SMUGGLER’S BALOO

 

A TaleSpin Fan-Fic

By

Herodotus

 

 

 

 Chapter 9

 

 

            Baloo studied himself in the mirror.  He smiled, pleased with what he saw.  Yep, one my all-time best disguises.  Dressed as a Bedouin chieftain, his costume consisted of black robes and an elaborate burnoose with gold cord.  His waist was girdled by a large red sash through which was thrust an ornate scimitar.  The crowning touch was an elegant false mustache.  It looked just like the mustache Ovinetino wore in The Desert Sheep.

            With a final adjustment to his burnoose, Baloo sauntered out of the bathroom and stepped into the main room of Esther’s apartment.  As he did so, Myra, Lotta and Katie hurried past him, entering the bathroom carrying bundles of clothes.

            “So... what’d ya think, Beckers?” he asked.

            Rebecca studied him for only a couple of seconds before she reached up and grabbed his mustache like the end of a bandage and yanked.  Before he knew what was happening, he found himself suddenly, and painfully, clean-shaven.

            Ow!  Baloo clamped both hands over his sore lip.  “What’d ya do that for?”

            “No mustaches!”  Rebecca said firmly. “I’m not having it fall off at the wrong moment and ruin everything!”

            Rubbing his tender lip, Baloo regarded Rebecca’s outfit.  The white peasant’s blouse had long billowing sleeves, but it left her midriff completely bare.  She wore a blue wraparound skirt that left her right leg exposed to above the knee.  A sliver bracelet encircled her right ankle and a small turquoise gem was imbedded in her navel. 

            But then something made Baloo do a double take, something even he could not fail to notice.

            “Becky, your hair!”

            Rebecca’s hair was once again brushed out, swept in a flowing peek-a-boo style that partially obscured the left side of her face.  But the most shocking fact was that her hair was now carrot-red!

            “What’s the matter?”  Rebecca sounded almost smug.  “I thought you liked redheads.”

            “Actually, Mom, I think you look pretty good as a redhead,” Kit said as he approached them.

            The older cub was wearing faded white pantaloons and a blue vest, with a red sash wrapped snugly around his waist.  On his head was a red fez, tilted at a jaunty angle.

            Behind Kit, an almost unrecognizable Molly trotted up.  She was wearing a costume very similar to Kit’s, but with a green vest instead of blue.  She was missing the ribbons that she usually wore on her ears, and her hair slicked down and parted on one side, making her look boyish.

            “How come I have to be a boy?”  Molly complained.

            “Because you make such a cute little boy,” Shasta said, smiling.

            Having decided that there was just no real good way to “hide” Shasta, they had gone to the other extreme.  Her outfit consisted of a bright purple vest with gold trim that just barely managed to meet in the front, and bright pink gauze pantaloons.  She was crowned with a turban of bright pink silk that matched her pantaloons.  The turban was fastened with a bright blue gem, and topped of with a large peacock’s feather.  Over one shoulder was a most deadly accessory:  A large, two-handed scimitar.

            Molly scowled at her and walked over to where Esther was putting the finishing touches on a Ratzi uniform and sat down on the bed next to her, pouting. 

            “What’s wrong, child?”  Esther asked Molly, as the other adults talked amongst themselves.

            “I don’t like that lady.  I don’t like the way she keeps looking at my daddy!”

            Esther smiled reassuringly and patted her on the hand.  “Don’t worry, Molly dear, he’ll be just fine.”

            Molly did not answer her.  She just continued to scowl at Shasta, wondering if she could get away with putting a fork on her chair.

            “There,” Esther said, holding up the uniform and studying her handiwork. “Finished.”

            Hardluck accepted the garment and admired her skill.  It was not a perfect copy of a Ratzi uniform, but it would pass anything short of a close inspection.  Baloo’s kid, Kit, had even managed to ‘acquire’ some actual Ratzi ribbons that Esther had attached to the uniform.  They lent it an air of authenticity too.

            “It looks good, Esther.  When the ladies are done changing, I’ll see how well it fits.”

            As though on cue, Myra came bounding out of the bathroom.  The sapphire-blue harem costume she was wearing was very similar to the green one Rebecca had worn her first night in Macadamia.

            “Look at me, Baloo,” Myra laughed. “I’m a dancing girl!”

            “Ya look great, Myra.”  Baloo nodded approvingly.  “Ya gonna have any trouble seein' without yer glasses?”

            "I'll be fine.  They're mostly for reading.  It's just that anything over a couple of dozen yards is a little fuzzy."

            Myra was quickly followed by Katie and Princess Lotta.  They were now dressed identically, in ivory blouses, tiger-print wraparound skirts, and pink veils.  Standing next to each other, it was easy to tell which one was the real princess.  However, they did look enough alike to fool anyone who did not know Lotta that well.

            Katie stopped to view herself in the mirror.  It was obvious from her expression that she was not happy with her new, shorter, dark brown hair. 

            “Do you think this will really work?” Lotta asked Baloo.

            “Hey, have a little faith, Princess.  Of course it’ll work, can’t fail, no problem!”  Baloo said, sounding a lot more confident than he felt.

            The look that Rebecca gave him indicated that she was not as convinced by his tone as the princess. He was beginning to suspect that Rebecca understood him just a little too well.

            “Well,” he said, ignoring Rebecca’s worried look. “Does everyone remember what they’re supposed ta do?”

            “Yes,” Lotta said. “I’m supposed to find Captain Von Los and get him to follow me to the other end of the palace, and keep him there for as long as I can.”

            Hardluck emerged from the bathroom looking every inch a Ratzi officer.  His broom-handled Mauser was not quite issue, but since he was supposed to be a general officer, Baloo hoped it could be passed off as an affectation.

            “Well, now that we are all ready, shall we begin?”  Esther asked.

            Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Lotta reached for the door lever.  Then she hesitated, and looked back at everyone, her features filled with trepidation.

            “What if I can’t find him?  What if he won’t follow me, what if...”

            “Don’t worry about it, dear.”   Esther’s tone was soothing.  “Trust me, he’ll find you.  And as for getting him to follow you...  that will be the least of your worries.”

            “Are you sure?”  Lotta was not completely convinced.

            “Trust me on this one, child,” Esther said, with a mischievous little smile.

            With that reassurance, Lotta opened the door and exited the room.  But before the door had completely closed, much to almost everyone’s surprise, they heard Captain Von Los’s voice.

            “Princess Lotta.  How are you this evening?”

            “Oh, er... fine, Captain.  I was just thinking of taking a walk in the gardens.  They are so peaceful at this time of night.”

            “Sounds enchanting.  Do you mind if I join you?”

            “Er... no, I’d be pleased if you would.”

            “Well,” Baloo said, a little astonished.  “That sure didn’t take very long!”

            “I didn’t think it would,” Esther said, looking very pleased about something.

            “I guess it’s Kit and Molly’s turn next.”

            “You got it, Papa Bear,” Kit said leaping to the door, with Molly right behind him.

            Molly’s earlier disappointed expression was replaced by one of pure joy.  For once she was not being left out of the adventure.  She was going to get to actually help Kit.  She had a real mission this time.  Not one of those phony ones they were always thinking up to keep her out from underfoot.

            “Kit!”  Baloo said, his voice serious for once.

            “Yes, Papa Bear?”  Kit asked, somewhat surprised by his tone, his hand on the door handle.

            “Remember, you’re just on a scouting mission.  Ya just need ta find a clear way outta the palace, and find out where they’ve parked the nearest half-track.  Don’t go gettin’ carried away or nothin’.  If things go sour, or ya hear any shootin’, ya grab Molly and ya hightail it outta there.  Ya understand?”

            “Give me a break. I’ve done this kind of thing before, you know.”

            “Kit, I mean it.  If ya ever listened ta anythin’ I’ve ever told ya, listen ta me now.  I know ya, if ya think Bec... er, yer mom or I are in trouble, yer gonna want ta see if ya can help.  Don’t.  It’s your job ta make sure Molly gets out safe.  I want ya to promise me that’s what you’ll do.”

            “Oh, okay.  I promise.” His tone indicated he understood just what Baloo meant --- even if he did not like the implications.

            “Good, now git.”

            With a nod, Kit turned and left, a grinning Molly at his heels, leaving more than one nervous adult behind.

            “Baloo,” Rebecca said hesitantly.  “Do you really think it was such a good idea having Molly go with Kit?  Even if it is just a scouting mission, she’s only seven...”           

            Baloo took her hands in his and gave them a gentle squeeze.  “Best place she could be.  Kit will keep her safe.  And if things... go wrong, she’ll be far enough away that she won’t get hurt.”

            Rebecca swallowed hard.  “You don’t sound as confident as you did when you were talking to Lotta.”
            “I thought she needed the comfortin’.”

            What about me?  A small voice in the back of her mind wanted to know.  Don’t I get some comforting?

            “If you two are done holding hands, it’s time we started our part of the plan.  I don’t think we should count on Lotta keeping Von Los busy all night,” Katie said impatiently.

            “Very well, Princess, lead on,” Baloo said, making a mock bow.

            Katie slipped her arm through one of Baloo’s as they headed for the door.  Myra, Rebecca, and Shasta fell into step behind them. 

            A princess showing a visitin’ dignitary an’ his entourage around the palace... what could be more natural?  Baloo thought.

            The sun risin’ in the west!  Another part of his mind answered.

            Hardluck pulled a watch out of his pocket and looked at it.  He was supposed to give them a twenty-minute head start before he put in an appearance.  Damn, he hated having to sit around and wait while someone else was taking all the risks!

            “You look a little nervous, Captain,” Esther commented.

            “I’ve never been good at waiting.”

            “Oh, I don’t know.  How about that time you ambushed that Khan Enterprise’s convoy off the Cape of Some Hope?  That took a lot of patience.”

            Hardluck was surprised.  “You know about that?”

            “I read the papers.”

            “I didn’t think Khan let that get into the papers.”

            “Really?  Then I wonder where I heard it?” she said innocently.

            He studied her carefully.  There was definitely more to this elegant-looking lady than met the eye.  After a few moments, he shrugged.  He would have to worry about that another time.  He looked at his watch; less than two minutes had passed.

            Relax, he told himself.

            “I don’t suppose you can think of any way to pass the time?” he finally asked.

            “Do you know how to play gin rummy, Captain?”

 

 

            As they approached the door to Princess Lotta’s room, Baloo could see two grim-looking guards standing in the hallway.  Their submachine guns hung at their sides, suspended by straps that ran over their right shoulders.  One of them was slouched against a wall, but when he noticed that someone was coming towards them, he immediately straightened his posture and grasped his submachine gun with both hands.

            “Hi there,” Baloo greeted the pair of Ratzi guards, his voice about a half an octave lower than usual in an attempt to disguise it.  “I’m Sheik Lawrence, and these are my companions and my bodyguard.  I’m just stoppin’ by ta say hello ta my ol’ friend King Amuck.  He’s kinda busy right now, so his daughter said she would give me a tour of the palace.”

            The guards stared, but did not say anything.  They seemed fascinated by something over his left shoulder.

            “Yes, that’s right,” Katie said, doing her best to imitate Lotta’s sweet voice.  “But I forgot something in my room, so we need to pick it up first.”

            “Ah... yes.  That’s nice,” one of them said, not even looking at her.

            Katie slipped past the guards and started opening the door to Lotta’s room.  The guards paid her only passing attention.  They seemed intrigued by something else.  Baloo followed Katie and the guards’ eyes barely flickered in his direction.  It was not until Shasta followed Baloo and Katie that their gaze shifted.  Their heads followed her as though magnetized, their eyes bouncing in rhythm to her movements.

            “Well, now, what’d ya think of that?”  Baloo said once they were all safely inside Lotta’s room and the door was closed.

            “I have that effect on men.”  Shasta shrugged.

            “If they’d been any more distracted we coulda herded elephants past them without bein’ noticed!”  Baloo said, impressed.

            “And it’s a good thing too,” Rebecca said contemptuously.  “With your flimsy excuse for getting into Lotta’s apartments.  Why on earth would a tour of the palace include the princess’s room?”

            Baloo cleared his throat nervously, but did not answer her.  Instead he began to remove his robes.  The garment came apart in sections, and within moments his robes were pooled at his feet and he stood dressed only in his pilot’s shirt.  Picking up one of the discarded sections he shook it out, revealing it to be a sack made of black cloth.  Reaching inside it, he pulled out his hat and quickly put it on.

            Myra studied the pile of black cloth.  “It’s a good thing you’re so big, Baloo.  These should be more than enough sacks to carry all the artifacts.”

            “What can I say?” Baloo smiled.  “Ya can never have too much of good thing.”

            “Will you get on with it!”  Rebecca scolded.  “Open the secret door, already.”

            With a flamboyant gesture, Baloo pressed a stud concealed in the decorative pattern on the wall... and nothing happened.  Annoyed, he stared at it and pushed it again.  Again nothing happened.

            “Heh, heh, must be stuck.”

            He pushed it a third time and still nothing happened.  “Funny, I coulda sworn Lotta said it was the third stud from the right.”

            “Maybe she meant your other right?”  Rebecca said impatiently.

            Silently, Baloo said the pledge of allegiance, placing his right hand over his heart. “Oh, yeah.”

            He pressed a different stud.  This time a secret door swung open.  He grinned sheepishly as everyone started to gather up sacks.

            Myra hesitated just before she entered the passageway.  “I just thought of something.  What if Herr Sturm is on the other end when we pop out in the royal suite?”

            Shasta ran a thumb along the edge of her large sword.  “I wouldn’t be that lucky.”

 

 

            Corporal Hoffman watched the door to the princess’s chamber intently, his hands sweaty on his submachine gun.  He was hoping to catch another glimpse of the sheik’s shapely bodyguard.  After almost two months at sea, she was definitely a sight for sore eyes.  Actually, even if he had not been at sea for two months she would have been quite capable of holding his attention.

            “And how are you doing this evening, Corporal?” asked a sarcastic voice.

            Hoffman turned to see who was interrupting his fantasies.  To his horror he saw a Wehrmacht general.  The officer was missing one eye, a black leather patch covering the spot it once had occupied.  The look in his one good eye gleamed with maleficence.  Hoffman snapped to attention.  His partner had not yet seen the officer but he noticed Hoffman’s sudden movement.

            “What’s wrong, Fritz?  You’re acting as if you’ve seen…”

            Suddenly catching sight of the officer the second guard also snapped to attention.  The officer studied them with his one good eye, pining them in place with his gaze.

            “Are you usually this inattentive, or this a special occasion?”

            “Your pardon, General, we... “

            The officer waved a hand in a dismissive gesture.  “Never mind.  You are relieved of your post.”

            “What!”

            “The army is taking over this operation.  All of you are to meet in the throne room for further orders from your captain.”

            “I don’t know... “

            The officer gave them a look that could have split stone.  “Are you questioning my orders?”

            “No, General!”

            “Then go.”

            “But who will guard the princess’s door?”

            The general scowled.  The two guards quickly saluted and took off at a pace just below a trot.

            Hardluck waited until the two Ratzi sailors had disappeared down the hallway and then turned to the door they had been guarding.  He knocked softly.  The door opened a little and Baloo’s head popped out.

            “What’d ya know, Joe?”  The large bear grinned.

            “I now know better than to ever play cards with Mrs. Chaddberry.”

            “What does that mean?”

            “Never mind.  Did you get all the treasure?”

            “Yep.”

            “Then let’s get out of here.  It’s only a matter of time before someone figures out that something is going on.”

            The door swung completely open.  Baloo, Rebecca, Katie, Myra, and Shasta all hurried out of the room with several sacks slung over their shoulders.  The bundles all clanked and jangled as they hurried down the hallway.

            “This is no way to be treating precious artifacts.”  Myra was distressed.

            “Better than letting them fall into the hands of the Ratzis!”  Katie said tartly.

            “Did you have any trouble?”  Hardluck asked Baloo.

            “Nah, ol’ Sourface wasn’t home,” Baloo answered.  “Now ta see if Kit made it back to Esther’s.”

            As the party entered Esther’s room, the rabbit looked up from where she was playing solitaire.  She smiled sweetly at them, like a grandmother being visited by her grandchildren.  Baloo could have sworn that of all of them, she seemed the least flustered by the present turn of events.

            “I didn’t hear any gunshots, or yelling, so I gather that everything has gone according to plan so far?”

            “So far so good.”  Baloo said.  “Any sign of Kit and Molly yet?”

            “Not yet, but they’ve barely been gone a half an hour.  I wouldn’t start worrying yet.”

            Baloo was just about to say something along the lines of 'That’s easy for you to say', when the door to Esther’s apartment swung open again.  Kit and Molly bounded into the room.  Kit looked pleased, and Molly’s face was flushed with excitement.

            “What’d ya find out, Kit?”  Baloo asked.

            “Smooth flying, Baloo... er, Papa Bear,” he said.  “The route Molly and I used to sneak in to the palace is completely unguarded, and one of the Verman half-tracks is parked less than fifty yards from the wall.”

            “Then I suggest we get going before conditions have a chance to change.”  Esther said.

            “I’m with you, Esther,” Baloo said.  “Let’s get gone... wait... where’s Becky?”

            “I’m right here.”  The door to the bathroom swung open and Rebecca emerged.  “I just needed to change.”

            She was wearing the lovely green dress Princess Lotta had given her.  She was still tugging on the long satin gloves as she entered the room.

            “Uh... Becky, I don’t mean ta insult your fashion sense, but that really ain’t the kinda thing one usually wears on a smugglin’ operation.”

            Rebecca scowled at him.  “If this dress stays, so do I!”

            Baloo knew that tone all too well.  It was the one she used when she had made up her mind.  Even if he had two days to waste trying to talk her out of it, he was not all that sure he would succeed.  She sounded even more determined than the time she had decided she was going to make a fortune truffle hunting.

            “Fine,” he said, surrendering. “Let’s just get the heck outta here.”

            With that, the oddly dressed group fled the room with Kit in the lead and Baloo bringing up the rear.  This late at night the palace was almost deserted and their progress went smoothly.  Kit led them quickly through the empty hallways.  They had just about reached the place where they would have to scale the palace wall when the plan started to come apart.

            “Stop right where you are.”

            Spinning around Baloo’s stomach fell to somewhere around his knees.  It was Herr Sturm.  The rat had a sneer on his face and an evil-looking automatic in his left hand.

            “Well, well, what have we here?” the Gestapo agent asked.

            Baloo measured the distance between himself and Herr Sturm.  They were not that far apart, but there was no way he could close that distance before the Ratzi got off at least a couple of shots.

            “I don’t think I like the look in your eye, Herr von Bruinwald.  Let me inform you that I am a very good shot.”

            “What are ya doin’ here, Herr Stump?”  Baloo growled.

            “I was very interested when my associate, Herr Benson, informed me that there was a new face in Macadamia that he recognized.  A face that did not belong in a Verman uniform.  Isn’t that right, Captain Hardluck?”

            The pirate narrowed his one good eye, calculating.

            “I know what you are thinking,” Herr Sturm said calmly.  “You’re wondering if you can draw your own weapon and fire before I can get a shot off.  Maybe you are even thinking about sacrificing yourself.  That while I’m trying to shoot you the rest of them can jump me.  No matter how fast you are, Captain, there is no way you can stop me from getting off at least one shot.  Let’s say…a shot at your lovely first mate?”

            Hardluck’s head jerked back as if he had been slapped.  Shasta merely growled deep in her chest and readjusted her grip on her sword.

            “I say go for it, Captain.  That little popgun of his can’t be bigger than a nine-millimeter short.  Even if he hits me with one, it won’t even slow me down.”

            “I think not.  Captain Hardluck is much too noble to risk someone else’s life.”  Herr Sturm managed to make the word noble sound like a personal flaw.

            “Damn you!”  Hardluck spat.

            “Now if you will remove your pistol, slowly with two fingers, and drop it on the floor.  And you, Fraulein, if you will drop that oversized knife.”

            The sound of metal striking stone filled the air as the two pirates complied with Herr Sturm’s instructions.  Hardluck stared at him grimly.  “Now what?”

            “Let’s see,” Herr Sturm said.  “You are in the wrong uniform, Captain.  I believe that makes you a spy.  I also believe the usual penalty for espionage is death.”

            Herr Sturm raised his automatic and aimed at Hardluck.  The explosive sound of a gun being fired filled the air, accompanied by the hollow slapping sound of a bullet striking flesh.  Herr Sturm’s left shoulder jerked back and his pistol was thrown from his hand.  With a stunned expression he put his right hand to his shoulder.  It came away covered in blood.

            Mien Gott!  I’ve been shot!”

            There was the ratcheting sound of a weapon being cocked and Herr Sturm took off running.  For a little guy, he sure can run fast, Baloo thought.

            Looking over his shoulder Baloo saw Esther and his mouth fell open --- she was holding a small revolver.  A trickle of gray smoke curled up form its short, stubby barrel.

            “Now where have ya been keepin’ that all this time?”  Baloo demanded.

            “Please, Baloo, a lady must have some secrets.”

            “I suggest we get out of here!”  Hardluck said, having recovered his pistol. “In about fifteen seconds we are going to have more Ratzis than we know what to do with.”

            Kit went first, scaling the wall and dropping to the ground on the other side.  He had now used this route so many times now that it was become routine for him.  Esther went second.  Baloo was impressed by the elderly rabbit’s agility; she scaled the wall only slightly slower than Kit.

            “Mrs. Chaddberry?”  Kit asked as they stood on the other side of the wall waiting for the rest of the party.  “If you’ve had that pistol all this time, how come you didn’t use it when you were captured by the pirates?”

            “Part of knowing how to use a weapon is knowing when to use it.  My little pistol only has five shots, of limited use against a couple dozen pirates, but more than enough for a single Ratzi.”

            “Well, it was a pretty good shot anyway.”

            “Not really,” Esther said as she helped Molly down.  “I was aiming for his heart.”

            The rest of the fugitives had soon climbed over the wall.  A few dozen yards away, they could see an angular-looking truck-like vehicle.  In front it had wheels just like a normal truck, but the rear of the vehicle had tank-like treads instead of wheels.  It was one of the Verman half-tracks.  As quickly as they could they boarded the vehicle.  Rebecca cursed under her breath as her flowing dress seemed to catch on every projection or sharp corner.  Kit, Katie, and Molly took the front and the rest of them scrambled into the large crew compartment in back.  It stank of sweat, dust and weapon oil.  Several schnauzer submachine guns hung in racks on its walls.

            Baloo had just barely managed to climb in when the sound of a Verman burp gun filled the air and a spray of bullets ricocheted off the side of the armored vehicle.  Hardluck popped up and fired a couple of quick shots from his Mauser and then ducked back down when a burst of submachine gunfire snapped past, just over his head.

            “Katie, will you get us outta here!”  Baloo shouted.  “I thought ya said ya knew how ta operate one of these things.”

            “I do, but the key is missing!”  Katie sounded panic-stricken.

            “Give me a minute, Papa Bear,” Kit said, reaching under the dash.

            Another burst of automatic weapons fire rattled off the side of their armored transport.   Baloo snatched one of the lethal looking submachine guns off the wall and pulled back sharply on its cocking handle.  A quick glance in the breach showed him that the weapon was loaded.  Popping up, he sent a couple of quick, controlled bursts in the direction of the incoming fire.  Ratzi soldiers scattered for cover.

            Baloo dropped back down into the half-track and breathed a sigh of relief.  Rebecca stared at him in absolute amazement.

            “Baloo!  I thought you hated guns!”

            “I do.  Never said I didn’t know how ta use ‘em.”

            “Where on earth did you ever learn to use a machine gun?”

            “Some other time, Beckers, when I ain’t so busy.”  Baloo stood up again and gave another couple of quick burst.  “Kit, how much longer?”

            “Almost there,” Kit said.

            There was the sound of an electric discharge from under the dashboard and the half-track’s engine coughed to life.  Katie looked at the young cub next to her in amazement.  Then she turned around and looked at Baloo.

            “Your son knows how to hot-wire a car?”

            Baloo discarded the now empty submachine gun and snatched another one from the rack.  “Yeah, doesn’t everyone’s kid?  Now will ya put the pedal to the metal, before I get to be on a first name basis with these Vermans?”

            Katie stomped her foot down on the accelerator and the heavy vehicle lurched forward. Baloo stood up and fired a long, wild, spray that emptied his second weapon.  He knew there was no way he would hit anyone, or even come close, with a shot like that.  A submachine gun fired that way was little better than a loud noisemaker.  But in the dark, the long burst of flame from the weapons muzzle looked truly terrifying, and it would make the Ratzis keep their heads down.

            Suddenly Shasta was standing next to him, the last of the submachine guns in her hands.  With a toothy grin, she let loose with several controlled bursts.  It was obvious she was not interested in merely making the Ratzis duck.

            “I’ll say this for you, Baloo,” she laughed.  “You really know how to show a girl a good time.”

            There was a crunching sound and half-track bounced violently.  Baloo was forced to grab the side of the vehicle to avoid being tossed about.  The submachine gun was knocked from Shasta’s hands and went spinning into the dark.

            “Oops!”  Katie said.

            “What was that?”  Baloo yelled.

            “A pottery stand, I think.”  Katie answered.

            “Watch where you’re goin’, lady.”

            “It’s dark!” she retorted. “I can’t see that well.”

            Rolling his eyes, Kit reached out and flipped the switch that activated the half-tracks headlights.  “I thought you said you knew how to operate one of these.”

            “I do,” Katie said huffily.  “I’ve just never had to drive one at night.  How should I know where the light switch is?”

            Suddenly the half-track came to a screeching halt.  Baloo was thrown violently forward.  He saw stars as his head bounced off the vehicle’s armored wall.  Sitting up, he rubbed his head.

            “Ow... what now?”

            “We’re at the airport.”  Katie’s tone indicated that all was not well

            “What’s wrong?”  Baloo asked, nervously.

            “I think you’d better take a look.”

            Everyone clambered out of the half-track.  Baloo looked around but could not see anything.  It took a few moments for that to sink in.  He could not see anything but empty runway!

            “The Sea Duck!  She’s gone!”

            “Gee, Kit,” Molly said. “Your plane is missing too.”

            As distraught as Rebecca was, that comment did manage to catch her attention.  She turned and gave Kit a startled look.

            Your plane?”

            “Heh, heh,” Kit gave a nervous laugh.  “Did I forget to tell you about that?”

            “We can worry about that later, Becky.  Right now we gotta find my baby!”

            “I don’t think you’ll be going anywhere, Baloo.”

            Douglas climbed up out of a ditch that ran along one side of the runway, his small automatic clenched in his hand.  “I knew Herr Sturm wouldn’t be able to stop you.  He doesn’t know how sneaky you can be.  That’s why I’ve been waiting here all night.  I knew you’d come for your precious little plane.  You’re as silly about it as that ape friend of yours is about that dump he calls a nightclub.”

            Douglas stepped up to Rebecca.  Wrapping his left arm about her neck, he poked her in the ribs with his pistol her.  Rebecca let out a small yelp.

            “I think this should insure your good behavior.  You’ve got to listen to me now.  I’ve got a gun and a hostage!”  Douglas said, waving his pistol about to make sure that everyone could see who was in charge.

            Something in Baloo snapped.  With a snarl he was on top of Douglas before the small feline realized what was happening.  Fingers as strong as steel cables pried the pistol out of his hand.  There was a click as Baloo flipped the safety off and then shoved the muzzle of the weapon up Douglas’s left nostril.

            “Listen, Dougie, you’ve been a real pain in the pontoons ever since we met.  You’ve endangered my friends, not to mention a peaceful country, and pointed a gun at someone I really care about.  Now, you’ve got ‘till I count ta fifteen ta tell me where the Sea Duck is, or I’m gonna see how accurate a shot I am at this range.”

            “You wouldn’t dare!” With one nostril plugged, Douglas’s voice sounded almost humorously nasal. 

            “One, seven, fif...”

            “All right, all right!  I’ll talk!”

            “Better talk fast.”  In the distance Baloo could hear the sounds of angry voices getting closer.

            “They flew them to the harbor in Cashew.  Just in case you tried just this sort of stunt.”

            Disgusted, Baloo tossed Douglas off one side of the runway, and the pistol off the other.  Douglas landed with a thud and scurried away.

            The angry voices were closer now, and Baloo could make out ghost-like shapes in the darkness.  “Let’s get gone, we got party crashers on the way!”

            Katie needed no further urging.  She was in the driver’s seat of the half-track in two, very rapid, heartbeats and was revving the engine.  The rest of them were not far behind.  They all piled into the vehicle, with the exception of Rebecca, who stopped halfway in.

            “Come on, Backers!”  Baloo yelled at her.  “Get the heck in here, we gotta pull chocks!”

            “I can’t!  My dress is caught on something!”

            Baloo reached out and grabbed her by the hands and tugged, but he could not pull her free.  A few long-range shots from the closing Vermans snapped past them and one bounced off the side of the half-track.  That was all the more encouragement Katie needed.  With a piercing shriek, she stomped her foot down on the accelerator and the vehicle leapt forward.  There was a tearing sound and most of Rebecca’s skirt was torn off by the spinning tracks.  Baloo fell back into the half-track, still holding onto her hands, and Rebecca landed on top of him.

 

 

            Cursing in Verman, Herr Sturm chased after the rapidly departing vehicle, firing as he ran.  His left arm was in a sling and he was firing his pistol with his right hand.   At that range, and firing with his off hand, he had little hope of actually hitting anything, but he was too enraged to care.

            “After them!” he shrieked. “They’re getting away!”

            Having finally located his pistol, Douglas came scurrying out of the ditch.  “Don’t worry, Herr Sturm, I’ll stop them!”

            I’ll show that dumb bear what it means to cross Douglas P. Benson!

            Von Los came running up, gasping for breath. He was short of breath, having had to run to catch up.  The sounds of a shot had disturbed his... botanical studies... with Princess Lotta.  He had emerged from the palace just in time to see Herr Sturm taking off with Gerbils’s bodyguards.  He still was not sure what was going on.  Then he saw Douglas, and realized what he was about to do.

            “Wait, Douglas,” Von Los yelled.  “Sturm is in your line of fire!”

            The warning came too late.  The small automatic bucked in Douglas’s hand as he pulled the trigger.

Herr Sturm stiffened, and then collapsed to the ground. 

Douglas stared in horror for a few moments and then slowly turned to Von Los. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”

            Von Los studied Sturm’s motionless form.  “You could say that.”

 

 

            A Verman half-track raced through the Macadamian night.  A long plume of dust trailed out behind it, illuminated by a bright moon.

            “You okay, Becky?”  Baloo asked anxiously.

            There was no reply.  He could just make out Rebecca in the dark confines of the half-track.  She did not look hurt, but the light was so poor he could not really tell.

            “Are ya hurt, Becky?” he repeated.

            “It’s completely ruined,” she finally replied.
            “What is?”

            “My dress!  My wonderful, beautiful dress!  The skirt got caught on a tread, and when the truck started moving it tore my skirt.”

            Baloo breathed a sigh of relief.  Women, he thought.

            “Esther’s pretty good with needle and thread.  Maybe she can sew it up?”

            “Baloo, there’s nothing there to sew.  It ripped most of it right off.”

            “How bad is it?”

            “Well, let me put it this way… if I drop anything, someone else will have to pick it up for me.”

 

 

 

            A second half-track raced through the night, in pursuit of the first one.  Their quarry had a good lead on them, but the driver of the second vehicle was more skilled and was able to drive faster.  Their prey was not yet in sight, but they knew where it was headed and the distance between them was slowly closing.

            “You’re still mad at me, aren’t you?”  Douglas asked.

            Herr Sturm looked at him, but did not say anything.  The Gestapo agent’s head was heavily swathed in bandages.  Douglas’s errant shot had not proven fatal.  The bullet had merely passed through Sturm’s ear and creased his head, knocking him out, but not killing him.  It had left him with nothing worse than a raging headache and a neat nine-millimeter hole in his right ear.

            “How long until we reach Cashew?”  Herr Sturm asked Von Los.

            “At the speed we are going now, sometime after sunrise.  Maybe sooner.”

            “And what are our chances of catching the spies?”

            Von Los shrugged.  “Hard to say.  The driver of the other vehicle is an unknown factor.”

            Sturm studied the captain, noting his apparent lack of concern over the opposition making off with the very prize that they been sent to Macadamia to claim.  “Where were you while the spies were making off with the Macadamian treasure?”

            “Keeping an eye on the Princess.  Just as you ordered me.”

            “Then how do you explain the fact I saw the princess with them?”

            Von Los shrugged again.  “All I can tell you is that it was most definitely Princess Lotta I was with in the gardens.  I’m sure that she had no idea that someone was planning to make off with the royal treasures.  I will vouch for her.”

            “Has it occurred to you that she merely set you up as an alibi?”

            Yes,  Von Los thought.

            “All I can tell you, Herr Sturm, is that she never left my side... sight, while we were in the gardens.”

            “I don’t know if she is playing you for a fool, or if you are trying to play me for one.  Either way, if they escape you will be very sorry, Captain.”

 

 

            From their hiding place, Baloo could just see the top of the Sea Duck’s rudders.  Uneasily, he shifted his weight.  Shasta had been gone too long for his liking.  He hoped she had not gotten into trouble.  He still was not sure how he had let her talk him into letting her take out the guards on the aircraft.  Shasta was bigger than both of the guards combined, but they did have submachine guns, and she had not even bothered to take her cutlass with her.

            “Hi, miss me?”

            Baloo nearly jumped out of his skin.  How can anyone that big move that quietly?

            “What about the guards?”  Rebecca asked.

            Shasta grinned.  “Sleeping like babies.  For some reason they were willing to let me get really close.  Their mistake.”

            Baloo was impressed.  It seemed that the big lioness was just as dangerous without her cutlass.  He glanced at her figure.  Maybe even more so!

            “The coast is clear, then?”  Kit asked.

            “Not quite.” Shasta shook her head.  “The planes are docked less than a hundred yards from a Ratzi sub.”

            “How’d ya take out the guards on the planes then?  Won’t they see that there’s no one guardin’ the Sea Duck?”  Baloo asked.

            Shasta grinned.  “Actually, I made sure the deck watch on the sub saw them follow me into the Sea Duck.  I just made sure he didn’t see me leave... alone.”

            “So how do we get to the planes?”  Rebecca asked.

            “If we wander up one or two at a time,” Esther said. “And carry something so it looks like we are loading supplies, we shouldn’t attract too much attention.”

            “Sounds like a plan,” Baloo said.  “Who goes first?”

            “It would be best if the pilots go first,” Hardluck said.  “So that would be you.  Molly and Kit can probably go together, no one will notice a pair of street urchins scrounging the docks.  Then Rebecca, followed by Myra and Katie.  Mrs. Chaddberry will go last, since a harmless old lady probably won’t attract too much attention.”

            “Last?”  Rebecca said. “What about you and Shasta? Aren’t you coming with us?”

            The pirate shook his head.  “I’m afraid we’ll have to part ways again, Rebecca, at least for a while. The Revenge will be by in a couple of days to pick us up.  I’m afraid I wouldn’t be very welcome where you’re going.  I’m a pirate now, remember?”

            “I like your plan, Hardluck,” Baloo said interrupting their farewell.  “But with one change.”

            “Oh, and what is that?”

            I go last.”

            “What on earth for?”

            “Cuz if anyone gets left behind, it’ll be me.  If things go wrong I’ll hold the line long enough for the rest ta get out.”

            “And who flies the Sea Duck?”

            “Becky knows enough about flyin’ now ta get her airborne and home.”

            Rebecca did not know whether to be pleased, angry, or scared.  He chooses now to let me know he has confidence in my flying skills?

            She shook her head adamantly.  “I’m not leaving without you, Baloo.”

            “Don’t argue, Beckers.  Think of Molly.”

            Part of Rebecca wanted to call him a really bad name, but another part knew he was right.  Not trusting herself to speak, she swallowed and nodded.

            “Good.  You’re first, Becky.  Now git.”

            He gave her a gentle swat on the rear to send her on her way.  Usually Rebecca would have been outraged at the familiarity, but right then she was too nervous to care.  Holding her sacks of treasure in her arms, she started the long walk to the Sea Duck.  Her breath was labored and her knees felt as if they would buckle at any moment.  Dressed as she was, she could not see how anyone would mistake her for a stevedore.  What if she dropped one of the sacks?  There was no way she would be able to bring herself to bend over and pick it up.  Not with everyone watching.  It would have to stay there until one of the others came past and could pick it up.

            Lord!  Rebecca thought.  It must be over a mile across this dock.  I’m never going to make it.  I’ll pass out from the heat first!  

            Baloo watched Rebecca from over the crates he was hiding behind.  He breathed a sigh of relief as he watched her disappear into the Sea Duck.

            “Hey, Kit, is that blue PT-8a the plane ya bought with Rebecca’s money?”

            “Uh... yes,” Kit said nervously.

            “Nice choice.  Now it’s your and Molly’s turn.  Wander out there like you’re just lookin’ around, then when the Ratzi on the sub ain’t lookin’, ya head for your plane.  Molly I want ya to get in the Sea Duck --- it’s where your mom is.”

            “I want to ride with Kit,” Molly said.

            “Molly, could ya do me a favor… would ya please do what I ask?  Just this once?”

            “Trouble, Baloo!”  Hardluck said suddenly.

            Baloo spun around.  Hardluck was crouched behind a crate with his pistol drawn, gazing back down the docks.  Baloo followed his gaze to where the pirate captain was looking.  A Verman half-track had pulled up on the far end off the dock and was disgorging Ratzis.

            “Change of plans, crew.  Everybody run like hell!”  Baloo shouted.

            Scooping up Molly, tucking her under one arm and slinging his sack of treasure over his other shoulder, Baloo took off at a run, the planks of the dock shuddered under his pounding weight.  He did not pause to see if anyone else was following.  The watch on the U-2 barely had time to register the gray blur and --- then Baloo was through the Sea Duck’s hatch.

            “Skip the preflight, Becky,” he told a very startled Rebecca.  “Just let me know when everyone’s aboard and I’ll fly us outta here.”

            “With her under your arm?”

            Baloo looked down and saw a smiling Molly still tucked under his right arm.  She waved at him happily.

            “This is even more fun than flying with Kit,” she giggled.

            Handing the child to her mother, Baloo sat down in the pilot’s seat and began firing up the Sea Duck’s engines.  “Just let me know when everyone’s aboard.  And tell them ta hang on.  Takeoff’s likely ta be a bit on the bumpy side!”

 

 

            The sound of the seaplane’s engines sputtering to life caught Herr Sturm’s attention as he climbed out of the half-track.  Enraged, he snarled.  He was not going to have gone through everything he had suffered last night just to have them slip through his fingers at the last minute.

            “The planes, they’re in the planes!” he yelled.  “Stop them before they take off!”

            Both planes had their engines running now.  Von Los could see someone hurriedly undoing the aircrafts’ moorings.  Two struggling bundles were pitched out of the larger yellow plane as it started to taxi away from the dock.  It took Von Los a few seconds to realize that the bundles were two of his crewmembers --- the guards for the seaplanes, no doubt.

            “There is no way we are going to get there in time,” Von Los yelled to his men as he ran.  “To the boat --- quickly!”

            Trying to put on a burst of speed, Von Los changed directions.  He had been a track star in the academy, but that had been too many years ago.  It was barely a hundred meters to the U-2, but he was huffing and puffing by the time he reached her deck.  He turned around to address Herr Sturm, only to realize that the Gestapo agent and most of his own crew were only halfway to the boat.

            Von Los practically flew up the conning tower ladder.  The officer on watch could not have looked more surprised than if it rained frogs.

            Grabbing the speaking tube, Von Los barked out orders.  “All hands to make ready to get underway.  Mach schnell!”

            Even as he was speaking the rest of his crew raced up the narrow gangplank to the U-2’s deck.  Douglas and Herr Sturm did the same only seconds behind them.

            “Castoff lines fore and aft,” the captain called to his crew.

            Even as the crew rushed to complete his orders, Von Los could see the seaplanes rushing across the harbor.  It would be only a matter of minutes before they would be airborne.  Already the pontoons of the smaller, blue, plane were breaking free of the surface for brief instants as it rapidly approached takeoff speed.

            “They’re going to get away!  Stop them! Stop them!”  Sturm screamed.

            As if his words held some sort of prophetic powers the smaller of the two planes leapt skyward.  The larger cargo plane was now struggling to break free of the surface as well.

            “You two, man that gun,” Herr Sturm said pointing at the U-2’s one-inch anti-aircraft gun.  “I want those planes shot down!”

            Von Los dropped from the last few rungs conning tower’s ladder to the main deck of the U-2.  “Belay that order.”

            Sturm spun around and glared at him.  “What do you think you’re doing?  I gave a direct order.  I want those planes shot down!”

            “We are aboard my vessel now.  I give the orders here.  We are proud members of the Kriegs-Marine--- we are not going to fire on craft carrying women and children!”

            “Well, I am a member of the Gestapo, and I will.”  He turned to the deck gun.  “Give me a hand, Douglas.”

            Von Los calmly drew his Luger and pointed it at Sturm.  “If you so much as touch that gun I will shoot you in the neck.”

            Sturm froze in horror.  “Have you completely lost your mind?  I’ll have you court-martialed for this!  Your career will be over.  Do you hear me?  Over!”

            “To resist a captain’s orders while at sea is considered mutiny, Herr Sturm.”  Keeping his pistol trained on the Gestapo agent, he stepped forward and removed Herr Sturm’s pistol from his shoulder holster.  “We have been free of our moorings for several minutes now.  I’m putting you under arrest for mutiny.”

            Herr Strum’s mouth worked, but no sound came out.

            “Men, take Herr Sturm and his odious little toady, Herr Benson, and put them in the forward torpedo room.  It should make a satisfactory brig.”

            The crew practically pounced on Douglas and Sturm.  Rarely had Von Los seen a crew follow an order with such relish.  It appeared that crew had found them every bit as endearing as he had.

            “Hey, you can’t treat me like this!  I’m somebody!  Douglas cried.  “And who are you calling an ‘odious little toady’?”

            “If they give you too much trouble, you have my permission to stick them into the number one tube and launch them.”

            The crew burst out laughing.

            “Stop laughing at me!”  Douglas wailed as he disappeared down the hatch.

            Von Los sighed and holstered his pistol.  Over fifteen years in the Kriegs-Marine… gone.  At least they would sail one last mission with their honor intact.  The crew of the U-2 deserved at least that much.

            He watched the Sea Duck roared past overhead.  He snapped to attention and gave the plane, and her captain, a long salute.

            Godspeed, Baron von Bruinwald.  Your title is not an empty one, for you are as noble as they come.

            Leutnant!”

            Ja vohl, mien Captain?”

            “Set a course back to Vermany,” Von Los said, looking back, casting a wistful glance in the direction of Macadamia, as if seeing something that his second in command could not.

            Ja vohl, mien Captain.”

            “Hopefully your next captain will be a better one than I,” he said, as he grasped the lower rungs of the conning tower’s ladder.

            “I think that is very unlikely,” the lieutenant said softly, watching him disappear up the conning tower.

 

 

            The Sea Duck’s radio crackled to life.  “A Young Bear’s Fancy to the Sea Duck.  Looks like we made it, Papa Bear!”

            Baloo picked up the hand set to the radio.  “Looks like it, Kit.”

            “Race you back to Louie’s.”

            Baloo laughed.  “Forget it, son.  You just stay there off my wing.”

            “Aw, Baloo!”

            “Ya heard me.”

            “I made it here on my own.”

            “Yeah, pretty impressive for a thirteen-year-old kid.  Also pretty lucky.  There’s a lot ya gotta learn yet and I’d rather I was handy if ya need some help.”

            “Oh, all right.”  Kit did not sound happy, but Baloo knew he would comply.

            “Sea Duck out.”

            “A Young Bear’s Fancy out.”

            Rebecca entered the cockpit as Baloo hung up the radio.  She moved carefully, trying to preserve her modesty as best she could, holding the much too short skirt taut.  She sat down in the navigator’s seat with her knees together and tugged on the ragged hem of her skirt, trying to stretch it to cover more.

            “So who is in which plane?” he asked her.

            “We have Molly and Esther.  Myra and Katie are in the one Kit is flying.”

            “A Young Bear’s Fancy.”

            “What?”

            “A Young Bear’s Fancy.  That’s the name of the plane.”

            Rebecca looked out her window at the dark blue plane flying less then a hundred yards off the Sea Duck’s starboard wing tip.  She shook her head.

            “What am I going to do with that boy?”

            “Take it easy on him, Becky.  You’ve been talkin’ about buyin’ another plane for months now.  And it’s a real honey too.”

            “Have you seen the picture on its nose?  Something will have to be done about that.  Higher for Hire cannot have a plane with that kind of picture on it!”

            “Am I interrupting anything?”  Esther asked.

            “Nah, Becky and I were just talkin’ about Higher for Hire’s new plane.”

            Esther entered the cockpit with the same grace she had entered the ballroom in Macadamia.  Almost immediately, she noticed Rebecca’s ruined dress.

            “I’m so sorry about your new dress, Rebecca.”

            “That’s okay,” Rebecca said trying to smile.  “It’s only one dress.  You’ve lost everything you had with you.  All those lovely gowns... and your jewelry.”

            Esther waved a hand dismissively.  “I have lots more where those came from.  Besides, I’m confident Princess Lotta will make sure they find their way home.  That’s nothing compared to the fact that this hasn’t turned out to be much of a honeymoon for you two.”

            “Oh, yes… that,” Rebecca said, blushing.  “Uh... Esther, I have something important to confess to you.  You see... Baloo and I aren’t really on our honeymoon.  It was... all part of our cover story.”

            Esther smiled.  “I suspected as much.”

            What?”  Rebecca was astonished.  “What did we do wrong?”

            “Oh, nothing really wrong, and occasionally the way you two would look at each other almost made it believable.  It’s just that most of the time you two act too much like an old married couple.  I suggest you go with that next time.”

            Next time!  Rebecca thought, horrified.

 

 

            The sun was just beginning to set as the Sea Duck and A Young Bear’s Fancy taxied up to the dock at Louie’s Place.  The aircraft bumped gently against the dock as their engines sputtered and died.  Baloo climbed out of the Sea Duck and began tying her off to the wharf as Rebecca helped Molly and Esther out of the plane.

            “It’s awfully quiet, isn’t, Baloo?”  Rebecca asked, looking around the deserted dock.

            “Yeah,” Kit said as he walked up. “Where’s Louie’s crew?  Two planes have landed and no one’s checking to see if we need gas.  That’s odd.”

            Finishing securing the Sea Duck, Baloo looked around.  Not only was the dock completely deserted, but not a single light showed from Louie’s Place.  The usually boisterous club looked abandoned.  Baloo rubbed his jaw thoughtfully.  The big sign on the top of the island was illuminated, but he knew that was on a timer.  Something was not right.

            “You’re right, Kit, somethin’s up.  Maybe I’d better go take a look-see.”

            “I’m going with you,” Rebecca said.

            “Me too,” Kit added.

            “I want to go too!”  Molly chimed in.

            “I guess we all might as well go.”  Esther glanced around them.  “You wouldn’t want to leave a group of defenseless females alone, would you?”

            Baloo looked at her.  Defenseless females?  Lady, you’re about as defenseless as a squad of marines!

            “All right,” he agreed.  “We’ll all go.  But everyone stay behind me.  If any trouble starts, ya let me handle it.”

            They started up the dock to Louie’s Place.  Rebecca was so close that she was almost pushing into Baloo’s left shoulder, and Kit was off to his right, only nominally behind him.  One of these days somebody’s actually gonna listen to me, he thought.

            Reaching the swinging doors of Louie’s Place, Baloo peered inside.  The large, cavernous main room was cloaked in darkness.  He could barely distinguish the outlines of some of the room’s more familiar features:  The bar, the stage, and a few scattered tables.  The silence was becoming ominous.

            “What do you see?”  Even in a hoarse whisper, Rebecca’s voice sounded startlingly loud in the oppressive silence.

            “Nothin’.  It’s too dark.”

            “What do we do now?”  Rebecca asked.

            “I guess we go in and take a look.”

            With Rebecca still following closely, they stepped into the dark building.  Baloo was beginning to wish that he had brought his baseball bat from his box of stuff on the Sea Duck.

 Suddenly the room was flooded with light, momentarily blinding them.

            SURPRISE!

            Baloo blinked a couple of times to clear his vision.  The previously deserted room was now full of people.  And still more people were swarming out of hiding places --- from behind the bar, from the stage, down the stairs, and out of other rooms.  Baloo recognized many of the faces in the large crowd.  Louie, Wildcat, Mary Lamb from Rebecca’s flying club, Louie’s Aunt Louise, and even one of Rebecca’s more stuffy clients, Herman Grapple.

            A large banner was suspended from the ceiling with the misspelled words, Just Marreed in bright red letters.  On a large table in front of the stage was a huge platter piled high with freshly baked doughnuts of every description.  On top of the pile was perched a pair of small toy bears, one in a tuxedo and the other in a wedding dress.  A band of monkeys rushed onto the stage and began playing loud jazz.

            Louie grabbed Baloo’s right hand and began shaking it so vigorously Baloo almost toppled over. “Man, I couldn’t believe it!  You finally went and did it.  You went and got yourself hitched, and without even telling your best buddy in the whole wide world.  Can I at least kiss the bride?”

            Rebecca was too stunned to object as the large orange ape grabbed her and gave her an enthusiastic kiss.  Kit burst out laughing at her expression as Louie almost smothered her. When he finally let her go, she wiped her wet cheek, gasping for air.

            A large hippo in a floral print dress sashayed up to Baloo and addressed him in a voice that was so sultry that it was almost incongruent coming from one so large.   “Baloo, you’ve broken my heart.  But I forgive you.”

            Broadcast Sally scooped up the startled bear and gave him a hug.  Baloo could hear his ribs creaking in her affectionate grasp.  He tried to say something, but he was having trouble breathing with that amount of pressure crushing down on him.  Finally, she released him and he almost fell to the floor.

            “My, Rebecca, don’t you look lovely,” Mary Lamb said, holding Rebecca’s hands.  “I always knew you’d find another man.”

            “Wha... what?”  Rebecca stammered.

            “And such a nice-looking bear too.”  Mary Lamb squinted at Baloo, studying him closely.  “I think I’ve met his sister.”

            “Some party, huh, Baloo?”  Wildcat said as he danced about the room tossing handfuls of uncooked macaroni.

            Rebecca grabbed Baloo by the front of his shirt, panic written on every inch of her face.  “Baloo, you’ve got to do something!”

            Baloo placed a pair of fingers in his mouth and let loose with a loud, vulgar whistle.  People stopped talking and laughing, and the music petered out.

            “Now that I’ve got your attention, I got somethin’ kinda important ta say.”

            Everyone stared at Baloo, waiting for an announcement that could be of such importance that it was worth interrupting the merriment.

            “As much as I appreciate the thought, and all the effort that went inta settin’ up this little shindig, Becky and I ain’t married.  It’s all just some kinda big misunderstandin’.”

            The crowd stared at him in astonishment.  With the exception of Wildcat, who was still tossing macaroni.

            Not married?”  Louie’s Aunt Louise asked, stunned.

            “Nope, not married,” Baloo said.

            “Then what are we going to do with all this food and music?”  Louie asked.

            Aunt Louise grinned.  “What else, Louis... PAR-TIEEEE.”

            With that, Louie’s aunt grabbed a very startled Herman Grapple and started dancing.  The band once again stuck a jazzy tune and happy, laughing voices filled the room.  The crowd carried on as if the mere fact that the married couple in whose honor the party was being held was not actually married was no reason to break up a perfectly good party.

            Rebecca made her way to a table on one side of the room where she could sit and, hopefully, catch her breath.  She had barely sat down when she realized someone had joined her.  She looked up and recognized him as the person who was responsible for her being on this crazy adventure.

            “Vulps Muller! What are you doing here?”

            The OSS agent gave her one of his boyish smiles.  “Please, Rebecca, just call me Vulps.  I’ve come to collect your ‘cargo’.  And to pay you, of course.”

            Vulps Muller placed a large, bulky, paper folder on the table in front of her.  Rebecca stared at it, almost afraid that if she blinked it would disappear.

            “Bu-but we didn’t do what you asked.  The Ratzis know we took the artifacts.  You said you need us to get them without anyone finding out about it.”

            “Actually, you did just fine.  Even better than I’d hoped.  Not only is the Macadamian government able to deny any involvement in the whole episode, but that little stunt with the Ratzis taking over the palace has gone a long way to discrediting them with the Macadamian people.”

            Rebecca looked longingly at the folder, but still she hesitated.

            “Go on, take it.”  Vulps said. “You’ve earned it.”

            She picked up the sealed folder and turned it over several times as if trying to convince herself it was real.  She looked up at Vulps, waiting for an explanation.

            “There’s really forty thousand dollars in here?”

            “Forty-four thousand, actually.”

            “What... why?”

            “I managed to convince my bosses that we should reimburse you for the cost of the second plane you had to purchase.  I told them that the job you did was cheap at twice that cost.  You can consider it either an expense account or a bonus.”

            Rebecca hugged the folder to her chest.  “I don’t know how to thank you.”

            “You don’t have to.  I’m still in your debt.  For that matter, so is the entire free world.”

            “Well thank you anyway.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d better put this somewhere safe.”  Rebecca excused herself and hurried away.

            Vulps leaned back in his chair and tried to let some of his tension ebb.  The mission had not gone exactly as planned, but it had ended better than most.  Maybe he should take a little time off.  Trying to save the world could be very exhausting.  Maybe he could join the party and try to relax a little.  He had seen a cute young vixen in what looked like a harem outfit in the crowd.  Myra Foxworthy, if he remembered her face from the intelligence files, although her present outfit was not in keeping with the reports on her personality.  He wondered if she had any plans for the rest of the evening.

            “Well, Vulps Muller, I should have suspected someone like you was behind all this.”  An elderly rabbit sat down at his table.

            “Esther Fate!  I didn’t know that Lady Fate had gotten herself involved in this?”

            “Oh my, I haven’t been called that since I knew your father.  I’ve been Mrs. Esther Chaddberry since before you were born.  And trust me, my involvement is purely due to chance.  I was supposed to be on a peaceful cruse.”

            Vulps chuckled.  ”According to my father, that’s how it usually happens with you.”

            “And how is your father these days?”

            “He’s doing well.  He’s retired now.”

            “Retired?  I’ll bet.  A man in his position does not retire.  Not while he’s still breathing.  Maybe I should look him up and see for myself.”

            “He’s on an extended vacation right now.  In Vermany.”

            Esther’s laugh rang out like small silver bells.

 

 

            Rebecca sat on the dock under a starry sky.  She was now dressed in a long flannel nightgown.  Her hair was tied in a ponytail, still damp from having the orange dye rinsed out of it.  She sat staring down into the in the water, not sure if she was tired or depressed, or merely exhausted from everything that had happened to her in the last couple of days.  Had it only been days?  God, it felt like months!

            The sound of boards creaking behind her informed her that someone was approaching.  She looked up and saw Baloo.  His hat was tilted back on his head, and he was holding a doughnut.

            “So this is where ya been hidin’,” he remarked.

            He sat down next to her.  Breaking the doughnut in two, he handed her half.  She smiled.  It was the bigger half.

            “I, uh, see ya found somethin’ ta wear.”

            “Yes.  It was in the in the wedding gifts.  It was one of the that set that Mary Lamb gave us.”

            “Yeah, everyone is bein’ a real good sport about it.  Lettin’ us keep all the gifts and all,” Baloo said.  “I just don’t see how she coulda confused our sizes.”

            Rebecca was wearing a pink nightgown with the word His embroidered in blue thread.  It was half of a set.  The other half of the set was a large blue nightshirt with the word Hers embroidered on it in pink.  Again she smiled.  That was the second time in as many minutes that he had gotten her to do that.

            They sat in silence for several minutes, watching the reflected lights of the stars in the rippling water, listening to the music from Louie’s Place in the background.  A gentle breeze stirred the palm trees.

            “What ya thinkin’ about?”  Baloo finally asked.

            “Baloo, is it really so unbelievable that we... I mean… that I could get married again?”

            “‘Course not.  Everyone in there thought ya did,” he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the nightclub. 

            “Then I’m still... desirable?”

            “Wha...?  Of course ya are, Beckers.  Why do ya even ask such a dang crazy question for?”

            “Baloo I’m twenty... er, in my twenties and not married.”

            “That’s just cuz a gal like you can afford ta be picky.”

            Rebecca leaned over and hugged him.  “Thanks.”

            “What for?”

            “For being Baloo.”

            In the distance they could hear the band start playing Glen Miller’s Star Dust.  Baloo stood up and brushed doughnut crumbs from his shirt.  He bowed as elegantly as he could.

            “M’lady, may I have the privilege of this dance?”

            Rebecca placed her untouched doughnut half on the dock and stood up.

            “I’d love to.”

            With that, she stepped into his arms.  The twinkling stars shone down on them as they danced.

 

 

The End

 

 

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