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Upload 4 April 2014

Pearl and Coral Parkesson have graduated from their infamous
English Public School in the sultry Summer of 1937.
They are joyously preparing for their journey to their new school,
The Songmark Aeronautical Boarding School for Young Ladies.
Unfortunately, their traveling swag seems to be missing....
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by Simon Barber

Pearl and Coral Parkesson
prepare to travel to their new school on Spontoon Island.
But, first, they have to recover their funds.

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by Simon Barber
(Art by Kjartan)

Chapter 1

Pearl and Coral Parkesson, on the rooftop of their English school - Art by Kjartan; characters by Simon Barber
Pearl & Coral Parkesson on the rooftop

Contrary to popular belief, once in awhile the pervading gloom and rainclouds cleared to leave the English landscape enjoying a hot and sultry July in that year of 1937.

“You’re wasting your time looking hot and sultry. There’s no audience.” The voice was that of a keen-looking mousemaid who was currently relaxing on a rooftop vantage point where this humid evening she had climbed to try and steal a breath of fresh evening breeze.

The target of her advice was her mirror image; grey-furred, slim and sharp as a new switchblade. She wore the same outfit; the uniform of their alma mater was a conventional-looking blazer, shirt and skirt with only a few tell-tale bulges hinting at the concealed armour and weapons that every surviving sixth-former had learned the need for.

“Pearl,” the second mousemaid gave a deep, stage sigh. “Practice, practice, practice. Remember what Miss Carruthers told us? For every minute a ballerina spends on stage in the public eye, she pays for with a day of training. Bank jobs and working the Long Fraud, make it three.”

“Coral – hot and sultry looks around here are like building chocolate teapots – you can make better use of the material elsewhere. And in September we’ll be elsewhere – and a better elsewhere. Spontoon!”

Both girls grinned, their sharp chisel teeth gleaming in the firelight coming up from the hockey pitch below. Dolores Descantaine was showing her form how furs celebrated birthdays on the Uruguayan Pampas with a full ox-roast for the fifth-formers.

Pearl and Coral Parkesson stood and stretched, their small fire-lit shadows stretched huge across the rooftops as the murine twins took in the sight of their beloved school – somewhere they would be saying farewell to in another two short weeks. They had already passed their Certificates with distinction, having copied the exam papers held in the deepest vault of the Central Schools Board, which earned them far more marks at Saint T’s than the mundane drudgery of actually doing the exam. Anyone could do that.

“We’ll miss the old place,” Coral observed.

“Miss it? I suppose we could paint a big aiming-mark on the Staff quarters before we go. Make it harder to miss.” Her sister snickered. “Or wheel a sixty-pounder right up onto the tennis courts.”

“It does all seem a bit tame, these days.” Coral looked back fondly on seven years of mayhem best described as ‘schooldays raw in tooth and claw’. The school was a Progressive one that had started with Darwinian assumptions of survival of the fittest, and gone on from there. “It should be fun, Spontoon. First, meet up with Dad down in the criminal quarter of Marseilles – then Monte Carlo and Points East. French Aeropostale flights all the way then – Syria, Pondicherry, Macao, French Sandwich Islands – Spontoon, here we come!”

“And we’ve ample funds to cover it all. The Tutors are very canny about that, Beryl says – in our case, a years’ cash up front. Beryl says they call it a ‘Smith and Wesson Scholarship’.” Coral’s tail swished dreamily, its well-brushed silver-grey fur gleaming in the distant firelight. “We just have to sit tight till then. With only the usual precautions – we should have a relaxing final end of term.”

Though they did not know it, for Coral and Pearl Parkesson their plans were about to go up in flames about ten minutes later.

Pearl heard the news just before breakfast from Penelope Greystoke, a half-ape girl and one of her staunchest allies.

“The School Bully assassinated? That’s a turn-up for the books. Fair enough, the bump-off, but this end of term?” Pearl clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “November or December is the time for that, usually. How will we manage to get a new one before Summer hols?”

Penelope, a squat and powerful half-gorilla, grunted meaningfully. “It’s jolly inconvenient, I must say. Phoebe wasn’t the best School Bully we’ve ever had, but she had some awfully good ideas. And she was never slow about putting them into practice.”

“Mmm.” Coral mused. “I wonder who’s had all her stuff? That copy she had of ‘Secrets of the Chinese Torture Masters’ – you can’t get that book out of the village library.”

“Not even on a county library loan,” Her sister agreed. “And she had a lot of other fine loot. Wonder who grabbed it?”

“In the time we’ve got, hardly worth looking,” Coral’s round ears drooped slightly. “Two weeks? To find something a senior former hid? No, that’d take terms and terms. Bet some lower-school kitten will dig it up by dumb luck one day.”

“Thinking of which – it’s time to get our deposit out of the bank,” Pearl whispered in her twin’s ear. “We need to buy tickets, hot passports, all sorts of papers.” Their Father was a famous man in his profession, the name of the Biplane Bandit being well-known across Europe. There was no point in bringing their own names to the police or Interpol, for whatever little ventures they managed in the coming weeks.

Unfortunately, although Coral and Pearl had concealed their wealth with all the skill and guile of a pair of Saint T’s graduates, when they dug up the biscuit-tin from its unmarked location deep in the woods – they discovered someone had beaten them to it.

Ruined. Flat broke, that’s what we are.” Coral sat in a tree branch, looking out over the cratered lacrosse courts. “Took us two years of hard blagging to pile up that loot. Our grub-stake for Songmark.”

“I’m thinking.” Pearl sprawled out on the branch above her, her pose more jaguar than mouse. “It has to be one of our year. Do you think anyone else could have pulled it off?”

Coral shook her head. Down below she could hear their Gym Mistress, Fraulein Schneider, loudly expounding the value of correct footwear to a gaggle of second-year girls. The Parkesson twins had followed her advice for years; the steel ‘horseshoe’ heel-plates of their best dress shoes could with due diligence and a properly delivered back-kick, break a fur’s shinbone. “I can’t imagine it – blind luck aside. But… with our bunch, they’d have let slip something just to spite us. They wouldn’t keep it secret, when they could make us suffer.”

“The only way three furs can keep a secret, is when two of them are dead,” Pearl nodded, quoting their Scriptures classes. Suddenly her eyes opened wide. “Coral! We’ve fifty pounds in ready cash. It won’t get us to Spontoon, but it just might put us on the trail of the main prize.”

That afternoon in the School office, Miss Fortescue had finished her last class of the day and was putting her notes away when there came a polite knock at the classroom door.

Saint T’s Economics Mistress was a short, grey-furred feline wearing the School’s academic dress which was as ever a generation out of fashion. Corsets had gone out of general use in the Great War – but suitable models could be uprated to provide a genteel modicum of much-needed armour. “Enter!” She called, noting from the knock that her caller was not currently wearing brass knuckles, which narrowed down the candidates considerably.

Miss Fortescue smiled over the top of her pince-nez as she saw the Parkesson girls enter and stand respectfully by her desk. Their joint essay on ‘The Ponzi Scheme and the critical cash-in point’ had been a joy to read, and she was seriously considering changing the authors’ names to her own and forwarding it to professional journals. “What can I do for you, my dears?”

Coral looked up, her face a well-practiced picture of innocence. “Miss Fortescue. We’d like to make a donation to the Secure home for extremely distressed gentlewomen. We hear you’re on the executive board.” A brown envelope was silently slid across the desk.

Miss Fortescue beamed as she examined the four big, white five-pound notes within, paying particular attention to the watermarks and serial numbers. “Most generous of you!”

Pearl raised her eyes bashfully. “In arts class we learned all about making ‘distressed’ antique furniture, that wicked dealers sell at huge mark-ups. You beat it with mallets and drill tiny holes in it to simulate decades of woodworm. Is that why the Secure home is so secure and soundproofed?”

“Such little scamps. I don’t know how you come up with such silly notions, truly I don’t,” Miss Fortescue’s smile was suddenly a little strained. “Now, pleasantries aside. What can I really do for you?”

“We were just wondering – what’s a wise investment? Suppose we had a sudden windfall and wanted something that wouldn’t attract income tax on it?” Pearl asked hopefully.

“Yes – and we wondered if any of our classmates had asked you the same, recently?” As Coral finished, Miss Fortescue tucked the envelope securely inside the side-armour of her bombazine. She rummaged in her desk drawer and brought out a document in exquisite copperplate style printing, stamped with various official seals. She handed it to the twins, a mischievous smile on her face.

“Indeed they did! Just last week, in fact. One of you dear girls had acquired six hundred guineas she wanted advice in investing. Lord Moseley’s party is so very grasping on tax, I fear.” She savoured the expression on the twins’ faces. “Yes indeed. I brokered her purchasing six hundred in Murder Incorporated gilt-edged bearer bonds. Poor Phoebe Helmsworth – she never did live to see a single dividend. And the returns are so very attractive, too.”

As they taught us in French class – ‘Mille tonnes de merde!’ To put it mildly.” Coral spat as the twins walked through the leafy grounds, easily avoiding the amateurish fifth-form tripwires. “Phoebe had our money, right enough. That’s the sum. She bought and hid the shares. If she wasn’t already dead, she would be!”

“Very annoying of her,” Pearl agreed, moodily kicking the husk of a mostly intact Mills Bomb. The old grenade had fired but only blown the fuze plug out rather than properly fragmenting. “And now we’ve got to find it.”

“And beat the rest of the school to it, in under two weeks. Bearer bonds. Hellfire! And on top of that we’ve got to pick up this new girl from the station.” Coral looked up at the clear blue skies that seemed to be cheerfully mocking her black mood. “Deux mille tonnes de merde!”

“I hope that’s not the weather forecast ... though they did say “the Odd shower,” Pearl chuckled. Expertly ducking a clod of earth flung by her exasperated sister, the two waved at the plain-clothes Scotland Yard detective loitering suspiciously by the gates, and strolled down the leafy lane towards the distant railway station.

Still half an hour from her final destination of Adelstrop Halt, Maude Sedgeley sat in an empty compartment as the train puffed its way through the peaceful countryside.

Looking in through the window, an observer would have seen a large, plain-featured bovine girl dressed in a brand new school blazer that most furs would have taken off in the summer heat of the railway carriage. On the luggage rack was a second-hand but very clean valise with the return address ‘The Old Rectory, Scouling Heath, Northumbria.” Up in the far North by the Scottish border there was a fortified vicarage where she had been raised by her uncle, the Fortified Vicar. He was a well-respected member of the community, and less puritanical than most – though much into temperance as a relative thing, he occasionally drank Port and Sherry (as befitted fortified wines.)

Maude checked her pocket watch as she heard the train whistle and it moved out of Kingham station. “Just time for one more chapter.” In her hands was a treasured birthday gift from her dear uncle, a copy of the vulpine ‘Fox’s Book of Martyrs’ describing the trials and bodily sufferings of the chosen at the paws of the heathen and the heretic. All the martyrdoms were profusely illustrated in exquisite biological detail by an artist who had thoroughly enjoyed his four years in the trenches, and there was not a dull page in it.

Maude clasped the volume to her breast, and sighed passionately. “I won’t fail you, uncle! This will only be the start!” She had been brought up in a strict but cheerful branch of Muscular Christianity that emphasised muscle over theology; you were quite permitted to smite the heathen as hard as you liked, as long as you then explained why it was for their own good. A year at Saint T’s before heading out to confront heathen cannibals (and far worse, the heretic missionaries already out there) had been her own choice, and she was bursting with good intentions. That, and three hundred pounds of maidenly muscle finely honed to smite the ungodly. Clear through a brick wall, if the occasion demanded it.

I’m bored.” Pearl sat swinging her feet on the station’s sole facility, a low limestone shelf that was loaded at five every morning with milk churns bound for Oxford nearly an hour away. “Adelstrop. No-one came, and no-one went. If she’s any later, I’m going, anyway.”

“Here’s something.” Her sister pointed North to where a plume of smoke appeared from behind the treetops. “Could be her.”

“Just our luck. Stuck with this chore when we ought to be turning Saint T’s upside down looking for Phoebe’s loot.” Pearl scuffed her boots, the sharp hobnails striking sparks on the platform concrete. “Any moment now, some lower-school squirt is liable to get extremely rich!”

“And unless they’re a total idiot, they won’t let on. Not till they’ve banked it,” Coral sighed. “Six hundred guineas in Murder Incorporated! It’s never publicly quoted on Wall Street, but still...” In the holidays both girls were avid readers of Criminal World, to which their Father subscribed.

“Makes you sick,” Phoebe agreed. “Look, the train’s stopping. Must be her.”

“Yes. Probably some little shyster’s brat who thinks knowing the three-card trick puts her in the big league,” her sister nodded glumly. “Well, at least she’ll learn a thing or two here. If she lasts long enough.”

They waited as the train steamed to a halt. Cruel glances flashed between them, chisel teeth bared in feral smiles. Any inconsequential lower-school pup was liable to get a proper ‘Saint T’s welcome’ she would never forget.

Maude Sedgeley stepped out onto the platform, the wooden decking creaking under the strain. In one hand was her valise; an ancient iron-bound clothes trunk that Coral or Pearl could have comfortably hidden inside was nonchalantly held under her other arm.

“Oh my lucky stars…” Pearl breathed in awe.

Her sister nodded. “You don’t get many of those to the ton.”

“Plan B?” An eyebrow raised.

“Definitely Plan B.”

The two smiled sweetly, extending welcoming paws to the new arrival.

Hello! I’m Pearl Parkesson!” That worthy shook Maude’s paw, noting the rank insignia of a Lower Sixth form girl on her uniform, under the jolly skull and crossbones of the school badge.

“And I’m Coral Parkesson. Pleased to meet you!” Coral looked round the platform warily. There was nobody else in sight but the guard on the departing train, who seemed greatly relieved that nobody in that uniform was getting on.

“Maude Sedgeley.” The bovine could have posed for a model of forthright determination on the cover of a pulp magazine; her male counterparts were generally shown heroically holding off a horde of assegai-wielding tribesmen with a small toasting-fork. “I didn’t expect anyone would be meeting me.”

The mice looked at each other, concern on their faces. “Shall we tell her?” Coral asked her twin.

Pearl hesitated for a few seconds. “Yes. It’s the only decent thing to do.” She took a deep breath, and looked up into the new arrival’s face. “Miss Sedgeley – how much have you… heard, about our school?”

Maude frowned. “It has a certain bad reputation. But I’m sure it’s much exaggerated. Anyway, I’m in training to be a missionary – I’m expected to go to the places that need me most.”

“Oh, and our poor school does,” Pearl shook her head sorrowfully. “The thing is, Saint T’s accepts girls that other schools won’t. Sometimes it’s because of what they’ve done…”

“And sometimes it’s just because of their family reputation,” Coral finished. “Our dear Father – we love him dearly of course, but to the Press he’ll always be The Biplane Bandit. Pearl and I swore we’d never be like that.” Biplanes were rapidly going out of style anyway, she noted to herself. Monoplanes, yes, and autogyros for a quick getaway without a runway… oh yes, very definitely.

“There’s so many girls here who never recover from a bad start,” Pearl had been studying the new arrival closely, and noticed her shoulders were not just powerfully developed but had the distinctive shape of bison or zebu ancestry. “Do I notice… colonial Native blood in you?”

Maude sniffed. “We are all God’s children, and there’s no shame in that. A Pedigree is something Saint Peter will never ask about.”

Coral patted her reassuringly, though the effect was like patting the front plate of a Vickers Medium tank. “Quite so. One of our Sister’s best pals here was Lucy Clarington-Ndogo from Natal, and she upheld the very best traditions of the place.” She had introduced many folk traditions from her homeland; both Parkesson girls possessed iroko-wood knobkerries and put them to frequent use.

A bovine beamed. “Jolly glad to hear it! They really do say such dreadful things about the school.”

“Oh, and I’m afraid a lot of it’s true,” Pearl injected just the right note of sorrow into her voice. “We just had to meet you, and properly warn you. Now, as to details…”

An hour later, the twins had delivered their charge to the Headmistress, who was giving her the usual pep talk.

“Oh my. What have we brought into play here?” Coral snickered, lying on her back under a shady tree as she toyed with a grass stem. “Loose cannon below decks!”

“One that could be very useful. We need a big, loud distraction while we look for Phoebe’s loot. She’s as dangerous as home-brew Nitro, and needs as much careful handling.” Pearl watched the distant badminton match; it was an hour into injury time and both teams were sending in their thirds reserves, moving up the line. “We should make a point of always telling her the truth – or at least, nothing she can disprove.”

“Yes. Our dear pal Trudi Sternberg – you know she loves giving pretentious ‘operational names’ to the most trivial plots.” Coral waved the grass stem. “Names like Cake-walk Nine, or Tin Drum. How about we call this one… Project China Shop?”

“Hmmm. Saint T’s isn’t that fragile. But Maude isn’t a bull, either. So that fits… I think.” Pearl watched as the stretcher-bearers hurried up to the badminton court again. “What should we point her at first – something she’d go straight at, like… a bull at a gate?”

Coral considered the various high-profile ‘projects’ her fellow Upper Sixth were running. “In two weeks, what can we do?”

Pearl lobbed a pine-cone at her playfully. “Two weeks? What could the Kaiser’s army do to Belgium in that time?”

The merry sound of girlish laughter echoed across the stately grounds.


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