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A story by Simon Barber & David Reese Dorrycott & Fredrik K T Andersson
A story of Angelica Silferlindh, a character by Freddy Andersson,
(including characters from his comic strip "Silver Angel")
& featuring Oharu and characters by David Reese Dorrycott
and characters from Simon Barber's Songmark Academy stories.
Stranded Angeland Freddy Andersson's Silver Angel comic strip
by Simon Barber
featuring Oharu and characters by David Reese Dorrycott
and characters from Simon's Songmark Academy stories
Angelica Silferlindh, Jan Van der Veldt,
“Baron” von Krokk, Black Lotus © Freddy Andersson
Oharu © Reese D’Orrycott.
Even in the final week of the Season, Casino Island glittered with brilliant lights as evening fell. The tourists saw nothing of the hard work that kept it that way, neither the power station burning coal shipped from Vostok nor the two newer “Bio-reaktors” that digested everything from cast-up seaweed tidied off bathing beaches to the eggshells and coffee grounds left over from rich hotel breakfasts. The small army of Spontoonies behind the scenes keeping the windows and lamps clean and the constant casualties of light bulbs replaced, would never feature on postcards and holiday snaps sent home.
To Angelica Silferlindh, the sight was breathtaking as she stood in the prow of the water-taxi heading in. Months of boredom and frustration in a thatched Native hut or soaking wet canoe just might be coming to an end – if she could only get enough money for fuel and repairs of her beloved aircraft, the Silver Angel.
“Sucker bait.” Behind her, Jan Van der Veldt cast a jaundiced eye at the flashing lights of the Treasure Island Amusement park. The tall lion swished his black-tipped tail. “They don’t waste money on flashing signs at the end of town the real money’s made.”
Angelica’s ears dipped, as she noted they were heading towards the Old China Dock. She had heard about that end of town from the fishing girls, but never been there – in fact, Casino Island was new to her except as a tantalising beacon of Civilisation shining across the water. “As long as there’s enough to pay me.”
The lion laughed. “My bass he’s a hard one to argue with. If you don’t take his deal today, you think you’ll have time to get that pearl sold through your Songmark girlfriend?” He grinned, looking down at the house-cat. “You talk back to him and I’ll tell you what’ll happen tomorrow. Some Main Island native’s going to get a pocket full of small change to complain about you to the police. They can, maybe they will anyway. You’re a Euro on Main Island, no passport or work permit, that’s not allowed. They’d deport you right away. Won’t be to Sweden though. Maybe Macau, maybe Kuo Han – wherever a captain’s willing to take you for free. As long as you’re off Spontoon, nobody’d care.” He shrugged. “And that fancy silver aircraft, probably seized by the Althing to pay the fines. So you talk nice with the Baron.”
Angelica’s tail bottled out, and a most unladylike hiss escaped her. Then she steadied herself, thinking hard. Jan didn’t have to tell me this, she reminded herself. He’s warned me. And he did get me this dress. It’s the finest thing I’ve worn since I arrived on these islands… unconsciously her paw ran down the sheer dress of Ulàul cloth that fitted her like a second fur.
As they arrived at the oldest dock, Jan’s paw dipped into the pocket of his bush jacket and palmed a small ampoule of triple-distilled catnip wrapped in a handkerchief. “Up you go,” he said helpfully, giving Angelica a hefty shove up the iron ladder and breaking the thin glass to let the potent but scentless oil seep into her pale fur. The handkerchief dropped into the water a second later, leaving the active oil starting to evaporate with the feline girl’s body heat. He held his breath, wiped his paw on the seaweed-covered dock wall, and hid a fierce grin. This should make things interesting.
Although it was the last week of the tourist season, Casino Island bustled with light and sound. The Althing had decided years ago that the season would be an all-or-nothing approach geared around the big tour boats; other resorts had gradual fade-outs where the last paying tourists of the year wandered around half closed shops and entertainments. This was always a disappointment for folk who had saved all year for their holiday, and so despite the streets being scarcely half as crowded as in July, in mid September everything was wide open for business. The end would be abrupt, with quiet parties in service rooms at the back of hotels followed by homecoming ones on Main Island and the more distant isles in the Nimitz Sea.
Unfortunately, Angelica had not arrived at the end of town with the bright lights and dances. She shivered slightly, looking at the dockside scene, wishing for a second that her dress was something less appealing and more like the rugged Adventuring outfits she had seen the Songmark girls wore. There were other girls in similar costumes to hers on the street corner – for a second she wondered if they were waiting for a bus, but then her tail bottled out again as she realised what they were there for.
Definitely not the good side of town. Her ears went right down, and she hastened to catch up with Jan Van der Veldt. A feline tail twitched, as she caught a scent of the lion’s musk. He may be a crook, but he’s the one who’s paying me. And right now – that’ll have to do. She breathed in deeply, checking her reaction as she averted her eyes from a pretty canine girl in a scandalously short dress who hailed Jan cheerfully and cast her a knowing wink. After her experience with Prudence’s friends, it was almost a relief to see her own tail was not responding too.
Still two streets away, Baron von Krokk paced the floor of the first floor room, looking down onto the street below. He was not alone; with him was a stout and placid Burmese feline in a yellow robe, whose profitable business of imports and exports did not involve pearls.
“So, my dear Hsien,” the Cayman nodded. “If anyone asks – you are my silent partner. Here to look over the merchandise – which indeed you are. But she thinks that means the rose pearl.”
The oriental feline inclined his head. “The girl is pedigree?” He enquired mildly, inspecting elegantly lacquered finger claws.
“By her looks, yes. The Stockholm authorities don’t send copies out to just anyone who asks and pays search fees, though. London is more … amenable. Her school had a copy of the pedigree. Oh yes, I have investigated Miss Silferlindh.” Just then, there was the sound of the door below, and the Baron gave a wide crocodilian smile. “And here we are. You may see for yourself.”
The door creaked open and “Slim” Jan van der Veldt ushered Angelica into the room with his boss and a Kuo Han feline he recognised with an unpleasant shock. Years of experience held in check his reaction to snarl and spit – what was the Baron doing, bringing Hsien here? The Burmese was as dangerous to be in company with as a ticking bomb. Jan had spent some time behind prison bars in various lands, but he knew that on Spontoon the people caught in Hsien’s trade did not get a trial. They vanished, as quietly and permanently as anyone in Ioseph Starling’s Soviet Union, before the newspapers and tourists ever caught a scent of the business. There were some things that the islands simply did not tolerate.
“Baron von Krokk, this is Miss Silferlindh,” he kept his voice neutral as he retired to the corner by the door. “I don’t know if you’re too interested in what she’s got. Shall I throw her out?”
The Cayman looked up at Angelica, a look of studied boredom on his long muzzle. “Who? Oh yes, the fishwife with the rose pearl. Well, let’s see it. It had better be worth my time.”
Angelica felt her blood rushing through her veins, as she looked around the room. It was not as if she was drunk, everything seemed marvellously clear and sharp, and she knew she would remember everything. “This is what you want. I don’t know if I’ll let you have it, though.” She pulled out the grape-sized rose pearl, holding it up to the light. “I’ve asked about these. The Rajah of Sarakwak paid five hundred shells for a smaller one last year – and I’ve friends in Songmark who are very well-connected. But I’ll accept three hundred for a quick sale, cash.” She rotated the pearl so its refraction wandered smoothly across the walls; very obviously it was a perfect sphere with not the slightest flaw. “And don’t try any funny business. My landlady expects me back by ten tonight, and I told her where I was going.”
The Cayman hissed, his mind racing. The price was about right, had Angelica walked into the main jewellers of Hamsterdam with a legal proof of ownership signed by the Althing committee. “Three hundred? Oh, no. A hundred and twenty is what I said and that’s what I meant. Show her that, Jan, or show her the door.” He turned away, his tail dragging on the floor.
“Two hundred and fifty.” Angelica pocketed the pearl. “And just for that, my price for regular pearls is now two shells apiece, not one.” Her tail lashed, and her eyes were bright and hard.
Behind her, Jan van der Veldt stifled a groan. Catnip! It was unpredictable stuff. Felines taking it generally became careless and uninhibited, which made it an aid to seduction banned in most countries and only sold to females in many others. But as with alcohol, exactly what happened depended on what mood the “patient” was in to begin with. Just as a drunk could become bouncingly happy or tearfully morose, exactly how a reckless feline full of catnip would behave … he shook his head. This was not working out as he had planned. A relaxed and acquiescent Angelica had been the idea, not one recklessly fired with carefree enthusiasm.
“A hundred and fifty!” The Baron snapped. He turned, his monocle glinting. “Don’t push me.”
“Two hundred. But my usual finds now cost you three shells apiece, just for that.” Angelica took out the rose pearl again and polished it gently. “I can wait. I’m sure I can find my Songmark friends by the end of the week, and then I won’t need you to buy anything from me.”
The Baron glared at her. “Two hundred shells for the pink pearl. Two shells apiece for the regular ones. Final offer.”
Angelica looked down at the scaly gentleman with amusement, thinking how odd he looked in a Euro frock coat and monocle when he should be sitting on some muddy riverbank. “Agreed!” She waited till he stumped out of the room and returned with a cash box. Her rose pearl she placed inside it and waited while the reptile counted out twenty used ten-shell notes, checking the sea-horse watermark was there and the serial numbers were different. “And that’s that. A pleasure doing business with you. Now, Jan, will you escort me back?” She turned on her heel and headed towards the door with her tail high, humming a Swedish folk song about cheating trolls.
Baron von Krokk stared at her, jerking his head to Jan to go with her. A reptilian hiss emerged from his tightly clenched jaws as he watched the annoying feline vanish with his money. For half a minute there was silence, and then an ugly smile spread over his features as he turned to Hsien, who had been silently watching throughout. “Well?”
Hsien inclined his head again. “As you indicated. A most spirited Euro. Such are greatly in demand; the contrast before and after training is considered most delicious.” His bland face never changed expression. “Deliver her to me unharmed in International waters and I will pay nine hundred dollars, or shells as you wish. Acceptable?”
“Good, good,” The Baron’s long jaw opened in a sharp-toothed smile. “Now I have that one pearl – there is nothing special in the regular harvest she brings in. Not nine hundred shells worth of profit, anyway. The official diving season is nearly over, and the locals know she wanted to leave these islands anyway. They won’t miss her when she does, or ask too many questions.” He nodded, smiling. Nobody tried to cheat a Von Krokk and got away with it.
Having come all this way to the lights and music of Casino Island, Angelica was in no hurry to return to Mama Popoluma’s thatched hut; she had had more than enough sitting around the fire-pit with cubs crawling over her. Tonight her spirits were high and her head buzzed with a sparkling feeling like freshly uncorked champagne.
“I feel like dancing,” she declared, smoothing down her fine new dress. Maybe Jan and his boss were not so bad, she decided – it had taken some persuasion, but she had got what she wanted out of them. “It’s payday, and soon I’ll be out of here!”
“Yes, you will.” Jan Van der Veldt commented neutrally. Inside, he scowled. Having Angelica on the islands and no longer financially bound to his employer was a risk, and he had been the first to agree to getting rid of her. Seeing Hsien there had reminded him of how the game had suddenly changed quite radically; for pearl smuggling he generally received little more than a heavy fine and a one-way deportation ticket out of wherever the Authorities had caught up with him. Smuggling pearls was like handling cigars, Swiss watches or brandy – even quite law-abiding citizens thought it only harmed the tax-furs, and those were never a popular bunch. Slavery, though – that was something lethally different. He knew of a dozen or so furs in that trade who had “disappeared” in the Nimitz Sea area just that year, and there would never be a public trial or sentence passed on them – just a very final one, enforced on the spot.
“Dancing!” Angelica’s ears perked up as the sound of a lively swing band blared out from a hotel terrace. “It’s been so long!” Her tail was raised happily at the sight of cultured folk dressed as they might be in Stockholm or Monte Carlo, with not a stupid flower necklace or grass skirt in sight. Her head whirled as she accepted a dance from an impeccably dressed mink in white tie and tail-covers, and as the band struck up, she threw herself into one long-awaited evening of celebration.
Outside in the street, a young Native fox sat earnestly talking with three rickshaw-drivers patiently awaiting sore-pawed customers to haul back to the hotels as soon as the dancing was over. Rickshaw drivers were invisible to most people, blending into the background unless wanted. To the average tourist they registered about as much as the drain covers on the street – always there but never looked at until someone wanted one.
“Van der Veldt, he is no tourist,” one of them was telling Tehepoa, watching the reflection of the lion who sat smoking a venomous cheroot on the terrace bar, intent on watching the dancing. “Many furs in the Import-Export trade, have stories about him. Off Spontoon, he carries a machete, and not for cutting palm leaves for housing.”
Tehepoa’s ears dipped, registering the fact. Many Spontoonies were involved in shipping, some of it taking them to odd corners where strange deals were made. In a Pacific where so many small nations stood out as fiercely independent and proud of their separate cultures, what was perfectly legal on island A was strictly forbidden on B, and a middleman based on island C with a fast ship and local contacts often stood to make a good living. There was no sharp dividing line, rather a gradual greying area where furs were less and less fussy as to what cargo they moved and what they would do to get it there – and by all accounts “Slim Jan” usually stood at the dark end of that grey zone.
“I know he works for Rutger von Krokk,” Tehepoa confirmed. “They buy pearls from the Althing, they’re licensed to sell them overseas. So how is that smuggling?”
A sturdy badger leaned back between the shafts of his rickshaw, contemplating the question. “The Police have never proved anything,” he warned. “They have some legal pearls. It would be simple enough to palm off the ones they buy illegally as those, and export them. One pearl of such and such a size is very like any other. Then return the legal ones. The Constabulary could be chasing the same packet in and out of Customs till the corners wear off – and when they open it, those are the ones the Althing sold to start with! That is one thing they can do. There are many others.”
The young fox nodded. Like all Spontoonies he had a grounding in subjects that did not appear on the class timetables. When the tourists had gone, some classes would be held in the village schools that would shock the camera-wielding and usually good-natured tour boat crowds – classes that would normally be expected to be held in wartime in remote country houses far from prying noses. Despite all that and despite being a Spontoonie born and bred, he knew he was out of his depth on Casino Island, where Euro rules applied – or at least the Euros believed they did, and behaved accordingly.
“Ah. That is the last dance number,” A grizzled sun bear cocked an ear at the sound of the band striking up again. “Five minutes and the place will start to empty.”
“Then will come the danger.” Tehepoa looked through the plate-glass windows into the brilliantly lit hotel terrace bar, spotting Angelica whirling round on the arm of an impeccably dressed Borzoi gentleman, one of the White Russians from Vostok. He frowned, thinking hard. Angelica worked gathering pearls, and Baron Von Krokk dealt in pearls – it did not take one of the famous Spontoon Detective’s Conferences to work out what she had been doing. Why was Angelica suddenly so happy? He racked his brains, trying to think, then admitted he had too little information.
Suddenly he remembered what the Priestess Oharu had told him to do. His ears drooped, as he realised he had followed his first instinct and run straight after Angelica like The Scent or one of the Euro heroes from the talkies he sneaked out to Casino Island to watch once a month.
“As for the great cat that visited her,” he almost heard Oharu’s voice, now sounding more irritated than the original time, “you are to go as a shadow to him.”
“Three minutes, about.” The badger looked up at the clock tower of Shepherd’s Hotel. “Unless she stays for drinks and such.”
“Three minutes?” Tehepoa’s fur bristled. The time had just gone, and he had still not begun his work. “May I sit?” At the driver’s assent, he threw himself back into the rickshaw seat, pulled the curtains to cut out the distracting lights, and began to clear his mind.
You must see all, feel all, he seemed to hear that damaged voice instructing him. And when you see all, then you will know at what small place to look hardest. He forced stillness to his churning thoughts, and began to bring to mind what he had seen. Angelica, dancing to the perspiring swing band in a new dress that she had certainly not bought in the village she stayed in. “Slim Jan”, sitting in the shadows watching her, his cheroot a dimly gleaming ember as the dark-maned lion relaxed, quiet but alert like a hunter waiting in ambush.
Tehepoa concentrated. It would have been much easier if he could have called on the Spirits to aid him; this was like opening a door with lock-picks rather than gelignite. Subtlety rather than massive force, he told himself. He had seen Flash Gordon films with “mind-reading helmets” that showed whatever was in the subject’s thoughts as cast on a screen; though the furs on Cranium Island might one day work out something like that, he had to manage with far less exact tools. For a second he felt a burst of anger towards the foreign Priestess who had cut him and the girls off from their rightful gifts – but then he steadied himself. He had accepted this job, and honour demanded that he do his best with what he had.
Letting his spirit spread out through the warm Summer air like a fog bank, he let it take the impressions of what it touched. Fortunately the lion was sitting apart from the whirl of dancers, whose random chatter and emotions would have drowned out what Tehepoa sought.
There! It was nothing as easy or clear as tuning into a radio, but he could feel the lion, pick up what emotions he radiated like body heat. Sensing his spirit was difficult, like trying to read from one inner layer of an intact onion – but Tehepoa picked up worry, some definite lust (though less than he had expected) and overall a growing annoyance with the Euro house-cat he was watching over. Tehepoa’s ears and tail drooped. He could have guessed as much; Angelica was a definitely pretty but exasperating feline.
All too soon the music stopped, and the link was lost as Jan stood up and joined the crowd, escorting Angelica back to the docks heading towards Main Island. And although Tehepoa stayed out of sight, a rickshaw driver was always passing within hearing distance. As they generally did.
“What a night!” Angelica stood in the prow of the water-taxi, her ears still right up and her heart racing with the excitement and triumph. “What a night! After all this time I’ve done it!” Her money was secure; two hundred shells would buy her enough aviation spirit in guaranteed sealed barrels to fly the Silver Angel to Hawaii, and then she could wire home for more funds. Her family firm had probably sold Scandinavia most of its bananas, a fruit she was hideously familiar with.
She suppressed a shudder, and reminded herself that she would soon be home and having to cope with the family trade again. It was not a physical allergy; she remembered an equine girl back at her school in England whose favourite food was strawberries – unfortunately she would break out in skin eruptions like medieval accounts of pestilences if she ever ate any. No, she told herself, familiarity had bred more than contempt. It had been the last straw when she had been persuaded to pose in her fur for that advertising poster. The price had been almost worth it though – to own the Silver Angel. True, there had been a few trivial conditions she admitted she had not yet satisfied – such as the bright yellow aircraft colour scheme, the company symbols plastered all over it and the twenty-metre trailing advertising banner to spread the name of the Tropicanana Banana Company wherever she flew.
“Oh no, baby,” her shudder broke out at that idea. “I won’t let them do that to you.”
When Jan van der Veldt returned to the building, he found to his relief that Hsien had gone, as had his employer. He hoped nobody ever saw them together; the local Constabulary were getting exceedingly good at following a trail.
“So … did things go well?”
Jan spun round; even his keen hunter’s instincts had not registered there was anyone else in the room. He relaxed a little when he saw that it was Black Lotus; she could stand as still as a black marble statue, scarcely seeming to even breathe.
“Yeah. The Baron got you that fancy pearl. Although the girl twisted his tail to get her full price. Even laughed at him.” Briefly he recounted how the meeting had gone, and who else had been there.
“So.” Black Lotus’ tongue flicked in and out; she rarely showed emotion but her tail-tip twitched idly from side to side. “A very bold young lady.”
“Oh yeah. Nine hundred shells’ worth of bold, pedigree Euro. She’s trouble. But that’s nothing next to the trouble there’ll be if Hsien gets her and folk around here ever find out we were mixed up in it.” His own black-tufted tail waved in irritation. “We’ve got to get her out of the way. While she had that pearl, she had something to bargain with. Now it’s gone, and so will she – one way or another.”
The snake-woman looked at the hulking adventurer, amusement on her scaled features. “Why, my dear Mister van der Veldt. One might almost think you have a soft spot for her.”
A tawny snout wrinkled. “Not soft in the head! She’s trouble. Trouble if Hsien gets her, trouble if she gets away and squeals on us once she’s out of the Spontoons. We keep her sweet though, and if she gets away she won’t bother the cops about us. Why should she? All she wants is to get away and forget about Spontoon – and that suits me fine.”
Black Lotus dipped her muzzle. “A most sensible attitude. If she is to escape, it should be soon. And the dear Baron would only be upset if he thought we assisted her.” Her scales shifted restlessly. “Really, this business involving Hsien is too tiresome. Should we be planning a departure at the same time, all well and good. But I for one intend to stay here.”
“And show off your new pearl,” Jan hazarded a guess. “Something you can’t do so well on the run or holed up in some backwater with no extradition treaty.”
Black Lotus cast him a faintly amused smile. “Well, there is that, of course.”
Dawn saw Angelica waking in the all too familiar thatched hut after an uneventful water-taxi ride and two miles of clear moonlit walk over the island along empty coral paths. There was no need for an alarm clock in the Popoluma household , she noted sourly – the kittens woke up at first light like wild animals, and proceeded to loudly stalk and pounce each other about the hut.
“Bleah.” She sat up, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. There was very little furniture, but she had improvised a wooden rail that now had her lava lava and the Ulàul cloth dress neatly draped over it. Looking around carefully, she checked that the envelope was still hidden in a fold of her new dress; it had not been a dream, nor had the proceeds been innocently grabbed by tiny cubs to play paper-chase with. She stroked its smooth and reassuringly full body, a thrill running through her as she imagined it as a key back to civilisation and her old life.
“Sun-greetings, Missy!” Mama Popoluma waved from beside the fire-pit, where she was stirring a bubbling pot. “You are having a good time last night?”
“Oh yes.” For a second Angelica closed her eyes, blotting out the sight of the crude longhouse as she recalled the brilliantly lit hotel terrace, crowded with elegantly dressed dancers. “I had some good news, too. But that’s a surprise.” She had no intention of announcing her departure; though she admitted the Popoluma family had been very good to her, she could send them a nice postcard of thanks when she got to Hawaii.
Mama P nodded, cradling her smallest kitten at her breast. Perhaps she has found a nice Spontoonie to settle down with, she told herself. It is good to see her smile.
Not a hundred yards away, a Spontoonie fox was not smiling as he respectfully bowed in front of his Priestess, dreading her response as he frankly told her all he had done and been unable to do the night before. True, Angelica had returned safe and sound – but that had been none of his doing, and he had very few hard answers to report after his night-long mission.
“Oharu Shishou,” he finished up. “I failed to get more than I might have guessed anyway. My powers were too weak.”
Oharu was sitting at the edge of the ridge above the village, on an exposed ledge of rock that commanded a wide view out over the watershed to South and Casino Island. For a minute she was silent, as she considered the trainee priest’s report.
“You have not done so very badly.” Her tone was level. “You watched over Miss Angelica, as you should, and kept hidden as you should. There was no need to rescue her. But you were there had the need arisen – and the great cat still does not know of you.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t.” Tehepoa’s ears raised a little. “But I didn’t find out much about him, either.”
The mouse nodded. Privately she was quite pleased with her student’s progress; being able to read the spirit of another was quite an achievement, however little he had actually seen. Tehepoa had considerable power, but woefully lacked control – as the impossibly tangled curse on Angelica had revealed. Subtlety and careful planning were things he definitely needed to work on.
“So. He is not hostile to her. Angelica, she was celebrating something, you say? Few things would make her happy here except leaving the islands.” Oharu thought hard. “She cannot leave without money for fuel, even if the curse was lifted. So one believes that she has acquired some.” Oharu smoothed her kimono, contemplating the problem. “Where does one buy aircraft fuel?”
Tehepoa scratched between his ears. “Main Village would have some,” he offered “but Eastern Island is the main civilian depot. Miss Angelica would want only the best.”
Oharu’s whiskers twitched. “You are to watch her still, and follow if she leaves this village,” she instructed her student. “She believes she can fly away once she has fuel. She cannot. She may become desperate and rash when she discovers this; it is then we must protect her the most.” More rash, she corrected herself.
“Yes, Oharu Shishou,” Tehepoa bowed. He just managed to suppress a yawn, having been up late the night before and watching until Mama P had put the lamps out. Angelica had evidently been expected back late.
Oharu turned to the badger girls. “Ote’he, Nuimba,” she gestured for them to approach. “You are to watch her in the village, and Tehepoa outside. Tend the shrines, but one of you always to watch her.” The twins bowed, and headed out to quietly observe Angelica from a distance.
Seeing them go, Oharu relaxed. With their visitor hopefully guarded against mundane threats, now she could look again at the curse. It was like unravelling a twisted ball of string; the more one opened up the outer layers, the more the equally confusing insides were revealed.
Standing and stretching, she walked down to the beach where the Silver Angel was pulled high up above the tide level. It was the only patch of shade on the whole beach, and she gratefully accepted its protection from the still powerful September sun. She sat and opened her mind, seeking to commune again with the Kami of the splendid aircraft. Unlike the ancient spirit of the Great Stone Glen, this was nothing you could hold a conversation with; perhaps, she speculated, one day an aircraft would be ancient or complex enough that its Kami could talk back.
Oharu’s spirit touched the precision-made engine, now cold but latent with the promise of smooth, efficient power that had carried it here from the cold lands on the far side of the world. She traced its breath, its life-blood of petrol and its lubrication and cooling – and throughout it all there was something like a tangling net, fouling it like a rope fouling a ship’s screw. Her ears dipped in concentration. As before, she could see that much of the curse was not presently here; that part rested on Angelica herself and the two only combined when the feline was present.
“There will be difficulties,” she acknowledged. A curse was like a fire; with suitable conditions it would grow even without further tending. Every time Angelica looked down her snout at a Native Spontoonie, every day she wished she was back in Euro civilisation – this would get worse. For a heartbeat Oharu imagined what would happen if she failed to remove it. Angelica was no doe, but she was a delight to look at, and should the curse permanently change her interests…
“No.” Oharu firmly told herself. “This must not be.” Taking a deep breath, she probed the Kami of the silver machine, feeling its hurts and strengths. She had done this with Schneider Trophy aircraft, thrilling at their elegant hidden power as a rider might lovingly run paws over the glossy fur of a prized race horse. The racing aircraft had ached, an ache she felt deep in her bones when she communed with their Kamis – for they were absolutely pared down and tuned up to run on the absolute margin of catastrophe, with overstressed engines that needed to be rebuilt at the end of every day’s racing. Schneider Trophy engines were built to have no single weak point, but to be tuned up so that every single component was a fraction away from failure. The mechanics talked of fatigue cracking and high-temperature creep; to the aircraft, it hurt.
Opening her eyes, she saw by the shadows that an hour had passed. Standing, she bowed and thanked the Silver Angel for the gift of its shade, before brushing the sand off her kimono and heading back to the village.
Two hundred metres offshore, Angelica pulled herself into the canoe with her oyster net held tightly in her teeth. This way she could use all her paws; on her first day she had improvised a belt to hold it, but the village girls had laughed and gently told her off. Any sort of belt or clothing was too dangerous to work with underwater; the pearl divers worked in their bare fur to avoid being snagged and trapped four metres down on the sharp branching corals.
“A good catch!” Monoteha enthused, the otter taking Angelica’s bag and counting the oysters in it. “We make a good village girl of you one day, you win fine husband, yes!”
Angelica forced a smile. The locals were infuriatingly contented, sometimes. Monoteha lived with three sisters in a thatched longhouse, worked all day in season on the boats and on the farm the rest of the year, and happily looked forward to doing that the rest of her life, plus husband and kits that would follow later on as naturally as the seasons. She did not even have the excuse of ignorance; she had been to Casino Island many times and from details she had let slip, the Spontoon schools gave a surprisingly good education that included extensive knowledge of the outside world. And yet she preferred her hut to the pleasures and comforts of civilisation. It made these people very hard to talk to.
“Well, we only have until the end of the week to fish. Isn’t that right?” Angelica had heard Mama P planning with her neighbours the big party that marked the end of the pearl fishing and tourist seasons.
“Oh yes! Four days pass, we hold party, Hoopy Jaloopy! All the boys come back with tourist stories to tell.” Monoteha winked. “And we show how we miss them. You find plenty good company, oh yes.”
A shiver ran down the feline’s back despite the warm sun. She had to be out of here by then, before the returning Spontoonies began asking awkward questions about her. She had sent a reply postcard over to Superior Engineering to ask the delivered price of fifty gallons of Shell brand aviation spirit in a customs sealed barrel; enough to flush out the residue of dirty Native fuel she was sure were causing her the trouble and to get her over to Eastern Island to fill the Silver Angel’s tanks for her escape. It would be a close-run thing, but she knew at last she now had a chance.
Suddenly there was a shout of “Mako!” from the boat working further out. Monoteha stiffened for a second, then leaned overboard with the paddle and beat a rapid tattoo of splashes that carried underwater. A few seconds later the other two village girls burst to the surface and hauled themselves onboard.
“Mako. Is danger shark.” Monoteha pointed out to sea then bent to the work of her paddling.
Angelica strained to look, even while she helped paddle the outrigger canoe back towards the shore. In the cartoons it was simple and obvious, a black triangular fin cutting the water like a yacht’s sail. The swell was gentle but quite high today, and every wave hid its own height of water behind like a sniper lurking in a trench.
Suddenly she saw it – not black, but a mid grey that she would never have spotted on her own at half that range. It dipped in and out of sight, closing faster than a canoe could move, with just a suggestion of sleekly powerful bulk below the water.
One of the canoes was not heading for the beach. It was no outrigger craft but a one-man canoe, sleek and rather like an ocean-ready version of the river racing boats Angelica had seen at school in England. She could see the slim figure of the tabby-patterned Native tomcat who had organised bringing her Silver Angel back to land, that first day when it had been drifting out into the Nimitz Sea. Her ears dipped. She had been glad to be rescued then – but without his well-meaning assistance the currents would have taken her out into the main shipping lanes, for a near certain rescue that would not have involved being stranded on the beach for two months. She bent her head, concentrating on her paddling for a minute while the shore steadily grew closer.
“Waho hahanoa!” There was a triumphant shout from Monoteha as the otter glanced back towards the action. “Shark Hunter is finest sea warrior!” She held up a paw to halt, and they all shipped oars and turned to look.
“Is shark steaks tonight,” one of the felines behind Angelica enthused, her eyes and sharp teeth shining. Angelica spotted that the one-person canoe was now towing a heavy load behind it on a rope, while its rower stowed a two-metre spear. “Shark spirits not lay curse on us, no fear! Shark they understand killed and eaten.”
Angelica’s eyes widened at the sight. One cat against a three metre shark, one shot with a Native spear, she told herself disbelievingly. You just can't DO that.
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