SMUGGLER’S BALOO

 

A TaleSpin Fan-Fic

By

Herodotus

Chapter 4

 

 

            We’ve got to get out of here!  Rebecca wailed, grabbing a double fistful of Baloo’s shirt.

            “Yer tellin’ me, lady!  I’m open to any suggestions.”

            Eyes darting about the room, Rebecca frantically searched for an avenue of escape.  Finally her gaze rested on the large iron door. 

            “We’ll have to break the door open!”

            Shaking his head, Baloo studied the door.  It had to be at least a half an inch of solid metal, and bolted from the outside.  Before he could tell Rebecca he did not think there was any way even he could batter it down, the small bear launched herself at it.

            Rebecca hit the door with an audible thud that made Baloo cringe.   She rebounded and landed, stunned, on the floor.  Much to his surprise, the door popped open.

            “Ya did it, Beckers!  Ya really did it!”

            “Who... Wha...?” she stammered as she tried to climb to her feet.

            There was another boom and again the Iron Vulture was rocked.

            “Come in?” Rebecca said drunkenly.

            Snatching up his dazed partner, Baloo charged at the open door.  “Let’s go, lady, this ain’t no hayride!”

            With Rebecca tucked under one arm he rushed through the open door, expecting trouble.  The only pirate on the other side of the door, however, was in no condition to cause trouble for anyone.  Lying unconscious on the deck was Will, Don Karnage’s second mate.  He had a large, ugly bruise on the right side of his face that looked like it had been made by the edge of the iron door.  A few inches from his outstretched fingers, lay a large key ring.

            Baloo grinned.  It looked as if someone had chosen the wrong time to try to open the door to their room.

            Without breaking stride he scooped up the keys.  You could never tell when having the keys to the dungeon would come in handy.

            Moving his short, powerful legs as rapidly as he could, Baloo thundered down the Iron Vulture’s dank passageways.  For once it looked like things were beginning to go his way.  He had encountered no additional pirates, and even the shelling seemed to have stopped.

            “Baloo?”

            “Yeah, Becky?” he huffed.

            “Either put me down or turn me around so I can see where I’m going,” she said weakly.

            “Huh?”

            “Does the term ‘airsick’ mean anything to you?”

            Baloo came to a screeching halt.  He set her down gently, as if she was a crystal vase full of nitroglycerin.  She staggered a bit and than leaned against the bulkhead with her left forearm.

            “Ya feelin’ okay, Becky?”

            She looked at him with eyes that did not seem capable of focusing together.  “That depends.  Do you have a twin brother?”

            “Oh, honey, have you taken one too many bonks ta the melon!”

            With her stomach heaving, she made a sound like a bad percolator.  “Please, Baloo, don’t mention food?”

            “Come on, Becky, pull yerself together.  We ain’t outta the woods yet.”

            Rebecca shook her head.  It made her stomach lurch, but it cleared her head.  She looked at Baloo again.   Much to her relief, this time she saw only one of him.

            “Let me just catch my breath, will you?  Those stupid pirates obviously have more important things to worry about.  It’ll be hours before those morons even think to look for us.”

            “Welllll, I wouldn’t say thatttt,” drawled a ragged, whiny voice.

            Rebecca and Baloo looked up.  Standing less than ten feet from them was Mad Dog, a mangy yellow mutt who was one of Karnage’s “trusted” lieutenants.  Usually, even armed, he was not a sight to inspire trepidation in Baloo.  However, the half dozen heavily armed pirates standing behind him, one of whom looked as big as a small truck, gave him reason to pause.

            Now who’s stupid?” Mad Dog asked, giving them a wicked smile.

            Baloo’s eyes widened. It was obvious that he was looking at something behind the pirates.

            “Why---! Isn’t that Kitten Kaboodle!”  he gasped, pointing.

            “What?  Where?”  the pirates yelled as they spun around.

            With the pirates distracted, Baloo scooped up Rebecca, tossed her over his left shoulder and took off running.  “I guess that answered his question.”

            “Balooooo ... not backwards!  It’s making me sick!”

            Ignoring her pleas, he continued hurdling down the iron-plated corridors.  He took turns at random, hoping to make it tougher for the pirates to follow them.  Mad Dog was not the sharpest tool in the shed, but even he was bound to figure out that the famous actress, Kitten Kaboodle, was not aboard the Iron Vulture.

            “Don’t worry yer pretty l’il head, Becky.  I’ll have ya outta here in a jiffy.”

            Suddenly Baloo came to a complete stop.  Dismayed, he looked around him.  Somehow, in his wild flight through the vessels twisting corridors, he had gotten completely turned around.  They were once again in the Iron Vulture’s brig.

            “Uh, would ya believe two jiffies?” he asked as he set her down.

            Holding her stomach with one hand, she leaned against him for support.  He could feel her spasm a couple of times as she fought to keep her breakfast in place.

            “How ya doin’, Beckers?”

            “Fine,” she said in a weak, shaky voice.  “Just let me regain my strength, so I can strangle you!”

            Baloo smiled.  That was more like the Rebecca he knew.  Must be feelin’ better already.

            “That’ll have ta wait --- we got more pressin’ problems right now!”

            He could hear the sound of feet pounding on the Iron Vulture’s metal deck.  There was no question the sound was getting closer.

            Rebecca’s ears perked; she too could hear the sound.  “What do we do now?”

            Baloo thrust the key ring he had confiscated from Will into her hands.  “You go free the other prisoners while I see if I can find somethin’ ta use as a weapon.”

            With hands that were still a little shaky, she fumbled with the heavy ring of keys.  It took her three tries to find the one that fit the lock on the large iron door of the brig’s holding cell.  She turned the key and pushed on the door.  It groaned like tearing metal as she forced it open.  Cautiously she stuck her head in.  There was a collective gasp of amazement as the prisoners saw who had opened the door to their cell.

            “Er... I’m here to rescue you… I guess,” she said nervously.

            The hostages hesitated for a brief moment and then there was a mass stampede for the door.  Rebecca barely had time to get out of the way.  A sweet-looking, elderly female rabbit stopped in front of her.  Rebecca was not sure, but she looked like Mrs. Chaddberry, of Chaddberry chocolates.

            “Thank you ever so much, Mrs. Baloo.”

            Rebecca looked over her shoulder to see whom the rabbit was addressing.  It took her a few moments to realize she was talking to her!

            “You are such a lucky lady to be married to such a brave bear.  In the future, I plan to do all my shipping with you two.”

            “Why... thank you,” Rebecca said, too astonished at the prospect of such a lucrative business arrangement to correct her on her true marital status.

            Outside the cell Baloo grunted and strained.  The length of pipe he was pulling on came free from the wall with a loud, shrieking sound.  He hefted the three-foot stretch of iron tubing in one hand, checking it for weight and balance.

            “This oughtta about do it,” he said.

            About that time the ex-hostages came streaming out of their cell and mobbed him with their gratitude.  The last time he had been surrounded by this many swells had been the time he had gone on that date with... that is... the time Rebecca had treated him to dinner on the Spruce Moose.

            Rebecca entered the hallway just in time to see the owner of the pounding footsteps show up.  The people who had been clustered around Baloo suddenly deserted him.  At the sight of the cutlass-wielding timber wolf, they scurried as far back down the corridor as they could.

            Baloo did not recognize the pirate.  He did not look as scruffy as most of Karnage’s cutthroats. His cutlass was clean and shiny, and looked as if its edge was actually sharp.  His jacket was made of neatly tailored buckskin with a stylized mouse skull-and-crossbones on the left shoulder.

            Planting his left foot in front of himself, Baloo gripped his length of pipe with both hands and rested it on his right shoulder.  “Batter up.”

            The timber wolf did not seem to be impressed.  Without any change in his expression he drew a heavy service revolver with his left hand, placed the muzzle within inches of Baloo’s nose, and cocked the hammer with one thumb.

            Baloo gave him a sheepish grin.  “Ya saw that movie too, huh?”
            While the set of the wolf’s jaw did not change, laughter danced in his eyes.  “Three times.”

            He gestured with his pistol and Baloo let the bludgeon slip from his hands and clang on the floor.  Kicking the pipe away, the large gray-furred pirate slowly lowered the hammer on his revolver and returned it to its holster.  Then, motioning with his cutlass, he herded the prisoners out of the brig in front of him.

            Rebecca was so frustrated and angry she was almost in tears.  They had been so close.  They had almost made it, just to be stopped cold.  She just wished she still had her own revolver.

            Walking beside Rebecca, Mrs. Chaddberry took one of her hands in her own and patted it reassuringly.  “Don’t fret, my dear, I’m sure your husband will get us out of this one too.”
            With a groan that was half frustration, half despair, Rebecca shook her head.  This time she just felt too drained to bother to correct the elderly rabbit.

            Other than Mrs. Chaddberry’s comments, the expedition continued without much conversation.  An occasionally command from their captor to turn right, or turn left, was about the only other words spoken. 

            As they walked through the twisting corridors of the Karnage’s vessel they encountered a few other pirates, who seemed to take no notice of the procession.  Baloo did not recognize any of them.  They all seemed better groomed than was usual with Karnage’s crew, and their equipment was newer and in better condition.  He also noticed that they all had a patch on their left shoulder featuring a stylized mouse skull-and-crossbones.  He began to realize that whatever had happened, it had not been to Karnage and company’s advantage.

            Much to Baloo’s surprise, within a few minutes they found themselves disembarking the Iron Vulture and walking down a gangplank to the narrow beach that ringed the cove.  The fresh, crisp aroma of sea air assailed his nostrils.  But there was another odor as well --- an odor that was not as pleasant.  It was a thick and acrid stench.  

            “Eeeew!”  Rebecca said, wrinkling her nose.  “What is that smell?

            It was a smell that Baloo knew well.  It was a stench with which anyone who worked around hot aircraft engines was familiar. It was the smell of burnt fur and flesh.

            Scattered about the beach were small groups of pirates that he could recognize as Karnage’s, being guarded by other pirates who had the mouse skull patch on their left shoulders.  In contrast to the hodgepodge of archaic weapons the crew of the Iron Vulture usually carried, the guards held an impressive array of modern firearms. 

            Off to one side he could see a tall ferret in a long purple coat, wearing a brown floppy felt hat and a multi-colored scarf that was so long that even wrapped twice about his neck it hung down almost to his ankles.  He was tending to wounded pirates along side the Iron Vulture’s doctor.  Beyond that he could see the forms of several pirates stretched out on the sand.  They lay very, very still.

            Once they were on the beach, he turned around and looked at the Iron Vulture.  Several of its lift propellers had been blown off.  Here and there he could see gaping, twisted holes in its hull.  Things had indeed gone badly for Karnage and his crew.
            Beyond the Iron Vulture and the mouth of the cove he could see the reason for Karnage and company’s present dire situation --- a sleek, modern cruiser.  Above the vessel he could just make out a black flag flapping in the wind.  At that great a distance he could not make out the emblem on the flag, but he would be willing to bet it was a stylized mouse skull-and-crossbones.  Normally the Iron Vulture would have been in no danger from a surface bound vessel, but caught moored in the water it had never stood a chance.

            “How can those pirates sleep at a time like this?”  Rebecca demanded indignantly.

            Baloo followed her gaze to where the pirates lay motionless on the sand.  “Rebecca, those pirates ain’t sleepin’.”

            At the tone in his voice and the use of her full name, she gave him a curious look.  “What do you mean?” 

            He did not answer; he simply looked at her. Slowly Rebecca began to understand what he meant. She swallowed hard and the same look that she had gotten from her backwards race through the Iron Vulture reappeared on her face.

            She gripped Baloo’s left arm with both hands and sagged.  He was amazed at the power of her grip.  She was stronger than she looked.

            “Baloo, I don’t feel too good.”

            He placed one massive paw over both of her smaller ones.  “I’m with you, lady.”

            “Who are these people, and why did they attack the Iron Vulture?” she asked, bewildered.

            “I’ve been thinkin’ about that.  I think I’ve figgered it out.”  He pointed to the ship just outside the cove.  “It took me a while to recognize her, but that’s the cruiser Revenge, it belongs ta a feller by the name of Captain Hardluck.”

            Rebecca’s eyes widened.  “You mean the dread pirate Captain Hardluck?”

            “Yep.”  He nodded.

            “What do you think he will do with us?”

            “Don’t know, Becky, but it looks like we’re about ta find out.”

            This time she had to follow his gaze.  Out in the cove, heading in their direction were several large launches, occupied by only a few pirates.  She suspected they did not plan to return to the Revenge that way.

            She was quite correct.  Within minutes of landing, the pirates from the Revenge had herded the hostages into the boats and they were heading back to the cruiser.  Baloo had to admit that at least they were faring a lot better at the hands of their new captors then they had with Karnage. They were almost polite and even treated the elderly rabbit, who had been following Rebecca around, like the grandmother she probably was.  It actually made a kind of sense.  Frightened cattle were a lot more difficult to herd.

            The expertly handled launches made quick work of the trip back to their parent vessel.  Once again being treated almost more like passengers than prisoners, they were escorted up a floating stairway, much like one would expect to find on a luxury liner, to the main deck of the sleek, but deadly looking cruiser.

            Once onboard they milled about for sometime, not sure what was going to happen next.  Rebecca stayed close to Baloo, holding onto him as if he might wander off like an inattentive child.

            Then a figure stepped forward.  It was obvious from the way the rest of the pirates acted that it was someone in authority; they gave her room as she moved forward.

            She was the tallest lioness that Baloo had ever seen.  She must have been at least as tall as he was.  In her right hand was a cutlass with a golden stylized mouse head for a pummel.  The cutlass she carried was full sized, but in her hands it looked almost like a short sword.  Her dark brown hair was braided into multiple tight cornrows that hung down past her shoulders and ended in golden beads.  Even if her size had not been enough to command attention in any crowd, she had a figure that would turn heads at a hundred paces. 

            “Hey, look, Becky.  She’s wearin’ the same outfit as you are.”

            The statuesque lioness was indeed dressed like Rebecca.  She wore a bright yellow halter top and brief green shorts that were identical to the ones Rebecca had on.  They were identical in style and cut, if not in the amount of material required.

            “Of course she is a l’il ... er... bigger than ya.”

            “Don’t leave your mouth open like that, dear, it isn’t polite.  People with think you ain’t got no couth.”  Rebecca muttered at him, crossing her arms self-consciously over her chest.

            “Man, those are what I call gun turrets!”

            “Baloo!” she gasped in horror.

            “Look at ‘em,” he said pointing at the Revenge’s main batteries. “I bet they’re at least ten inchers.  I’ve never heard of a cruiser with gun’s bigger than eight!”

            Rebecca stared at him.  Is he serious?  She could not tell.  Surrounded by pirates and confronted with a female that carried her own flotation devices under her shirt, he was looking at ironmongery? 

            “Attention on deck.” 

            The lioness had a deep liquid voice that rumbled like a finely tuned motor.  It was sensual and powerful at the same time, yet there was almost a hint of playfulness in it.  If her looks had not been enough command the attention of every male in the vicinity, her voice most surely was.

            “Bet she can’t even balance her own checkbook,” Rebecca mumbled.

            “Trust me, Beckers, she don’t have ta!”

            Apparently overhearing the comments, the majestic lioness gave Baloo a quick wink.  Baloo tugged at the collar of his flight shirt.  There was a predatory look in her eyes that made him feel nervous.  If looks could be used as weapons, the one that Rebecca shot him would have left the pilot in hospital for several months.

            Before she could say anything to him, the reason that the lioness had called for attention appeared.  A stern-looking rat strode onto the deck… Captain Hardluck.  Baloo had heard all the legends and rumors, but he had never seen the famous pirate captain.  The rat was dressed from neck to ankle in black leather, and a black cape with a high collar and red trim flowed out behind him.  A large white version of the emblem that all his crew wore on their shoulders was emblazoned on the chest of his leather jacket.  Twin belts, also of black leather, crisscrossed his waist and were fastened together by a silver belt buckle in the shape of his ever-present emblem.  On his left hip hung a cutlass with the same type of pummel that the lioness had.  On his right hung a broom-handled mauser with the butt facing forward, it had very heavily worn grips.  His right eye was missing and was covered by a black patch with silver mouse skull and crossbones on it as well.  A long ugly scar ran from the empty socket, across the bridge of his muzzle, and ended on his left cheek

            He moved with a stride that spoke of absolute confidence.  He was the master of all he surveyed.  He was a person to be feared and respected.  He was power incarnate.  He was...

            Short!  thought Baloo.  He almost said it out loud, but remembered to keep his mouth shut… just in time.  Not ‘Colonel Spigot’ short, but I don’t think he’s more than a couple of inches taller than Kit.  ‘Course, standing next ta that lady don’t help none.  Maybe he likes the shade.

            While he had been contemplating the pirate captain, so had Rebecca, even more intently than Baloo. She had never met Captain Hardluck before, but he looked tantalizingly familiar.  Squinting, she tried to imagine what he would look like with two bluish-gray eyes, minus the scars, and without the long sweeping mop of hair that hung down to his one good eye.  Suddenly an image snapped into place.  A face from years ago.  But it could not be...

            “Ralph!”  she gasped.  “Ralph Bakshi? Is that you?”

            The pirate captain stopped as if the name she had called out had stunned him.  Turning, he fixing her with his one good eye.  She could feel his steel-colored eye boring into her.  Then his dour countenance was split by an endearing smile.

            “I don’t believe it.  Rebecca Monet!  What are you doing here?”

            “What am I doing here? “ she said.  “What are you doing here?”

 Baloo gave her an incredulous look.  “Ya know this guy?” 

She complains that I don’t tell her about knowin’ a king, but she never even once mentioned she knows one of the most notorious pirates of the Seven Seas!

            The one-eyed rat gave a hearty laugh.  He strode through the crowd of prisoners as if he was walking through a crowded cocktail party.  He clapped his hands onto Rebecca’s shoulders.

            “You may not have guessed, but I’m a pirate now!”

            “Who is that fellow with your wife, Mr. Baloo?”  Mrs. Chaddberry asked.

            Hardluck glanced at the large bear and then back at Becky.  The look in his eye could best politely be described as disbelief.

            “Wife?”

            “It’s a long story,” she sighed.

            “That is one story I’ve got to hear!” he said.  “But not here.  Would you mind if I borrowed your wife for a little while, Mr. Baloo?”

            “It’s just plain Baloo, not Mister Baloo.”  Irritation dripped from his voice.  “And where I come from we don’t borrow a feller’s wife!”

            “No, no, you misunderstand me.  I haven’t seen Rebecca since... well since grad-school at the U of CS.  It’s not often I run into people I knew back then.  I would just like to catch up on old times.”  He cocked his head and looked at Baloo with his good eye.  “Please?  I would treat it as a personal favor.”

            “Uh... okay... I guess.  If Becky wants ta, I mean.”

            Baloo was too stunned to argue.  Since when did pirates ask permission for anything?  Let alone say please!

            “Well, Rebecca, would you care to join me?”

            “Yes.”  There was only a little hesitation in her voice.

            Ralph Bakshi, an infamous pirate captain?  There were only about a hundred questions she wanted to ask him.

            Hardluck turned and addressed the crowd of prisoners.  “You have the freedom of this deck, and I will have my crew see to your comfort.  Food will be provided as soon as possible.  I would like to treat you as my guests, for now.  Please do not abuse this privilege.  Shasta!”

            The statuesque lioness bound forward at her captain’s call.  Every male on the deck paid rapt attention to the harmony of the twin spheres.  For some reason none of them had paid that much attention to Rebecca’s halter-top when she moved.

            “Aye, Captain?”

            “Have Alistair prepare a meal.  And see if you can find Dougie and have him prepare my table.”

            “Aye, aye, Captain,” she said, and swiftly bounded off.

            The view of her departing was of equal interest to the male population.  But Baloo did not seem to notice.  He was feeling uncomfortable about the present turn of events.  He placed one hand gently on Rebecca’s shoulder.

            “If he tries anythin’, ya just give me a holler,” he said softly.

            The corsair overheard him and chuckled.  “Don’t worry, Mr. Bal... I mean, Baloo.  I know Rebecca.  I only have one eye left, and I’m not about to risk losing it.”

            In short order Rebecca found herself in what appeared to be the Captain’s dining room, sitting at a linen-draped table across from the captain of the Revenge.  The table was laid out with a truly impressive spread of food.   Becky’s stomach rumbled, reminding her how long it had been since she had last eaten.   The lioness, who appeared to be Ralph’s first mate, smiled as she poured wine into a goblet for her.

            “Would you like to try the salmon?  Alistair really is a good cook.”

            “Uh... thank you,” Rebecca said as she picked up a fork and looked at it carefully.  “Is this real gold?”

            “Yes.” Hardluck smiled.  “You tend to pick up such baubles in my line of work.”

            As hungry as Rebecca was, she had to make an effort not to stuff the salmon into her mouth too rapidly.  It was every bit as good as Shasta had predicted.

            “So,” she said around a mouthful of food, “how does one go from an MBA to a pirate?”

            The rat chuckled as he played with his food.  “It’s not as big a jump as you might think.  First you go to work for Shere Khan.”

            Rebecca looked up in surprise.  “You work for Shere Khan?”

            “Worked, past-tense.”  He traced the long scar on his face gently with one finger, it was an almost automatic gesture and she suspect he was unaware of it.

            “Would you care to tell me what happened?”

            “No.”  His reply was flat and left no room for discussion; the matter was closed.

            “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”

            “Let’s just say we parted ways under less than cordial circumstances.  I took two souvenirs of my time with Khan Enterprises with me.  This,” he said indicating his scarred face and missing eye.  “And the Revenge.  Although I think Mr. Khan was none too pleased with my idea of severance pay.”

            “But a pirate? Ralph, I knew you at the University of Cape Suzette.  No one who knew you then would ever believe that you would become a pirate. It … it’s… just so unlike you!”

            “Please, Rebecca, call me Hardluck.  It’s my name now.  People change.  Look at you.  You never dressed like that in college. If you had, I would have probably asked you for a date.”

            Rebecca did not blush.  There was a time when she would have if someone had made a comment like that.  She suspected that Baloo was becoming a bad influence on her.

            “And married!”  Hardluck continued.

            “Oh, that.”   Why did everyone find it so difficult to believe she was married?  “That’s all just a big misunderstanding.  We aren’t really married.”

            “Just living together?”  Shasta asked.

            “NO! I mean, Baloo and I are just... good friends.”

            The lioness smiled and buffed her nails.  “Know what you mean.  I’ve had my fair share of good friends too.”

            “He works for me!”

            “I wouldn’t mind having him work for me, either.”

            This was deteriorating rapidly.  “No, no, you don’t understand.  You see, we are on a secret mission for the government and when we were captured by Don Karnage, and when he started asking too many questions about what we were doing, Baloo told him we were on our honeymoon to throw him off the scent.”

            “Then that hunky bear is…” the sound of Shasta licking her chops was audible halfway across the table. “Unattached?”

            Hunky?  Rebecca thought.  Chunky is more like it!

            “Of course the other prisoners heard him, so they think we are married.  Trust me, as soon as I get back to the others I plan to set them straight!”

            Hardluck leaned back in his chair and twirled one of the gold forks between his fingers.  “A secret mission, huh?”

            Suddenly Rebecca realized what she had just said.  She laughed nervously.

            “I don’t suppose you could forget that I just said that, could you?”

            The corsair made a dismissive gesture with one hand.  “Don’t worry, Rebecca.  I’m not interested in politics.  Your secret is safe.  But you should really learn to lie better if you plan to be a spy.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “You have just told about two dozen people that you are on your honeymoon in order to protect your secret.  If you now go back and tell them that you aren’t married they are going to get suspicious.  They may talk about it.  People do tend to gossip, you know.  The way gossip can spread it wouldn’t be long before it spreads to the ears of those you are trying to keep your secret from.  Who knows, maybe one of them is even an agent for the other side.”

            A bad feeling was beginning to develop deep in her stomach.  Her ravenous appetite was swiftly departing.

            “What do you mean?”

            “I think it would be best if you continued the ruse that you two are married, at least for the duration of this mission.  For your own safety.”

            Her safety?  What about her reputation!

            “Shasta, you’d better track down Baloo and tell him to keep up the pretense.”

            “Right away, Hardluck.”  The buxom buccaneer smiled a predatory smile full of very sharp teeth.

            After Shasta had departed the conversation died down for a few minutes.  Becky toyed with her food.  She really was not hungry anymore.

            “Speaking of Don Karnage,” she said breaking the silence. “What do you plan to do with him?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Nothing?”

            “Nothing I can do, he escaped.  He can be a very slippery fellow when he puts his mind to it.  He and about a half dozen of his crew managed to get away in their aircraft.  The Revenge has a pretty impressive anti-aircraft capability, but there is no way I can chase down aircraft with her.”

            “And what about the Iron Vulture?”

            “Oh, I suspect that I’ll ransom it back to Don Karnage, it and his crew.  He should pay a pretty tidy sum for the ship, if not for his crew.”

            “Your going to let that monster have his ship back?”

            “Rebecca, have you forgotten everything you’ve learned about business?  I do have to make a profit on this.  A ship like the Revenge is not cheap to run.  You know you can’t let personal feelings interfere with business.”

            Hardluck looked at his cup and realized it was empty.  Picking up the bottle he shook it gently, only to discover it too was empty.

            “Damn, we’re out of wine.  Dougie!  Dougie, get in here and bring another bottle of wine.”

            A small gray tabby entered through the service door.  He looked very annoyed.

            “That’s Douglas.  How many times do I have to tell you not to call me Dougie?”

            The cat huffed up to the table and poured wine into Hardback’s cup.  Slamming the bottle onto the table, he turned to leave.

            “And some for Mrs. Baloo as well, if you would be so kind.”  Hardluck’s voice did not betray the least bit of annoyance at the rude behavior of his servant.

            Snatching up the bottle, he stomped over to Rebecca and quickly poured wine into her cup, getting it only about half full.  He then hastily departed the room, almost forgetting to leave the bottle.

            “What a rude person!”  Rebecca was aghast.  “How can you tolerate him?”

            “He used to work for Khan.  I have a standing rule, there is a place in my crew for anyone who has ever had the misfortune to work for Khan Enterprises.”

            “You must really have it in for Khan.”

            Hardluck smiled but did not answer her question.  “So, Mrs. Baloo, why don’t you tell me about this ‘secret mission’ you are on?”

            “Please, call me Rebecca,” she said, squirming uncomfortably in her chair.

            “Very well, Rebecca,” he said with a mischievous smile.  “Would you care to tell an old friend what you are up to?”

            “I’m not sure I should talk about it anymore then I already have.”

            “Can’t hurt, and I may be able to help you.”

            “Well, we could use some help.  We have to get to Macadamia and we’ve lost our plane.”

            “Was it a bright yellow Conwing L-16?”

            “Yes, how did you know?”

            “My crew found one in the Iron Vulture’s cargo hold.  It was pretty badly shot up, but if any one can fix it, it’s the Doctor.”

            Who?

            “The Doctor.  That’s all we call him.  Technically he’s my ship’s doctor, but he seems to know how to do just about everything.  Very odd fellow, the Doctor.  He just showed up one day in the middle of nowhere.”

            “But you are sure he can fix the Sea Duck?”

            “Rebecca, I am convinced there is nothing the Doctor can not fix.  Even if it’s not broken.”

            “I would be ever so grateful if you could do that for us.”

            “Anything for a fellow alumnus.  Anything else I could help you with?”

            Rebecca did not even have to think about that one.  “I don’t suppose you could find me something else to wear?”

 

 

            Baloo rested his forearms on the Revenge’s iron guard, watching the waves beating against the shore.  The rest of the prisoners were eating, but strangely enough, he was not really hungry.  He wondered how Rebecca was faring with the notorious Captain Hardluck. He hoped she was all right. 

“Hi there,” a deep, sensual voice said behind him, making him jump.

            He turned around.  It was the ship’s generously endowed first mate.  Her right hand rested on her outthrust hip, her left hand on the pummel of her cutlass.  The late afternoon sun highlighted her golden fur.

            “Mind if I join you?”  Somehow she managed to make the question sound like some kind of invitation.

            “Sure.” He shrugged.

            She moved up to where he was standing with the eerie grace of a stalking predator.  When she reached the railing she leapt up and sat on it in one smooth motion.

            “Er... how can I be of service to ya?”

            Shasta gave him a broad, toothy, smile.  “I like the way you think, big boy.”

            That statement caught him completely off-guard.  “Huh?”

            “Actually, Hardluck has asked me to pass on a message to you.”

            A message?  Maybe it had something to do with Rebecca.  She better be all right.

            “What message?”

            “He suggests that you keep up the pretense that you and the little lady are married.”

            Baloo had been so worried he had completely forgotten about that.  “What for?”

            “A lot of people think you two are married.  They might get suspicious if you suddenly aren’t.  It might compromise your mission if they start asking too many questions.”

            What mission?”  He looked at her in total confusion.

            “You’re good.  Unfortunately your partner isn’t nearly the liar you are.  I think you’ve had more practice than she has.”

            He just looked at her as if he had no idea what she was talking about.  She laughed and leaned forward.  Baloo was reminded of the time he had flown the Sea Duck upside down through a mountain pass.

            “You are good at this!”  She drew one of her toes up his calf.  “I wonder what else you might be good at.”

            “Uh... well, thanks for the message,” he said nervously, stepping back.  “Wouldn’t want ta be keepin’ ya from whatever else it is yer supposed ta be doin’.”

            “Oh, nothing I can’t put off for a while.” She looked at him coyly from under her lashes. 

            To Baloo she looked as harmless as a hungry predator at a petting zoo.  He took another step back.

            “Um... isn’t there somethin’ nautical ya should be doin’?”

            She slid off the railing and closed the distance between them without appearing to taking a step.  She brushed one her shoulders against one of his and traced one of her very sharp claws, ever so gently, along his jaw line.

            “Oooh, I like the way you say that.”

            “Hey, lady, I’m supposed ta be married!  Remember?”  His voice cracked.

            “Just pretend married.  It’s not like she has any real claim on you.  Or is she your girlfriend?”

            “Becky ain’t my girlfriend.  I mean, she’s a girl, and she’s my friend, but it’s not like... that.”

            “I didn’t think so.  I couldn’t imagine a wishy-washy little piece of fluff like that having such a virile male for a boyfriend.”

            “Now wait just a doggoned minute.”  There was steel in Baloo’s voice now.  “Becky is one swell lady.  She could have any guy she wanted!”

            Shasta raised one eyebrow.  “Really? There must be more to her than meets the eye.”

            “You bet yer sweet patootie there is!  Becky is the sweetest gal ya could ever hope to meet.  Loyal, courageous, strong, generou... er... strong.  And she’s smart ta boot.  You should hear some of the ideas she’s come up with ta make money!”

            “My, my, I have seemed to underestimated her.  She certainly seems to have enough of what it takes to keep you loyal.”

            There was something suggestive about the way she said that.  Baloo felt like blushing.

            “Rebecca is a great gal.”

            The well-muscled lioness pressed herself up against Baloo.  He could feel her positively purring.

            “I bet I can be an even better gal.”

            This time he did blush.  “Uh... I don’t mean like that.”

            “I do.”

            “Baloo?”

            Baloo jumped away from Shasta, and spun around.  “Becky!”

            Relief flooded through the big bear.  Salvation!  He could not ever remember being so glad to see Rebecca.

            She gave him an odd look.  “Do you feel okay?  You look kind of flushed.”

            “I feel fine... dear.”

            “Ral... I mean, Hardluck says they’ve found our plane.  Isn’t that marvelous?  He says they can even fix it for us.”

            “That’s great, dear,” he said wrapping an arm around Rebecca’s shoulders.  “If ya’ll pardon us, Shasta, my wife and I have ta check out our plane.”

            Shasta sighed as she watched the odd-looking couple walk off.  Chatting back and forth as though they really were husband and wife.

            “I wonder if that little girl knows how truly lucky she is?”

 

 

The Sea Duck winged its way through the night sky.  Baloo stared out through its new windshield.  If he did not know any better he would have sworn that guy everyone kept calling Doctor had actually put the original window back together.  He had seen Wildcat do some pretty amazing things in the past, but that Doctor guy had done things he had never seen before.  Whatever that sonic-screwdriver thing was, he had to get one for Wildcat. 

            The door to the cockpit opened and Rebecca entered.  She was dressed in a tightly laced black leather bodice and white slacks that hugged her hips.  She gave Baloo a quick smile and sat down in the navigator’s seat.

            Love that outfit, Beckers,” he chuckled.

            “What can I say, they didn’t have a lot to choose from in my size in the Revenge’s stores.”

            By her standards, the outfit left a lot to be desired.  It still left her midriff bare, but at least it covered more than the one provided by Karnage’s crew.

            “How’re our passengers doing?” he asked.

            “Feeling a little crowded, but grateful to be free.  They really think you’re somehow responsible for their rescue.  Mrs. Chaddberry even offered to buy us wedding rings to show her gratitude.  I told her you wouldn’t feel right about it.”

            “Ya hit that one on the head, dear,” he laughed.

            For some reason she found his reply annoying.  “How long until we reach Macadamia?”

            “At least six hours yet.  Ya wanna catch some shuteye?  Ya’ve had a real long day, Becky.”

            “No, I think I’ll just sit here and keep you company.  Someone has to make sure you don’t fall asleep.”

            “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be good fer a long time yet.”

            For a while the only sound that filled the cockpit was the sound of the Sea Duck’s powerful engines.  It was a sound Baloo found very comforting.  Somehow it made everything feel... right.

            Rebecca stole a glance at him.  “Baloo?”

            “Yeah?”

            “What were you and Shasta talking about when I found you?”

            Baloo blushed.  “Oh… stuff.”

            “What kind of stuff?”

            “Well... like that you and I had ta keep pretending to be married.”

            “What else?”

            “Er... um... oh, just stuff.  You know?  Stuff.”

            “Like?”

            “Nothin’ important.  Say, Becky, what do ya think of, er, think of how clear the sky is tonight?  Just look at all them stars!”

            There was no response.

            “Becky?”

            Turning his head slightly, he looked at her.  She was curled up in her seat, sound asleep.

            Gently engaging the Sea Ducks “auto-pilot”, Baloo tiptoed to where he kept the cockpit supplies.  Finding a blanket that did not have too many holes in it, he tiptoed back to where she lay sleeping and gently draped it over her.

            “‘Night, Beckers.”

 

            Back aboard the Revenge, a small gray figure struggled with one of the lifeboats.  Douglas, “don’t call me Dougie” Benson cursed quietly under his breath as he did his best to lower it, and himself into the water.

            He had hoped he had not given himself away when he had heard the Captain call his guest “Mrs. Baloo”.  There could not be two Baloo’s in the world.  Lord, he hoped not.  It had, however, perked his curiosity enough to eavesdrop on the rest of their conversation.  It was a good thing he had; it was just the kind of stuff his real employers wanted him to be on the lookout for.  The minute he could get away, he had scurried off the minute he could get away, back to his cabin, where he had pulled out a radio from its hiding place under his bed.

            Once he had the lifeboat safely in the water, he fitted the oars into their locks and began rowing out to sea.  He hoped he had understood the instructions correctly.  His Verman was not that good.  As he understood it he was supposed get off the ship somehow and wait for someone to pick him up.

            He would show them.  He would show them all.  He knew important people now.  Powerful people.  Just wait, he would get even with that fat bear.  He would show him good!  No one makes a fool of Douglas Benson!  This time I’ll have the last laugh!

 

            Kit walked into the kitchen of Rebecca’s apartment.  The early morning sunlight was just starting to stream in through the windows.  It was early, very early.  He had decided to get up this early just to have some time to himself.  Molly was every bit a handful at seven as she had been at six --- maybe even more so.

            After turning on the kitchen radio, he went to the cupboard and got a box of cornflakes.  Then he took a bottle of milk from the refrigerator while he waited for the radio to warm up.

            It crackled to life as he poured himself a big bowl of cereal.  He needed a lot of energy these days.  Maybe I should switch to Tweaties.

            He cracked open the milk bottle as Broadcast Sally rattled off baseball scores.  It sounded like the Cape Suzette Flyers were going to have another bad season.

            “And in other news, the kidnap victims from the SS Reallybig have all been rescued,” she said huskily as Kit started pouring the milk.  “They all turned up in Macadamia early this morning.  The newly freed hostages claim they owe their rescue to the brave efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Baloo.  Great work, Baloo-boy!”

            Kit froze as if he had been hit by a Thembrian blizzard.  Mr. and Mrs. Baloo?  Suddenly the conversations from yesterday came rushing back to him. 

            Kit, Baloo and I need to do something important together in Macadamia.

            Mommy, where are you and Baloo going?

 I can’t tell you right now, honey, it’s kind of a secret.

            He remembered how jumpy Baloo and Rebecca had seemed that day.  How Papa Bear had dodged all his questions as if he was up to something.  Mr. and Mrs. Baloo! 

            Oh my God!

            Cold, wet milk dripping on his foot brought him out of his stupor.  He set the now empty bottle down in the pool of milk on the kitchen table.

            “Molly!” he yelled as he raced to her room.  Molly!

            “What is it, Kit?” she asked, sitting up in bed and rubbing the sleep from her eyes with one hand.

            “We have to get to Macadamia --- fast!”

 

 

End of Chapter 4

 

 

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