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Update 26 January 2006
The Coral Curtain
An Entertainment by Simon Barber
|The Coral Curtain
by Simon Barber
Sgt. Brush © E.O.Costello
Other characters by S. Barber, free for Spontoon usage!
“If the police around here are as competent as the weather forecasters,” Nancy Rote declared as she looked out of her balcony at a wet world “No wonder there’s whole islands of criminals living in the Nimitz Sea.”
Rain meant little to Nancy when she was sleuthing, except for problems with washing away paw-prints, scent and the like. Fog was another matter, and she had awoken hardly able to see the buildings across the street. A sightseeing trip to Main Island would be a washout; she would see very little and more importantly draw attention to herself as possibly the only tourist who had insisted on heading out in such conditions. The forecast in the previous day’s newspapers had said “occasional light showers” and none mentioned non-stop tropical downpours.
Nancy frowned, dressing for breakfast in a blue street frock. The weather would not have been a problem for a third or fourth trip to Main Island, when she knew where she wanted to investigate and could use the poor visibility to avoid discovery – that and take advantage of it removing her trail. But for a first trip … “I’ll definitely have to find something else to do today,” she noted, smoothing her tail fur down as she inspected herself carefully in the mirror. “Meeting Alpha at lunchtime, see what she’s found out. Then … we’ll see.”
Downstairs, she ordered her usual breakfast, but stuck to only one round of toast as she was not going to be running around Main Island that day. The lepine waitress brought it over along with the papers; the English edition of the Daily Elele and the Mirror.
Nancy frowned slightly as she looked at the Mirror. “Is all this true, do you know?” She did not point to any particular scandalous tale; a pin shoved through the paper at random would have conservatively touched a dozen.
“I really couldn’t say, Miss.” The waitress looked thoughtful. “I know one thing, though. All sorts of people keep saying they’re going to sue the editor Mr. Crane for slander and libel – but as far as I know, nobody’s done it yet and won, since he came here.”
“Mmm.” Nancy leafed through the paper, digesting the fact. She would have to check it later on, of course. “It could be he can afford better lawyers than anyone who’s up against him.” Her father had taught her early on that practical Law was more than just automatically applying rules – cases had to be fought for, and a skilful lawyer could swing a decision one way when by all the evidence it might well have gone another.
“Mister Crane, he’s becoming very famous in these islands,” the lepine opined. “He’s not only in newspapers, but radio as well. I hear he’s got plans for a sort of broadcast cinema like the Germans have already, a “Super-iconoscope” they call it.” One ear dipped. “I can’t see it catching on; people won’t pay a hundred shells for a box with a six-inch screen at home when they can have a proper night out with their friends at the cinema and a sixty-foot screen for fifty cowries.”
“Not around here, perhaps. Do the Native villages even have electricity?” There were no other guests up so early; most had probably taken a look at the grey dawn, rolled over and gone back to sleep again. Nancy pulled out a chair from the table opposite. “You must be tired, hopping in and out with trays all the time. May I know your name?”
The lepine hesitated, and gratefully sat down. “It’s Papoha, Miss. Yes, all the main villages have generators for businesses, surgeries and such. Longhouses don’t have electric. But they’re building a big fermentation powered generator near Main Village, it’ll make compost and power out of crop wastes and rubbish.”
“Sensible,” Nancy noted. “I wanted to go to Main Island today, if the weather had been better.” She looked Papoha up and down, appraisingly. “Does every tourist on Main Island really need a paid guide for every trip?”
“Oh yes, Miss. It’s not developed and safe like Casino Island. There’s quicksand, stinging vines with blinding sap, cliffs, rockfalls, all sorts of danger. And we have to protect our tourists.”
Nancy nodded thoughtfully, as she ate. I’ll bet, she commented sourly to herself. Just invent that one rule and you’ve guaranteed work for as many guides as there are tourists – and the guides can charge what they like, as well as steering visitors clear of things the locals don’t want us to see. She had not forgotten the rapid “turnover” of Diplomatic staff and presumably others who investigated the Native areas.
Aloud, she thanked Papoha and finished her meal before putting on her rain slicker and heading out into the wet world outside. The fog was cool rather than cold, muffling the sounds of Casino Island and cutting visibility down to twenty metres. Nancy imagined the jungles of South Island in this weather; she had to admit a tourist venturing out could get very lost very fast. Having a compass was little use in the dense jungle; one followed the winding trails and if none led the right direction, that was just too bad.
Ferry Square Market was busy despite the rain; furs had to eat regardless and a dozen food shops were doing a good trade with fish and vegetables. Nancy had always made a habit of carrying food with her in case her investigations called her away at inconvenient times, and made a bee-line for a vegetable stall with a wide selection of nuts on display.
“All local Spontoon Island products,” she read the paw-written notice “except coconuts.” She paused, looking curiously at the vendor, who certainly had a lovely bunch of coconuts on show. “Why import coconuts? Surely the climate’s right and there’s enough plantations on Main Island.” She had memorised the encyclopaedia reference to the area, and they had certainly featured in the “natural products” section.
The vendor, a dark-furred fruit bat, smiled at her. “Orpington and Dioon Islands grow ‘em, Miss.” His convoluted snout looked bizarre as he grinned. “Special arrangement with Orpington – they don’t grow four-star hotels, we don’t grow coconuts.”
Nancy fixed him with a hard stare, her sleuth’s instincts spotting something amiss. But just then her other instincts kicked in, her neck-fur rising as she felt someone watching her. Turning round, she spotted a figure she could have very happily never seen again - dressed in a grey raincoat that really did not colour coordinate with his red fur, the figure of Sergeant Brush striding towards her. Judging from his pressed-back ears and bristling tail, the fox was not in a mood for pleasant conversation.
“Mornin', Charlie,” Sergeant Brush addressed the bat. “Gotta chat wit' yer customer.” He nodded towards the awning of a marine chandlers shop, the shop itself not yet open but providing a shelter from the rain. “Miss Rote? A word witcha. Now-like.”
“Of course, Sergeant”, Nancy said smoothly, heading over to the striped awning, her keen glance taking in various shark-spears and other lethal hardware in the window. For an instant, she imagined solving the Case of the Harpooned Fox despite the jury letting the perpetrator off on a verdict of Justified Vulpicide. The shop also claimed to sell a herbal shark repellent; there was no such handy cure displayed for irritating foxes, but possibly they kept that under the counter.
For a second Sergeant Brush looked Nancy up and down, from her sensible two-inch heels to her neatly brushed blonde head-fur.
“Awright,” he growled. “So ya think ya pulled a fast one onnus. Figures a clothes-horse wit' a smile can get in wit' th' Chief. But it ain't gonna cut no ice wit' me, see?”
“Why, Sergeant”, Nancy treated the glaring fox to her best, most open smile. “There's really no need to repeat yourself. I have a rather good memory. I can also remember exactly what the Spontoon laws say about wasting police time. I'd be very happy to work without taking up a second of yours. And as for Outlanders supporting the law around here - I have met your Inspector Stagg. That was entirely his idea, so I can't see a jury deciding I was the one who wasted his time. Plus I am technically a Citizen, while he is not.”
Sergeant Brush fixed her with an icy glare. “Oooooh, a reg'lar Quiz Kit, aintcha? And you'se th' gal who's been spendin' time at that Temple of Continual Reward. Some temple! Don't ya deny it.”
“I wouldn't dream of it,” Nancy agreed. “I'm quite aware it's a haunt of local crooks. Where better for me to start? I'm surprised it's still in business. Back home it'd have been cleaned out in no time.”
The fox's muzzle wreathed in an unpleasant grin. “Mebbe I oughta let you alone, at that. Wid ya good an' noble friend Miss Parkesson and that - that young gent, Mister Van Hoogstraaten Junior.” Something seemed to amuse him. “Oh yeah, and you'se th' “great Detective”. Go ahead! Ya finds out all 'bout that Temple an' its folks th' hard way, don't ya listen to me. But, see, put one paw wrong and so help me I 'll have ya in th' hoosegow inna heartbeat, and ya pretty pal Miss Rodriquez t'rown in as an accomplice besides. We've got laws about aidin' an' abettin' crime now, thanks t'yer other pal.”
“As I said, Sergeant, there was no need to repeat yourself”, Nancy said quietly. “I am qualified, you know. At least, your Superiors know it.”
Sergeant Brush nodded slowly, obviously keeping his temper under control. “Okeh. Tried t'tellya nice-like. Remember that, Miss Rote. Reckon next time we has a nice lil' chat, I'll be reading ya rights t'ya.”
“I try to know my rights, Sergeant,” Nancy smiled to him. “I really do.” She waved her tail, watching the fox's involuntary twitch as his eyes followed it instinctively. There were few species with tails bigger than foxes, but squirrels qualified. He's a tail man, she noted with an inner satisfaction. Much good it’ll ever do him. His Chief, though ... his Chief’s nice.
The Sergeant looked hard at her. “Oh, and Miss Rote? It's only on th' Chief's say-so youse is outta th' pen right now. Ya don't deliver him th' goods pretty quick, he tears up his pertection. An' then…” He tipped his hat, in a mocking gesture of respect. “Well - I'll be seein' ya.” With that, he turned and vanished down a side-street.
Nancy stood there for a second, her tail twitching. Her heart raced, as if she was hot on the trail. Oh - not if I see you first, Sergeant. I'll see you in court, maybe - when I bring in my first crook. Then we'll see who has the last laugh.
She looked around, noting the rain was if anything getting even heavier. It was not a morning for outdoor explorations, not even on Casino Island. Hurriedly buying some pocketfuls of food, she left the market square and headed South towards the big hotels and the amusements.
“I assure you, Miss Zarahoff, these rooms are exactly as described. I did point out their disadvantages when you insisted on renting them.” It was a rather flustered canine hotel manager that Nancy spotted as she arrived at the top floor corridor of the Madston ten minutes later, facing (or rather looking down at) an energetic bundle of irritated fur.
“Turret room! That’s what you said.” Alpha stabbed a claw-tipped finger up towards the hatch, with its attic ladder extended. “Got a turret room at home. Hydraulic traversing gear. Twenty degrees a second. Wouldn’t mind a manual crank, even. Had rotating turrets since the 1850’s. And you call this a four-star hotel?”
“Good morning, Ally!” Nancy called up. “I didn’t think you’d want to go out to luncheon in this rain, so I came up to see you.”
Seeing a welcome distraction, the manager made an excuse and left, a grateful expression on his snout as he passed Nancy.
Alpha was dressed in a loose shirt that was tied at the wrists and tucked into her Songmark issue shorts; Nancy noted her socks were glaringly mismatched. I’ll bet she has another pair at home just like them, she smiled to herself.
The Cranium Island girl was munching as usual on a pawfull of dried meat. “It’s an hour to lunch. Want some? Good for the brain, protein is.”
A squirrel nose twitched. “What exactly is it?”
A much longer shrew nose wriggled energetically in reply. “It’s good science. Yes. There’s protein in peas and beans, but it’s not as good as in meat. Because a chicken’s nearer us than a kidney bean. Yes. And it’d be better still if it was – you know, more the same.” Her beady eyes twinkled mischievously.
“I think I’ll pass,” Nancy replied graciously. “Besides, I’ve got some fruit and nuts with me. I wanted to see how you’d been getting on, so I came right over.”
“Come on up!” Alpha scurried up the ladder. Nancy followed, emerging in the turret room. Behind her, Alpha pulled up the attic ladder, folded it and shut the trapdoor with a sharp click. She turned, noticing Nancy’s raised eyebrow. “Oh. I always do that. Close doors and windows and airlocks. Cranium Island is that sort of place. One of our researchers didn’t believe it, left a window open one night.”
“What happened to him? Did he get robbed?” Nancy asked, wishing she had Isabella’s talents without the horrendous snout that went with them. Of course, she mused, Alpha probably isn’t lying as such. She may be quite sincere and quite insane too.
“Oh no. We don’t know what happened, exactly. There were only his phosphates and carbonates left in the morning. Rest of the room wasn’t touched.” Alpha threw herself down on the bed, grabbing a sheaf of notes. “Just a sec! I’ll have to put these in order.”
As the shrew fussed over her translations, Nancy’s keen gaze wandered around the rest of the room. There was a notebook labelled “Shopping List” that she very quietly opened and flicked through; evidently Alpha was using her time in town before starting Songmark to arrange deliveries to other like-minded people on her home island.
“For Dr. Metzental – enquire availability of dry ice. Can anyone deliver bulk dry ice to Cranium Is? Needs it to cool tracking head of new Mk. III Necroscope design. For Sara Blum – look for copy of Cotton Mather’s “De Incubi”, the first edition with the nice woodcut piccies. Enquire – Nertzmann’s, Meeting Island. For Prof. J, price radium. Wants 20 pounds refined metal for Project X. Enquire if that much exists in world yet. For Herr Doktor K, needs unnamed book by Commodius, No. 17 in Vatican’s original Index Liber Prohibitarum. Look in second-paw bookshops?” Nancy hurriedly closed the book as the shrew turned round.
“Aha! I said I could find it out. I’ve got a translation. Sort of.” Alpha scratched her ear, frowning slightly. “Pictographs. Tricky. It’s not like regular sentences, grammar. All concepts. Context dependent, too!” She spread the photographs and the notes on the bed, and started to point out pieces she had a rough idea about.
It was a difficult, but fascinating hour as they pieced together the fragments of inscriptions. Alpha only had tentative meanings for about a quarter of the pictograms, and they comprised two different texts which were a century apart.
“The ones on the ruins are older, then,” Nancy mused. “They’re religious, describe the adventures of the Priests and Priestesses and what they – fought with? But it’s not a regular inter-island battle, canoes and war-clubs. There’s a description of that, right here, very different.”
“Yes! I guessed. The carved pavement in the Tub is newer. It’s never been exposed to the weather much. Like it was made just before everything was abandoned. Grass grew over it.” Alpha stared intently at the photographs. “These are science! Well it looks like religion, but folk kept mixing the two. Some of these I can use. Focus.” She idly scratched her narrow muzzle. “That’d be an Experiment! It looks like The Tub was a focal node for the Earth Current. Maybe I can get something working again.”
Nancy’s own fur bristled slightly, remembering Alpha’s encounter with the Priestess on top of Mount Tomboabo North. “I wouldn’t do that, Ally. They threw you off South Island for it.”
Alpha stuck her tongue out. “No respect for Progress. They haven’t, no. Maybe I’ll try at home. Sara would like that too. I’m sure.” She gave a delighted wriggle. “Should see what Sara and her father Doctor Blum have got! And what they’re working on!” A shrew head cocked to one side. “It’s not for everyone, though. One of their … Research Subjects saw it, went insane before he could close his eyes.”
“It seems to be an occupational hazard,” Nancy commented dryly.
“Oh yes. So what? And blacksmiths get their fur singed every day. Doesn’t stop them working, us neither.” Alpha threw herself back on the bed, contentedly. “That’s all I can work out of that data. Need more to work with.”
“Not today, though,” Nancy’s tail flicked towards the window, on which rain was still hammering. “We’ll have to find something else to do. Can’t even go shopping.” She looked down on the energetic shrew, her eyes suddenly sparkling. “I’d like to thank you for all your work! I really would.”
Alpha waved a paw off-handedly. “Is fun! I don’t need money either. Our work pays for itself.”
Nancy smiled. “If I can’t thank you in a conventional way – well, I could … experiment. How about that?”
Alpha nodded vigorously. “Sure! What did you have in mind?”
Nancy’s reply was a kiss. And the experiment continued from there.
Four hours later, a freshly showered squirrel took her leave of the Madston Hotel, glad that the rain had stopped. She had left Alpha sleeping soundly, having demonstrated just how energetic a shrew could truly be. It had been just as well that the turret room was on its own with no neighbours within hearing range.
“Well.” She stretched, her body luxuriously relaxed. “That’s something I don’t expect I’ll manage when I get to Songmark. I’ve ten days left. Two days to the party. Assuming I can find more like-minded detectives who can help me, that’ll give us a week of investigating the islands. And hunting crooks.” Her tail waved. Following up reported crimes in the newspapers would not be the way to go about it; the Police would already be on to those (presumably) and that would put her in the paws of Sergeant Brush for interfering with investigations.
“So. I need to solve crimes the police don’t know about. How to find some, in the time?” It would take her far longer to acclimatise to the local conditions to the point that she could spot crime as she could have back home in Creekside – and there, she had built up a reputation that had attracted people with mysteries to solve that the Police were unwilling or unable to help with. Building that reputation had taken more than ten days; she had started when she was sixteen and irritated criminals for nearly two years.
Strolling out, her first sight was the imposing bulk of the Casino. She nodded, the sight inspiring her. Casinos attracted crooks. Beryl and Piet had experience with crooks and casinos both, and had seemed very willing to help her.
The Marleybone Hotel confirmed that Beryl was in her room, having ordered up luncheon (or “more like breakfast for her” as the desk clerk had wryly put it) two hours ago. Nancy straightened her head-fur in the mirror, and climbed the stairs two at a time in her usual bounding style.
“Come in!” Came Beryl’s voice as Nancy knocked, noting the lack of a “Do not disturb” sign on the door. She had passed that sign on several other doors on the corridor, and for an instant her tail twitched as she recalled that certain pulp magazine cover.
“Why, Miss Rote! Come on in.” Beryl was in her dressing-gown, the mouse’s usual pony-tail of head fur unbound and falling to her grey-furred shoulders. “What can I do for you?”
“Thank you for seeing me,” Nancy sat in a cool spilt-back wicker chair where Beryl indicated, her tail arranged comfortably. “I’m grateful you could help me with the party. But I’ve another problem. Time’s running on, and I’ve only just got my permission to hunt crooks here, direct from the Chief of Police.”
Beryl gave a mischievous smile. “Oh, yes. The good Chief Pickering. We know all about him. He’s a very different sort of policeman from his underlings.”
“I’m glad you agree. Well, I’d better get started. I thought I’d better come to you first.” Nancy looked the mouse up and down, speculatively. “You remember at the Temple of Continual Reward, you pointed out a lot of the customers were crooks? I might have to bring one of them to justice. And I’ll have to do that before term starts.”
The glance Beryl returned was equally calculating. The fine grey-furred tail swished, and she sat back on a mouse-sized chaise-longue (probably a chaise-coupe, Nancy decided) while she obviously thought long and deeply.
“It won’t be easy,” Beryl leaned forward earnestly. “You can bet the only reason they can walk the streets of Casino Island is the Police don’t have any hard evidence. Oh, they know about them – but if some fur is a major smuggler out of Krupmark who’s killed half a dozen rivals in international waters – he could boast about it if he liked, and the local police couldn’t touch him for what happens out of their jurisdiction. That’s the problem.”
“I see. Do you have anyone who you suspect is working in the area? I don’t need proof – I’ll get that myself.” Nancy felt her heart racing for the second time that day; two different sorts of “investigations” had very similar effects on her.
Beryl closed her eyes, tapping her rodent front teeth with a pencil. Suddenly her eyes sprang wide open. “Yes! I’ve had my suspicions about one fur in particular – nothing I could tell the Police about, you understand. I have my sources.”
“I quite understand.” Nancy’s ears went right up in interest as Beryl scribbled a name and address on a piece of hotel paper. Beryl used a brush pen that left no tell-tale dents on the paper underneath, as secret agents were famous for using. Those, and very discreet ladies, Nancy reminded herself. Since Detective novels became popular, everyone’s started to pick up on the tricks.
Beryl passed her the paper. Whatever ink she used, it needed no blotting-paper and avoided another of the classical tell-tale clues that sleuths relied on. “There you are. He’s a canine, works mostly on Eastern Island. He’s known to the Police, but he’s never been formally charged. His looks are in his favour, though. He doesn’t look like a crook.”
“I don’t care if he’s the fur they modelled the mannequins on at Eriksson’s Outdoors,” Nancy asserted fiercely. “If he’s guilty, looks won’t change a thing.”
“Well said!” Beryl applauded. “I should introduce you to my old school chum Jade. You’d like her. Daughter of a very highly respected old mandarin family. Her looks are against her though – “Eyes like Shakespeare and a Brow like Satan”, she got that from her father. Still she made Head Girl at my old school – on her merits, not her looks or her family.”
“I’d like to meet her,” Nancy said politely. “Anyone who can represent the standards of her school so well as to be made Head Girl, must be quite out of the ordinary.”
For a second there was a flash of undisguised glee on Beryl’s face. “Oh, definitely,” she agreed. “She embodied everything that made my school famous – and it is.”
Nancy relaxed. The paper was in her pocket, and she would lose no time getting to work. But first, it would be a pity to waste this chance to gather information, and Beryl was in a helpful mood. “I’ve heard other third-years aren’t so well-regarded,” she offered. “I’ve met Miss Ducros and Miss Inconnutia, but my friend Millicent says the rest of that dorm’s even worse.” She shivered. “Is that really true?”
Beryl paused, weighing up her words. “Well,” she said slowly “I can see there’s no hiding things from you. You’d be bound to find out about Molly and Amelia anyway, or I wouldn’t dream of telling tales about fellow third-years. Amelia’s English too, and there’s only three of us in the year.” She paused. “Molly’s a good friend of mine. Everyone has problems, though. Other girls get brought up with nurses and governesses; Molly was brought up with bootleggers and underworld “torpedoes” as family. It’s not her fault. I mean, just because she enjoys shooting people and setting buildings on fire – that’s just the way she was brought up. We all have our little idiosyncrasies. I like strong cheese, myself.”
“And Amelia? Millicent had a lot to say about her.” Nancy had a notebook in her bag as always, but was impressing Beryl’s words on her memory until she could write the dossier at her leisure.
Beryl’s ears drooped. “She’s a girl of good pedigree and education. I’ve not seen her do anything illegal, personally. But she was arrested even in her first term, when there was a flu epidemic and there were all sorts of burglaries and kidnappings. She was released, but I don’t know the details – it might have been a technicality. I know she’s been on Krupmark Island twice, at least. Her own Embassy says she’s a spy, but I’ve never been able to catch her at work. She and Molly share a boyfriend, who also lives on Krupmark most of the time – and when I mean share, I don’t mean alternate evenings. I won’t tell you what he does, but he’s another the Police don’t seem willing to arrest.”
Nancy nodded. Her emotions churned; in one respect the prospect of being put in with girls like these made her blood heat with righteous fury. But in others – the Songmark Tutors were reputed to be very hard to impress, and discreetly exposing third-years would surely do much for preserving the good name of the school. Her tail twitched at some of the images that came to her, imagining the awful truths behind Beryl’s well-meaning words. She could tell that Beryl was picking her words very carefully; the mouse was obviously trying to stay loyal to her classmates while helping her.
“I hear there’s another Flying School starting up on this island, too,” she said carefully. “Is there anything I should know about that?”
Beryl looked at her appraisingly. “I’ve met a few of them,” she said candidly. “I only know what they say; you have to be of good family and unimpeachable morals to get in. I’m surprised you didn’t apply.” She paused. “Although, you do have to be a full Catholic too.”
Nancy’s ears dipped. “That would be the problem, for me.” A thought occurred to her. “The Songmark rules say you have to attend a place of worship at the weekend, or suffer a lot of fatigue duties,” she offered. “Where do you go?”
Beryl waved a well-manicured paw. “There’s no suitable Church on Spontoon for me; I was brought up strict Holothurian. So I go to the Temple of Continual Reward, it’s the nearest thing.” Her chisel teeth gleamed brightly. “Perhaps you’ll join us? You know we get an interesting congregation.”
“I may well do. Thank you so much for the help! I’ll certainly see you at the party, I trust.”
Beryl rose, to see her guest out. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world! I’m sure it’ll be a party nobody will ever forget. Oh, a word about the Devil’s Reef. It’s a high-class tourist restaurant, but it specialises in “historical re-enactment”. Last year it was a Pirate Tavern, all cutlasses and fake cannon on the walls.”
“And this year?” Nancy’s ears and interest were up.
“Oh, well. It’s really outdone itself. The proprietor spent about two thousand shells having it completely redecorated. It’s an exact recreation of the seediest, dirtiest waterfront dive you could possibly imagine! Three film companies have already been shooting there.” Beryl shook her head wonderingly. “It’s amazing. If you hadn’t seen it last year, you’d never guess. They spent two hundred shells just getting the smell right.”
Nancy laughed. “So, the dress code’s not white tie and tail-covers, but knuckledusters and trench-coats? We could do the thing properly, and all dress up for it.”
Beryl’s eyes gleamed suddenly. “Miss Rote, you’re a genius. That’d be brilliant! Yes, that’d really make the evening go with a bang. I could have Piet dress up as Handsome Jack. Famous chap where I come from; he sold adulterated opium, “Genuine Scotch” whisky that came from Twickenham, London, and the favours of various exotic furs. Mostly faked with fur dye and such.”
“A fine notion,” Nancy said warmly. “If there’s one thing master criminals don’t like, apart from getting caught, it’s being made fun of.” She thanked Beryl profusely and left, her tail swinging and a jaunty bounce in her step as she strolled down the corridor, down the stairs and out into the late afternoon air.
Outside she stopped. A large rainbow was hanging in the air above South Island. Though she gave little heed to superstitions, the sight cheered her. “It’s a good sign,” she nodded, patting the pocket where Beryl’s note lay safe. “I think things are definitely starting to take shape now.”
As she stood appreciating the sight, her mind was busy. Eastern Island was her next stop; she had memorised what the tourist guide had said about it. There were no highly rated tourist restaurants there, though Mahanish’s at the airport was described as “an inexpensive, good-natured eatery catering mostly for the locals and pilots.” If nothing else, she needed to observe pilots and other aviation crew in their natural habitat. Most Songmark girls were air-mad and had been for years, and there was a lot of background detail Nancy’s sleuthing career had not prepared her for if she was to blend in with them.
Half an hour later, she was back in the neighbourhood of Songmark. That was one part of the island she had no need to investigate in detail; she was sure she would become very familiar with it soon enough. The airport itself was almost empty, the chalked boards showing the last long-distance flight (The “Hula City” to Hawaii) of the afternoon having departed half an hour ago, and the few passengers it had brought in September had already cleared Customs and gone.
“Can I help you, Miss?” One of the Customs officers was apparently keeping in practice spotting unusual events, such as a customer and no flight.
Nancy’s gaze flicked over the badger appraisingly. Customs folk were certainly part of the law enforcement world, and hopefully out of the command chain of obstructive Sergeants. She looked around, then pulled out the signed paper Chief Pickering had given her. It was a long way from being a sleuthing license, but it was better than nothing. “I’m looking for a Mister O’Farrell,” she said politely “I wonder if you might know him?”
The badger’s stripy forehead wrinkled as he read the letter. “Yes, Miss, I know him. But it’ll take more than that note to tell you what I know about that one.” He hesitated. “It’s hardly classified information to tell you where I saw him last, though. He was in Mahanish’s half an hour ago, before I started my shift.”
“Thank you, officer!” Nancy felt the thrill of the chase again. “That’s a great help!” She treated him to her best and brightest smile, before turning and heading out at an Olympic walking speed. Half an hour from the middle of Eastern Island would get you to any of its shores; she only hoped her prey had not already moved on.
Away from the splendid white Art Noveau entrance to the passenger terminals the architecture became increasingly prosaic and practical, catering to airport support with workshops and small storage buildings. The air was not exactly drenched with aviation spirit, but Nancy’s keen nose spotted hints of hot oil and fabric dope carried along the wind. She nodded; those were scents she was going to live with for the next three years. In fact, the thought struck her as she heard the throaty bellow of an aircraft engine starting up in one of the hangars – she planned on being a flying sleuth, so it would be with her the rest of her life.
“Mahanish’s.” The building was unmistakeable, a flat-roofed structure at the service gate on the Eastern end of the runway. The yard-high lettering on the walls was another clue. There was nobody visible on the street walking away from it except a lepine couple who definitely were not her quarry, so she hurried in to scent range of the restaurant.
For a few seconds she stood outside, within scenting range but against the wall out of sight from inside. The aromas were strong but pleasant, fried fish, hot spiced foods and cooking onions that she could well believe had twice their usual appeal after a day in the cockpit with only sandwiches and a thermos of coffee for company. The sounds were muted but nothing out of the ordinary, a buzz of conversation and a radio in the background with shipping and weather forecasts for the area.
Nancy drew herself up, and entered the restaurant. Her stomach gave a rather unladylike rumble; it had been only fruits for luncheon and a most energetic afternoon already. “Excellent!” She stood at the serving bar; it was something between a restaurant and a pub, with as much coffee as alcohol served. Her gaze wandered over the chalked menu, spotting some unfamiliar items as she caught the bovine waitress’s attention. “What do you recommend as a local dish?”
The spotted Holstein scratched her head, ruminating. “Depends on your tastes, Miss. If you like fish, and you like it strong, there’s the Popatohi.”
Nancy nodded, leaning over to pay the bill and adding several extra shells. “I’m supposed to meet a canine fur here, Mr. O’Farrell. Do you know if he’s here yet?”
The native waitress raised an eyebrow. “And you’re wanting to talk with Swift Shamus? You just missed him. He was here twenty minutes ago.” She trotted back into the kitchen with Nancy’s order.
“I see.” Nancy said politely. She excused herself, stepped out of the restaurant and went round to a service alleyway. Glancing down, she regretted not wearing her steel-lined Songmark boots. Instead, she snatched up a discarded can (noting it was that recent novelty, a can of beer) and crumpling it savagely, feeling the metal twist and squeal under her claws before she tossed it unerringly into a rubbish bin. For a second she glared at the bin, imaging it to have quite different contents.
“Well. I know where he goes to, now. It must be quite often, if the staff know him by a nickname.” She took a few deep breaths, smoothed her fur and stepped back inside, a sunny smile on her face as she scented the pungent fish dish being laid out for her. Popatohi was quite an experience, she decided as she savoured the pungent dish, redolent of onions and garlic. It would not go down too well in Creekside, possibly – but as an experience, it fitted very nicely with others these islands had to offer.
Nancy smiled, feeling her tail twitch as she looked around. There were a dozen tables, and perhaps twenty assorted furs in there, most in aircrew or maintenance dress and all looking relieved to be here. There was a fly-specked map of the Pacific on one wall, with pencilled routes drawn over it, and Nancy could see why – once out of the local island group the Pacific was a very wide and empty ocean, with the next stops in some directions being Wake Island or Hawaii. That was a very long way to fly – and even without being a pilot she knew well that not everyone who had ever walked out of Mahanish’s heading that way would have arrived.
For half an hour she sat and absorbed the atmosphere, observing closely the accents and mannerisms of the customers. There was a certain way furs of various species and nationalities all walked and talked – a pilot and co-pilot coming in from a long-haul flight had a certain look around the eyes that she resolved to try and copy. Similarly, having heard some flight crews talking about their experience with the tourist trade going in – if she ever had to pretend, she could don a stewardess uniform and get the right tone of voice and the right sort of stories.
“Excellent,” Nancy finished, giving up her table as a party of mechanics turned up, all badly in need of a shower with de-greasing soap. She had already noted what it did to the fur if (presumably) used every day, and hoped Songmark had a less damaging recipe.
Heading purposefully towards the water-taxi ranks, she was deep in thought as she felt the first drops of what promised to be another drenching rainstorm head over the islands. There were definite reasons why Tourist Season ended in September. Her stride lengthened as she decided to enlist Alpha’s help for tomorrow’s sleuthing. As her Father had described detectives whom he had known, “trying to look inconspicuous never works. If folk can’t see who you are, they start to wonder. Be a road sweeper, be a drunken sailor, but make them sure you aren’t a detective.” A patently insane Cranium Islander would obviously never be a detective, so she was a good choice at being at least a deputy one.
“Alpha? Are you awake?” Half an hour later Nancy called up the open attic ladder; On hearing an answering hail from above the squirrel swiftly ran up it with all the agility of her remote ancestry.
Alpha Zarahoff was sitting on the bed, with a suitcase open to reveal a complex electrical device that looked almost completely unlike a radio. No radio Nancy had ever seen worked without valves, replacing them with a central glass sphere within which lightning crackled and sparked. The huge toroidal Tesla Coil that took up the other half of the opened lid was new, too.
Alpha was wearing headphones, but waved happily to Nancy on sight. She spoke into something that presumably did the job of a microphone.
“Yes, Mother, she’s here now. She’s Miss Rote. I want to get married right away! It’ll have to be on Cranium, we can’t do this “tailfast” thing if we’re neither Spontoonie.” There was a pause while the shrew listened. Her snout wrinkled.
“NO, Mother. You may NOT experiment on her. I like her just fine the way she is now.”