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Update 19 January 2006
The Coral Curtain
An Entertainment by Simon Barber
|The Coral Curtain
by Simon Barber
Rimu Raga © J.W.Kennedy, Chief Abel Pickering © E.O.Costello
Other characters by S. Barber, free for Spontoon usage!
Nancy Rote yawned, stretching as her alarm clock shrilled in the pre-dawn darkness. For a few seconds she lay in bed, luxuriating in the feel of crisp sheets against her fur. The beds at the Freya Hotel were generous; though it was listed as a single room it could accommodate a bear or hippo of the largest size that could waddle off a tour boat.
It could fit two of me, easily, she noted. There’s room for company. That’s a thought.
Putting that notion aside for the minute, Nancy slipped into her Adventuring costume, fastened her Kodiak camera on her belt and quietly slipped out of the room through the open window, the lithe squirrel easily swinging down from the first floor balcony to the ground. For a second she crouched in the shadows, listening. She had paid her bill at the Freya in advance up to the day she was due to start at Songmark, but hotels probably had an innate worry about guests leaving through the window rather than the lobby. Her ears went right up, nose twitching as she scanned the area. There was nobody around.
The streets heading uphill from the North side of Casino Island were almost empty an hour before dawn. Not quite so; she noticed two bands of street cleaners busy and she passed them with a jaunty wave, noting two had patterns combed into their exposed fur as she had seen some Spontoonies on South Island wearing.
“Excellent!” She looked over the rim of The Tub five minutes later, noting the spot was quite unoccupied. “I’ll come back with Isabella another morning – the fewer who know about this the better.” There was a clump of bushes on the rim that she dropped behind and crawled through; some species had better night eyes than squirrels and she did not want a potential watcher catching a glimpse of a distinctive squirrel tail breaking the skyline.
The hollow the guide books called “The Tub” was less than a hundred yards from rim to rim, and some thirty feet deep apart from a funnel-shaped central depression that looked far rougher. It was still too dark to photograph, so Nancy used the time making a minute survey of the publicly visible features. She scratched her ears, thinking. “If this was limestone, I’d have said that was a doline, a collapsed cave entrance.” In one of the issues of International Geographic she had read in hospital there had been an article on cave hunters, who had removed boulder chokes at bottoms of such pits and opened up passageways that had been blocked at a time most furs lived in caves themselves. “It hasn’t been touched in centuries, that’s plain. But there could be something down there.” Not having crowbars and lifting tackle handy, she regretfully crossed that exploration off her immediate list, though she had a strange feeling looking at the moss-choked pit. She had felt much the same looking at the apparently innocent piece of furniture which held the secret in the Case of the Piano Stool-pigeon back in Creekside.
As dawn approached, she checked once more that no army of park keepers was about to come over the top before carefully scraping the sand away from the footpath she had seen before. She carefully laid out strips of mackintosh along the side of the grass to make sure every grain went back when she had finished; an apparently featureless patch of grass could hold all sorts of clues to anyone who looked hard enough. It had been following an almost invisible trail of tea-leaves across a lawn that had led her to the solution of The Gibbering Samovar Mystery.
“Fascinating.” It was a risk, but Nancy worked alone uncovering ten two-foot stretches of carven pavement and photographing it. Getting the five second exposures was a job for a steady paw in the dim light, but she had practiced many times before. Flashbulbs were obviously not a good idea, with the noise and the tell-tale plume of white magnesium smoke. In twenty minutes she had twenty exposures, and carefully smoothed down the sand. Looking around cautiously, she unrolled the fabric strips over the disturbed areas and carefully trampled it back to its compact state without leaving tell-tale signs from her tricouni nailed boots, before whisking the surface with her tail and departing the scene at the even speed of a healthy tourist out for a pre-breakfast run. Her bouncy squirrel stride was recognisable at any distance, but once outside The Tub she knew she was on safe grounds.
“And that’s that.” Five minutes later she swung back up to her balcony with an excellent appetite for breakfast and an hour to spare. By the time she was downstairs there were twenty clear exposures hung up to dry in her bathroom, and the open windows were removing the last traces of darkroom scent. Once on a case, Nancy was no stranger to surprising developments.
At Ten o’clock the photographs and the rubbings from the previous night were spread out on Alpha Zarahoff’s bed in her new apartment, a tiny round room at the very top of the Madston Hotel. It was one of the more gothic buildings on the island, with a steep turret at every corner.
Alpha was staring intently at the pictographs, in between snacking on some sort of dried meat. Nancy had to almost crouch in the corner where the ceiling slanted down; apart from the bed there was only a folding stool and a collection of hooks on the wall for furniture.
“What did you get this room for?” Nancy felt her ears pressed against the angled ceiling. “Aren’t these chambermaid’s rooms and such?” Although the tower rooms had probably been built for staff use, Alpha had persuaded the management to rent it out to her, and cared nothing for having to climb a folding attic ladder in the middle of the corridor to get in.
The shrew’s whiskers twitched. “Room with a view! They didn’t want me on South Island any more. Prejudiced. Nobody around here on the floor below to disturb when I have to chant the words. Nice and quiet for focussing.” She nodded towards a pile of ancient-looking books under the bed. “Lots of diagrams, sort of fun to look at. I haven’t managed to call the lightning yet, though.” There was a copper lightning strip running just outside the window.
Nancy forced herself to stay quiet, while Alpha compared the pictographs with others in the collection of dusty books. Suddenly a thought struck her. “Alpha … if it does work somehow … isn’t this a dangerous place to try it?”
The shrew giggled. “Oh no. Well the lightning’s not the danger. Much.”
“Oh well. One of Father’s assistants he managed to translate Chapter Eleven, and he just yelled up from the lab that he’d understood it all when –“ Alpha shrugged. “He went unstable, started to tumble and broke up in the atmosphere. Debris trail scattered for miles.”
“That’s exactly what you said about the prototype of that Tillamook racer aircraft,” Nancy objected.
“Oh well. It happens a lot where I come from. You’d think people could find somewhere more original to break up.” Alpha’s paw dived into her satchel and she crammed another pawfull of dubious dried meats into her mouth. For a minute she chewed and leafed through the ancient books (“Of a voyage in Terra Australis Incognita by Geo. Pytte, Capt’n of the barque Abednigo, with sundrie discussions on the heathens of the isles and their idols & doings, & wondr’s prodigies beyond ye kenning of mortal Manne”), none of them printed later than the year 1760 and many of accounts a century earlier. Evidently Cranium Island had a very good village library.
Suddenly her ears went right up. “Aha!” She pointed to a sequence of signs that almost matched the ones in Nancy’s rubbing. “Here we are! We’re on the right lines. I should be able to make some sense out of it, if those “Antient wondr’ workers” weren’t playing fool the tourist with Captain Pytt like their descendants do.” She wrinkled her snout. “Falsifying data. Hate that. Hate it.”
Before Alpha could get too deeply into deciphering, Nancy remembered what else she was here for. “In four days time we’re having a party for all the new Songmark girls, to get to know each other. A head start would be useful. You’re invited, of course.”
Alpha blinked. “Party? There aren’t any Parties on Spontoon. The Althing isn’t a Party government.”
Nancy laughed. “Not political. You know, a party. Meet, socialise and get to know each other, maybe some food and some wine.”
The shrew cocked her head to one side. “A scientific conference?”
“No, a party.” Nancy caught the keen but uncomprehending gaze. “You really don’t know about parties? What did you do at school at the end of terms?”
Alpha gave a dismissive flick of her paw. “Oh, school. No, I brought myself up reading encyclopaedias and textbooks. That and lots of research. There was just me and my brother Primus, but something ate him. It happens.” She turned back to the books.
Nancy Rote was not too proud to admit she was mistaken in the teeth of overwhelming proofs. Isabella was right, she IS howling mad, she told herself. But she drew a deep breath, calming herself as she reminded herself Alpha was good enough to get accepted for Songmark. At least, she says she has been, if it’s not just the voices in her head told her so. I’ve not met any of our Tutors yet to ask them. We’ll find out soon enough. In the meantime, she could make use of the shrew’s strange talents.
“Anyway, you’re invited. It’s not just for first-years; Beryl found us a place and says she’d like to come along. If she wants to bring Piet van Hoogstraaten, I won’t turn him away either.”
“Piet? I know Piet!” Alpha’s whiskers twitched. “His father is one of our suppliers for Cranium Island. We often need certain things you can’t get in Ferry Square Market, for our experiments.”
“Alpha,” Nancy said slowly. “What sort of experiments do you do?”
The shrew’s beady eyes fixed her with a piercing gaze. “We do lots of experiments.”
“Yes, but what, exactly?”
Alpha wriggled luxuriously, a wistful smile wreathing her narrow muzzle. “Fascinating experiments. We find out things other people don’t even believe anyone should know. But how can you be sure before you find out? You’re an investigator! Never found anything you wished you hadn’t?”
Nancy’s ears went down. “There was the case of Noblesse Oblige that I solved,” she admitted.
Alpha’s own ears were perked up happily. “Well there you are!” There was a pause. “Just how many knobless obleegies do you get in a case? It’s a dozen for wine bottles, depending on the packing geometry.”
Nancy had had enough. “Well, I’d better not keep you from your research any longer,” she said smoothly. “Tomorrow luncheon at the Rainbow bridge? I’m looking forward to seeing what you can find out.”
Alpha was already absorbed in her work, so Nancy let herself down the ladder through the trapdoor into the service corridor. All around were attic rooms filled with spare furniture, bedding, towels and the like, all the spares and repair items needed for a bustling hotel a long way from any commercial wholesaler. Nancy had noted the sheets were British Empire Indian cotton, but the pillows were Rain Island textiles. Both suppliers were many days away by transport ship, and the Spontoon enterprises kept good stocks of everything for emergencies.
As she stood in the corridor lost in thought, she heard Alpha happily squealing above her as she no doubt cracked the meaning behind some particularly eldritch pictogram. There were no staff resident in the rooms around at night to be disturbed by the noise of her chanting, Alpha had said. Possibly Alpha might be interested in some more pleasant “experiments” that needed company, Nancy mused. She was unconventional enough not to be easily shocked, Nancy felt sure – and though nobody’s idea of a film star, much prettier than Isabella.
Nancy smiled, stretching her tail and descended the stairs with a jaunty stride. Cranium Island might not be the only place where folk could find out fascinating things.
“Nancy! Is my new costume, Eriksson’s deliver this morning! What do you think?” Isabella Rodriquez proudly displayed her severely practical suit, the fabric a tree-bark brown rather than Nancy’s own palm-leaf green pattern.
“It suits you,” Nancy walked around her friend as they sat outside a café just outside the Treasure Point amusement park. “Very practical.” The catalogue photographs in Eriksson’s Outdoor Suppliers used lithe mink or feline models shown athletically climbing trees or crossing log bridges in tourist-inspiring displays of Amazonian elegance. Isabella, on the other paw, looked rather like a tree stump with pockets. There was nothing the tailors could do about that given the specification; a mole was a mole however costumed.
Isabella ran her claws down the strong fabric, exploring the triple-locked seams and water-resistant pockets (Very wisely Eriksson’s never made the claim that anything was totally waterproof). “So. We can head out and explore, no?”
“Yes, this looks like a day for it,” Nancy agreed. “I believe we can wander around South Island without needing a guide – at least, around the tourist parts. If we can’t slip out into the more interesting bits, it’ll be our own fault. Coming?”
“Si! All the party invites they are posted, in today’s newspapers, and Eastern Island as well. That mad shrew, she is not coming?”
“Now, now,” Nancy waved a finger. “Imagine she’ll be in your dorm for three years, as she might be. Better not start off on the wrong paw with anyone. That’s what the party’s for – well, partly.”
Isabella’s pink snout tendrils writhed uncomfortably, but she nodded. “You have permission to sleuth, even. The Chief of Police, did you mention me as well to him?” Isabella looked up eagerly. “I found a spy in Mixteca. El Presidente commended me. He said I deserved a medal, but it look bad the daughter of his own Police Chief getting decorations.”
“Yes.” Nancy’s tail swished. “It was a busy day, yesterday. Thinking of spies - I even got to meet another Songmark third-year, Maria Inconnutia. She claimed she was being attacked – perhaps she was. I didn’t get to ask the three canines their side of the story; they were roughly dressed but so might undercover policemen be. She wasn’t arrested, but that doesn’t mean a lot. Perhaps she has influence with the Detectives around here.” Nancy had spent half an hour at the Police station giving her statement, but had no idea how things had gone elsewhere except that she had seen Maria leaving as well. “Maria says she’s a freelance journalist in the holidays. But I remember Millicent telling me she’s really Il Puce’s niece, and you can be sure she doesn’t need the money. I haven’t seen her name in either edition of the Daily Elele or the Mirror either, and I’ve not missed an issue yet. Rather significant, I think.”
“Third-years, they are in charge of first-years sometimes,” Isabella warned. “It say so in Songmark book. She is not a person to make angry with us.”
Nancy smiled, and stretched. “Well, my profession is making crooks angry with me,” she pointed out matter-of-factly. “If Maria’s a spy, that definitely makes her a crook by Spontoon laws – and if I can prove it, what she thinks won’t bother me a bit.”
Twenty minutes later they were stepping off a water-taxi in Resort Bay, South Island. Nancy had her coastal navigation chart with her, which showed nothing but hilltops and other landmarks inland but at least had the shape of the island correct. Tourist maps seemed to be very shoddily produced, and one of the villages was clearly a quarter of a mile from its marked position.
“Resort Bay,” she looked at the map, and pointed to the long curving sand spit that enclosed it. “North fluke. There’s a South Fluke on the far side of the island.” She studied the map carefully. “There’s an idea. A Spontoon’s a sort of broad spear with curving blades at the base of the spear-head. South Island looks a bit like one, pointing East. I wonder if that’s where the name came from?” Her tail swished. “I’ll ask Millicent if she knows; it might be in the books. That’s one thing about these settlements, they’re all so new. Newer than my home town, even. There might be ancient furs still alive who came with the first ones to arrive here with the plantations.”
They walked up to the promenade that held a string of hotels, bars and restaurants. Behind the buildings the land rose in a fairly steep wall of jungle-covered hillside that the chart listed as Mount Tomboabo. Unfortunately that was the only thing marked inland, and Nancy’s own hand-amended tourist map showed only the route to Alpha’s former lodgings at the Spontari Guest House.
Isabella pulled out a hefty brass compass from one of her many pockets. “South is Haio Beach,” she commented. “Is only South coast settlement on tourist map.”
“Yes.” Nancy looked at the wall of trees thoughtfully. “That could be interesting. I spot three clusters of cooking smoke widely scattered, and only one village marked. Could be quite interesting.”
“Pretty lady want guide? See all finest parts of island, special tour price!” The voice came from behind them.
Nancy whirled round, to see a skinny male who looked somewhat canine, though it was hard to be sure. His narrow nuzzle poked out enquiringly, eyes almost hidden in a tangled mop of dark braided head-fur, and around his neck was the shell necklace that proclaimed him as an official Guide. “And who might you be?”
“Self is Rimu Raga, best guide for value on all South Island! Show all secrets of islands!” His tail thrashed with a nervous enthusiasm.
Nancy cocked her head aside quizzically, and walked round the visitation as if he was some strange statue, viewing him from all sides. She remembered the otter guides in the boat welcoming her to Spontoon the week before; their costumes had been much the same but they had rather more to show. “What sort of secrets had you in mind, and for how much?” She demanded. Going with a guide might prevent being lost in the jungle, but she had seen other guides she would prefer to be lost with.
“All secret places! We go past dangerous quicksand, along hidden pathways. Beaches no tourists go to. Mountains with ritual sites from ancient times, oh yes.”
“Hmm.” Nancy was unconvinced. “If you’re an official guide the sites aren’t going to be very secret are they? I think I’ll take my chances with the quicksand, thank you. Good day to you.” With that she strolled on, Isabella following in her wake.
Isabella looked round at the drooping figure now scanning the empty beach for more unattached tourists with few prospects in sight. “Nancy, I am thinking that was not very nice. We could have had him take us to Haio beach at least, make own way back. After us, few tourists arriving so late in year.”
“We’ll probably have quite enough guided tours when term starts,” Nancy replied smoothly. “What we need is a chance to investigate without someone steering us away from things they don’t want us to see. I’ll bet half the “dangerous quicksand” is nothing but mud puddles with big warning notices to protect whatever’s on the far side.” She paused. “Though of course the other half could be real enough.” Outside the village, she stopped in a bamboo grove and selected a six-foot pole which she trimmed with her Swiss Naval knife as she walked. Erikson’s Outdoors sold a range of up to ten-foot poles for adventurers to use; what she had not seen was any advice on how to get them through narrow jungle pathways or revolving hotel doors.
Haio village proved to be disappointingly “normal”, in that a dozen obvious tourists were queuing at a hot-dog stall on the beach. Nancy could see from the marks in the sand that this was the lone survivor, where half a dozen similar stalls had been earlier in the season. There were more Natives around in costume, some carrying fishing nets, garden rakes and other household tools.
There was a shady bench under a tree in what passed for a village square; the two girls sat on it and rested for a few minutes while their eyes drank in the scene. Just off to the West was an obvious village store, a corrugated iron roofed structure with its end wall adorned with enamelled advertising signs, the sort that came in handy for patching up holes.
“Beeko for beautiful Beaks,” Isabella read out. “Snouto, the wonder snout restorer. Buckhorn’s best bile beans for brimmingly bounteous Bile. Anything for moles, I wonder?”
“One way to find out.” Nancy rose, stretched and headed over The sign above the door read “Herr Rassberg, Proprietor” and inside she could see a middle-aged canine with bounteous whiskers, presumably the owner. She gave a brief twitch of a smile; the current democratically elected German leader was of a similar breed, his family name having originally been Pickelschnauser.
Before entering, Nancy scanned the place for alternative exits. It was something sleuths paid close attention to, especially ones who had previously been trapped as she had. She relaxed on seeing a labelled fire door in the opposite wall, and her eyes wandered across the assorted posters in the shelter of the shop veranda. One caught her eye; an advert for the “Tropicanana Banana Company” with a very pretty feline girl dancing in a strange variant of Native costume.
I’ve seen skirts of grass and palm-leaves around here, Nancy nodded appreciatively. I didn’t think bananas would be too practical. Heavier, and rather a mess if you sit down.
“Good morning!” She breezed in, looking around the fairly well-appointed general store. It was the only shop on Haio beach as far as she could see, and had a predictable range of groceries and assorted supplies. Apart from the shark spears and fishing nets, it might have been any village general store in the countryside around her home town.
“Gut morning,” The canine bowed slightly, returning her gaze with an equally keen one. “May I help you?”
Noting Isabella was at her shoulder, Nancy ordered fruits and nuts for a light luncheon, plus a tin of small fish that she had noticed Isabella staring hungrily at. “We’re Songmark girls, or we will be,” she added innocently as she paid the shopkeeper. “Do you have any staying around here? We’re keen to meet them.” She unrolled a poster from her bag, and handed it over. “You see, we’re organising a party.”
Canine whiskers blew out in a huff of breath. “Songmark! Who does not know them. Good girls when they arrive, some of them. Not so good when they leave. Papers, experience, ja- but such things they do!” He shook his head. “Ja, we have some living here, you will see.” With that he folded his arms, and stood mute as a cigar-store Red Indian. Clearly he was not in a chatty mood.
Nancy thanked him, and with Isabella left the shop to return to their seat under the trees. “Did you get anything from that?” She asked, as she packed the food in her knapsack.
Isabella nodded. “He was telling truth,” she opined. “I am watching his eyes, too. They were looking at something under the counter. It is not a club against unwelcome customers, it is something he sells. I am not seeing what.”
Nancy nodded, privately ticking a list of items she might possibly find a use for. Erikson’s Outdoors sold many things that were useful to an adventurous girl – but that depended on the adventure. She had the idea that if suitably asked, Herr Rassberg sold other items that were not going to be displayed in the shop window. “I’ll be back here, I’m sure,” she mused.
Suitably provisioned, the two looked over the navigational chart and decided to follow the beach Westwards, cutting across South Fluke and heading back across one of the blanks in the map. The chart indicated sand beaches, which should prove easier to walk along than trackless jungle, and impossible to get lost on.
“Hmm.” Nancy looked critically at a patch of jungle ten minutes later, having left the tourist stalls far behind. “Now that’s interesting. Look at that strip heading inland, Isabelle. The trees are lower, but they’re not thinner.”
“They maybe old plantation, gone back to jungle?” The mole suggested.
Nancy laughed. “Oh no. Look. Lower tops, NOT thinner trunks. If they were younger trees, you might be right. Something happened to mature trees years ago, they were all damaged the same way in a great slice. Let’s take a look.” With that she unfastened her pack and pulled out a brand new machete, its oiled paper wrappings still on it as she slid it from the sheath. The Outdoor shop had a wide range of “hunting knives” of similar size, elaborate brass-trimmed or staghorn handled creations with chromed blades that shone fiercely in the paws of Adventurers in the catalogues. Nancy had taken one look at those and spent a quarter as much on an utterly plain locally produced blade whose handle would not tear her paws to bits in half an hour’s hard use.
Isabella’s snout twitched. “Sergeant Brush see that with you, we both see the inside of the jails. He “interpret” law just for us, I am thinking.”
Nancy’s eyebrow rose. “I’m sure. Which is why I carry it in the pack, not on my belt. There were two Spontoonie natives back there doing gardening with the same model, but he wouldn’t put the handcuffs on them for it.”
As she peered into the edge of the jungle seeking any trace of ancient path, she smiled as she recalled her interview with Chief Pickering. One of the desk drawers had been open a crack, letting her see what was inside. Like the shiny chrome plated hunting knives sold for the tourist “Adventurers” to pose with, not every supposedly functional item really was. Just as the Chief of Police back in Creekside sported a pair of richly engraved, pearl-handled revolvers, his opposite number in Spontoon had a pair of silk-lined padded handcuffs hidden away. Neither expected to use them in action, presumably. She smiled, her tail twitching at a sudden thought.
“Aha!” A minute later Nancy spotted the ghost of a path, leading into the jungle. Surprisingly, despite its looks it proved to be quite navigable, and her machete was used for pushing vines aside rather than having to hack a trail through them. In a few minutes they entered a clearing of much younger trees, and Nancy’s tail went rigid as she saw what was still lying at the end of the trail of once smashed vegetation.
“Is giant triplane! Not Tarant Tabor though. Very old crash, look at jungle.” Isabella had evidently been studying classical aircraft designs, or perhaps Mixteca routinely had to make do with much older equipment. “No markings left on it. No wings or tail, just fuselage left. No way to tell where came from.” Her snout twitched as she looked at the peeling monoque shell of plywood, any paint long since gone.
“I wonder.” Nancy’s eyes gleamed. Aircraft had never been of special interest before she had decided to join Songmark, but a clue was a clue. She dropped her pack by the towering curve of the fuselage, found a fallen tree that offered a ramp up, and swiftly ran up it onto the top of the rotting wooden structure. The wood was sponge-soft in places, and she held her bamboo pole out in front like a tight-rope walker to hold her in case her boots crashed through the thin plywood shell.
Twenty cautious paces brought her to the cockpit, where lianas and tropical vines curled out of the musty well of darkness. She hesitated. The guides to Spontoon she had read had mentioned no snakes except sea snakes, or she would have steered well clear of such an obvious lair. The fuselage lay tilted almost on its side, the cockpit filled with years of leaf-mould that she hesitantly tested with the pole before putting her full weight on. Switching on her electric torch, Nancy dropped down into the darkness.
Five minutes later, Isabella heard a muffled shout from the far side of the wreck. She hurried round to see an avalanche of leaf-mould cascading out of an almost buried window, followed by a boot and then the rest of a very dirty Adventuress.
“Phoo! That’s musty in there! I could hardly breathe.” Nancy brushed herself down, then smiled. “No way to tell where it came from? Take a look at these.” From her pocket she pulled a pawfull of souvenirs. “Exhibit one; an aluminium maker’s plate from the dashboard. “Flugzewerke Poll, Forsmann R1” it says. It’s definitely German. Exhibit two, one 1918 issue Turkish five piaster piece, it had been lost under the floor plates before they rotted away. We have a German giant triplane, that’s been in the Ottoman Empire just before the War ended. Exhibit three – you’ll be surprised at this,” she pulled out a piece of rusted enamel with a broad arrow marking and some lines of faint but readable text underneath. “It’s part of a petrol tin, there were a dozen more in there. British Royal Flying Corps official fuel, in cans that are Indian local issue! I don’t know how it got here, but I know roughly where it came from, and when.”
Isabella’s eyes went wide. “Is fine work! And proprietor of shop is being German. We could ask him.”
Nancy nodded slowly. “We could. But I think I’ll wait awhile. We don’t know who he talks to. The Police know I’m a sleuth, that can’t be helped. But I think I’ll save any real questioning till we have a real case. Best to play the tourist, until we have to show our hand.” She shrugged, looking back at the wooden wreck that was being reclaimed season by season by the jungle. “Even if this was stolen, I doubt the owners would want it back now.”
The trail stopped at the old crash site, which was surrounded by what Nancy had read of in books as “three-yard jungle” progress through which would be a matter of hacking a new path through at an exhausting mile a day. They turned back and in five minutes were at the beach again.
Nancy wrinkled her snout, looking at her tail-fur in the strong sunlight. “It looks like I’ve been sweeping the streets with this,” she complained. “Still, it’s not hard to fix. A swim would be good. What do you think, Isabella?”
“Si!” The mole nodded enthusiastically. She looked around the deserted beach; there was nobody for several hundred metres and the waves were inviting. Her snout tendrils quivered. “Nancy … under this I have only the base layer they call it, they sell with the suit. It is … no bathing costume.”
Nancy slipped out of her own outer layer, revealing the insulating mesh that barely hid her ash-white fur. “I know what you mean. Still – you could say it covers all the essentials. And it should dry out faster than those stretch woollen costumes! Now looks like the time and place to test it.” Carefully folding her tunic and trousers with the heavy boots weighing them down against the breeze, she made sure all was secure before running down to the water and diving into a welcoming wave.
Isabella joined her, and for ten minutes they swam in the warm September waters the Nimitz Sea current brought up from the South to warm the Spontoon Islands. Lying on her back floating, Nancy frowned despite the comfort. Back home she could spot mysteries, almost any of which turned out to be worthwhile cases for her talent. Here … it was less like looking for a needle in a haystack; needles were recognisable when you found them and very different from straw. It was more like looking for a particular sort of twig in a jungle, when you only had a faint idea what was meant to distinguish it from all the other twigs. There might be nothing remotely sinister about the crashed aircraft; perhaps Millicent would tell her it had been confiscated by the Allied Control Commission in 1918 and come to grief with a British crew flight testing it on the Hong Kong to Hawaii run. That would fit the facts as much as her original idea of it being loaded with gold reserves still buried in the jungle. She had come to expect every mystery to be something she could get her chisel teeth into.
She shuddered. There was not that much time left till term started, and she wanted something definite to give to Chief Pickering before then. Running around chasing mysterious but non-criminal events would be a waste of her one good chance. As the Chief had said, he trusted first impressions.
“Time to move along!” She ducked under a wave for a final rinse then struck out strongly for the beach, shaking herself dry and wringing the water out of her tail. Salt water would make her fur stick uncomfortably, but it would do till she returned to the hotel and was much better than being covered in rust and leaf-mould. “Coming, Isabella?” Swiftly she dressed, her gaze running over her friend’s wet fur as the mole splashed her way up the beach. Star-nosed moles were an uncommon species except in Central America, and she had never seen a half-breed. With looks like that – Isabella’s right about never seeing them in the fashion pages, she noted. Her tail twitched as she recalled the striped half-breed girl in the dockside bar, who had cast an inviting wink despite being obviously engaged elsewhere. That was an idea she reluctantly pushed aside – something that respectable Investigators did not do. Unless of course I had to gather information for a case, she thought. All’s fair in love, war and sleuthing. The night before, she was sure the Spontoon girl Maria Inconnutia had been protecting had been in much the same business.
After their frugal lunch, an hour along the beach brought them back to North Fluke with no further adventures, Nancy noting the precise drying time of their costumes in her waterproof notebook along with details of the landscape. She looked across the narrow strait at the great towering rock face marked on her map as Mount Kiribatori, as they prepared to cut across North Fluke back to the tourist strip and the water-taxis back. “Main Island next stop. How about that, tomorrow? We’ll need a guide to start with. By the end of the week we’ll work out some way of giving the slip. Then – it’s time for the party.”
Isabella shivered. “I am hoping we do not all have a good time.” At Nancy’s enquiring gaze, she suddenly grinned. “Mad shrew from Cranium Island – do you really want to be around when she has her idea of a fun party?”
to be continued