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28 September 2006
BY WALTER D. REIMER
The Woodcarver's Son
© 2006 by Walter D. Reimer
(Inspector Stagg and Sergeant Brush courtesy of EO Costello. Thanks!)
March 29, 1937:
RINS Base Seathl:
Ranua spent part of that Monday morning packing up to leave the barracks that had been home for the past three months. He shook paws or exchanged hugs with his friends, who were also packing up to start their new careers. He grinned at Matt Peters as he asked, “How far do you have to go, Matt?”
The Doberman laughed. “The sub school’s here on the base by East Point,” he reminded the terrier, “so we’ll all be able to get together every now and then.” The two shook paws.
“Well, you know where to find me,” Ranua said.
“Yeah, the Intel Syndic’s dormitory,” Ari teased as he swung his duffel over his shoulder. “Should we have a prayer before we go?” the rat asked.
The six Spontoonies gathered around and Ranua led them in prayer, a heartfelt thanks to the gods for seeing them this far, and expressing the wish that they should all meet again in a month.
The Intelligence Syndic’s dorm was a three-story building made of red brick with a set of white granite steps in its front and at either end. The building where he had first met with Vice-Commodore Broome was nearby, separated by a narrow alleyway sealed at either end with fences.
A facetious sign was just inside the dorm’s foyer, held to the bulletin board with a thumbtack. It read, “If you can read this, there’s a career for you in Intelligence.”
The text was upside down and backwards.
The sign included a crude drawing of a fur wearing a dunce cap. Ranua chuckled at it and walked up to the front desk.
The clerk behind the desk was a civilian, and she smiled as he walked over to her and presented his orders. “Hello,” the otter said in a cheerful tone. “You must be Ensign Milikonu.” When he nodded her smile widened and she glanced over the piece of paper. “Great, we’re always happy to see new faces around here. Sign in here, please,” and she passed over a ledger. He printed and signed his name before giving it back and she said, “You’re billeted upstairs, and you have an appointment in Room 4 at ten o’clock.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ranua said. “What’s Room 4?”
She refused to answer, so he headed up to the living area. The second floor was partly given over to several offices and conference rooms, while the third floor was subdivided into smaller rooms, four beds to a room, with showers and bathrooms at either end of the central hall. He poked around for an empty bed, found only one, and deposited his duffel bag on it.
He headed downstairs again and found that the first floor of the building was mostly closed doors, a few of them guarded. He was at the door to Room 4 when the clock at the end of the hall chimed ten. He knocked, and the door opened.
As soon as he stepped into the pitch-dark room the door slammed closed behind him. He was grabbed by unseen paws (how had he not been able to scent them in the room? he wondered) and hustled into a chair. As soon as his tail hit the wooden seat a single shaded light snapped on over his head. He moved to get up and a voice in the shadows said, “Stay where you are, Ensign.”
Ranua sank back in the chair as three furs stepped out of the shadows. Two wolves and a coyote, all dressed in standard uniform jumpsuits, just like him – but with no rank flashes. He could see nothing beyond the cone of light.
“What’s all this about?” the terrier asked.
The lupines stayed silent, but one of them crossed his arms as they moved to stand on either side of Ranua. The coyote said in a quiet voice, “We will ask the questions here, Ensign.
“You have been accepted into Intelligence School, and over the course of your career you will be exposed to secret information. Before that happens, however, you must go through a process we call vetting. You will answer every question I put to you, without hesitation or evasion. Understood?” he asked, his voice never changing from that quiet, even tone.
“Yes,” the terrier replied uncertainly. The coyote’s ears flicked. The ensign was already off-balance.
The next four hours were the worst of Ranua’s young life, as he was questioned repeatedly concerning his family history, his home life, his education and friends. No aspect of his past was overlooked, and he was confused and sweating by the time the coyote finally said, “I think we are satisfied now. You may go, Ensign. Get some rest and get something to eat,” and the door to the room opened.
When the door closed behind the dazed ensign, the rest of the lights in the room snapped on and the coyote sagged against a table, panting heavily as one of the wolves leaned over him solicitously. There were two other furs in the room, a muscular ferret and a stocky badger. “You all right, Red?” the badger asked the coyote.
Red nodded. “It’s hard work, interrogating someone like that. But I think he’s clear. Silas?” he asked, looking at the ferret.
The ferret stroked at an errant lock of headfur with a paw. “He was telling the truth throughout, as far as I can tell. It’s surprising; most furs always have something to hide.”
“Well, he’s still young yet,” the badger joked as he stood up. “Give him a chance.” The others laughed.
Later that day while at dinner, Ranua mentioned his experience to another student at the school. The canine, a civilian student who said his name was Frank, nodded and said, “Sure, everyone knows all about it. Everyone went through it too.”
“Everyone?” Ranua asked.
Frank nodded again. “Yep. Look at it from their angle – they’re trusting us with secrets, so they have to know we’re loyal and we won’t talk.” He went back to his meal, leaving Ranua to his thoughts.
The next day Ranua had gotten over the interrogation, and since he hadn’t been transferred he supposed that he had passed. He took a seat in a small classroom with a dozen other furs, civilian as well as military, as the four-week school began.
To his surprise, his instructor in ballistics was there. Mrs. O’Farrell was to teach them the mathematical formulas, or algorithms, that all modern codes were based upon. In fact, she smilingly told the class that her name, Edwina O’Farrell, was not her real name. Her assumed name was enciphered, and if translated was a rather rude joke on her ex-husband.
There was no extra credit for deciphering the name.
The elderly minkess had paused while reading off the names on the roll and stared at Ranua over the tops of her glasses. “Ensign Milikonu,” she said, “I must say I’m surprised to see you here. After all, you only scored eighty-six percent,” and she went on with the first lesson as Ranua blushed red to his eartips.
Their last week of Intelligence School was marked by the unveiling of something that several furs had gossiped about, an electro-mechanical cipher machine that held the promise of making and breaking codes a great deal simpler and faster. Ranua looked at the untidy arrangement of wires and shook his head. “Looks like a tangle of worms,” he remarked.
The bear who hovered around the machine like a broody hen snickered around the stem of his pipe. “Quite true, young sir,” he said. “This is only a crude prototype. A second-generation model is now complete, and you will all learn how to use it before you end this course.” He stepped over to a nearby table, where an object rested beneath a large metal cover. With a theatrical flourish the bear removed the cover.
The machine on the desk looked sleek, like a model of a streamlined railroad locomotive. It had a brushed stainless steel body, a set of gleaming keys, and an easy-to-read board with lit letters. When lifted, a lid revealed a set of geared wheels, and a neatly arrayed plugboard, with well-organized plugs. A small punch-tape device attached at the back. In flourishing lettering someone had stamped a name on the front of the machine: Medusa II.
April 23, 1937:
DAD STOP WILL BE HOME MONDAY 26TH STOP LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING ALL OF YOU STOP RANUA ENDS
Ranua read the telegram over for the fourth time, carefully figuring the cost per letter, and crossed out the ‘TO’ and the ‘OF’ in the message before giving it to the telegraph clerk and paying her.
April 24, 1937
RINS Aerodrome, Seathl:
“Hey, Ensign!” Ranua looked up as the clerk behind the scheduling counter waved. “Your flight’s getting ready to leave. Better get aboard or get left behind; no more flights going out tonight.”
“Thanks,” the terrier said, standing and gathering up his duffel. He walked out of the building into the fading sunlight as night started to fall in the east. The plane, a three-engine Bosanquet similar to the one he had taken to reach Seathl, sat waiting as its engines started. He paused and looked around, and felt another pang.
He had left Spontoon, and now he was coming back, a bit more educated, (hopefully) a bit wiser, and a bit more experienced. He patted the packet containing his orders, picked up his luggage and got aboard the plane.
April 26, 1937
RINS Base, Moon Island
The plane had landed just after midnight, and Ranua spent a few hours asleep in the longhouse for transient personnel. After breakfast, he got into his formal uniform and sought a meeting with the base syndic.
Captain Maxwell grinned widely as Ranua was shown in. “Ranua – excuse me, Ensign Milikonu,” he said, returning the terrier’s salute. “Great to see you again. You’re the first one back, by the way. You have your orders, I take it?” he asked as he shook paws with the younger canine.
Ranua gave him the packet of orders, and Maxwell slit the envelope open with a small dagger. He scanned them quickly, then reread one page. The black-furred Labrador’s blue eyes studied the younger officer. “Says here you’re going to be over at the Intel post.”
Maxwell nodded, and gave Ranua part of the packet back. “You’d better get over there, then, and introduce yourself to Lieutenant Brown.”
“Yes, sir.” Another pawshake was exchanged, and Ranua headed for the far end of the administration building.
Lieutenant Brown, it turned out, was a short, slim mouse who seemed to be always in a hurry about something. She took the packet of orders and read them, then looked sharply at Ranua and read them again. “Where are you staying, Milikonu?” she snapped.
“Transient longhouse, ma’am,” Ranua replied.
She nodded, her tail whipping about before coiling around one of her ankles. “That won’t do. Can’t have you talking in your sleep . . . hmm, do you have somewhere to stay off base, or maybe there’s a billet in the BOQ . . .” her voice trailed off as she thought.
“I’d like to stay here on base if possible, ma’am,” Ranua said, “but I can stay with my family if I can’t find a place.”
Brown nodded. “Okay. You start work here on Thursday, so you have three days to get settled in and familiar with what you’ll be doing. Dismissed,” and she gave him an offpawed salute as she walked away.
Luckily, there was a small two-person bungalow available for rent on the base, about a third of the way up the island’s central ridge at a spot called Maleukana Point. After signing a pile of forms at the base’s housing office and moving in, Ranua caught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror and smiled.
It was a treat to speak Spontoonie again as he hailed a water taxi to Casino Island, and he held his uniform kepi in his lap to prevent it from blowing away in the wind. The water taxi driver had at first looked skeptically at the young officer, but after Ranua assured him that he had been born on the islands the feline had brought the terrier up to date on the latest news and gossip.
There was the sound of hard-soled shoes on the wooden porch, and Tama Milikonu barely looked up from his ledger as he said, “Good morning, can I help – “ His voice trailed off as he finally looked up and stared at the officer standing in the doorway.
Ranua said, almost shyly, “Hello, Father.”
Tama’s exultant shout made Ranua’s ears lay back. “IMANA! TAMUHARO!” He came out from behind the counter and swept his oldest son up in a bone-crushing hug as his mother and younger brother came out of the back room. “Great to see you, Son!” Tama said as he finally let Ranua go. “How long have you been here?”
“Since just after midnight, Father,” Ranua said, blushing slightly as his mother kissed him. He tousled his younger brother’s headfur, and Tamuharo went racing out of the store. “I’ve got three days before I actually start work at the base,” he explained.
“You must come and tell us everything,” Imana said as she stepped back and looked him over critically. “You look thinner, Son. Have you been eating well?”
Ranua chuckled. “Yes, Mother.” He winked. “The uniform makes me look thinner.” There was a sound behind him, and he turned.
Miri stood in the doorway, wearing a light cotton dress, the creamy yellow complementing her black and brown fur. She looked as if she’d run from her father’s store, and Tamuharo stood behind her, grinning widely. She and Ranua just stood there, looking at each other until Miri finally said, “Your picture . . . I’m going to tear it up.”
His ears dipped. “Why?”
“Because now you’re here in the flesh,” and she launched herself at him. He caught her and hugged her tightly as they kissed. She broke the kiss and whispered, “I bet you look just as good out of that uniform as you do in it.”
He whispered in her ear, “Tonight?”
April 27, 1937
“Excuse me, Inspector?” and as the whitetail buck looked up the constable said, “Got a visitor for you.” He nodded at Sergeant Brush as he withdrew and Ranua walked in.
Franklin Stagg studied the visitor curiously. Wirehair terrier, young – maybe twenty – dressed in the maroon and dark green of the Naval Syndicate with a thin gold stripe on each shoulder. As he watched, the ensign stopped a foot from his desk and said, "Sir? Are you Detective Inspector Stagg?" His English had a Spontoonie accent, which caused Brush’s vulpine ears to perk up.
"Guilty," the buck said wryly. The canine passed him a sealed letter, and remained standing nearly at attention while Stagg read the contents. He had been expecting this.
There was a cover letter from Vice-Commodore Broome, as well as several pages that amounted to a resume of the young terrier's record. With a soft grunt Stagg lowered the documents and looked up at the terrier, ignoring for the moment Brush’s curious expression. "According to this, you are Ensign Ranua Milikonu, and you are assigned to be the sorcerer's apprentice," Stagg said.
It took a moment for the ensign to catch the reference, but he finally smiled. “Yes, sir.”
“And how good are you at decryption, Mister Milikonu?”
“Pretty good sir,” Ranua said with a smile. “I finished top of my class at the Intelligence School.”
Stagg lifted one eyebrow. “Indeed.” He took out a piece of paper, thought for a moment, then scrawled a series of five-letter blocks: ZVFGR EZVYV XBAHL BHESY LVFBC RASWF
He held out the paper to Ranua. “Decipher this, please.”
Ranua took the paper and looked at it, his eyes slowly losing their focus as his lips moved. Suddenly his eyes went wide; he whirled around and started fumbling with the buttons on his trousers. Brush suppressed a laugh as Ranua said, “Sorry, sir.”
"No need, Ensign Milikonu. It happens." Stagg sat back, trying not to show how impressed he had been. The young officer had promise, that much was certain.
April 28, 1937
Getting the approvals had been the hardest part, and the one-bedroom bungalow on the point cost ten dollars a month to rent.
But it had been worth every penny.
Ranua sighed happily as he watched the sun set over Eastern Island, and his paw tightened its gentle grip on Miri’s waist. She had asked to visit shortly after he had moved in.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
His smile grew a bit wistful. “When I was starting out, Father spoke of the paths a fur takes in life. I start a new one tomorrow, down there on the base, and you know something?” When she looked at him he said, “I can’t imagine walking that path without you, Miri.”
“I love you,” she said, and they kissed as the sun dipped below the horizon.