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Update 2 March 2006

The Coral Curtain Mystery
An Entertainment by Simon Barber

Introducing Miss Nancy Rote, a new student at Songmark Academy
(the Songmark Aeronautical Boarding School for Young Ladies)

located in the Spontoon Archipelago, Nimitz Sea, Pacific Ocean.

The Coral Curtain Mystery
by Simon Barber
Sgt. Brush © E.O.Costello
Other characters by S. Barber, free for Spontoon usage!

Chapter 10

    It was a good thing, Nancy Rote reflected, that she was a squirrel. The view over the decorative railing of the topmost turret of the Madston Hotel would be an excellent test for vertigo – and in her family that was about as likely as a bat being afraid of the dark. The railings were an architectural feature rather than a safety one, and indeed they enhanced the Gothic prospect as seen from below, though anyone trusting them to hold a fall would be very disappointed. Though only briefly.
    “Good morning!” She turned at the voice, her tail twitching as Alpha joined her from the tower room she had now rented as a laboratory in the opposite corner of the building. The shrew had been happy to live in a clutter of instruments and textbooks, but the attic room was tiny and certainly not big enough for two with all the equipment. Especially two very energetic inhabitants. Nancy was standing outside the room on the roof tiles as there was hardly room inside for anyone above shrew size to groom without standing on the bed.
    “Alpha!” She slid back in through the window and hugged her partner, her head still spinning as she tried to trace how on earth this had all happened in the past three days. For a few seconds she thought hard, tracing every turn of events – then she relaxed. She now had an (admittedly odd) partner for at least three years whose scientific skills should perfectly complement her own sleuthing, and they had weathered the rather frosty reception their Songmark tutors had given them. The situation was strange, but on reflection she decided she was happy with it.
    “Nancy! Today’s the party. Do you have the checklist and schedules? I sketched one out.” From one of the many bulging pockets in her flying suit Alpha Rote pulled out a notebook which she flipped through to show what looked like a radio circuit diagram. “It’s really very simple!” She enthused as Nancy pored over it “these boxes are stable Condition States, the branching arrows are Condition Trees with go / no-go alternates! The circles are processes, of course.”
        “Timeline 21:35: evaluate number/condition guest, decision offer alcohol/Nootnops/fruit drink.” Nancy read out one box.  She looked down at the eager shrew, and gently took the notebook off her. “Alpha. This is a party. It does need some setting up, but that’s all taken care of. Eight o’clock tonight, we’re booked into this tourist bar Beryl was good enough to find us, the Devil’s Reef. We might have half a dozen or so guests, we might have twice that. They might bring friends with them, as Beryl is doing with Piet. The idea is to socialise.”
    Alpha’s ears drooped. “I’ve let you down again. Like with the record player.” Nancy had been surprised rather than let down by discovering the hyperactive girl had a portable gramophone that instead of the usual 78 rpm played everything at 110. It all made sense to Alpha, evidently.
    Nancy smiled, taking her paws in her own. “No, you haven’t. We’re all learning, here. I’m learning this place isn’t like home in Creekside – you’re learning it’s not like Cranium Island. When we want to know how someone feels, we ask them. It saves time attaching electrodes to their brain.”
    Alpha’s brow furrowed. “So … we just initialise the starting conditions, and then observe the non-linear social interactions?”
    “Something like that, I expect.” Nancy had three years to understand the Cranium Islander and her world, and did not expect overnight success. “There’s a lot to learn, Alpha.” She scrutinised the shrew’s fur. “To begin with - Where do you go to have your fur styled?”
    Alpha absent-mindedly ran a paw through her head-fur; in places it bristled up, and in others it was oddly bleached where chemicals had scorched it. “Oh. Well. I don’t. When it gets too long I just get the fabric cutters out and trim off the bits in the way. Mother keeps saying I should groom more but there’s never time in the day.”
    “I see.” Nancy instinctively patted her own immaculate fur; although energetic sleuthing and such adventures often left it dirty or rumpled, she was always careful to groom it afterwards. “I think we need to get professional help for you. If we’re going to a party tonight we should both make the best impression we can. My treat.”
    Alpha nodded happily, opening a new page in her notebook. There was such a lot of new data to acquire here!   

Although the postcards of Spontoon showed its inhabitants mainly in the Native modes of oiled fur with mystical symbols combed in, not everyone wore that style – especially on Casino Island. Ten minutes after it opened, Nancy and Alpha stood outside La Modiste, a discreet and elegant establishment whose services were not scorned by the visiting film stars or their even more highly paid directors.
    “It looks familiar! We’ve got brain helmets like that at home!” Alpha enthused, her long muzzle twitching. “What sort of experiments do they do here?”
    Nancy gave a discreet cough. “Entirely … superficial ones, don’t worry. Those are for setting head-fur in permanent waves. Millicent recommended this place, and it certainly looks very good.” She delivered Alpha into the eager paws of an immaculately groomed poodle fur stylist who seemed to relish a challenge, and arranged to meet again in another two hours. If they could make Alpha look like a stylish girl in that little time, Nancy mused, La Modiste certainly deserved their continuing custom.
    “Miss Rote?” A voice made her turn. She saw a stylishly dressed ewe a few years older than her, regarding her curiously. The accent was not exactly Creekside, but it was not a thousand miles away either.
    “Yes, I’m Nancy Rote,” she confirmed. “Are you one of the Songmark students? We have a party arranged tonight, I’m getting everything ready.” Although older, the ewe could well be a third-year; not everyone started at Songmark at the minimum age of eighteen on the day courses began.
    Bright blue eyes went wide. “Oh! No, I’m living here, I’ve been here a couple of years now. Lamm, Caroline Lamm is my name. But I think we have a mutual friend. Chief Pickering told me about you, and I’ve been looking out ever since. He seemed very impressed.”
    Nancy’s sharp gaze took in the shorter woman, whose brilliantly white fleece immaculately groomed certainly spoke of clean living and healthy appetites. Miss Lamm was short but still taller than Alpha and certainly much fuller figured; those honest, cornflower-blue eyes shone clearly as the two appraised each other. “Yes, Chief Pickering was very helpful,” she agreed. “I have his written permission to investigate anything that doesn’t clash with other Police investigations. I must say, he seems a very different sort of policeman from his employees.”
    “Oh, I’ll say,” came the heartfelt reply. “So, you’re an independent sleuth? That must be terribly hard, dangerous work. Not having anyone to back you up – no police whistle to blow.”
    “It has its moments,” Nancy agreed. “I’m here for three years, at least. I hope to make my name by then. Songmark should show me all the supporting skills I’ll need, but detection is what it’s all really for.” She felt quite at ease talking with the immaculate ewe; evidently a woman of fine taste and breeding. “Are you connected with the Police here?”
    Miss Lamm’s clear eyes flicked from side to side, checking there were no eavesdroppers. “Not officially. That’s all I can tell you. I’m sure you understand.”
    Nancy nodded. “I quite understand. I’m very keen to make contacts with suitable people here; term starts next week and after that our time’s not our own till Christmas. Would you like to come to our party? It starts at eight, at the Devil’s Reef. Not everybody attending is a Songmark girl.”
    A flash of surprise passed over the ewe’s features. “You’re holding a party, there? You must be a really dedicated crime-buster!”
    “I try,” Nancy said. “I’m sure we’d love to hear what it’s like living here as a non native. We’re all keen to get a good head-start. That’s the idea of meeting early.”
    Miss Lamm sighed. “I’d love to. But in my work, I never know when I might have to get busy, very soon. I get a phone call and then,” she shrugged “I might be real tied up all evening, you know.”
    “That’s a shame,” Nancy was checking her powder compact, using its mirror to make sure there were no snoopers behind her. “But that’s the detective business for you.” Privately, she breathed a sigh of relief. There might well be only two regular detectives on the island – but it seemed she was not alone in taking a keen interest in how law and order was enforced around Spontoon.
    They exchanged a pleasant farewell and parted, Miss Lamm for her regular grooming and Nancy to meet up with Isabella. Nearly two days had been spent on Cranium Island and catching up with paperwork; time before term starting was ticking away and she had crooks to catch. Isabella might not have the shrew’s brilliant light of genius, but she was bright and had a family tradition of steady, relentless police work to guide her. Plus twenty-two nerve-reading face tendrils, Nancy reminded herself, not that Isabella’s face was a forgettable one. Never mind. It’s what they do that counts, not what they look like. I’m sure she’s very pretty to another star-nosed mole.
    “Nancy!” Isabella spotted her arriving on the Rainbow Bridge, where the last boatload of tourists was using up their holiday film. “Is good to see you!” The mole was dressed in her Adventuring costume of tree-bark brown, and looked as tired as if she had not slept all night. Nancy felt a faint pang of guilt remembering her own last two nights; but soon smoothed the irritation away. I’ve been sleuthing, studying and working hard for years, she told herself, and very soon we’ll be working our tails off in Songmark. A honeymoon is special. I’m allowed to relax for a few days. I certainly won’t get the chance when term starts.
    They walked to the far end of the bridge, where there were no enquiring ears. “I follow up your notes, from Eastern Island,” Isabella whispered excitedly. “I find our crook! Seamus O’Farrell, he is living here, on Casino Island. Has share in an Import-Export business.”
    “That sounds convenient,” Nancy commented, her ears going up as the thrill of the criminal chase began to stir in her once more. “Any idea what he’s done? Smuggling? The customs officer certainly knew him, though he wouldn’t tell me anything official.”
    “Si. Is hard to gather clues here, nobody talks, and if so they speak Spontoonie.” Isabella’s pink snout tendrils waved. “My talent no good for that. Is mind reading only in pulp magazines and Flash Gordon films.”
    “Oh, I don’t know about that,” Nancy’s long tail twitched, remembering some of the marvels and shocks of Cranium Island. She had been very puzzled that the local lead in technology never spread to the rest of the world – but Alpha had promptly explained matters. If two cultures were just a generation apart in science, the slower one could catch up by configuring the parts they had available – but two or more generations’ difference and even the raw materials and components would be inadequate. “Imagine trying to make a modern aero engine a hundred years ago, even if you had the plans” Alpha had enthused “all you’d have is brass and cast iron to build it. Fine for two-tonne steam engines, yes! Never fly though. Needs good steel, needs light alloys, electrical components. Same here, I had a design of aerial rocket torpedo that can follow a searchlight beam, chase a manoeuvring aircraft. I built it too, it works fine! The logic and steering fit in a twenty inch diameter beam-dirigible torpedo. From commercial components though – “ the shrew’s long snout had wrinkled “it’d hardly fit on a railway carriage.”
    “This Senór O’Farrell, he has a lot of business, mostly legal. That’s what everyone says,” Isabella looked unhappy. “Nobody ever catch him on Spontoon.”
    “Not yet. And I suppose we won’t, not today. But there’s tomorrow, and by then we might have reinforcements. I’m quite hopeful of finding some like-minded girls.” Nancy felt the light of battle flashing her eyes as she paced to and fro. “Everything’s arranged at the Devil’s Reef?”
    Isabella’s snout tendrils twitched. “Si. Nancy, it looks very bad place. Down where they building newest dock, Western side of island. I get bad feeling all around.”
    “Beryl explained that,” Nancy pointed out. “That’s what it’s meant to look like. It’s a place tourists go to feel like they’re in downtown Shanghai or somewhere exotic and dangerous. But just so long as they’re expecting us, I’m sure it’ll be all right.” She laughed. “It’ll be a good test. I don’t expect a girl who qualifies for Songmark is worried about that sort of thing!”
    “I have costume prepared, as you said,” Isabella said. “Is no trench-coat or dugout breeches, but close. In tourist stalls they sell these. Illegal in Mixteca.” She pulled out a convoluted pawfull of metal. “Says is combination pistol, knife and knuckle-duster. So it says.”
    Nancy looked critically at the weapon, which had a blade the size of the one on her Swiss Naval pocket knife and a flimsy looking four-shot patented revolver of a miniscule calibre unknown to military science. A spiked brass paw-guard rounded the menacing-looking item. “Illegal for being dangerous or too shoddy to honestly sell?” She queried. “Who on earth buys these things? The most harm you’d do anyone with that is throwing it at them. If it didn’t blow up in your paws first. I’d trade that thing in a fight for a sock full of grit any day.” Her ears blushed as she realised what she was saying. A year, even eight months ago, she would never have considered violence even against a crook; trapping them till the Police arrived had been the most she had allowed herself. Her experiences since then had certainly hardened her. With a twinge she inwardly acknowledged that rather than let such things happen again to her or those she protected she would not be worried about the legalities, let alone the social niceties.
    “Is all in character though,” Isabella argued. “At least for fake tourist waterside bar full of actors. Look good in the movies.”
    “Good work.” Nancy congratulated her, and for a few seconds was silent as she looked out Southwards. Her mind was a whir of possibilities as she weighed up the options the Spontoons gave to smugglers. “They say nobody but a native can go to Sacred Island,” she mused, looking Eastwards to where it hid behind the sheltering bulge of South Island and Mount Tomboabo “that’s suspect for a start. What a place to store and transfer illicit cargos! It’s right on the edge of the local chain … from some angles you could get a small boat in and nobody on the inhabited islands would see you approach. And Main Island, all those coves and “trackless areas”. Perfect place for smuggling, for growing opium poppies and who knows what else.”
    “And whole island against you when you find them out,” Isabella reminded her bluntly. “Island natives vote in the Althing, if they have opium fields it is organised, official. It is because they want to grow them. Not some banditos holding a few villagers hostage to grow it, that you could expose and call in constables.”
    “Nothing small enough for me to wrap up neatly in a week and hand to Chief Pickering on a plate, true,” Nancy admitted. “We’d need to bring in Interpol and the League of Nations. Still. We don’t need to clean up the whole island’s criminal population straight away. We’ve three years to do that. I’ll be happy if we can just catch one.”
    Isabella nodded glumly, handing over the sheaf of written notes she had made with her evidence gathered so far. As Nancy had thought – whatever else she might not sparkle in, Isabella was solid Police to the core, and in her thorough, plodding way had left out nothing. The newspapers often used phrases like “investigators left no stone unturned” but rarely gave credit to just how much determination and patience it really took to do that.
    “Right!” Nancy tucked the notebooks away in an inner pocket. “I’ll read through that and see if there’s any good clues for us. I’ve got to get back now, then I’m meeting with Beryl at seven, time for the party. Should be a memorable event.”
    “And that mad shrew. She is not coming?” Evidently Isabella was not planning any holidays at the Zarahoff Keep.
    Nancy decided to put her friend’s rather literal lie detection powers to the test. “Alpha Zarahoff? No, Miss Zarahoff won’t be there. I haven’t seen Alpha Zarahoff since she left for Cranium Island.” She looked directly at Isabella, whose snout tendrils twitched slightly but failed to respond.
    But Alpha Rote, is a different matter, she told herself. I’ve never been scared of an adventure yet, and don’t intend to start. And as for a three year adventure – Mrs Alpha Rote is an adventure in her own right.

Back at La Modiste ten minutes later, Nancy braced herself for possible dire consequences. The idea of Alpha having lost patience entirely and wired together the electrical devices of the salon into a remorseless self-willed shearing machine that broke out to cause havoc across the land would have been pure pulp magazine fiction – had she not seen what the Zarahoff family had already done on Cranium Island. Whether Alpha could be trusted with the traditional burned-out match was one thing, but putting her anywhere near electrical machinery with her trusty pocket tool-kit was just pushing her into temptation.
    It was with a sigh of relief that she saw the poodle girl stylist alive and well, just putting the final touches to her customer’s fur. A lot of normally reserved folk became talkative when confined to a trimming couch – must be wanting to keep on the good side of furs wielding sharp scissors and razors, she thought acidly. If Alpha had freely chatted about some of the things that were perfectly everyday to her, other furs’ sanity points were liable to start shedding like the brushed-out fur that littered the floor.
    “Alpha! You look wonderful!” There was very little flattery in her outburst; certainly the establishment had done their very best for the shrew. Alpha’s fur was smoothed and groomed, her short head-fur styled in a “permanent wave” that was guaranteed for three months (“or a week at Songmark” as the poodle admitted candidly) and her perfume was no longer that of hard-working shrew mixed with ozone and engine oil.
    Alpha caught sight of her reflection in a full-length mirror, and did a “double-take” worthy of Stan Loris or Oliver Hartebeeste. “That’s me?” She rushed over to examine herself minutely.
    Nancy laughed, while paying the stylist and adding a generous tip as danger money. “Yes, that’s you, in every fine detail. I remember when I was nine and Father bought me my very first magnifying glass for my birthday. I spent days examining everything.”
    Alpha nodded happily. “Same here! Near enough. I got an endoscope.”
    There was the quiet sound of a squirrel taking a deep breath, then holding it for five seconds as she kept herself calm. This is a girl who was brought up thinking of vivisection as most girls do about flower arranging, Nancy told herself sharply. “You look wonderful.” She took Alpha by the paw and they stood out in the foyer, “Now you need to learn how to keep it up – no crawling under million-volt jumping arcs, or you’ll ruin it.”
    “Well yes. That’s why I never bothered. Nobody to keep it up for. Wasn’t very practical.” Her small tail drooped. “I had a friend, we’d come over and play in each other’s lab. Bella, that’s Belladonna Rikter. We’d groom and everything. But since she’s been gone there’s been nobody my age nearby.”
    “She died?” Nancy remembered the extreme precautions everyone took on an island where a popular epitaph was “Eaten by his own Dinner.”
    “Oh. No, that is we don’t know. Something went wrong in the labs, she went round a corner and found it suddenly had too many angles to ever come out here again. She’s gone, we don’t know where. But if she finds her way back, what a story she’ll have! What data!” Alpha paused. “They won’t like it, having to rewrite all the geometry books to keep up.”
    Nancy smiled, shaking her head. The world had much to learn from Alpha, but the reverse was just as true. “Sometimes, appearances can be very important. Otherwise you’d get whole countries wearing the same practical costume – which would make mass-production cheaper, but be rather bad news for the dressmakers and stylists.” Her tail twitched.  “I hope this party will be a big social event; you don’t have to dress like those five brothers from the power plant who came to our wedding with Doctor Rikhter. They might be well dressed for weather they measure in millions of volts, but the world’s not ready for yellow linoleum boiler-suits and stepped red Bakelite insulated headgear.”
    “It will be someday!” Alpha enthused. “I know the Oved Brothers aren’t quite socialites. No.  But they make up for it. Definite! From tribes of brain-eating apes to top scientists in one generation. What we call real evolution.”
    “Quite. But for today – this will definitely do. We’ll be in flight suits, nailed boots and up to our hocks in mud and leeches by all accounts soon enough. It’s clothing to enjoy yourself in!” Nancy’s tail flicked in mild irritation as she saw Alpha was taking detailed notes on “non-tactile enjoyment, sub-class social.”
    Luncheon was a relaxed affair at the Madston grill room; a shrew learned which cutlery to start each course with (writing detailed notes for further reference) and a squirrel learned how the first self-willed plants had been bred on Cranium Island (making detailed mental notes to run a mile if she saw one, and not give way to her instinct to climb any apparently friendly tree for safety.)
    “One thing’s puzzled me,” Nancy leaned over, gently taking away Alpha’s napkin covered with doodles of an all-in-one meal in a handy squeeze tube “Your – I mean, Mother, she’s as sophisticated as anyone I’ve ever met. But she never taught you social graces?”
    “Oh. Well. On Cranium we know to conserve resources. Have to. Mother speaks nine languages yes! Three are local dialects from her family’s old estates in Cisleithania. The probability of ever needing them are very insignificant. Especially in the Pacific. Not worth the mental storage and irreplaceable time. So I didn’t learn those. Wallachian inventors and such wrote in Latin, I can read and speak that.” Alpha accepted Nancy’s advice not to stack all her own used plates up, but to leave it for the waiter. “Nice lunch! Thank you! Wonderfully wide spectrum of protein balances!”
    “I can see you’re going to be expensive to cater for, in the food bills,” Nancy shook her head, though she smiled. Alpha ate small portions but extremely often; with her frantically over-revving metabolism she got through as much as anyone twice her size. “I know back on Cranium you just scoop it out of the vat.” The great bubbling tanks of amorphous, puffy flesh growing in nutrient solution in the basement was something she was trying to forget – especially the way it twitched when Alpha cheerfully cut off slices to fry for breakfast. It was entirely a nerve-cell reaction, apparently; there was not even as much nervous organisation in the mass as a sea sponge possessed. Exactly what flesh it had been originally grown from was a question that even the brave sleuth had not dared to ask.
At half past seven that evening Nancy and Alpha made their way Westwards away from the bright lights of the main hotel district. As she had observed before, the commercial and industrial developments on Casino Island had proceeded clockwise over the years, with Pier One on the Eastern side of the island by the power station and the new Pier Seven now quite opposite it. The buildings nearby seemed to reflect that; there were already bold new Art Deco designs being built as headquarters for airline and shipping companies around the island’s latest and greatest gateway to the world. But those were the new arrivals, standing out like pioneers cutting into an older, tangled forest. The Western side of Casino Island was still mostly its original jumble of buildings that had been put up to serve the now rickety Old China Dock in the days when the area was Accounting Island for the long-gone plantations.
    “I can’t fault Isabella’s judgement here,” Nancy mused. “Casino Island’s certainly not bright lights and beautiful people everywhere. Still, a doctor needs a patient if he’s to keep in business, and a sleuth needs a haunt of crime.” For every haunt of crime, an exorcist, she affirmed.
    They passed various bars raucous with gramophones and raised voices, though others such as the Tum Tum Club were eerily quiet, as if their clientele had reasons to speak in whispers.
    “The Devil’s Reef,” Alpha spotted, reading out the sign above a particularly unreformed building that looked as if it had been converted into a tavern from a warehouse by builders who knew or cared about neither function. “Come and get wrecked, only two shells!”
    “That’s just as Beryl described it,” Nancy confirmed. “This is the place, all right.” She paused on the threshold, noting the licensee was described as “Abdul ben Nevis, proprietor.” Her nose twitched. “They spent two hundred shells to get it smelling like this, Beryl says. That must be dedication.”
    The shrew’s longer, practiced snout twitched. “They got their money’s worth!” She surveyed the place keenly. “Esters, ketones, acetic acid, aldehydes … you could have just spilled a lot of drinks on the floor and never cleaned up, though. Same result.”
    “Style, Alpha, style.” Nancy pushed the door open and they stepped in.

Five hours later, a somewhat bruised squirrel picked up her pen, and hesitated as she prepared to write her weekly letter. She had always told her Father the truth and had no intention of stopping now; at least as far as she told him anything. Being married to Alpha was a case in point.  Given that restraint, it would take some thought to properly describe her evening without causing alarm.
    Dear Father, she began, My party has done exactly what I hoped it would; I have met up with other Songmark girls who will be joining me there next week. I am definitely pleased that went well. The venue had been rather badly lit, and it had taken a second to comprehend the proprietor behind the bar actually was wearing an Arab head-dress and a tartan kilt complete with sporran. The grizzled old fur had a long beard and a gruff manner, and looked distinctly like a retired pirate.
    Ten of us first-years turned up, plus Miss Parkesson who will be a third-year and set everything up for us. Her friend Mr. van Hoogstraaten the Olympic rower was there, but no other gentlemen joined our party. So, I have met half my class already, which is good work considering not everyone will even have arrived yet!
    Her ears dipped slightly. So far, so good. Beryl and Piet had been enthusiastic about dressing for the part; Beryl had even showed off her deceptive pair of gloves. They were elegant leather, lined with steel wire mesh to resist a knife or broken bottle attack, and the reinforced knuckles were weighted with fine lead shot. When asked what she needed those for everyday, the mouse had just laughed pleasantly. She had also brought along a satchel full of mimeographed brochures that she had prepared for anyone who was interested.
    I must say, Beryl is an enterprising young lady, and a stickler for following the rules, Nancy wrote. She flicked through the booklet on her bedside table. Although out Tutors strongly discourage senior years warning juniors what to expect, she has written a guide for us which she made available for sale. I must say, I would never have guessed some of the facts in it. Strictly speaking we rented the guides; they must all be returned before term starts. That way, when our Tutors ask us on the first day if we have any items we should not bring in, we can honestly deny it.
    She shook her head, looking at the song on the back cover. I recall you saying years ago that you could tell much about a country by its national anthem, Father. The Spontoon one I had never heard of before; it is mischievously called “Althing Bright and Beautiful” in parody of the famous hymn, and is surprisingly … indelicate in places. Beryl explained that it was an almost direct translation of the Spontoonie original, in which certain phrases do not literally mean what they read like in English. We are to sing it every morning at Songmark before the staff; I suppose a regular religious type assembly would be difficult with the girls coming such a wide range of backgrounds. Even at my party I met girls from Persia, India, Ireland and Germany with the religions and such one would expect.
    Nancy nodded, checking her notebook where she had physical and preliminary character sketches of all the first-years she had met. “Maureen. Irish. Hard-nosed, businesslike, teetotal,” she studied the profile sketch of the bulldog, fixing her in her mind. “Not a party girl, in any sense of the word. Dour and solid.” She shuffled papers. “Meera. Indian, from one of those Native states. Keen. Fresh-faced. Looks younger than she presumably is. Very athletic – fresh from Roedean school in England, and they don’t take just any girls just because their families can pay the fees. She has to be good.” The deer’s graceful form had been duly noted. “Eva. Arctic fox, German. Another passionately keen type, has all sorts of awards from the League Of German Maidens. Law-abiding. Hmm.”
    The thing about Songmark, Father, she wrote is that by definition any of the new arrivals have an awful lot of potential, or they would not be here. I will have to concentrate on who is most interested in joining me, not just on who would be helpful. They all have useful talents. My friend Isabella is still the top candidate; she is an Investigator through and through, and comes from very respectable stock for a Mixtecan.
    Another starting folder was leafed through. “Seria. Persian, cat. And an actual Persian cat by species,” Nancy smiled, looking at the sketch. It rather resembled a cloud of white fuzz, but nevertheless was fairly accurate. “From a family who’ve been ruling their lands five centuries. Should have an interest in law and order, unless she’s the family disgrace been sent here out of the way. Probably not; she said her Aunt was saved from an attacker on an aircraft by a Spontoon resident, and that attracted the family to look at these islands. You don’t send a rebel to somewhere you’re grateful to. Look at what Comrade Lemur did, after getting off the sealed train to Russia the Germans put him on.”
    She scratched her ear-tip thoughtfully. “Svetlana. Wolverine, from Vostok, “The Real Russia” they call it. Now, there’s a determined girl for you. Saved the life of the Grand Duchess from a bomb outrage, tackled two Red assassins to do it. And yet she’s a ballerina. They must have some rather different ballet styles in Vostok. Nice.”
    The other two had looked less promising; one had actually declared herself to be an Anarchist, and passionately opposed to all forms of Law and Order. This seemed to be legal on Spontoon as such, so long as she never put principle into practice. “That’d be too easy, handing her over to Chief Pickering as soon as she puts a step wrong. Tempting, though.” A smile crossed the squirrel’s face as she imagined photographing Rosa outside the Althing building being exposed to the temptation of a sign saying “Do Not Break Windows” and a pile of half-bricks someone had arranged to be handy. “I don’t expect she’ll be here long enough to worry us. Perhaps that Sergeant Brush will do something useful and arrest her.”
    And that had been that, as far as the meeting was concerned. Alpha was guaranteed to go into another dorm, so she was out of the reckoning. Nancy suddenly frowned. “Miss Devinski said we wouldn’t be told our scores till the end of term, either of us. What’ll that mean to our dorms? They’re all rated every week. It’s an important part of the course, Beryl said. Either we’re marked as if we weren’t there in term, or … nobody gets to know till we do. That would be very rough on them.” Her ears drooped. Once the Tutors announced the Rotes’ handicap, far from becoming popular leaders choosing their team, they could end up pariahs. “Like Red Dorm. They might throw Rosa the Bakuninite Anarchist in with me, even.” She shivered.
    The party itself became somewhat turbulent, when the regulars of the establishment started to arrive. It must be the tourist season ending early; these were not actors as we had been led to expect. Still, nobody was really injured, and the Police did not seem to want to pursue the matter. So at the cost of some discomfort, I managed to do what I set out, and managed to see how my new classmates acquit themselves in self-defence. Rather well, I must say. I am meeting some of them tomorrow to see if they are interested in joining me. She finished the letter and carefully sealed it ready for posting the next day, wincing as she caught her bruised knuckles on the bedside desk.
    “Somewhat turbulent,” she repeated the phrase. Beryl and Piet had already left to head out to the Hoogstraaten Casino for the rest of evening, Beryl’s satchel empty of her Songmark guidebooks but clinking with money. All had been well till half a dozen locals had arrived. These were not locals in the Native mode but presumably what were called “euros”, and in fact they could have been in any waterfront dive in the world. They evidently assumed the girls were there for financial reasons – which had been rather a shock. Meera and Seria were singled out for some surprising offers; it seemed deer and Persian cats were much in demand locally. Bulldogs and shrews, however well groomed, were not. It was when the locals refused to take no for an answer that the fight started.
    “Well, I have to say Anarchists can show SOME solidarity. Maybe she just likes biting people. Rosa must have done this before.” It had been a fighting retreat out of the Devil’s Reef, while the proprietor looked on from polishing a glass behind the bar quite unconcernedly as if knock-down fights were an everyday event. “And I’m glad I didn’t get too fussy about what Alpha brought to the party.” The shrew had been grabbed by one of the locals, a scruffy mongrel canine, and promptly pulled out a huge electrical capacitor from her pocket and discharged it right through his nose. It had been an education, Nancy supposed, that a male that large could scream in such a high-pitched note.
    “I suppose there’ll always be gate-crashers at that sort of party.” But the really puzzling thing had been after they had escaped out onto the street, two uniformed police looking on mildly from across the road. Nobody had asked for help, but the police seemed to just accept a minor riot in that place. The shock came when an irritated-looking lady marched over and demanded to see their licences. Evidently there had been a misunderstanding – someone had “put the word out” that a new team of “working girls” had arrived on the island and were keen for business. Evidently some things that were illegal in Creekside were not only allowed on Spontoon but rigorously unionised; the local lady had taken awhile to be convinced they were not unlicensed intruders.
    Nancy Rote shook her head, preparing to sleep. It had been a tiring day, but her plans were progressing. “It’s a pity Beryl and Piet had to go. Things had gone well until they left. Still, we can’t blame them for what happened, they weren’t even there.” For a second an alarm bell rang in the sleuth’s tired brain, but she dismissed it.
    “Oh no.” She took a last look at the Songmark guide; it had been dear at five shells, but she had already made useful notes from it. “That can’t be. She was very helpful. And such a sense of humour, too. I mean, trying to sell Alpha the Rainbow Bridge as if she owned it! Always ready to cheer us up. Quite an example to us all.”


              The Coral Curtain Mystery