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Update 28 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.
“Well, I’ve been here four days”, Nancy Rote told her reflection in the wardrobe mirror “It is September, after all. It had to rain some time.” Outside, the balcony was awash as a brief wave of tropical storm brushed over the Spontoon chain. The beach attendants would be taking the day off, but the owners of the Casino and other indoor entertainments would be rubbing their paws in glee as they cashed in on the late-season windfall.
The room at the Freya Hotel was small but comfortable; it had a single bed, a wardrobe with mirror and a writing desk well supplied with hotel stationary; everything she needed. In a little over two weeks she knew she would be in even more Spartan surroundings at Songmark, where she would be sharing with three other new arrivals.
There had been a slight temptation to spend some of her allowance on some more luxurious accommodation while she had the chance; she had thought about it for a minute and laughed.
Since the previous evening Nancy had been carefully reading the British Embassy briefing notes on the Spontoon isles that her friend Millicent had loaned her. The folder was stamped “CONFIDENTIAL” in large red letters, and indeed it contained quite a lot that did not show up in the tourist guide. Millicent had warned that she would need it back by the end of the week, though naturally Nancy was taking notes of the more interesting points.
Finding her bookmark, the young squirrel sat down to concentrate as the rain hammered down outside. The history was fascinating, but best of all was the chapter on current conditions on the islands.
“Diplomatic staff should not attempt to travel unofficially outside the agreed limits, namely to Main and Sacred Island,” she read. “Information gathering is best attempted by native contacts; personal investigation is hazardous in the extreme. Other Embassies do not heed this advice. The Imperial Russian (Vostok) Embassy has as of time of writing (December 1935) lost 11 members of its staff in suspicious circumstances. Our Embassy has currently lost none, although in 1924 the Trade Attaché urgently requested reassignment after a harrowing incident while fishing off Sacred Island. He refused to give details even when safely returned to London.”
Her whiskers twitched, as she read on. Mentally she labelled her map with the official hazard warnings; labelling Sacred Island as lethal as Krupmark, but for more mysterious reasons. She recalled the current Ambassador mentioning the Vostok mission as having got a replacement staff member that week. “That makes twelve, at least. And those are just the diplomats.” True, she mused, the Imperial Russian nation had a reputation for hard-headed tactics, and was not the sort to let things pass by. “There must be something really worth discovering around here. And somebody knows about some of it. Or they’d have given up years ago.”
Just at that moment there was a knock on the door and a muffled call of “Room Service!” Nancy quietly put the documents in her trunk, closing and locking the lid before sliding the key under a chair cushion. She slipped over to the side of the door opposite the hinges, called “Just a minute!” and then instantly swung it open, jumping back prepared for a sudden rush into the room. She had not ordered any room service.
“Miss Rote? Package for you.” It was a rather damp rabbit who entered with a large, soft-looking parcel. “From Eriksson’s Outdoors. Would you sign for it please?”
“Why, of course.” Nancy gave no hint that she had been expecting something less welcome. As far as the Spontoonies were concerned, it might just as well be a social custom in her home town to stand pressed to the side of the door when opening it. She smiled, signing the delivery receipt. “Thank you!”
Once alone again, she carefully scented the package for traps and explored it pressing with careful paws before opening it. There was an encouraging absence of chloroform or ether fumes about it. In fact, the only surprises inside were pleasant ones; her “Stanley” pattern Exploration costume was of excellent quality and half a day early.
Feeling slightly like a squirrel kit at Christmas, Nancy quickly unwrapped the suit. It was a mid green colour rather than the usual khaki that explorers favoured; apart from on a beach a sand-coloured suit would stand out amongst Spontoon’s lush vegetation. Unlike some people who shopped at Eriksson’s Outdoors, she would not be spending much time being photographed on beaches. She carefully examined the trousers, noting the double fabric at the seat and knees, and the triple lockstitched seams with a bronze rivet at each stress centre. “Very nice.” She nodded approvingly. The jacket was somewhat military in appearance with large flapped pockets that secured with internal draw-cords, making each one a tightly sealable bag. If she ever had to trek a month through jungles with three pounds of gold dust or uncut gems, these were the sort of pockets she wanted.
“And even – oh. This must be what they mean by “full accessories.” The squirrel’s eyebrows rose as she pulled out some items that she had not been measured for separately. It looked like a long-sleeved shirt and bathing trunks made out of thick netting material, the strands about a quarter of an inch apart. She frowned, until she read the instructions. “Patented “Airwick” mesh gets 10 out of 10 for tropical use!” She read out, “Worn over the fur and under windproof material, works with your fur to trap air. Keeps the wet outer off your skin even when soaking wet!”
Nancy laughed, trying the new garments on. Decidedly not Paris fashions, she told herself as she fastened the jacket on. The only concessions were some strategically placed patches of silk lining, where the coarse mesh would otherwise be sure to rub her up the wrong way.
Once dressed in her full suit, Nancy went through her full morning exercise routine, the lithe squirrel throwing herself into it with vigour. Ten minutes later she stopped, panting slightly, and nodded. The “Stanley” suit fitted perfectly, but was cut to be loose enough in all the right places for the most active use. “Very nice indeed. And it doesn’t label me as a Songmark girl on sight.”
With that, she flung herself flat on the bed to resume work on her reading. She had expected any diplomatic guide to be heavy going, but this was something written for informal use inside the Embassy, and not as part of any Government report – indeed, privileged information, truly “Private law” in action. She read on about the Gunboat Wars, a trivial police action according to world histories apart from the Battle of the Holy Gale which had occurred on the far side of the Nimitz Sea and hardly affected the Spontoons at all.
“It’s trivial to the half a dozen nations who only had a few ships apiece involved in it …” she wrote in her own notebook, “but not to the folk who had to face the combined fleet.” The Diplomatic notes were full of contemporary accounts from trustworthy folk who had stayed on after the islands were left to their own devices; many were on record as saying this could never have happened had the islands been even a Protectorate, let alone a colony. This was, she mused, probably true. Invade any part of an Empire and the rest of it would come to its aid.
“The natives are currently unwilling to discuss the details of this period,” she read, “and from this date the growing trend to independence greatly accelerated, much to the disappointment of some original Plantation owners who were convinced it would lead to closer ties with home. Many of them left in the following few years, and by the time of the Great War the islands were increasingly looking away from what they call “Euro” influences. It was a great shock to the island population, especially as there were various regrettable incidents as badly led troops ran amok. The legalities were unclear in that the main powers were facing not regular troops but a militia of a nation that many did not formally recognise, and some chose not to treat them as a legitimate army. In some cases this led to Spontoon natives not being allowed to surrender but to be shot as spies, pirates and franc-tireurs.”
Nancy put in her bookmark and looked outside at the driving rain. Her elegant tail twitched. Millicent had recruited her to find out what was behind the “Coral Curtain” as she now thought of it. No, that was not quite correct – Nancy knew she would have been doing that anyway, with or without her friend’s help.
“She knows better than to try it herself, even diplomats have “accidents” when they poke their snouts in the wrong places.” Nancy’s muzzle wrinkled slightly. “So she asked me. On the other paw, she gave me the same notes with the same warnings she had herself. So I can’t say she’s doing it unfairly. And I do have the dictionary. I can make a start on that, before I take any risks.”
She rose and stretched, her tail curling and uncurling. “So I’d better make a start on that. I need to go out and get some Native script to translate. And anyway – it’ll be a test to just how weatherproof this suit really is.”
Ten minutes later, she was looking around the various shops and stalls of Ferry Square market, scarcely two hundred yards along the street from the hotel. It was perfect for her needs; the weather was keeping all the tourists in and most folk still having to shop and work would be locals.
“Excellent.” She spotted a newspaper stall, its proprietor huddled damply under a dripping corrugated iron roof. Perusing the list of newspapers and pulp magazines, she noted a few titles that certainly were not on the shelves at home in Creekside. To judge from the lurid cover of “Spicy Bell-hop Adventures” the Hotels were full of mature and very seductive widows and holidaying housewives who had their own ideas of “Room Service.” She swallowed hard as she took in the scene on the cover showing a perfectly respectable and snappily dressed young squirrel bell-hop delivering a breakfast tray to a sultry and voluptuous lady mephit who was toying with a “Do not disturb” sign.
Her eye fell on two local newspapers; they had the same heading and typeface, but one was in English while the other was in Spontoonie. A Spontoonie Rosetta Stone, she thought with glee. “Can I have two copies of the Daily Elele, one of each edition please?” She asked the paper-fur, counting out ten cowries.
The chipmunk looked at her oddly. “Regular issue’s five cowries, Miss. You don’t want the Native edition, though.”
Nancy gave her most winning smile. “I know I can’t read it. I can’t even buy a dictionary. Your island is so quaint; I just have to have it as a souvenir!”
Muttering something under his breath, the vendor accepted her coins and passed over both editions. Thanking him, Nancy neatly folded them under her jacket and trotted back up the road to the Freya Hotel, her heart pounding for more reasons than the exertion.
He didn’t want me to see this! She thought with quiet glee. And I was honest. I can’t read Spontoonie – yet. And I can’t buy a dictionary. I didn’t say I hadn’t got one.
Back in her hotel room, she spread both newspapers out on the bed and pulled out the dictionary Millicent had loaned. Rolling up her sleeves, she chose the headline story (the opening of a new Flying School on Casino Island) and set to work.
“But the thing is, the two papers just don’t say the same thing!” It was mid-morning the next day when she showed her evening’s work to Isabella, who had dropped round after the rain had stopped. “One story is not a translation of the other. Not at all.”
Isabella looked up from Nancy’s notes, and smiled faintly. “I cannot tell truths from paper, better than other people. They are very different, yes.”
“In the very first story, the English edition says this Father Dominicus has established his Flying School due to the “proven facilities available on Spontoon” as it handles the Schneider Trophy races.” Nancy tapped the headlines. “The Native version has that. But the Native version also has this piece about Police Chief Pickering having investigated the project and been before the Althing giving it a clean bill of health.” It would be something to ask the Police Chief about when he returned to duty, she told herself.
“Yes! And how it passed by only three votes, even as a one year trial. Has also got this about the Songmark staff saying “No comment.” They have rivals now.” Isabella’s facial tentacles waved. “Nancy, is this so strange? The tourists, what do they care about all of that?”
“True.” Nancy’s ears went down. “I know one thing. There’s a lot more information in the Native one. Not so many advertisements for restaurants and events, but they don’t need them. I know I’m going to be taking both editions when I can get them.”
An hour later that morning saw both girls dressed in their outdoor best, Isabella looking admiringly at Nancy’s exploring suit and planning to have one made just like it. Nobody else could see them at the minute, which was odd for such a small island.
“They call this “The Tub” on the maps,” Isabella waved at the deep hollow in the hilltop at the Western end of the island, surrounded by fresh parkland looking verdant after the previous day’s rain. “No view either way past the rim. Not a place to be if ever the Fire-gods wake again under Spontoon!”
“Yes, it’d be a risky place to be, the middle of the crater,” Nancy laughed. “But these rocks have weathered for hundreds of years. I think we’d have awhile to notice if our paws were getting warm. Anyway it’s a good place to practice, you can’t see in till you’re right on the edge. We don’t want to have to explain it to every tourist who wanders past.”
Isabella twirled the rope around her head twice, and let the end go. The lasso snaked out ten yards and dropped around a “No Littering” signpost by the path; Nancy applauded as the Mixtecan girl pulled it tight.
“There’s one crook that wouldn’t get away!” She smiled, her eyes glittering. “Now, please start with showing me the knot you use on the lariat. I need to know everything.”
Two hours of patient practice followed, with Nancy picking up the basics swiftly. She had a quick paw and a good eye for distances; by the end of the morning she was dropping the loop over the signpost at five yards more often than not. “Very handy! But I expect most people we need to use this on won’t be standing conveniently still for us.”
“Is true. Father’s men they can catch a running man, from horseback. No riding horses on Casino Island I think. But try running – past there.” Isabella twirled the loop, as she indicated a patch of grass along the side of the crushed coral path.
Nancy trotted slowly along the first time – to have Isabella’s lariat grab her around the shoulders. She was pulled up with a jerk; looking round she saw the mole had “belayed” herself and the rope around a half-tonne Tiki statue. “Good plan!”
Isabella smiled shyly. “If you were maybe a big, powerful equine man – I try and hold you alone, you would pull me along like a water skier behind a speedboat,” she pointed out. “Lasso is as secure as the weakest end.”
The next time, Nancy ran faster. Still the loop caught her with unfailing accuracy, pulling her off her paws and dropping her flat. She lay there, panting slightly as Isabella came over to loosen the slipknot that had pulled her arms, chest and tail tight together. She closed her eyes, her tail twitching slightly.
“Nancy. Look at this.” Isabella was down on all fours looking at the path. As Nancy had fallen she had left a deep scour in the coral sand path where her paw had kicked hard. “Is carvings! Carvings under sand!”
The squirrel opened her eyes, struggled up and knelt beside her friend, looking down to where the mole’s broad claws were gently scraping away the packed sand. “There’s a pavement, a stone pavement under here. These carvings” … she looked closer, keeping balance even while secured. “They’re pictographs!”
“Like old Maya temples at home, carved pavement. Different carvings. Can’t read these.” Isabella’s small round eyes scanned around the area. “We passed notice on edge of crater, say all about “The Tub”, it not mention this.” She paused. “Nancy, you think they know?”
“The locals are bound to know; some of them anyway. These sand paths didn’t lay themselves.” Nancy looked around thoughtfully. “But they didn’t bury them under turf as if they wanted to hide them permanently. So people must need to look at them sometimes. Very interesting. Let’s see if there’s any further along.”
Isabella frowned. “We need camera. Then we come back, uncover and take quick look. This would be major Tourist thing – if Natives wanted it known.”
“But they don’t want it known,” agreed Nancy. “So it might be dangerous to let them know we know.” Fortunately, there was nobody in sight. “I’ve got a Kodiak Brownie in my trunk, we’ll come back for this. Better cover this up.”
Isabella’s clawed paw smoothed the three inches of sand back over the ancient carvings, before she turned to Nancy and her snout tendrils twitched in shock. “Nancy! I am sorry. You should have said.” She loosened the lasso and coiled it at her belt.
“That’s quite all right,” Nancy said smoothly, though her ears blushed. “We’re going to have to work on getting out of this sort of situation. That’s something else I want to practice. A lot.” She caught Isabella’s surprised expression, and went on smoothly “It’s like first aid. You don’t really want to have to use it, but these things happen, and you need to learn to cope. Things … happen to sleuths, believe me.”
Both girls walked up and down on the loosened area of sand, their paw-prints disguising where it had been overturned. “When we come back with the camera, one of us will have to stay on watch,” Nancy mused, “The other to uncover a foot or so of carvings at a time, photograph it and restore it step by step. It’ll give us time to put things back in a hurry.” A thought struck her. “Ally seemed to know about those other carvings in Tower Hill Park. I wonder if she can read these for us?”
Isabella shuddered. “I ask at Hotel about Cranium Island where she come from. Is terrible place! You see films, horror films with mad scientists. Over there, that is no horror film. That is a newsreel.”
Nancy laughed. “Ally did look a little twitchy, but most shrews are like that. I’m sure underneath she’s as sane as the next girl.”
“Maybe.” Isabella said darkly. “If next girl also lives on Cranium Island and likes it.”
The mood lightened as they went down the hill and mingled with the tourists coming out for luncheon; Nancy’s own stomach felt definitely empty. Looking down at her costume, her tail twitched in amusement. “I’m hardly dressed for the Shepherd’s Hotel today! I know what Andre would say – and he’d be perfectly right.”
“Andre ?” The Mixtecan girl looked up at her.
Nancy paused, and smiled. “He’s the Maitre ‘d at Shepherds Hotel. He’s a squirrel too. He keeps order in the place. He’s awfully strict.” She felt her ears blushing again. “The restaurant has a reputation as the finest in the Spontoons and his job is to defend it. And it’s all up to him.” True, one of the other diners had complemented the (very fine) food as the work of a Chef Joseph; that might have been the one Andre had smilingly referred to as “what you Americans call so fittingly, a Hash-slinger.”
Isabella’s nose twitched, satisfied. “Is plenty of other places on Casino Island to eat! If you have money on this island, day or night it is hard to be two minutes from a meal.”
Ten minutes later they were sitting under the striped awning of Gunhild’s Restaurant, opposite Mama Malarkey’s general store. Nancy had committed the map of Casino Island to memory, and was rapidly filling in most of the blanks. “Excellent!” She declared as she sampled the salad, a substantial potato and breadfruit concoction drizzled with fresh lemon juice and just a dusting of saffron. She raised an eyebrow at Isabella’s dish, a bowl of some small boiled finger-length fish like a floppier version of whitebait. The star-nose tendrils wriggled happily as Isabella raised her bowl and slurped the meal down.
“Is how we eat in Mixteca,” Isabella caught Nancy’s gaze. “Should have more chilli though. Maybe they serve this at Songmark?”
“Not according to Beryl,” Nancy’s ears drooped. “When someone tries to look happy as they say how plentiful, filling and nutritious the diet there is, you can work out why they didn’t mention the taste. Better enjoy this while we can.” With that she dug into her salad with gusto and pesto.
She looked around at the crowded street, loud with tourists and colourful with flower lei wearing Natives. “We’ll certainly have to keep our wits about us. I know some of the islands around here are dangerous to go to. And I know we’ll be better prepared after a few terms at Songmark. The trouble is, if we don’t investigate right now – we might not have the chance later. And people don’t know yet who we are; they probably think we’re tourists. I’m sure the locals try not to harm tourists even if they do stumble onto things.”
Isabella looked worried. “I am Investigator, at home. But there I am on side of Authorities. Not worrying about them.”
Nancy nodded graciously. “I’ve had to persuade a few policemen to see things my way, around my home town. I’m sure I’ll manage it here eventually. What I need is a book on local laws. It’d be embarrassing to spend a week investigating someone, put them under Citizen’s arrest and prove he’s selling Nootnops Blue – that’s illegal most places but not here! I don’t suppose that Sergeant would be very impressed.” Her snout wrinkled. “My first case has to be something I can make stick.”
Five minutes after finishing their luncheon, Nancy was hunting for a copy of the local legal code. Unfortunately, it was not something that seemed to be in much demand from the tourists, even those who were presumably lawyers at home. Two hours of scouring every bookshop and stationers on Casino Island had Nancy gritting her teeth and looking for something she had a good excuse to break.
Eventually she gave into what had been her first thought, an idea that had been swiftly suppressed after her experience with lower ranks of Spontoon’s law and order. She asked a policeman.
“Ministry of Justice, Miss, over on Meeting Island,” the solar topee clad Constable pointed to a small island a mile or two away. “The legal code ? Well, bookshops wouldn’t sell it. It’s free to all citizens – I don’t recall anyone else has asked for a copy, so you might be in luck if you ask them.”
“Thank you, Officer,” Nancy said politely, though inside she seethed with annoyance at the wasted time. Then her tail hiked up. Whatever else happened – she would at least get her first sight of a new island.
The water-taxi took ten minutes to cross over, time Nancy spent eagerly looking at the shores of Main Island from a new angle. The taxi driver was a grizzled otter who spoke not a word after agreeing his fare, but his ears twitched alertly as Isabella talked.
“Meeting Island,” Nancy looked at the general tourist map. “The Althing buildings, the Ministries, the various support buildings and … what looks like a hospital, or possibly a sanatorium. That’s odd. It’s Spontoon buildings only, none of the foreign Embassies are over there. You’d think they’d find it handy putting all the diplomats together.”
As they crossed the waters, the two girls noted with interest the remains of the Schneider Trophy competitions. Just off the Northern tip of Eastern Island there were big black and white chequered marker pyramids on rafts marking the turn points of the racers; one of them was being towed away for another year.
“Was an exciting time, the Speed Week,” Isabella reminisced. “All the teams competing – and the street parties at the end of it! The Italians won, put down a new World Record. Strange aircraft, on water resting it looked like it had half sunk; canoes ride higher in the waves. One big wave and …” her broad paw gave a gesture suggestive of something sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
“I can see why there’s so much water exercises in the Songmark course, boating and swimming” Nancy nodded. “If things go wrong in this part of the world, the chances are you’re over water. It’s a good thing I can swim.”
“And I can! My kind is at best in the water. I have seen my uncle blindfold himself, and catch fish.” The star-nosed girl’s pink appendages wriggled. “Can feel fish in water. Works much better in water than air, our talent.”
“We’ll definitely have to get our bathing suits on. Perhaps tomorrow? The prospectus says very clearly we should exercise as much as possible before we start the course.” Nancy’s ears drooped. “I was in hospital for quite awhile this year. I’m not as fit as I have been.”
Just then, they arrived at Meeting Island. From the initial view there were no grand public buildings; as Nancy stepped up onto the dock she could see the Althing building itself. “Looks more like a gymnasium than a Parliament,” she commented. “But I don’t suppose they need very much Government. The whole island chain probably has fewer people than Creekside, even counting the tourists.” Her eyebrow rose at the sight of the guardian Tikis surrounding the building; native Religion was one thing but this was superstition plain and simple.
The Ministry of Justice did not even have its own building. On enquiry, Nancy found it took up the top floor of a very plain brick building that housed the Ministry of Public Works and the Ministry of the Interior. Now, I can believe that doesn’t need much space here, she thought somewhat savagely. When you can’t get more than two miles from the sea in the Spontoon group – there’s not much Interior to look after!
“A copy of the Criminal Code, Miss? Here you go. I’m sure you won’t beak any of our fine laws.” The badger desk clerk at the ministry handed over a slim paperback and had the effrontery to wink at her. “We don’t mind stout tourists, but we keep our lawyers hungry around here.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Nancy said politely, though she seethed inside. Her Father’s income as a respectable and well-paid lawyer was what had sent her here. Her eyes widened as she looked through the chapter headings. There were only eleven chapters, two appendices and four amendments; the last one being a law against Criminal Conspiracy that was so basic that in most countries it would have gone in at the start.
Isabella caught a glimpse of the chapter headings. “No!” She exclaimed. “Cannot put criminal, commercial and everything together in book that size!” Her voice was horrified. “Back in Mixteca we have fifteen listed offences just for looking at Policeman in funny ways!”
Nancy’s tail twitched as they walked out of the building and she spotted a handy bench. “Well, here’s somewhere we can read through the local version.” She glanced up at the mid-afternoon sun. “I doubt it’ll make us very late for tea.”
That evening, Nancy sat in her hotel room with the precious Briefing Notes and carried on working through them, filling her notebook with the high points. She looked up at the clock on the wall, stretched and smiled.
“It’s not just Spontoon I’m learning about,” she reminded herself. There was a footnote in the Songmark prospectus where successful graduates had added comments, one of them being “We learned from the staff, in lesson times. But we never stopped learning from each other.” In Mixteca, it appeared the legal code was not the expected Spanish style but a more Germanic one, after its revamping when Emperor Maximilian of Austria ruled the whole area (his descendants she knew still ruled a piece of swamp and mosquito-infested jungle on the Yucatan Peninsular, and claimed they rightfully still owned the rest. Current Mixtecans were unimpressed.) That system had a precisely tabulated legal code, even with the exact and unvarying punishments for each crime; any rowdy tourists could calculate in advance exactly how much mayhem they could cause and still pay the exact fines with a pfennig to spare.
She yawned. It was a fine night with an almost full moon, and she had been reading for three hours solidly. The evening air was inviting, and a leisurely moonlight stroll was decidedly not something that featured on Songmark schedules.
For a second she hesitated, remembering how her Father would sometimes worry when she was out late investigating a case – but then she gave a rueful smile. “It’s not as if there’s anything likely to happen me out there worse than in my own home town,” she reminded herself “and anyway – I can hardly go on saving my good name to get married with, any more.” The only good name she cared for now was that of a crime-fighter, and that would certainly not be improved by sitting in a secure hotel room afraid to go out at night. She doubted the Songmark tutors would be impressed, either.
Five minutes later she was back in her Stanley costume, standing on the pavement looking up at the swelling moon as it rose above the spike of the radio tower on Eastern Island. The night was warm and heady with the scent of tropical blooms; somewhere away Southwards was the distant sound of a party or festival with the thud of drums carrying further than any recognisable tune. For a minute she stood still, accustoming her eyes to the dim light of the Northern side of the island and her nose to the aromas. It was a very rare thing for Nancy Rote to be undecided about anything.
“I know what I’ll do,” she told herself, patting the electric torch in her pocket. “I’ll take another look at The Tub. It could be very different after dark.” In fact, she mused, it was probably the only outdoor part of Casino Island that was not overlooked from anywhere. A brief vision from Adventure films of costumed Natives dancing round a sacrifice under the gibbous moon flashed across her consciousness, making her chuckle. All the same, she reflected, if they’re caught sneaking out without paying their hotel bills – well, who knows? Tourists are valuable as long as they have money.
The walk was very different in the moonlight. Most of the people she passed were locals, with a few tourists out for a stroll away from the bright lights and noise of the South shore. She passed several couples walking with paws or tails entwined, enjoying what might be one of the last warm nights of the tourist season. One pair made her heart race as they passed on the far side of the road, a mink and a tall Zebra, both locals by their dress. Squirrels and minks were not dissimilar in general size and shape, and in the dim street lighting fur colours were indistinguishable.
Nancy Rote thought back to the letter she had received that morning, which currently was in the locked trunk along with her passport, Songmark papers and the precious books from Millicent. She had wondered at the American airmail stamp and the postmark from several states away from her home; the first letter she had sent her family would not have got to them as yet. Who else knew where to find her?
The first line of the letter had made her sit down as if her paws had turned to jelly.
“My dear Miss Rote,” it had said. “I hope you will forgive me writing, and so soon while you are settling in. I asked your Father his permission to write to you, which he very graciously gave along with your hotel address. Since he was kind enough to invite me to his wedding and see you there, I must admit you have been in my thoughts a lot.
I am very well, and although always travelling my firm seem to appreciate my work and have entered my name for the Salesman of the year competition. It is true that I have scored some successes, and have several entries in my ledger that would surprise people. It has been a very profitable year for me in so many ways.
If you would write back, you can send it by the Company headquarters on this return address. Life on the road is demanding but there are compensations, as I found out the day we first met.
Phillip Albert Simmons.”
She turned the letter over in her mind as she had turned it over in her paws, before committing it and the address to memory. The tall zebra was the first gentleman she had had such an interest in; there had been admiring boys at school but she was far too dedicated to her sleuthing to make any real time for them, and her adventurous career often discouraged them. It must be like living in wartime, she reflected. People who wouldn’t normally meet or think they had much in common, get thrown together when the times are hard. And the handsome encyclopaedia salesman had been the last person to ever meet her old self; she felt her tail twitch at that memory, which had been the last pleasant one for a month. Even knowing roughly what had happened to her, Mr. Simmons had not shunned her afterwards, and now her Father had given his official permission to correspond.
Nancy nodded, deciding she would certainly write back, before filing the idea away for tomorrow. The evening was still young, and there was much to do. For an instant Casino Island seemed a very big place. There was nobody expecting her back any more. She could stay out all night, and nobody would know or care. Her hotel was booked until the start of the Songmark term; she had shrewdly managed to get “low-season” rates for the final week.
“And now,” she told herself, “Let’s see just what people do there at night.”
“Well, I can’t win them all,” she told Isabella over a pot of tea the next day as they sat at a small café. “It was rather a lot to expect, anything surprising happening there in tourist season. It may be different in the off-season.”
“The place it was empty?” Isabella’s chocolate was spiced with chilli like most things the Mixtecan girl seemed to like; the aroma of it drifted in the sea breeze.
Nancy pulled a wry face. “Well, there was nothing – suspicious, you could say. I took one glimpse and left before I disturbed anyone.” There was a “Lovers Lane” near the river at Creekside too, but she had never parked her sleek blue roadster with anyone there. She wondered if her friend Bethany was.
“Anyway,” she continued “they don’t seem to have park keepers or police who care about that sort of thing here. I’ve read the legal code. Though I suppose a lot of it’s a matter for interpretation.” Her smile returned as she recalled seeing Andre throw out a customer from the Shepherd’s Hotel. The Spontoon criminal code definitely had no such offence as being “offensively and gratuitously Australian in a built-up area during the hours of darkness” as the Maitre ’d claimed, but if towns had local bye-laws she supposed Hotels could if they wanted to.
There was a minute’s silence as they sipped their drinks. Nancy had spent several hours walking around Casino Island at night, getting a feel for the place. In her adventuring suit she had attracted surprisingly little attention, and though some drunken tourists had looked at her over-eagerly, even they had decided that a young Miss wearing steel toecapped boots was probably not looking for a social evening. And I didn’t even get the pair with the patent retractable climbing spikes, she reminded herself. “Well, I suppose I didn’t really expect to stumble onto anything significant so soon,” she declared, stirring her tea. “The area around the docks looked rough, but the local Police are surely watching for pickpockets and the like. That’s not the sort of case I need.”
“We are needing something that shows them our talent,” Isabella agreed. “Nancy! I have found Alpha Zarahoff for you.” Her snout twitched. “If you are sure you want to see her.”
Nancy nodded graciously. “Excellent. How did you find her?”
The mole shrugged her round shoulders. “Is no special talent. Is going round all cheaper hotels asking. Father, he say talent is a tool, but solid Police work is raw material. Anyway, she is on South Island, Topotabo Guest House. Is remotest hotel she could find, I think.” She shuddered. “I am wondering what she is doing, that needs that.”
“We’ll certainly ask her,” Nancy affirmed, finishing her tea. “And there’s no time like the present. All ready?”
Isabella’s eyes crossed slightly. “As ready as I will be,” she sighed “As ready as I ever will be.”
Half an hour later, Nancy was standing in the prow of the water taxi, her binoculars in paw and her camera in its case at her belt. South Island was what looked like an easy swim across the water, but stern warning notices on the beach of Casino Island warned of severe tidal currents and that the Police would return any too adventurous swimmers to the beach for their own safety.
“Now, this is more like a real tropical island, as they film them,” she murmured, scanning the jungle-covered hills. Her binoculars picked out some large hotels on the shore of the great sweeping bay that faced them, but nothing further inland. According to the map, the Topotabo Guest House was on its own at the end of a mile-long track and “A perfect haven of tranquillity in the forests, away from the noise and cares of the world.” Looking round, she saw Isabella looking that direction as if she expected to see plumes of smoke or cinematic Death-Rays suddenly shoot out.
“Do cheer up! If we can’t find her, at least we have our bathing costumes to use, and the beaches are highly recommended here,” she waved her tail towards the great sweep on sand, dotted with holidaymakers. “Another island for us to see. That leaves Moon Island, Main Island and Sacred Island to visit. We’ll find a way.”
Nancy wore sunglasses with bright chrome frames, which she had carefully selected having noticed one doubtless unintended part of the design. The frames acted as small but very clear mirrors to whatever was behind her. And behind her, she noticed the water-taxi woman’s ears go right up, and her tail-fur fluff out for an instant.
Well, now, she told herself. They listen. And they definitely care. That’s interesting, very interesting.
Nancy strode ashore on South Island with a renewed spring in her step. Today had already looked like being an interesting day all round – and it had just got a great deal better.