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Update 18 February 2007
(completing this Introduction and Entertainment)

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.

Nancy & Alpha on Casino Island by Kjartan

The Coral Curtain Mystery
by Simon Barber

Sgt. Brush, Chief Inspector Pickering, Caroline Lamm, Andre D'Arbes
created by E.O.Costello

Other characters by S. Barber, free for Spontoon usage!

Chapter 13

“Most of our new entrants,” Miss Devinski looked hard at Nancy and Alpha Rote across her office desk “at least have the consideration not to start giving us headaches until after they officially get here. You two, of course, believe in starting early.”
    The scene was the small duty bungalow just inside the Songmark gates, which were currently open to permit a stream of builders, painters and decorators to move in and out readying the compound for its new arrivals due the following day.
    Nancy Rote was sitting up straight as ever in her chair, the squirrel returning Miss Devinski’s icy gaze with her own cool appraisal. “Miss Devinski.  We realise we have no right to demand anything about how our dorms are run. None at all. But my friends have worked well together as a team; we have solved one case already for the public good, and hope to do a lot more while we are here. We get on well enough together - and I have heard of other senior dorms who do not.  Surely that would be one less headache for you and the other Tutors, not to worry about how to put together at least one dorm of us?”
    “Very considerate of you,” the yellow Labrador commented dryly. “So, let’s see just what you’ve done to inspire my faith in your judgement since you arrived.” She flicked through a notebook that Nancy would have dearly loved a minute alone with. “Where to begin? After agreeing that the staff here would act as your legal guardians for three years, you ran off to get married a few days after arriving without even asking permission. You married someone you had only known less than a week, on Cranium Island of all places, a place where most furs don’t even get back from alive and sane. A wonderful piece of self-preservation, and an example to your classmates I’m sure.” She shook her head, turning to the next page. “After being specifically warned off sleuthing on this island, where it is definitely none of your business, you disobey police warnings and tread on their paws in no uncertain manner. Hmm.” She leafed through the next few pages. “Favourite social venues; evenings at the Devil’s Reef and luncheon at the Temple of Continual Reward. I expect you are beginning as you mean to go on.” An eyebrow rose. “The police didn’t press charges after that unseemly brawl outside the Devil’s Reef, but since you’ve been irritating them, that won’t be true next time.”
    “Yes, Miss.” Nancy replied simply. “But from another point of view, we have brought one crook to justice already, starting from scratch in a new town and a new culture, and laid the groundwork for further investigations. I’ve heard a lot about the Devil’s Reef from other furs now - it’s certainly a place we can find plenty of contacts.”
    “Yes.” Miss Devinski gave a slightly theatrical sigh. “So, you’re of the opinion that you’ll do better enlisting together with your friends, a “pal’s battalion” as they had in the Great War? Bear in mind how few of those ever came home. You’re responsible for each other. We have never thrown out a whole dorm together for each other’s delinquencies, but one year it may happen. Having four of you as a determined sleuthing team ready to disobey any orders if it suits your personal mission…” she shook her head. “Mrs and Mrs Rote, one of the reasons we choose who should go in whose dorm, is a matter of striking a balance. It might be a very good thing if there was someone to put her foot down when you propose your next bit of insanity - rather than just adding to it.”
    Nancy was silent. After a few seconds Miss Devinski rose, wordlessly indicating the interview was over.
    “We will consider your idea on its merit - however long that takes,” was all she said, gesturing towards the door. “Like anyone else - you will find out, tomorrow.”

“That could have gone better,” Nancy commented two minutes later, when they were standing outside the gate. “On the other paw, she didn’t tell us to take a long walk on a short branch, as I thought she might. We can only ask.”
    “Nancy! She did not say it broke any rules.” Alpha wriggled in excitement. “It would be efficient, having a dorm with a lot in common. Maybe two! There were six of us sleuths on the smuggling case; at best that’s three with you, and one with me. And Meera wants to join in too, that’s most of a dorm.”
    Nancy winced at the thought of the overly keen mongoose. “You’re welcome to her. She’s been brought up reading too many adventure stories, she thinks life’s like that. She doesn’t know what she can’t do.”
    “But that’s good.” Alpha objected. “A lot of the best scientists on Cranium Island have no idea at all that things are impossible - so they try them, and sometimes it works.” A skinny tail twitched nervously. “I did say, yes, that insanity isn’t really such a bad thing in that line of work.”
    Nancy held her breath, and counted to five. It was a technique she expected to use a lot, at least for the next three years. “Anyway.” She forced her thoughts back on track. “You’re right, there’s nearly two dorm’s worth of sleuths that we know of; I’ve not met all the girls yet. There may be more. Some might not even have arrived, though that’d be cutting things rather fine. Two sleuthing dorms? Svetlana says in Vostok they have two independent Secret Police forces; we can have two dorms of detectives.”
    “Or none. Miss Devinski, she didn’t seem too keen by what you were saying.”
    Nancy spun round; the voice was not Alpha but Eva Schiller. “Eva! How did you sneak up like that?”
    The arctic fox smiled. “My Uncle, he has taught me a lot. Some places he investigates, it is best to keep very quiet.” Her platinum blonde brush waved nonchalantly. “It is not so far from living in a Karl May adventure series, some of the things I have heard of Spontoon. Perhaps Meera and Alpha may be right.”
    Alpha’s muzzle wrinkled at the sight of the German girl. She had been up in arms hearing how Germany had banned “chemical foods”, insisting on organic farming. The vat-grown meats of Cranium Island would evidently not find ready exports to Eva’s homeland. “The evidence supports us being right.”
    “Indeed. I have been talking with Svetlana. Her homeland, she is quite proud of. Two secret police forces, answering to only the Grand Duchess, spend half their time infiltrating each other. She is thinking that is a good idea, if any corruption or Red infiltration happens even at the highest levels of one, the other will find it out. That is not, of course, what happens.”
    “We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here,” Nancy raised a warning paw. “I’ll be surprised if we can get one dorm together as a team, let alone worrying about how two would avoid tripping over each other’s tails. And there’s only one licence, to go round.”
    “We shall see.  If Miss Devinski does not approve of your idea, she may put together a dorm of four detective girls without you.” Eva winked. “The prospectus, it is saying Songmark girls learn many things not listed. Maybe you will learn to live with an uncompromising Bakuninite Anarchist like Rosa for three years, ja?”
    A pair of squirrel ears drooped. “Don’t joke about it. It could happen.” Nancy frowned. “Honestly, we’re meant to show initiative and enterprise. I don’t see why our Tutors should disagree with this plan. I told them on my application form I was training to be a flying detective. Crooks have aircraft these days, especially in this part of the world.”
    “They do. I observed this morning, one arriving from Krupmark. Now, that is a place my Uncle has told me of! It is too rich a meat for our tastes, I think.” Eva looked thoughtful as the three strolled back towards the water-taxi dock. “Solving crime there is like trying to solve dampness. In the ocean.”
    Alpha’s eyes gleamed. “I know, Nancy! We could solve it all in one go!”
    “I’ll probably regret asking this, but … how?” Nancy raised an eyebrow.
    “Back home there’s Professor von Karjust, he’s been working with that allotropic iron Dr. Smith discovered. He says in a few years he expects he can … well; non-technically it’s like setting fire to all the atoms at once. It’ll solve all the crime on Krupmark but shouldn’t spread to set the atmosphere on fire - at least, not much.” She paused, mentally calculating. “Well, not all of it. At least it’s less than ten percent probability.”
    “Ah yes, the famous Cranium Island technology,” Eva commented dryly. “Uncle has been there; we have heard something of the place.” She winked. “And so. You have the planet’s only known deposits of Fraudium, a metal so dense that a single gram of it weighs a quarter of a tonne.”
    Alpha cast her a nasty look, her whiskers trembling. “We do have Trautonium, and that is sixteen percent denser than Osmium. “ Her tail twitched. “I can arrange it for you to go there and find out! Nancy has been, and returned alive.”
    “I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Nancy said smoothly. “Eva - I’ve seen some of Cranium Island. They really do have some very … unusual things there.”
    “Oh yes! And I could have you there by nightfall!” Alpha looked up at Eva, her eyes gleaming. “You’d find the night-life there very happy to meet you.”
    “So. I think that is one supper invitation I can do without. The Ahnernerbe, we know about some of our agents becoming supper. With the things and places we investigate, it happens. But not this week, I think.”
    Nancy frowned slightly. “Eva. You’re a supporter of your government. Well, everyone should support their country, of course. But I thought they didn’t encourage Adventuresses?”
    “Kinder, Kirche, Kuche, that’s the phrase,” Eva agreed. “Children, church and kitchen. Of course it’s rather general. It doesn’t apply to everyone. We have some excellent lady fliers, there’s one stationed on Spontoon, even. For the outer Party, of course we must speak in general terms. The inner Party has only exceptional people. Our Leader, he can hold a parade salute for three hours. Three hours!”
    ”Now that’s just silly,” Alpha commented. “Why doesn’t he get someone else to do it for him? They could take shifts.”
    Eva just laughed. She stepped onto the water-taxi, asking the boatman to take them to Casino Island. The three passengers sat quietly - at least, unspeaking. Alpha was frantically scribbling ideas in her notebook, occasionally flicking the dials of a circular slide-rule to check her mental calculations.
    “One more afternoon - and we should look our best for tomorrow,” Nancy decided as they waved farewell to Eva. “I’m sure we’ll be wading through mud puddles or getting our fur stuck down with engine-oil all too soon. This might be the last time in awhile we get to be really clean. And we have Millicent to meet tonight; we can’t walk into the Shepherd’s Hotel looking like a pair of engine mechanics.”
    Alpha nodded vigorously. “I’ve been making notes on social acceptability! Once I work out the underlying formula I’m sure I won’t embarrass you in public any more.”
    Nancy gave a tight, brief smile. “Not everything breaks down to an equation, Alpha.” She gestured to a nearby bookshop, whose window display was evidently aimed at the Casino crowd. At least, two titles she saw prominent were ‘Success at poker’ and ‘Crushing, humiliating defeat at whist’. “I’ve heard some furs spend their lives and their fortunes trying to find out “systems” of gambling. If there was a reliable underlying formula to such things the Casinos wouldn’t stay in business very long.”
    Alpha sniffed. “Gravity was working perfectly well before Sir Isaac Newton discovered the laws it uses.” She paused. “It’s true, not everything works like that. We had phlogiston isolated on Cranium Island two hundred years ago; there was a shift then. It became impossible. It became as if it always had been impossible. Such things happen. Eva’s uncle knows. Professor Blum met him last month, and back home we share research results. Her Uncle is hunting for proof to Horbinger’s World Ice Theory. The one with the moon being made out of dusty ice, and one just like it crashing into the Earth every geological Age or so wiping out Mu and Atlantis and the others. Now that IS insane - and we deeply respect that.”
    Nancy’s tail twitched. “Surely things don’t change like that. Why, that’d mean… you could change the reality of things just by investigating them!”
    “Albert Beerstein would agree with that statement,” Alpha said darkly. Perhaps fortunately, just then they arrived in front of the grooming salon La Modiste.
    “Miss Rote!” Nancy turned to recognise a figure she had seen before, a pretty and very respectably dressed young ewe.
    “Miss Lamm. It’s good to see you again.” Nancy smiled. She took in the impeccably brushed white wool and the neatly understated outfit. “This is our final day of freedom, you might say - we’ll be full-time Songmark girls and only part-time sleuths from tomorrow. We certainly won’t have much leisure time. So it’s our last chance to get properly groomed.”
    The ewe looked Nancy up and down with an honest, painstaking gaze that somehow reminded her of Miss Beryl. “I heard about your successes from the Chief.” She dropped her voice, looking around. “He was impressed! I read the write-up in the Elele.”
    Nancy nodded. “I was lucky to get that case finished in time. But now it’s time for one last professional grooming - if they’re free.”
    Miss Lamm’s face fell. “I just got out from there; they’re booked up with appointments till four. But I’d be real interested if you could tell me just how you tracked that smuggler down - the full story, the one you didn’t tell the Elele.”
    Nancy glanced around. There was an inviting bench with a view out towards South Island, and the sun was warm without being oppressively hot. If the Chief briefs her so closely, I must have been right - she is an undercover agent, Nancy thought. Maybe the rest of the official Detective force don’t even know about her! Well, they won’t learn it from me. She nodded politely. “If you’re interested in the details, it probably will take till about four.”
    Miss Lamm smiled, indicating the seat. “I tend to be free this time of day. I’d be… professionally interested.”

Forty minutes later, Nancy and Alpha had waved their new acquaintance farewell and were enjoying the ministrations of the staff at La Modiste. It gave Nancy time to reflect on her conversation. Caroline Lamm had asked several very shrewd questions about her detective techniques, and not minded if it had strayed into elements of Nancy’s earlier cases back in Creekside. I don’t need Isabella around to spot that, Nancy thought. Of course she wants to know just how good I am. Unless I’m very much mistaken, that’s her trade. Especially considering the other detective talent on the island - the Sergeant seems to beat most of his confessions out of suspects with a sap according to Beryl. Russia and Vostok have a lot of “police” like that, by all accounts.  As for that Inspector Stagg, he might have been good once but he looks as if he’s been too shell-shocked to do much these days. I expect she does very different sorts of investigations from those two. Miss Lamm had also asked just what Nancy thought of Chief Pickering; Nancy’s ears had blushed slightly when she had commented that Mrs Pickering was a very lucky vixen.
    “That’ll be excellent,” Nancy declared as the fur-groomer showed her the details of her coiffure in the mirror. “I expect it’ll be a matter of cold showers and curry-combs from tomorrow - but we’ll at least arrive looking our best.” She rose graciously, thanked the stylists and paid the bill, again adding a generous tip for them having Alpha as a customer.
    Alpha nodded vigorously, having checked that clippers and trimming blades were well out of the way. “Until the holidays! Then we can come back and have it all fixed again!” She rose, looking at herself in the full-length mirror and trying to decide how many social standing points this would get her.
    “We’ll just have to pencil that in the diary and forget it till December. The third-years, you can see they’ve been using far too much mechanic’s soap to get oil out of their fur; it leaves tell-tale signs weeks afterwards” A set of squirrel ears drooped slightly. “Still. You’ve remembered Beryl’s guide for tomorrow?”
    “Of course!” Alpha looked indignant. “Such as tip 57 - “You can always spot a Songmark girl. She may be up to her ears in mud, but she’ll be the one with the dry matches, toilet paper and first-aid kit, even if she has to tow it behind under a balloon.” I don’t think that’d be very practical, Nance.”
    “It’s an allegory, Alpha. Meaning she’ll have her priorities right, and stick to them no matter what. Just as professional soldiers might not get the chance to wash themselves properly for weeks, but their weapons are guaranteed the cleanest things in the neighbourhood.” A freshly groomed tail swished gracefully. “And now - back to our hotel to change. We have a dinner appointment with the diplomats.”

An hour later Alpha and Nancy were dressed in their finest, Nancy in her pale blue sun-dress with white gloves. She had managed to persuade Alpha to take her stylistic advice; apparently on Cranium Island one never ventured out without protective clothing no matter how unthreatening the day looked. Her nose twitched, remembering the Oved brothers who had showed up at their wedding, five identical looking canines in yellow linoleum boiler suits with bright red bakelite electrical insulators for hats. Getting Alpha into a skirt had proven a difficult piece of logic, but persistence had paid off in the end. Not that Alpha would ever star on any high fashion magazine covers, Nancy admitted to herself.
    “Madame is most welcome, and on time exactement!” André the Maitre d’hotel was there to greet them. “Shepherds is pleased to welcome such charming guests.” The red squirrel gave a deep bow, his tail sweeping with a broad flourish.
    “We’re pleased to be here, Monsieur D’Arbes.” Nancy proffered her white-gloved paw. It was quite traditional and all right for a continental gentleman to kiss one’s paw, she told herself, even if it was not exactly Creekside manners. “Tonight’s our last night of freedom! This time tomorrow we’ll be behind the wire at Songmark - and I’m told their menu is a little … basic.”
    André clapped his paws together and three junior waiters came over at a run. “But yes! Tonight you shall have of the finest! Your table awaits.”
    Nancy followed them to a corner table where Millicent was already sitting, the diplomat dressed in a tidy black frock.  The tabby rose, greeting them. “Miss Rote! And Miss Zarahoff, pleased to meet you!”
    Alpha was evidently about to correct Millicent that she was no longer a Miss, when Nancy’s foot-paw pressed firmly on her tail.
    Not that I’m ashamed of it, but some people wouldn’t understand, Nancy told herself. And these are important people for my sleuthing career.
    Dinner was ordered, and André swept away with the air of one on a spiritual mission, to enforce his will on “zat ‘ash-slinger Chef Joseph in the kitchen.” Millicent sat back, nodding slightly.
    “I read the reports of your success in the Daily Elele,” she commented, looking directly at Nancy. “Congratulations! It didn’t take you long to find your feet here.”
    “I had a lot of help,” Nancy said. “Help from a Songmark third-year who has a view on law and order the local Police don’t seem to share. And more help from five new arrivals who are willing to come in with me as a team. So yes, I’m happy I could get one successful case in, and make my name before term started.”
    Millicent smiled, the feline eyes narrowing. “It’s been quite impossible to get any inside information on Songmark,” she said smoothly. “but with you there - we’re glad there’s someone who can keep her eyes open for us. Purely for crimes, of course. We wouldn’t ask you to do anything else than sleuth. But we have our suspicions about quite a few of the girls there - we’d be happy to pass you our notes.”
    “I’ve already discovered, some of them are involved with local cults.” Nancy recalled finding Alpha on top of Mount Tomboabo on South Island when the Native priestess and the third-year Helen Duclos had chased her off for performing alternative acts of worship.
    “I’m afraid so.” Millicent looked troubled. “We’ve always found it the first step towards much greater troubles, when Europeans start to turn against their own kind and go Native. They use their natural European intelligence and education to set themselves up in local religions as juju priests and the like. The trouble they’ve caused!”
    “I can imagine. My friend Eva mentioned being brought up on old Karl May books. They’re always full of that kind of thing - disgraced European soldiers setting up Native kingdoms, or hiring on to distant savage nations as military advisers for the sake of raw gold and shameless local concubines.” Nancy reflected that Eva had proven a mine of information already; apparently her Leader had grown up reading the same series, as well as incongruously playing Cowboys and Indians deep in the Austrian woods. This was something the newsreels had kept rather quiet about.
    “So. I think we’re agreed, don’t you think, of the sort of things we’d like to hear about?” Millicent broke off as the starters arrived; she complemented André for serving as fine a dish of lobster bisque as one could find outside Europe. After the waiters had retired beyond earshot, she leaned closer to Nancy. “And that’s not all. We think that Maria Inconnutia is providing disturbingly good advice to her Uncle. She’s been using local clubs as a giant… testing device.”
    “Testing device?” It was Alpha who spoke up, her whiskers twitching.
    “Yes indeed. The High School has these big sand-table games they run as a club all summer, something we call TEWTs - Tactical Exercises Without Troops. Around here, children play them like chess. Maria’s been “helping” run them, and writing up the results. Now, this wouldn’t mean anything perhaps but - her Uncle’s started to make a lot of radical reforms. He’s scrapped a tenth of his armies already, put the furs back into industry and agriculture, to build up the country.”
    “But can you prove Maria had anything to do with that?” Nancy objected.
    Millicent winked. “Not prove, no. But Maria went to all the debates they had last term on Geopolitics, and was overheard having a furious debate with one of her Consulate staff, telling him big poorly equipped, ill-trained marching infantry armies were a complete waste of resources that should have gone out of style after Garibaldi. And her Uncle said in a speech he’s “been persuaded” to change his approach. Now, Il Puce isn’t a fur who listens to many people and it certainly wasn’t his generals - some of them are furious for cutting the army; he’s sacked several already.”
    “Nance! She’s used the local schools and combined brainpower as a giant simulator! And it didn’t cost her a penny - that IS efficiency!” Alpha bounced up and down in her chair slightly.
    “Hush, Alpha.” Nancy thought hard. “You’re reasoning that someone who’s having that much influence would pass on all sorts of military secrets if she could get them - and she certainly would want to get them. This would make her a spy, something that’d fall within my licensed remit. You could well be right.”
    Millicent sat back, nodding approvingly. “I knew I could count on you, Miss Rote. Some of the most useful people we have aren’t really Agents at all - they’re honest, right-minded people doing what they would be doing anyway, and just passing on anything that their friends would like to know about.  The Vostokites have the same idea, although they take it a step further. A bold society, is Vostok. If you were a subject of the Grand Duchess, with your talents you might end up as an “Akula” - answerable only to Justice, with nobody giving you specific orders. A properly brought up girl, she inherently knows what’s right, and on Vostok they support them with material resources and legal “carte blanche”.”
    “They’re hated by the police and both Secret Police forces, they’re what they call “loose cannons”, as in several tons of runaway metal rolling around a crowded deck.” Alpha whispered urgently in Nancy’s ear.
    Nancy’s ear twitched dismissively, as if a fly had settled on it. “One of my friends is from Vostok, I’ll be sure to ask her how it all works,” she said. Privately the idea intrigued her even if it was somewhat alarming. Svetlana was certainly qualified from what she had heard, and if the wolverine girl was an Akula herself already - she would not be admitting it. A Songmark education would be a perfect training for such a career - and as an Adventuress one might travel anywhere and investigate anything without anyone suspecting you were something quite different.
    Millicent’s feline nose twitched, as the main course arrived. “Well. That’s all I’ve got to say officially - as far as any of it’s official, you understand.” She winked, and raised her glass. “Here’s to a long and profitable association. And confusion to our enemies!”
    “I can drink to that.” Nancy had selected a small glass of white wine; as she returned the toast she reflected that she was getting her support rather cheaply. Nobody had asked for any particular favours yet in return for much vital help - except for Beryl, whose somewhat expensive book had certainly cost her something in terms of time and money to research and print. Though she did not believe in looking a gift equine in the mouth, Nancy was glad she had memorised the pages of useful information. It was more likely to be true than free advice where one frequently got as much value as one paid for.

“A relaxed supper in the elegant surroundings of Shepherd’s Hotel - certainly a fine way to spend our last night of freedom!” Nancy yawned as they returned to their room some hours later. Everything was packed neatly, with only their Songmark uniforms out and hanging in the wardrobe, freshly washed and pressed ready for the morrow.
    Alpha’s tail and long snout wriggled, her eyes wide. “Yes! Our last night - well, as a night, until the holidays.” Her whiskers suddenly drooped as her mercurial mood changed. “It was fine. But now it’s almost over.”
    Nancy hugged her. There had been much to observe and note at Shepherd’s; Millicent had pointed out another group of Songmark third-years who were evidently making the most of their final week’s freedom before they joined the new intake. The cocktails they ordered had sounded rather extreme - a devastating mixture of tequila, Nootnops Blue and over-proof Absinthe went by the name of a “Little Shirley Shrine”, invented by a famous cinema critic who desperately needed fortifying before and after duty forced him to sit through the films. Judging by the scent, the decorative napkin it came wrapped in was liberally perfumed with “trike”, the volatile engine-cleaning solvent and dry-cleaning fluid. She smiled. “Well, this could be the last time to ourselves in months - we’d better make the most of it.”

Sunlight was shining brightly through the windows of the tower room as Nancy yawned and stretched. For once Alpha was still fast asleep, resting contentedly. She rose, and unusually for her she dressed in the clothes of the night before - until they bathed, it would have to do. Though it presumably would not surprise Miss Devinski, Nancy was not planning on turning up on the first day with her clean new Songmark uniform reeking of musks soaked off her fur. Everything else was already packed away in the trunks.
    One rapid shower later, the two hurried downstairs in their fresh uniforms to catch the last serving of Breakfast. “Nance! Today we pay our bills and go - no need to be modest with the breakfast!” Alpha started to order half the items on the menu. “Bacon, scrambled non-sentient avian eggs, sausages, kedgeree, that’ll do for starters.” Alpha rubbed her paws together gleefully. “We’ll burn it all off, certainly, however much we consume, where we’re going!”
    “Which is about a mile and a half away. Not the North Pole, Alpha,” Nancy reminded her, while choosing her usual plain and hearty breakfast of grain and nut porridge, with plenty of toast (done to exact specifications), unsalted butter, and honey.
    While Alpha ate like a famished shrew stocking up for hibernation, Nancy looked around, fixing the place and its customers in her memory. The Madston Hotel was ranked as the third best on Casino Island by most guidebooks, though in fact it attracted a rather different set rather than competing directly with the Grand and the Marleybone. There were fewer socialites and more uniforms; at the entrance was a polite notice reminding that only commissioned officers were allowed to wear their sidearms to table. She had needed to explain to Alpha that it did not mean sergeants had to take in rifles and grenades.
    “So, this is it.” Half an hour later Nancy finished her last cup of lemon tea and stood up, her Songmark full uniform slightly stiff where she had carefully starched it. “The hotel porters have their instructions about delivering our trunks to Songmark, Alpha - we just have to present ourselves and our papers at the gate by noon today.”
    “I hope they take care with the trunks,” Alpha’s whiskers twitched. “I sent home some of the experimental apparatus and some of the more active texts, but if the red chest breaks open and the items fall out landing in certain mathematically possible configurations - it could be bad.”
    “The rules say we can’t take various things in with us, but they’re mostly weapons, tobacco, drinks and the like,” Nancy mused as they returned to their rooms to check for mislaid items. “I didn’t think I saw any specific ban on ancient books of sanity-shattering revelations.” After meeting Alpha, she reflected, next year there probably would be. Songmark prided itself in being progressive. “Still, it’s the same for all the students. Eva said she has a ceremonial dagger she’s already surrendered to stay in the staff strongbox for the term.”
    “Eva. Yes. Well.” Alpha’s snout wrinkled. “There’s a girl who’d probably benefit from a few sessions of really radical experimental psychosurgery. I know a lot of furs back home who’d just love her as a test subject.”
    Nancy smiled, shaking her head ruefully. “Alpha. Have you tried discussing people’s opinions rather than rewiring their brains?”
    Alpha cocked her head to one side curiously. “Why would anyone want to do something like THAT?”
    Just then they arrived at the hotel reception, where Alpha proudly paid the bill in worn golden coins of fabulous age and highly suspect provenance. To judge from the reactions of the stoat behind the counter, they were used to Adventurers arriving with Pieces of Eight and the like; he gently scraped each coin against a touchstone, observing the subtle nuances of colour in the streak it left before weighing them on a finely calibrated set of jeweller’s scales and looking up the value in a chart of assay tables. Nancy filed the fact away with everything else; in other nations there were restrictions about buying and selling raw gold, and indeed in America President Huey Long had banned private possession of bullion as part of his “spread the wealth” philosophy. On Spontoon, if you could spend it anywhere you could probably use it there.
    She looked around, taking a deep breath as the cashier nodded and countersigned the receipt. “Well - that’s us finished as tourists. Come on, Alpha - you know where we’re going next!”

Sunday late morning on Casino Island was a calm time, with various “Euro” congregations now heading home for lunch after a rousing session in church. Nancy spotted a hellfire atheist preacher still preaching in the market square, and small examples of both the United Reformed Church and the Schismatic Unrepentant Chapel were to be seen in the backstreets.
    “Eastern Island! It’s the only island of any size without a church - if there’s a Native shrine even, I don’t know it.” Alpha observed, “Every other island has one.”
    “Even Sacred Island? There’s nothing marked on the map.” Nancy had spent weeks before arriving on Spontoon memorising the available maps and charts.
    Alpha’s thin tail thrashed. “Dangerous place. Very dangerous. High-energy location - like some parts of Cranium Island, things can happen there that generally don’t.” Her eyes widened. “If I could only get there! The things I could do! But the Natives and what they have guard it night and day - and I don’t mean with shark-spears. Things happen to trespassers. High-energy events.”
    “That’s another thing we’ll have to leave till the holidays, then.” Privately Nancy added and with luck the Tutors might have taught you some caution. They stepped onto the water taxi, the pilot casting a knowing glance at their new Songmark uniforms with the single clef musical note on the shoulder patch. Every year they would sew another line of stitching onto that note - assuming they lasted the course.
    Standing on the water-taxi heading towards Eastern Island, Nancy acutely felt the Casino Island life slipping away behind her. Sophisticated frocks and professionally groomed fur were not something that fitted Eastern Island. There was a mile of paved runway currently standing empty under the Autumn skies; aircraft sat awaiting in hangars with fuel injection supercharged engines that would soon be bellowing into life. That was the life she would be a part of, and as the shore approached she felt her resolve settle on her like a weight of armour on her shoulders. She took a deep breath. “Alpha. You remember what Miss Devinski said about - well, about us. Until we’re next off on Passes, or similar - we’ll have to say goodbye here. Of course we’ll see each other every day, but - that’ll be it. You know.”
    Alpha squeezed her, looking up. “I’ll work hard as anything! And we’ll get Passes!” Then she sighed, and released her grip. “Until then.”
    The water-taxi arrived at the dock, and the two newest Songmark students climbed up onto the island that was their new home.
“Nancy! We’re almost all here!” A cheerful shout from Meera Sind was the first voice she heard at Songmark, as they came round the corner of Song Sodas in sight of the main gate.
    Nancy waved in return to the girl behind the wire; the gate was currently shut, and guarded by two rather large third-years, a bovine she did not recognise (not the Italian spy, she noted) and a stout and sour-looking bear.
    “Papers!” The bear demanded, looming over menacingly.
    Nancy had been exposed to intimidation by experts and keen amateurs alike, and was quite resistant to it. “Yes, they are,” she smiled pleasantly, proffering the original telegram that had come to Creekside, plus her formal acceptance letter and her passport. “All in order I trust?”
    The bear looked through the collection with an air of deep distrust, holding them up to the light to check for watermarks, and comparing the signatures with something in a small leather-bound field notebook. After a minute she passed them back with a reluctant nod, and waved her through. 
    “Tell me,” Alpha looked around inquisitively as her own papers were gone through with a magnifying glass “the wire fence here is rigged both ways. Is it mostly to protect Songmark from intruders, or to protect the Spontoonies from the students?” Just then her eyes widened as one of the very large four-legged canines came up to sniff inquisitively at her. “Oh. You’re one of those. I didn’t expect to see any around the Spontoon group, at all.”
    Nancy wondered why Alpha was talking to the dog; the shrew was the last person imaginable to be sentimentally interested in pets as such, given her homeland’s interest in scientific (and probably recreational) vivisection. She stood still while the guard dog sniffed at her then moved on surprisingly purposefully to study Alpha’s scent.
    “Nancy. Welcome to Songmark. I’m not really here right now, you might say.” She turned to see Beryl Parkesson, the mouse now having traded her elegant sun dress for an impeccably pressed Songmark full uniform, with the treble clef on the musical note badge denoting her as a newly minted third-year. “The staff always ask for volunteers to show the new students around - I think they were surprised I was available and volunteered.” She cast a knowing nod towards the bear at the gate who was currently searching the pockets of a platinum-furred bobcat girl. “Missy K there, she didn’t volunteer exactly. Miss Devinski “requested” she come in, and as she’s a Spontoonie she couldn’t easily get out of it.”
    “Miss Beryl.” Nancy smiled, shaking paws. “It’s good to see you! I’ve memorised your guide - and I’m sure we’ll find it very useful.”
    Beryl turned her open, honest gaze towards her. “I did my best to make it memorable, knowing you couldn’t take the copies in with you,” she said. “I do hope it’s something you’ll never forget.” Then she straightened up, looking around the compound and doing a snout count. “Good morning, first-years!” She called out. “The Tutors want to see you over there for lunch, the yellow hut. That’s the dining hall. Anyone late - well, there’s fifty girls who could be here to take your place, by this time tomorrow.”
    Nancy had spotted all her friends had arrived already; she waved to Isabella and Svetlana, as they filed into the single-storey wooden hut. She felt a slight twinge as she steeled herself not to talk to Alpha; although the Tutors were nowhere to be seen, Beryl’s pamphlet had made it very clear  that any Songmark girl was living under observation quite as keen as any suspect being shadowed by the Vostokite Cheka or the Russian NKVD. Except that if we get caught, she told herself looking at the wired compound, they don’t throw us into a camp - they throw us out of this one, and we don’t EVER get a chance to come back.
    The dining hall was a big rectangular hut, with polished floors and neatly scrubbed trestle tables sufficient to seat all three years. Just opposite was a corrugated iron building with all its doors and windows open, evidently the kitchen block to judge from the smoking chimneys and the scents wafting out on the breeze. The whole place had the air of a summer school campsite made permanent.
    “They don’t spend our fees on luxurious surroundings, we knew that from the prospectus.” Nancy turned to see Seria, the Persian feline’s white fur impeccably brushed and bulging slightly out of her starched collar like a ruff. “I suppose after a year of living most of the time in beach shelters and aircraft cabins, it’ll seem comfortable enough just having a roof above our ears. But it’s not what I’m accustomed to.”
    “I doubt any of us are,” Nancy agreed, looking the aristocratic Persian over. “Otherwise we could have stayed at home.” Seria had refused to join the sleuthing set, which made her more than somewhat suspect in Nancy’s eyes. Like policemen, furs from leading families should be all for supporting detection of crime no matter who did the work, she thought.
    The door opened and one of the Tutors walked in, a rangy hound in perhaps her mid forties, with sun-bleached fur and a somewhat cropped tailfur. “Good morning! Welcome to Songmark. I am Miss Blande, and I’ll be showing you round to begin with. But just in case there are any late arrivals - we won’t start that till after lunch.” She looked at her watch, a worn but expensive pilot’s chronometer as Nancy noted. “So, we’ll begin as we mean to go on. Lunch is at twelve exact, teatime at five, breakfast will be at six tomorrow. Details will be in your official book, awaiting you on your beds.”
    The meal that was brought in proved rather different to anything she had eaten on Casino Island. There was a fillet of fish, which was pleasant and digestible enough - but the vegetables were exotic. There was some cooked greenery that looked like spinach but tasted different, some slices of roots perforated with natural cavities, and the whole rested on a bed of what looked like mashed potato with a slight purplish tinge.
    “Poi.” Nancy heard one of the other girls across the table mutter. “Poi, lotus root, taro leaf. They didn’t waste any time, did they?”
    “It’s jolly healthy stuff, by all accounts!” Meera sampled her portion with evident enthusiasm. “When you look at all those Native fishermen, all that healthy muscle and fur - remember they’re brought up on this, sometimes pints of it a day. Even the carnivores.”
    Nancy dug her spoon into the mush, scenting it. Poi had definite texture to it; evidently the taro roots it was made from were more fibrous than potato. The scent was slightly sour, like plain yoghourt, and she recalled reading of how it was always made the day before and left to ferment overnight. The taste was … different.
    “I know!” A slender black furred jackal to her left spoke up. ”This is just an … initiation. When my brother had his first day at the Academy they each had to eat a big dish of fresh chillies without water. It’ll be something like that. Our first test.”
    Nancy dug into the pasty mass, thinking of the lepine native guide she and Alpha had explored the delights of Main Island and much else with, and reminding herself that Meera was probably right about its good qualities. “If this is what our Tutors mean about beginning as they mean to get on, we’d better just get used to it.” She remembered her Father’s advice on never merely complaining about a bad situation - leave it, change it or suit yourself to it. In this case the third option was the only one really open, she decided.
    By the time dessert arrived (a huge bowl of pineapple slices, melon chunks and other less identifiable local fruits) about three quarters of the first-years had given up on the first course. There had been a lively bidding for the fish that a lepine and an Oryx declared they could not stomach, but only six people had finished all their poi. Nancy would not have chosen it on a menu except to experiment, but as a founder member of the “clean your plate club” at her old school in Creekside, she felt she had to set an example.
    “It looks like Beryl was right about everything,” she murmured to Isabella on her left. “That was the bit I found hardest to believe. I think five shells was not unreasonable for her little primer.”
    The fruit vanished at high speed, and it became abundantly clear that there were no other courses on the way as the plates were cleared away and the tables wiped by two native cooks. Anyone who had abandoned their poi had thrown away half their meal, Nancy noted. Miss Blande had been sitting at the head of the table while she ate, saying nothing but her eyes were keen and bright and evidently missing nothing.
“And this is your dorm,” Miss Blande was saying half an hour later, showing Nancy to a rather bare room up on the first floor of one of the two-storey huts. “You will notice it is now clean and tidy.  You will receive no marks for keeping it that way - though if you fail to, you’ll certainly lose a few. For every mess, every time.”
    To Nancy’s delight, Maureen, Isabella and Svetlana were ushered in behind and received the same warning. Her ears went right up in delight. “We managed it!” She whispered as Miss Blande moved on to allocate the next dorm. “Shame about Eva, but - we couldn’t all go in together.”
    From the raised voices next door it suddenly became obvious just where Eva had gone. Svetlana stuck her head round the corner. She returned, shaking her head but grinning fiercely. “Eva, Alpha, Meera and Rosa together. What a combination!”
    “To be sure, ‘tis the makings of a fine joke about the Mad Scientist, the Princess, the National Socialist and the Anarchist,” Maureen volunteered, sitting down on the bed and wincing slightly. “’Tis a fair plot line for a Barx Brothers film, I’m after thinking, were they four Barx Sisters to star in it an’ all.”
    Although she knew it was wrong to gloat over other’s misfortunes Nancy felt a warm wash of relief  knowing she had escaped being put in with Rosa and Meera, who would probably hit it off like the proverbial house on fire - in terms of massive destruction and severe casualties anyway.
    She sighed, stretching her tail and sitting on her bed. “Yes, Beryl was right about this too.” It was sheer luxury compared with the cellar floor she had endured in her month of captivity, but as beds went, she was certain the thickly carpeted floors of Shepherd’s hotel would prove softer to lie on. “By all accounts we’ll be so tired most times we get to bed, we won’t notice.” She felt a gleeful thrill imagining how Seria would be reacting; cats were notoriously fussy about their sleeping arrangements, whereas squirrels’ first ancestors had slept on hard branches and precarious treetops.
    Isabella had picked up the book on her bed, and was leafing through it. “We are not allowed to make changes without permission, either,” her snout tendrils drooped as she read. “So, no heading into Casino Island and buying air mattresses to make these better. What we have, is what the Tutors intend we shall have.” She poked her bed, and gave a wry smile. “We know how to sleep, that is something Songmark doesn’t have on its timetable.”
    “Hmm.” Nancy was not the sort to carelessly throw herself down on a bed, even a more inviting one than these. She sat on the edge of hers, and for ten minutes pored over the rule book. “No surprises here, really. There’s a lot of this left to the Tutor’s discretion - they give marks and take them away. But for me and Alpha, we won’t be told our marks till the end of term.”
    Maureen cast a jaundiced glance her way. “And ‘tis only now you’re telling of it,” she complained. “So, the rest of us are playing the game with one player down till Christmas, and you’re the deadweight!”
    “Only temporarily.” Nancy replied smoothly. “At the end of term my marks will be public, added to yours for the term - there’s no reason why we shouldn’t win. It’s just a test of patience by the Tutors - my patience, and yours too.”
    Isabella shrugged. ”Si. The dorm will not lose by it, in the end.”
    “And neither will we win.” Maureen’s muzzle might have wrinkled, but on the bulldog it was hard to tell. “There’s things that points get you - Passes and such. Until December, we’re effectively carrying you free on our shoulders. Meera was telling of it all, she’s had her sister’s tutoring by airmail these last years, ‘tis so.”
    “That’s not up to me, it’s entirely our Tutor’s decision, which is always final. Page one, in the book.” Nancy tapped the slim volume. “Beryl’s guide told us the same. Thinking of which, we’re meant to show initiative. We’re all taught the Spontoonie National Anthem here, which we have to sing at the end of the first week. But we’ll surprise the Tutors and sing it tomorrow morning at breakfast. They’ll be pleased, I expect. Perhaps we can get some points in early.” Although she had a good memory, she had copied the anthem out of Beryl’s guide into her own notebook before returning it.
    “It is a lively tune,” Svetlana looked over Nancy’s shoulder at the paper. “In Vostok we have Rasputinist cult, have similar hymns.”
    Nancy raised an eyebrow. “Rasputinist? You have an organised sect of them? I’d have thought you had enough trouble with the original. From what I read, he was about the last straw that broke the Imperial Court’s reputation.”
    The wolverine smirked. “Ah, but in Vostok! In Vostok we do things differently. Our Priests, most are from old local Siberian traditions, not many from Moscow or Saint Petersburg lived to escape the Terror and reach our islands. Rasputin was a holy fur, a great healer. Yes, he sinned, he never denied it, no hypocrite he. Our Father above is all powerful, and he likes to forgive - so we think he is happiest when we give him something to forgive. Saint Rasputin could not have been gifted with his healing power if he had not been in Divine favour.”
    “There’s a sort of logic somewhere in there, but it’s the kind I’d generally expect to hear from Alpha.” Nancy murmured, making notes in her book.  By all accounts, in Vostok they really did work rather differently. She winced, thinking of the mindset that would believe having two rival and equally powerful and unaccountable Secret Police forces on one small and embattled island chain was actually a good idea.
    Just then they heard Miss Blande calling for everyone to assemble outside immediately - Nancy had read enough from Beryl’s rather candid guide to know that when the Tutors called “immediate” a girl was expected to run out of the shower in her bare fur if that was where she was when the call came. She bounced off the bed and was a close second to reach the top of the stairs; just because she would not hear her points before December was no reason not to start trying to earn them.

“I think we had better make use of these.” It was six hours later, and Isabella patted her bed as the evening sun went down behind the peaks of Main Island. “This timetable! Looks impossible!” They had spent the afternoon and evening being shown around Songmark, filling in paperwork and being briefed about the week ahead. Teatime had been rather better than lunch, consisting of a rather fiery vegetable stew on a raft of some different local root vegetable mash that one of the girls had identified as sweet potato. “Tomorrow, they first look us over to see we are fit - then run us to see how far we go until we drop.”
    Nancy looked out of the window. There was a good view of the gatehouse, where two teams of senior girls were changing shifts as the sun set. Her eyes went wide; one of the seniors starting the night shift was a tall and slender black-haired doe. But it was not the girl that attracted attention but what she carried - on a sling she had a massively oversized rifle, the barrel looking the thickness of a scaffolding pole and tipped with a long fixed bayonet. The whole assembly must have been over seven feet long, and its weight clearly bowed the doe down.
    “Hmm. Beryl mentioned this.” Nancy blinked, mentally flicking through her list of Songmark girls who needed watching. “I think that’s Miss Procyk, the gangster’s daughter. I’m all for keeping up family traditions, but she looks like she’s taking this one a bit too far.”
    “Oh! Da, that artillery piece I recognise,” Svetlana nodded. “It is Mauser M1918 T-Gewehr, tank killer. The Germans, they needed one fast, no time to experiment much. So basics are their Great War infantry rifle - made twice size, twice calibre and sixteen times cartridge. We had some on Vostok. Make our own, much better model now.”
    “Alpha would probably deduce something huge keeps attacking the place, if that’s what the gate guard carries.” Nancy felt a slight twinge of conscience as she thought about her shrew, probably preparing for sleep just next door. Not only were the beds rather hard, but they were resolutely single. She realised that she had become accustomed to more than the climate since arriving on Spontoon; going back to waking up alone would be depressing. Even for the other girls who had not been given specific commands, at Songmark that was the way it would always be. On Songmark territory, at least.
    Svetlana yawned, combing out her tail-fur as she took off her jacket and hung it up in the one wardrobe the room possessed. Every student had a two-drawer bedside cabinet, quite innocent of any locks - honesty was something the rules were very clear about. Valuables were looked after by the Tutors; any other possessions had to fit the one small cabinet or stay in the steamer trunks. “We have one last evening with no homework - lights out in an hour, but I won’t be up to hear it.”
    “Good idea.” Nancy prepared for bed herself. But while the light was still on, she looked at the song in her notebook, running it through in her head. She frowned slightly. Beryl had been right about everything else so far.

“Everybody up! Rise and shine!” Miss Blande’s voice cut through twenty assorted dreams at nearly six the next morning. The hound strode from one dorm to the next, ringing a particularly loud and discordant hand-bell that would have better fitted a navigation buoy marking a hazardous reef.
    Nancy rose, blinking. The first grey light of morning was coming through the window; she resigned herself to the fact that in a very few weeks they would be getting up in the dark. “Good morning, Maureen!” She looked over to the next bed. “Morning, Isabella, Svetlana.”
    The wolverine groaned, reaching for her clothes as she grumbled something in Russian. “This, is being time to come home from party. Not time to wake up.”
    “It is at Songmark.” Nancy rose, and did a dozen stretches before putting the basics of her uniform on. “Better get used to it.” She joined the rest of her dorm in showering; there was no privacy whatsoever and she could certainly tell many of the others were not at all accustomed to being in their bare fur in company. Meera was laughing and carrying on about three conversations at once; Nancy recalled she had come from a famous Public school in England, and was perfectly at home here.
    “But Miss Blande!” Seria objected as the hot water shut off abruptly. “My fur cannot be treated like this! Every day, it must be dried and powdered, and then worked through with a coarse, a medium and a fine comb. I promised Mother I would brush my head and tail-fur thoroughly with two hundred strokes at every morning and evening. It is essential, for to maintain the condition.” At the present, as Nancy gleefully observed, Seria’s fur rather resembled a cheap white cotton floor-mop, dripping with water and in need of wringing out. Preferably in a mangle, she thought.
    Miss Blande nodded pleasantly. “Certainly. We always try to help our students keep their obligations. You can do all of that, with our blessing. You have three minutes to do so, then get dressed and into the dining hall, like everyone else.”
    There was a feline squeal of outrage and alarm, and everyone else grabbed towels and frantically dried and groomed themselves. Skunks and squirrels wringing out their tail-fur briefly wished they were felines, felines wished they were mice, mice wished they were rats for the day and everyone appreciated how wipe-clean and fast drying lizards were.
    “We must work out a technique for this,” Nancy panted, hopping on one wet foot as she put the dried one into her shoe on the soaking shower floor. “Teamwork. We’ll lose marks if we’re not properly groomed at breakfast, I know that much.”
    It might have been a few seconds over three minutes before the last of her class burst into the dining room, but only a stopwatch would have noted it. Nancy sat down, panting, feeling her fur still slightly damp but very clean. All the tutors were at the head of the table, plus one or two senior girls - Songmark was open to them now until full term started according to the book, at the price of doing guard and chaperone duties. Nancy spotted Beryl at the mostly empty third-year table, and cast her a grateful nod. Beryl winked back.
    “Well, they don’t intend to starve us here.” Across the table Eva was eyeing up the big bowls of local bread being set out, along with slices of cheese, flaked fish and fruits. “Still - we’re going to need all of it.”
    Nancy silently agreed, while enjoying the food. When the table was completely bare some ten minutes later, she took a deep breath and looked around at her dorm. “Ready for the song?” She whispered to Isabella.
    Isabella nodded, and pulled the folded paper from her pocket with her copy of the lyrics. Seeing that, Eva, Maureen and Svetlana followed suit.
    Nancy stood up, feeling all eyes turn to her. “Tutors, fellow students,” she began. “I’ve discovered that as we’re Spontoon citizens while we’re here, we have to respect that, and learn the national anthem.” She cast her glance around. Miss Devinski looked intrigued; she raised an eyebrow but nodded for her to carry on. Beryl had an inscrutable smile, and her silk-furred tail was twitching slightly.
    Nancy’s dorm stood up to join her, and four other furs rose as well. Nancy cleared her throat. “Though it’s not the end of the week yet, we thought we’d better get off on the right paw. The Spontoonie National Anthem, we present a rendition." With that, in quite decent harmony, they sang.
“Althing bright and beautiful, the voice and heart of all
Guide us in our daily round, and never let us fall
Each sacred part of Custom, each detail of the Law
Let us perform flawlessly, with deed and word and paw!

Althing wise and wonderful, we strive to do your will
Milking every tourist out, is grist to feed your mill
We’ll roll them with great pleasure, we’ll please them every way
Showing them the islands are the place to holiday!

Althing free and easy, we’re eager for to please
When we see a tourist purse, we’re very quick to squeeze
We’ll give whatever service, looks dearest on the bill
Though iron nails paid ancestors, it’s gold that rings our till!

Althing fine and bountiful, your cut is guaranteed
When we collar profits, it’s you who take our lead
Although we wear our tails out, you’re feathering your nest
Though we bend over backwards, it’s…”

The singers broke off one after another in confusion, staring with shock as they realised what the lyrics of the supposed “National Anthem” actually said. Miss Devinski stood up, and clapped her paws. “I think that’s about all we’ve got time for this morning.” Her expression was hard to read; she beckoned Nancy over. “Miss Rote? A word in your ear. In my office. Unlike most of our first years, I’m sure you’re familiar with the way already.”

“BERYL!” Nancy’s voice echoed across the compound five minutes later; the squirrel’s fur was sticking out in fury. She hardly ever lost control like this, but visions of sleek mice being slowly fed tail-first into various heavyweight industrial machinery ran red through her thoughts.
    “You bellowed?” Beryl was standing just outside the Songmark gate, looking calm and collected.     Nancy sprinted towards her, ears down and tail fluffed out. Just as her claws extended, she screeched to a halt in the dust as she realised two things. Beryl stood a yard outside the white line that marked the limit of Songmark-- Nancy could not cross without permission or a Pass. And two other third-years were standing in the guard-room watching in interest; one had a notebook, pencil poised, and the other had a camera ready.
    “Miss Rote.” Beryl looked at the fuming first-year, polishing her claws on her elegantly cut jacket. “The prospectus does say, a lot of what you learn here isn’t found on any timetable. Well, you’ve learned something already. Isn’t that nice?”
    “You … you liar!” Nancy forced herself to stillness. “We believed in you!”
    “Oh, I’m a great believer in truth myself.” Beryl inspected an already immaculate finger-claw. “It’s such a valuable thing, it has to be protected. And like money - if there’s too much of it around you get inflation, and we don’t want that, do we? Ask your friend Eva about the wheelbarrows of banknotes everyone pushed around in 1923, any time. I’m a guardian of truth and light, if you only look at it the right way.”
    “I want my five shells back.” Nancy stuck out her paw, not caring that it was trembling. “And for my friends, too.”
    A set of mouse ears quivered. “Certainly! You give me the goods, I’ll give you the refund.” Beryl paused. “I forget. Did you ask for a receipt, by any chance?”
    “No tickee, no laundry,” one of the gate guardians wisecracked.
    Nancy Rote stood still, feeling her rage drain out of her to be replaced by grim, frosty resolve. She nodded, turned on her heel and strode back towards the first-year dorm where the rest of her year awaited.
    “I’m at Songmark. The Tutors haven’t thrown me out. I have a year before Beryl leaves.” She told herself as her brain cooled. “Just pounding that mouse to a pulp wouldn’t be enough.” Schemes and plans began to bubble up inside the sleuth’s mind. “This won’t be just a cheap comeback - from me and my dorm, Beryl’s stirred up nothing short of a crusade, to bring her to justice.”
    Nancy Rote paused, a small smile on her muzzle as she thought of that idea. “Well. When it was just me, it was investigating the Coral Curtain Mystery. But the four of us together - a Crusader Dorm. Yes, I like the sound of that.”
    With that, she nodded and swept in to begin the first full day at Songmark.

The End (of The Coral Curtain Mystery.)
Tales of Crusader Dorm shall follow.

              The Coral Curtain Mystery