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Update art 28 June 2007
Update 24 January 2007
The Coral Curtain
An Entertainment by Simon Barber
|The Coral Curtain
by Simon Barber
The character Missy Aha created by Rich Larson,
Sgt. Brush, Chief Inspector Pickering, Caroline Lamm created by E.O.Costello
Other characters by S. Barber, free for Spontoon usage! Art by Kjartan
“Here’s to our official Sleuth of the season!” It was a proud moment when Nancy Rote walked out of the Police Commissioner’s office, a white envelope held firmly in her paw. In that envelope resided a six months permission to investigate crimes in Casino Island and Eastern Island of the Spontoon Group, making her the equivalent to other nation’s Special Constables.
Nancy’s squirrel teeth were bared slightly in a smile as she turned to Eva Schiller, who had spoken. Camera flashguns popped, the magnesium sending white plumes of smoke up into the early September sunshine as she and her five fellow sleuths stood for the cameras, the white envelope held in front of Nancy’s trim waist, touched by all her comrades.
A keen young newshound thrust forward with a microphone, the “Press” badge prominent on her trouser-suit jacket lapel. “Missy Aha here, for the Daily Elele. We understand that you brought a smuggler to justice. Could you tell us how you did that, when the regular police had missed him for so long?”
Nancy inclined her muzzle respectfully, as she looked around her little team. Alpha, Eva, Maureen, Isabella and Svetlana. Hopefully three of them would be allowed to join her as a ready-made Dorm the next week when the Songmark term began. “Nothing magical, I assure you. The basics were just hard, thorough Police work and detection - any force could have done that. As to why the local one failed to - I’m not the one you want to ask about that. Police Chief Pickering has many ideas as to improving the force. But many places in the world have realised that a keen, informed amateur Detective can solve cases that the regular forces never could. Maureen tells me the Police are not even informed of the traditional country-house murders in England, if a proper Amateur is available. They know the culprit will always be unmasked before the weekend is over.”
“I see. And I believe ...” Missy Aha consulted her notes “You are THE Nancy Rote from Creekside, USA, the sleuth who recovered the famous stolen case of Noblesse Oblige, cracked the conspiracy of the Evil Gazebo Brotherhood, and brought to light the Thing In The Icebox Mystery that staggered a nation?”
“I am.” Nancy’s tail twitched. From behind the reporters there was the sound of slow, derisive clapping. Her nose twitched at the scent of Todd fox musk, and she was not surprised to spot the garish check suit and flat cap of Sergeant Brush, a policeman whose main claim to professionalism was his skill with a sap and great eagerness to hit suspects with it. Or so the informed talk at the Temple of Continual Reward had it.
Nancy drew herself up, her well-groomed tail waving slowly from side to side. “But while I’m here, I’m to be a Songmark student. It’s a very new situation for me. I’m part of a team now, we’ll pool our wits, our knowledge and our special talents” - she nodded gratefully to Isabella, the star-nosed mole’s lie-detecting skills being a sleuth’s ideal inbuilt ability. “Spontoon looks a very nice place; we hope to gain a lot from our three years here. And I’m very hopeful that we can, like today, do our best to put something back into the law-abiding society here.”
“Thank you! This is Missy Aha, roving reporter for the Daily Elele - the world’s news in a Spontoonie accent, signing off.” The keen young canine switched off her brand new Dictaphone, sketched a bow to Nancy and dashed off in pursuit of her next page-seven headline. The waterproofed satchel swung as heavy as a tourist’s one-week suitcase, laden with the boxed recorder and its housebrick sized lead-acid batteries. Evidently Missy Aha was keen to embrace new technology, or at least to haul it like a full infantryman’s pack.
“Well. I think that went nicely enough,” Eva Schiller observed. The arctic fox raised an eyebrow, looking at the dispersing crowd. “Your Sergeant Brush looks about ready to spit teeth, though.”
Isabella drooped, the mole’s facial tendrils twitching. “Is bad thing to have official Police against us when we are still very unofficial. Our licence says, we can investigate only where regular Police are not involved. Unless asked.”
“And to be sure, there’s one Polis he won’t be the askin’ of us - not unless there’s a stolen minefield he’s wantin’ us to sniff over,” Maureen watched as the tastelessly dressed representative of Casino Island Detection vanished around the corner. “And he’ll not be forgettin’ of us, neither.” She raised an eyebrow. “On the talkies the American Polis have those sirens on their patrol cars - ‘tis sure he’s wearing a tie loud enough for the job.”
“We have our pass signed by his superior,” Nancy patted the envelope reassuringly, before slipping it into her inner pocket. “I think I can live with a Sergeant’s pique, while I have a Police Chief’s blessing.” An eyebrow raised. “And now, I think - a small celebration is in order.”
“And here’s to the latest gift to all of us!” Piet van Hoogstraaten raised a glass of some clear, blue fizzing liquid to the assembled company at the Temple of Continual Reward. “May I present Miss Rote and friends - the scourge of crime! I’m sure we’ll have many an occasion to put their talents to good use.” The handsome rat drained his glass at a gulp, and sat down.
“And we all know what that means.” Beryl Parkesson was at his side, the mouse’s eyes twinkling mischievously. “Mr. Farrell still has to have his day in court, but even if he gets off with a good lawyer, he’s finished here.” An eyebrow raised as she looked around the room. “He won’t be missed. He refused to pay his dues to those he should have, if you remember? And as to honour amongst thieves - well, you know about that. I would say Miss Rote has done all of us a favour.” There was a general, though sometimes grudging murmur of assent from the thirty well-dressed business furs around the table.
“It was nothing,” Nancy acknowledged. “I’m just grateful for your putting me onto him in the first place, Miss Parkesson. It took me years back home in Creekside to be able to spot a crook just by his appearances - and things here are so different, it would have taken me so long to adjust. The rest of it was just basic sleuthing.”
“For which we’re grateful.” Beryl wore an elegant white sun-frock that contrasted well with her nicely groomed grey fur. “But I have to tell you, in three day’s time you’ll be too busy to do much of that! Second and third years start the week later - and we’re grateful for that, as well. In term time you’ll be too busy to properly sleep, let alone sleuth.”
“And ‘tis all in that book of yours, I’m after thinking?” Maureen had been looking around the room, her bulldog features creased more than usual with suspicion. “The one you’re after us returning before term starts?”
“I did my best,” Beryl’s ears dipped modestly. “Nobody did anything like that for me.” She walked over and stood next to Isabella, shaking the star-nosed mole’s paw. “I need all of you to return, or destroy those books by term start - the Tutors wouldn’t be happy to see what’s in them. But no year has been given a head-start quite like yours!”
“I’ve memorised mine.” Nancy opened her bag and passed her copy back to Beryl. “Maureen doesn’t believe half of it, you know.”
The mouse flashed a dazzling smile, her ears perking back up again. “A lot of things happen on Spontoon that anyone would find hard to believe. You can trust me on that.”
Maureen looked over to Isabella, and seemed reassured by the mole’s nod. Evidently what Beryl had said was the literal truth. “A strange place, ‘tis sure. “
“Oh, yes! You’ll need to keep your wits about you. Things are rarely what they seem here.” Beryl sat down next to Piet, sipping from an elegant flute glass of champagne. “Why, you’ll hear people say Piet’s father is one of the most notorious crooks on the island! Ask about “The Dutchman” and you’ll hear all sorts of whispered horror stories. Just because he owns a Casino, and he’s a “Euro” not a Spontoonie. You’ll find the locals rather prejudiced about us, I’m afraid.”
“I can imagine.” Nancy’s keen gaze swept the audience. Although she had heard the Temple of Continual Reward was effectively the Union Hall for Spontoon’s criminal elite, she could see no sign of it. Back in Creekside any of them would have been thought respectable merchants and professional furs, neatly dressed with a few concessions to the climate; it was obvious that there was absolutely nothing under Beryl’s sun-dress but her bare fur. For a moment her tail twitched, imagining that. Her own experiences had certainly widened her horizons. But then she smiled, her paw finding Alpha’s. “Well, I’m sure we’ll do our best to do something about that,” she said. “I hope we’ll change the way the locals see us, when they see how we tackle crime on their own streets.”
Beryl winked, then exchanged glances with Piet. “I’ll look forward to seeing that,” she promised “I’m sure the reputation of amateur sleuths around here will never be quite the same again!”
Two hours later Nancy was taking the air in Tower Hill Park with Alpha, Eva and Isabella; the rest were exploring the main tourist sights of Casino Island before they closed down at the end of the week. That morning the last tour boat of the year had sailed, waved farewell by a team of grass-skirted and flower-lei wearing locals.
“Three days left! Not much chance our fitting in another case in that time. Not even if Beryl handed us another clue today” Eva Schiller relaxed, the arctic fox’s platinum silvery fur shining like a statue of ice in the lush greenery of the park. “The regular Police, they’re handling all the simple, quick cases like running down pickpockets and shoplifters. “
“And that’s their job. We take on the ones that need imagination and inspiration - true enough, those usually aren’t open and shut in a couple of days. When I was called in on The Yodelling Hoover Mystery, it took me three weeks. I spotted who the villain must be right away by his trouser turn-ups - no genuine serving Army Air Force fur would have taste in clothes like that - but the Police wanted evidence that time, so I had to do things the hard way.” Nancy looked around her friends warily. Alpha was looking daggers at Eva, who returned the glare with an amused indifference. Isabella in turn was as far from Alpha as she could get and stay within hearing range. Nancy sighed; there were some advantages to playing a lone paw as a sleuth. Holding a team of smart and strong-willed individuals together was going to be a challenge.
“I know I’m going to try out the local cuisine a little more, before we find out what Songmark has to offer.” Eva rose, stretching. “I can believe that bit of Beryl’s little guide. I’m not looking forward to it.”
“It does seem rather Spartan,” Nancy agreed. “Still, we’ve seen the third-years are hardly starving, despite all the hard work they do. They look decidedly powerful, all the ones we’ve seen.” She remembered her encounter in the alleyway with Maria Inconnutia, who had been more than capable of breaking the back of one of her assailants in a single move had she chosen to do so. “Beryl says about the only European food they get is this Great War vintage “Maconochie” beef stew they use as Iron Rations - and I doubt they’d have that if England hadn’t had warehouses full of tins in 1918 nobody wanted to eat any more.”
For an instant Eva’s ears went right down and her muzzle crested. “That’s a matter of opinion, yes.” Her tail had fluffed out completely; her voice was cold as she continued. “We called 1917 the “Turnip Winter” when even the potato crop failed in Germany - with the naval blockade we were starving. I had two older sisters. They did not live to see the peace, but nothing improved even then. Even into 1919 they kept up the blockade till we started to deliver the War Reparations - the world was at peace, but our cubs were still dying of hunger. And that was when they put all that food “nobody wanted” into the warehouses.”
Alpha sniffed. “Irrational. A nation that can’t feed itself even with occupied territories to draw on, is hardly fitted to expand further.”
Nancy stood up between them, as Eva rose with the light of battle in her eyes. “Now then. You’re both Spontoonie Citizens right now, remember that. There’ll be a lot of students from all over the world; if we spend our time arguing about history we’ll never get to graduate. I’m sure by the time we’re third-years we’ll all be so tired of Maconochie ourselves that we’ll be only too happy to send it all back to 1919 Germany via Alpha’s colleague’s time machine - if he’s got it working by then.”
Eva sat, her fur flattening. “You are right. So. We must make strange allies, out here. Svetlana, she is Imperial Russian such as our Fathers fought. But Vostok is against Ioseph Starling, and that makes them Germany’s allies. Better to serve any Kaiser than a Commissar. Or worse…” she shuddered “an anarchist, like Rosa. It is painful to see those they are letting come to Songmark.” Her eyes darted over the Cranium Island shrew as she spoke.
“They choose us for our talents, our potential,” Nancy reminded her. “Money won’t buy you a place, as long as you can pay the basic fee, and if you rely on pedigree to help you’d be better off in that transplanted Spanish school. Vostok is a perfectly respectable nation, by all accounts.”
Just then they heard a dry, ironic cough. Nancy turned to see a figure she had been expecting to reappear some time that day, the local strong-arm fur Sergeant Brush. “Why, Sergeant, this is an unexpected pleasure,” she stepped forwards, paw outstretched in greeting. “I do hope there’s going to be no hard feelings.”
A pair of vulpine ears went flat down, and Nancy saw their owner fighting to hold back a tooth-bared snarl. He breathed in and out deeply a few times.
“Awright, so you gots yourself a piece of paper. Me, I gotta badge, and that ain’t paper, it’s solid brass. This badge here says I can run youse in for obstructing Police Investigations - which can mean any damn thing I mean it to.” Sergeant Brush glared at her. “Pickering’s say-so only goes as far as youse taking cases we don’t - and if you do, well, failure to report a crime, that makes you an accessory in my book.”
“They appear not to have used your book when they wrote the Spontoon Criminal Code,” Nancy fished in her satchel and pulled out the slim volume. “The whole “Accessory” section is rather brief and rather new. Of course we’ll report any suitable crimes. Haven’t I already done so, Officer?”
“Oh sure you have, sure you have. Impressed Pickering no end, wit’ ya Euro country-club styles. So, you puts Seamus Farrell outa business, Pickering’s glad to pick up the glory on that one like usual. Look at me, Miss Rote. Do I look impressed? Do I look happy?”
Nancy raised an eyebrow. “I would hope you would be happy, Sergeant. After all, someone who genuinely is on the side of the law should be happy that even a relatively minor crook’s out of circulation.” She gave a tiny twitch of a smile. “I do recall reading a story where one of the conspirators was a corrupt Policeman who might have been unhappy about his comrades being arrested, but that of course was fiction.”
Sergeant Brush gave a snort. “Awright, I stepped inta that one. Ya likes questions, Miss Sleuth. You wants to know why I’m not happy? Well, here’s my question - do ya know the meaning of “Police Informer”?”
“Actually, I do, Sergeant.” Nancy’s tail twitched. “Though not from direct experience. The Police Chief back in Creekside never used them, nor permitted such things to happen in his force. Then, he had the best detection rates in the State, and hardly needed to collude with or condone criminals.”
“Naw, he had you instead. When ya took out “Fast Shamus”, ya took out one’a the best leaks we had into that fancy “Temple” they wuz drinking your health in this morning! Now do ya know why that bunch of crooks wuz so pleased to stand ya drinks?”
“That’s another matter, Sergeant.” The squirrel looked at the fuming fox. “If they’re crooks as you say, then arrest them. They’re not hard to find. If you can’t find any evidence, why then - either they’re innocent, or you need to find a new way of getting the evidence. Something you haven’t tried before.” She gave a curtsey.
“We are always pleased to help, Officer.” Eva Schiller rose to support Nancy. “I am told you have two Detectives, only. We can provide five more, at no cost. It is our public duty to do so - as what you could call my Police Minister back home said, “we must have order.””
The two stood and smiled; they had rehearsed this. Nancy’s tail swayed into view to port, and Eva’s to starboard, in the sort of tableau they had seen matched pairs of entertainers hold on posters of The Coconut Shell. Sergeant Brush’s own tail and nose twitched involuntarily, and for a second his eyes glazed slightly.
Suddenly the fox shook his head angrily. “That’s enough outa you, Miss “Strength-Through-Joy”, or what t’ hell you call it. I’m through wit’ warning you. The first time you crosses my path in the line of Duty, you join Swift Shamus inna jail. But you won’t be getting out so soon.”
Nancy’s eyebrow raised. “He hasn’t been tried yet, Officer. How do you know he’s going to be out so soon? Is there something you would want us to be telling the press?”
Sergeant Brush threw his paws up in frustration, turned round and stormed off with ears right down and tail fluffed out. Evidently any interview not involving blackjacks or billy-clubs was not to his tastes, Nancy thought with a grim smile.
Nancy and Eva stood looking at each other for a few seconds, then both burst out laughing. “It is true, ja, he is a “tail man”, as you said,” Eva panted, stroking her own lustrous brush. “If he is married, I am doubting it is to a Manx cat or a mole lady.” She looked down at Isabella. “No insult intended.”
Isabella glowered up at her. “We should not be doing this. He is having a difficult job, and he is thinking we will be making it harder. Stay quiet, stay helpful, stay polite - that is how we should be. And let our results talk, not our tails. Not all of us have such.”
Alpha nodded vigorously, stroking her own skinny shrew tail and muttering something under her breath about tail transplants.
“Oh, Isabella. I’m sure you’re right. If he was more like his Chief, you can be sure I’d have nothing but respect and admiration for him, whatever his rank.” Nancy had researched the main players on Spontoon; she knew that Chief Pickering was married, and had seen newspaper photos of Helen Pickering, a most superior pedigree vixen. Lucky Mrs Pickering, Nancy thought. “But that’s somebody who was prepared to work with our first captured crook, and he’d have us believe Beryl and her friends are all much more serious criminals. You were there, did you hear Beryl say anything you could tell was untrue? Or Piet either?”
“No.” The mole looked down at her paws, her pink snout tendrils drooping slightly. “But those two, they were thinking very, very hard about what they were saying. I could tell that much. And that was true before. When they know I am checking, it is like they are translating into another language.”
“She’s a third-year Songmark student, or will be next week,” Nancy admonished her. “You know what the course says it’s like. I’m sure we’ll all get used to thinking very hard, fast and accurately, by the time we’re at her level. Sloppy thinking won’t get us through this course.”
Isabella subsided. Nancy smiled, turning to Eva. “Well, we have our licence now, and it’ll just have to wait for an opportunity to use it. I don’t suppose that’ll happen much in term time, but you never know. Some mysteries aren’t crucial on timing - I could have taken all year to solve the Gibbering Samovar Mystery, and the results would have been the same. It wasn’t going anywhere.”
“So we can relax for a day or so, ja.” Eva nodded. She stood up, stretching. “Svetlana, she said she was going to watch the last show of the year, at The Coconut Shell this evening. I will see you there, maybe.” With that she waved, and was off.
Isabella made her excuses and left the other direction, casting a doubtful gaze back at where Alpha sat with Nancy, their tails entwined.
Suddenly Alpha’s ears perked up. “I know! We could get that Sergeant on our side!”
Nancy’s own ears twitched. “How?”
“Well. It’s really quite simple. What if, we took his brain and …” Alpha broke off, studying Nancy’s expression. “Oh. You don’t like me doing that kind of thing, do you?”
Nancy shook her head. But she smiled. “We can save that idea for a last resort. But only a last resort.” Leaning back she sighed contentedly, a rare and always fleeting mood for her. She pulled out the white envelope from her inner blouse pocket and contemplated its contents and significance. Unlike her friends in Creekside, she had always made sure that all her clothing had large, secure pockets, sometimes hidden in unusual places. “Our license to sleuth. One day it’ll be an official Detective’s license. We can travel all over the world, solving mysteries and crimes.”
Alpha nodded happily. “Yes! I’ve memorised the Spontoon Criminal Code, Nance, I did it this morning before you woke up. I bet we can get people for things they don’t even know are illegal!”
Nancy laughed. “Best not get TOO carried away. Still, we can celebrate today.” She pulled her Kodiak camera out of her bag. “And we ought to record this. Father will want to hear, he’ll be pleased.” She opened the envelope, handing Alpha the camera and the shrew snapped away happily. A few more informal photographs followed with Nancy relaxed back on the grass, looking into the lens. “We’ll develop these today, have them on the way by the time the Post Offices shuts at six. But we’ll have to be quick!” With that, they were off.
Back at their shared attic room in the corner turret of the Madston, Nancy put down her pen thoughtfully while Alpha busied herself across the other side of the building in the other turret room where the smell of developing chemicals would disturb nobody. The letter to her father was finished, the envelope only awaiting the photograph of her formally posed with permit in paw. Her tail twitched. She picked up another piece of paper, and began another letter - this one would be forwarded by his employers to some segregated boarding-house in a Mid-Western town, wherever Mr. Simmons happened to be. She smiled as she wrote, her tail twitching. There would be a photograph of Alpha, and one of the more relaxed ones of herself enclosed. For a second she squirmed, wondering what he would think if he knew she and Alpha were married - albeit only for a three years’ trial to begin with.
“I hope he and Alpha get on,” she mused, tapping her teeth with the end of the pen and choosing her words with care. Alpha would be described as her best friend and companion, which was true as far as it went. “Still - unless he wins that prize, Albert will have to sell a lot of encyclopaedias to get a ticket to Spontoon!”
Alpha reappeared, shooting up the ladder from the corridor below like a hyperactive rocket. She waved a sheaf of photographs happily. “Nancy! Everything developed properly. And we have twenty minutes, yes!” She offered the pictures like a cub presenting a bunch of freshly picked flowers.
Nancy glanced over them, and nodded thoughtfully. “It’s a nice one of you in the bathing costume. I’ll have to get one of myself like it.” She dropped the official print of herself in the letter to her father, and the informal pictures of herself and Alpha into that destined for Mr. Simmons. For a second she felt her stomach tighten in a brief thrill imagining the handsome zebra examining them, probably in some dingy boarding house on the lonely roadside with only a stack of encyclopaedias for company. The thought passed through her head that developing their own films, they could print and send whatever nature of pictures they liked - and her new Kodiak camera had a clockwork ten second timer release. Then she sealed both letters with a tail-fur hair under the gummed flap, and waved them triumphantly. “Next time we post out to home, we’ll be writing from Songmark!”
Half an hour later the letters were on the way and the two Mrs. Rotes stood at the edge of Ferry Square Market, looking on as the last of the stalls were packed away for the evening. There were such possibilities, Nancy mused. She had dropped a note to their friend Millicent to meet the following evening if convenient; the morning would be spent looking around Main Island with a guide. She squeezed Alpha’s paw, remembering what they had done with the handsome rabbit buck they had been guided by last time. But that had been while she wore her zebra striped disguise, she told herself - as Nancy Rote she had her reputation and that of Songmark to consider now. Unfairly or not, Alpha’s reputation as a Cranium Islander tended to precede her, and short of public vivisecting of passers-by she could hardly make it any worse.
“Nancy! You mentioned some food?” Alpha rummaged in her deep pockets and pulled out one of those strips of vacuum-dried meat of dubious origin that seemed to be a staple of her traditional Cranium Island diet.
“You’ll bankrupt me yet, you will.” Nancy laughed, politely refusing the proffered meat bar. “Just how much does an active shrew get through in a day?”
“Our first ancestors, they needed to eat a quarter of their bodyweight every day,” Alpha replied promptly. “But they were small, yes. Inverse cube law, of course, means I don’t lose so much body heat, or need to eat as much on scale to replace the energy. Explains why Arctic furs are usually big.”
“Of course.” Nancy agreed. Living with Alpha was rather like a non-stop science lesson - although the shrew being somewhat literal-minded it had its social problems. That morning they had passed a shop carrying advertisements for a brand new line of soluble “instant coffee” - Alpha had been about to charge in and confront the owner with arguments about the impossibility of doing measurable coffee preparation in an instant, that being mathematically zero time. Although the Spontoon criminal code did have a section dealing with fraudulent commercial claims, that was not the sort of case Nancy really wanted to present to Chief Pickering. “That looks a decent restaurant just across the square; an hour there and it’ll be time for the show at the Coconut Shell. It’s the last week of Tourist Season and we ought to see what makes Spontoon tick, while we can. It’s a long time before they re-open in May, who knows what we’ll be doing by then.”
Alpha nodded happily, pulling out her notebook. She had detailed observations of every meal she ate, with locations, prices, and estimations of the nutritional qualities and quantities of every ingredient plus their absolute and relative temperatures. Nancy had been making an effort to persuade her to simply eat and enjoy her food rather than analyse it - but on Cranium Island many an unwise diner had been eaten by her own dinner, and old habits likewise died hard.
“Estimate average prices only 21 percent of equivalent dishes at Shepherd’s Hotel,” Alpha announced after a quick glance at the menu. Nancy shushed her, and they found a corner table.
“It does smell rather good, though.” Nancy studied the menu. “I think I’ll try the lemon-grass and coconut spiced soup, yes. Native-style nut roast with salad of local vegetables, and a local fruit platter for dessert. What about you, Alpha? We can afford to splash out a little, once we start Songmark there shouldn’t be much we’ll need to spend our allowances on.”
“I have some money,” Alpha offered. She pulled out a handful of worn gold coins. “Mother sent them, they were in that “post restante” packet I collected just now.”
Nancy studied one with interest; though she was no numismatic expert she had looked around the museum in Creekside many times and had a good memory for details. “Alpha! These are fabulously old! They’re real Spanish doubloons, this one’s dated to 1520! The books say Europeans had never even found this part of the world then - though of course the coins might already have been old when they were brought here.”
Alpha nodded. “Mother said they were dug out from under an ash deposit. The main Cranium Island volcanic vent was still erupting then. She sent them over as we’ve not much use for gold over there; radium’s far more useful. Anyway, the books are based on what furs write about when they get home and from Cranium Island they generally don’t.”
Nancy’s tail twitched, as she ordered her meal - Alpha was far more carnivorous and only ate things she could clearly recognise as harmless and dead, such as prawns and small fish. Nancy had offered to buy the dearest seafood on the menu, the Octopus, but Alpha had shudderingly declined it - “as a matter of respect.” Exactly what octopus-like things Alpha’s family respected, was something Nancy decided she was probably happier not knowing.
“Extremely nice.” Half an hour Nancy put down her cutlery, impressed with the food and the service. “I was tempted to try this “three-finger poi” - I’m sure Beryl is exaggerating about that. They can’t really be serving it five times a week at Songmark.”
“And three out of six meals at the weekend.” Alpha’s long muzzle wrinkled. “Motivational! Encourages students to get out and find something else!”
“Quite. I can’t quite believe some of the details. Considering the fees Songmark charge, it shouldn’t take much to provide comfortable beds. According to Beryl’s guide, we won’t be in them long enough anyway to worry about how hard they are. Why, any lodging-house at least advertises comfortable beds, whether it’s true or not.”
“One day we’ll develop stimulants and nutrients that’ll do away with sleep forever.” Alpha nodded happily. “That’ll be a great improvement. Think of the productivity!” She seemed very keen on the prospect.
Nancy’s tail twitched, but she held her tongue as she paid the bill and they left before Alpha could alarm the restaurant staff with the designs for mobile self-powered, totally automatic mincing and shredding machines she had been happily doodling in her notebook, “pre-emptively peeling and shredding all suitable materials within reach”. There was a conspicuous lack of an off switch or safety cut-out, but such things did not seem to be a Cranium Island priority.
A few minutes walk Southward brought them to the tourist side of the island, the Rainbow Bridge and breakwater ahead of them. “The Coconut Grove!” Nancy read the signpost. “Biggest theater this side of Hawaii.”
Alpha looked up at the four-storey tall structure, tail twitching. “Efficient structure! Eva said they’re planning to build one that shape in Berlin a kilometre tall, called “Der Kupferhalle”, the Copper Hall, that’ll hold quarter of a million people for rallies.” Her whiskers twitched; Nancy saw her eyes go unfocussed as her brain crunched numbers. “I don’t think they can do it - that much copper is about ten times Germany’s annual consumption. And a single enclosed air space with that many furs packed inside - it’s going to generate its own weather. There’ll be clouds and rain indoors just from condensed breath.”
“I doubt the Spontoonies are going to run into that problem.” Just then Nancy spotted a familiar snout and tail vanishing into the foyer ahead of them. “Meera Sind! Well, well. There she is. I wonder why.”
They found out when they followed the mongoose in, and hailed her. “Gosh! You’re here to see Jasbir in the show?” Meera’s liquid brown eyes sparkled. Then she winked. “My sister’s always wanted to be in show business. The Tutors never let her - and they can find out just about anything that happens, she says. So it’s someone of a different name and a very different fur pattern listed in the chorus tonight.”
“Changing your fur colour? That IS an idea.” Nancy kept a deadpan face, but squeezed Alpha’s paw tightly. If a zebra-striped fur had misbehaved by Euro standards, she was no longer around to be blamed - the Spontoonies presumed she had vanished on the last tour boat, and the Euros on the tour boat had never known of her at all. The striped squirrel and her deeds had vanished as thoroughly as if she had fallen down a drain, which in one sense she had. “It seems strange, a Maharaja’s daughter taking a job as a common chorus-girl. Surely she doesn’t need the money?”
Meera grinned. “She’s a jolly good dancer, and this time next year - she’ll be helping run a Government. No time for it then! Dancing, it’s something she’s always been good at. We’re taught the local traditions back home, but nobody ever sees us perform, which is a waste. She’s written to me every month for two years, told me a lot. There’s not much the Tutors actually stop you from doing if you really want to. They just make it very, very hard to do. You have to decide what’s really worthwhile.”
Nancy nodded thoughtfully as they bought their tickets and filed into the auditorium. She spotted Eva and Svetlana just before the lights went down, sitting together at the far end of the seats talking animatedly.
Though the final week of the season had no tour-boat customers, the place was still three-quarters full, with fairly respectably dressed furs of all species. Nancy noted a lot of Spontoonie accents though; she guessed these were the Casino, Eastern and Moon Island “euros” who were taking the chance to see the show without taking up seats from the essential tourists. She nodded gravely, working it out. Holiday destinations were prone to suffer from flights of fancy as well as economics; there were resorts that simply went out of style, and a thriving tourist island had to bend over backwards to please its paying customers all the time, in every possible way. That brought a few images came to mind, and she smiled.
“Nancy, is this the local spelling of “review”? My family subscribe to eleven scientific review journals, though it’s hard to get them delivered.” Alpha wriggled restlessly in her seat, evidently annoyed that the lights going down made it too dim to scribble in her ever-present notebook.
“No, Alpha. This is a “Revue”, that’s what they call a mix of song, dance and story. It’s a tradition in Europe - French at first, I believe.” Then she had to hush Alpha, as the music came up and the action began.
“Well, it was an interesting piece of social input, yes!” Two and a half hours later Alpha was writing it up in the theatre bar, while all around the audience relaxed and mingled, stretching their legs and smoothing out their tail-fur.
“Certainly a lot of talent on display.” Nancy agreed. “I didn’t go to such at Creekside too often, Father took me to see classical plays and ballet - but It was well done. Did you spot which was Meera’s sister?”
Alpha nodded happily. “Second from left, in the chorus! She changed her fur colour and put those tufted ear fur extensions on - but she couldn’t change the shape of her snout. That was a mongoose trying to look like a pine marten - but unless you were expecting to see a disguise, she looked like a mixed-species fur, different mustelids each side.”
“And the main play - now that was funny.” Nancy conceded. A country mansion farce titled “Whoops Vicar! Where’s My Wife’s Trousers?” had not sounded promising, but had proved interesting on many levels. One could have just sat back and roared with laughter at the jokes and situations, or worked out the plot complexities of which there had been many.
“I counted eleven logical paradoxes in the plot.” Alpha showed a complex series of boxes she had drawn, with arrows and various relationship symbols liberally scattered over them. Suddenly her whiskers drooped. “Nancy - I know I’m not experienced, socially. Is it always this complicated, just to get a pair of trousers delivered without starting three international crises, breaking four engagements and triggering an Albanian blood-feud? And does everyone have to miss each other in the corridor by less than a second like that? It’ll need careful timing and a professional choreographer.”
The squirrel laughed, resisting the temptation to hug her shrew wife in public. “Don’t worry. We’ll have to just avoid social engagements in country mansions around here. Shouldn’t be too difficult.”
Meera looked down at the diagram. “Apart from it being an antique tiara rather than trousers, that’s exactly what happened to me twice last month,” she observed, her face deadpan. “Quite a lark, it was. Oh, and the Albanian blood-feud was a Pathan one instead. But you’re right, Nancy - stay clear of mansions and palaces.”
Looking at the mongoose, Nancy’s ear half dipped as she wished Isabella was here to verify. But then, she told herself - I shouldn’t get used to having a star-nosed mole on the team. She won’t always be around, and I got by without her before. She’s not totally sure of her own talent yet, either.
Stretching, she looked around as the theatre crowd finished their post-show drinks and began to disperse, back home or moving on to other watering-holes. “Three more nights and we’ll be in Songmark, Alpha.” Her ears drooped slightly. “Things will be very different there. Very hard beds, and all very - controlled.”
Meera nodded keenly. “No more midnight dorm feasts or staying up telling ghost stories! I thought they were the jolliest bunch of girls in the world, back in Roedean on the South Coast. But I’ve done all that now. There’ll be different adventures around here. Jasbir’s been telling me. She didn’t even go home for the summer hols this year, wanted to make the most of her last big holiday.”
“I think we should make a “jolly bunch” as it stands, Meera,” Nancy said. Meera seemed to be good company, if rather too flighty for a good sleuth. Rather like her best friend Bethany back home, she reminded herself. She felt a brief pang remembering loaning her blue roadster to Bethany “for the duration”; she hoped the slightly plump raccoon girl was putting it to good use that summer. “But it’s only a hope that I’ll get the dorm we’ve chosen to form - the Tutors might not allow it. I know I won’t be in with Alpha - but I might end up stuck for three years with Rosa the Anarchist, and who knows what else.”
“Maureen’s a good friend! She’s the first one I met, a week ago. We’ve been around South Island with a Guide already.” Meera shrugged. “She doesn’t have much money. But that’s all right, I have plenty. She has the good ideas. And she’s a bulldog - awfully tough. We’ll need that.”
Nancy recalled the Songmark prospectus she had read over and over on the long sea voyage. “We’ll certainly have a lot of self-defence classes, and I’m told some of the senior girls are decidedly rough. I’ve met one, the niece of the Italian leader. She’s what they call a “female bull” - which isn’t what I first thought it meant. I believe she was just defending herself and another lady, which is all fair enough. But I’m not sure if I hadn’t turned up she wouldn’t have left three furs dead in an alleyway rather than getting them arrested. And I’m not sure the local Police would have done much about it if she had. I’ve met them.”
The clock behind the bar struck ten. Nancy yawned, giving Alpha’s paw a friendly squeeze. “I thought on the tour-boat I’d caught up on enough rest to last me for awhile. But if half of what Beryl says is true, we’re going to need to show up on our first day as fit and rested as we can get.”
“I’m sure that’s exaggerated.” Meera’s eyes shone as she ordered something expensive and multi-coloured with a glace cherry and a cocktail umbrella in it. “There’ll be weekends to rest up and look around the islands, surely. Jasbir’s still in her class and they’re often top of their year - and she used to insist on nine hours a night. Still - I’ll see you later, maybe on Sunday at the gate!”
Nancy said farewell, and walked out under the starlight with Alpha. “She ought to believe her sister,” Nancy mused. “We should make sure we get some early nights, before Sunday. It’s going to be tough. We’ll look back I’m sure, and think being able to stay up just for fun was just heavenly.”
“And after Sunday…” Alpha’s tail drooped. “No more us. Not in Songmark. You and me but no more … us. Not until the holidays.”
“Not while we’re on Songmark Premises,” Nancy corrected gently. “But then, would we have the time anyway? First-years who do well get passes for a few hours, to explore the islands. Maybe in a few weeks we’ll both get Passes, and have another Sunday on Main Island.” She paused, her tail twitching. “Perhaps we’ll leave separately, and have to meet up on Main Island. That would mean - two guides. Think about that.”
“Should be a minimal problem. We’re not short of money, you said.” Alpha commented. Then her own tail twitched, remembering and extrapolating. “Two guides?” Her voice was hushed, as she mentally plotted combinatorial matrices.
“Oh yes. We’ll have to take the same sort of precautions, so folk don’t recognise us. I wonder how a zebra-striped shrew would look?” And with that, they were at the hotel and home.
The next day dawned bright and early; Nancy awoke slowly in bed that filled most of the tower room. The Madston used the top floor mostly for storage and maintenance; although in the daytime some nearby rooms were occupied by furs sewing and otherwise repairing hotel sheets and laundry, they were empty and peaceful first thing.
“Mmm.” Nancy relaxed, her eyes still closed. Back home in Creekside she had never really appreciated what she had every day; a comfortable life. With the prospect of Songmark looming before her, she resolved to make the best of these last days. The bed was soft and pleasantly scented of musks, and though she could tell she was alone, Alpha was doubtless busy conducting her arcane researches in the other tower room where she had installed her collection of ancient books and some extremely modern equipment.
“Silly.” She chided herself a second later. Songmark was just why she was here; she had been looking forwards to this moment for so long. And yet it was rather like joining the army, she realised; once through those gates she would no longer be in charge of her life, as she had been. She might have been posing as a tourist, but she had a lot of work ahead of her. It would be the same for all the other first-years, she realised.
Opening her eyes, she yawned and stretched, noting that her fur needed a thorough brushing; another job that was easier with two. “Alpha has more work to do on me than I have on her,” she reminded herself. “Still – I could be worse, I could be that white furred Persian cat, Seria.” In the Songmark prospectus was a photograph of two girls wading waist-deep through a muddy river, holding their packs above their heads. The prospect of emerging from a swamp with four-inch fur all over saturated with mud was not pleasant; for an instant she shivered and stroked her own luxuriantly furred tail. “But thinking of swimming – yes. Exercise and relaxation combined; that’ll do very nicely today.”
Ten o’clock that morning saw Nancy on South Island again, enjoying the late Summer sunshine.
“We’ll get to do a lot of swimming, in the next three years,” she pointed out matter-of-factly to Alpha. “So we’d better get used to it! And there won’t be a lot of relaxing afterwards. So we’d best make the most of that, too.”
Alpha looked at the clear blue waters, her snout wrinkling. “Nance. I know hardly anyone here is getting devoured.” She looked up and down the beach; there were a dozen or so furs in the water, none of them apparently being pulled into the depths by the sort of thing that made swimming in the waters of her home island such a hazard. “But that could be a statistical fluke. Even the largest predators have inactive periods while digesting their previous victims. We don’t have records of how many people arrived on this beach and how many left it alive.”
Nancy slipped into the warm waters, enjoying the sensation of the clean warmth on her fur. Just to make sure, she did a rough count of the beach umbrellas, piles of clothing and groups of swimmers. There were no major discrepancies; she admitted that at least as far as Cranium Island was concerned, Alpha knew her business. “Alpha. Do you think Spontoon would stay in business very long if its tourists got eaten? I don’t see any sign it’s ever happened.”
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Alpha said darkly. But she followed Nancy into the waters, eyes and ears alert for danger.
“Spoken like a true sleuth!” Nancy applauded. “But, no evidence, no case.” She relaxed, floating on her back. The cove was sheltered and faced into the inner waters between the islands; only a light swell rocked the clear waters floored with white coral sand. She had seen the far side of the island was far more energetic, with the waves sweeping in from the Nimitz Sea breaking over the coral refs and sweeping in through gaps to pound the beaches with white surf. “Mind you – if anyone did disappear, I don’t suppose the authorities would be in a hurry to splash it over the front pages.”
Alpha remained wary, and was keen to have keep at least one of the other swimmers between her and the mouth of the bay from which she seemed convinced trouble would arise from the deeper waters. “No. Not sharks. Definitely not sharks” was all she would say in answer to Nancy’s questions. “Something much older.”
The sun beat down, the wild birds sang in the forest edge, and as the afternoon wore on the sun dipped lower behind the biggest Main Island peak, Mount Kiribatori as the map named it. “We’re not really as tropical here as it looks,” Nancy observed. “Hawaii has snow-capped mountains and it’s a long way South. Svetlana says Vostok has snowy winters, and they’re not so massively far North, either.”
“Warm ocean currents!” Alpha replied promptly. “And Vostok has the opposite, a big current coming down the Siberian coast. That’s good for the fishing, but bad for the tourist trade.”
“It’s nice.” Nancy relaxed, realising times like these would be few and far between. “No crowds, but good weather still – and no rush. From what Beryl and Meera say, when we swim at Songmark we’ll be doing it against the clock, maybe fully dressed, maybe dragging rafts – all sorts of things. Just what Adventuresses need to practice, I know.”
Another half hour and the September sun touched the distant horizon; remembering her globe Nancy recalled that Spontoon was not that far South of Creekside, and she had been further South in her homeland when the Whistling Spy Enigma had summoned her to Florida that one time. Autumn was certainly approaching, she told herself, though indeed Mount Kiribatori’s summit towered nearly ten thousand feet and cast a long shadow. “Best get out and get dried off, while we’ve some sunshine left!” She laughed, splashing out into the shallows with a relieved-looking Alpha following, still looking darkly out at the deeper waters.
Five minutes with the beach towels and combs restored their fur to a presentable state, and Alpha nodded approvingly as the shadow swept over their part of the beach scarcely a minute after that. “Precise!” Her long muzzle twitched. “Estimated eight hundred calories burned as exercise, over and above resting base metabolic rate for an equivalent time period. Plus more needed in thermal compensation for cooling effect of wet fur.”
Before Alpha could reach for her slide rule, Nancy hugged her. “In plain English – we’ve had a strenuous day and you’re hungry. According to Beryl we’d best explore the restaurants while we can.” She frowned for a second. “I know Isabella can’t spot anything wrong with Beryl when she talks about that guide she gave us...”
“Rented to us.” Alpha corrected promptly. “At five shells apiece, estimate she made fifty shells that I know about, minus unknown production costs.”
“Rented to us.” Nancy agreed. As they strolled towards the welcome sight of the Topotabo Hotel, the squirrel’s ears dipped. “I’m fairly sure she’s telling the truth. But one thing I think she’s having a joke on us with.”
“That being?” Alpha’s snout twitched at the scent of roasting meats; the lights were going on in the terrace restaurant, neatly dressed waiters readying tables for the last days of tourist season.
Nancy smiled, remembering what Beryl had written in the guide. “To start with, more than half the students we’ve seen are carnivores. What with the fees Songmark charge – I don’t believe they’d really have the nerve to serve us all Poi, five times a week!”
“No data.” Alpha replied. And then, paw in paw, they strolled up into the welcoming light of the Topotabo, and the evening closed down around them in a golden Spontoon Autumn night.