"Professor Phogg-sama," he replied. "He knows much about St. Otter you need to know." The latch of the door clicked and the thick oak swung open. A young lady in a maid's uniform stood there looking out at me. "Kawauso Ofuroyama and Chief Inspector Zoektochtmann to see Phogg-sama, please," Ofuroyama said.
"Yes, sirs. Please step in," she replied in a bright Australian accent. We stepped through the door into an entry foyer. Nihonese swords and spears lined the walls, and in each of two corners sets of red-lacquered Nihonese armour, fierce mempo face guards glaring out at us from under kabuto helms stood guard in the early morning light. In the corner on the opposite side of the entry arch to the house stood a blue-lacquered otter-sized suit, the mempo a snarling face with bristling whiskers.
The massive door thudded closed behind us. "This way." She stepped through the inside door into a large great hall, cheery fire in a hearth as tall as I taking the chill off the air. The maid took my round brown hat and coat, hardly giving the shoulder rig for the Mauser a glance.
Ofuroyama hopped up into an overstuffed wing chair. I stood in front of the fire, looking up at the balcony running along the opposite wall from the entry foyer to a grand staircase at the end of the great hall. A crystal chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling. Over the fireplace a wide mantle bore two ceramic fishes. Directly above the mantle hung an oil portrait of a rather distinguished otter. Grey streaks shot through the fur between his whiskers, and a Union Jack behind him. He reminded me somewhat of another I felt I knew, but couldn't place.
A small otter, a younger spitting image of the one in the portrait, bounced briskly down the stairs into the room. Ofuroyama slid off the chair, the two faced each other and bowed deeply, exchanging greetings in rapid Nihonese. Then Ofuroyama nodded his nose towards me.
"Phogg-sama, please to present Chief Inspector Zoektochtmann of Holt Civic Watch." The small fellow turned to me and we nodded to each other.
"Good morning, Chief Inspector," he said in clipped Oxford tones. "Could I offer you something to drink? Whiskey perhaps? It's a bit chill, and I surmise you've been out all night by the hour you are calling and your manner of dress."
"Kawauso-san? Chai for you perhaps?" Ofuroyama nodded, and Lord Phogg stepped to a long pull-cord by the fireplace and pulled it once. The maid entered the hall. Phogg requested the chai and whiskey on ice.
"Pardon me," I said. "No ice, please." Phogg glanced at me, then nodded to the maid who retreated out of the hall. She was back in short order with a tray, a small bowl of green tea and a short glass with dark amber fluid, which I took and sipped, after toasting our host. I rolled the liquid over my tongue, gauging the peatiness of the fiery spirit. Phogg watched me intently, his whiskers perked forward unmoving.
"Not Islay, nor any of the Highlands, m'lord. Nor Lowland. One of the other islands perhaps?"
Both otters twitched their whiskers rapidly, Phogg's eyes sparkling. "Quite right, old chap. I must confess I'm rather surprised a Yank might know." I grinned back at them, sharing the humour.
"For a time, I served with some Prince Royals Own Highlanders," I said, "and to be frank, I prefer my vices remind me they are vices when I indulge."
"Just so. How may I help you, old friend?" Phogg asked, turning to Ofuroyama.
"Do you know that someone attempted to steal the Icon of St. Otter and Egg last night?" Phogg's tail stood out, an otter negative, and Ofuroyama continued. "Kawauso-kami's Icon is safe, for now. However, the Chief Inspector needs some of your insight to explain why someone would want the Icon."
"Ah. Tell me, Chief Inspector, what do you know of St. Otter?"
"Not much, m'lord. I know he is held in some esteem by otter-kind."
"Yes, yes. There are some who hold that he taught St. Francis of Assisi to speak with the animals, you know. Certainly his actions are critical to otter-human interactions. Please, be seated." Phogg climbed into a smaller chair across the low table from the one Ofuroyama again sat upon. I sat on the davenport. "St. Otter is generally believed to be the one who first revealed to humans our ability to understand and communicate with you. He certainly was instrumental in the Interspecies Accords of 1223. His wisdom and compassion are fabled. He is the patron saint of those in crisis. Does that help?"
"Yes, it does, though I'm still not sure why someone would want to steal the Icon." Phogg nodded, his tail curling about his legs.
"There are numerous documented instances of people and otters recovering from severe illness, or financial disaster, by praying before the Icon. Consequently many people believe the Icon embodies his spirit and thus possesses mystical powers."
"How long has this been the case, m'lord?"
"The Icon was painted 300 years ago, by Ursula V, the 23rd Headmistress of the Order of Our Lady of Perpetual Scientific Inquiry. Some believe she received her artistic talents from St. Otter, though that seems far-fetched. I've seen evidence Ursula herself believed she received the inspiration to paint the Icon from St. Otter. Certainly the first documented occurrences of miraculous cures occurred within a year after she completed the Icon." He turned to Ofuroyama. "Tell me, if you can Kawauso-san, do you suspect anyone in particular?" It was obvious from their greetings and demeanor that the two knew each other well.
"There are indications, but it is difficult to say specifically," the big otter replied.
"Well, I do hope you find whomever before they manage to abscond with the Icon. It's disappearance would devastate many, many otters and people who look to St. Otter's Icon to provide hope for the future. It may interest you to know I've seen quite a few Hotaru class freighters in the harbour over the past few days." That did interest me. Small and fairly fast, Hotaru freighters can be easily operated by a crew of six or so, and are large enough to carry sufficient freight to make a profit. Mostly there's a lot of places to hide things aboard them. Smugglers love them for that reason. Customs agents hate them.
"If there's anything else I might do to assist, please let me know. Wish I could visit with you longer, chaps, but I must deliver a lecture this morning at the University. Miss Delahney will let you out when you've finished your drinks. Will you excuse me please?" He hopped out of his small chair and we bowed to each other. He turned and walked through a door by the foot of the stairs.
I took another sip of the whiskey, enjoying the burn as it crossed my tonsils, and set the glass down. Turning to Ofuroyama I said, "Whoever is after the Icon commands a good deal of resources. That mech this morning for example; something like that would cost more than the budget for Zompus' precinct for a quarter. Not to mention that there's a significant international presence here, that being yourself and this egghead professor lord."
"Just so, Dutch-san. Just so," he replied, his whiskers twitching in a chuckle. He set down his cup of chai and stood. "And Phogg-sama's comment about the freighters also points to this. Perhaps now we should adjourn to the Watch Station, neh?" The maid entered the room with my coat and hat. I donned my coat, and she smiled as she handed me the round brown, highlights in her twinkling brown eyes matching gold threads of the scarlet and gold twisted cord hatband. She led us to the big front door, swung it open with a surprising ease for her petite stature.