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Update 3 December 2005
(text added: 14 December 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.
Morning sunlight streamed down through a dense canopy of tall forest trees, broken into a million shifting green jewels before the paws of two figures making steady progress up the track. It was marked as a footpath on the map, leading to the Spontari Guest House – but as Nancy Rote had quickly discovered, it was a rather basic map.
“Nancy! There it is. Only place in valley.” Isabella Rodriguez pointed at a corner of roof just visible up the hill through the trees. “Is end of the road.”
“I wonder.” Nancy halted for a few seconds, her propelling pencil busy making notes and amendments to the tourist map. “There’s half a dozen tracks that branched off that aren’t on here. Of course it’s meant to just show how to get from the beach to the resorts, that’s all most people want. But still …”
The squirrel’s pencil lightly tapped at her teeth as she stood and looked around at what few landmarks were visible through the trees. A few days before she had made a very thorough search of the Casino Island bookshops and stationers in search of a copy of the legal code. She had taken the chance to keep her eyes open for other useful things, and one she had asked about was an accurate map of the islands. The best available was the one she held in her paw, and that showed Main Island villages by cheery pictographs of waving Natives standing outside stylised huts. She had found a coastal navigation chart that was of international standard, and now knew far more about the underwater conditions around the Spontoon Islands than about the dry land. As submarines were one of the few vehicles not listed as being covered in the Songmark course, the knowledge could have been more relevant.
“Well, this looks fairly accurate – as far as it goes.” Nancy took a compass bearing on what seemed to be the highest point, a rocky peak off to the North-East, and a back-bearing along the track they had followed from Topotabo beach. Then she frowned. There was something definitely wrong, and it was not her compass or her geometry.
“Welcome to the Spontari Guest House! Enjoy your visit!” Two minutes later she was standing on a pleasant terrace looking down over a stream that ran alongside the hotel. The hotel was very different from the main ones on Casino Island; it seemed mostly to consist of roofs piled up on each other with windows peeking out from under the deep eaves. The whole structure sat on a platform twenty feet high at the stream side made from large irregular boulders jigsawed together, giving an overall effect rather like a classical Japanese castle.
“Thank you very much!” Nancy returned the bow of the graceful Siamese feline who seemed to be the owner. “We’re looking for one of your guests, a Miss Zarahoff. I believe she’s staying here?”
A shadow might have passed over the feline’s face, but with the Siamese dark fur patterning it was hard to be sure. “Miss Zarahoff. Yes, she is here. I last saw her this morning, heading up towards Mount Tomboabo North.” She indicated the rocky peak that rose above where the hotel sat in the valley some half mile from the pass. “Please – if you’re her friend, whatever she’s doing, tell her not to. It’s making people round here very upset.”
Just then there was a call from within the hotel, and Nancy and Isabella were left to ponder the hostess’s words.
“Go and see what Alpha’s doing, and tell her not to?” Nancy laughed. “It sounds like some folk are prejudiced about girls from Cranium Island.”
Isabella cast her a dark glance. “I heard story in my hotel,” she offered. “It is joke about scientists on Cranium Island. They are having contest, building doomsday devices. Only thing saves world is they cannot agree how to award the prize to the winner if one works.” Her snout tentacles wriggled irritably. “Is a joke, yes. But there is no smoke without fire.”
“And if you throw enough mud, some of it sticks,” Nancy countered “which doesn’t mean any of it was deserved in the first place. Cheer up, Isabella, let’s see what Alpha has to say for herself!”
Five minutes later, her map had another path, a stream direction and three bearings carefully drawn on the cheerful plan of beachside hotels and restaurants. Nancy was just scribbling the bearing to the now visible Topotabo Hotel off to the West when Isabella tugged at the sleeve of her Stanley pattern reinforced adventuring jacket.
The squirrel’s tail twitched in annoyance but she followed the mole’s gaze to a hundred yards up the hill where a flash of motion above the rocks showed they were not alone on the hilltop. Nancy’s eyebrow rose. “We’d better not alarm her, if it’s Ally. If it’s someone else, no need to disturb them.” She dropped quietly to all fours in the cover of the rocks, and motioned Isabella to take the far side. Evidently the mole had done this sort of thing before in Mixteca, as she quietly vanished into the shaded angles of the summit rocks.
Two minutes of slow and quiet approach brought Nancy close enough to recognise the shrew’s voice; she appeared to be singing or chanting something. Finding an overhanging rock, she poked her head out around the shadowed side of it (never, ever break a sky line, she reminded herself) and suddenly caught sight of the Cranium Island girl.
Alpha Zarahoff was not quite on the summit of Mount Topotabo, but on a flat rocky shelf facing Northwards towards the central waters of the lagoon. She was standing in the middle of a chalked circle, a large book cradled in one paw and a thin staff that looked suspiciously like a snooker cue in the other, which she swung and gestures with like a rather more exaggerated conductor’s baton as she read out from the old book. She was dressed in a plain coverall of heavy leather-like material, with rubber gloves and sealed boots. A metal chain gleamed at both boot heels, like the earthing strips Nancy had seen refuelling attendants wearing at the airports.
Apparently reaching the end of a chapter, the shrew looked up expectantly at the skies. She waited a minute, then shrugged resignedly before riffling the pages and taking up her staff again.
“You! Stop that right now!” A voice from the hilltop rang out, a Native accent overlaid with a sense of power and command as penetrating as any judge or general’s. It was certainly not Isabella.
Alpha almost bounced in the air, coming down facing the unseen newcomer. “Do you mind? I’m doing my homework. Father got this book. I’m testing all the bits to see if any of it works.” She giggled, her snout twitching. “Want to try?”
“Not on Spontoon, Zarahoff. Leave this place, and do not return. We will be watching.” The stranger walked into Nancy’s view, revealed now as a slender feline with her fur elaborately dyed and brushed into intricate patterns. Behind her came a figure Nancy had seen before – the fur patterns were mostly the tiger stripes of her ancestry, but some of the combed-in patterns were simpler versions of the ones the leading cat wore. It was a very different one than she had worn at the gates of Songmark.
Helen Ducros, Nancy told herself as she looked on, mentally storing every detail. Well, well. Songmark girls join in the local superstitions. How very interesting.
Alpha stuck out her tongue rudely. “You don’t go around persecuting other people’s religions. I know you don’t. If someone burned down the Atheist Temple of Reason on Casino Island, they’d probably be arrested and cautioned, maybe even fined.”
“That isn’t a religion,” the feline seemed rather blunt for a Priestess, as she strolled forward with an easy grace and pointed at the book. “That is plain dangerous, to you especially.”
Alpha shrugged. “What do you call dangerous, Saimmi? Herr Doktor Von Bork, back home he’s working on his new power source. It’s very technical. You might say, he’s trying to simultaneously set fire to all the atoms in half a tonne of thorium. Now, that’s dangerous. Admirable, though.”
The feline addressed as Saimmi, just looked at Alpha. Less impassive, Helen Duclos popped her claws out but said nothing.
“Oh, all right. You’re nuts, but you could have me thrown out completely if you want to. I’ll quit it for now.” Alpha started to rub out the chalk circle. “It’s a good thing I couldn’t get my electric pentacle and all the batteries up here. Then you’d see!”
“Ah, yeah. Ah suppose the voices they told ya that too?” The tigress behind her spoke up.
Alpha beamed at her, continuing to rub out the circle. “You wouldn’t know. I bet they don’t talk to you. No, they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t trust you, or tell you the things they know, the things they’ve seen, not ever.” A strangely rapturous expression washed over her, the shrew’s muzzle uplifted like a saint’s marble statue for a second.
“Just leave. Now.” Saimmi pointed at the main trail. “Helen, we must re-sanctify this place. Even from what she failed to do.” Her tail twitched, and she spoke a little louder. “Those who would follow these teachings, should look and see what they have made of Cranium Island.”
My cue to depart, Nancy told herself, and quietly slipped back downhill through the rocks.
Four minutes later, she and Isabella had “accidentally” headed Alpha off at the stream crossing, just above where it tumbled into a deep cut gorge on the way down to the hotel. Considering she had been thrown off the peak by a ranking Priestess of Spontoon, Alpha seemed quite cheerful and undisturbed as she munched on a pawfull of snacks.
“Well, I can always wait till the holidays. Try it again at home.” She patted the ancient book, bound in plain leather that somehow seemed disturbing in its texture. “Back there, we don’t have religious prejudice. Or religion at all, much.”
“I thought that was what you were doing?” Nancy had exposed a sinister cult or two back in Creekside, although only the case of the “Dark Shriner Brotherhood” had ever appeared in the newspapers.
The shrew’s long muzzle twitched and wrinkled disdainfully. “Religion? Gods and Spirits? No such thing.” She looked down at the book she carried. “Power of the mind! That’s scientific! Artefacts help to focus the energies of the brain, open the pineal eye to astral and astaaral Energies! When you think, your brain energies alter. Like taking pieces of wire, one configuration is so much scrap metal, another gets you a crossed Yagi receiver aerial that can pick a signal out of the aether. With the right emotional state and the artefacts that give the correct key to the brain – oh yes!”
“She really IS mad.” Isabella, it seemed, was not training for a diplomatic career.
The shrew giggled. “I’d like to show you around Father’s laboratories. See what we’ve done there. Then we’d see who’s mad!” Suddenly her expression changed. “I know people say that about us. We think of it more as “unrestrained thinkers”, and we’re not afraid of it. It gets things done.” She winked. “Once you really understand how things work, you don’t need to chant out of books. There’s about half a dozen furs in the world who can do this freestyle, you’d call it. Doesn’t have to be on a lonely mountaintop either! There’s a fur who can do it in front of searchlights and movie cameras with a hundred thousand lending him their Will to add to his own! Now that’s astaaral energy in action, not religion!”
“The locals here don’t seem to agree.” Nancy reminded her.
Alpha shrugged. “I may have inadvertently released some psychic … tensions here and there. You show me a process that doesn’t leave some sort of waste product. But they’re behind the times, all this mumbo-jumbo about “spirits” and such. It’s all just Forces, and if I’ve not yet managed to tap them with a meter that physically registers them – well, someday I will.”
Nancy decided to reserve judgement. Instead, she told Alpha about the mystery of the carved pavements under the coral sand pathways in “The Tub” on Casino Island. “And we wondered if you might be able to read them, or have an idea what they are,” she finished.
The shrew’s eyes gleamed at the prospect, as she tackled another handful of snacks. “We’ll do that! As soon as we get a camera. If I can decode the inscriptions they could be a strong mental focus.” She patted the book. “That’s for tomorrow. I’ll have to find somewhere else for my experiments, too. Still. What are you doing today?”
Nancy Rote had discovered a good number of strange things in her career as a sleuth, and had a very competent education. There was something she had not expected to find, though – a modern girl of her own age who had no idea of having fun on a beach.
“It’s not exactly in the best style, but it fits well enough.” It was the middle of the afternoon as Nancy looked critically over Alpha in a new bathing costume – actually the shrew admitted it was the first she had ever worn. It was the best the boutique could offer to fit the diminutive girl, who was studying her reflection in the mirror with a puzzled expression. It had been quite inexpensive, with the tourist-season beach boutique hosting its end-of-season sale and Nancy taking the chance to stock up with a less conspicuous sun-hat similar to that worn by many of the locals. In a week or so the beaches would start to empty out.
“Well yes, and thank you.” Alpha ran a paw down the “speed back” of the elastic knotted woollen costume. “I’m not used to wearing these. They don’t look very protective.”
“Am expecting your usual casual frock is flameproof asbestos, with acid proof coating and metal conductors sown in to earthing points,” Isabella grumbled.
“It’s not asbestos.” Alpha protested. “We don’t wear that any more. We use laminated rock wool. But otherwise, you’re close.”
Sunlight was streaming from a brilliantly cloudless sky as the three found themselves a space on the beach and relaxed with the warm breeze ruffling their fur. Nancy appreciated the view, looking out over the beach to the islands, the mountains of Main Island rising a few miles past the low sandy bluff that the map named North Fluke. Nancy wore a copper-coloured one piece suit that went well with her fur, and unlike most people she kept her foot-paws securely covered by beach shoes.
Turning round, she noticed that Alpha had her notebook out and was busily scribbling. “Don’t you ever stop, Alpha?”
Alpha smiled. “Call me Ally. No, I’m not tired, I don’t need to lie back. This is fascinating! I’m counting wave heights. There might be a pattern. It might be a signal. Waves can travel across whole oceans. They’d be a perfect signalling system, better than Radio if you’re not in a hurry.”
“A signal?” Isabella scoffed. “From who?”
A long shrew nose twitched. “If I could read the signal, that might tell me.”
Nancy lay back, relaxing. Her exercise program was already underway; she had heard what Songmark was going to be like, and was determined to start well prepared. But she could afford a few relaxing hours in the sun; besides, in this heat any strenuous exercise would have her jogging rapidly towards sunstroke.
Just then, the sound of an aircraft engine had her eyes snap open. Her ears twitched, swivelling to track the sound, and in a few seconds she spotted a single-engined floatplane circling Eastern Island.
Isabella snatched up the field-glasses from her bag and rapidly focussed them on the high-flying dot. “Nancy! Is one of Schneider Trophy entries, the Tillamook mystery ship! It flew well on trials, but broke down too often to win prizes.”
“Oh yes. I saw the prototype near Tillamook this Spring. It went unstable, started to tumble and broke up in the atmosphere.” Alpha nodded. “Debris scattered for miles.”
Isabella handed over the field glasses, and Nancy soon was tracking the sleek floatplane. It had a fine, pointed nose evidently housing the usual inline engine, but under the engine there were two odd structures, like rather elongated open-ended barrels. Nancy guessed they were some form of radiator. She watched as it spiralled gently down and vanished from sight behind Eastern Island.
“It’s a pity I missed the Speed Week,” Nancy mused. “Still – there’s always next year. Then I hope I won’t have to be travelling out on a slow cruise ship convalescing. But that’s too far ahead. After the term starts I suppose it’s like going into the army. Your life’s not your own.”
Isabella snorted. “In army at least they pay you, not other way round! This is my wedding dowry I am spending on this course. I have to make it up after, or go without.” She stood up and stretched her dumpy figure. “Am going for a swim. Nancy?”
“A fine notion. Coming, Ally?” The lithe squirrel stood, her tail swishing as she viewed the calm blue waters with a practiced eye.
“Oh no. There’s things live in the water. I’ve seen them.” Alpha shook her head. “Old Mister Calshot, he was one of our mechanicians, he went swimming off Cranium Island. Something invisible ate him. I got it all on film!”
“This is Spontoon, not Cranium Island,” Nancy pointed out. “Look, there’s thirty furs swimming right now, and a lifeguard every two hundred yards.” Her tail twitched at the sight of a powerful young otter sitting alert on his ten foot lookout post. “I don’t think anyone’s too likely to get eaten.”
The shrew’s nose wrinkled. “Go ahead. If you get Devoured don’t say I didn’t warn you!” With that she pulled out a scientific journal and began to read earnestly.
Nancy glimpsed the title, and suppressed a shiver. Though she understood that vivisection was advancing Science, a publication that promoted it “For fun and profit!” was definitely not her idea of bedside reading.
Fortunately the waters proved to be warm and free of hazards, the white coral sand soft under her footpads as she waded out. Isabella proved astoundingly good in the water; she swam as well as any otter despite her stout figure. In a butterfly-stroke race around the nearest buoy she beat Nancy by two lengths, hardly seeming to work at it.
“I really hope you are in my dorm!” Nancy panted, impressed, as they relaxed floating on their backs. “Beryl said all the dorms are fiercely competitive, with all sorts of sports and skills contests.” She brushed aside a stray strand of her blonde head-fur, and considered the issue.
The Songmark guide says we have to work together, to be responsible for each other, she reminded herself; floating in the warm waters. I want to pick the best dorm if I can. Maybe if we can agree to go in together, the Tutors will let us stay together. The prospectus doesn’t say one way or another. Worth a try, anyhow. She thought the idea through, weighing up her options. The first thing I have to do is meet more of us first-years. I’m sure there’s more arriving all the time. Hanging around the airstrip all day isn’t too efficient, even if it did find Isabella. There’s got to be a better way.
As the sun set, Nancy was standing on a water taxi heading back towards Casino Island and the Freya Hotel. It had been a fine day with a healthy mix of exercise and relaxation, and she had picked up some tantalising clues about the local conditions. Alpha had quite a lot to say about the local Priestesses, most of it uncomplimentary. No matter how she and her colleagues concealed their works in the Spontoon group, there was always liable to be a Priestess popping up and telling them off in an improbably short space of time. A Spontoon Islands constable was generally half a minute away to add weight to the argument, and once four platoons of militia just “happened to be passing” when Alpha’s Uncle was about to try a fascinating experiment involving “extracting Earth Currents.”
As the water taxi pulled up at the dock, she climbed up and looked around at the thinning crowds heading home for supper. None of them looked like Songmark girls. She heard a mocking cough behind her and turned – to see the familiar broad check suit of Sergeant Brush, currently filled with a slightly sour-looking vulpine.
For a few seconds the two looked each other up and down. Evidently Nancy’s damp beach bag and tourist sun hat passed muster with the Sergeant, who gave a perfunctory nod and vanished into an alleyway.
“Well, I like that.” Nancy fumed. “If I’d have been carrying my magnifying glass and investigations kit, I do believe he’d have tried to arrest me for it.” She frowned; Spontoon was proving to be very different from her home town. Back in Creekside, it was easy enough to spot a villain or a crook by their appearance – at least, she found it easy, though the local Police had taken awhile to be convinced of her talents and initially had been insistent on her getting actual evidence. If she had seen someone in a suit that combined being flashy with slightly shabby at the same time – she would have known what to think. “And that tie! If that’s what you can call it.”
Half way across the square she abruptly stopped, as an inspiration struck her. It all suddenly made sense. “Casino Island can’t possibly function with only two Detectives, let alone all Spontoon” she declared “the place must be rotten with crime just under the surface. But nothing that’d scare the tourists and their money away.” Her slightly damp tail twitched. “If they really wanted to discourage crime they’d accept all the help they could get, but they as good as told Isabella and me to take a long walk off a short pier. Why wouldn’t they want talented amateurs digging things up? What don’t they want us to find? And the Sergeant even looks suspicious. It’s starting to fit.”
A half hour at the hotel sufficed for her to shower and change into an evening dress. This was the only good one she had brought with her; from the look of the timetable Songmark would give her few chances to wear it when term started. Her first stop was at Shepherd’s Hotel to make a reservation for the following evening, A few fine meals, say one a week, were well in her budget, and were something else she expected to be saying farewell to soon enough. Having seen the physiques of the third-year girls she had no fear of going ill-nourished, but there was a lot about the menu that she was sure Beryl had left unsaid.
The lamps were lit brightly as she strolled along the seafront, passing unnoticed in the crowd till she reached the Rainbow Bridge. A bright September moon was coming up over Eastern Island, three quarters full and adding to the glamour of the warm evening. She looked out over the glittering waters at the lights of the Casino, and reminded herself that it was perfectly legal here. What would have been a backstreet enterprise for racketeers in Creekside was on Spontoon a respectable family enterprise, bringing in tourists by the boatload and a fair fraction of the revenue of Casino Island, if one counted all the hotels and restaurants supporting its customers.
“I’ve never gambled for money in my life,” she mused, looking at the grand neon lit building. “Father always said the only way to guarantee getting money out of a Casino was to own one. That building and all the staff and operating must cost a fortune – a fortune that went in there in the customers wallets and didn’t come out again.” She nodded slowly, looking at the glittering throng. If she was to understand Spontoon, she had to understand what was at the heart of its tourist appeal. And staring in from outside would not be good enough.
Though she half expected to be challenged for some underworld password to enter the building, the door furs (a matched pair of Samoan bears dressed in the largest size of dinner jackets that any tailor ever expected to be asked for) merely bowed and waved the well-groomed and well-dressed squirrel right in. Nancy blinked slightly at the brilliantly lit interior; she chided herself that this was absolutely not a den of iniquity full of smoky back rooms where desperados played craps or poker with a gun ready in their boots. A glittering whirl of expensive costumes and fashionably groomed fur was her first impression, with impeccable waiters carrying trays of crystal glasses and bottles of champagne between rooms from whence a discreet murmur of voices drifted.
“Miss Rote! I’m pleased to see you here!” A familiar voice made her turn; she immediately recognised the broad-shouldered rat Piet van Hoogstraaten, Beryl’s friend.
“Mister van Hoogstraaten,” Nancy curtseyed slightly, glad to see a familiar snout. “It’s my first time here. Is Miss Beryl here as well?”
A naked tail twitched. “I’m afraid not. She has – disagreements - with the management here. But I’ll be joining her later at one of the smaller Casinos. Beryl doesn’t normally start so early in the evening.”
Nancy nodded. “I’m certainly interested in seeing what goes on in here. I don’t think I’d like to gamble though. Would you show me around?”
Piet van Hoogstraaten gave a peculiar smile, his rodent teeth gleaming in a surprising match to Nancy’s own. “Why, yes. And some time I’d like to show you the one Father runs. It’s not such a grand affair as this, of course – but it has its regular customers.” He looked Nancy up and down appraisingly. “Of course, I have to be honest with you, it is still a Casino. You’d be surprised what some people win and lose there.”
Half past Midnight saw Nancy back at the Freya Hotel, tucked up in bed with a mug of cocoa as she digested her day’s discoveries and wrote up her notes. Piet had proved a gallant escort, and demonstrated the games of chemin-de-fer as well as blackjack, vignt-et-un and roulette, coming out of the salons some fifty shells richer than he arrived. The margin was not wonderful and the turn of a wheel could have swallowed it, but Nancy allowed that a skilled player could sometimes end up ahead of the game. She had politely refused the offer of a glass of champagne, and also a local bluish beverage that Piet had winked and sworn was quite non-alcoholic; she needed her head entirely clear for her sleuthing. At Midnight he had excused himself and headed out to meet Beryl, who apparently had a holiday timetable more like that of a nocturnal bat than a regular mouse.
“Beryl is a lucky girl. Or perhaps it isn’t luck - Piet is quite a catch for her, a respectable gentleman with such good prospects.” Nancy’s ears dipped, but then her eyes took on a far-away look (rare for her but the default expression for her friend Bethany back in Creekside.) For a few seconds tonight she had been distracted by the rat’s furless tail, a feature she knew many furs despised his species for. Then she had realised just why it had such an effect on her; not so many months ago her own had been reduced to exactly the same state. Rats and squirrels had similar ears, heads and physiques, she reminded herself – without the fur they would be hard to tell apart.
She shuddered, thinking back to that dark month. The worst of it was, there were some parts of it that she had enjoyed. Though her fur was almost entirely re-grown and her outward injuries healed, there was nothing a doctor could do to make her forget.
Despite the lateness of the hour she reached over and selected a blank sheet of hotel paper. She had no need to open her locked trunk for the letter by Mr. Simmons; she had memorised his company address as well as every word of the zebra’s letter. Her rather longer reply would go out in the first airmail post that morning.
By the time the breakfast gong sounded downstairs at eight the next day, Nancy Rote had been up for two hours and hard at work. Her morning exercises on the balcony in the cool morning air had woken her thoroughly, and with the windows open she had sat in her dressing gown to put her notes in order while everything was quiet outside.
“Item one; these islands have a lot more going on than meets the eye.” She had written that with confidence, but most of the rest was more tentative. “There is almost no political government visible, not even on less touristy islands such as Meeting and Eastern.” She had helped with her Father’s campaign for governorship and knew just how much publicity and advertising an election needed. There were no old campaign posters visible anywhere, or even traces of them having been taken down for the tourist season. The Althing building did have announcements of debates in a glass case outside, but those were simple typed lists more suited to a parish council than a Government.
“Item two – despite apparently not having a party government, the locals are highly organised, as Millicent’s official notes warn against disturbing them,” she dipped her tufted ears, considering that. “Look at what happens to Vostok agents who pry. A dozen dead diplomats, from Vostok alone! Most countries would go to war over a fraction of that, or at least break off all relations. They don’t here, though. No sign that anyone was ever arrested for it, either.”
She looked out of the window at the skyline, with the crater rim of “The Tub” and the fascinating monoliths of Tower Hill Park on the horizon. “Item two. Law enforcement. They can’t run the place the way it looks. I’ve seen the Police headquarters, it looks like the paint’s holding the place together. And it could use some more paint, too.” She had strong reservations about that supposed “legal code” as well; it bore a suspicious resemblance to something that had been put together in a hurry by folk with no legal training and a strongly idealistic streak. Obviously a fake, all her instincts screamed at her. There was the interesting fact that it had been written in English although all debate in the Althing was scheduled in Spontoonie; like the Daily Elele she guessed there was a tourist version and a real one that was very different.
“And then there’s the water-taxis. I’ll have to test this. It could just be one nosy boatwoman. No need to get jumpy just yet. But I’ll have to be careful, very careful. If I’m right …” she drew in her breath sharply, her racing imagination filling in a hidden world behind the Coral Curtain that bore as much resemblance to the cheery crowds in the Casino as Ioseph Starling’s state did to a touring ballet company.
She rapidly dressed in her Stanley pattern adventuring suit and made her way down to the breakfast room. The Freya Hotel was basic but the food was good, with fresh-caught fish and vegetables shipped in daily from Main Island.
“Nut porridge, earl grey tea, and two rounds of buttered toast,” Nancy decided, and as the waitress bustled away she looked through the day’s copy of a local newspaper, the Daily Birdwatcher that seemed to specialise in aircraft and people arriving and leaving the islands.
“Arrived yesterday at Superior Engineering on the SS Nathanial out of Oporto, ten crated training aircraft destined for Father Dominicus’ new flying academy,” she read with interest. “Father Dominicus has assured the Althing that his reconstituted academy, the “Ave Argentum”, will place special emphasis on safety for both his pupils and bystanders. The original foundation in Spain had a steady accident rate, with two fatalities in their last year in Cordoba and a ten percent dropout due to injuries. Father Dominicus explains that the airfield and control facilities on Eastern Island are far better than his original site, and he hopes that with good planning and God’s will the casualties will be greatly reduced. God was invited to comment, but declined an interview.”
Nancy smiled. It appeared that she had arrived at an interesting time for Songmark.
“Well, tomorrow Chief Pickering should be back from his holiday,” she reminded Isabella as they sat on a bench at the corner of Ferry Square Market that morning. “We need to find a way of getting to see him. If that Sergeant sees us, I don’t think we’ll get very far – there is a law about wasting police time in the books, I checked. I want to start here with a record for catching crooks, not getting a criminal record myself.”
The mole nodded. “Is a problem! But the Detectives are very busy, no? When they go out on a case the Chief he stay in office. Is how we do it at home in Poxopeletec.”
“Yes.” Nancy’s fingers drummed on the bench as she thought. “He’s got a secretary, I know. I’ll bet she could stall us forever, even if she’s not in league with the Sergeant. It’ll take some more convincing than just us turning up again in the office, I expect.”
Suddenly she clicked her finger-paws. “Of course! We want to get connected at the top here. And I have an introduction already at the top. My Ambassador has heard of me, he knows my record back home - perhaps he can get me an interview. I’m sure that will be harder for some office worker to turn down than just our say-so.” She gave a triumphant smile. “And our Ambassador might be pleased to get me in, for his own reasons.” Nancy imagined most Embassies on Spontoon having a set of briefing notes similar to the one she had borrowed from Millicent; having a qualified sleuth on the island and in good odour with the Police authorities would be an asset to a keen diplomat.
The squirrel rose, stretching her lithe frame. “There’s no time like the present,” she declared. “But first – I have an experiment I want to make.”
Had it not been a brilliantly sunny day, Nancy would have headed straight over to her Embassy and requested an appointment with one of the staff. Instead, she explained her plan to an intrigued Isabella and they took a water-taxi over towards Eastern Island.
To begin with they chatted normally, then Nancy switched across a range of topics from a fictional big win at the Casino to a rather explicit description of a fictional date with the “dreamy lifeguard on the South Island beach.” Then, she tensed herself slightly and started the real experiment.
“It was in the papers this morning,” she said loudly, when they were a hundred yards offshore. “Ten new aircraft for the Spanish school! I’d like to see those. I’ve heard privately there’s something very special about them.” Had Isabella not been forewarned and had she used her talent she would have been puzzled why Nancy was radically fibbing.
“Yes, it’s very strange,” Nancy continued, looking ahead at the approaching docks, just South of the big crane gantry of Superior Engineering. “Those are easily convertible to military aircraft. I did hear why from my Ambassador. But careless talk costs lives, you know.” She pulled her powder compact out and applied sun screen to her nose.
A-ha! Her thought was triumphant. I’ve got you. She had been wearing her chrome framed sunglasses and studying the water-taxi otter behind her all along in their reflection. He had kept one ear cocked at the earlier casual conversations, even the scandalous bits, but apparently discarded it as so much tourist chatter. When Nancy had switched the subject to aircraft, he had gone to full alert – which had suddenly shut down when she had pulled out a visible mirror.
So, she thought as they landed and she tipped the taxi-fur generously. It’s not just idle curiosity. A plain gossip would pick up on some of the juicy bits I dropped in. There are particular subjects you’re primed to pick up – and you’re on alert that nobody sees you doing it. Very interesting.
Five minutes later they strolled past Songmark, noting the painters and decorators still hard at work renovating the buildings for the new term; it looked as if the students caused a lot of wear and tear all round.
“Nancy,” Isabella frowned, as her friend explained about the water-taxi pilot. “This is dangerous. If you are right – yes, you have seen them watching us. They do not know that, maybe, not today. But what happens when they do?”
The squirrel winced. “By that time I hope to have exposed the plot.” Suddenly an awful thought hit her. What if the whole government IS the plot? It’d be like revealing someone as a Government spy in a Starlingist state – nobody would care about that. But you’d be officially marked as a public danger – probably very, very briefly.
Still, she considered – she was here to investigate, before starting Songmark. What she found, good or bad, she found. The tourists were clearly only interested in their own entertainment, but they would soon be gone and she expected to see a very different island after it took down the tinsel and wheeled away the fried fish and candy-floss stalls for the winter.
“We need more people we can trust,” she declared. “I’d say those have to be other new Songmark girls. We need to meet them, find out who we CAN rely on. And we need to do it soon. There’ll be no point getting together the day before term starts, we need time and opportunities to investigate the place. But how can we find them in time?”
“We could advertise in newspaper?” Isabella suggested. “Put up posters?”
Nancy nodded slowly. “Yes … but if they saw it, what would bring them in? Some are probably using the time as a last holiday, they wouldn’t want to get dragged away from that by a stranger. More interested in parties.”
Suddenly her eyes widened. “That’s it!”
Isabella blinked, looking at the squirrel as Nancy’s tail twitched in triumph. “What is? I am learning to spot lies, not read minds,” she complained.
“That’s what we’ll do. We’ll advertise, and get to meet everyone who’s shown up. Apart from Alpha who we’ve met anyway – I don’t know anyone who can resist a free invite to a party!”