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The Red Priest
An Orrin Brush Adventure
© 2005 by Walter D. Reimer
(With thanks to EO Costello and M. Mitchell Marmel.)
Krupmark Island was the home of various criminal enterprises, some devoted to relatively harmless vices (gambling, alcohol, prostitution) while others were devoted to less savory pursuits, such as arms dealing, drugs, slavery, etc. After several decades, these enterprises had taken advantage of their reasonably remote location to establish themselves quite firmly, using encrypted radio traffic as well as more mundane methods of collecting and transmitting information.
That was until the arrival of a new Detective Inspector to the neighboring Spontoon Islands Constabulary. Franklin Stagg was a firm believer in justice with a capital J, and couldn’t be bribed or manipulated. Worse, he had been an intelligence officer for his nation during the Great War, and brought those skills to bear as part of his police work.
So it happened that in the weeks following Inspector Stagg’s decryption of what he termed the Daisy and Rose ciphers, police agencies and private security concerns throughout the world moved into action. Some moved slowly, using the information supplied by Stagg to Allan Minkerton’s private investigations firm to seek warrants and indictments, while others announced their presence to the criminal enterprises in their midst by boots smashing down doors.
The volume of Rose and Daisy traffic reached a crescendo, then quickly dropped almost to inaudibility. Smarter furs switched ciphers, or stopped using the radio altogether until safer means of communications could be arranged. The Ni Family, to name one example, chose to do the latter and rely on couriers and notices in the newspapers’ personal ads. Losses were assessed, and recriminations began.
A number of people died by gunfire on Krupmark one notable December day before the New Year. What was notable was not the fact that they died, as random shootings were fairly normal occurrences on that island, but rather that the dead constituted the last surviving creators of the two codes. In a room on the hill overlooking Fort Bob several furs gathered to discuss the reasons for the shootings, and to plan a course of action.
There were twenty of them, male and female from many different species, and together they represented the pinnacle of Krupmark’s social structure. They had achieved their exalted stations by trampling on those beneath them and staying one step ahead of all of their competitors. One could liken them to sharks, constantly on the move and forever hungry.
A single piece of paper rested on the long table they were gathered around, a telegram written in the Daisy cipher and surrounded by a phalanx of overflowing ashtrays. It was simply addressed To Whom It May Concern, and it was signed by the last person on Earth they expected.
23DEC1936 GENERAL DELIVERY FORT BOB KRUPMARK ISLAND STOP TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN COLON PLEASE BEAR IN MIND THAT YOUR AFFAIRS ARE NOW KNOWN AND JUSTICE IS AT PAW STOP YOU SHOULD REALLY USE BETTER SECURITY IN YOUR CODES STOP SIGNED FRANKLIN J. STAGG DETECTIVE INSPECTOR SPONTOON ISLANDS CONSTABULARY STOP PS I AM A SON OF A DOE NOT A SON OF A BITCH STOP PLEASE CORRECT YOUR RECORDS STOP ENDS
Needless to say, this message provoked some extreme reactions by the members who read it. Some counseled patience, and the use of restraint. Powerful as they were, they knew that their existence on the island was largely at the whim of both the Spontoon Althing and the Rain Island Naval Syndicate. Angering one or the other (and killing a police officer, some argued, would be sufficient provocation) could result in drastic and unfortunate (for Krupmark) measures.
Others, however, were not inclined to patience.
"We must eliminate him!" a middle-aged feline snapped, his tail fluffing out. "Stagg has interfered with us directly now, and I say to hell with restraint! He must die!" Several of the others nodded in agreement. “I’ve lost most – if not all – of my business in America to that leafeater,” the cat hissed, ignoring the startled look of the Indian bull at the table, “and the losses to us all are only just now starting to be reported.”
When he paused to catch his breath, an elderly Chinese wolf dressed in a suit that was fashionable for the wintry climate raised a paw. “We still enjoy a certain relationship with Spontoon,” he said in a thin quiet voice, “and we must not jeopardize that. While I agree with Spencer that we should not show restraint regarding this policefur, I feel it essential that our own paws be kept clean, and it is not traced to us.”
That drew a greater number of nods at the table while Spencer fumed, his claws popping out as he growled, “Damn you all! I’ll attend to it myself – “
“And you will find your life here short, and quite messy,” a female canine dressed in an elegant and expertly tailored business suit and mid-length skirt interjected smoothly. She dangled a lit cigarette in one paw as she crossed her legs and the males at the table eyed her avidly. She ignored them as she added, “I agree with Shen,” as she nodded to the wolf. “Our paws must not show in this. But I also agree that Stagg must be done away with. We have access to an army of independent contractors; let us use one of them to rid us of this meddlesome buck."
Shen looked pleased, tapping his lacquered claws on the table as Spencer sulked and the others looked thoughtful. “Then we shall have to find someone that we all can agree upon,” the wolf said.
The feline, however, had already made his decision.
The tropic night in Singapore was filled with the snap of fireworks and the sound of revelry as the Crown Colony celebrated the start of a new year. At elite clubs and in the squalid tenements of the poor, people looked forward hopefully as skyrockets painted the dark sky with transient rainbows.
Along a street a mouse made his way from his business toward his home, looking about furtively as if scared of the very shadows. He had made a number of egregious mistakes in the wake of the police crackdown on the island, not the least of which was attempting to cheat his former patrons. Although they were in jail at present, he knew that they had a long reach.
As he passed an alleyway he cried out as a strong paw grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him into the darkness. His voice died in his throat, however, as the gleam of steel appeared and lowered to his neck.
The man wielding the knife was taller and stronger, his scent canine, and the blade held close to the mouse’s throat would forestall any attempt to escape. As the rodent trembled and tried unsuccessfully to speak, the man spoke in a quiet, even tone. “Behold,” he said, “I come as a thief in the night.”
The words and the tone of voice made the mouse’s blood run cold. The blade rubbed against the smaller man’s fur, making its way to the skin below as the target found his voice. “Wait, please! Don’t! I have a wife, a-and children! Please!” he begged, unheeding of the wet stain spreading through his trousers.
The taller fur seemed unmoved. “Please!” the murine babbled. “Whatever they’re paying you, I’ll double – no, wait, I’ll triple it for you! Please let me go!”
“Tsk. One cannot serve both God and Mammon, my friend,” the canine chided. “When the damned are confounded and consigned to keen flames,” he said as he circled around to face the shorter fur, “call me with the blessed.”
The mouse looked up at him confusedly as the knife lowered. His expression looked hopeful as the canine said, “Ego te absolvo, my friend,” but his expression changed as the knife drove suddenly into his heart.
As blood flowed around the haft of the blade the mouse twitched, groaning as the canine drew closer. The scent of his own life roared in the embezzler’s nose as his killer twisted the blade, sending a sudden gush of warm blood across his shirt. He trembled as if suddenly chilled, and a thin gray haze started to cloud his vision.
The canine sensed the target’s strength ebbing and he withdrew, then pressed his muzzle to the mouse’s lips as the embezzler exhaled his last breath. It was something that was important to him, to take in the target’s dying breath as a trophy. It was like stealing away a part of their soul, damning them eternally. Gently lowering the dead body to the pavement he fastidiously wiped his paws on a rag and covered the mouse’s face with it before straightening his clothes and stepping out into the street.
At a small, nondescript hotel nearly an hour later, the desk clerk waved as a tall canine entered. “Hello, Sahib,” the red panda said in Chinese-accented English, “these messages for you, please.” He held out a trio of sealed envelopes.
The canine paused and smoothed a paw over his dark red headfur before taking the messages. He smiled gently as he said, “Thank you, my son,” in a soft baritone before heading for the stairs.
His room was two flights up, overlooking the streets that even now, long after midnight, teemed with people celebrating. He drew back the curtain and watched them go about their lives. Such sin, such corruption, he thought, and only a few like himself who could make things right. He tugged open the collar of his shirt and dropped the key to his room onto the table beside his bed as he opened one envelope.
One was from an ecumenical church group, inviting him to participate in a service the upcoming Sunday. He set it aside and opened the other, and as he read it his expression hardened and an odd gleam came to his eyes.
The message was a simple stanza from part of the Requiem Mass: “What shall I, wretch, say? / Whom shall I ask to plead for me, / When even the just are scarcely safe?” The message was followed by an address, a bar near the Raffles Hotel, along with a date and time. The third envelope contained an acknowledgement that his pay had been deposited as he had directed. He memorized the second and third messages, then took them to his bathroom sink and burned them both with the aid of his cigarette lighter.
Nearly two hours later the canine, now dressed in a simple gray suit, sat down at the bar and beckoned to the bartender. A whispered conversation and the barman jerked his chin toward a corner booth. Another canine sat there, and as the man walked over to him he nodded. As he sat the red-furred man said, “The day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes.”
The other canine, an akita with impeccably groomed fur, smiled. “That is correct, sir. Will you join me for a drink?”
He smiled. “The Bard said, ‘Strong drink giveth the desire, but taketh away the ability,’ yet I think a small brandy will merely whet my appetite.” The Akita waved a waiter over, gave him the order and as the waiter walked off his voice lowered. “I congratulate you on your last assignment.”
A smile. “It is a mission, nothing more,” he said. “I look upon it as my personal crusade.”
The Japanese canine’s head cocked. “Ah, so desu ka. Would you be averse to taking another mission so soon?”
The waiter approached with the brandy, and after he walked away the canine sipped at the aromatic liquor. He lowered the glass and said casually, “That depends on who you want, of course.”
The akita leaned forward, paws flat on the table. He’d been warned about this one, particularly how it was absolutely necessary to be as unthreatening as possible. His fingers splayed to show that he had no weapons. His left little finger was missing, the red-furred canine noted as the yakuza member whispered, “It is a policefur, in the Spontoon Islands.”
A nod. “His name.”
A lower whisper. “Franklin Stagg.” At the name the akita looked into the other canine’s eyes and suddenly grew very afraid.
“Him.” The word was breathed out as a venomous hiss. His free paw knotted into a fist, and there was a tiny sound as the stem of his brandy snifter cracked. The brandy seeped across the table as the canine’s muzzle contorted. “When … when must it be done?” he rasped, his voice barely above a whisper.
The akita nodded, grateful for the question and his gaze not wavering for a second from the taller man’s face. He replied, “The job will pay you fifty thousand pounds sterling, and when is up to you. Will you do it?”
He nodded wordlessly, and the Akita got up and left. A small slip of paper remained, a contact in the Islands. That was part of the pattern of his life for the past five years; there would always be someone close to provide information and a means to escape if he could not get away on his own. He had never used the safety valve in the past, but it was always good to be sure.
But there would be no need. He could not fail to strike this target, and send him to his just reward.
The fur who was once Jim Northridge but was now known as the Red Priest (among several other names) checked out of the hotel the next day and bought a ticket to Manila.
The sun finally made its first appearance of the New Year over the Spontoon Islands as a water taxi chugged its way from Main Island south to Meeting Island. The stocky fox seated in the rear of the craft fiddled with his hat while flicking some spray from his tail. He yawned widely and stretched as the boat’s driver cut the engine and coasted to a stop at the stand. “Here you are, Karok-son-Karok,” the feline driver said in Spontoonie as she made the taxi fast. “Have a blessed day.”
“Thank you, Mikala-daughter-Lae,” Detective Sergeant Orrin Brush said as he put his hat on and stepped off the boat. He glanced up at the sky and decided that another cup of coffee might chase more of the chill away before he went to Printer’s Lane.
A few minutes later he sipped at his coffee as he scanned a native-language issue of the Daily Elele. The Althing was suggesting another budget increase, citing the need to provide roads and such for growing communities. Improvements to Casino Island were continuing. He finished his coffee after checking his watch, folded the newspaper under his arm and headed out of the small diner.
A short walk later he was at the door to Nerzmann’s Book Store in Printer’s Lane, and before he had time to knock the woman of the house, an elderly minkess, answered the door. “Willkommen, Sergeant,” she said pleasantly. “Come in, come in. Would you like something to eat?”
“Thanks, ma’am, but no,” he replied with a smile. “Already had a big breakfast. Do you know if he’s awake yet?” he asked as he stepped inside and his nose twitched at the musty odor of old books.
“Ach, ja, the Inspector is just finishing his breakfast,” the woman said, wiping her paws on her apron. “His appetite is improving.”
Probably due to that cheetah he’s been keeping time with, Orrin thought, keeping that information firmly to himself. While he had been pleased that his superior seemed to be recovering from the stress placed on him by the Chief, he still didn’t quite trust the woman. She always looked as if she knew some joke about him.
He smiled as Stagg emerged from his apartment just then, the buck limping as usual. “Good morning, Sergeant,” he said in his usual quiet voice. He was showing signs of recovering – his fur looked better and his eyes seemed just a bit less troubled.
“Good morning, sir,” Orrin said as he held the door open for him, then fell in beside him as Stagg started the slow walk to their office. “Anything happen last night, Sergeant?” the buck asked. He knew that Brush had already called in to get a summary.
“Nothin’ much, sir,” he replied. “Two attempted burglaries, one drunk n’ disorderly. Seems th’ crooks’re still sleepin’ off their New Year benders.”
“That could be,” Stagg said with a sigh. “Do you think it will be any warmer at the office?”
The fox snorted. “Doubt it. Th’ Chief’s still mad, from what I hear. Good thing he’s still on vacation, or we’d be back in his office fer another chewin.’” Relations between the Chief Constable and his Detective Bureau, while never cordial, had taken a downturn after that worthy had discovered that Stagg supplied decrypted information to a private firm, and not to his superior.
The day passed normally, without anything unusual happening. The sun was just starting to go down as Orrin walked with his superior back to the book store. “Good night, Sergeant,” Stagg said as he let himself in.
“Good night, sir,” Brush said as he watched the buck go in and close the door. He then headed for the taxi stand and his own home.
A seaplane landed as the taxi pulled away from the dock, a big Sikorsky that idled its engines and waited for the towboat. It wasn’t unusual for a flying boat to show up during the off-season, since there was always some traffic using Spontoon as a midway point.
The Pan-Nimitz clerk looked at the passport and ticket, then up at the tall red-furred canine. “Are you here in Spontoon for business or pleasure, Mister Calthrop?” he asked.
James Northridge smiled. The name was a good cover, and his papers were the best forgeries money could obtain. “Purely pleasure,” he replied in a pleasant voice. The passport was stamped and his luggage was inspected before he took a water taxi to Casino Island.
There he checked into Shepherd’s Hotel and immediately went to sleep. He knew who he was after, and he knew how he would do it. Everything else would depend on direct observation. He had learned that in the military, during the Great War. Strike fast, but only after learning about the target.
The next day went by almost as uneventfully. The Chief had come back from his vacation, but apparently neither his wife nor his mistress (a fairly open secret) had managed to change his mood. Luckily, the chill emanating from upstairs meant that Stagg and Brush were kept at a distance, which pleased all of the parties involved.
After Stagg had been escorted home, Brush walked to a nearby bar for a cup of coffee before heading back to his village. January in the North Pacific usually entailed a harsh cold snap from time to time, and despite his thick fur he wanted something warm to drink.
He stepped into the men’s room after drinking his coffee and closed a stall door. As he attended to what he was doing, an ear twitched as he heard a quiet conversation about two stalls down.
“I can’t do it.”
“Sure you can. All you have to do is be ready to give him some information about Stagg.” Mention of the name caused both of Brush’s ears to perk, and he very slowly drew his knees up to his chest and slowed his breathing.
“Yeah, and allow him to escape if he gets caught. I can’t do it, I tell you.”
“And I say you can. There’ll be extra in your bank account for this job, Benny.” Now Brush had a name to match to the voice, and as he realized who it was it was all he could do to keep his temper in check. But he forced himself to listen further.
“I suppose I can do it, but that ‘extra’ ought to be pretty extra,” Benny said. There was the sound of rushing water as a toilet was flushed. “I’ll be in touch.” Brush waited until both furs had left the room before lowering his feet to the floor.
Allow who to escape? And what could he get caught at? The questions buzzed in his mind as he washed his paws. A name – Rakhsov, yes, a dead Russian officer, last August - flitted across his memory, and he stared at his reflection in the dirty mirror. The conclusion was obvious: someone was out to kill his boss, someone he had sworn an oath to protect. And oaths sworn to the native pantheon were not to be taken lightly.
As he dried his paws he made a number of decisions. Stagg would not learn of this, because it would put more stress on the old buck, and he certainly didn’t need that. Chief Pickering also would not know about what he’d heard, since the Chief might actually feel his world would be a better place without Inspector Stagg. No; he’d have to take care of this personally.
As he thought about his next course of action, Orrin Brush grinned at his reflection.
Nearly an hour later it was quite dark, with no moon and an overcast sky that promised rain. “Psst. Benny.”
At the whisper the feline constable stiffened, turned, then relaxed when he saw who it was. “Oh, hi Sarge. What’s up? You’re around late.”
“Well, had some things t’do, y’know,” Brush said gruffly as he stepped out of the alleyway. “Found somethin’ back here,” and he jerked a black-furred thumb down the alley.
“Yeah, what?” Benny asked.
“C’mon an’ I’ll show ya,” the fox said, and the two stepped into the shadows. Benny craned his neck around. “I don’t see nothing, Sarge.”
“That’s too bad.” Brush took a half-step behind the feline, his sap sliding into his right paw. He swung the weighted leather he affectionately called ‘Headache Maker’ up and smashed it across the back of the constable’s head. Benny went down and stayed there. Brush checked to ensure that the feline was still breathing. It was pointless; Brush was an artist with his sap, and could tell to within minutes how long a person would stay unconscious after he’d struck him. Seizing his collar, he dragged the feline deeper into the depths of the alley.
Slap! “Wake up!”
Slap! “I said, wake up Benny!” The feline shook his aching head to clear it as he was hauled to his feet. He opened his eyes to see an angry fox standing in front of him. “Now,” Brush said quietly, “you gonna tell me about what yer buddies have in mind for Stagg?”
Benny came completely awake, and became aware that his own pawcuffs had his wrists pinioned behind his back. He swallowed hard and stared at Brush. Stories told around the station house came back to him: about furs put in the hospital, badly beaten; about criminals roughed up to extract information; about a bargeload of smuggled guns being blown up. Gossip around the water cooler at the station held that Brush was made a detective because he made even other constables nervous. “I’m waitin,’” Brush said, cracking his knuckles.
“What buddies? Stagg? I don’t know what you’re – oof!” his words were cut off as a hard fist sank into his gut, below his ribs. As his traumatized diaphragm fought to draw air into his lungs and he gasped, Brush said, “Wrong answer, Sport. See, no one’s here ta help ya out. Just you an’ me, an’ I get whatchacallit – irritated – when I don’t get what I wanna know. Now, who’s yer friend?”
The constable kept his mouth shut. “Oh, I like that,” Brush said. “I’ve been wantin’ ta have a bit o’ fun.” He struck Benny a hard right across the muzzle then sank a heavy shoe into the feline’s crotch. He then stepped back as the constable sank to his knees, retching. When he looked to be finished puking up his dinner, Brush kicked him in the ribs, smiling as he felt something give under his foot. “Aw, I just broke one o’ yer ribs, Benny,” he observed as the fur started wheezing in pain. “Now ya gonna tell me, or do I start gettin’ rough wit’ ya?”
Benny coughed as he sat up painfully, leaving a thin trail of bloody saliva drooling onto his uniform shirt. “O-okay,” he gasped, “I’ll talk … “
“Good. Start talkin’.” Brush squatted down near him.
“I … I’ve been workin’ … >cough< … for this guy … pays me for, for information … a bit here and there,” Benny said, licking at the blood on his lips.
“So ye’re on the pad?” the fox asked, his tail swishing about as it fluffed.
Benny nodded miserably, knowing that Brush was quite capable of killing him. He gave a soft yelp as the sergeant slapped him backpawed. “Don’t you pass out on me yet, numbtail,” he growled. "Y'know, yer body has, what, 200 plus bones? How many do I gots t'break before ya spill it?" To underline his point, he reached behind the constable’s back and grasped his left middle finger, applying pressure between two of his knuckles. There was a snap, and Benny yelled as the raw ends of the bone ground against each other.
“Okay, okay!” the constable sobbed. “Th-they came to me, t-tonight,” he said. “Said they had a job for me …”
“They’re … they’re sending a hitter out here,” the feline gulped. “To kill Stagg.” He started as Brush growled and added hastily, “I didn’t have anything to do with it!”
“Sure ya don’t. An’ I’m King o’ th’ Sea.” Another backpawed slap, followed by two punches to Benny’s abused ribs. “Who they sendin,’ an’ who’s they?” he asked.
“They’re Krupmark … that’s all I know, I swear … aiigh!” he fairly shrieked as Brush snapped another finger.
“So, they’re from there,” the fox said. “Now, who’s th’ hitter?”
The feline gulped air, then whimpered as the fox’s strong fingers grasped another finger. There was a muted snap, and Benny moaned, “I only know what they tell me.”
Another finger snapped, and Benny’s head lolled in pain, his tongue hanging out. “That’s five bones, so far,” Brush observed. “Near ‘nuff 195 to go.”
“I’m telling you, damn you,” Benny gasped. “All I know is he’s from Stagg’s home country. Guy named Calthrop.”
A strong paw grasped the collar of Benny’s shirt and drove the bruised back of his head against a wall. “One o’ them Red Fist types?” Brush asked, baring his teeth.
The feline shook his head. “No … you know no one trusts those guys … “ he said. He sat there, struggling to breathe as Brush stood up.
“Word o’ advice, Benny,” the fox said. “If’n ya take a bribe, don’t take it inna john. Someone might hear ya,” and he started kicking the constable, feeling two more ribs give way. Benny fell over onto his stomach, and two well-placed kicks dislocated the feline’s tail right at the root. Another harsh crack of the sap and the feline passed into unconsciousness.
Brush stood over the constable, barely breathing heavily. “Damn,” he spat, muttering to himself. “Th' force has gone t'hell since I was a rookie. Punks like this wouldn'ta lasted ten minutes in th’ ol’ days.” He uncuffed the constable and dragged him back out into the street, then trotted over to the nearest phone box to report a mugging.
Benny awoke two days later with his tail set, his fingers in a plaster cast up to his elbow, and a painful headache. A patrol sergeant sat by his bed. “Awake, I see,” he said. “Care to tell me about it?”
Benny started to open his mouth, but the sergeant forestalled him with a raised paw. “First off, let me tell you something,” he said. “I saw the marks on the back of your head, Constable Hanah. If Orrin Brush didn’t do this to you, his twin brother did. Now, I’ve known him for over ten years, and I know he’d never lay paws on another constable – unless that constable had something to hide. Something he might not want the Chief to hear about.
“So, tell me all about it,” he said as he flipped open his notebook.
Later that night in an upland village on Main Island, Kiki Brush awoke to find the other side of the bed empty. It was odd; her husband usually called if he had something to keep him away from home overnight. She got up as she saw a stray gleam of light under the door to his den. As she tiptoed to the door she heard him talking, and realized that he was angry about something, and was confiding it to the wax cylinders of his Dictaphone.
Knowing that he would tell her eventually, she went back to bed. Some time later, she felt his reassuring presence beside her, and snuggled closer to him.
At breakfast the next morning, Brush looked a bit drawn from lack of sleep, but he ate with a good appetite, although it seemed he favored his right paw as he hugged Kiki. “Husband,” she said, “tell me what happened last night.”
He looked a bit sheepish. “Precious mate,” he said, “I encountered a bad cop, who is involved in wrongful things. I showed him the error of his ways.” He massaged his right paw and she nodded her understanding.
“Pleased I am that you are well,” she said, “but not pleased that you did not tell me where you were. I dislike worrying about you.”
“I know,” he said, taking her in his arms then grinning as his oldest kit poked his head around the corner and teased, “Daddy’s hugging Mommy again!”
The tod and the vixen looked at each other, then started laughing.
On the water taxi over to Meeting Island, Orrin looked out over the anchorage and reflected. Benny had told all he knew, that was certain. The problem was it wasn’t much.
He knew only two things – someone was coming after his superior, and he was from New Haven. Or at least originated in that country. Which might mean he knew Stagg from years ago, or at least had a good description of him. After all, whitetail bucks weren’t exactly common around these islands.
He also had no idea what the fur’s timetable might be. He might even now be stalking Stagg, and that thought almost made the fox’s tail fluff out. However, he thought, he also had a name. A brief side trip to the seaplane terminal and the Customs shed might give him some clue. Briefly he wished he had his superior’s brain, but decided that he would try his hardest to do this himself, rather than call in any outside assistance.
“Yes, Sergeant,” the Pan-Nimitz clerk said, “we had a passenger named Calthrop come in yesterday, off the plane from Manila. Said he was here on a pleasure trip.”
Brush merely nodded, jotting notes on a small pad before leaving for another water taxi.
“You’re a few minutes late this morning, Sergeant,” Stagg observed as he and Brush headed up the lane to the police station. “Anything the matter?”
“Sorry, sir. My alarm clock must be runnin’ slow,” he said as he jammed his paws into his trouser pockets.
“I see. Everything all right at home? How are Mrs. Brush and your children?”
“They’re fine, sir, thanks fer askin.’ There was another report o’ a robbery last night, over ‘n South Island.” Brush continued with the briefing as they reached the office.
When Stagg went to lunch that afternoon, Brush went over to Casino Island and Shepherd’s Hotel. A brief chat with the desk clerk and a glance at the register confirmed that a man, canine, tall with red fur, had checked in. But not under the name Calthrop; this man’s name was Hunter. Brush’s ears went back at that, but he asked the desk clerk to call him at the police station if “Mr. Hunter” should check out of the hotel. He returned to work on time, but having missed lunch. It took an effort to hide his grumbling stomach from the Inspector until he saw him off at Nerzmann’s. “So, Sergeant, everything goes well, ja?” Mr. Nerzmann asked as Brush walked past him.
“Pretty well, thanks,” he assured the older mink. He stopped at two more hotels and asked around. No; no canine tourists with red fur. He went home then, still thinking about what to do.
Northridge had breakfast the next morning, dressed in a black suit with a priest’s collar snug around his throat. He found that a clergyman’s disguise was quite suitable, particularly in parts of Asia where missionaries were common enough sights. As he sipped at his tea his ears perked as the scent of a whitetail deer cut over the smell of the Darjeeling he was drinking. A casual glance around confirmed that there was a buck in the dining room, drinking orange juice. A moment’s thought dismissed the buck as a possible target; he was too young to be Stagg. He was seated at a table with a young doe, confirming that he wasn’t who he was looking for.
He had spent some time in his room, waiting for a call or a visit from his contact to provide him with updated information on the target. The fact that no one had contacted him was troubling, but not really fatal to the operation. He knew enough to be able to track and kill Stagg on his own.
He spent the day strolling around Casino Island, noting the activities of the natives as they repaired or renovated the hotels and attractions in anticipation of the coming tourist season. He grew bored with this line, however. Amusements. Stagg would have no truck with these temptations, if memory served. Stagg had always been like that, very solemn, all business and uninterested in fun of any kind. So, neither would he. He took the next available water taxi over to Meeting Island.
The scent was stronger here, and he willed himself to greater control as he wandered the streets past the embassies and past the police station. It was very strong here, and he found his muzzle cresting as his teeth bared and he continued his stroll, acting nonchalant. After so many years of doing this, it was an affectation that he adopted easily.
Yes; very strong now. Sign, Printer’s Lane … he followed the trail to a book store. That made sense; he always seemed very bookish, always too busy reading or thinking for his own good.
Jakob Nerzmann looked up as the bell over the door tinkled and a tall priest walked in. “Good day, sir,” the mink said. “How can I help you?”
The fur smiled pleasantly and asked in a quiet voice, “I was wondering if you had a volume of Machiafurri’s Il Principe. Your sign out front said that you sell rare books.”
“Oh, ja! Please, come this way.” The mink led the way into the shop and pulled a slim leatherbound tome from a shelf. “This is an 1818 edition, very good quality for its age … “ his voice trailed off as he looked up at the canine’s face.
The priest’s face was contorted into a mask of fury, teeth bared as he glared at the mink. His paws clenched and relaxed as he made an obvious effort to bring himself back under control. Finally his features settled back into an affected smile and he said, “Yes, that should be quite suitable. How much is it?”
For a moment the mink just stared at him, until he at last shook himself from his fascination at the canine’s reaction. His paw trembled slightly as he offered the book to the man, who took it and paid the price for it without complaint. Only after the canine had left the shop did Nerzmann sag against the desk with a sigh of relief.
His wife came out of the kitchen, rubbing her paws on her apron. When she saw the look in his eyes she asked, “Jakob, what is wrong?”
“I do not know,” he admitted, “but perhaps we should tell someone about that last customer.”
Brush escorted Stagg to his home in the book store later that evening. As he placed his paw on the doorknob the buck suddenly paused, sniffing the air. “Do you smell that, Sergeant?”
Brush sniffed. “Canine, sir.”
“Yes, that’s what I thought. Probably a customer … but it’s familiar, somehow.” Stagg shook his head and stepped into his tiny room, closing the door behind him. Brush took a few more sniffs, then turned to go.
“Sergeant? Could you step in here a moment, bitte?” Herr Nerzmann asked, waving him into the kitchen. “Frau Nerzmann and I want to give you something,” he added, and the fox joined the two minks in the kitchen.
“Here are some cookies for your kits, Sergeant,” Frau Nerzmann said, handing over a basket wrapped in a towel. Brush looked at it as the male mink said in a very quiet voice, “The Inspector, he is in trouble, ja?”
The fox nearly dropped the basket. “What do you know?” he growled.
“That scent … someone came in today, looking for a book,” the mink explained while the minkess and the fox listened. “He seemed quite a nice fellow, until he drew near the Inspector’s door. Then he seemed angry, almost insane, you see?” Nerzmann gave a shuddering breath. “He had me frightened for a moment, then he bought his book and left.”
Brush nodded, numb with shock. The hitfur had been here, right next to Stagg’s door. “I think,” he said carefully, “ya should keep yer doors locked t’night, Mr. Nerzmann. Mrs. Nerzmann, you got yer gun handy?”
In answer the minkess raised a corner of her apron to show the butt of a Luger pistol safely holstered where she could reach it quickly. “Good ‘nuff,” Brush said. “Yeah, he’s in trouble. There’s a hitfur comin’ ta try an’ kill him. All I know is he’s from New Haven.” To Nerzmann he said, “You’ve seen him; what’s he look like?”
“Tall man, canine, red fur … a priest, ja, ein Römischer … a Catholic, you see?”
Brush nodded, and a thought hit him. “Th’ Inspector, he said the scent was familiar … Mr. Nerzmann, ya got any books ‘bout New Haven?”
The mink paused and looked confused a moment, then nodded. “Ja, ja! Wait here a moment, please.” He disappeared into another part of the house, emerging moments later with a large book. “I took it from the stacks and hid it,” he explained, “to spare the Inspector his feelings.”
Orrin looked at the book. It was titled The Carousing Circus: New Haven at War, 1914-1918 by Benjamin Fleischmann, and looked like a history of the New Haven Flying Corps. He recalled from the materials he had read before he’d met Stagg two years ago, and the Inspector’s own account of Madame Onca, that the buck had served with that unit. It even had a group photograph of both squadrons, dated 1917 and captioned ‘The only time the whole group was actually standing at the same time.’ He snorted at that, recalling stories about New Haven from that time.
“Can I take this wit’ me?” he asked, closing the book and tucking it under an arm as he picked up the basket.
“Naturlich, Sergeant,” Nerzmann said. “Go on home now; we will keep the Inspector safe until you come back in the morning.”
“Thanks,” and Orrin let the two minks see him out. As he walked down the street he resolved on a few courses of action, and stopped by the police station before taking the water taxi home.
The next day he sat at his desk across from Stagg, going over several reports as his superior made notes in a file to be sent to the court the next day. He sat back and asked, “Sir, can I ask a question?”
The buck looked up, surprised. “Of course, Sergeant. You may not like the answers, though.”
Orrin smiled. “Why’d they call ya ‘Saint Frankie’ durin’ th’ War?” At the buck’s quizzical frown, the fox added, “I got this book, see, an’ I got curious.”
“I see. Let me see the book.” Brush drew it from his desk drawer and passed it over to Stagg, who flipped a few pages idly before closing it. “Never mind, I know the ending, anyway." He frowned and glanced at the book’s spine. “I do recall the author, though. Ben Fleischmann, a short quiet mink. Flew with us from ’16 to the Armistice. Never made ace, but never got shot down either.
“Why’d they call me ‘Saint Frankie of Ass-Sit,’ Sergeant? Well, New Haven had a certain reputation back then, and most of the pilots lived up to it. Quite strenuously, in fact. As you no doubt recall, I was a captain and the unit’s intelligence officer, but I was … married at the time,” and he paused to regard the thin gold band on one finger, “so I stayed at the base.” A brief smile touched his lips. “I recall one time, though.
“We were ordered to active status for a mission on a certain day, but the pilots were all in the nearby town, supporting the French wine industry. I was acting CO then, the former commander and the Quartermaster having died in an auto accident a few days earlier. I needed to get the pilots back, and to get them sober enough to fly.”
“Whatcha do?” Brush asked.
Stagg smiled at the memory. “I asked for some assistance from an ANZAC unit down the road, and under cover of darkness we moved the entire base to another village five miles away.”
The fox stared. “Th’ whole thing?”
“Yes. All the planes, as well. When the pilots came back, naturally they found that the base was gone. It had started raining by the time they figured out where I had moved it. So there they were, caught at the gate in a downpour.
“They couldn’t get in, because I again prevailed upon Allied good feelings and had the gate guarded by a platoon of kangaroos. Take my word for it, Sergeant: It’s unwise to try fighting a group of Australians.”
“Heh. Sounds like my kind o’ guys.”
Stagg said, “Indeed. Quite a few of the pilots ended up with bruises before I let them in. Then, I called a parade.”
“In th’ rain?” Orrin asked, his ears standing up.
Stagg nodded. “We were out there for nearly four hours, in a driving downpour. But they were sober the next morning. One of them – fellow named Northridge, I believe – elected himself spokesfur and declared that neither he nor any of the others would ever forget what I did.
“But to get back to your question, Sergeant: They called me that for my lack of partying quality, as well as a perceived ability to accomplish more sitting at a desk than the entire Corps did.”
Brush laughed, and opened the book to the group picture. “Was this yer ol’ unit, sir?” he asked innocently.
“Hmm. Dead, dead, dead … “ Stagg intoned, a finger tracing over the old photograph, “Hmm, there’s Northridge … quite an interesting book,” he flipped through a few more pages and his expression suddenly drew into a stone mask. Without a word he snapped the book closed and glared angrily at Brush.
Orrin sat back as the buck closed his eyes, controlling himself before saying, “Now, I have a question for you, Sergeant: What are the men calling me around the station these days?”
“Well, sir, they’re callin’ ya ‘Ol’ Black Magic.’” Brush blushed, his ears laying back as he replied.
Now the barest ghost of a smile traced itself over Stagg’s features. “Well, I suppose it’s better than some names. Put that book away, Sergeant, and let’s get back to work.”
Later, Brush looked at the group picture again. The caption identified the fur as Lt. James “Red” Northridge, and added that he had ended the War with six kills, making him an Ace. “Yeah, but how many since then?” he mused aloud, turning a few pages before stopping dead.
Now he knew why his superior had gotten angry at him. The page bore a picture of a dignified whitetail buck, standing ramrod straight in a faultless NHFC uniform with crisply rolled puttees.
The caption read ‘Captain Franklin J. Stagg, Intelligence Officer.’
On the way back to Printer’s Lane, Stagg said, “I apologize for earlier, Sergeant. It … well, it was a shock.”
“Sokay, sir,” Brush said. “I didn’ know there was a pic o’ you in it.”
“Be that as it may, I still apologize.” The buck glanced at the setting sun. “I believe I’ll go to Mass tonight. Come with me, Sergeant?”
“No thanks, sir,” Brush demurred, raising a paw. “I’ll head on home and turn in early, I ‘spect.” He saw his superior to the door, then turned and headed back up the road to the water taxi stands. He hailed one of the senior drivers. “Blessings on you, Uraka-son-Manu. Question: has a canine Euro with red fur come here today?”
“I’ll check, Karok-son-Karok.” The graying wolf waved at the other drivers and a brief conversation ensued. Finally Uraka turned to Orrin and said, “Yes, a Euro wearing a priest’s mark came here today, about an hour ago. Something wrong?”
Brush thought hard. Northridge had to be somewhere on Meeting Island, then. But where? There’d be nowhere he could hide, unless … He swallowed hard against a throat gone dry as dust and said, “Look, there’s trouble. Here’s what I need you to do …” He spoke rapidly in his native language, not trusting his English at all for something so crucial. Once the drivers had understood what he wanted, he drew his revolver and ran as fast as he could back down the road.
The bells rang at Saint Anthony’s Church as the small congregation filed in, and after crossing himself at the threshold Stagg also took a seat. As the Mass began, a figure stepped up to the partly-open door to the church.
Northridge peered through the opening, fixing his gaze on the whitetail buck’s back as he reached into his jacket and slipped his knife from its sheath. A stray gleam of light reflected from the blade of the long, slim leaf of steel as he assessed his target. He had followed the buck all the way here from the book store, and now he paused to consider.
Northridge had once come from a wealthy family in New Haven, and like many of his fellows had joined up when the NHFC had been formed. This buck, though … he had come from wealth as well, but never seemed to fit in. Stagg had always been so dignified, and that air of self-righteousness as the squadrons stood in the rain had haunted him for years.
The Northridge family fortune had been a casualty of the Crash of 29, and with the Red Fist Coup of 1931 had gone his home and his country. Stagg had been the Chief of the country’s police, so Northridge, like many other furs, blamed the buck. That had turned into a corrosive hatred that made him a vicious killer, and immediately attractive to those willing to pay to have furs killed.
Should he just walk in? No; there were too many eyes to see him, and the buck’s soul would not go where he wanted it to go. Ambush him on the walk back? Sensible; he would be vulnerable then, a crippled old fur making his halting way to the grave with every limping step. He would relish the taste and scent of Stagg’s final breath, as the steel drank the stale blood.
He stepped back from the door then, sheathing the dagger. The canine turned away just as a soft, harsh voice came from the shadows. “Hold it, ya bum. Constab’l’ry, ye’re unner arrest!”
Northridge raised his paws, then abruptly dashed up the road, dodging into dark alleys as Brush pursued him. The fox ran after him, surprised that the older fur could run so fast.
The red-furred canine ran where Brush expected him to run; straight to the water taxi stand. He ran to the edge of the dock and stopped, gasping for air and staring wildly as he realized that there were no boats to be seen. He whirled as Brush trotted up, breathing heavily but not winded. “Ye’re stuck here, Red,” the fox said, his gun held at his hip, pointed at the canine. “Give it up.”
The canine glared balefully at the shorter fox, his teeth showing in a snarl. A paw reached into his jacket and drew a dagger. “Just Judge of vengeance,” he rasped, “give me the gift of redemption before the day of reckoning!” And with that he flung himself at the vulpine.
Brush backpedaled, surprised at the man’s sudden rush. His paw came up and the .38 in his grasp bucked once, twice, thrice as the church bells rang. The heavy slugs tore into the charging canine, all three striking him squarely in the chest and throwing him backwards in a shower of blood. The knife clattered to the dock as Brush raced forward and grabbed him by the collar. “Stupid Euro,” he muttered, “bringin’ a knife to a gunfight …” He bent close, only to recoil as the assassin breathed his last. He coughed.
He had to call the Constabulary in anyway, eventually; he was just glad that he had gotten to the killer before the killer had reached Stagg. He did manage to keep it all quiet, though. Just a few trusted Spontoonie officers responded to his summons, and they spirited the body off to the morgue before anyone noticed anything out of the ordinary.
“No, Sergeant,” the medical examiner said, “there’s no way I can just sign off on his death certificate without an autopsy or a full investigation into his death.” The phone rang, and the rat (a veterinarian, substituting for the vacationing Dr. Meffit), picked up the receiver. “Hello, morgue, Dr. Rasmussen … yes? Yes, he’s here, and so is … yes … oh … oh, I see … yes … yes, of course.” He replaced the receiver in its cradle and picked up a pen, scribbling his name onto the certificate of death. He handed it wordlessly to Orrin. “Cause of death was misadventure,” he said quietly. “Since there’s no next of kin, as you say, we’ll have the body cremated. A priestess has already been sent for.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Brush said. He smiled as he left the room, knowing that certain friends of friends had been the ones on the other end of that phone call.
The corpse was cremated later that night, in the hospital’s furnace under the watchful eyes of a priestess in full ceremonial regalia. As the body was rendered into ashes she turned to Orrin. “Karok-son-Karok,” she said, “your soul troubles you. Tell me.”
“With respect, Wise One,” he said, and paused as he mulled over what to say. “I have done things as a guardian, but this is the first time I have ever tasted another’s death so close. And I fear I came close to violating the blood oath I have sworn to your kind regarding the creature-with-horns-outlander.” He looked uncertain, and glanced down to see his paws trembling as the delayed reaction of what he had done finally cried for attention.
He knew, with a sick certainty, that if he had hesitated in any way the canine would have killed him, and his wife and children would be alone in the world. That knowledge shook him badly, along with the truth he had seen in Northridge’s eyes. He didn’t usually believe in demons, but he knew one when he saw one. He looked up at the priestess then, with a lost kit’s eyes.
The priestess considered, and placed her paws on his head while pronouncing a blessing over him. “The soul of this evildoer shall not trouble you, Karok-son-Karok, but your heart must absorb what you have done. You will grow the stronger for it. Go home now, Karok-son-Karok. Go home to your mate and kits.” He thanked her and left the furnace room, pausing only to give a few instructions to one of the workers before seeking the water taxis.
Later that night, his wife awoke to find their bed empty again, and the light on in her husband’s den. She opened the door quietly to see Orrin slumped in his chair, a glass half-full of homemade pineapple brandy near at paw. The scent of the liquor was strong on him, indicating that he’d had at least two glasses. “Husband?” she whispered. “What is wrong?”
He gave a start as she walked in, and tried to smile as he looked up at her. “I … precious mate, tonight I saw Evil and Death in one,” and the two looked at each other. Finally she opened her arms and embraced him, and she held him as he started to cry softly.
Benny still looked much the worse for wear, with casts on his fingers and tail and his chest taped up tightly until his ribs could mend. He flinched as the door opened and a stocky fox in a rumpled suit walked in. “Come to finish the job?” he wheezed.
Brush actually chuckled in amusement at the question, but he replied, “Nah, but I need somethin’ from ya.” He tossed a fat manila envelope onto the bed. “Tell whoever you know t’take that ta Krupmark an’ give it t’whoever sent that guy.” He stepped closer to the bed, and leaned in as Benny flinched again. “Just you don’t open it, an’ never show yer ugly pan ‘round here again, got me?”
At the feline’s terrified nod the fox smiled and walked out.
In a house on a part of the hill overlooking Fort Bob’s airstrip, a feline received an envelope from a courier. The message had come to him directly from his sole contact in the Constabulary, a fur who now had ceased reporting. The cat slit the envelope open with a letter opener and started in surprise as a rain of fine gray ash spilled out onto his desk, followed by a folded piece of paper. He picked it up, unfolded it, and scanned the contents.
The note read: “Hey Numbtails. This is all that’s left of the guy you sent to kill my boss. Send more, and they’ll end up the same. Orrin Brush, Sgt., SIC.”
Spencer lowered the message and ground his teeth in rage. Following hard on the heels of his anger was a nauseating wave of fear as he realized that he would have to report to the rest of Krupmark’s leaders that he had failed. Failure was not something that the others looked upon lightly.
Failure was not an option.
Failure meant death.
His head jerked up as sounds of a scuffle in the next room erupted, and he stood, backing away from the desk. Footsteps and the sound of bare claws on the wood floor sounded, then the door swung open.
The impeccably-dressed female stood framed in the doorway, flanked by two large dogs that licked their chops and stared at him. Spencer backed further away until his shoulders hit the unyielding wall.
The woman caressed the two dogs and said, “Suppertime, my dears.”