home - contact - credits - new - links - history - maps - art - story
Update 14 December 2005
The Coral Curtain
An Entertainment by Simon Barber
|The Coral Curtain
by Simon Barber
Inspector Stagg, Abel Pickering, Sergeant Brush, André d’Arbes © E.O.Costello
Other characters by S. Barber, free for Spontoon usage!
It was late afternoon; the weather had changed swiftly with a blanket of heavy cloud pressing over the Spontoon islands like a lid and the beaches had emptied rapidly as tourists headed back for the start of cocktail hour. Nancy Rote had changed out of her bathing costume and stood again outside the American Consulate on Casino Island. The squirrel was now impeccably dressed in her best, most formal outfit, a dark grey dress that set off her own fur quite strikingly. She smiled. Letters of Introduction were a useful wedge to open many doors, and once she had an entrance to the top level of what the locals confusingly called “Euro” society, all else would fall into place. That was the idea, at least.
For a second she frowned, recalling the strange local definition that Millicent’s unofficial briefing notes gave to that word. A Chinese, Indian or a Cipanguan fur on Spontoon was a Euro, despite their personal opinions to the contrary. It did not even fit Millicent’s explanation of “Anyone not wearing a grass skirt” as an African tribal fur from Dar es Salami in Tanganyika could be wearing one from their homeland and still be called a Euro, unlike a Spontoonie waiter working in a Casino Island hotel in full white tie and black suit. “Spontoon is a very silly place, sometimes,” she told herself.
“Miss Rote! We’ve been expecting you.” The consulate was not large or busy enough that the Consul himself could not answer the door when he wanted to. “Come in! We hope you’re settling in here. It’s a strange place, this island.”
“I’m finding that out myself,” Nancy agreed, accepting the proffered chair in a small gravel-floored courtyard that was quite pleasant out of the wind. “I’m grateful you could see me at such short notice.”
The canine waved a paw dismissively. “That’s what we’re here for. We’re pleased to help. We’ve got used to excitement all Summer and now there’s not much the rest of the year; the Schneider Trophy teams have all gone, and in a few weeks all the tourist spots close up. There won’t be much for us diplomats to do – unless Hawaii decides to invade,” he finished with a laugh.
Nancy looked at the wily dog, her brain racing. How much of what she had already found out and suspected should she tell him, she wondered. She needed more evidence, she decided firmly. “Well, Sir – I was hoping you could help me.” She smoothly pulled the letter of introduction to Police Chief Pickering and handed it over. “As you see, I have an official introduction to him, with affidavits signed by the Chief of Police back home in Creekside who knows my work. I do hope he will see me. But his underlings don’t seem too fond of having independent investigators around – it’s as if they have something to hide.” Briefly she recounted her attempts to reach the Chief through his Sergeant. “I’ve tried to put this through normal channels and been blocked – I was wondering if you could assist.”
Shrewd eyes looked her up and down. “Well, Miss Rote – I’m here to help our citizens overseas; that’s what they pay me for. But technically, while you are here you aren’t a citizen – except an honorary one of Spontoon. So much though I’d like to – I can’t officially help you in an internal island matter. This is your Chief of Police; you are under his jurisdiction, not mine.”
“That’s absurd!” Nancy burst out, her chisel teeth glinting. Then she composed herself. “Very well. Technically, you can’t help me. But you’re a Diplomat, and solving technicalities is what you live on. You aren’t paid to help a foreign national, but you could if you had a reason to. I expect you could find a reason.”
The Consul chuckled. “Very good, Miss Rote, very good! I can see you live up to your reputation.” Suddenly he was serious. “A sleuth established on Spontoon could well be very useful. Especially a sleuth with connections at the top. Since you’re not exactly one of our Citizens right now, whatever you do isn’t my responsibility.” He rubbed his paws in a significant matter.
Nancy’s ears dipped slightly. “One hand washes the other,” she agreed. Or, she noted sourly, if this goes wrong it means he can wash his hands of me. That’s the bargain. “How can I help? I’m a sleuth, not a spy. I hunt crooks.”
“Why, of course, Miss Rote! And that’s all I would ask of you. Merely to keep us informed of what crimes you find here, no matter what other … pressures may be brought to bear. You may find crimes that the locals would not let you take public credit for solving. Not everything that happens in these islands appears in the newspapers, as I’m sure you are aware.”
“Then I agree.” Nancy felt a slight warning twinge. This was the second deal she had made in a week with foreign diplomats for the same information – as the Consul had pointed out, under the Songmark contract she was currently a Spontoonie citizen, though rather restricted in terms of her rights. I can’t vote, even if I can’t get deported either, she told herself sourly. Legally I’m like a ten-year old squirrel kit here. Not that I can vote at home anyway till I’m twenty-one.
They shook hands, and the Consul reached for the telephone.
I can work with him, Nancy nodded to herself approvingly as the Consul established the Spontoon Chief of Police was back at work and in his office, he names his price fairly – and then he gets things done.
That evening saw Nancy and Isabella heading towards the Shepherds Hotel, with Isabella in a plain white dress that set off her dark mole fur very well. She paused on the threshold, looking around the foyer with a keen gaze as she took in the well-dressed crowd that filled the room, even so late in the tourist season. Her long, full tail swished, held head-high as she stood poised at the entrance.
Isabella looked down at her own stocky figure, and sighed. “We moles. To other eyes, we never can be elegant. On the cover of International Geographic as exotic Natives, but never on Harper’s fashion pages.”
“But famously sturdy, dependable, brave, and in your case, with a special Talent that will always be in demand wherever you go,” Nancy noted. “Every species has its good points.”
“Si. And I thank you. But still, I can never be – elegant.” Isabella’s pink snout tendrils twitched. Then her small tail perked up, as she shrugged. “I will not be worrying about that, at Songmark. Nancy, I have ordered an outdoors suit like yours. In two days I will be wearing it.”
“That’s the spirit,” Nancy smiled, catching the eye of the junior waiter who swept eagerly over towards them. “But for tonight – we have a table booked, and I believe it should be rather better than we’ll eat on Eastern Island!”
“Madame is enchantingly correct.” They turned to see the tall and impeccably groomed Maitre d’hotel, André d’Arbes. Suddenly he turned, his tail snapping around. “Fool!” He addressed the presumptuous Spontoonie waiter, swatting the canine ears with an elegantly precise flick that drew a yelp of pain. “It is I who handle the affairs of the so-charming visitors. One more mistake and it is the stall of the discounted hot dogs on the sea front for you once again.”
“He very strict,” Isabella whispered behind her claws, looking on in alarm.
“Oh yes, very strict. I noticed that last time.” Nancy’s features relaxed, eyes softening and looking on as André chivvied the importunate pup back to the kitchens with many an expert tweak to the dangling spaniel ears. “He stands absolutely no nonsense. No tolerance for any sort of miscreants at all, no matter HOW minor.” She felt her heart racing. André was tall, righteous and had chestnut-red fur, almost mahogany in places. A true European red squirrel, she told herself, and a much taller one than most. Nancy’s own American squirrel fur was ash-grey, fading to almost white on her front and around her tail. “I think he does very well.”
The stern squirrel in question rejoined them, showing them to a pleasant table with a view out over the terrace and the beach. “And Mademoiselle desires?” He enquired politely, calling another waiter over with a crisp snap of the fingers.
Nancy looked up at him and their eyes met for an instant. Oh yes, certainly Mademoiselle does. She held that thought for a long instant, before carefully placing it away for later consideration. “A nut and vegetable salad please, I’ll leave the details to you.”
“Mademoiselle has made a wise choice.” He turned to Isabella, who ordered a succulent Spontoonie spiced seafood special starter. “And it was a table for three young ladies, non?”
“Oh, yes. Here’s Millicent right now.” Nancy spotted the tabby arriving, obviously straight from work in a neat black skirt suit. She did not wave but graciously dipped her tail in fine style.
André bowed low. “Three ladies of excellent taste, who are on time at their table to the exact second!” He consulted an old-fashioned pocket watch, snapped the case shut and took Millicent’s order, a Turbot tranche Toulousaine that he assured the party was a recipe inherited from his noble ancestors in Bourbon France. “And if that hash-slinger in the kitchen does not serve it as you deserve it, mademoiselle – and then pouf! You shall see what André d’Arbes shall do!”
Millicent smiled, watching him storm towards the kitchens with a mahogany tail waving dangerously. “He’s very good, isn’t he? You should see what he’s up against, though – just because this hotel is expensive, doesn’t mean it’s exclusive, I fear.” She shook her head. “It’s just the same at home now. Since the War, things have really gone downhill back there. Some of the best families are absolutely struggling to keep up their estates, while you get “gentlemen” who just happen to own a lucky oil well being received into Society.”
Nancy inclined her head. “I’ve been reading things were once very different around here, even.”
Millicent sighed. “They were. I’ve spoken with genteel old furs who remember the plantations on Spontoon. There were dinner dances and gracious living on Main Island in those days, where now there’s only thatched huts and grass skirts. Primitive combed and woad painted fur like the Ancient Britons two thousand years ago. The worst of it is, it’s contagious. There are so many Europeans who get corrupted here, even from good families.” She shuddered. “They lose their reputation, renounce their pedigrees and even their faith. There have been some very sad cases, especially at Songmark. You can be sure we keep track of our citizens abroad, and never mind quibbling with local laws about temporary local citizenships. Under British law there’s no such thing, and that’s what counts.”
“I’ll certainly watch out, when I get there,” Nancy promised. “Thank you indeed for the books – they’ve been invaluable!” She passed the two carefully wrapped packages over.
Millicent smiled, tucking away the confidential briefing notes but returning Nancy the dictionary. “You keep this. I’m sure it’ll help you find out a lot they don’t write down in English.”
“Thank you!” Nancy took the dictionary back. She dropped her voice. “I must tell you, I had to make a bargain with the American consul to keep him informed on any crimes I found. If I’m to get ahead as a sleuth, that is.”
Millicent laughed, fanning herself with the menu. “Perfectly all right! And all in the family, so to speak. If we were in our own territories it might be a problem at times with conflicting interests – but we’re all pretty well united against the Natives here.” She paused. “You did read the briefing notes though? Poking around some parts of these islands can become somewhat unhealthy, and I don’t mean sunburn.”
Nancy assured her that she had taken copious notes herself, and had no intention of “investigating” Sacred Island or any of the other equally dangerous areas in the near future. The food arrived and was judged to be as excellent as Shepherds’ reputation suggested, and the evening passed off as a great social success. Isabella was perceptive enough to keep quiet except when spoken to, as the two cultured furs chatted late into the evening.
Eleven o’clock that night saw Nancy freshly bathed, groomed and relaxing in her dressing-gown in her room at the Freya Hotel with a large steaming mug of cocoa. She yawned, but resolutely picked up her notebooks and pen for some final work before retiring to bed.
Dear Father, she wrote, at last I have an appointment with Mr. Pickering, the Chief of Police. I can only hope it is not he who sets the standards for his Detective department! I know that official Private Eyes need licenses to operate here as elsewhere, but they of course are working for hire and I have certain advantages over them. As with scientists (and I have met a Songmark candidate from a most distinguished if eccentric local scientific family) an unbiased amateur working for the thrill of the thing, is innately better than a mere paid professional. If not an actual license, then I hope at least to be granted permission to act as a Concerned Citizen in helping rid these islands of crime – something the official force are hardly going to get far with having only two detectives. After all, technically I am a citizen of Spontoon at the minute, and it would be rather giving the game away for anyone to block my attempts to be a good and lawful one.
She smiled, tapping her teeth lightly with the pen. As regards meeting other Songmark girls before term starts, I have asked my friend Millicent at the British Embassy, the proper place for a party I hope to throw as soon as I can arrange it. She has come up with a list of restaurants that should be willing to host the occasion, and should ask reasonable rates this time of year. Tomorrow I will start making the arrangements. All being well I can get a head start on most Songmark arrivals. At best, I might even be able to pick my own team of reliable girls with common interests. After all, we will be living very much in each others’ pockets for three hard years, and I am sure I can better judge my needs than our Tutors. Although they are doubtless expert aviatrixes there is no Detecting on the curriculum!
Finishing the letter, she addressed it and put in the tray of things ready for the next day; her letter of introduction, her passport as identification and a few other things. That would be the morning; the afternoon was pencilled in for donning the Stanley adventuring suit and investigating the carven stones on top of Tower Hill Park, only a few hundred yards from her hotel. The hidden carvings in “The Tub” would have to wait till there were fewer people around; a dawn raid would be about right, she mused, to get enough light to photograph the pictographs and nobody around to ask awkward questions. Especially a native.
Suddenly she clicked her fingers. “Photographic developing kit, Nancy,” she told herself. “That’s another thing I need. If I have a camera full of pictures the locals don’t want anyone taking, I won’t be dropping them off at any Native-run chemists to print.” She had decided the only safe way to proceed was to assume there was a Spontoonie sleuth almost as good as she was, close behind on her trail. Leaving that sort of evidence was something she was determined to avoid.
With a deep sigh, she lay back on the bed. Her tail twitched slightly, as she let her mind wander at last to other things she might do before the Songmark term began. She relaxed, thinking of the handsome Maitre d’hotel, remembering how he had wielded his cutting wit like a surgeon’s knife against variously unsightly excrescences on the dining list. There had been a good-looking stag in an impeccable suit who had looked very promising – till Nancy counted him sinking his fifth pink gin, and laying bets as to how many champagne flute glasses he could balance on his snout before they all fell off and broke. “Eight good glasses wasted,” she muttered irritably.
As she relaxed she smiled, remembering another sight as she left Shepherd’s hotel. A lady tourist saying farewell to her Native guide, who was a vivacious lepine promising to show her some more sights of the island before the holiday was over and she had to get back to being a “school-ma’m.” It was not only the sight Nancy recalled; from the scent the pair had spent the day doing rather more than survey the local scenery. “Should have taken a swim afterwards,” she noted as she turned out the light. “The scent quite gives them away.” It was a notion she resolved to bear in mind – and to put into practice herself. As soon as possible.
At ten the next morning, Chief Inspector Abel Pickering sat at his desk reading the letter of introduction. He was a grey fox, his brush immaculately combed and his uniform freshly pressed, with knife-sharp creases and a Sam Browne belt that shone like a freshly opened horse chestnut. He read through the affidavits from his opposite number in Creekside, and nodded wisely as he looked across the neatly polished desk at the young squirrel lady sitting attentively in the chair opposite.
“Good things I hear about you, young lady!” He tapped the paper. “Found the Tichbourne Inheritance, solved the mysterious Case of Noblesse Oblige, and exposed the Dark Shriner Brotherhood. All worthy causes. And now you want to do the same here, you say.”
“Yes sir.” Nancy said neutrally.
The Chief harrumphed. “All very well, quite understandable. Very public-spirited of you.” There was a silence. “The problem is, my dear, that you’re not a Spontoonie. Very bad for public image, letting Outlanders go about enforcing our laws, and all that.”
Nancy suppressed the urge to wrinkle her muzzle. Then a flash of inspiration hit her. “I was told as much by your Sergeant Brush. I take it that’s your official policy.” The two policemen had vastly different standards of dress, and she hoped that might indicate violently different opinions elsewhere.
The Chief’s own muzzle wrinkled and his ears went flat against his skull. “Oh, Orrin Brush told you that, did he? I see. That puts a different complexion on the matter.” He broke off, drumming his fingers on the desk. “Well now. I’ll have to see what I can do for you, then. It’s not a hard and fast Althing rule – the Neighbourhood Watch on Casino Island certainly allow Euro traders to take part in crime detection, as far as that goes. But there still remains the citizenship problem.”
Nancy cleared her throat. “The Althing decision of June 6th 1933,” she quoted “states that students accepted by Songmark become honorary Spontoon citizens without voting or residence rights but not subject to direct taxation. This remains in force until they reach their majority or complete or leave their Songmark course, whichever occurs latest.” She smiled. “I’ve not been able to find that written anywhere in English, Sir – only in Spontoonie. I went to the Althing and checked every public document that had the word Songmark in it, and translated them. It seems I’m a Spontoon citizen after all, Sir; I’m a “Student accepted by Songmark” even before term begins.” She paused, and flashed her most winning smile. “You see, I AM an investigator.”
“Good lord! You certainly are! I must consider. One of my own Detectives isn’t a Spontoon citizen, if it comes to that.” He stood up and turned to look out of the window, arms folded behind his back.
He’s wondering if I’m more dangerous working with him or on my own, Nancy thought, her eyes boring into the Chief’s back.
The fox turned round to face her, and nodded sagely. “I always trust first impressions, young lady. I expect this will be a controversial decision, but I’ll give you one chance. Give me a successful case I can prosecute in a local court, and you’ll have your recognition here. My staff won’t like it, but as long as you stick to the law they won’t interfere.” Sharp teeth flashed in a suddenly feral grin. “Good lord! If you succeed, they really won’t like it!”
“Thank you, Sir. I hope I won’t disappoint you – whatever the others think.” Nancy bowed gracefully, thanked the Chief and left, conscious of the lop-eared lepine secretary’s searching gaze as she left the office. She had successfully bypassed the obstructive Sergeant, bypassed the secretary – if you want to get to the top, she told herself firmly – that’s just where you have to aim for.
“And now,” she explained to Isabella over a luncheon table, having brought her friend up to date “to other things. We’ve a party to arrange – say five days time, the tourist season will be over by then, and these places should give us a better deal.” She tapped the list of restaurants Millicent had recommended.
“Si! I have done as you asked, advertisements ready for the Mirror and the Daily Elele, and posters for the airport and the Songmark gates where arrivals will see them. The girls arriving, they will know of our party – the place, also time, they can find later.” Isabella had spent a busy morning.
“Jolly good of you, Miss Rote!” It was a familiar voice that made them turn their heads. “I just saw that advert, I guessed it was you.” Beryl was wearing a dark, respectable dress that almost chanted “Missionary” except for the lack of any specific religious symbols. “Do you need any help?”
Nancy greeted the senior girl warmly, and invited her to share their luncheon; toasted cheese sandwiches with lots of paprika. “We could always use help – it’s good of you to offer.”
“Oh, that’s quite all right.” For a second a calculating gleam came into the mouse’s eyes, and her tail thrashed. “I’d quite like to meet the new girls socially, myself. When term starts our Tutors will be looking after them,” she added inconsequentially, nibbling daintily at the toasted cheese.
What a helpful, friendly girl, Nancy noted mentally. I hope the other third-years are like her, and not like that gangster girl I’ve heard of – or the soldier’s daughter who goes around breaking bones for a hobby.
Beryl cast a glance at the list of possible venues. “Hmm. You’ve certainly picked some high quality spots to hold your party, even in off-season. It might be difficult getting in at such short notice.”
Nancy’s ears drooped. “Do you have any ideas?”
The mouse’s expression brightened. “Well, I’ll do what I can. If you like I’ll go with you when you try and book. Songmark parties are famous around here, you just explain you want one that’ll get talked about all season. And as for me – well, they all know my reputation.”
“Well, that didn’t go quite as I planned,” Nancy was back in her hotel room four hours later, fuming. She had spent a very frustrating afternoon trying to persuade the venues on her list to host her party – and none of them were interested. “What is wrong with this place?” It had been a perfectly sound proposition; she had wanted to book “a Songmark party to beat all the others you’ve ever seen”, which would surely have been an excellent advertisement for any establishment. Beryl had helped as much as she could, even offering to any restaurant that would accept the booking, a further social engagement with the patrons of the Temple of Continual Reward. Somehow that had seemed to make it even worse.
“Aaaahg,” Her tail swished in annoyance, her snout wrinkling. She resisted the temptation to throw her best dress onto the floor; she carefully hung it up in the wardrobe and only then threw herself down on the bed, making the springs creak protestingly.
Failure did not sit well with Nancy Rote. She lay back, took a few deep breaths, and forced herself to think. None of the restaurants Millicent had mentioned would take her booking; very well, there were plenty more on Casino Island. She had a business directory borrowed from the hotel front desk downstairs, and soon her notepad was covered in contact numbers.
“If this doesn’t get us booked in,” she told herself determinedly, “I don’t know what will.”
Unfortunately, it seemed that the Casino Island businesses had talked to each other rapidly and urgently about her project. Another half hour and many five-cowry pieces for the telephone had been wasted by the time Nancy stormed back up to her room, in a foul temper.
She was looking around for something satisfying but not too expensive to smash, when there was a knock on her door and she heard the desk clerk announcing a telephone call for her. Her long ears perked up, and curiosity replaced rage as she answered the door and headed downstairs.
“Hello, Miss Rote speaking,” she accepted the standard telephone, pressing it to her ear. And then her tail perked up as she recognised Beryl’s voice, and more so as she heard the news. “You’ve found us a place, really? That’s splendid news!” She scribbled the address down on her pad, thanked the helpful mouse profusely and went in to her tea in a much happier mood.
It must be a very exclusive establishment indeed, not to have its name listed in the public directory, Nancy mused as she sampled the breadfruit brioche that was the Freya Hotel’s speciality. I wonder why they call it The Devil’s Reef, then?
That evening, she judged there was an hour of useful light remaining after teatime. Nancy quickly dressed in her adventuring suit, pulled on the heavy Songmark issue boots and slipped out intent on exploration. The streets leading up to Tower Hill Park were almost deserted, with most tourists having retired for cocktail hour and the evening’s entertainments yet to begin. “Perfect,” she breathed, rubbing her paws together as she spotted the park was entirely deserted.
The ruins in the park were of two very different styles. Some were definitely the foundations of ancient stone buildings, while others were great carven rock outcrops that had been worked into strange shapes. She walked around the largest one, fifteen feet of sheer basaltic stone with scarcely a paw-hold on its surface. It had been carved with symbols and some had been defaced on the accessible parts – she considered whether a missionary would have been equipped with a long ladder and would have troubled about any carvings on the top, where nobody could see them.
She shrugged. “Only one way to find out.” There were no really promising routes but an angle of the carved stone offered possibilities to the agile squirrel. She dropped her tail between her legs, braced her back against one side of the shallow gulley and began to wedge her way up, her nailed boots just holding their grip on the shallow angle opposite. If they slipped – it would be a long fall onto her back and tail-bones. Grimly she acknowledged the possibility and climbed on.
With a gasp of relief she reached the top of the rock, comprising a roughly square platform fifteen feet across. For a few seconds she relaxed, then looked around in the red light of the setting sun. “Yes!” The low light clearly picked out the weathered remains of pictographs carved in the hard rock, except where centuries of weather had removed them. She pulled out a roll of paper from her pocket and a block of cobbler’s black wax, and rapidly made rubbings of the most intact sequences. Her film developing kit was not yet assembled, and wax rubbings were easier in the fading light.
Five minutes sufficed to copy the main series of pictographs and to fill her roll of paper. She carefully rolled it and sealed it into her pocket, before backing her way down the shallow vertical gulley. Nancy smiled. “That’s three things today that have gone right in the end. I have my provisional permission to sleuth, my party is going ahead, and my first investigation is moving on. I don’t think it’s a crime, but you never know where things will lead.” Her tail perked up jauntily, and she strolled out of the park in the last of the light, watching the illuminations of the tourist spots coming on. She could contact Alpha tomorrow and see if the shrew savant could make any sense of the carvings.
Three out of three, she contemplated. That called for a celebration. She hesitated, looking down at her dark green suit and wondering whether to head back and change clothes again. Then she shook her head and headed East, away from the grand hotels and towards the commercial district around Ferry Square Market. I aim to know everywhere on this island, she reminded herself, and that includes the places they wear nailed boots, not best dresses.
In a few minutes she had reached the square, which was looking lively. There were only one or two recognisable tourists, but many “Euro” furs, some of them nautical types. Nancy guessed they were the crews of the tour boats or the other commercial vessels berthed off the island’s seven docks. Her ears rose. Some are dressed quite like me, she noted; where they can go, I can go.
Suddenly she had the feeling that she was being watched. Looking around, there was nothing obvious, but she hardly expected to see anyone staring overtly at her. Just because they see you, doesn’t mean you can see them. She mentally shrugged; young ladies in large nailed boots were bound to attract some attention. Spotting a pub where two ranking ship’s officers were entering, she took a deep breath and followed them in.
Although she had investigated various dockside dives back home in Creekside she had done so in disguise, always worried that someone would see through it. Her ears dipped briefly at the memory. As a respectable young lady, it would not have done at all to be seen frequenting such places regardless of having a worthy reason. Now things were different. She was dressed as an Adventuress, but not disguised as one. That was her new life.
“What’ll it be, Miss?” Her thoughts were jerked to the present as the barman addressed her. She hesitated, then remembered what Beryl had said was her favourite non-alcoholic drink.
“A Nootnops Blue, please,” she decided. Looking around, although the evening was young she could see the place looked almost respectable; nobody was fighting, singing or passed out on the floor. A very odd sort of dockside dive, from everything I ever heard about them, she mused. There were tasteful sailing scenes painted on the wall, plus a large mural with a scene of four canines playing poker that she seemed to recall having seen somewhere before.
The drink was surprisingly inexpensive, and at first sip it was not unlike sparkling lemonade tempered with some exotic fruit and herbs. She nodded appreciatively, and spotted an empty table in the corner where she could observe with her back secured.
Suddenly she felt her fur rising slightly, and once again felt that someone was watching her. She had gained no particular attention at the bar; evidently Adventuresses were familiar sights here and attracted no comment. The door opened, and a tall figure entered the room.
Nancy saw a distinguished-looking figure; another white-tailed stag but a much older and more serious looking one than she had seen breaking glassware at Shepherds Hotel. He walked with a cane, lines of pain deeply etched around his eyes marking what would have been a patrician face. As he turned and gave a dutiful nod to the barman, Nancy noticed his suit was ill-fitting and though scrupulously clean, bore the marks of much repaired wear and tear.
Probably some down-and out with a noble past and a hard-luck story, Nancy thought to herself, checking she had enough small change to spare. She would willingly buy him a coffee, but not give him any money. There’s so many around here; ruined noblemen from Russia and such places.
But although the tall figure turned and looked her way, his spread of antlers almost scraping the low ceiling, it was not to ask her for a handout or to sell her any guaranteed treasure maps of Tsarist gold. “Miss Rote, I believe?” The voice was American, an East Coast accent that was somehow distinctive. Nancy was sure she could pin it down.
“Yes, Sir? You have the advantage of me.” She rose politely; just because she was wearing less than genteel clothing was no reason to forget her manners. Now she was close enough to scent him; no trace of the expected liquor or tobacco, only a light deer musk with a suggestion of strong, cheap soap.
The newcomer gave her a wintry smile. “May I sit? My hoof, you see. Some days it is more trouble than others.” He patted his pockets, and pulled out a battered wallet. “My letter of introduction, you might say.” Opening it, he displayed what was a familiar crest, the Spontoon Islands Constabulary badge with the facing identification naming the bearer as “Franklin J. Stagg.”
Nancy nodded, taking a deep breath. Her thoughts raced, while she held her expression neutral. Sergeant Brush had said he had only one Detective superior; Chief Pickering had mentioned having a Detective who was not a Spontoonie Citizen. By the age and the accent, she deduced she had just been tracked down by him. “Yes, Sir. I was expecting to meet you sooner or later.”
“Oh?” Inspector Stagg raised one ear quizzically. “Oh yes, I see. It would be logical. My revered Chief would have to tell me about you, as indeed he did. He seems to be quite taken by your qualifications.” There was a pause. “Certainly, a girl who obtains a copy of the complete Spontoon Criminal Code in the first two days of arriving and a rather rare local dictionary inside a week, is doing her homework.”
“Chief Pickering entrusted me with one chance, Inspector, and I intend to make the most of it. Not to be tripped up on something that’s criminal where I come from, but almost respectable here.” Her eyes flicked over to the bar, where a sleek striped girl of some spectacularly mixed species (white tiger and ermine? She hazarded a guess) and a spectacularly short skirt was whispering negotiations with a young mastiff in a sailor’s shore whites.
Stagg followed her gaze, and nodded. “Very well, Miss Rote, my Chief has spoken. And like all such officers, he gets the obedience and respect he deserves.” There was a hint of a smile on those features. Suddenly he was all business. “As long as you keep those rules in mind, and do not interfere with any other investigation – my good Sergeant will have to forego his ambition of throwing you into the Lady’s part of our jail. But rules can be interpreted, and they even change – the last young lady from Songmark that I encountered professionally was responsible for the latest addition to our laws.”
Nancy closed her eyes for a second. “Amendment four, August 1936” she quoted “In addition to direct participation of previously mentioned crime, being an accessory or conspirator in planning, funding or otherwise aiding criminal acts shall be judged culpable under preceding Section two.”
An unexpected chuckle came from the tired-looking deer. “Oh yes, it seems that Songmark ladies are chosen for particular talents. The young lady who put that amendment on our books could quote verbatim just as well. One almost hopes she really is as clever as she believes herself to be, or I fear a sad fate awaits her sooner or later. Ah me.” He noted Nancy’s enquiring gaze. “No, I will leave you to find out yourself who she was – except that a certain large and well-known gem was involved. Innocent unless proven guilty, is the rule, and she broke no law that was in place at the time. As she took great care to research beforehand.”
Nancy’s snout wrinkled, and she leaned forward. “Sir – I’d like to ask you a question. What have you got against amateur investigators? You should have twenty detectives for a place this size, especially with all the tourists. Now, I’ve seen your headquarters. If folk can’t afford to paint the rooms or fix that cracked window in your office I expect they can’t afford to pay for any more staff. That leaves you eighteen people short. Even if you took me and Isabella on you’d be sixteen short. And every day there’s crimes you’re letting go unpunished because you haven’t got the people and you’re not willing to take on volunteers who could help you!” She glared at the placid stag, and sat back.
Inspector Stagg sighed, putting his hoof-tips together as he contemplated for a minute. “Miss Rote. I can only agree about the size of the task here. Twenty detectives would not be too many in tourist season. Two is twice what we managed with before my appointment.” It might have been Nancy’s imagination, but his eyes seemed to soften as he looked her over, and then a strange sadness entered them. “As for taking on keen amateurs from off-island – I believe my Sergeant made himself sufficiently plain about the local opinion of Outlanders enforcing Spontoon laws?”
“Yes, Sir, he certainly did.” Nancy gave her sweetest smile. Honey was often used to disguise poisons, she told herself. “I’m sure you agree with him, despite being from New Haven?” She had spotted the accent at last, and thrilled as she saw the Inspector wince as the barb strike home.
“Touché. Definitely touché. The difference being, the Althing looked closer to home and drew a blank before they offered me the post. I did not walk off a tour boat unannounced and make a sales pitch at the Police Station.” His ears dipped. “As to qualifications – you appear to have sufficiently convinced our Chief. I suggest you convince me.” He sat back, relaxing.
Nancy drew a deep breath, and took a long draught of the pleasant blue drink. “If you want a printed resume, Sir, I regret I don’t carry one with me. But if you want to hear what I’ve done in your line of work – well, I hope you aren’t in a hurry.”
It was three hours later that Nancy left the place, the Inspector having departed a few minutes earlier. She felt very strange; although Inspector Stagg had confirmed that the blue drink was indeed non-alcoholic, he had cautioned her to be careful of the company in which she next drank four of them in an evening. Her head felt very strange, and she told herself it was the emotional strain from a hard day of fighting for position.
“Well, I told him,” Nancy told herself defiantly. She had told her story, even the less believable parts – although the Inspector was no star-nosed mole, she was sure he would have picked up any lies or exaggerations straight away. She had told him as much as she had revealed to the Songmark tutors about her main failure, capture and what happened after. The Inspector had sighed, bowed his head and rubbed his own broken hoof. After recounting her escape, her struggle back to health and winning her Songmark place, her tale had wound down.
Inspector Stagg had asked a few technical questions about detection, but no more about her motivation. It seemed to sadden him, especially when he asked her age for his records.
Well, some furs go off to war younger than me, and if they come back it isn’t always in one piece. Nancy squared her shoulders, as she approached the Freya Hotel. I’m fit again, and ten times as determined as I ever was, before. So I can’t complain. She had been about to ask Inspector Stagg if he had daughters and if so would he have blocked them from taking up a career that was the most important thing in their lives – but something had stopped her. “He’s probably got a brood of half a dozen vapid fawns and they all want to be film stars, wouldn’t know a clue if it bit them in the tail,” she decided.
Just then there was the sound of a scuffle in the darkened street to the North. Her ears perked up, and she slipped into the deepest shadow as she investigated. One of the street-lights was out, and this far from the tourist hotels it seemed the island’s supply of spare light bulbs went elsewhere as priority.
There! Her night-wide eyes took in the scene, three figures attacking and two defending, in an eerie silence that told her nobody wanted the police to interfere in the matter. It was two women defending – no, one defending, a stocky bovine with small horns and curly dark head-fur who was dressed for practicality. Her friend was slumped unconscious against the wall, wearing a much shorter skirt than the Hays office allowed in films screened back in Creekside.
The three assailants all seemed to have taken damage already; they were nondescript canines dressed in anonymously nautical clothes as if they had come from any ship or wanted witnesses to think so. Suddenly the bovine charged, catching them by surprise. A solid horn-tipped head went into an unguarded midriff with the force of an express train, and a strong right arm swung a fist up to the point of a canine jaw with a sickening crack. A knife flashed in the starlight pulled by the last one standing.
The bovine gave a bellow and an angry oath in Italian that Nancy did not recognise. Dodging the blade she threw herself down like a rolling log at a skittle, knocking the canine off his paws and onto the floor. With a rush of sheer strength she hauled him up in a move that Nancy did recognise, hesitated an instant – then changed tack, grabbed the ankles and swung the mugger against the wall. All was very still for a second as the figure bounced and lay crumpled.
That was setting up for a back-break, Nancy told herself. She knew just what she was about to do – she’d have killed him just like that. Then she changed her mind. Just then the silence was broken.
“Come out, I can scent you,” a voice called in good English, with a hint of an accent. “Or I come to get you.”
Nancy could have run. Instead she stepped into what light there was, having judged the situation. “I didn’t think you needed any help with those three,” she offered. “Can I help you with your friend, though?”
The bovine smiled, looking her up and down. “We’d better get an ambulance. I explain when you get back. I’m Maria Inconnutia, by the way.”
“Nancy Rote,” Nancy explained. “I’m here to go to Songmark.”
Maria laughed, as she carefully examined the unconscious girl and gently turned her over. “You too? I will be a third-year next. Now, I am a journalist. There is a phone box at the end of this street. I wait here with her and keep an eye on these three banditi.”
Despite the unfamiliar design of call box and her buzzing head, Nancy was on the telephone a minute later and calling in an ambulance and the police for good measure. This Maria might not have wanted to involve them, but Nancy was determined to stay on the side of official law and order. Then she relaxed, exhaling a long breath.
“It looks like I’ll be talking to even more police before I get to bed tonight,” she noted as there was the distant sound of a whistle. “But this time – at least it’s not my fault!”