|Zzzzzt. Zzzzzt. Zzzzzt.
I leaned against the tree trunk in the shadows from the gas lamp and watched the church across the street. Our Lady of Perpetual Scientific Inquiry stood conspicuous in inactivity, but I got to enjoy the wee hours on a cold, dark morning watching it because the Watch got a tip that someone planned a heist of the St. Otter icon. Fog wrapped itself around me in tendrils like the arms of a damp, dead lover. Hunching my shoulders and turning the collar of my duster up, I wished I had some hot coffee. But the coffee house behind me was still closed, only the neon sign flashing and buzzing, Skippy's Chemo, Skippy's Chemo, Skippy's Chemo.
The garish light washed over a derelict drunk sleeping under a newspaper tent on the cable car stop bench. His intermittent snoring provided my only diversion, wondering if his presence betokened the neighborhood slipping in status, or only that Captain Zompus told the Night Watch to be inconspicuous around Our Lady and the stakeout. I'd seen a couple of the lads from a distance about the churchyard.
A soft, rhythmic ticktick ticktick ticktick broke the quiet. I peered around the edge of the trunk to the left, couldn't see anything through the gun smoke drifts of fog. That ticktick grew steadily louder and closer, and suddenly got clear: metal on stone. A mech. Holt City has a fair number of mechs. Most of them belong to the Civic, either with the Fire Brigade or the Watch. Enough are privately owned that you'll see them about, but nobody in this neighborhood needed or could afford one. And all the Civic Mechs are wheeled, they didn't make ticktick sounds.
The little Voice that got me through Belleau Wood and a couple score other spots started nudging the back of my mind. Squatting, I doffed my round brown hat, pulled my Mauser C96 out of the shoulder holster and worked the bolt five times, carefully ejecting the rounds into the crown of my hat. Locking the bolt open I scooped the five cartridges out of my hat. Dropping them into my left duster pocket I snagged the five-round stripper clip of my special hot loads. Reloading the magazine, I pulled the clip out, closed the bolt, and put it back into my pocket. Setting my round brown on my head I stood, holding the big broomhandle Mauser beside me finger alongside the trigger guard, and looked back around the tree.
A big, blocky fog-shrouded shape walked steadily down the street. As it approached Our Lady of PSI it turned toward the church and I counted four legs. On this side. Two bulky-tipped appendages were suspended in front. When it crab-walked towards the big church doors I stepped out from behind the tree and fast-stepped after it. Even with my ready special loads I'd need to be closer to this thing. I could make out a blister on the top of it as I neared, and it settled slightly closer to the ground and swung those big pincers.
The wooden doors boomed like drums, echoing through the expanse of the big church. Behind me I heard a Watchman's whistle as the lads started converging. I stopped 20 feet off the back of it, catching a whiff of hot alcohol. Good. That would help. Even squatting, the mech stood taller than my six even, and I raised the Mauser in a careful two-handed grip, aiming at the center of the back.
The 10 mm Mauser roared in time with the second drumbeat of those pincers smacking the church doors, and a solid TINK without sparks showed the armor piercing round did its job. The blister on top started turning toward me. I could see a gun barrel glinting in the gas lamplight as I brought the broomhandle back to bear from the recoil of the hot load, and squeezed the second round off. Another TINK, and the smell of hot alcohol grew stronger. As the machine gun in the blister turret started to bear on me the Mauser roared a third time.
With a WHUMPH that blister rode the tip of a blue-flame tongue into the darkness, tumbling back into sight and clanging on the ground like a church bell. Blue alcohol flames gouted out the sides where each leg joined the body, and the mech sagged to the left as those legs gave way. The pincers drooped to the ground. No other noise than the crackle of flames came out, but the stench of burned meat took me on a brief flashback to Bastogne.
I shook it off as Sergeant Smudge trotted up to me. His mouth moved, and I waved at my ears with my left hand, holding the Mauser in port arms, trigger finger again in register while I thumbed on the safety.
"Sor, are you OK?" he shouted through the ringing in my ears.
"I will be. Any of your lads hurt?"
"Post a couple men here to keep anyone clear, and keep an eye out. Oh, and maybe someone to tell the neighbors to stay inside. I'm going to check something," I ordered, and Smudge saluted as I set off around the corner of the church to the side door. That mech was big and obvious and just the thing to provide a diversion if someone wanted a more covert entry to the church. The ringing in my ears from the gunfire faded as I trotted toward the side door.
"Hold. Who's there?!" came a cry and I paused.
"Chief Inspector Zoektochtmann."
"Come forward." I walked into the dark of the recessed entry and found another Watchman just under the overhang.
"Anyone tried this door?" He shook his head.
"No, sor. There were some movement over by that gate to the alley there, but then the sky lit up to the front o'the church and it stopped. Were that your hand cannon I heard, sor?"
"Yes. Wait here." I walked straight to the gate and tested it; it was latched. Opening it I looked either way in the alley but couldn't see anything and there weren't any loud noises. A quick check a short distance in both directions turned out no one and nothing. I went back to the church door, past the Watchman and to the front of the church.
The Fire Brigade scrambled purposefully about stowing their hoses, but I knew they'd been too late. Whatever had been in that fuel tank was about burned off by now, and the smell of burnt barbeque let us know there wasn't anyone alive in there. Captain Zompus stood beside the wrecked mech, looking up to the side where a round hatch now stood open. He turned to me as I walked up.
"Well, Dutch, looks like I owe you an apology. Seems you did need those hot loads you made," he said, grinning. Zompus and I are equal rank, though as a Chief Investigator I report to him when I work his precinct. I nodded, dimly noting my hearing was back to normal.
"Yeah. Well, me too. I thought we'd be here all night for nothing. Who the hell gave you this tip, anyway?"
"Excuse please," a gravelly voice came from inside the mech, and a sleek brown-furred shape weaseled out through the hatch opening and landed in front of me. As otters go, he was a giant. The way he'd moved said he wouldn't be there if I rushed him; the way he stood said if he was, I wouldn't budge him. "Tip would be from own self," said that gravelly voice from that furry face, with bare hints at an accent I'd not heard in ages.
"Chief Inspector Zoektochtmann, meet Kawauso Ofuroyama," said Zompus.
"Ohayu gozaimasu," I said, bowing to him, "Shokuji o sumasemashita ka?" His whiskers twitched and he bowed back.
"Good morning to you also. No, I've not eaten rice yet, perhaps soon. Your Nihonese is excellent."
"Thank you, but not nearly so excellent as your English." His whiskers twitched again and he cocked his head, making me wonder if that deerstalker cap he wore would fall off. He pointed to the doors.
"They do not seem to have breeched entry."
"No. I checked the side door, the Watchman there reported some movement but there wasn't anyone there by then."
"Have you checked Icon, Zoektochtmann-san?" he asked. I shook my head. "Then let us do so now." We walked up to the big front doors, where he grabbed a door knob and pulled. The door swung open. "As you see, doors not locked. They need not break them down, merely enter humbly." We walked down the central aisle to the apse, turned, and looked up on the wall.
He looked out at us quietly from the painting, a golden-haloed otter in blue robes, holding a fish-bladed spear in his right paw and offering an egg in his left. The look on his face said I know which came first and much more besides. I felt warm standing in front of him, as if there were no fog-shrouded corpse-filled mech outside.
Ofuroyama stood centered in front of the Icon and bowed, then raised his forepaws and clapped them together once, twice, then bowed again to the image of St. Otter. Turning to us, he nodded. "Good. Kawauso-kami is undisturbed. For now." And with that he turned and headed out in that weasel-walk otters use on land. I like otters. They're fun to watch and the ones I've met are honest, even if sometimes you need to sort through their senses of humour to be sure.
This one seemed more straight forward than most, something unusual given his country of origin. Just outside the door he stopped and turned to me. "You stopped this attack?" he asked, his tail pointing to the ruined mech. The Forensics Team was just starting to check it out, one of the Coroners climbing in through the round hatch.
"Yeah, Dutch and his hand cannon took them out," said Zompus. Ofuroyama looked at me.
"Might one be permitted to view weapon?"
I pulled the Mauser out of its holster again and cradled the magazine in my left hand, working the bolt twice, and catching each cartridge as I ejected it. Locking it open after the second round, I held it out for Ofuroyama. He took it in both paws, not aiming but as if it were a samurai sword he examined. His nose twitched about the breech and he looked in the chamber, then handed the C96 back to me.
"This not standard broomhandle Mauser," he said as I fished the five rounds out of my left duster pocket and started reloading them one by one.
"No, it isn't. Near as I can tell it's a custom-made piece. Previous owner didn't need it any longer." He cocked his head at me again, then his whiskers twitched and his tail thumped the ground a couple times. I closed the bolt and holstered the weapon.
"Those are not cartridges which killed this mech. Is permitted to view cartridge?" I pulled one of the hot-loads out of my other pocket and handed it over. He looked it over carefully as I retrieved the empty stripper clip and reloaded the other cartridge.
"Ah! Discarding sabot, armour piercing design. Nihon Imperial Navy uses this for battleships. Never see this small an example."
"Yes," I replied, taking the cartridge back. "That's where I got the idea. The bullet is a lead-core steel jacket. The sabots are machined from aluminum."
"Must be difficult find ammunition for such unusual caliber?"
"Oh, Dutch reloads his own," said Zompus. "Reminds me, Dutch, I let Grissom know to return your brass after the Forensics team is done."
"Thanks. Anything else we need here?" Zompus needed to stay and supervise the scene, but we could leave the team on hand to watch over things. Zompus led us over to his mech. I paused before getting in. "What?" he asked.
"Nothing," I replied. "There was a drunk sleeping it off on the cable car stop there, but he's gone. I thought he was truly passed out, but I guess the racket woke him and scared him off."
"A drunk?" asked Ofuroyama. He trotted over to the bench, sniffed at it some, and came back. "Most curious." He climbed in and wouldn't say any more. Zompus gave his driver instructions to take us back to the Watch Station, then turned back to the crime scene as we rolled away.
"What's curious about a drunk?" I asked.
"Was female. Perhaps mistaken, but is unusual for female drunks to sleep on public benches, neh?"
"Yeah. But this drunk didn't look like a women." Ofuroyama considered me, stroking his whiskers.
"What do you know of St. Otter, Zoektochtmann-san?"
"Call me Dutch, it's easier. Not much. He was an otter. Someone painted an Icon of him. Now someone wants to steal it."
Ofuroyama nodded. "Driver, please to change destination. Please to go to Hobart House." He turned to me as the driver turned the mech at the next intersection. "Someone you need to speak with, Dutch-san. Good thing is now day, though maybe we still wake him."