SMUGGLER’S BALOO

 

A TaleSpin Fan-Fic

By

Herodotus

 

 

 

 Chapter 8

 

 

            Baloo was awakened by the sound of someone shouting and pounding on the door.  It was thick enough that he could not make out what they were saying, but the tone indicated a great deal of urgency.

            Springing from his couch, he hurried to answer it.  As he ran, he scooped up his pilot’s hat with one hand and placed it on his head in one swift motion.

            When he opened the door, he almost failed to recognize the visitor.  It was Katie Dodd, but she looked somewhat less attractive than the last time he had seen her.  Her slinky dress had several rips and tears in it, and was smeared with a brownish-green muck.  There was more of the muck streaked across her cheeks, chin, and forehead and there was a small dab of it on the tip of her nose.  Her lovely red hair was an absolute mess and matted in several places.  An unpleasant odor emanated from her.

            “Katie!  What are ya doing here this early in the mornin’?”

            “You’ve got to let me in, Baloo,” she told him, charging forward, barely giving him time to get out of her way.

            A startled Rebecca was sitting up in bed, holding Molly in her arms.  Molly wrinkled her nose in disgust.  It was obvious she could smell Katie from where she sat.

            “What happened to you?”  There seemed to be a note of sympathy in Rebecca’s voice.  “You look awful!”

            You spend a night crawling around a two thousand-year-old sewer and see what you look like!”  Katie answered in a tired voice.  “But that’s not important now.  I’ve come to warn you --- the palace is swarming with Ratzis!”

            What!  Baloo, Rebecca, and Kit all shouted.

            “Three truckloads of them rolled in at about dawn.  They seem to have taken over the palace!”

            “They can’t get away with that!”  Baloo scowled.

            “I’m afraid they already have.  King Amuck’s guards are more numerous and much bigger, but their scimitar’s are no match for schnauzer submachine-guns!”

            “What do they want?”  Rebecca asked, as she climbed out of bed.

            “I think they’re after the artifacts.  That’s why I rushed down here as quickly as I could.  We have to make sure everything is safely hidden.”

            “You mean like that book?”  Rebecca asked, indicating a black and red book that was sitting on her nightstand.

            “You guys wait here and I’ll go see what’s goin’ on,” Baloo said.

            “In your nightshirt?”  Rebecca asked.

            “Oh, yeah, right.”  Baloo grabbed his pilot’s shirt and headed towards the bathroom.

            Rebecca regarded Katie’s bedraggled state.  She almost felt sorry for her.  It did not look as if Lotta had shown her much mercy last night.

            “After Baloo is done in there I’ll give you a hand cleaning up,” Rebecca said, trying not to giggle. “Then we can see if we can find you something else to wear.”

            The bedraggled vixen smiled her gratitude.  “Thank you ever so much.”

            She studied the nightgown that covered Rebecca from neck to toe.  “Ah... do you have anything that isn’t pink?”

            “I think I should go with Baloo,” Kit interjected

            “Me too, me too,” Molly said happily.

            Katie stared at them as if noticing them for the first time.  “Whose children are those?”

            “Why, Baloo’s and mine, of course,” Rebecca said, batting her eyes innocently, and placing an arm affectionately around each child.

            Kit did not know whether to be embarrassed at being “mothered” in public, or to burst out laughing at the expression on the Katie’s face.  He did not know Katie Dodd, but he had seen the moves she had tried to put on Papa Bear the night before.  He wondered if they had a history.  Baloo had never mentioned her before, but there were a lot of things in his past that Baloo did not talk about.  They were a lot alike in that respect.

               Katie's stunned expression slowly turned into a small, sly smile. Not only married, but with two children!  She remembered how Baloo and Louie had vied for her attention when they first met, almost knocking each other over to get near her.  She was used to that sort of thing --- it was the price one paid for looking the way she did. 

Someone's not keeping the home fires burning, she thought.

            “Where’s Baloo?”

            Everyone turned and saw Myra standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame, trying to catch her breath.  She was wearing her short-sleeved khaki shirt over a blue nightgown that was every bit as conservative as Rebecca’s pink one.

            “Right here, Myra,” Baloo said, exiting the bathroom, still buttoning his shirt.  “What’s up?”

            He had managed to miss a buttonhole and his shirt was buttoned crookedly.  Rebecca brushed his hands aside and fixed it for him.

            “King Amuck wants to talk to you right away!  We’ve got Ratzis!”

            “So I’ve heard.  Let’s go.”

            “I’m going with you.”  Kit said.

            “No, you’re not!  I need your help with Molly,” Rebecca scolded.  “You and Molly are going to get dressed and then you’re going to take her down to Esther’s.  When I’m finished helping Miss Dodd I’ll meet you there.”

            “Sounds like a plan ta me,” Baloo said as he and Myra left.

            “I really should go with him,” Kit insisted.

            Rebecca scowled.

            “Uh... right, Mom,” he said. “Molly, then down to Esther’s.  Right on it.”

            “Aw, Mommy, I’m seven, I don’t need a baby-sitter!”  Molly pouted.

            “Young lady, do as you’re told.  And, Kit, don’t let her out of your sight.”

            “Yeah,” he muttered, “and right after that I’ll lift an elephant over my head with my left hand.”

            With a sigh Rebecca turned back to Katie. “I think we should hide the book first, then clean you up.”

            Katie reluctantly agreed and pulled the lever to open the secret door.  Rebecca picked up the notebook off the nightstand, entered the chamber and placed the tome on top of the pile of treasure.  She had yet to get a good look at the treasure so she paused a moment to study it.  A small crystal bust caught her attention.  She blinked and then squinted at it.  The visage on the small sculpture did not change.

            What on earth is a statue of THAT bear doing here?

            “Will you hurry up, before the entire Verman army gets here!”  Katie said impatiently

            Rebecca hastily exited the chamber and Katie raised the lever, closing the chamber.  As the secret panel locked into place, the vixen breathed a sigh of relief.

            “By the way, Katie,” Rebecca said as they entered the apartment’s opulent bath. “There’s something I would like to ask you.”

            “Go ahead,” Katie said, as she practically tore her once beautiful dress from her body, balled it up and threw it with obvious disgust into a corner.

            “I hope you don’t mind, but I sort of looked through that notebook of yours last night.  I noticed several places in the margin you have written Baloo’s name next to someone called Delbergit, and then a question mark.  What was that all about?”

            “Oh, er, nothing.  It’s just an old legend that I thought Baloo might be interested in hearing about.  Now why don’t you draw the bath while I find some soap and a brush.”

 

 

            As Baloo entered the Royal cabinet room he could see a very worried-looking Lotta and King Amuck sitting next to each other in very ornate chairs at a large polished oak table.  They looked as if they had been awake for some time.

            Seeing Baloo, Lotta leaped from her chair, ran up to him, and gave him an affectionate, yet chaste, hug.  “Oh, Baloo, I’m so glad you’re here.”

            “And I am too, don’t you know,” King Amuck said, bounding up behind her.  “Things are just terrible, just terrible.”

            “How bad is it?”

            “Very bad, I’m afraid,” Lotta said.

            If the look in her eyes was any indication, things were grim indeed.  She had not looked this distraught the time everyone had thought that Macadamia was broke and she was facing the prospect of having to marry Chancellor Trample to save the kingdom.

            “Don’t worry, your highness,” Myra chimed in.  “I’m sure Baloo will think of something.  He is ever so brave and quite resourceful.”

            “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Myra,” Baloo chuckled ruefully.  “I just hope I can live up ta it.”

            Lotta gave him a weak smile.  “Do you feel up to saving a kingdom... again?”

            “I’ll give it my best shot.  Now why don’t ya tell ol’ Baloo what’s goin’ on?  Give me the lay of the land, so ta speak.  I’m gonna need ta know what I’m up against.”

            “As I said, it does not look good,” Lotta said, taking a deep breath to calm herself.  “There are somewhere around thirty Ratzi soldiers, including Herr Gerbils’s honor guard.  They have pretty much shut down the palace, and they seem to have taken control of all the city’s main gates.”

            “They must be spread pretty thin, then.”

            “Yes, but unfortunately, Macadamia doesn’t have a very modern army.  Even spread as thin as they are, their modern weapons make them more than a match for Father’s soldiers.  Swords are no match for machine-guns.”

             “It’s all my fault, I’m afraid,” King Amuck said, wringing his hands.  “If only I had a modernized my army, none of this would be happening.”

            “Don’t blame yourself, Father.  Macadamia has always been a peaceful nation, we’ve never needed an army before.”

            “So what do the Ratzis want?”  Baloo asked.

            “That’s the worst part,” King Amuck answered.  “We don’t know!  They just barged in and took over, don’t you know.”

            “Well, maybe we should hunt down ol’ Fancy Pants Gerbils and demand some answers.”

            King Amuck looked truly miserable.  “That’s just the problem, I can’t.  He’s gone.”

            What?”

            “It’s true.”  Lotta nodded.  “Apparently Herr Gerbils and his flight crew departed moments before the Ratzi troops stormed the palace.”

            “Wha... now why in blue blazes would he do that for?”

            “My guess would be so that the Ratzi government can deny accountability if things go wrong or turn ugly.”  King Amuck shrugged.  “It only makes sense, don’t you know.”

            Baloo studied the king.  The rabbit was so comical-looking that Baloo sometimes forgot just how sharp his mind truly was.  He only hoped that the Ratzis made the same mistake.

            “Baloo.”

            Everyone turned and looked at the door.  Rebecca and Katie stood in the doorway.  Still dressed in her nightgown, Rebecca hurried into the room with Katie following close behind.  Following Myra’s lead, she had thrown on a short jacket as well.  She looked worried as she ran up to Baloo.

            “Becky!  Where are the kids?”

            “They’re fine,” Katie said.  “We left them with Esther.”

            Baloo looked at Katie.  She was wearing a red dress that was too small for her.  She reminded him of a child trying to wear last year’s clothes.  Only this was more interesting.  A lot more interesting.

            Rebecca noticed the look Baloo was giving Katie.  She poked him sharply in the ribs to get his attention.

            Ow!

            “Now that we are all here, maybe we should get down to business,” Rebecca said sternly.

            “That sounds like a very good idea,” added a voice none of them recognized.

            Into the room strode a thin, evil-looking rat in a black leather trench coat and hat.  He was flanked on either side by a uniformed Ratzi who were armed with schnauzer submachine-guns.  Behind and slightly to left of the evil-looking rat was a taller rat in an officer’s uniform.  Baloo recognized the uniforms, and realized that they were not Verman army.

            Now, what’s Kriegs-Marine are doin’ this far from the ocean?

            “Good morning, King Amuck,” the evil-looking rat said mockingly.  “And to you, Princess Lotta, Miss Foxworthy, and Miss Dodd.” 

            Then he turned and looked to Baloo and Rebecca.  “And how are you this fine morning, Herr and Frau Von Bruinwald?  No need to look so surprised, Baron, we have quite a dossier on you.”

            Lotta blinked a couple of times.  “Baloo is a baron?”

            “Oh yes, the last of the Von Bruinwalds.  Did he not tell you about that?  It does not surprise me.  Herr Von Bruinwald has led quite an interesting life.  There are probably several things about his past he has not bothered to tell you.”

            “Baloo... is a... baron?”  Katie said.

            “Von Bruinwald, a good Bearvarian name.”  The rat smiled with all the warmth of a hungry predator.  “The Vermans and Bearvarians have historically been close allies.  I hope that we shall get along famously.”

            Katie looked at Rebecca.  “He never mentioned that he was a baron!”

            “Fine, so you know who we are.  Now just who the heck are you and what do you want with my country, buster!”

            All signs of Lotta’s earlier trepidation were gone from her visage as she confronted the Ratzi.  Her brow was furrowed in anger; her eyes could have been chips of cold flint.

            Baloo grinned.  This was more like the Lotta he remembered.  The old spunk was back.

            “How rude of me.  Allow me to introduce myself.  I am Herr Sturm of the Gestapo.   An emissary of good will from the Furrer.  Do not be distressed, we wish only to help your country.”

            “Help my country!”  Lotta stomped her foot and placed her fists angrily on her hips.  “You call storming the palace and seizing control of the city helping?”

            “You misunderstand, we have not stormed or seized anything.  The Furrer has heard distressing tales of untrustworthy souls who have made their way to Macadamia.  He fears that they may try to make off with things that do not belong to them.  As a precaution he has sent us to help you protect yourselves from such scoundrels.”  The Gestapo agent addressed Lotta, but his eyes were fixed firmly on Baloo.

            “Very nice of you, very nice,” King Amuck said.  “But completely unnecessary.  I think we can handle of any ne’re-do-wells that should happen along.”

            “Oh, but I insist.  I’m afraid you’re just too kind-hearted to take the kinds of precautions that this kind of situation requires.”

            “And what kind of precautions would those be?”  For once even Myra’s usually gentle voice held a note of thinly veiled anger and loathing.

            Herr Sturm did not so much as smile as leer.  All four of the females moved back a step, backing into Baloo.  Not that he could blame them --- it was not a pretty sight.

            “The normal procedures under such circumstances.  A dawn to dusk curfew, no vehicles in or out of the city, a watch should be kept on any suspicious characters, and the usual suspects should be rounded up.  It is something at which we have become quite proficient.  We merely wish to lend you our expertise.”

            “And what if they don’t want your expertise?”  Rebecca’s voice sounded firm, but Baloo could feel her trembling ever so slightly.

            Herr Sturm glanced at the armed guard on either side of him.  “I don’t think that is a question we have to worry about... is it?”

            There was that leer again.  Baloo felt tempted to see what the standard Ratzi procedure was when one their “goodwill” ambassadors got his face pushed through the back of his head.

            “You mean we are to be kept prisoners in our own palace?”  Lotta demanded.

            “Of course not, dear Princess.”  Herr Sturm spoke as though addressing a not particularly bright child.  “You and your father are under no restraint.  But in the interest of security, I must insist that anyone wandering about the premises after hours have an escort.”

            “Ya mean, you’re confinin’ us ta our quarters,” Baloo stated flatly.

            “No, no, of course not.  It is just that when you are out of your quarters you will need an escort, for your own safety, of course.”

            “I will not stand for this!”  Amuck said adamantly.  “A man’s castle is his home!  I refuse to ask anyone’s permission to walk about my own home. “

            It was obvious that Herr Sturm considered refusing him, but at the last moment conceded.  “Very well. Both you and your daughter are not required to have an escort, but I must insist that you do not leave the palace grounds by yourselves.”

            “We will also be able act as an escort for anyone we wish,” Lotta said.

            An annoyed look deformed Herr Sturm’s face.  Baloo noticed that the rat in the Verman navy officer’s uniform seemed to be enjoying Sturm’s discomfort.  A Verman officer with a sense of humor?  Baloo thought.  Now I’ve seen everythin’.

            “I don’t see why I should have to make that concession,” Sturm scowled.

            “What do you mean, ‘concession’?  I thought you were here merely in an advisory capability to help us protect what is rightfully ours.  Surely you don’t think that our treasures have anything to fear from ourselves?” 

            For a moment the Gestapo agent looked as if he was going to explode.  Then with a visible effort he composed himself.  He gave Lotta a smile that was even more disturbing than his leer.  The Princess did not even flinch.  She looked down at the short Verman with contempt.

            “As you say, Princess, we are here merely to help.  But I think you should show caution in whom you are willing to trust.”  Herr Sturm looked at Baloo again.  “There are people in Macadamia who have, shall we say, a less than reputable history.”

            “I think I have a pretty good idea of who in Macadamia I can and can not trust,” Lotta said.

            She placed a hand gently on one of Baloo’s shoulders.  It had the same kind of feeling to it, as when his sister placed a hand on his shoulder when she needed his help.

            “And speaking of quarters,” The Ratzi continued as if unaware of her insult.  “I will need something suitable for myself.  I think that the royal suite shall do.”

            “But, but, that’s where we’re staying!”  Rebecca stammered.

            The treasure! Baloo thought.

            “Then I suppose you will have to be relocated, won’t you?” The Verman sneered.  “And we will also need to find something suitable for Captain Von Los as well.”

 

 

            “That seems to be the last of it.”  Baloo said dropping a load of dresses on to the narrow bed in that was the major piece of furniture in the small room.

            Rebecca scanned the collection.  “Where’s the outfit I wore to the first night we were here?”

            “In my pocket. Ya want it now?”

            “No, that’s fine.”  Rebecca gritted her teeth.  “I was just wondering where it was.”

            She sat down on the edge of the bed and looked around the small spartan room.  It was a depressing change from the opulence of their last quarters.  There was just the one bed and it look hardly big enough to hold Baloo.  The only other piece of furniture was a plain wooden table and a chair that looked so rickety that she was glad Baloo had not tried to sit in it.  The walls had only a minimal amount of decoration.  A coat of whitewash with a single stripe of geometric pattern in faded paint.  On the table sat a clay pitcher of water next to a ceramic bowl.  They must have been intended to fulfill their needs for fresh water.  She did not even want to think about what the small pot under the bed was intended for.

            Baloo was just relieved that Esther had agreed to let Kit and Molly stay with her.  The room was going to be on the tight side with just Rebecca and himself, he had no idea where they could have put the kids.  Esther, on the other hand, was still in her original larger room.  At first Herr Sturm had tried to requisition her room for Captain Von Los’s use.  But when the naval officer found out that he would be displacing an elderly lady, he had refused to take the room.  He had insisted he would rather sleep in the courtyard than be so crass.

            “What are we going to do?”  Rebecca asked despondently.

            “Well, it is a lot smaller, but you can have the bed and I’ll camp out on the floor.”

            I will not strangle him, I will not strangle him.  Rebecca clenched her fist.  “Not about that!  I mean about the treasure.   Herr Sturm has barricaded himself into the only room that has access to the treasure vault!”

            “Well, I wouldn’t use the word barricaded.  He does go out occasionally.  True he does have a pair of submachine-gun totin’ guards out side his room at all times, but...”

            Baloo’s reply was cut off by the sound of stone grinding on stone.  A section of the whitewashed wall pivoted on a concealed axis and a very familiar looking vixen stepped out of the small opening.  Lotta’s posture and expression indicated she was worried, but Baloo could see that old spark of determination in her eyes.

            A secret entrance!  Rebecca thought.

            “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”  Lotta asked.

            “No, nothing!”  Rebecca said practically leaping off the bed.

            Now why on earth would Beckers be blushin’?  Baloo wondered.

            “Nah, just finishin’ movin’ all of Becky’s stuff.  I think she’s now got more junk than she had when we left Cape Suzette.”  He chuckled.  “How can we help ya, Princess?”

            Lotta paced nervously about the small room a few times and than sat down on the edge of the bed in the spot that Rebecca had just vacated.  “We’ve got to figure how to get the artifacts out of the royal suite without Herr Sturm or any of his flunkies catching us.  Do either of you have any ideas?”

            Sitting down next to Lotta, Rebecca put a comforting arm around her shoulders.  “Baloo and I were just talking about that.”

            “Have you come up with anything?”  Lotta looked up at Baloo hopefully.

            “What about that secret passageway that leads inta the royal suite?”  Baloo asked.  “Could we smuggle it out that way?”

            Lotta shook her head.  “That passageway only connects between my room and the royal suite.  We could move it to my room, but Herr Sturm has a couple of guards stationed outside my room at all times.  I’d rather not risk moving the artifacts until we have figured out a way to get them completely out of the country.”

            A secret door connecting the Princess’ room with the room Baloo was using the last time he was here?  Rebecca thought.  What on earth for?  And how does Baloo know about it?

            “Where does this secret passage lead to then?”  Rebecca said indicating the still open passageway in the room’s wall.

            “It leads to my private sauna.”  Lotta smiled mischievously at them.  “Even Herr Sturm’s snoop wouldn’t follow me in there.”

            “You’re being followed?”  Rebecca was astonished.

            “Yes, by Captain Von Los, but he’s not very good at it.  I don’t think his heart is in it.  I suspect he considers himself to be a sailor, not a spy.  I'm pretty sure Herr Sturm has told him to keep tabs on me.  He is pleasant enough about it, but he keeps turning up a little too conveniently for it to be chance.”  She sighed.  “It’s too bad he’s one of the bad guys.  He really is kind of gallant.”

            First Baloo and now a Ratzi naval officer!  Rebecca thought.  I really have to talk to her about her taste in men!

            Looking about the room for somewhere to sit, Baloo settled for leaning against the wall.  He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully as he considered their options.  They were definitely out-muscled this time.  There must be some way to outwit the opposition.

            “I think I’ll take a little look around,” he said finally.  “Why don’t I meet ya two later in Esther’s room?  Maybe she can come up with somethin’.”

           

 

            Baloo studied the ceiling in the throne room.  He knew the treasure vault was somewhere just above his head.  They had broken through there the last time he was here, and treasure had come spilling out.  He could not think of any way to pull off a stunt like that without the Ratzis catching on.   As far as he had been able to tell he did not have anyone tailing him, but taking hammer and chisel to the throne room ceiling might attract too much attention.

            “So at last we meet again.” A whiny little voice interrupted Baloo’s contemplation.

            Spinning around, Baloo saw a small gray tabby in an ill-fitting suit standing behind him.  There was something familiar about the smug-looking feline.  He squinted at the intruder, trying to place him.

            “I know ya from somewhere, don’t I?”

            The cat’s face was distorted by an expression of almost pure rage.  “Of course you know me, you stupid bear!”

            “Yeah, I recognize that look.  You’re that Dougie feller that tried to blow up Louie’s.”

            “DOUGLAS!  D - O - U - G - L - A - S!  Don’t ever call me Dougie!”  Douglas screamed, jumping up and down, stomping his feet like an angry child.

            “Calm down, will ya?”  Baloo said, trying to placate him.  “No need ta pop a piston just cuz I didn’t recognize ya.”

            “How can you not recognize me!  You ruined my career.  You and that rotten kid of yours.  I’m always being treated like a nobody.  Well I’m somebody now, because I’ve got this.”

            With that Douglas whipped out a pistol and waved it around.  Baloo recognized it as a small automatic that was favored by Verman naval and air force officers.  They were separated by a couple of dozen yards, and while he did not figure the short former Khan employee to be much of a shot, he could get lucky.  He took a few steps back.

            “Calm down, Dougi ... er, Douglas.  I ain’t callin’ ya a nobody.  I just didn’t recognize ya, that’s all.”

            “I suggest you take his advice, Herr Benson.”

            Both Baloo and Douglas turned to look at the new speaker.  Just inside the large arched door of the throne room stood the Verman captain.   He was dressed in a Kriegs-Marine officer’s duty uniform.  His left hand was in his pocket and his right hand held an unlit pipe.

            “I recommend you put that pistol away before you hurt yourself,” the captain said.

            Douglas’s rage did not abate much at the captain’s words.  “Don’t go giving me orders, Captain Von Los!  I think you’re forgetting who’s really in charge of this mission.”

            Von Los did not seem to be very impressed by Douglas’s show of outrage.  “I believe it is Herr Sturm.”

            “And I’m his second in command!”

            “You are merely one of his tools.  An Usland traitor who is willing to sell out his own country for personal power.  Your authority exists only in your own mind.”

            Baloo had to admire Von Los’s calm disregard for his own safety.  He could practically see the steam shooting out of the cat’s ears.

            “I may be a traitor.”  Douglas snarled.  “But I’m a traitor with a gun!  I think that gives me some authority.”

            “Yes, and if you’re very good I’ll even tell you where I’ve hidden the bullets.”

            The look on Douglas’s face was priceless.  Von Los could not have knocked the wind out of him better than if he had punched him in the stomach.

            “Wha... what do you mean?”

            “You don’t think I would actually give you a loaded weapon?”  There was just a hint of a smile in his eyes.

            “No... bullets?”  Douglas looked at the pistol in his hand as if it had betrayed him.

            “Now why don’t you put it away and go play somewhere else?”

            Dejected, Douglas slid the automatic back into his pocket, and departed the throne room.  Baloo breathed a sigh of relief.

            “On behalf of the Verman people, I apologize for Herr Benson’s behavior, Baron Von Bruinwald.”

            “Hey, no problem.  I’ve run into that cat before, he’s not hittin’ on all cylinders.”  Baloo chuckled.  “Pretty slick idea, givin’ him an unloaded gun.”

            “Actually, I was bluffing.  As far as I know that pistol is fully loaded.”
            What!  Weren’t ya takin’ a heck of a chance back there?”

            “Not really, Baron.  He does not impress me as someone who would even check to see if a weapon that has just been handed him is loaded.  I doubt if he has a round loaded into the chamber.”

            “Heh-heh, still pretty gutsy.  And by the way it’s Baloo, just plain Baloo.  Ya can drop all that Baron stuff.  The title don’t mean nothin’, I lost all the good stuff that came with it and I ain’t the kinda guy that wants frostin’ without the cake.”

            “As you wish, Baloo.  But I must disagree with you... a title is more than just the tangibles.  It is also your heritage.”

            “Yeah, I think they took that too.”

            Von Los gave him a curious look.  He could not tell if the bear was being serious or not.

            “So, what brings ya to this part of the palace?”  Baloo asked.

            “Actually, I’m looking for the princess.  I don’t suppose you’ve seen her?”

            “Not recently.  What do ya need her for?”

            “I’m trying to be a spy these days.  I’m supposed to be keeping track of her.”

            “Uh... are ya sure ya should be tellin’ me that?”

            “I said I was trying to be a spy, I did not say anything about being any good at it.”  He grinned.

            Baloo grinned back.  “Ya know, you’re not such a bad feller for a Ratzi.”

            “I’ll take that as a compliment.  But I’m not a Ratzi.”

            “Yer not?  Than what are ya?”

            “Merely an officer in the Verman navy trying to do his duty.”

            “Like followin’ Princess Lotta around.”

            “I must admit that some duties are more pleasurable than others.   And speaking of duty, I must be on my way.”  Von Los clicked his heels together and executed a short bow.  “I will bid you good day, Bar... Baloo.”

            With that the Verman officer left the throne room in search of his pleasurable duty.  Baloo had to smile.   He agreed with Lotta.  Von Los was an almost likable fellow --- for one of the bad guys.

            However, his encounter with Von Los, and Douglas, had proven one thing to Baloo.  The throne room would be a poor choice for a route to the treasure vault.  It was much too public; anyone could come wandering in on them.

            Maybe if we disguised ourselves as plumbers? he thought.

            Plumbers!  Working on the ceiling?  Come on, Baloo, you can do better than that! he could hear Becky saying in his mind.

            After studying the ceiling for a few more moments, Baloo decided it was a lost cause.  Maybe there was some other wall or ceiling they could go through to reach the artifacts.  Fixing the location of the treasure vault in his mind, he exited the throne room.  Remembering where something was in relation to where he was as he moved was a game Baloo had always been good at.  It was a trick that came in very handy to a pilot.

            After exploring the palace for about twenty minutes, Baloo realized he was being watched.  He probably would have noticed sooner, but he had been concentrating on keeping the vault’s location in his mind’s eye.  At first he had thought that Herr Sturm had placed a tail on him, like he had done with Lotta.  Then he got a good look at them.  They were dressed as desert nomads, in voluminous robes that completely concealed their features.  One was short and a little on the thin side.  The other was tall, at least as tall as Baloo.  There was also something very familiar about the second robed figure, something even the voluminous robe they wore could not conceal.

            “Hardluck!  Shasta!  What are ya guys doin’ here?”

            They jumped.  Even through their robes, Baloo could tell he had startled them.  After a few heartbeats in which to recover his composure the shorter figure stepped forward.  He pulled back his hood revealing his face.  It was indeed Captain Hardluck.

            “How did you know it was us, Baloo?” he asked.  “What gave us away?”

            Shasta stepped up behind her captain and removed her hood as well.  Baloo studied her figure, and thought about saying something about the futility of trying to disguise the twin peaks of Mount Shasta, but changed his mind.

            “What are ya two doin’ here?”  Baloo asked again, avoiding the question.

            “I’ve come to help a friend,” the rat said.

            “A friend?  Who would that be?”

            “Rebecca.”

            Baloo's eyes narrowed as he looked at Hardluck.  “How did ya even know she needed help?”  And just what do ya mean by ‘friend’?

            “One doesn’t survive long in my profession without being able to put two and two together, Baloo.  I had a crewmember abandon ship and a search of his room turned up a two-way radio of the type favored by Verman espionage agents.  Knowing what I did about the true nature of your visit to Macadamia, it didn’t take a great leap of intellect to figure out that Rebecca would soon be finding herself in a great deal of hot water.  Judging from the number of Ratzis swarming around this place, and the trouble we had getting in, I gather that I’m right?”

            “Oh brother, are ya ever right, and in spades!”  Baloo said,  “I’ll take ya ta where Becky is waitin’.  I’ll explain as we go.”

            Hardluck nodded his agreement and he and his first mate pulled their hoods back into place.  Flanking Baloo they walked down the hallway, they listened as to him as he began a tale of ancient artifacts, hidden treasure vaults, Gestapo agents, and a country in peril.

 

 

            The first thing Baloo noticed when he entered Esther’s apartment was that it was a little more crowded than he had expected.  Not only were Esther, Rebecca, Kit, Molly and Lotta there, but Katie and Myra had joined them.

            Lotta was the first to notice that Baloo was not alone.  She stared at the two robed figures suspiciously.

            “Who are these people?” she asked Baloo.

            “Don’t worry, Lotta, the short one is a friend of Becky’s,” he said as Hardluck and Shasta once again removed their hoods.  “And the big one is... uh, a friend of her friend.”

            “At your service, your Highness.”  Hardluck said, as he bowed and gallantly kissed the princess’ hand.

            Now why can’t Baloo learn to behave more like that?  Rebecca wondered.

            “Same here, lady.”  Shasta said, removing her cutlass form where it had been hidden in her robes.

            Kit recognized Captain Hardluck immediately.   His scarred face and eye patch were too well known in the pirate community for him to fail to recognize him, but he had never seen the statuesque feline before.  He doubted he could have forgotten her.

            “Gosh, she sure has big... er, that is she sure is tall,” he amended, noticing out of the corner of his eye that Rebecca was staring at him.

            Rebecca was startled.  Apparently “Li’l Britches” was not so little anymore.  It seemed that Kit had started growing up when she was not looking.  Maybe it was time for his “Papa Bear” to have that “little talk” with him!

            “How are you doing, Rebecca?”  Hardluck asked.

            “Remind me never to volunteer for secret missions in the future,” she said with a weak smile.

            “At least ya got the option of volunteerin’, “  Baloo mumbled.

            “How did you get here?”  Rebecca asked Hardluck.

            “When I found out you might be in danger, from the actions of one of my crew, I had the Revenge stop in the port of Cashew just long enough to drop off Shasta and myself.  From there it was a combination of cart and camels to Macadamia.”

            “Camels... ugh.”  Shasta shivered.  “I doubted there is a more repulsive animal on the face of the earth.”

            “You mean you came all the way here just to help us?”  Rebecca asked.

            “Actually, to help you.  It’s my fault that you’re in this trouble.”

            “How?”

            “Do you remember that odious little waiter of mine?”

            “Um... Daniel or something wasn’t it?”

            “Douglas.  Well it turns out Dougie was working for the Ratzis.   It appears he over heard enough of our dinner conversation to cause all this grief.”

            “Say, Becky,” Baloo interrupted. “I don’t suppose anyone has come up with an idea on how ta get the treasure outta the country?”

            “I’m afraid not, Baloo,” Esther said.  “We were hoping that you had come up with something.”

            “Have you, Baloo?”  Lotta asked, placing a hand on his arm.

            “I gotta couple of ideas brewin’, but nothin’ solid... yet.  The problem I keep runnin’ inta is we can’t do nothin’ without one of Sturm’s cronies seein’ us.  And that Von Los feller might come across as easygoin’, but he’s a sharp as a tack.  If there was just some way we could get them ta not see us when we’re in plain sight.”

            “I’m sure you’ll come up with something, Baloo.  I have faith in you.”

            “Well, I’ll do my best, Princess.”

            “A princess, Baloo?”  Shasta said with a mischievous glint in her eyes.  “Coming up in the world these days.   Not bad for a married bear.”

            Lotta studied the lioness with narrowed eyes.  “Do you know this person, Baloo?”

            “You could say that,” Shasta said, cutting off Baloo before he could answer.

            “Really?”  Lotta asked.

            “Yes,” Esther interjected.  “She’s the first mate on the pirate ship Revenge.  Shasta and Captain Hardluck helped rescue us from Don Karnage.”

            Molly tilted her head slightly and studied Captain Hardluck.   “Are you a pirate or a Ratzi?”

            Much to Rebecca’s relief, Hardluck did not take offense at Molly’s question.  “Only a pirate, I’m afraid.”

            “Well, you look like a Ratzi.  You even got an eye patch and a scar, just like in the movies.   But I guess pirates have those too, huh?”

            “Yes pirates, have them too.  But I had mine even before I was a pirate.”

            “Really?  What were you before you were a pirate?”

            “Oh, something much more frightening.   I worked for Khan Enterprises.”

            “Is that worse than being a Ratzi?”

            “Sometimes I wonder.  But as bad as Shere Khan can be, I think the Ratzis are a whole new level of bad news.  Sometimes I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’m Verman.”

            “You’re Verman?”  Rebecca was astonished.  “I never knew that.”

            Hardluck nodded.  “On both sides of my family.  My grandparents emigrated to Usland about fifty years ago.  Both my parents came from the same Verman-Usland community in Cape Suzette.  I’m only a second generation Usland.”

            Baloo studied Hardluck carefully.  A kernel of an idea was forming in his head.

            “Say, ya know, Beckers, Molly is right.  If ya dressed ol’ Hardluck up in a Ratzi uniform he would look right at home.”

            “Baloo!  How can you be so rude!  We owe Ral... Hardluck for rescuing us from the air pirates.  Calling him a Ratzi is a pretty low, even for you!”

            “I’m not callin’ him a Ratzi, Becky, I’m saying it wouldn’t take much ta make him look like one.  Say a nice high-rankin’ one.  Like a general or somethin’.”

            Hardluck looked at Baloo, intrigue glimmering in his one good eye.  “I gather one of those ideas you have brewing is beginning to come to a boil?”

            Baloo grinned.  “Kit, where’s the best place ta hide a needle?”

            “That’s easy,” Kit said.  “In a pile of needles.”

            “That’s right, and what won’t stand out in a crowd of Ratzis?”

            “Another Ratzi,” Hardluck said, supplying the answer.

            “Esther,” Baloo said. “You’re pretty good with a needle and thread.  Do ya think ya could whip up a Ratzi uniform?”

            “Given the proper material, I don’t see why not.”

            “And I can make sure that she has the proper materials,” Lotta said.

            “Now all we need is a another Princess Lotta and we’re good ta go.”  Baloo said rubbing his chin in thought.

            Another princess?”  Rebecca asked.  “What do we need another princess for?”

            “I need princess ta make the plan work.  But where Lotta goes, there goes Captain Von Los, and I ain’t so sure that he will be easily fooled by a bogus officer.  He’s just a little too smart.”

            “How about Miss Dodd?”  Everyone turned and looked at Molly.  “She kinda looks like the princess.”

            Baloo studied the redheaded archeologist.  “Hmmm, what’d ya think, Becky?”

            “Well, there is some vague resemblance.  She’s a little broader in the hips...”

            “Yes,” Lotta agreed. “And I’d say I weigh about a fifteen pounds less, but if you removed that cheap lipstick she likes to wear... “

            “And if you cut her hair, and dyed it a nice respectable brown... “  Rebecca continued.

            “And dressed her in some decent clothes...”

            “And if the lighting isn’t too good... “

            “Will you two knock it off!” Katie snarled.  “If you’re trying to get my cooperation you’re are definitely going about it the wrong way.”

            Baloo laughed.  “Okay, okay, everyone calm down.  Here’s what we’re gonna do... “

 

 

End of Chapter 8

 

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