A FAIR TO REMEMBER

An original fanfic
by Gidget


TaleSpin and its characters are the property of Buena Vista Television/Walt Disney Co.  The rest of the characters are created by me, and may not be used without permission. 
As usual, my deepest gratitude to Ted for his fabulous AND honest feedback and support.  A big thank you to Cody for reading the drafts I was unsure of.  (Rated PG for mild coarse language and occasional violence.)

Chapter 1


Friday night, April 2, 1938
Cape Suzette Museum

The museum’s night watchman sat at the front desk, reading a book of poetry.  With a glance at his pocket-watch, he noted that the time was now three-thirty in the morning.  Rising from his chair, he removed a pair of cotton gloves from the small brown valet case on the floor at his feet --- it was time to begin.

Walking with purposeful steps past the exhibits, ignoring them, he finally found the room.  Weeks of casing the joint paid off. Only one display interested him tonight. He approached one of the glass cases, placed the glasscutters in position on one of its planes, carefully tracing a circle on it with the blade.  With a small tug, a neat, perfect hole was made.  He reached in and seized the object of his desire:  A long, elegant gold key resting snugly on a bed of velvet lining.  The top was a perfect oval, where a foreign inscription was engraved in the center.  Blast! he thought. He would have to get a translator to decipher it.

“There you are, my darling,” he murmured.  “Welcome to your new home.” He dropped the heavy object into his shirt pocket; the sudden weight nearly tore the seams.  With a grunt of displeasure, he opened the small bag and dropped the key into it.  He then pulled out civilian clothes and a Panama hat and quickly changed.  Stuffing the guard uniform, nightstick and cap into the bag, he snapped it shut.  He was glad to take them off.  Uniforms were so… common.  No style, no panache.  He patted his dark, wavy brown hair, then put on the wide-brimmed Panama hat, tilting it at a rakish angle.  Just because a fellow was on the lam didn’t mean that he should not look his best.

Casually, he left the building, remembering to lock up behind him.  He wasn’t worried about capture.  He had deactivated the alarms hours ago.

“I must get out of town,” he said to himself.  It would not take long for the museum to realize that their former security guard could not be trusted after all.

Outside, the dark streets were deserted.  The only illumination was the gloomy glow of the street lamps and neon signs of various restaurants and stores.  He was grateful that the museum was situated in the center of town — one never knew what sort of disreputable character would show up if he had to navigate the slums.  He shuddered and walked a little faster.  The sooner we’re on a boat away from here the better, eh, my darling?  He and the key would soon be on the path to wealth and riches and power… and all the pain and suffering of the past year would be an unpleasant expense paid in full. 

Behind him, a grating, rather whiny voice slurred: “Hey, brother… got a little dough to spare?” His heart leaped in his chest and he whipped around, startled.  A short, sneaky-looking weasel in a cheap suit grinned at him, displaying several broken teeth.  He rocked on his heels, making the former museum guard a little nauseous watching him.

“I’m afraid not, old chap,” he told the weasel politely, trying not inhale. This creature was ripe. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m in a hurry.  Good luck.”  He started to walk away, gripping the valet case’s handle so tightly that it bit into his palm.

“What’s yer hurry, Fancy Pants?  I asked you real nice-like.”  The weasel was suddenly in front of him, and the façade of drunkenness vanished; his stance was now aggressive. His sharp eyes surveyed him with a predatory keenness, peeling him like paint.

“Leave me alone!  I don’t have any money!”  A car was parked temptingly nearby.  It was probably locked, but he looked at it longingly, wishing he knew how to break into a car quickly.  It was a ridiculous, useless thought.  He was trapped.

“Hey, what’s in the bag?” The weasel made a grab for it, but his victim suddenly swung it hard, the blunt edge of the suitcase connecting with the mugger’s head. He fell backwards, landing on the sidewalk. He tried to stand up.

“You son of a ---!” He never finished, for the panicked burglar hit him again.  And again.  And again.  Until he sank back to the concrete, unconscious.  An ugly purple bruise was already forming on his temple, and blood trickled down his unshaven cheek, past his ear.

The burglar stared at the weasel, frightened fury gone.  He detested violence and found it difficult to look at the battered man.  He was a mess.

“Hey, what’s the ruckus?  Some people need their beauty sleep.”  He looked up; on the second story of an apartment, a wrinkled apparition in curlers and caked with a mudpack poked her head out, peering out over the balcony.  “Now run along, you nasty hooligans or I’ll have the law on you!  This is a respectable neighborhood.”  Then her eyes widened.  “Wha—what happened? I don’t have my glasses.”

“An accident, madam.”  He crouched over the weasel, making a show of concern.  “I think he’s intoxicated.  I found him.  I think he fell and hit his head.”

“Oh my!  Stay with him, sonny!  I’ll call an ambulance!”

“Yes --- do so --- and quickly!” He put a note of panic in his voice.  “He may have a concussion.”

She disappeared back into her suite.  A light went on and he knew she was dialing.

The soft rumble of a car sounded about two blocks away. I needed a diversion anyway.  The burglar didn’t hesitate---placing the bloody suitcase on the curb, he grabbed the weasel’s arms and tugged, dragging him off the sidewalk until he lay half-concealed by the parked car. To a motorist driving toward them in the dark, an unconscious weasel, exposed in the open road from the waist up would be practically invisible.  An ambulance siren wailed in the distance. Glancing up, he grabbed his bag and ran until the shadows swallowed him.

The car approached at a clip of fifty miles per hour, its headlights turned off since it was a reasonable assumption that no other vehicles would be driven at four-thirty in the morning.  A married couple was returning from a late party that night. They were arguing.

“Fred, I saw you flirt with that two-bit hussy, don’t think I didn’t!”

“My boss’s wife?  Don’t be stupid, Ethel.  What sort of idiot do you---!” Suddenly, the car made a quick but jarring dip over something.  Both of them bumped their heads on the low ceiling.

“Ow! You hit a speed bump!”  Ethel said angrily, rubbing her head.  “I told you to turn the lights on.”

“Aw, shut your pie hole,” her husband told her. “I’m tired and just want to go home and sleep.”  He continued to drive.  Behind them, the wail of approaching ambulance grew louder and Ethel craned her neck to look.  Fred stepped on the accelerator, putting more distance between them and the flashing lights.  If there was trouble, he didn’t want to know about it.  It was best to mind your own business.  The rest of the drive home continued in sullen silence.

* * *

The old lady who spoke to the burglar from the balcony hurriedly dressed, wiped her face clean of mud, and put on her spectacles.  It was still dark, although it was quarter to five in the morning.  She stepped outside as far as the curb, looking around and peering through the smudged lenses.  She had not looked down yet. 

“Young man?” she called out.  “Where are you?”  No answer.  Imagine, deserting that poor soul.   There was no one lying on the sidewalk… how curious.  Then she noticed a pair of shoes, pointing straight up and hurried over.  “It’ll be all right…” she started to say.  When she saw the mangled thing at her feet, she threw back her head and began to scream.

By the time the ambulance arrived, lights were turned on and the other residents of the apartment building were crowded around the sobbing woman and the body.  Two men emerged from the ambulance and ordered them to go inside.  One lady gently took the older woman by the arm and led her indoors.

One ambulance driver, a tall raccoon, started to open the back doors of the vehicle and pull out the stretcher.  His partner, a rabbit, stopped him.

“Forget it, Stan,” he advised him. “Don’t touch him---he don’t need us.  Call the cops.”

They covered the body with a blanket and in a few minutes the police arrived at the scene.  Two detectives, both canines in their mid-forties, spotted the drivers and walked over. One of them, a short, brown cocker spaniel, gave the body a cursory glance, then directed his attention to the men.  “I’m Detective Thursday and this is my partner, Detective Archer. Tell us everything.” Clicking on a flashlight, he squatted next to the dead body, not touching it, but studying it intently.

“We need pictures here.  Shake a leg, boys.  I have to perform the unveiling and it won’t be pretty.”

After pictures were taken, he examined the body. “Aw, jeez,” he muttered.  “He looks like a pumpkin dropped from the top floor of the Khan building.”

Then he reached into his pocket, slid on a pair of gloves and took hold of the victim’s shirt, gently turning him over.  He sucked in his breath. “Lou!  Come over here,” he called over his shoulder.  His partner, a bulldog, joined him. “You see what I see?”

“A damned mess.”

“That’s not all.  Look at the dirt streaks on his back.” 

“So? He’s road kill. See the tire tracks?  Case closed.”

Thursday ignored him and continued, “Negative. Get Officers Clancy and O’Malley to check out those tire tracks.  Follow them, see where they lead. I want them to find the driver.  We’re interviewing that lady witness when she calms down.  I want my people on this.”  Thursday frowned.  Something was… off somehow.  In a moment, he knew what it was. “Hey, Lou.”

“What, Sam?”

“A car was driven over him, but he wasn’t hit by a car.”

“Huh? You’re talking in riddles again.”

“He has bruises, if you can see ‘em in this wreck. And the dirt streaks on his back. They make this funny vertical pattern from neck to buttocks.  He’s facing north to south, and the road is east to west.”

“I don’t follow you.”

Thursday’s world-weary features hardened as he said, “If he was crossing the street and hit by a car, he’d have rolled a few feet and have dirt all over his body, not just his back.  Here he is, with perfect streaks running up and down his back.  He was dragged, see? Just a short distance from the curb to the street until part of him was exposed to the open road. What does that say to you, Lou?”

“For crying out loud, Sam.  Just spill your theory so we can process this bum and go home.”

“He was dragged from the curb to the street. Don’t you get it, Lou?”  Thursday was exasperated.  “Maybe he was injured but alive. The poor slob was deliberately placed here to be flattened to mush.”

* * *

Later, the witness, whose name turned out to be Mrs. Kravitz, shakily told the detectives about a young man who alerted her to the situation.  She couldn’t see him without her glasses, of course, but would definitely recognize the voice if she heard it again.  It was a very rich, plummy voice, made for the theater.  She had thought him a nice fellow, until she came downstairs to find him gone and the other man lying there, with what was left of his face a bloody pulp.  Then she didn’t think he was so nice after all.

Over the police radio, Officers Clancy and O’Malley informed them that the hit-and-run vehicle belonged to Fred and Ethel Certz. The wife, Ethel, kept yelling at her husband for not turning back when he drove over the ‘speed bump’. Fred was hauled into the station for questioning and booked for reckless driving, as well as speeding and not turning on his headlights.  It was doubtful that they were involved in a possible homicide.  In the opinion of the officer who interrogated the couple, there wasn’t a brain between the two of them. A couple of loons, he called them. 

On their way to the station, Archer commented to Thursday, “Well, that was a waste of time.”

Thursday didn’t take his eyes off the road.  “Negative.  We know a couple of facts.  This ‘nice young man’ of Mrs. Kravitz’s is probably either the perp or a coward or both. He’s guilty of leaving an injured man to die.  That’s an endangerment charge right there, Lou. But I suspect that it was homicide, plain and simple.”

“How’s that, Sam?” Archer asked patiently.

“An innocent man would have stayed with him. Why would anyone run from an ambulance?”

* * *

Later, the next morning, Ethel was released.  Little did Fred know that a few days later, when he signed a document to allow his wife to withdraw the $2,000.00 from his account for bail money, he would find himself still incarcerated. Then, a couple of weeks afterward, he would receive a cheerful postcard from his wife, who informed him that she was having a wonderful time in sunny Bearmuda and incidentally, that he and his floozy could rot in hell.

Thursday and Archer got another call about a museum robbery.  Both the night watchman, and the Gold Key of Comixia were missing.  The alarms had also been deactivated.

“Big deal,” Archer grumbled.  “A stupid key.  I’m staying where the action is.”

* * *


Saturday, April 3 - Higher for Hire
Cape Suzette - The Docks

A few hours later, a big gray bear was enjoying the warm sun outside Higher for Hire. Baloo lay on his back, hands comfortably behind his head, on a hammock tied to two posts at the end of the wharf.  His snores punctuated his sleep-drugged muttering.

“I’ll have three, no—four burgers with all the fixin’s,” he mumbled.  “I know, Louie… no anchovies… I ‘member what happened last time….”

Nearby, a young cub sat, his legs dangling over the dock’s edge.  He ignored the big bear and concentrated on reading one of Baloo’s old Rick Sky comic books.   It was a warm, lazy Saturday morning.  Baloo had forced himself out of bed to eat breakfast, only to flop into the inviting hammock afterward.  Then a lonely-sounding foghorn sounded in the distance, causing Baloo to stir and Kit to look up.  He squinted, shielding his eyes from the sun with one hand.  Peering along the coastline, several docks away, his keen eyes stopped and zeroed in on a curious sight.

A man, although he couldn’t tell his species, let alone any other small details, stood at the edge of the faraway dock.  It was easy to discern that he was a traveler, judging by the small suitcase at his feet.  Kit shrugged and was about to go back to reading when the man’s next actions made him sit up and stare. The man was removing something and putting it into his pocket.  Then he picked up the bag and dropped it into the bay.  It hit the water with a splash and sank immediately.

This was too strange. What’s he doing? Kit wondered.  He stood up, quickly went back to the Higher for Hire building to return the comic to his and Baloo’s bedroom.  By the time he returned, Baloo was sitting up, rubbing his eyes.

“Hey, Kit,” he greeted him. “It’s a beeyootiful Saturday and no work. What’s on the agenda today, partner?”

“I saw something, Baloo…I’m gonna go check it out.  You coming?”

“Yeah, sure.  Guess I could use the exercise.” Baloo paused, frowning. “Is it far?”

“See that ferry coming in over there?  I’m going over to the docks.  Hurry up, let’s go.”  Impatiently, Kit charged ahead and Baloo was panting for breath by the time he caught up to the fleet-footed boy.

“Geez, Kit!  What’s so all-fired important that we gotta run there?  It’s just a big ol’ boat.”

“It’s not the boat.” Not stopping, Kit tersely explained the man’s strange actions.

“Why should it matter to us if he doesn’t wanna carry his suitcase around no more?”

“When you’ve spent a couple of years on the street, you learn to be suspicious of stuff like that,” Kit replied.  “I don’t like it.”  They continued to jog, no longer speaking. It was too difficult to talk and breathe heavily at the same time.


* * *

The museum thief watched the suitcase sink until it receded and disappeared.  He had found out about the weasel’s death in that morning’s Daily World.   First came fear: Oh no!  It’s in the papers already! They’ll track me down!  Then anger:  It’s his fault!  How dare he!  Then self-pity: Oh, why did this have to happen to me? It’s not fair!  And finally, acceptance: But he really brought it upon himself.  And at least he made the papers.

He was more interested in the article about the museum robbery, since the suspect was a former security guard who bore a remarkable resemblance to himself.  Not good, not good at all. He had removed the key and deposited it into his shirt pocket, careful to make sure it did not poke out of the pocket’s opening.  It was heavy, pulling at the material in an uncomfortable way, but it was secure for now.

He patted his pocket with satisfaction, knowing the stolen artifact was there; reverently, he touched it, as though it were a talisman.  A little thrill went through him, as though the lovely thing responded to his touch.  It felt warm and he could swear it even tingled.   Must be the excitement.  Weighing the bloodstained suitcase down with stones, he had disposed of it, along with the uniform and nightstick.  Nothing must be connected to him, even though the baton would have lent him a feeling of security.

He sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose.  The briny smell had a faint hint of dead fish.  He noticed gloomily that the white sand had already dusted his Oxfords, dulling the shine.  

Everything he owned was on his back… and in his pocket.  He had $157.43 in his billfold, left over from the amount he spent on his ticket for passage by boat to a nice remote stopover island, where no one knew him.  Somehow, he would seek an expert who would translate the inscription of the Gold Key of Comixia, no questions asked, and embark upon a serious treasure hunt.  It was only gathering dust in that moldy old museum, he thought with distaste. It was stupid to keep the only clue to a fabulous treasure locked up when he had a more practical use for it.  Whoever thought keeping priceless treasures walled up in lonely rooms for the idiotic public to view was a fool. Who benefited from such idiocy? He was the only one smart enough to see true potential and act upon it.  It wasn’t easy being a visionary.

If only that confounded boat would show up already!  It was nearly eight-thirty in the morning and people were starting to wander around the area.  From the corner of his eye, he noticed another man, a rough-looking, heavyset brown bear standing behind him, off to his left.  He wore dark denim pants and a dark green shirt that was carelessly rolled up at the sleeves as though he was getting ready for a fight outside a bar.  He held a large faded blue duffel bag on one shoulder.  He did not speak, just waited quietly for the boat’s arrival.  The thief was glad, for he was in no mood for idle conversation. Then he saw it, a tiny dot in the distance, slowly drawing closer.  He gritted his teeth and willed himself not to tap his foot and scream, Hurry, blast you!

Finally, with slow, stately grace, the Peppermint Ferry drew closer and docked.  With what seemed to be excruciating slowness, the anchor was released and the gangplank noisily lowered by thick chains.  He muttered, “Sweet deliverance!” and set forth, his passage ticket in hand, up the gangplank.  Two burly sailors blocked his way.

“Hey, back where you came, buddy,” one of them, a huge, barrel-chested ram ordered. “Nobody boards until the other passengers disembark.”

“But I must get on.  I’m in a terrible hurry. Surely, gentlemen, you can make an exception?”  He tried to get past them, but the other sailor, a rugged-looking panther, rolled up his sleeves and with a mighty heave, suddenly grabbed him by his collar and the seat of his pants, tossing him roughly back onto the dock. With a yelp, he landed hard on the wooden slats -- on his face.  The rough-looking brown bear snickered, but leaned over and lifted him to his feet with one arm.

“Real slick, brother.”

The thief was angry, but managed to mumble a sullen, ‘thank you’.

“And stay there until the captain says otherwise,” the panther growled.  Behind him, he felt the floor beneath him vibrate as someone stepped off the boat and onto the gangplank. He turned to order the wayward passenger to wait, when the scowl was suddenly erased and his neat black eyebrows shot up in surprise.  His mouth fell open.  He wasn’t the only one.  The ram stared at the vision above them and suddenly he removed his cap, licked his hand and slicked down his greasy hair.

“Well, well, well…” he said softly, but the panther heard him and grinned, eyeing the passenger greedily.

The thief was too busy checking his injuries and plucking splinters from his face to look up; the rough-looking brown bear continued to stand still, quietly watching, with one raised eyebrow. At the top of the gangplank, holding a dark blue duffel bag, with a small, darker blue leather case tucked under one arm, was a young female bear.  Her fur was a warm tawny shade of gold, almost amber, and her long reddish-gold hair was neatly tied back in a ponytail, flowing down her back in gentle waves.  She wore no jewelry and her light-blue dress was strictly functional --- sleeveless, buttoned up the front, and otherwise unadorned except for a couple of pockets. It was very plain, but it fit in all the right places.  Her wide-brimmed straw hat framed her face, shielding it from the morning sun.

She was not what the thief considered exactly beautiful, although he supposed that some men would find her attractive. There was something about her --- either her sumptuous figure or the slightly contemptuous way she regarded the men below her --- as if they were vermin --- that could alternately bewitch or repel a man, depending on her mood.

“Hey,” she called. “When can we get off this boat?  The lady isn’t feeling well.” She gave the panther sailor a pleasant, but impersonal smile.  But her smile belied her bold, dark gaze.  He suddenly wanted to look away.  There was something rather unnerving about the way she stared him down, daring him to say no.

“Sorry, miss. Not until the captain says.” He cleared his throat, wishing for a glass of cold water. “Those are the rules.”

“I did ask him.  Maybe you didn’t hear me right.  When I asked you if we could get off the boat, I meant for you and Tiny over there to please move out of the way.”  She paused, still staring at him and the big ram sailor.  “I don’t mean to be rude, but this lady needs to be on dry land before she throws up.”

The ram grinned foolishly and stepped forward. “I can’t believe I missed seeing a doll like you onboard. Were you hiding in your cabin these last couple of weeks?” He leered. “We coulda been friends.”

“Not likely.” She regarded him coldly.  “Now if you’ll just…”

“Oh, I’m sorry, miss.  Let me help you.” The panther walked up, extending his arm to her.

“Not me, Sir Galahad.  Her.” She turned her head and spoke softly to someone behind her.  A stout lady koala, who seemed to be somewhere in her mid-fifties, slowly emerged from the doorway.  Her face was definitely turning green and she kept her hand clapped over her mouth.

“Damn it, you two idiots!  Get back to work.  Just move out of the way.” Behind them the booming voice of the captain made the two sailors jump to attention and salute him, both flushing guiltily.  “And don’t let any passengers on board.  This vessel is docked for repairs.”

The thief was still nursing his wounds; at these words, his head jerked up, aghast.  “But my ticket---I paid for it.  I must leave now!”  he cried out, unable to stop himself.  “It’s of the utmost importance!”

“Sorry, sir.  You’re out of luck.”  The captain, a grizzled polar bear, turned back to the two members of his crew.  “Well, don’t just stand there.  Do something nautical.”  They both hurried past the two women and followed their captain inside, who was mumbling something about “before she makes a mess on my ship.”

“Come on, Helen. Take it easy.” The young woman took the older one’s arm and gently escorted her down the plank, off the wharf and helped her sit down on the sand, a few feet away from the thief, who was standing up painfully and fretting over twin holes in the knees of his trousers.

She set her duffel bag next to Helen. “You can watch my things.  Here, sit down and put your head between your knees.  I’ll get you some water.”

“Thank’ee, Joanna,” the lady koala said weakly.  Her voice had a slight Oztralian lilt. “I’ll be right as rain, I expect.  Just give me a few minutes, luv.”  Joanna nodded and started back toward the boat, when the sun suddenly reflected on a small shiny object on the sand, making it flash, blinding her for a second.  She blinked a couple of times and stooped to pick it up.

“What’s this?” she muttered.  It was too large and ornate to be an ordinary house key.  It was a pretty thing, but heavy.  Could it be made of real gold? And there was funny writing on the surface. Shrugging, making a mental note to study it in private later, she slipped it into her skirt pocket, taking care to hold onto it so it wouldn’t strain the seams.  Maybe she could sell it to a pawnshop and pick up some extra cash.  Briskly, she continued to ascend the gangplank.

The thief’s sharp ears pricked up at her words.  He stared at her receding back as she gracefully made her exit.  A horrible thought occurred to him.  Hesitating, afraid to confirm what he knew happened, he slowly reached up and patted his shirt pocket.  He closed his eyes, feeling sick himself.

No, no, no! This can’t be happening to me! He wanted to scream, pound his fists on the sand.  But he forced himself to maintain control.  He had to think and plan.  It could not end here.  Without that key, he had nothing.  It’s all that imbecilic cretin’s fault! When he threw me --- the key must have fallen out of my pocket!

He remembered the girl saying something about getting water.  Then the old crone’s voice with its uncultured mannerisms:  “Thank’ee, Joanna…” He raised his head, frowning.  Joanna --- that was the wench’s name. It would be all right.  She would return and he would have to think of something fast.  Mother always said that he could charm the birds out of the trees, heaven rest her soul.

In a moment, Joanna was back with another bag in one hand and a canteen.  In her other hand, she still carried the blue leather case.  Apparently, she was unwilling to entrust it to the baggage people on the ferry.

“Pearl and Handy are getting your things,” she said, crouching next to Helen, who raised her face wearily.  It was pale, but no longer had a greenish cast.  “The cook gave me some water.  Here, I’ll get the lid off.”  With a grunt, she twisted it off and held it to the koala’s dry lips.

“Yer a good girl, Joanna.” Helen said gratefully, pronouncing ‘girl’ as ‘gell’.  Taking small, delicate sips, she closed her eyes, seeming to take an almost sensual pleasure in the wonderfully cool liquid passing down her throat.  Some water trickled down her two chins, but she ignored it.

“Tell that to my mother,” Joanna replied, sounding oddly bitter.  Suddenly she noticed a somewhat well-groomed, grayish jaguar, who stood a few feet behind Helen. His dirty, torn gray Harmani suit had definitely seen better days.  He tipped his Panama hat to her and his teeth flashed a dazzling smile beneath a pencil-thin mustache. She glanced behind her, thinking he was greeting someone else.

“Is he the one?” she whispered to Helen.  The lady koala glanced behind her and suddenly forgot her nausea.  With Joanna’s help, the plump woman shakily stood up and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

“Put the water away for later, will ye, luv?” With small, surprisingly dainty steps, she approached the elegantly handsome young jaguar and asked, “Excuse me, but are ye Alphonse McGuire?”

Joanna snickered; she couldn’t help it.  “Sure looks like an ‘Alphonse.”

Helen shushed her.

The jaguar was about to say ‘yes’, when the big brown bear who had helped him to his feet earlier suddenly stepped forward; roughly shouldering him aside, he nearly knocked him over.  In a deep, almost coarse, voice, he said gruffly, “No, I am. Call me Al.  Or Big Al, if you want.  I’m the guy you sent for.”

That big brute is ‘Alphonse’? Joanna thought.  He looks like a fugitive from a James Gagme movie.  All he needs is a trench coat and a pair of brass knuckles.  Somewhere in his mid-thirties, she supposed.  He was tall and had the burly, muscular look of an aging football player going to seed.  Harsh-featured and unsmiling, he exuded a powerful presence that could not be ignored.  Big-boned and intimidating, he had the air of a man who had seen his share of barroom brawls and heaven knew what else.  His eyes flicked over her calmly, almost as though he was taking inventory. 

Stay away from this guy.  He’s bad news.  Joanna believed, and took special pride in knowing that her instincts about people were pretty accurate.  She gave him a steady, cool stare until he lost interest in the silent duel and turned his attention back to the older woman. 

“How nice to make yer acquaintance, Mister McGuire.  Thank’ee for answerin’ our ad.  I’m Helen Haley of Haley’s Carnival--!”

He squinted into the sun, peering at the entourage of disembarking passengers, noting what was mostly a ragtag bunch of several different species. “Well, Miz Haley, I’d like to get this show on the road if you don’t mind.  Where’s your husband?  I should talk to him.  Just business, nothing for you to concern yourself with.”

“That would be a neat trick, seeing that he’s buried under several pounds of soil in an Aussietown cemetery,” Helen retorted.  Her friendly tone became steely and she stood up straight, meeting his eyes, although she had to tilt her head back to do so.  “It’s my carnival now.  If ye have a problem working for me, maybe I oughter look for another barker.  I’m sure there’s plenty of other rude, big mouthed fellers who’d ‘preciate a chance to work in these ‘ard times.”  With that, she turned away and marched away --- although the effect was somewhat spoiled by her still wobbly gait --- back to where Joanna sat, listening to the whole exchange.  She was grinning.  Easily bored, she rather enjoyed watching others argue.

“Such crudeness to a lady!” the jaguar declared.  Both women looked at him, startled.  He swiftly caught Helen’s soft doughy hand and kissed it.  She giggled, her chins trembling like wobbly stairs.  Joanna raised one elegant eyebrow.  He continued: “My condolences for your irreparable loss!  I would work myself to the bone for you, madam!”  Modestly, he then added, “If you’ll have me, of course.”

“Well, ye do have a right pretty voice,” she said, flustered. “Do ye have any theatrical trainin’?  This position needs a man with some style, a little showmanship, if ye take my meanin’.”

“Hey!” Big Al protested. “I waited all morning for this boat.  You can’t just let this clown waltz in here and---!”

“Oh, but I can.  I need a barker, but I won’t stand for no disrespect.  I like a little perliteness in a gent.”

“Look, lady—er, ma’am.” Awkwardly, the big bear removed his hat. “I don’t like it, but I need this job.  I’ve been looking for work for a long time.  I got off on the wrong foot with you earlier and I’m sorry about that--!”

The jaguar interrupted him. “Madam, I have always admired circus people… making children laugh and, well, everything…”

“It’s a carnival, not a circus.” Joanna sneered.  She added, “And we don’t have clowns… not yet, anyway.”

He gritted his teeth and ignored her comment. “I would consider it a privilege to be included in your distinguished enterprise.  I could even recite a little Shakesbeare for you…”

Helen glanced at both applicants, from the bear to the jaguar, back to the bear again. “Refresh me memory, Mister McGuire.  I don’t have yer application with me.  Tell me about yerself, what sorta work you’ve done.”

“Well…I was an auctioneer before the Depression.  Then people quit making bids on stuff… and I used to call out numbers in bingo halls without a microphone.”  He looked rather embarrassed at this admission.

“Quick, call the Gazette,” Joanna muttered.

Nearly one hundred passengers drifted down the gangplank to the beach, carrying luggage and equipment.  Then ten ponies of different colors and breeds were led down next by a tall, rangy young lioness.  She watched each pony with tender yet firm vigilance that bordered on maternal. 

“Helen, the trucks are here!  Can we load ‘em?” she asked.

“Just a minute, Bonnie,” she called back.

“Not meanin’ ta get personal, how’s yer health?  Ain’t sickly, are ye?”

He thumped his chest.  “Fit as a fiddle.”

“How original,” Joanna muttered.  Helen gave her a withering look, and she meekly fell silent.

“Are ye married?  Any little ones?”

He looked horrified.  No!

She frowned.  “Do ya even like kids?”

He hesitated.  “They’re… okay.”  From his tone, it was obvious that he wasn’t prepared for this line of questioning.

“I see.”

He gave her a sheepish look, which for a rough-looking bear was almost comical.  “Does that mean I don’t get the job?”

“Well, I ain’t got time te be choosy.  All right, yer hired, Mister McGuire, since ye were here first.  We’ll see how we get on.”

“Fair enough.” He nodded curtly.  “And it’s Al.  Big Al.” 

“And Mister… er… what is yer name, sir?”

“Carrington.  Lance Carrington,” the jaguar answered.  He took her hand and again kissed it. “At your service, my dear lady.” 

Helen gave a girlish giggle. “Oh, ye devil!  I can tell I’ll have to keep an eye on ye.”  Then she became serious again.  “I do hate to see anyone struggle in these hard times, so I’ll take ye on too.  I’ll think of something for ye to do.  Go see Handy, that feller in the green jacket, about helping them load the trucks.  You too… er… Big Al, is it?  I have te see te a few things.”

“What should I do?” Joanna asked.  It was obvious that the show was over.

“Do a head count an’ keep Pearl outta trouble.  She’s makin’ eyes at the young bucks again,” said Helen briskly as she walked away.

Joanna stood up and brushed the sand from her skirt.  For a moment, she and Big Al again coolly assessed one another; then he turned and left to help the other men load the trucks.  Lance approached her, giving what he hoped was a winning smile. 

“It seems that we haven’t been properly introduced, Miss… Joanna, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” she said shortly.  Bending, she retrieved a clipboard and pencil from one of the bags.  “I have to get to work.”

“Joanna!  A name for a queen!”

“Look,” she said impatiently. “It’s been about ten minutes and I already can’t stand you.  Twice I’ve watched you try to steal a guy’s job. Then you spread the charm real thick on my boss, turning her into a giggling ninny.”

“I—I have no notion what you could mean.”

“I know your type.  Don’t waste that slop on me.  It won’t wash.”

For once, he was speechless.  He could swear that she was taunting him when she added, “Besides, why bother? I don’t have anything you want.”

Suddenly, a chubby, but vacuously pretty blonde Angora cat hailed her, carrying two bags.  Lance guessed her to be somewhere in her early twenties.  She was breathing hard from exhaustion, but cheerful.

“Joanna, guess what?” she gushed. “Helen says you and I are to share a trailer.  It’ll be so much fun, just like a pajama party.”

“Oh, goody,” the other girl replied unenthusiastically.

She beamed at the tall, elegantly handsome jaguar and fluttered her eyelashes.  “Oh!  You’re new, aren’t you?  I’m Pearl --- Pearl Clambake.  Why don’t I show you around after we get set up?”

Automatically he replied, “Nothing would please me more.  How delightful.  Pearl… a treasure from King Neptune himself!” At that, she blushed and giggled.  What a simpering little fool, he thought with contempt.

A skinny, extremely homely male bear in his mid-twenties spotted them and hurried over to Joanna.

“Is Ma all right?  I heard she was feeling sick,” he said anxiously.  Glancing at him, Lance suspected that the young man’s outward concern for Helen was likely a ruse to be near a pretty girl.  It took one to know one.

Joanna nodded and checked off a couple of names on the staff list.  “She’ll be fine, Nick.  Keep an eye on her for me, will you?  I’ll go do the rounds.”  Without a backward glance, she left, clipboard in hand.  The young man hesitated, staring after her, barely concealing his disappointment.  With a sigh, he turned and followed his mother.

A short, elderly beaver, the one called Handy, passed them, struggling under the weight of a pile of mismatched luggage, snapped, “Hey, pal, give us a hand here.”  Dragging his feet, Lance reluctantly followed him, silently boiling with rage.

Confound that nasty little---!   If she knew…!

Then he remembered the other girl, the giddy, squeaky-voiced blonde.  And smiled to himself.  There was more than one way to skin a cat, as the old saying went.
 

* * *

Baloo and Kit came running up---or rather, Kit ran and Baloo lagged behind.  The beach was now crawling with carnies laden with luggage and paraphernalia, ponies, and passersby.

“Wow,” Kit said. “I think the circus is in town.  We should go.”

“Sure, Li'l Britches,” Baloo wheezed, his cheeks flaming with pink exertion.  “After my nap.”

Kit stopped and scanned the area, frowning.  “I saw him throw a bag into the water.”

Baloo sat down, rubbing the bottoms of his feet to relieve the sting.  “Well now, what’d he look like?”

“It was too far away, but I could tell his general shape.  Tall and skinny, but that’s it.”

“That’s a big help.” Baloo lay down on the sand, hands behind his head.  “Might as well enjoy the sun.  Wake me up if you remember anything.” He closed his eyes, mumbling, “Shoulda brought a picnic lunch…and a pillow…” Yawning, he was asleep in a moment.

Kit spotted the boat, which was anchored at the dock where he saw the stranger standing.  “I’m gonna take a closer look, Papa Bear.  See you later.”  A snore was his reply.

Baloo would not enjoy this brief respite for long.  He heard faint noises of people laughing and calling out to one another in rough joviality and stirred, feeling the warmth of the sun on his face.  Annoyed, he turned his head sideways to avoid the direct glare.  Then something walked into him, tripping over his reclining bulk.  He heard a woman swear as she fell with a small thumping sound, then a heavy object landed next to him with a louder thump.  He opened his eyes and looked around, finally settling on a slender bear in a light blue dress.  Her back was to him and she was on her knees, swearing and muttering, gathering scattered toys and dolls, which had tumbled out of a huge overturned cardboard box.  Dusting the sand off the playthings, she began tossing them back.

“What happened?” Baloo was confused.  “You okay, lady?”

“I tripped over you, pal. You shouldn’t just lie down and sleep wherever you want.”  Her voice was a sensual mixture of smoke and whiskey.  Baloo thought that she sounded a little like that actress Lauren Bearcall.  “It’s dangerous.  Someone could get hurt… like me.”  Her wide straw hat had fallen off, landing close by.  She swatted the gritty sand from it and irritably jammed it back on, so hard that she accidentally shoved it over her eyes, temporarily blinding herself.

“I-I’m real sorry, miss,” Baloo apologized, flustered. He got to his feet and began to help her up. “Are ya hurt? Did anything get broken?”

She managed to fix her hat, and turn her head to finally look at him, no longer quite as annoyed.  She seemed surprised by his concern.  “No, it’s okay.  I just don’t like being startled, that’s all.”  Then more out of politeness than actual concern: “Are you hurt?”

“Naw, just my pride.”  Immediately he was attracted to her, despite a nagging voice in his brain warning, Uh-oh, no more fallin’ for pretty faces….  He guessed her age to be somewhere in her late twenties. Her bold dark eyes made a striking contrast to her tawny coloring.  Her sharp features, with its high cheekbones gave her a gypsyish appearance.  Although not conventionally pretty, she possessed an earthy, sensual attractiveness that was somehow… arresting.  “Uh, can I make it up to ya?  Say over dinner?  Swave and de-boner, he thought with satisfaction.  Maybe I can get ol’ Beckers ta give ol’ Baloo an advance on payday.  Hey, it almost worked last time.

“I can’t.  I don’t know you and I have to get this stuff to the truck.” she said. “Excuse me.”

“Uh, okay,” he said, disappointed but not surprised. “Say, are ya with the circus?”

“Traveling carnival.  No clowns or trick animals or ringmasters,” she corrected him, the corners of her lips turning up a notch.  In a bored monotone, she continued, “We’ve got a few rides, pony rides for the kids, hot-dog stands, games booths with toy prizes.  That’s what this stuff here is.  And live entertainment.  There’s a difference.”  She stood up and checked to make sure that the box flaps were securely tucked under each other.  “I really have to go.  Sorry I woke you up.”  She picked up the box, and with a grunt, hefted it in front of her.  It was obvious why she’d tripped over him --- her view had been completely blocked.

“What do ya do?”  He was strangely drawn to her.  Most of ‘em ya couldn’t talk to without a bunch of misunderstandings and crossed signals.  He was never any good at dealing with the opposite sex, pretty faces, especially.  To him, they remained maddening, mysterious creatures… and nothing but trouble.

She gave him a crooked smile.  “Why don’t you buy a ticket and find out?”  She kept moving, leaving him standing there with his mouth hanging open.  Then, with a resigned sigh, Baloo shook his head and headed toward the docks to wait for Kit.


* * *

Meanwhile Kit made a beeline directly to where The Peppermint Ferry was anchored.  He knelt on the edge of the wharf and peered into the water.  Nothing.  Disappointed, he scowled.  I know what I saw. With a glance over his shoulder, he noted that Baloo was back where he left him, helping some woman put some things into a big box.  He smiled with amusement.  Although Papa Bear was a confirmed bachelor, he did have an eye for a pretty damsel in distress. Absently, he noticed that a crowd was forming on the beach; people were shaking out blankets to lie upon and setting up beach umbrellas and picnic baskets for later.  Under their parents’ sharp supervision, laughing young children chased each other, kicking up sand, and built sand castles and waded out into the water until it reached their waists.  It can’t be that deep, he thought.

Removing his green sweater, he folded it, placing it on the dock; next came the cap, which was put on top.  He kept his white undershirt on.  Standing a safe distance from the ferry, he crouched into a diver’s position, took a deep breath and pushed off.  For a few seconds, the sudden shock of cold seawater startled him, but he forced himself to ignore it and fix his attention on his quest.  Tiny minnows brushed against him then skittered away, leaving tiny clusters of bubbles in their wake.

He swam with practiced strokes.  The orphanage had insisted that their charges learn how to swim, and he had learned quickly in those frequent field trips to Phoney Island, which had also had a carnival.  Insufficient funds prevented the orphans from entering the grounds to enjoy sticky cotton candy or the Ferris wheel.  However, the beach was free --- it was all the orphanage could afford.

Kit could see the dark wall of the ferry in front of him; its anchor stretched several feet, extending down, lodging somewhere beneath the wharf.  He could see the stout wooden pillars staked nearby.  His chest felt constricted and he knew it was time to resurface.  He aimed his body upward and kicked until his head emerged above the waterline.  For a moment, he greedily sucked in the precious oxygen, eyes shut tight.  Then, taking a deeper breath, he plunged downward once more, and swam toward the pillars.  It made sense that the bag would have fallen around that area, since it had been dropped from where the mysterious man had been standing above.

This time, he thought grimly.

With strong strokes he parted the water before him, and kicked hard for extra leverage.  Another minute and he would have to come up again.  A minnow brushed his cheek with its tail, startling him.  Involuntarily, his mouth opened, letting in the briny liquid.  Alarmed, he frantically kicked back up to the surface again.  This time he clung to the edge of the wharf, and, gasping for air, he coughed up water out of his mouth and nose. 

When he got his breath back, Kit gulped a couple of times and inhaled deeply.  Just before he closed his eyes, he thought he saw Baloo standing over him, holding his sweater and cap.  Papa Bear’s brows were drawn together in a fierce V and his mouth was moving rapidly as though he was shouting at him.  He couldn’t hear him, for his ears were completely plugged.  With a quick thumb’s up, Kit dove down one more time…

Keeping his hand on one of the pillars, he felt his way down, submerging several feet until finally, he hit the bottom.  Cautiously, he opened his eyes and saw the suitcase lying flat, almost leaning against the pillar.  He kicked his way toward it.

Decisively, he caught the handle, and with one hard jerk, tugged the thing free.  His lungs nearly bursting, Kit swam as fast he could until finally, he broke through the water’s surface with a huge gasp for air.  A pair of strong, meaty hands caught him under the arms and hoisted both boy and baggage onto the wharf.  For a few minutes he laid there, eyes scrunched against the stinging salt, and coughing up seawater.

“Easy, Li'l Britches, easy,” Baloo said.  “Just get the rest of that nasty stuff outta yer lungs.”

After a moment, Kit’s breathing returned to normal, although his eyes still smarted.  His teeth began to chatter; shivering, he numbly allowed the big pilot to slip his sweater over his head.  Baloo rubbed his arms, legs and back, trying to restore his circulation.  Finally, he was reasonably warmed up.

“Now,” Baloo said sternly, “That was darn fool thing to do, goin’ swimmin’ without tellin’ me.  What if you was down there somewhere and I wouldn’t know…”

“B-Baloo.  I w-wasn’t s-swimming,” Kit said, trying to regain his voice. “Don’t you see?  I got it—the suitcase --- the one I told you about.”

“What?”  Baloo glanced at it.  “That ol’ thing?  Don’t ya remember that there’s chances that shouldn’t be took? You risked yer life for a stupid, beat-up…”

“I knew what I was doing!” Kit shot back.  Nobody throws away their belongings.  What if it belonged to a traveling businessman?  Or some poor tourist?  Maybe they got murdered and the killer was dumping their stuff to hide the evidence.”

“Kit,” Baloo protested. “Come on, now.  That stuff’s only in the movies.”

“Pardon us, sir…young man.”  A deep baritone interrupted the argument, and their heads jerked around to see the captain of The Pepper Mint Ferry as he stood behind them, hands in pockets. “One of my men spotted your boy playing around the docks. There’s no swimming allowed around a docked boat.  Do you realize that you could have hit your head, young man?”

Kit gritted his teeth and bristled.  “I was not playing!” he growled.

“Look, I’m real sorry, officer…. “ Baloo apologized. 

“It’s ‘captain’,” the man said testily.  Then he noticed the battered, soggy suitcase next to them and frowned.  “What is this?  Explain.” 

Grudgingly, Kit explained the whole thing.  By the end of his account, Baloo was still angry at the risk he took; although he would never admit it to the reckless young cub, a tiny, remote part of him was fiercely proud.  The captain frowned as he studied the suitcase; he noticed a dark, wine-colored stain on one corner.

“I think,” he said slowly. “That this is a police matter.  Nobody touch anything.  Understand?”

* * *

In a few minutes, Detectives Sam Thursday and Lou Archer were on the scene.  The entire beach was quickly evacuated, much to the displeasure of the sunbathers.  Kit, Baloo, and Captain Mervelle remained for questioning. The carnival crew was long gone, having departed to set up at a prearranged site.

Baloo was murmuring, “This is bad.  Real bad.”  More than anything, he wanted to be in his nice warm hammock.  Or at Louie’s, downing a Krakatoa Special.  Or at the new carnival, where a certain lady might be waiting for him.  Anywhere but here.

“I told you,” Kit said.  “I knew there was something wrong…” Baloo put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and gave him a squeeze.

“Ya still cold, Kit?”

The boy fidgeted.  “Naw, I’m all right. I just want to go home.  I can’t stand all this waiting.”

Thursday slipped on his gloves and carefully examined the suitcase.  His sharp gaze was arrested by the stain the captain had mentioned over the telephone.  Blood.  Definitely blood. He turned his head and said to one of the officers, “Officer Free!  Get a sample of this.”

When that was done, Thursday and Archer both struggled to open the case, as the metal clasps had already rusted.  Archer instinctively closed his eyes, expecting a gory surprise.  Things like that always happened in the movies.  In a few minutes, though, they managed to pry it open.

Thursday said, “Lou.  Look at this.”

Archer opened one eye, then the other. “Wow. Clothes.”  He seemed disappointed.

“Negative.  Not just clothes.  A uniform.”  Thursday gingerly lifted out the sodden shirt and squinted at the insignia sewn on the right shoulder.  “Cape Suzette Museum. And here’s a nightstick.  Well, well.  Looks like a security guard is involved.”

“Somebody killed a museum guard?” Archer asked.

“Maybe.  Say, this uniform came from the same museum that was robbed last night.”

“That stupid key thing? You think there’s a connection?”

“Could be.  I think we’ll need to meet with the guys working that case.”

“Great. I love sharing the glory.  Who’s working that one?”

“Chandler.  Mike Chandler.”

“You’re kidding.  The one they call the Hammer?”

“No, that’s Mickey Spleen.  Chandler doesn’t have much experience except that one murder case he busted.  Some jealous wife put a bottle of sleeping pills into hubby’s coffee.  He took the big sleep, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh yeah.  So we’re working with a hot shot.”

The two men approached the three witnesses.  Thursday frowned, then asked Baloo and Kit: “I know you two, don’t I?”  Then he remembered.  “Baloo and Kit—from the Heimlich Menudo caper, right?”

“Detective Thursday!” they said at once.

“How’s the spelling?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye.

“Much better.” Kit tried not to roll his eyes.  This was as bad as that other question, ‘So, how’s school?’

“I was talking to Baloo, kid.”  They grinned at each other.

Baloo shrugged. “Hey, I’m a pilot, not a poet.”

Captain Mervelle looked confused.  “You know each other?  Were you in trouble?”

“Long story,” Kit told him.

Archer cleared his throat. “Uh, Detective…”

“Right, right,” Thursday got back to business.  “I’ll need your names and current place of residence for our records.”  When that was done, Kit had to relay the entire story again.  Baloo had nothing useful to add. 

“Captain, do you have outgoing passengers from this port?” Archer asked him.

“No, none.  We can’t take passengers until we resolve a mechanical problem.  We just made it to port as it was.  We were bringing some touring circus people to Cape Suzette.  They’ve got a license, all the paperwork to perform from June till next spring.  Then we’ll come back and take them to their next stop.”

Thursday looked at Kit.  “Did you say that the boat hadn’t arrived yet when you saw the man dump the case into the drink?”

“Yeah.”

“Then we can eliminate someone who was stepping off the boat as our man.” Archer observed.

“Since we can reasonably assume that the perp was alone on the docks, he either dumped the bag and went home… or else he was waiting to board the boat after dumping it.” said Thursday.

“Man, I’m confused!” Baloo complained.  Nobody paid any attention.

Archer said to the captain, “You sure you didn’t have any outgoing passengers?”

“I said so, didn’t I?” The captain snapped, then he had a thought.  “Wait.  Two of my crew members may have noticed something when those circus people disembarked.”

“I want to talk to them,” Thursday said.

A few minutes later, the two sailors from the gangplank were summoned and led to where the others were waiting.  They saluted their captain.

“At ease, men.  These detectives need answers.  You’ll cooperate with them.”

“Yes, sir!” The ram and the panther answered.

“Was anyone trying to board the boat, not realizing that your vessel was under maintenance?”

The ram shook his head and shrugged.  Passengers were just a sea of faces to him.  The other seaman said, “Yes, sir.  Some joker tried to board even after we told him the boat wasn’t going nowhere.”

“Oh, yeah,” his friend agreed, nodding his head. “That fancy pants you gave the ol’ heave-ho.  He was a piece of work, all right.”

“Wouldn’t take no for an answer.” The panther added, “Gee and we asked so nicely, too.”  The ram snickered.

“What did he look like?” Archer asked them, scribbling in his notebook.

The panther thought, then answered, “Tall, skinny guy in a good suit.  One of them Harmani things.  Grayish, I think.”

“Species?” Archer pressed.

“A lion or something.  Can’t tell some of those people apart.”  He shrugged.  “No offense.”

“Tall and skinny,” Kit interjected.  “That sounds like him.”  Baloo nodded.

“Can you think of anything about him that was at all unusual?  Did he stand out in any way?”

“Yeah, he had this la-di-dah voice. ‘But I must get on!’” he mimicked. 

The ram took up the rest. “’I’m in a terrible hurry!  Surely, gentlemen, you could make an exception?’”  They both sniggered until their captain glared them into silence.

Archer was disgusted. “That’s a terrific help.”

“Wait,” the panther said suddenly. “I remember something else.”

“What?  Does he juggle bowling balls?  And chew gum at the same time?” Archer shook his head and flipped his notebook closed.

“No.  He didn’t have any luggage.”

“So?” Thursday prompted him, not daring to hope.  Everyone else leaned forward.

“Our passenger runs go on for days between ports,” he explained. “Whoever boards has to bring their personal belongings or else they’d be wearing the same set of clothes everyday for at least two weeks.”

Baloo glanced down at his favorite yellow flight shirt.  Last week’s ketchup stains were still a faint pink, but visible.  “What’s so weird about that?”

But the captain understood and nodded. “No luggage.  Why would he try to board a passenger vessel without packing anything?”

Archer said, “He’s on the run.”

Thursday smiled grimly.  “Exactly.”

End of Chapter 1

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