home - contact - credits - new - links - history - maps - art - story
5 July 2006
THE CASE OF THE DISTINGUISHED TOURIST
By Simon Barber
The Case Of The Distinguished Tourist
by Simon Barber
Wo Shin © Walter Reimer, used with permission
Songmark Aeronautical School for Young Ladies.
True, she mused, they had all made it into the second year without being thrown out or killing each other - and the dorm was doing quite well on the points scale. True, right now she had the room all to herself - but the reason for that was part of the problem.
“Those two Reds. I thought they'd have learned better sense by now.” She snorted, though her eyes gleamed as she recalled the fight the previous day. Their classmate Rumiko was annoying at the best of times; an Okinawan Japanese tried to be twice as bristlingly patriotic as any of her country-furs. Anyone's patience would be taxed, and that was a virtue that the sable and especially the half-coyote was notoriously short of. Still, it had been a good fight while it lasted. Teaming up two against one was smart thinking - but it would have been so much better to do it off Songmark grounds. The Japanese canine had given as good as she got, and all three had been distinctly battered by the time the third-year girls dived in to break it up and inflict some more damage “in the line of duty.”
“Liberty can really pick them, can't she,” Shin chuckled, remembering that part of her dorm-mates' substantial sentence to hard cookhouse labour had been for the equivalent of resisting arrest. One of the “peacekeepers”had been Ada Cronstein from that notorious dorm, whose original idea of subduing Liberty had been both effective and humiliating. Still, having one's snout firmly sat on while one's arms were pinioned by Ada's powerful thighs, was a photogenic move she could see being popular if her home island on Krupmark ever got into producing erotic wrestling films.
Just then there was a knock on the door. Her ears perked up. Brigit never knocked on her own dorm door; besides the Irish Setter was currently in the Songmark sickbay nursing a sore head. On her sailing classes, Brigit had not quite earned top marks in the dodging of a swinging boom - and the “boom” as it connected with her skull had been substantial.
“Come in!” she called out guardedly, after an instinctive check that there was nothing incriminating in plain view. Then her hackles rose as she discovered just who her visitor was. Beryl Parkesson.
“Why, if it isn't Interpol's favourite pinup girl,” she said smoothly as the elegantly dressed third-year stepped into the room. There were ways of wearing and tailoring even a standard Songmark uniform, she had learned in her first week. On the native Spontoonie Missy K it always looked like a sack, but Beryl had custom-tailored hers to fit her lithe figure to best advantage. Shin had rapidly followed suit, but would have endured having her whiskers pulled out with rusty pliers before admitting where the idea had come from.
“Good morning, Shin!” Beryl's gaze was open, honest and friendly as ever. “All on your own today?”
“As you very well know,” Shin replied, keeping her voice level. “I'll bet your pal Ada just loved half suffocating Liberty yesterday - sitting on her snout wriggling for two minutes.”
“As if she'd enjoy a thing like that. Pure duty, I'm sure.” Beryl inspected her neatly trimmed claws before buffing them against her jacket. “Here's a tip for you - if you do get into filming, have one opponent of Ada's tastes and the other as violently opposed to it as Molly or Helen. It'll add automatic grudge-fight status to every encounter. But that's not why I came. I may be able to help you.”
“I know the sort of “help” you give people.” Shin's ears dropped flat while her mind raced. The films. How on earth had Beryl picked up on THAT idea? She shook her head.”So, why did you drop round? Nostalgic for your old room? Just remembered all the bodies buried under the floorboards?”
The mouse's keen gaze swept around the room; in a twist of irony it actually had been hers the year before. “Oh, no - our third-year ones are so much nicer. We've got an actual bath. I suppose showers are good enough for changing rooms, prison blocks and junior-year girls.” Her chisel teeth gleamed as she smiled.”Actually, it's about another old friend. My dear old Head Girl from Saint T's, she graduated this summer, and next week she's heading this way on her way back to China.”
“The Lady Lao-yu?” Shin gasped, almost bowing in reflex before she caught herself. She revered very few people outside her parents and her ancestors, but there was a famous Chinese aristocrat whose underground organisation spanned the world from the London Limehouse docks to the remotest peaks of Tibet - he and his family were her ultimate idols. She had lost ten shells the term before betting that Beryl absolutely could not know someone as exalted as his Number Three Daughter.
“Oh yes, old Jade telegraphed me to say she's coming - though not in those words, of course.” Beryl winked. “I was wondering if you'd like to meet her.” A finely furred tail swished, as she looked the red panda girl up and down. “I'll introduce you when she arrives - for a consideration, naturally. As you always say, you get nothing for nothing.”
Shin hesitated. There was bound to be a catch; with Beryl there always was. The twist last time was that Beryl had actually been telling the truth, knowing nobody would believe it. “How much?” She asked guardedly.
The Mouse fixed her with a friendly gaze, innocent blue eyes giving no hint of the calculating machine behind them. “Oh, well... seeing as it's you, I'll do it strictly at cost price. Last time, I had to send a postcard all the way home airmail because of our bet, and dear old Jade had to buy another to reply, out of her own meagre pocket money.” She pretended to count on her finger-claws. “Let's see ... all that money over all that time ... bearing in mind inflation and compound interest ... rounding it down and ten percent discount, say twenty shells. In advance.”
Shin's tail fluffed out like a bottle brush. “Twenty shells? I've met Krupmark pirates who'd be ashamed of that deal!”
“Oh, well,” Beryl seemed utterly unconcerned.”It's entirely up to you. Jade's never been to Spontoon before, she says.With her ... family interests, I'm not even taking bets as to when she'll come this way again. Or if she'll want to talk to you if she does.” She flashed a smile as she turned to go. “Nice uniform, by the way! I'd recommend you to my tailor - but it looks like you've one very like her.” With that she waved sweetly, and was away.
Shin dropped herself down heavily in the window-seat. Unlike their old first-year dorm this did not look out over the compound entrance, but had a good distant view of the airport and the hangars. She sat and fumed, her ears pressed right down.
“Very well, so Beryl does know the honoured Lao Yu,” she faced the unwelcome fact. “And yes, on schedule she would have finished Saint T's this summer, assuming no delays. The place seems so ... inflammable.” According to Beryl's stories and much independent checking, that school's senior year had a running project of “persuading” one after another hapless insurance company to cover them despite their history. Methods of persuasion were said to be original, imaginative and of extremity that would shock Ioseph Starling's NKVD out of their fur.
Her fingers drummed on the windowsill.”Beryl will cheat. She could take my money then announce her schoolfriend's changed her travel plans at the last minute, such hard luck and no refunds.” It was easy to imagine the smiling mouse pointing out the offer stil stood to introduce Shin if ever her friend did pass through the Spontoons. If Shin argued the case with their Tutors, she expected they would look literally at the wording on such an agreement.
“Two - she could present some Chinese girl, China's not short of them after all - say it's her when it isn't. I don't know what she looks like, after all.” That idea at least she could swiftly discount; impersonating such a personage was as bad for the health as wearing a Police badge on Krupmark Island.
“Three - just possibly, Beryl's telling the truth.” Shin's claws dug into her palms painfully as she clenched her fists hard. “I might never get this chance again! And I've got the money.” She imagined trying to tell her parents about having thrown away such an opportunity, and shivered. What would her father say?
Shin hesitated. She had a week; Beryl was not likely to withdraw the offer if it was genuine, though she was sure to put the price up.”This one,” she declared “I'm going to have to think about.”
“And so, 'tis a famous name you're after meetin', is it?” It was the next morning when the reunited dorm was dressing for breakfast. “Never did I figure you for an autograph hound, Shin.” Brigit had spent the night with an icepack on her head, which still had a nasty-looking lump. A year ago by all accounts the other two would have been advising her to keep the lump and reduce the uglier and less intelligent part of her head.
“Autographs.” Liberty sneered. “You won't get autographs.” She ticked points off on her finger-claws. “She's a criminal, an aristo, a capitalist. Can't do worse than that. Triple threat!”
Shin practiced her breathing control, as well as her canine strangling restraint. “No, Brigit,” she said, ignoring the glaring Trotskyite “I just want to meet her. As you'd like to meet...” and she named three of Brigit's more militant country-furs.
Brigit's ears went down at the third name. “An' I'll only be meetin' Mister Malone after I dynamite my way past Saint Peter, sure and I will.”She sighed. “The British hung him like a criminal last month, so they did. Enemy post offices ARE legitimate targets, even if the bloody Geneva Convention won't admit it.”
“What species is she, Shin?” Tatiana wriggled into her climbing trousers, ready for the morning's endeavours. These were a design “inspired by” the third-years, who were dropping the traditional two turns of rope around the middle in favour of trousers with loops and belts of two-inch cargo webbing sewn in. Their matron Mrs. Oelabe heartily approved.
Shin grew thoughtful.”I don't really know. She's an exotic, though if that means a pedigree Exotic or a mix I don't know. There's some breeds you won't see outside China. I've heard she's got “eyes like Shakespeare and a brow like Satan.””
“Got that from her Father, I bet.” This, of course, was Liberty.
Shin ignored her. “She just might be a Ky-Rin, they're so rare some Anthropomorphologists don't believe they exist. I'll tell you if I meet her.”
Brigit's green eyes went wide. “It's not always the Professors that have the right of it. Back in Ireland we've many the tale that's proved true. We've legends from the ancient days, before Saint Patrick brought the Faith, legends of the Great Stags. The race of Kings they were, with horns half as big again as any that live today. Twenty years ago, the Professors never were believing the old tales.”
“No?” Tatiana was intrigued. “What happened to change their minds?”
The setter's eyes grew misty as she stared out of the window. “The tales they tell of the breed of the auld Kings, warriors all. Always first in the fight, always last to retreat. And troubled times they were to be sure. Over the years - there came a day when only the mothers, grandmothers and daughters were left alive. A breed so high in the land, they'd never be looking at a common stag, to be shaming their name with a mixed fawn. And so they passed into legend. Until...”
“Da, until?” The sable pulled her shorts tight.
“Until the archaeologists dug a mound at Cashel, the ancient High Kings' palace. The bones of a warrior they found, laid to rest three thousand years and more with a sword and shield of beaten copper - and antlers he had a full five feet across, the like of no fur alive today! Irish Elk they called him in their books, though Elk are heavy, ugly deer to my way or thinking.Those were the days of legends."
Tatiana's muzzle wrinkled. Evidently tales of great deeds of High Kings did not mix well with the Starlingist doctrines. “Maybe well enough three thousand years before Comrade Marx,” she conceded. “It won't wash today. What, pick your rulers by their antler size? Might as well pick them by weight.”
“We'd all end up ruled by tour-boat tourists,” Shin snickered. “Survival of the fattest.”
All four laughed at that. But as Shin followed them down to breakfast, she made her mind up. I am going to meet this Exalted one if she comes - and without Beryl getting a cowrie from me.
Much though it pained her, Shin had long ago learned that you gathered facts where you had to, not always where you would have liked to. Of the three English girls she might ask, Beryl was ruled out and she soon discovered that Prudence Akroyd's school had never fought against Saint T's. That left her with only one source of information.
“What flavour would you like?” She forced a smile to her muzzle as she stood by the counter of Song Sodas, a thoroughly English feline waiting at a table looking justifiably suspicious.
“Strawberry, please.” Amelia Bourne-Phipps was by reputation incorruptible by bribery, amongst her other vices. As Shin had heard Beryl's reasons to be happy living in exile, “you wouldn't like it living in the English Countryside. The roads are all crooked but the police aren't.”
Amelia kept her eyes fixed on the ice all the way to the table, checking that Shin had not substituted the infamous (and well-named) Durian Surprise. “So, Mrs. Wo, what can I do for you? If it's illegal or immoral, forget it - as for fattening, some chance we have around here.” Third-year training at Songmark was even more strenuous than for second-years, a fact Shin accepted but still found hard to believe.
Shin's ears dipped. “It's Beryl. Rather, it's about one of the senior girls from her old school. I've heard you've come in contact with them before? Anyway, here's the problem.”With that she recounted an edited version of the previous day's conversation with Beryl.
Amelia heard her out then sat back, her whiskers twitching. “I take it the idea of this isn't to hand her over to Interpol?” She sighed. “I doubt they've got anything on her, yet. Having a collection of lethal tropical insects and the like is perfectly legal as such; it's what you do with them that counts.”
Shin's tail perked up. “You've got information for me?”
The feline looked at her somewhat sourly. “It's just not done, telling foreigners tales of a girl from a good school. But from there - well, I've met her. I'll tell you what I know.”
Ten minutes later Shin left Song Sodas with a rapidly beating heart. She was down the price of two ices and one irreplaceable photograph complete with negative, given as a gift. There had been only one of Miss Bourne-Phipps found in the spoils of the Allworthies; Shin had hoped for more and better considering what the ex-employees had told her. What she had handed over would scarcely have embarrassed the new “Lady Allworthy” had it been printed on the front page of the Spontoon Mirror - just a snapshot of Amelia sitting down to tea with Fat Leon, both of them perfectly respectably dressed.
Shin snickered. Amelia probably thought that being dressed up as a Spontoonie lady constable was a perfectly innocent makeshift costume that just happened to be available freshly washed and in her size. By all accounts the very “respectable” house-cat had spent a week being taken in by Fat Leon’s dramatic acting the role of a helpless invalid ruled by a cruel sister. She had been willingly taking in a lot more than that, Shin told herself - how she had avoided a mixed kitten was a mystery. From what Nailani had revealed, Fat Leon had certainly known what sharkskin was good for with a feline girl.
“So,” she summed up as she approached the compound “The revered Lao Yu has horns, indeed. But she’s not a goat, an antelope or anything Amelia ever saw elsewhere. She’s got blonde head-fur but “eyes of the true cat-green”. Can’t be hard to spot.” Her heart raced. Brigit was not the only one with tales of fabulously rare breeds that had or someday might vanish into legend - she had heard her older brother talk respectfully of a college on the American East coast that had been named after the species of its founder, a Yale.
Liberty was on gate-guard, as she and Tatiana would be for the next few late nights. “You look happy,” the half-coyote said sourly. “Been making nice with that little Miss Pedigree? She just came in.”
Shin shrugged. “If you had a chance to meet Comrade Trotsky, you’d do a lot more than that. You know you would.” Her eyes flashed. “Suppose one of Prudence’s dorm had the information, and held out for her price? You’d be coughing up multi-coloured hairballs for a week.”
For a second it looked as if Liberty was going to add to her punishment duty as her fur bristled and her snout wrinkled exposing sharp canine teeth. Then she forced herself to relax, breathing heavily. “Don’t go comparing the hero of the Fourth International with some band of aristo crooks.” She smiled, seeing Shin’s own tail bottle out. “But, yeah. Any personal sacrifice is allowed to further the progress of world revolution.”
“I quite agree.” Shin said smoothly. “And the revered Lao Yu’s family have a world revolution in mind far more radical than your Comrades could think of.” She winked, seeing the canine’s jaw drop open in surprise. “Why, Liberty, didn’t you know? Take ten demerit points. Around here, you’re supposed to do your homework.” With that she strolled in, tail swinging.
The next day being a Saturday, Shin took advantage of her Casino Island pass to visit a certain well-respected black and white panda who led a Merchant’s Protective Association. She sat through the ritual of tea and small-talk with a burning irritation she had not felt the like of since that survival exercise when she had discovered to her horror that a few hundred sand-fleas had crawled into her fur.
Lin Chung put down his empty cup at last and looked her over shrewdly. “Now, Mrs. Wo, just what is your question? Before you explode with impatience and spoil my fine silk screens.”
Shin let out a deep sigh. “Revered Lin,” she began. “You know of the Great One who was generous enough to write a postcard to this humble person?”
The older panda made no sign, but his nostrils flared noticeably. “I will tell my ancestors when I join them, of the honour confirming that card brought me. What of her?”
Shin took a deep breath. “There is a possibility that inside a week she will be in these islands. But the story comes from one I cannot trust.” With that, she launched into her tale.
When she had finished, her host began to shake with silent laughter. “You wish my advice? Pay her the twenty shells and be thankful she is not asking two hundred! At worst you will have learned an expensive lesson. At best - ah, I would give more than two hundred for such a chance, at any odds.”
Shin’s ears drooped. That was what she feared he would say. “It’s not the money, if it was a sure thing I’d pay it. It’s having to ask favours from that cursed mouse!”
“Ah. That is another matter. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” A Euro saying, but the wise man gathers wisdom where he finds it.” The black eye-patches seemed to grow as the eyes narrowed to slits.
“I want to meet the Revered One, and I don’t want to make Beryl happy about the deal.” Shin’s ears blushed at her own bluntness, but “desperate times call for desperate measures” was another Euro saying that sprang to mind. “Can you, will you help me?”
“No.” The reply was flat and absolute. “Such a One is not to be spied or intruded upon. Especially by one who cannot claim ignorance of just who and what she truly is.”
“So, no luck there then?” Brigit was the only one of Red Dorm who was remotely sympathetic, seeing Shin’s pressed-flat ears and drooping tail.
That banded tail twitched irritably. “No luck. And we won’t be able to do this the regular way, staking out the airport and docks like spotting a Songmark first-year.” The previous month they had taken their share of Arrival Duty - many first-years arrived by strange routes and in strange circumstances, but they were all supposed to be spotted before making it to Songmark under their own steam. “She’s got family resources. Imagine submarines ten years ahead of that French “Surcouf” class - hanging around the air terminals is going to be a waste of time.”
“You can’t trust Beryl.” That was Liberty’s flat comment. “The evening she tells you the sun’s going to rise tomorrow, you know it’s time to stock up on candles.”
Shin’s eyes gleamed wickedly. “She’d have cornered the market the week before. And tried to sell you shares in sunglasses factories.”
“Likely enough. Capitalist.” The New Haven girl spat.
“Da, is true.” Tatiana reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a deck of cards. “Is first time we are all together with an hour spare for days. A game of Revolution Rummy?”
The idea met with general approval, and Shin cut the deck with a finesse born of years of practice.
Red Dorm looked through their cards and cast suspicious glances at each other. “A five, black, and a red four to start my People’s Tribunal.” Brigit announced, putting two cards face-up on the table. She sat back, her tongue hanging out slightly.
“A red three,” declared Tatiana. “Better proletarian value.”
Both Liberty and Shin had to pass that round. The idea was to build up a Public Tribunal of the lowest-ranking cards (Aces excepted, being considered Elitist). One also built up a hidden jail, or “tumbrel” of Court Cards to be kept till the Tribunal was ready - then they were brought out and publicly Liquidated. A perfect Revolution would be a quorum of two red twos and two red threes sitting in judgement over four Kings - although Shin had once built up a jail of two Kings, three Queens and a Knave to go down before her tribunal of four twos and a red three. Liberty had hardly spoken to her for days afterwards, though if anything that had been an advantage.
“Two more cards,” Tatiana called, and the Russian’s smile increased as she slapped down another red three. The draws went on, and to her delight Shin could put down a red three and a four. To judge from Liberty’s expression she had a fine collection of “Petty bourgeois” sevens, eights and nines - useful to add weight to a final Liquidation, but no use in winning a Revolution. To judge from the number of cards she was discarding, her jail was hardly full either.
Suddenly Brigit slapped down another pair of twos; she had a Worker’s Tribunal of five (had they been all red, four would have sufficed.) Nobody else was ready, and Shin was still two short.
“I liquidate a King, two Queens and two Jacks!” Brigit announced. “Empty your jails!”
Tatiana: Tribunal of 2, 3, 3, jail of 1 Ace, 1 King.
Shin: Tribunal of 3,4, jail of 2 Jacks, 1 Queen.
Liberty: Tribunal of 5, 1 Jack.
“I’ve got half the world supply of parasites and useless bourgeois”, the half-coyote snarled, throwing her jail down for inspection.
Brigit sat back, grinning. “Lost yer touch o’ dealing from the bottom of the deck, Shin?”
Shin fanned herself, relaxing. “I was taught never to cheat a paying customer, believe it or not,” she said smoothly. “It never pays in the long run. The house odds will catch them in the end.”
Liberty’s snout wrinkled further. “I’d sooner believe Beryl. Or put money into her latest “charity”, that pays out to long-term rabies sufferers.”
Brigit’s eyes twinkled. “An’ to be sure, your muzzle will stick like that one o’ these fine days.” She shuffled the cards, and returned them to the centre of the table. “What say you deal this time, Liberty?” She gave a tooth-sharp grin. “That other good Socialist, the National Socialist Herr Hitler, he doesn’t believe in religion any more than you - but he believes in having Providence on his side, ‘tis a strange mix of ideas to be sure. Let’s see if Providence likes you.”
With a snarl, Liberty grabbed the pack, shuffled it savagely and the game went on.
“Lights-out” for second-years came a precious ten minutes later than for first-years, whether because they were supposed to be more accustomed to the grinding schedule or because they had so much more to cram into the day, was an open question. It was a fact that of the five dorms, on any given evening at least four of them would be snoring ladylike snores by the time their year Tutor Miss Cardroy came around.
Possibly that night it was four and a half dorms. At least, Liberty and Tatiana were completely asleep with their eyes twitching behind closed eyelids when Shin leaned over to the other bed that held Brigit Mulvaney.
“You’d like to help put one over on Beryl, wouldn’t you?” Shin whispered. In Red Dorm, although they had learned to work together it was less a matter of trust and friendship as of carefully finessing deals before any cooperation took place. Oddly enough, it usually seemed to work quite well.
“And so I would. But why should I be sticking me pretty neck out for this caper, Shin? This Chinese lady she’s nothing to me.” Brigit lay back, enjoying the haggling.
“Oh no? Her family’s been trying to bring down the British Empire for years, in ways you’ve never even heard of. Dynamite? Cub’s play. Her Father has poisonous insects, reptiles, hybrid things unknown to Western science. When he strikes, he doesn’t blow a Post Office queue of mothers and cubs to mincemeat. He’s precise. He knows exactly who is to die - and they do, so subtly nine out of ten are written off as “Natural Causes.”
“And so? What has it got him?” Brigit was obviously interested but holding out for her price. “I’ve heard tell o’ Doctor Manchu, he’s been chased out of the London Limehouse at least twice, the Polis make hay with his plans the minute they find them.”
“Limehouse docklands. Cheap opium-dens and grog-shops. Is that all you know? Just the tip of the iceberg - and you expect the tip to melt a bit". Shin calculated just the right quantity of sneer to put into her voice. “The Lady Lao Yu is heiress to an Empire you won’t find on any map - China is hardly the beginning.”
“You’re whistling in the wind, that you are, me girl,” Brigit was evidently starting to enjoy this. “And so she’s all ye say she is? What’s she going to talk to you about? I’ll bet cowries to Krugerrands she could find out how many bite marks are on the back of that stiff neck o’ yours - if she cared.”
Shin was glad the lights were dimmed and the Irish girl could not see her ears blushing; the weekend before, her husband Fang had indeed been particularly energetic. “That’s my lookout,” she said smoothly. She relaxed a little, feeling her tired body sore from a dozen bumps and bruises. In her first term she had hoped that it would just be a matter of building up to some textbook standard of fitness and then everything would stop hurting. She knew better now to her cost; the Tutors just kept raising the demands not just every year but every term. A Songmark girl graduated aching.
“And so,” Brigit contemplated. “’Tis a tall order, looking for a girl ye don’t know, arriving ye don’t know just where, when or how - if she comes at all. And maybe she’ll not be pleased to be spotted. What was it Beryl was saying? She arrived at Saint T’s with five Burmese Dacoits, sacred stranglers all, but nivver did she call upon them the once, fought all her own fights she did. You’re asking me to risk me tail, that ye are. I’ve a mind to be asking twenty shells meself, just for the danger money.”
There was a sound as of grinding Red Panda teeth in the darkness. Then Brigit laughed softly. “Ah, Shin. I’ll not be asking after your money. But it’s your marker I’ll be after, and how big a marker, ‘twill depend on what I’m to do for ye if it’s herself that comes.”
“Done.” Shin felt her stomach twinge at the idea of having written Brigit a blank cheque. Just then she heard Miss Cardroy checking the dorm next door, and closed her eyes like a sweet, innocent little red panda cub.
She prided herself on having a good memory.
“The trouble is,” Shin grumbled as they made plans the next day while the other two worked on their kitchen punishment duty “we can’t assume anything. I’m told Beryl turned up here still dressed in Saint T’s uniform. True, they had expelled her just the week before, and she’d not had a chance to get home and change…”
“That’d be too easy. We’ll not be expecting so smooth a ride. Besides, this “old Jade” she’s graduated and gone from there, that’s one outfit she’ll surely not be wearing.” Brigit nodded. “Faith! If half the tales be true, she could step out of a submarine into one of those tramp steamers off Pier One, as had been hollowed out just for the occasion. And nobody’d see her. No point in staking out Customs as we did with the first-years.”
“And we had Songmark Passes to do that, to meet every boat and aircraft,” Shin grumbled. “If she comes, chances are it’ll be when we’re an hour deep into three-yard jungle on Main Island, or holding on for our lives to the rock face.”
“’Tis all too likely,” Brigit agreed, rubbing a bruised knee still aching from the previous day’s ascent of “Bear Necessity”* on the low inland cliffs north of LONO hill the day before. “Here’s an idea. The one thing we’re sure of is if she comes she’ll meet Beryl. Have Beryl followed, and if we hear there’s a stranger being shown the sights with her - why then!”
Shin nodded. “Smart girl!” She applauded. “That should work. And Beryl can’t be out on Passes much longer than we are between us.” Her eyes narrowed. “I can call in some markers of my own, get some more ears and eyes out on the street. I think Medium-Speed Eddy’s in town still.”
“’Tis an odd name for a fur to take,” Brigit commented, scratching a long ear.
Shin grinned. “New arrivals on Krupmark don’t always get to choose what their Boss calls them. And that gang already had a Fast Eddy.”
*Bear Necessity: Grade HVS (Hard Very Scary.) “Route starts out on same crack as “Death Without Glory”, diverges east towards crux of “Coalhole Stroll”. A holdless seven yard pure scumming route for knees, elbows and wedged rumps culminates in a three-yard chimney only climbable by dynamic head-jamming. Get your surviving relatives to tell the insurance company you were somewhere else, or they’ll never pay up.”
Three days later Shin’s blood pressure would have given the matron Mrs. Oelabe some concern had it been measured that teatime.
“Talk about exotics!” It was one of the third-years, a French otter called Sophie something-or-other (Shin had heard it was a famous family in Euro literature, but never cared.) “It’s way past tourist season - but in through customs come these six native African furs - three zebras, two tapirs and an okapi. All of them really -“ from the fisherman-like expansive gestures the otter seemed to be describing the size of an aircraft shipping crate. “Staying here on a week’s travel visa, they said - on Liberian passports.”
“Liberian passports? Why DO they bother? This part of the world may as well swap them for Macao ones. Nobody’ll believe it either way.” One of the other third-years grumbled. She snickered. “Sophie - you’re planning to visit more Cabins on the ark, aren’t you?”
Shin’s heart raced as she went to find Brigit. “Have you heard? Half a dozen exotics just arrived. The Revered One used to use Burmese felines, but maybe she’s traded them in for an upgrade.” In a few words she passed on the news.
Brigit’s eyes gleamed. “One swallow ‘tis not the making of a summer, but six? I’m thinking you’ve the right of it.” She paused. “If so, they’ll nivver be saying a word to us, no matter what.”
“I’m not suggesting you try and sweet-talk them out of their travel plans - waste of time and dangerous to try.” Shin’s eyes crossed slightly. “Zebras. We had a girl at the Lucky Dragon a few years ago we sent to a “private party” up the hill. It’s not the sort of request you want to ignore. There were two zebras there and by the time she came back she … well, I’ll tell you later. Let’s say she had to specialise in species after that.”
Brigit snickered. “Know how to tempt a girl, don’t ye? Then, I’m supposing ‘tis part of your family stock-in-trade.” Her red tail swished. “The good thing is, they’re conspicuous out here. Won't want to be around any longer than they have to. When this old Jade lady arrives it’s within call of her they’ll be. This isn’t Cuba or Alabama, they’ll stand out.”
To that, Shin had to agree.
The next day, Shin came back from her small-boat handling afternoon class in a good mood. That lasted about five seconds after she met up with the rest of her dorm who had taken the advanced first-aid option on Casino Island that morning.
Liberty smirked. “Do you want the good news first or the bad news, Shin?”
A banded tail twitched. “I’ll take any good news you have,” she said carefully.
Sharp canine teeth exposed as Liberty gave an unpleasant smile. “The good news is - you just might get to meet this “Great Lady”. We did!”
Shin’s ears went flat, and her tail bottled out. “Go on,” she gritted behind clenched teeth.
“Pravda, is truth. Or a girl to match your description.” Tatiana took up the story. “Two girls we saw, same age as maybe Songmark first-year. One of them horned but not with hooves, she was no breed of fur I ever see before. She sitting with big hedgehog girl on terrace of Shepherd’s Hotel, drinking long drinks.”
“An’ ‘tis the truth, I saw them with me own eyes,” Brigit looked glum. “The spiky girl she wore an aviator’s leather jacket, but - her tie it was the same colours as Beryl’s old school, Saints be my witness!” By their second years Songmark girls were expected to memorise a wide range of danger signs. They might go through their careers and never see a Coral Snake, a ship flying the Yellow Jack fever flag or a girl in Saint T’s uniform - but they were expected to recognise all such things at a safe distance.
"The bad news for you is, you've more chance of running up to Ioseph Starling at a full May Day Parade and kissing his beak uninvited," Liberty's contented experession was a sight to behold. "Three pairs of bodyguards there were, spaced around the tables and there wasn't a fly that landed they weren't keeping tabs on."
Brigit shrugged unhappily. "If it was meself, I'd be round to Beryl with her twenty shells and another twenty in me back pocket - for sure an' she'll have bumped up the price now."
"No!" Shin balled her fists, her fur bristling out. "I won't do it!" She looked at one face after another. "Until I hear she's met Beryl, I expect she'll be around here. And I know from Medium-Speed Eddy she's not been off Eastern Island all day."
Unfortunately Shin had to push all that to one side the next day, which was taken up with "a little boating problem" as Miss Cardroy described it. That involved embarking on a tramp steamer that chugged two miles out West of Main Island before ringing the ship's bell and announcing "Abandon Ship." There was thirty seconds to grab the nearest remotely buoyant item and jump overboard with it, a twenty foot drop to waters that were by no means as warm as in the tourist season.
"Food..." Shin's teeth chattered eight hours later. She had completed the hour of swimming, landing through breaking surf, crossing Main Island and reaching the "rescue ship" by the Formosan village before it sailed.
An equally famished Brigit Mulvaney nodded, both girls fresh from the shower but still chilled. "Faith, but I'm starved. Never did I think to see the day I'd say "thank you kindly" to a fur as served me a bowl of three-finger Poi. But 'tis the truth." Her muzzle twitched. "Anything else'd be better, 'tis a certain thing, but even a plate of Poi wouldn't live to grow cold..."
Brigit realised she was talking to herself in the empty dorm. She shrugged and followed Shin down towards the dining hall.
The first thing she noticed was Shin listening to some of the third-year girls, her ears right back and her tail fluffed out in shock.
"She seemed quite a charming girl, actually," Amelia Bourne-Phipps was saying with a note of surprise in her voice. "I met her and her friend Vera outside the Temperance Hotel where they're staying. Vera's the pilot by all accounts. I wondered how a hedgehog managed not to shred a regular seat, but she's got a wire mesh seat cover by all accounts ..."
"They beat ye to it an'all, did they?" Brigit whispered sympathetically. "Faith, an' it's looking as if you're the only one as hasn't had the pleasure." Her green eyes gleamed as they glanced towards the first- year tables. "There's that Mrs Rote the sleuth, wonderin' who we're speaking of. Shall I tell her?" She shook her head, grinning. "'Twould be like a native canoe with a shark spear going up against an aircraft carrier and all its escorts. We'd be rid of "Crusader Dorm" once and for all, and nothing the Tutors could pin on us for it!"
"No." Shin's whiskers jerked. "I know what you mean, Brigit, but ... please, no. The Revered One isn't to be bothered that way. No matter HOW it'd benefit us."
The Irish Setter shrugged. "Have it your own way, Shin. But at this rate she'll be off before you've caught a sight of her, and all the other girls will have had her autograph if they're after wanting it."
"At least we know where she's staying. The Temperance Hotel, Casino Island." As a piece of doubtless supremely calculated irony, the Temperance Hotel was the favourite haunt of missionaries and diplomats passing through the islands. Shin supposed a Saint T's graduate would feel quite at home there, as many evenings ended in brawls amongst the respected diplomats and clerics forced to rub shoulders with equally opinionated furs bereft of alcoholic social lubricant.
"Well, I'm with ye up to a point," Brigit sympathised. "Just don't go askin' me to "distract" her private army. I'd not do that even if I thought it had a chance of working." Her gaze grew pensive. "'Tis not as if I'd the notion of visiting every cabin on the ark, no matter what the folks said as had me booked for the Magdelene.But if I was ... well, 'tis the first Tapir and Okapi gentlemen I've ever laid eyes on, and who knows when I'll get the next chance?"
"Down, girl. Bad dog." Shin gave her a playful kick under the table. "Concentrate on the job."
Brigit's canine teeth showed in a playful snarl. "And so. I'll be leaving that to the third-years, to be sure.Our Tutors they do say the course is designed to stretch a girl's ... Potential." Both laughed at that. "So, anyway - just what ARE you going to do then, Shin?"
The Red Panda's ears pressed flat against her skull. "It's no secret, Brigit. Right now, I'm stuck. I haven't the faintest idea."
It was one of the blessings, or perhaps curses of second-year life that when a Songmark first-year went over the wall, the second-years were the first to be sent after them.
"Red Dorm, Reporting!" It was a quarter of an hour before "lights-out" when Liberty stood at attention by her bed as Miss Cardroy entered. They had all heard the bell.
Miss Cardroy looked around the assembled dorm, nodding pleasantly. It was one of her abilities, to be able to keep iron discipline without seeming to enforce it in any of the usual ways - just that anyone who displeased her found themselves sorely regretting it.
"The good news, girls, is that a whole dorm has gone out; that should make them easier to find, if not to bring in.I've picked you four to bring them home all safe and sound" - she looked around at the four wolfish expressions, then corrected "or at least, able to attend classes first thing tomorrow. It's the dorm led by Mrs Nancy Rote." She paused. "I believe you senior girls have taken to calling them "Crusader Dorm.""
Liberty gave a clenched-fist salute, her eyes gleaming. "Oh, yes, ma'm! Thank you, ma'm!"
Their feline tutor gave a dismissive wave, a small smile on her muzzle. "Well, off you go, then. Don't take too long about it, though. Some of you really need all the beauty sleep you can get."
"First target, Casino Island, the Temperance Hotel," Shin panted as they ran down towards the docks and water taxis. Fortunately it was her day to be in charge, though after midnight it would be Tatiana.
"Faith, ye think Crusader Dorm found out?" Brigit gasped, her long ears flapping back. "How? That star-nosed mole of theirs read minds?"
"They can't read minds like that," Shin put on an extra spurt of speed as they arrived at the moonlit jetty. "Here's a bad thought though - they're all sleuths in training. What if one of them's learned to lip-read?"
A water-taxi was arriving from the direction of Casino Island as they hit the docks, and a few shells' bonus together with their official Hunting Pass provided the expected information that they were not the first dorm to head that way inside the hour.
Tatiana was in the prow of the boat as it headed across the night waters, the sable chanting something in Russian to a savage, stirring beat. She looked around and switched to English; Shin recognised it as her favourite romantic balladeer, a young Bolskevik poet by the name of Ilya Ehrenburg:
"And we hunt them fleet-fur through the forests that burn
We shall hunt them frost-clad while the river-ice churns
We shall drink bourgeois blood as it fresh and hot spills
And share out their flesh as collectivised kills!"
Liberty gave a sharp, feral bark of assent, while the other pair looked at each other meaningfully, Brigit tapping her forehead.
"Well, whatever gets them fired up for the chase is good enough," Shin shrugged. "Crusader Dorm, they won't be easy to take in, especially when they see it's us. They've got that Svetlana, she's the one ripped a Red's throat out with her teeth before coming here. Even my little brother's not done that yet."
"I'm not worried about what Liberty and Tatiana think they'll do to Crusader Dorm," was Brigit's gloomy reply. "'Tis what'll happen to Crusader Dorm should they tangle with your "Revered One" and her minders. We'd best look for shovels and sacks to take them home in. Telling THAT to Miss Cardroy, 'tis not a thing I'm looking forward to!"
As befitted its name, the Temperance Hotel on Casino Island was as far across the island from the temptations of bright lights and Casinos as it could get. Still several hundred paces from the rougher side of town around the Old China Dock, it nestled by the aparent respectability of the High School - though Shin had been a pupil there and could have told tales of its "respectability" that would have turned the Hotel Management's fur grey.
Over the months, Red Dorm had kicked and pushed each other into something that looked in poor lighting conditions like a realistic parody of a team.Indeed, given a good enough reason to cooperate, it sometimes even worked as one.
A few paw-gestures from Shin was all it took for the other three to spread out, hunting in the darkness of the hotel grounds. For a second Shin's tail fluffed out in shock as she considered just what they were doing. Four quite competent second-years were out in the darkness looking for another four (fairly) competent first-years - who were presumably about to intrude on six of the deadliest and most implacable guardians available on the planet.
For one heartbeat Shin felt almost sorry for Crusader Dorm - then her survival instincts, honed by life on Krupmark Island took over, and she felt sorrier for herself imagining what she would have to tell Miss Cardroy in the official post-mortem report.
"You're there somewhere ... I know it." she silently mouthed, her night-wide eyes scanning the trees around the hotel. "Stupid squirrel. I bet you're up there somewhere." By a coincidence, both dorms had exactly one girl of tree-climbing ancestry - and though Songmark training insisted everyone practice climbing anything remotely vertical, Shin guessed who would have volunteered to go up the tree route.
"Gotcha!" Though the night was breezy and all the branches were in motion, Shin spotted one dense piece of foliage that was moving the wrong way. A few seconds straining her eyes resolved the shape as a squirrel stealthily working up towards a second-floor balcony, her outline broken by small leafy branches tied to her uniform like a Great War sniper.
Trusting the rest of her dorm would handle anyone on the ground, Shin silently sprang up onto the lowest branch just as the squirrel three stories above her gained a pawhold on the balcony and swung across, the balcony blocking her view of below. Grateful for the wind to cover any noise, Shin swarmed up the tree in pursuit, arriving just as Nancy Rote finished stripping off the foliage and knelt at the balcony door to work on the lock.
Shin remembered a few things about the next seconds. Her paw grabbed the squirrel's collar from behind in a parody of a Constable making an arrest, the squirrel turning with her chisel teeth bared in a snarl of shock and defiance - and just at that instant was the click of the door being opened from the inside.
Her next memory was an overpowering scent of mimosa blossom - and then there was only darkness.
Shin awoke instantly, with no headache or any after-effects from whatever had knocked her out. She recognised exactly where she was, though it took a few seconds to sink in - she was back in the gatehouse at Songmark. The rest of her dorm and Crusader Dorm was there, aparently sleeping soundly.
"I'm going to be very interested in reading your report about all this." The voice was that of Miss Cardroy, the tutor evidently having been summoned from her bed to judge from the night-dress under her coat. "Enlisting outside help to bring in an erring student is perfectly acceptable. I don't think being carried here unconscious yourself is actually forbidden either, though I might have to check the fine print. It's the ... details, that interest me."
"Yes, Miss." Shin gritted her teeth, her ears dipping as she saw Nancy Rote beginning to awaken. "I just wish I could remember them!"
"Well, both you and Mrs. Rote seem to have cards tucked into your pockets, perhaps there's something on them?" Miss Cardroy seemed surprisingly bright and cheerful for two in the morning, as the clock on the guardhouse wall proclaimed.
Shin's paws patted her jacket, and discovered a card covered both sides with fine and exquisitely executed calligraphy that she had seen once before. There was a postcard in a glass frame that she ranked with her most treasured posessions, and occasionally re-read in awe that someone so exalted would have spent time thinking of her. The ten shells it had cost losing the bet with Beryl seemed a fair price to pay, though she would never have admitted it.
Her gaze snapped down to the new card, one she would not be needing Lin Chung's experience to verify. Red ears dipped in reverence as she read the impeccable Mandarin script:
"My esteemed Mrs. Wo:
I commend you for your bravery and athletic skills! Had Father not expressed other plans for this humble person, I might find a Songmark course a very worthwhile ambition myself.
My dear school-friend Beryl has mentioned you desired to meet me - I assume she asked some excessive fee to arrange it, which you refused. I know her of old. Should you ever wish to cause her embarassment, a whisper involving "secret guarantees" and "1915 issue Serbian War Bonds" should have the required effect. But I digress.
My guardians had been missing a good chance to test their skills since leaving England. I naturally insisted that no harm was to come to you. They originate from a tribe in what the world calls the Belgian Congo, though no Western eyes have found their lands or know of their rather interesting abilities. The mimosa preparation is an invention of my Father's, which some day the world may be thankful for.
From what Beryl has told me of Songmark, I could deduce that your team was loyally following orders, and as such have nothing to fear from me. As to Mrs. Rote and her friends - both myself and my noble Father appreciate high principles and bravery, however misapplied. They acted according to their lights, and I hope will not be punished too severely.
As to our conversation, it was a most enlightening hour - almost as interesting as that with Mrs. Rote. At the appropriate time you will both recover those memories in full. For the present I will say that we are aware of what your family is engaged in, and have no word of disapproval. Should we be in need of certain services in this part of the world, be certain we shall not forget you.
With regards, to you and your family ..." and there was a red seat affixed that Shin had only seen once before. She did bow then, most reverendly.
Miss Cardroy had been looking on, highly amused. "I trust a full translation of that will be in your report." She gestured towards the card. "Now - as it seems the rest of your friends have a few hours sleep ahead of them, we'll not disturb them. You and Mrs. Rote had best head back to your rooms."
Nancy Rote looked at Shin with a gaze of pure hatred. "You. You stopped me bringing to justice one of the biggest threats to Civilisation there is. There'd have been evidence in there, something I could use."
"Dream on," Shin replied smoothly. "You, a first-year? You'd have been mincemeat. Up against someone like that - try it after graduation, you'd still have no chance." She sighed, clutching the precious card to her breast. "What did she say on your card, by the way?"
The squirrel's ears blushed. "That's none of your business." She replied defiantly. "Just ... take care. Even she didn't deny, we did pretty well. So what if we had a chance in a thousand? We'll get better. And we only have to get lucky once."
Both girls left the guard room with their long tails hiked arrogantly high in the air as they headed for their respective rooms to catch a few more hours of precious sleep before the demands of the new day.
Miss Cardroy raised an eyebrow as she watched them leave.Checking the other six on the floor were breathing regularly (and indeed, they looked only to be sound asleep) she issued a few orders concerning their care to the third-years on gate guard and returned to the duty staff bungalow.
Before falling asleep she sketched out a few lines for the other staff, with the basics of what had happened.
"Dear girls," she smiled mischievously, remembering the expressions on their faces as they read their respective messages. "There's so much more they've got in common than they'll ever admit. Even though they're approaching things from such different angles."
She toyed with her pencil, thinking of an overall title for the report. Her tail twitched, as she wrote in bold clear letters at the top of the paper just before turning out the lights.
"The Case," she wrote, "Of The Distinguished Tourist."
The Endto The RED DORM