home - contact - credits - new - links - history - maps - art - story
Update 11 November 2005
The Coral Curtain
An Entertainment by Simon Barber
|The Coral Curtain
by Simon Barber
Sgt. Brush © E.O.Costello (many thanks for the dialogue coaching!),
other characters S. Barber, free for Spontoon use.
Bright late Summer sun streamed down on the balcony of the Freya Hotel as Nancy Rote stepped out clad in her dressing-gown, looking up the hill towards what her map named as Tower Hill Park. The Freya was one of only a pawfull of hotels on the North side of Casino Island; its visitors seemed mostly to be commercial travellers and other serious-minded folk rather than tour-boat tourists who were attracted to the bright lights and diversions on the far side of the island.
The young squirrel stretched, confident that nobody could see her from the hotel, and the houses around were all still sleeping at seven o’clock. She raised an eyebrow at her reflection in the open glass door. “They’re used to seeing local girls in little more than flower garlands anyway. I should get used to it.” She stepped through her exercises grateful for the cool dawn breeze; although Spontoon had the reputation of a tropical island it was actually quite far North and had a definite Summer and Winter climate.
A brisk shower and fur-dry followed, and after choosing a light blue Summer dress and sun-hat with lace trimmings she went down to breakfast. The same lepine waitress was there as the day before: Nancy noted that today the menu and place settings were all ready for her.
“There is one thing I’ve been trying to find,” Nancy asked her as soon as the breakfast order had been passed to the kitchens “a proper phrase book or dictionary of Spontoonie. I tried to order one from home – the best catalogues had nothing, even out of print. Samoan, Swahili or Sanskrit had a dozen each to choose from – but Spontoonie wasn’t even mentioned.”
The rabbit’s ear twitched. “Miss? Spontoonies learn other languages. I have English, French and Spanish; my manager has Chinese and Japanese as well. There’s no demand from outlanders to speak our language.”
Nancy looked the waitress up and down shrewdly. “It wouldn’t take much,” she opined. “Surely you have anthropomorphologists working around the islands? I know when explorers find those Lost Valleys in the Himalayas and such, they can put together a basic dictionary inside a month.” She well remembered the stunning discovery in the Chandrahabesha Gorge the previous year, with the Lost Army of the Pharaoh preserving a five-thousand year old oral tradition of their complete culture. It had been a shame that one of the explorers had been a carrier of Delhi Mange which in the peculiar climate of the valley had proven completely fatal to all the inhabitants within a week.
The waitress looked uncomfortable. “It’s a mixed language. Words from here and there. Those Anthropomorphologists don’t respect it very much, they come out from Geographical Societies that have been going since before anyone lived on these islands. Not like Sanskrit, thousands of years of stories to tell.”
Nancy’s long tail waved. Here was a Mystery, the kind of thing she loved. “People change languages all the time. I’ve learnt standard Norwegian, and “Nynorsk” too, that’s newer than Spontoon. There’s lots of books about that.”
“Well, Miss – it’s just that nobody ever does classes in Spontoonie. People who need to learn it, need to convince a Native to teach them. I’ve hardly ever heard of anyone doing that, though.” With that she served breakfast and retreated rapidly to the kitchen.
Nancy chewed her nut porridge thoughtfully. She had found two Mysteries already; Main Island and the language. It could well be the two were linked. She was sure she would see some of Main Island at Songmark; the course prospectus had photographs of jungle navigation and survival exercises there. But that would probably be in well-supervised groups, much as regular tourists were carefully shepherded by qualified Guides. If she could get some of the language down and then get over there unobserved … she smiled. That was a project all right, but it was one for later. Today she had other nuts to shell.
An hour later, she was waiting in the hallway of the guest house her friend Isabella stayed at, just off Market Square Plaza. Isabella! Nancy thought of her new friend, suppressing a shudder as she remembered the way the star-nose mole’s snout wriggled like a pink sea anemone. She had not seen any others on Spontoon so far, and doubted any other species would ever appreciate the Mixtecan girl for her looks. Unconsciously she smoothed back her own bob of blonde head-fur.
“Still, we’re here at Songmark for what we can do, not what we look like. This isn’t a film studio,” she reminded herself sternly. “If Isabella has that rare talent, it’s strength worth having. I wish I could do that if I didn’t have to look like her; everyone should to make the most of what they’ve got. Weasels don’t usually go around complaining they can’t beat rhinos at weight lifting, or rhinos that they can’t beat weasels at gymnastics.”
Just then the girl in question appeared at the top of the stairs, dressed in a pale grey frock that Nancy privately thought did very little for her figure. The mole’s figure in fact brought the word “fire hydrant” to mind, and Nancy found herself mentally sketching suitable designs. She enjoyed a challenge.
“Nancy! It is a fine day to explore. Where shall we be going?” Isabella’s bright and beady eyes took in the hallway and the streaming sunlight outside.
“Well, we won’t be heading back to Police headquarters any time this week,” Nancy laughed, her tail waving. “I only brought my Songmark uniform with me for outdoor work, and it seems we can’t wear them yet. We’ve a luncheon date with Beryl and her friend, but until then – I think we have time for some shopping.”
On enquiry the hotel proved to have business directories for the whole of Casino Island, and it was scarcely two minute’s work to mark on the map the “Adventurer’s Outfitters.” According to the desk clerk, many tourists bought entire outdoor outfits suitable for a year’s hard gold prospecting in the jungles of Papua New Guinea (or its gold-less neighbour Pauper New Guinea) and after a few days sedately walking around trails on South Island took them home to languish in wardrobes forever.
Three minutes later they were standing in front of “Eriksson’s Outdoors”, a shop whose windows had an imposing display of Solar Topees, machetes and jodhpurs that were so tight on the shop dummy that Nancy was sure they must have been stitched on in place. The dummy was definitely modelled on an Adventure film star rather than most of the tourists window-shopping outside imagining themselves in the outfit.
“So much to choose from! And so much to carry.” Isabella marvelled at a display. Evidently silver crucifixes and garlic were thought essential for a devout vegetarian to carry into the wilds. “Nancy, Songmark will provide what we need of this. It is in the prospectus.”
“I’m sure they will – when we register. And after that there’ll be no chance to explore on our own.” Nancy waited patiently while a customer finished his purchase, noting what was considered useful in the neighbourhood. Iron spikes, lamp oil, coils of rope, patent-medicine “Healing Potions” and ten-foot poles were best sellers at Eriksson’s. It was a well-stocked place to be sure, she told herself, watching as the assistant finished the order adding a free box of safety matches and two of Mortal Danger matches.
Half an hour later she was being measured up for an outdoor outfit: from the catalogue she had picked out the “Stanley” pattern of tropical dress, complete with bush jacket and shrub trousers. Behind her, Isabella applauded. “Bravo! You will be striking fear into crooks. Father he has hired Gauchos from the South as special policemen, they are dressed much the same. They brought their ways along with them from the pampas. Fierce men.”
Nancy’s large tail swished, to the discomfort of the two Chinese mice who were trying to get a tape measure around it. “Well, I’ve heard there’s all sorts of smuggling and illegal trading around these islands,” she agreed. “I can hardly go through the jungles in a sun-frock.” She considered Isabella’s remarks, remembering films and newsreels she had seen of South America. “Can you use a lasso? Or a bolas?”
“I can! Father’s men they taught me. Difficult to learn, though.”
“But useful in bringing crooks down with, once you know how.” Nancy mused “Isabella – that’s something I’d like to learn.” There was a very comprehensive self-defence element on the Songmark course, but it always paid to have an edge or speciality nobody else around could match. She added a lariat and a bolas to her list of essential supplies. Quite likely the local constables would object to anyone wandering around Casino Island armed with the two-foot machete the store dummy sported, but a length of rope had many perfectly innocent explanations.
The shopkeeper assured her that his staff would get to work right away on the order; September was the tail end of the season for tourist buyers and filling the orders from genuine Adventurers was a fickle market. Prudently, Nancy applied for a charge card – she had one for each of the main department stores back in Creekside, but they would take two weeks to send out to Spontoon by train and boat if she was lucky. Two weeks would be too late, she reminded herself. Term would be starting by then.
Outside, Casino Island was its usual bustling place. Nancy’s eyes were drawn to the Western docks and familiar funnels of the Rain Island cruise ship “Skookum City” that she had arrived on, and was due to sail back in another three days. She swallowed hard at the sight. Although the company onboard had not been to her tastes, there was still something … reassuring about having the ship still there ready to take her home if she wanted.
The squirrel set her jaw defiantly, and her tail waved. This is the place I need to be, she told herself. Spontoon was proving a place of mystery and adventure already; she felt the familiar sensations rising as they did at the start of a case. “Isabella. We’ve still got an hour to our luncheon date. Where’s a good spot to get a view of the islands?”
“Is Tower Hill Park,” the mole’s pink snout waved towards the hilltop. “I found it the first day I come here. Many strange ruins.”
Nancy smiled, feeling her interest rise. Strange ruins were the sort of things that appealed to her.
It was hardly three minutes from the shop to the highest point on Casino Island, but then the island itself was hardly ten minute’s brisk walk across. They had left the major hotels on the South coast, and took a road that wound up past pleasant houses and high-walled gardens to the top of the hill.
“Tourist guide book says these are ruins from oldest time, before any Spontoon families returned,” Isabella pointed to the weathered stones on the hilltop. “Islands abandoned for hundreds of years, nobody says why. When people came back a hundred years ago these were waiting for them.”
“It’s certainly not here for the tourists,” Nancy agreed, running her paw over one of the great monoliths. There were carvings on it worn by the years, and one side had evidently been chiselled away, decades earlier. “Someone’s tried to wipe off the carvings years ago. I wonder why?” She examined one worn engraving with her magnifier, having decided not to take the police Sergeant’s advice and leave it packed.
“In Mixteca, it would be missionaries,” Isabella looked at the stylised designs that survived. “Always they try to stop old heathen traditions.” Her snout twitched. “We have churches and festivals now in Mixteca that are half our own old ways, though they say they are all Christian. Some Saint’s days they are on the old festival days, and many Saints are not celebrated as in Rome.”
“When I get my outdoor suit made, I’ll see if there’s anything on top of them,” the squirrel mused, surveying the vertical but rough-faced blocks that towered fifteen feet above her with a natural climber’s judgement. “It looks like you could get up there – but I’m hardly dressed for it right now!” She wore her usual elegant blue shoes with narrow two-inch heels, always impeccably polished. “Some of these carvings do look extremely strange.”
Suddenly they both turned round at the sound of a giggle behind them. Standing there was a grey-furred shrew girl dressed in a strange sort of flying overall, with more pockets than Nancy had ever seen in a single garment. All the pockets bulged, some showing tools and assorted components.
“You should see the originals!” The newcomer’s eyes were shiny with an odd intensity; her long nose twitched as she looked around. “The Missionaries tried to chisel off the designs when they first got here – but they didn’t know. They thought they were only carvings. Get rid of them and people would forget. They didn’t know they were all drawn from life.”
Nancy looked the newcomer up and down, mainly down. Although the overalls were clean they bore signs of frequent heavy use; this was not someone who bought a costume to briefly pose for holiday photographs. There were tie tapes at the wrists and ankles where a tourniquet would be pulled tight in an emergency, and the cuffs were pulled back to show a pilot’s chronograph that would set anyone back a hundred pounds and more. It looked huge on the tiny shrew, almost like an alarm clock strapped to her wrist.
“Good morning!” She remembered her manners. “I’m Nancy Rote, this is my friend Isabella Rodriquez. We’re both new Songmark girls, starting this term.” She paused, taking in more details. “Are you one as well?”
The long snout bobbed as the shrew nodded in glee. “Good deduction! How did you work it out?”
Nancy’s tail swished. “One, you don’t look like a tourist, two, you don’t sound like a local. You’re wearing a flying suit. Your shoelaces are double-knotted, so they won’t come undone. I do that with my hiking boots. Most tourists stick together in groups – being here alone is unusual, most girls our age come here with friends or family. I know Songmark students are starting to arrive, and we’re looking for them.”
“Smart!” The shrew applauded. “I’m Ally Zarahoff. Ally’s short for Alpha, of course.”
“Of course,” murmured Nancy, dipping an ear wryly. The shrew was exhausting to look at; she never stopped moving as if she was a shark that would sink if it ever rested. Although Ally was even shorter than Isabella and far lighter, she seemed to take up more space as she almost blurred with constant motion. “Where are you from?”
A pair of bright eyes twinkled. “I’m nearly local. A little island in the Nimitz Sea. Not four hours flight away.” Again came that giggle. “It’s very – different. Different from this though. We don’t get tourists.” She paused. “Well, sometimes. But they don’t come back. You see?”
“Not Krupmark? We heard of that.” Isabella’s snout tendrils twitched, straining to gage the newcomer’s electrical taste.
“Oh no. Not there. We’ve a nice island; it’s got everything we need, called Cranium.” Ally’s gaze was piercing, almost like looking into a searchlight. “It’s wonderful! You can see sights there!” She patted the monolith. “Oh yes you can.” With that she rummaged around in her pocket, and opened a packet of food. “Are you hungry? I’ve got protein and vitamines.” Without another word she started rapidly chewing, and offered a bar of dried meat with each paw.
Nancy politely declined, but Isabella took a bar and sniffed it cautiously. She took a tentative bite. “It’s good,” the mole pronounced. “What is in it?”
Ally cocked her head on one side, her whiskers twitching as she swallowed. “Protein and vitamines.”
“Yes, but what sort of protein? What sort of animal?”
The shrew airily waved her tail. “Just protein. We do experiments. You know? It’s very nutritious.”
Isabella swallowed with a horrified expression, and hastily stuffed the rest of the bar in her bag. “It is good meeting you, we must be getting along now.” Her snout tendrils writhed. “Nancy, we must not be late.”
Nancy raised an eyebrow; they had half an hour still to spare. But she bade the shrew a polite farewell and followed Isabella’s hurried progress out of the park.
Once round the corner, Nancy looked the mole up and down sharply. “That was rather rude, Isabella. First impressions are important, and we’ll be living and working together for three whole years. What on earth made you run out like that? Was she lying about something?”
Isabella looked up at her. “People say we can read minds. We cannot, nobody can. Not thoughts.” She paused. “Have you seen a piece of sound film, with the jagged line next to each frame that stores the sound? You don’t hear it. A film expert can tell one sound from another, song of birds, sounds of battle.” Her tendrils twitched convulsively. “I not like what I see in that head.”
Nancy’s ears half dipped. “Well, at least she wasn’t lying,” she declared. “If she’s studying at Songmark there can’t be much wrong with her. The school’s always had far more girls apply than they can possibly take, and this year it’s a lot more so, with the Spanish war closing the European one.” She considered that, her mind racing. Nobody was perfect, and from what she had heard Songmark selected not well-rounded average characters but folk with extreme talents in one direction or another. That often went with extreme problems in other directions, which three years in a rather radical course would hopefully correct or at least point in useful paths. Rough diamonds were valuable, but far more so properly polished.
Isabella cast her a glance. “It may be. But I am tonight praying she does not go in our dorm!”
They strolled West along the contouring road, Nancy counting out the houses on her tourist map. The map was mostly a list of bars and tourist attractions, but it did have all the street names and numbers. Only a few things caught her eye as being missing from the map; a pair of industrial structures on the Northern shore near a stream valley, and the new dock that her ship had arrived at. Spontoon was developing, she told herself.
“Well, it certainly looks respectable enough,” Nancy declared, as they arrived at the address given. “It doesn’t look like a church, this Temple of Continual Reward. They like their privacy, though.”
What they could see from the outside was a smooth, high wall that looked as if it enclosed a large garden. It did not have barbed wire or broken glass on top, but instead a smooth pipe that was pivoted to turn and spill anyone trying to grab the top edge. Nancy’s tail twitched, acknowledging the efficient design.
Right on schedule, an inconspicuous door opened and Beryl appeared, the mouse clad in a very sleek white silk dress. Beryl liked silk, it seemed, and could well afford it. “Good morning!” Her large ears perked up at the sight of the two new arrivals, and she rubbed her paws together with glee.
“Good morning,” Nancy smiled. “Did your evening at the Casino go well?”
Beryl paused for a second, her whiskers twitching in concentration as she measured her reply. “Oh, yes. I think I’ve spotted some weaknesses in the way they deal. The Casino would be very interested to know about it. Still, I can afford to play every now and then.”
“Beryl deals in investments,” Nancy explained to the Mixtecan girl. “She seems to do very well out of it.”
“I do!” The mouse’s eyes gleamed. “I can honestly say, I always manage to sell for more than my investments ever cost me.” Her gaze wandered past them to the distant view of the South shore, with the Casino and the Rainbow Bridge. “Have you thought about taking up my offer? The world’s full of opportunities, especially out here. I always say, there’s one born every minute.”
“I’ll consider it, when I see how much of my allowance is left by the start of term,” Nancy laughed, reassured by Isabella’s faint approving nod. “But you were going to show us around this social club today?”
“Oh, yes. Piet has arranged everything.” Beryl’s gaze flashed over the two guests, seeming somehow amused. “Just follow my lead. Remember, there are some dangerous crooks in here, it’d be a bad move to let them know you’re detectives.”
A sensible girl, Nancy thought approvingly. I hope the rest of Songmark is like her. She followed the mouse eagerly through the door into the Temple of Continual Reward.
That evening, Nancy sat up straight at the writing table of her room in the Freya Hotel, composing her first letter home. She tapped her teeth lightly with the pen and settled down to write, her clear bold script filling several pages.
Dear Father, she wrote, Spontoon is proving everything I hoped it would be. It is as pretty as the guidebooks say, but if that was all there was I fear I should soon get bored of even the most heavenly beaches! You know how I get when I am on a case; I have only been here three days and it has all started again!
A full page described her meeting with Isabella, and her general views of the island. She put the pen down a minute, and her snout wrinkled. Weighing each word carefully, she went back to her task.
I fear my letters of introduction went better with our Ambassador than with the local police, she wrote. Police Chief Pickering will be returning next week, when I hope to present him with the solution of my first case. That should certainly put his subordinates in their place – and show them the value of a keen amateur, doing the job for the sport of it, over a mere paid employee.
In fact, it looks as if I am in a perfect place to practice my vocation. She smiled, a hard smile as her tufted ears dipped. I had one encounter with a most ill-mannered Sergeant, who I feel sure will be put firmly in his place by his Chief when I am properly introduced. It is hard to credit, but not just Casino Island but the whole Spontoon chain are trying to get by with just two detectives, which could hardly cover a single respectable hotel around the clock! Anyone would think they would be grateful for some help.
I have heard about some of my classmates, and the news is not wholly encouraging. Our Seniors seem to be rather a rough bunch. You might wonder if any of them have helped out the Authorities, who seem to be in such need of it. I have heard of one Songmark girl who tackled a mugger quite successfully, which would have been good if she had simply disarmed him and held him in Citizen’s Arrest until the Constables arrived. Self-defence is taught here to quite high degrees, and she would surely been able to do so. Instead she decided to break his jaw in two places and his arm in five, and throw him off the dock where he landed unconscious and would surely have drowned if someone else had not fished him out. My friend Millicent at the Embassy says he may never recover the full strength of his arm again. This Miss Bourne-Phipps seems to believe in rougher justice than you taught me, Father. But then again, her own parent is a soldier and probably got away with much that a proper investigation would have been horrified by.
Still, there are exceptions. Today I was with another Senior girl, Beryl Parkesson, a polite and well-spoken murine lady who was only too eager to introduce me to her friends. She had managed to get it out of me that I am interested in detection, and showed me off to some friends of hers at a local Country Club. The crowd were local businessmen and ladies mostly, who assured me that they were very interested in knowing who had an interest in detecting crime, and just how capable they were.
Nancy put her pen down and frowned. Despite everything, there was a nagging feeling of doubt in the back of her mind. Things had gone very well that day at the Temple of Continual Reward; Beryl had proven the perfect hostess and introduced her to Mister Fedrik van Hoogstraaten, her friend’s father. “The Dutchman” as he was called, had a thriving interest in the island’s tourist trade with investments in hotels and Casinos, which he claimed he was always having trouble with the Police over. Isabella had silently confirmed everything as the literal truth.
The young squirrel stood, and began to pace the room. “Isabella seems honest,” she ticked off the points on her fingers “but is she right? How accurate is she really? She admitted she’s not very practiced at her family talent. Everyone knows what star-nosed moles can do. There might be ways to trick them.”
Her ears went down as she recalled a cautionary tale from her Sunday School back in Creekside. The pastor had told of a fur who had signed his soul away for “more money than he could ever get to spend.” The Devil had waited till the ink on the contract was dry, tossed him a single wooden nickel then grabbed him. “You’ll never get to spend that much, where you’re going” he had smiled, as he dragged the unwise sinner away. Even literal truth could be deceptive.
Nancy stopped. Confidence, that was the key. This was her first real case since things had gone so awfully wrong that Spring; she had pulled herself up by her own determination afterwards, but having lost her former unbroken record of successes, as well as much else, it was a matter of getting her confidence back. She would rely on her own wits; listen to Isabella but make up her own opinions. With a determined nod, she resumed her letter.
The Temple of Continual Reward, as they call their club, is a very well-appointed place, she wrote. I doubt there are many “Temples” with a cocktail bar or a pair of full-sized pool tables, but everyone says Spontoon is very different from other places. Beryl drinks improbable things with umbrellas and cocktail cherries included, but I can report the fruit juice is particularly good as well. I was quite on my guard, of course. Even the year before, she had acknowledged that investigators were liable to be “doped” by villains in the most innocuous of drinks, so with her Father’s permission she had investigated over the course of a week after dinner, with her regular drinks “spiked” with various concentrations of pure alcohol until she could spot the effects. The mango juice Beryl had offered her had been nothing but that. She smiled, picking up the pen.
It certainly looks as if it is a good opening for my next case. Although most of the club’s members were not there so early in the day, Beryl and her gentleman friend Piet confirm that many of them are crooks. There is a great rivalry between them, they say, and it is entirely possible some will slip me information to use against their competition. The criminal’s code would frown on telling things to the police, but a private investigator might have an easier time of it. At any rate, I hope to find out! For later on, I have heard there is a whole island based on thievery and smuggling, called Krupmark. It needs stopping. This will be a big task, and evidently something the local Law feels is beyond them. I will see what can be done about that one, before I graduate here.
With a few best wishes to her friends and family (especially her new step-mother Georgina) Nancy finished the letter and carefully sealed the envelope adding a single hair of her tail as seal, invisible under the gum. Any tampering would be sure to break it, and it would be a well-supplied snooper who happened to have a matching squirrel hair to replace it.
Having finished one letter, she re-read the one that had been awaiting her on her return to the hotel. With a thrill she had recognised the paw writing of her new friend Millicent at the British Embassy; just as intriguing was her invitation to luncheon the next day.
“The Shepherd’s Hotel,” Nancy laughed, looking up the address in the tourist guide book, which awarded the restaurant five gold stars. “It looks like my social calendar really is filling up!”
The next day was a scorching one, and Nancy looked through her wardrobe thoughtfully before deciding on a lemon-yellow dress that went with her fur, complete with white gloves and an elegant shady hat. She looked at her reflection in the mirror and gave an approving nod; it would never do to look like a one-star customer in a five-star hotel.
“It’ll be into belted shorts and steel toecapped boots, quite soon enough,” she reminded herself. The Songmark prospectus was very clear as to how much storage was available in the dorm; a wardrobe the size of the one her current clothes filled at the Freya Hotel, would have to do for her entire dorm. Anything else had to stay in trunks in storage. “At least, if Isabella and Ally are in my dorm, there’ll be no trouble with getting the clothes mixed up,” she added with a sharp-toothed grin; neither of them reached up to her shoulder in height.
After a call at the Post Office to send her first letter home winging its way via airmail, she approached the Shepherd’s Hotel with great interest. Like all the grander ones, it stood on the Southern coast looking out towards South Island, with the decorative breakwater and the Rainbow Bridge in front of it. To judge from the crowds, the five stars were quite an attraction.
“Miss Rote! You’re right on time.” She heard the familiar voice from behind her, and turned to see Millicent stepping out of a side room. The tabby girl was dressed in a plain black frock, equally suited to respectable work at the Embassy or a luncheon at Spontoon’s finest. “How have you been settling in?”
Nancy smiled, looking her up and down. “Very well, thank you. I’m finding my balance here, you might say. There’s certainly a lot to learn, even apart from the Songmark course.”
“Oh yes. Shall we go in? I have a reservation for noon. It’s reservations only here, of course.” With that, Millicent led the way inside, past the respectful bow of the uniformed door fur.
“Ah, mademoiselles. Enchanted to see you, Miss Ponsonby!” They were met by a figure that had Nancy’s tail twitch at the sight; a handsome and aristocratic mannered squirrel gentleman, impeccably dressed. “And on time to the moment juste; your table awaits.”
Millicent nodded graciously. “Very good, André. This is Miss Rote, her father’s Governor of her home state in America. Nancy, this André d’Arbes, the Maitre‘d here. He keeps the place in order.”
“Mademoiselle is too kind. Mais oui, I minister to the soul of this place.” Mr. D’Arbes escorted them to a nice table and helped them to their seats, before clicking his paw imperiously for a waiter. “It is I who make this place as it is.” Just then his attention was caught by a new arrival; the elegant tail twitched and with an elegant farewell André stalked across the room to tell an improperly dressed tourist that he had evidently mistaken Shepherds Hotel for the egg and chips stall at the Amusement Park end of town.
Millicent nodded approvingly, as she surveyed the menu. “He encourages those who deserve encouragement, and … visa versa. He has his work cut out for him around here though – just you watch him and you’ll see.”
Nancy smiled, perusing the menu and ordering a potato and Brazil-nut salad, with the house special dressing. Her own tail twitched slightly as she watched the Maitre‘d share out deferential approval and ice-water scorn where relevant, in one case sending a party of loud-shirted tour-boat arrivals running for the door in flustered embarrassment. Of course, she reminded herself, they may all be perfectly respectable people in their way and in the right place – but the place is not here. And André was a very handsome and efficient squirrel. For a minute she watched him, stern as a judge handing out sentences on ne’er-do-wells, and felt her tail responding.
The food was served promptly and proved as excellent as the surroundings promised; after a few minutes of small-talk Millicent cleaned her muzzle with a dainty napkin and looked Nancy over with a cool gaze which the squirrel returned. “How do you like Spontoon so far? Making much progress in your investigations?”
Nancy was silent for a few seconds. “It could be better,” she admitted candidly. “Of course, wherever I went, it’d be harder than working in my home town where the Police and everyone know me. I have to build up a local reputation, with one or two good cases. The Police don’t seem very efficient around here, about using amateur investigators.” She briefly described her attempt at liaison. “You’d think they could at least give me a trial. And I don’t mean for wasting Police time.”
Millicent’s whiskers twitched. “You’d have been better off somewhere in our territories! A proper letter of introduction can take a girl of good family a long way.” She shook her head. “Shame about Spontoon. It could have been a much better place. It all went wrong forty years ago, before it had hardly started.”
“I’d been meaning to ask about that. There’s not much in the Encyclopaedia about it, and I know Diplomats get the full story. The one that doesn’t get in the history books.” Nancy recalled her encounter the previous day at the ancient ruins on Tower Hill Park. “The islands were abandoned, I heard, and only resettled less than a century back. Why was that?”
“Ah. That’s an interesting one.” Millicent raised an eyebrow. “Why was it abandoned? Nobody knows. Some Pacific islands were hit by volcano ash or tidal waves, but not Spontoon. It all happened before civilisation reached this part of the globe, we’d hardly found our way across the Atlantic, let alone the Pacific. There’s Native stories about a curse or something, but there always are.” She toyed with her dessert spoon. “It may have been a plague of some sort, certainly the islands were awfully unhealthy for the first years when the plantation companies arrived. They had to import replacement labour from all sorts of places – and it still shows.”
“But wasn’t it a British Colony? The Encyclopaedia said something about that.” Nancy recalled her brother having being an avid stamp collector; the first time she had heard of Spontoon was him wondering why they never issued regular Empire series issues.
“Well. That’s a strange one. It’s got a few pages in our Diplomatic training manuals – mostly how not to do things, I fear.” Millicent stirred the spoon around in her coffee. “The island was empty, and unclaimed. Now, the usual thing is that we, or someone, claims the territory, then moves in and starts commerce. This time, private enterprise got in first. Inside ten years there were a dozen plantations working on the island, hiring in staff where they could, and not paying taxes. You can imagine.”
Nancy nodded. Unsettled frontiers tended to lose their anarchy as soon as they started making money, rapid gold-rushes and such aside. “That’s an unusual thing. You usually have Natives that need governing.”
“Yes! But not here. We suddenly had British companies operating without any sort of protection or control. But it wasn’t a Colony. Somehow, nobody ever got around to claiming it. We had a Naval presence for a few years and there’s a big mansion on Main Island they call the Governor’s House … but it was mostly just responding to headaches. It looked like a Colony, but you’ll never find it listed at the time. We were there because the plantations were there, to protect our Citizens – and yes, to collect their import and export fees. But economics changed and most of the plantations folded or sold up … so we cut our losses.”
“And the people,” Nancy mused. “They were brought in to do a job, the job stopped but the people stayed.”
“Exactly.” Millicent’s ears dipped. “If you can believe any of the locals, you’d think they had some sort of grievance against us. What on earth for? It’s not like the Hawaiian Islands where the Americans invaded and conquered the Natives – there were no Natives here! We brought the telegraph line, built the first warehouses and such – what they call the “Old China Dock” is from that time – protected them from Pirates and slavers, everything. If it had been a proper Colony, we’d never have abandoned it just because it stopped making money.” She shrugged. “Yes, we abandoned them. I’ll admit, we wronged them there. But for the rest of it – the locals are SO unreasonable.”
“They’re not very eager to open up,” Nancy admitted. “I’ve been trying to find out how to learn the language.”
“Ah. Now we come to it.” Millicent finished her coffee and steepled her paws together, looking at Nancy shrewdly. “I’m glad you brought that up. I’ve asked your Ambassador about you, of course, and he’s been telling me some very impressive things. I hope we can help each other.”
Nancy leaned in closer, intrigued. “Go on.” She liked Millicent, she decided; obviously a feline of discernment. She knew that to be The Honourable Millicent meant her family was in he nobility, even if Millicent herself had no official title as yet. Still, she was scarcely a year older than Nancy herself.
“I’m certain I can help you,” Millicent offered. “And in fact, I will. I’ve got a copy of the Briefing Notes they issued me when I arrived; two hundred pages of what the staff have gathered over the years. I think you’ll find it interesting reading. And there’s a grammar and dictionary included, privately printed. It was harder to compile than most languages; the locals aren’t always … shall I say scrupulously honest about telling you the real meaning. It’s a stock part of Native humour, such as it is.”
Nancy’s eyes widened. “Thank you! That’d be a big help!” But one ear half-dipped as she thought it through. “And in return - what do you want me to do?”
Millicent smiled. “Why, just carry on as you are! Keep your ears and eyes open, investigate whatever comes your way. Track down crooks and suspicious characters – there’s enough of those around here to keep a platoon of you busy – and if there’s anything you think would make a good story, I’m always happy to hear it. That’s all.” She sighed. “Everyone thinks the Diplomatic Corps is one round of social occasions, trying to squeeze information out of our opposite numbers any way we can. It’s not. I wish sometimes it was! There are so many restrictions on what we can do. It’s rather frustrating at times.”
“I imagine.” Nancy had avidly read books of foreign travel, and recalled one of a diplomat trying to deal with the Imperial Chinese court. “The Chinese Imperial Palace had a jade curtain – no foreigners allowed beyond there. They would send envoys out with strange decisions … and there was no way of ever knowing why. Everything beyond the jade curtain was a mystery.”
“Exactly! Except around here it’d be a coral curtain. I’d like to help you get through it. You haven’t got to work with so many rules limiting you. I’m sure it’ll prove – fascinating, no matter what happens.” Millicent reached down and passed Nancy a parcel that felt like two large books. “Enjoy.”
“You had them ready for me? Although I might have said no?” Nancy’s eyes widened.
The feline looked her over astutely. “You’re Nancy Rote. Your reputation, as they say, precedes you. I didn’t think you’d say no.” With that she rose. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll have to get back to the Embassy. Being late would be most – undiplomatic of me.”
Waving her new friend farewell, Nancy relaxed in her corner seat and sipped her jasmine tea. There was a time and place for everything; she would retire early that evening and devote herself to the books. She smiled as she watched André d’Arbes reduce a badly dressed diner to tears with a few remarks, as cutting as a well-honed scalpel wielded by a surgeon. The Shepherd’s Hotel restaurant was a treasure like a garden of exotic flowers, and like all gardens needed ruthless pruning and weeding to keep the ranker growths at bay.
But it was more than that which put the spring in her stride as she carried the two books out past the respectful bow of the doorman. She felt the weight of the books under her arm, and carried them as if they were Pirate treasure.
“The Coral Curtain,” she mused to herself. “Nancy Rote and the Coral Curtain Mystery. Yes, I like the sound of that.”