Detectives aren’t welcome there, and that’s true for a lot of places I know around here.”
Nancy caught Isabella’s eye, and the mole smiled reassuringly. Evidently the two rodents were telling the exact truth. She relaxed, comforted. “Term hasn’t started yet, though. We could be anywhere on the planet, and our Tutors couldn’t complain officially. I’d like to find out more.”
Piet raised an eyebrow. “I could get you an invite to our club, if you liked,” he suggested. “Some people there might be able to tell you more than I can. It’s a strange place, called the Temple of Continual Reward. Members only, but I think I could get you in tomorrow. Of course,” he hesitated “I’d have to make sure you talked with the right people. Some of them are crooks.”
Beryl agreed wholeheartedly, and stood up. “It’s five o’clock, Piet, and the baccarat tables will be open. I’ve heard somebody has a new “system” and I’d like to see if it can beat the house.”
“So do I!” The two rodents looked at each other, and making their farewells they left paw in paw.
There was a minute’s silence. “Isabella?” Nancy queried her new friend.
The mole frowned. “They were not lying,” she declared. “Everything they said, they believed. But … they were thinking. Thinking very hard. As if they were doing crossword puzzles.”
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Nancy declared. “We’re going to have to use our wits, ourselves! I’m not surprised there’s crooks around every corner if these islands have only two Detectives.” She smiled. “Well, now they have four. It’s just that nobody knows it yet.”