St. Otter's Festival
The crowd nearly filled the church, though they tended to congregate in the center aisle and pews. I walked briskly up the side toward the alcove with the Icon, my eyes sweeping the crowd looking for someone, something to stand out.
One did, towering above the people around him and headed toward the alcove as well. I sighed, recognising the shape of a bald bullet head. As I neared the Icon I could see a svelte shape next to him, looking petite even though she wasn't much shorter than me. Anyone would look petite next to the guy next to her. I stopped in front of the Icon and waited. They were clearly heading my way. The big guy stopped about 10 feet from me, eyeing me warily.
"Well, unless I'm mistaken, we meet the intrepid Chief Inspector Zoektochtmann," said the lady next to him. No one would mistake her for anything other than a lady, wearing that fine silk dress and matching jacket. She carried a long cloth bag under one arm. I nodded to her.
"Good evening, Miss Ramaji." She smiled.
"Ah, so few people figure that out, Chief Inspector. At least, not when I'm dressed as myself. May I introduce my associate, Mr. Jackman?"
"Hi, Tiny," I replied, knowing my using that name would rub him hard. Why do guys his size always get the nickname Tiny'? He spoke in an incongruously sweet tenor. Tiny Jackman always was one of the best singers I'd ever heard.
"Oh, Dutch here and I were once shipmates' in the Marines, Boss." I smiled at him.
"That's Chief Inspector Zoektochtmann to you, Tiny. You gave up the right to call me Dutch a long time back, when we cashiered you out of the Corps." She laughed, a sweet, sinister sound, and took a couple steps closer.
"Step out of the way, please, Chief Inspector." I shook my head, standing firm. Tiny Jackman took a step to my right.
"Can't do that, Miss Ramaji."
"Oh, eventually you shall. I really don't want to hurt anyone, though, so if you please, step aside." I shook my head again. "You know, you really don't want to use that big gun you've got. Mr. Jackman is wearing armour of a particularly special design underneath his suit here. I'm afraid your bullets would ricochet into the crowd. Without it I'm quite sure Mr. Jackman here outmatches you."
I looked Tiny Jackman in the eye and smiled, big, none of it rising to my eyes and showing teeth. "Perhaps you should ask Tiny here what happened the last time he tried taking me on hand-to-hand, Miss Ramaji." Behind them, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a short streak of brown darting between the pews, working into the crowd.
"Still, I doubt you could stand all of my people off. They are scattered throughout the church this evening. We really do outnumber you, since I don't see any other Watchmen present. I will have the Icon, Chief Inspector." I looked back at her, balanced calmly on the balls of my feet, arms relaxed at my sides.
"Can't do that, Miss Ramaji. The Icon belongs here, for all the people and otters. Besides, it's too well known. I doubt you'd be able to sell it for anything near it's worth or that you invested in acquiring it." Two more brown streaks moved between the pews into the crowd.
"Oh, I won't be selling it. I need the powers inherent in that Icon."
"So do a lot of other people. I can't imagine you need it more than they."
"Oh, but I do, Chief Inspector, I need it to bring my sister back. And I'm growing weary of our discussion. Move aside, Chief Inspector, before I order my men to start firing in the crowd."
"Don't think you'll do that. Wouldn't gain you much. Besides, my Watchmen will soon be here, and your men in the crowd will be arrested." She smiled, this time the humour reaching her eyes.
"And just how will you be able to tell who my men are, and who aren't, Chief Inspector?"
A large egg sailed over my shoulder, gleaming white in the lamplight just bright enough to tell there was a spin on the egg. Just as Tiny noticed it, Popper dropped from the ceiling harnessed in a climbing line in front of Ramaji, pointed his camera, and called out gleefully, "Say Tim Tam Slam!" The flashbulb lit like a bomb going off, blinding anyone looking straight at it as the egg smacked into Tiny's face, shattering and filling the air with the stench of sulfur.
Tiny roared and lurched forward. I dropped, spinning under his reaching arms and my foot lashed out. Tiny's right knee cracked under the toe of my boot. He turned toward me wiping egg off his face. Stepped again and his knee buckled, toppling sideways and Ramaji scrambled out of his way. I leapt to my feet with my back to St. Otter's Icon.
Eggs. White ones, brown ones, green ones, flying out of nowhere and everywhere arced through the church. Every one hit someone in the face, and when they broke the stench of sulfur thickened the air. Gasping they'd wipe their faces. An otter would run out of the crowd wielding a short, curved wooden sword and the sword would blur and the egg-faced cry out and fall, clutching at their ankles.
Tassie appeared in the crowd with .44 Webley revolver in her left hand and rapier in her right. Whirling and spinning, wielding the Webley more like a club, she cut through the belts or suspenders of anyone wiping egg off their face. She trailed a string of men holding their pants up waddled towards the doors.
Ofuroyama ran in leading five otters to leap onto the small altar and defend St. Otter's Icon. I turned, and Ramaji dropped the bag to the floor while raising the biggest, oddest plumber's nightmare I'd ever seen. She hefted it under her arm like a rifle and my little voice screamed gun. She aimed at the Icon, and I snatched my Round Brown off my head, gripped the brim, aimed and sailed it at her.
It smacked her face as she squeezed the trigger. She flinched, the muzzle shifted from the Icon to the window next to it and glass exploded inward in a stream straight at Ramaji. She dropped the gun, turning and curling into a ball as glass shards the size of saucers tinkled around her. At least a dozen pieces hit her in the back and bounced off. Whatever that special armour she'd said Tiny Jackman wore, obviously she did as well. The last of the glass shower tinkled to a stop. She stood and snarled at me.
"I don't look so outnumbered," I called over the clamor. The snarl transformed into an evil smile.
"Perhaps this will help." Her right hand rose and a small, dark oblong wobbled toward me. Grenade!
Tiny Jackman lunged at me on his good leg. I twisted, caught his wrist and spun him off balance again, dropping him chest-first on the grenade and heard him grunt, "Oh shit." Then I fell on his back myself. His breath whooshed out, he felt the lump underneath him and his eyes bulged in fear. I heard Watch whistles at the door to the church.
The blast lifted us both and slammed my back into one of the big columns. Tiny's mass and body armour deflected most of the force into the wall. He rolled off me onto his back, his mouth moving like a goldfish out of water. Pockmarks scattered across the wall in a fragment-carved Picasso-like bas relief. I gasped for breath and struggled to sit up, Tiny groaned as Ramaji helped him stand. She smiled at me as they turned and walked/hobbled to the back of the church.
Watchmen streamed into the church, grabbing anyone walking with egg on their face and cuffing them. Others they cuffed where they lay on the floor holding their ankles. Captain Zompus' voice echoed through a megaphone, urging calm and claiming everything was under control. Popper dashed around, flashbulbs flaring as he pointed his camera here, there.
Sargent Smudge stood over me. I pointed at him and mimed two people running out the back. He nodded and turned, calling another Watchman and they ran for the back doors. Ofuroyama appeared before me. "The Icon," I gasped.
"Kawauso-kami's Icon is safe," he said. I turned toward St. Otter's Icon. St. Otter peered tranquilly out of his icon over the church, egg held before him in his left paw. Five otters stood on the altar, wooden swords held before them. I waved at them. "Who?"
Ofuroyama's whiskered twitched and his tail thumped the floor. "My cousin, Kawauso Kyoshi, and his students. He is master of Shin Shoto style of fencing."
Two medics walked up carrying a stretcher. They set it down beside me, and carefully lifted me onto it then lifted the stretcher. I waved to Ofuroyama, He leaned toward me. "My hat," I whispered.
"I will find your hat, Dutch-san." He waved and the medics carried me out the door to a waiting ambulance, loaded me in with two civilians, closed the door. I heard the driver call to the horses, and the ambulance rolled away from Our Lady of Perpetual Scientific Inquiry.
St. Vitusdanz Hospital
I sat dangling my legs over the edge and wondered why hospital beds are always so high off the floor. The door to the room opened with a knock and Ofuroyama stepped in accompanied by Tassie carrying my round brown hat. I smiled at them both. "About time you showed up," I said to Ofuroyama.
His whiskers twitched. "Excuse please. Was occupied trying to corner Ramaji. Regrettably, this proved difficult."
"She got away, then," I said.
"Like a bird," said Tassie, holding out my hat. I took it from her and looked it over. It looked cleaner. "Streuth, you look ace for someone who jumped on a grenade, mate!" I grinned.
"No, I jumped on Tiny Jackman. I dropped him onto the grenade. Ramaji told me he wore some special armour under his suit. Figured if she was lying, he'd still absorb most of it anyway. Turns out she wasn't lying. Stopped all the fragments, though the blast tossed us into that pillar."
"Dutch-san, permit me to introduce Zoe Delahney, Special Agent on His Majesties Australian Secret Service." He bowed his head toward Tassie, who curtsied slightly.
"At your service, mate. Seems we were all after the same bird. One of her known accomplices is Wiley Redd, rather a dinkum engineer even if misguided. Had some kind of whirly-wing flying machine outside Our Lady of PSI waiting on Ramaji."
"Must be who that collar in the alley was talking about. How's St. Otter's Icon?" I asked.
"Just as you last saw it," replied Ofuroyama. "Much is owed you for your efforts, Dutch-san." He bowed low to me, and I hopped off the hospital bed to return it.
"It was little, and my duty as well," I replied. "Something I want to know. Who was it tossing those eggs that marked Ramaji's henchmen?" Tassie looked perplexed, and Ofuroyama's whiskers twitched a storm.
"No one saw who threw rotten eggs, Dutch-san."
"So, well then what are your plans now? As you can see, I'm dressed. I'd rather not wait for them to show up with a wheelchair if we can head out now." Ofuroyama gestured toward the door. I settled my Round Brown on my head, picked up my duster off the chair and we left the room.
"I must now return to Nihon," said Ofuroyama. "In fact, we go from Hospital to aerodrome for dirigible. First, though, this is for you." He held out a dark wooden box that filled both his paws. I took it in my right hand, bowed while holding it above my head.
"Doomo arigato gozaimasu," I said. He returned the bow.
"Much is owed, Zoektochtmann-san. This is little. There is more in your desk drawer at station." We bowed to each other again.
"All this bowing is making me dizzy, cobbers. We've got a dirigible to catch." We left the room and headed down the hall to the lift.
"You leaving too, Tassie? And call me Dutch, please."
"Me? No, His Nibs needs someone to keep him from walking off the bloody pier at low tide. I'm just providing the ride to the aerodrome. Besides, my oath Mr. Ofuro here says you've got one right dinkum gun. Care for a bit of a target wager?" We started negotiating the wager as the lift dropped toward the first floor and the exit. I planned to hold out for some fencing lessons when I lost.
Things quieted down after that in Holt City. Oh, burglars broke into business', pickpockets picked pockets, even a couple big bank jobs happened; I kept gainfully employed. Not many murders, though a few. Every now and then, though, someone turned up knifed or bludgeoned, and after figuring out who did it, weighted down by Death I'd go sit in Our Lady of Perpetual Scientific Inquiry and look at the Icon. Sometimes maybe even talk to St. Otter though I never got a response. Or never heard one. I'd always finish up the conversations, though, with "Well, I guess it's time I go dispose of some more rotten eggs."
And when I say that, I swear by all you hold holy that St. Otter's whiskers twitch and his tail thumps the ground beneath him. And there's a little toss of that egg in his paw.
This story grew out of a few different ideas. One of them is the Icon of St. Otter itself, a piece of art made by ursulav as a commission by a group of friends for another friend who is undergoing a health crisis. There'd been conversation about St. Otter, and hope, faith in the future, healing, recovery. So we decided to commission someone who could portray St. Otter to do so.
Now, St. Otter also grew out of what I consider to be a bit of puppet theatre, and there's no coincidence that it got started by that same friend. What started grew, and includes quite a few people now, all interacting with 'imaginary friends' who have a physical presence in several sizes of stuffed toy otter. The ones I play/work with travel with me various places, and get their photos taken around and about, 'doing' things and 'having' adventures. Quite a few of them play parts in this wee drama here.
The drama grew out of a thread started elsewhere, when my friend asked (after receiving Ursula's painting), What is St. Otter's history? A lot of really fun parables were written about St. Otter, and all that creativity inspired me. I wanted to write a St. Otter story too. Only, it wasn't happening. I couldn't find the idea that sparked something about St. Otter to lead me to a parable. What came instead is this bit of noir, steampunk mystery. Not about St. Otter himself, but about his Icon, famous because he brings hope, and faith in the future.