Disclaimer: Tale Spin is copyright Disney. Borrowed without permission for non-profit purposes. This story not to be reposted without the express permission of the High Flight Crew, contact info at: http://fly.to/highflight
The flickering city lights of the little town of Gonzales, Mexicasa, winked at the full moon; beyond its tiny borders lay the lush, tangled foliage of the jungle. Towering majestically over the whole tableaux were hazy, purple mountains.
While most of Mexicasa slept in their clay adobes, one place was alive with drunken laughter, good-natured insults, and dancing feet. Years of being baked in the sun had rendered the paint of the nightclub dry, cracked, and peeling. The stenciled lettering of the Casa Luis sign was barely legible. The raucous laughter and shouted remarks of the people within gave it an air of rough comradery --- even offbeat charm.
Thanks to the club’s dress code, the gowned and tuxedoed set elevated the rather pathetic exterior. Brisk young waitresses in bright peasant blouses and flowered skirts moved quickly; they seemed to leave little comets of color behind them as they bustled about taking orders, serving drinks and eluding the occasional pinch. The only thing that kept the customers of Casa Luis from being eaten alive by mosquitoes was the gauze-like netting that hung from the empty windowpanes. During the day, the air outside was so arid that the filmy material barely fluttered. At this late hour, though, it had considerably cooled. Spinning fans blew overhead, disturbing a few coiffures but giving temporary relief from the stickiness of too many bodies in one place. As a habit, most people stayed until closing time, when the party finally died --- more to avoid the bugs outside than a reluctance to cut the celebration short.
During the long pauses that encompassed the jazz band’s all too-frequent breaks, swarms of hungry mosquitoes hummed a monotonous song of their own, impatiently waiting for patrons to leave the relative safety of the dilapitated nightclub. From her seat near one of the sightless windows, one of those patrons thought cynically: Welcome to the Ritz.
Sitting alone in one of the corner booths, where she had a good view of the entrance, sat Arizona Johnson. Elegantly attired in a glittering sea-green Cuckoo Chanel gown, matching pumps and long ivory-colored gloves, she was the picture of bored, glamorous chic. The sequined creation twinkled under the dim lights and the ankle-length skirt was artfully slit, not only to expose one shapely leg, but to increase freedom of movement--- just in case. One never knew. The admiring male glances in her direction told her that she was easily the most beautiful woman in the room --- not that she cared. Dark golden eyes intent, she shrewdly scanned the layout of the room, then glanced at her watch as she tried to conceal her rising irritation. Arizona Johnson was here to conduct business, and her contact was late. That was odd, for punctuality was Charlie MacGuffin’s style, especially when money was waiting for him. He was shady but always delivered the goods.
From the corner of her eye, she absently noted that the band had returned from their break and were about to begin another set. At the leader’s signal, the group took a collective breath; then they played a song that was somewhat familiar to Arizona --- and annoying --- for it stirred the dormant embers of her mind… memories of lost chances and love gone wrong. The plaintive wails of a saxophone floated out of the club and into the night.
She drained the remaining dregs of her drink through the straw, using the inelegant act as a cover to look around the room once more. Tasting the gritty pulp, she made a face and muttered, “This is no Krakatoa Special.”
Ruefully, she decided that Louie, despite his overly familiar, gregarious manner and wandering hands, at least knew how to make a drink. Some people might consider him a sleazy, lowlife jerk, but beneath his shaggy looks, he was one of the good guys. Absently, she wondered what he, Baloo and the rest of the gang were doing now.
Probably having a lot more fun than I am, that’s for sure, Arizona thought sourly, looking at her watch again.
She tried to look nonchalant, as though her evening bag did not contain an envelope of ten thousand shaboozies --- in cash. Deciding to stretch her legs a bit, she rose gracefully from the table. As the music slowed to a dreamy tempo, couples began to gather on the dance floor, gliding cheek-to-cheek. A wistful expression crossed the tigress’s face as she remembered the countless times she had danced that closely with a certain someone in glittering ballrooms much larger than this one, in exclusive country clubs --- and sometimes the club was a membership of two. How long ago was that? It seemed like a lifetime.
Someone tapped her shoulder with a hard, stubby finger. Arizona turned, banishing her moment of vulnerability and assuming a stern expression. She expected stammered apologies and clumsy excuses for her contact’s tardiness. Instead, a squat, bleary-eyed badger who barely reached her shoulder staggered before her with a foolish grin. He still held a shot glass in his other hand, sloshing it as he teetered dangerously from one foot to the other. As he spoke, the man’s sour, brandy-drenched breath was so strong that Arizona was forced to turn her head to the side. It didn’t help.
“Shay, dolly,” he slurred, with a greedy leer. “Howsh ‘bout you an’ me trip the light fantashtic?” He tried to take her arm, but she easily stepped aside and out of reach.
“It would be more fantastic if you don’t trip,” she retorted, waving a gloved hand dismissively. She moved on, leaving him wobbling there, open-mouthed at her failure to appreciate a real man when she saw one. Still grinning stupidly, he lost consciousness and crashed to the floor like a felled tree. No one bothered to help him up. The couples simply danced around him.
Suddenly she stopped, seeing someone she knew at the bar…someone who definitely was not her contact. She would recognize that person anywhere. Instead of his usual khakis, fedora and ever-present bullwhip, an ill-fitting tuxedo emphasized his gangly frame.
From the dramatic way he glanced from left to right, it was obvious that he was trying to appear suave and secret agent-like, living some swashbuckling fantasy in his head. From the way a few people looked his way and sadly shook their heads, he was unsuccessful. He paid for his drink, stood up, and immediately tripped on a peanut shell that had fallen from one of the snack bowls on the counter.
“Oops!” With dismay, he saw that his drink was now a puddle of glass shards, liquid and a tiny umbrella. “Not again.”
“No!” Arizona muttered, unable to believe her eyes. “It couldn’t be…”
The chimpanzee turned back to the bar to request a towel. A gloved hand slapped down on the counter, hard, startling him. Looking up, his eyes followed the arm until he was pinned to the spot by a fierce golden glare.
“What are you doing here, O’Bowens?” Arizona demanded in a low voice. He cleared his throat and grinned boyishly at her.
“What are you---I mean--why, Miss Johnson! What an unexpected pleasure,” stammered Professor Peter O’Bowens, his voice cracking. Arizona watched him closely. He seemed…nervous about something. His eyes quickly cut past her, from left to right, definitely looking for someone.
Arizona looked at him, unsmiling. “Cut the baloney, O’Bowens. Just who are you meeting?”
“M-meeting? Surely you don’t think…” protested O’Bowens, raising his hands in a warding-off gesture. Under that uncompromising stare, he squirmed.
“Peter, Peter, Peter,” she drawled, shaking her head with mock disappointment. “You being in a joint like this is like me joining a quilting bee. Please don’t insult my intelligence or waste my time. I’ve got better things to do.”
His simian features seemed to collapse under her scrutiny. “Well…I don’t have time to fence with you, Miss Johnson... I am in kind of a hurry…”
She waved him away impatiently. “Call me Arizona. We’re colleagues, after all. Just get to the point and you can be on your way.”
“Well, Miss…I mean, Arizona…I have an appointment with a very important contact,” His voice lowered to a whisper, and she leaned forward to listen. “I have the opportunity to purchase a very valuable document from him. It could lead to…unimaginable historical significance.”
“Oh, realllly,” she said thoughtfully, frowning, “and great monetary value, as well…right?”
“Um, the financial aspect is a small factor, but it’s really the history---!”
I have a bad feeling about this, she thought. “And the man’s name is…?” Even before O’Bowens said the name, she already knew.
“MacGuffin. Charlie MacGuffin.”
She suddenly banged a gloved fist on the counter, the force causing several other patrons’ drinks to jump. He recoiled, startled.
“W-what’s the matter? Did I say something wrong?”
* * *
Meanwhile, in the courtyard, two people were negotiating in whispers under a palm tree. One was a timid-looking brunette vixen named Myra Foxworthy, Minister of Culture and Curator of the Museum of Ancient History. Shivering a little from the nocturnal breeze, Myra found herself wishing that her lavender linen dress, with its modest hemline and round collar, had sleeves. The climate was similar to her native Aridia; she should have known better than to leave her wrap in her hotel room. Another mosquito landed on her arm and she blew it off. She did not like smacking bugs --- if she discovered a spider crawling on the exhibits, at the museum, it was coaxed onto a piece of paper and gently deposited outdoors.
“Oh, darn these mosquitoes!” she fumed to herself. “I wish I’d brought a sweater…”
The other figure was a shabbily dressed dog in a cheap synthetic suit and bad tie. Nervously, he shifted from one foot to the other, wishing he were anywhere but here. Feeling a tickling sensation on his stubbly cheek, he slapped himself.
Checking the gooey smear on his palm, he wiped his hand on his trousers. The damned shoulder bag hurt like hell; the weight of the goods anchored it so that it dug into his collarbone. Sweating, he loosened his tie, wishing this dame would quit yammering and just give him the dough already. The torches lining the club’s walls winked off the lenses of her square-rimmed glasses. Occasionally he tuned out her voice, regretfully thinking that his previous contact had been a real doll. Looking at this one, he decided that she might look all right if she’d lose the specs. What a shame.
He hated haggling…it was the worst part of making deals. His only desire was to conclude negotiations --- and get his money --- as quickly as possible
“…I don’t know, Charlie,” Myra was saying earnestly, blowing another mosquito off her arm. “Ten thousand dollars is considerably more than the museum’s budget can afford, unless the tablet is in excellent condition. Is it more or less legible?”
“Relax, lady,” he protested, trying to look wounded. “Charlie always delivers da goods, ya know that. Don’t ya trust old Charlie?”
“It’s not that I don’t trust you, but I would like to examine it before…”
Again she blathered on and on… why did he have to get stuck with the long-winded ones? He looked longingly past her, past the palm tree, into the night. Unlike the laughing patrons of Casa Luis, he could not wait to blow this popsicle stand.
He cut her off. “Look. I got several interested buyers, all willing to pay three times the price I gave ya. But ya know what?” He leaned forward and said in a low, confidential tone, “I hate to say it, but most of them’s crooks, real lowlifes. It’s just terrible. I don’t like dealin’ with people like that --- it makes me look bad --- but a guy hasta make an honest living. Yer getting a real cheap rate and ya know why? ‘Cause I like yer face. I want you to have this, not them other mugs. Pearls before swine and all that.” His eyes darted and he took a breath, carefully gauging her reaction. “But ya gotta decide right now...”
A third mosquito lit upon the vixen’s other arm; distracted, she blew it away. Uncomfortable and flustered, Myra made up her mind.
“All right, Charlie,” she said crisply, “I’ll give you five thousand dollars. That’s my final offer. Take it or leave it.”
“I’ll take it,” Charlie agreed, sensing that Myra Foxworthy could only be pushed so far. He knew better than to press his luck. He opened the bag’s flap, reached inside and extracted a flat package, wrapped in brown paper. He handed it to Myra, who gravely accepted it; casting a quick glance around, she discreetly extended a bulky envelope to the dog. Greedily, he reached for it. She was startled, but not altogether surprised. This was Charlie, after all.
Just as his fingers touched it, a slender gloved arm chopped down hard, knocking his hand away from the money. He tried to snatch it and scramble away, but from nowhere a dainty high-heeled foot tripped him, sending him flying into the dirt. As he got to his knees, he looked up, ears drooping. Looming over him was a female fox with one hand on her hip, the other holding a heavy, flat package. She was dressed in a strapless sea-green evening gown, matching pumps and long ivory gloves. Tonight her long, wavy red hair was put up in a sleek chignon, fastened by a sparkling diamond clip. She was beautiful… and very angry.
“Why, Charlie MacGuffin,” she said tartly, “That’s just what you told me right before I handed you seven thousand dollars.”
“Uh-oh...” The dog began to sweat again. He smiled weakly and began to inch away sideways, like a crab.
“Uh, hi, Katy... um... M-miss Dodd, I mean... listen, ladies, believe me, I-I’m… just as shocked as you are! I’m a victim of circumstance… my evil twin, Hank, just busted outta the joint. It’s a set-up, I swear! He must be trying to frame me---he’s always hated me---urk!”
Arizona Johnson and Peter O’Bowens emerged from the shadows.
“Why, Charlie,” Arizona said smoothly, “What a tragic story. How you’ve suffered. But you know, something just occurred to me --- how do we know you aren’t your evil twin?” Grinning, she leaned over and stared hard into Charlie’s eyes. “If you’re that nasty Hank, I just may have to avenge poor Charlie.” He whimpered and backed up, clumsily scrambling along the ground.
At that moment, a small figure darted in, snatched the bag away from him and leaped out of reach before he even knew what had happened. Li’l Bit crouched with the bag a few feet away and briskly began to examine its contents.
Frowning, Myra opened her own package. Inside was a small tablet with pictographs inscribed on it and an odd fragment of what seemed to be a drawing. The dark-haired vixen squinted at it. “This—this looks like part of a map or something. I just don’t understand!”
Li’l looked up from the bag, an exact replica of the bags that Myra and Katy held. “Arizona, here two tablet same. You come see!” Charlie began to crawl away, his tie dragging in the dirt. He suddenly found himself unable to raise his head more than a few inches. One dainty high-heeled foot stepped on his tie, pinning it to the ground, and anchoring him to the spot.
“Right, Li’l. Hold onto them,” Arizona looked down at the cowering dog and snarled, “Start explaining. Now.”
He stammered, “I-I don’t know what the p-problem is! E-each and every piece is absolutely, genuinely one hundred percent, true-blue authentic!” The last few words came pouring out like a faulty dam. He searched each face hopefully, avoiding Arizona’s. All of them stared stonily back, except for O’Bowens and Myra, who looked very disappointed in him. “All right, I’ll level with youse. There were four tablets and as far as I know, they really are genuine. Honest! They’re the goods, I tell youse. The real McCoy. The big Kahuna…”
No one was listening to his babbling. Myra and Katy both opened their packages. Li’l opened the remaining two. On each was an inscription in strange writing. Each one was different. And each had a piece of the map.
Arizona said sharply, “What do they mean, Charlie? Tell me!”
“D-darned if I know!” Charlie protested. “You’re the archaeologists. All I know is that the lovely Miz Foxworthy here mentioned they were valuable when I described one to her. So I got hold of the rest on the black market. Figured I’d make an extra few thou—erk!” Arizona’s hand shot out and clamped around Charlie’s neck.
“This is the last time we do business, MacGuffin, hear me? The last time!” Her fingers tightened around his windpipe. Gurgling for air, his eyes bulged and his tongue flopped out like a limp pink slug. Spots danced before his eyes, making his vision swim.
“What are you doing?” Myra cried. “You’ll kill him!” The others watched, spellbound.
“Maybe I will,” Arizona grinned down at her prisoner. “It’s been a while.”
“You can’t do this! He’s not worth going to prison for!” Instinctively, Myra stepped in front of the kitten, blocking her view. “For heaven’s sake, how can you do this in front of a child?”
“Not a child!” Li’l growled, craning her neck to see better.
At the sound of Li’l’s voice, Arizon’s ferocious expression faltered for a second. Her grip on the hapless con artist loosened ever so slightly.
“P-please don’t kill me!” Charlie choked out. “Aw, no! I don’t wanna go like this!” His panic rising, Charlie struggled, constricting his breathing even more. Myra’s eyes widened, magnified by her square-rimmed spectacles.
“Don’t do it --- please!” Myra’s face was pale, but the intensity of her voice seemed to have reached something in the tigress. Arizona finally let go, and his face hit the ground, raising a small cloud of dust. He weakly lifted his head, blinking watery eyes.
“T-thank you…” he gasped.
“Don’t thank me,” Arizona snapped. “Get out of my sight. If I ever see you again, you’ll wish I had wrung your neck.”
“Yeah…yeah…okeedokey…” he agreed, still dazed. Clumsily, he got to his feet and ran, stumbling past them, into the night beyond.
O’Bowens stared after him thoughtfully. “Er, ladies…perhaps we should talk?”
* * *
When the four of them returned to the club, Katy, who was behind Arizona, took one look and gasped, finally noticing that the gowns that they wore were identical. She glared at Arizona’s back until the tigress finally sensed it and turned around.
Raising an inquiring eyebrow, she asked politely, “Yes?”
“Well--!” Katy couldn’t believe how calm she was. “Don’t you see the problem?”
“The problem is… oh, for heaven’s sake! Who are you, and what are you doing wearing my dress?” she hissed.
O’Bowens and Myra walked a little faster, staying out of it.
Arizona shook her head and started to follow them, but Katy tapped her shoulder.
“Didn’t you notice?”
Arizona smiled at her. “Oh, yes. Nice outfit,” she commented mildly. “You have good taste.”
“Doesn’t it bother you, just a little, that you’re wearing a replica of my Cuckoo Chanel original? I mean, really, aren’t you more the calico type?”
The tigress turned and said evenly, “Go play with a ball of yarn.”
Mercifully, they were shown to their table. Li’l quickly claimed a seat on Arizona’s right, and Myra sat at her left. Katy and O’Bowens took the opposite side. Arizona and Katy ended up sitting across from each other like chess rivals. Anxious to get to the business at hand, Myra placed her tablet in the middle of the table, while the other ones were safely tucked away in their respective envelopes and stashed under the table at their feet.
“Why don’t we introduce ourselves before we start?” O’Bowens said brightly. The chimpanzee added, “And I’m, uh, Peter O’Bowens. I teach Archaeology 101 at Darwintown University in Cape Suzette.”
“I’m Myra Foxworthy… I’m the Minister of Culture and curator of the museum in Aridia.”
“Yes,” Arizona nodded to Myra. “I read your paper on the hieroglyphics of the upside-down pyramid. It was very good.”
Myra smiled modestly. “Thank you.”
“Well, you’ve come a long way from home,” said Katy, with a faintly condescending smile. “Katy Dodd. I’m an archaeologist.”
“I gonna be one too,” announced Li’l Bit, and smirked. “Better than you.”
Katy looked down her elegant nose at the scruffy kitten. “Shouldn’t someone be babysitting her?” she inquired of the table at large.
“This is Li’l Bit,” said Arizona smoothly, “she’s with me. And I’m Arizona Johnson. I’m an archaeologist and explorer.”
There was a delicate snort of derision. “Oh, yes, I’ve heard of you. You have an excellent reputation...although with that name...Arizona Johnson...”
The tigress didn’t rise to the bait. “That’s me,” she said, yawning delicately.
Katy muttered, “You’ve got a reputation of another kind.”
She hadn't meant to be overheard, but Arizona caught her eye with a level, icy glance. However, she said nothing.
“Wonderful. Now we’re all acquainted,” said Katy, still annoyed. “And we’ve got some tablets to translate.”
“Right,” said Myra, obviously relieved that the subject of identical gowns was laid to rest, at least for the moment.
“Yuran written language is tied closely to their art,” O’Bowens said, unconsciously adopting the tone of a classroom lecturer as he leaned over the tablet. “In fact, it can be difficult to distinguish their art from their writing without a comprehensive understanding of the language and a complete grasp of the context. Glyphs are read from left to right and top to bottom, and present a complete picture.”
“Their art’s simple enough to understand,” Katy Dodd continued, annoyance put aside for the time being. “But if you’ve got a piece of text, you absolutely need to know something of the language. And even that won't help you without, as Professor O'Bowens says, the context." She nodded to him. "Suppose you have the glyph for monkey and the number three. If you don’t have the whole story, you won’t be able to tell if it represents the name of a city, the name of a person, the year of an event, or ... just a group of three monkeys.”
Myra squinted at the tablet. “What if you have the glyph for river? I think that’s what this one says...”
“Well, again, that could refer to a person’s name, or the name of the month of river-floods...” began Katy.
“Or just a river,” Arizona said. “It’s too early to tell.”
“I’m not sure,” O’Bowens said, adjusting his spectacles, “and I’d want to check my books, but I think that final glyph is the symbol for... gold.”
“Gold?” Katy leaned over to squint at the glyph in question. “Golden river?”
“River of gold,” Li’l Bit said, in an awed voice.
“N-not necessarily,” Katy objected, though her voice quavered just a bit with uncertainty. “It could be a city called the Golden River, or a Yuran king, or...”
“Or a river of gold,” Arizona finished, and began to smile.
Myra was about to put the tablet away and take out the next when the front doors slammed open. A dozen black uniformed and heavily booted hounds marched in, moved to both sides of the door, and stood at rigid attention. A thirteenth hound, with a captain’s rank insignia on the sleeves of his uniform, stepped in and swept the room with an arrogant glare.
Conversations all over the room died, and the music ground to an abrupt halt; the bass player continued for a few measures longer until the drummer nudged him in the ribs, and he stumbled through a succession of wrong notes before sheepishly falling silent.
“We are looking for a thief,” the captain announced. A gangly german shepherd with arrogantly handsome features, he wore shining, high black leather boots that looked too fancy to be regulation, and steadily slapped a horse crop against his boot.
“Who are they?” hissed Katy.
“Watch a newsreel once in a while,” Arizona said in a low voice.
“Well, excuse me!”
Myra’s eyes widened. “What are they doing here?”
“Captain!” One of the hounds stepped forward and pointed at the table where the four archaeologists sat --- and at the tablet that lay there in front of Myra. The commander nodded sharply, and half of the soldiers advanced on them.
Arizona was on her feet and in a fighter’s stance, her back to the wall. “This could get ugly,” she warned under her breath.
The innkeeper hurried forward, waving his arms as though trying to shoo the invaders out of his establishment. With almost casual ease, the commander shoved him aside, sending him staggering into a fully laid table. Plates and glasses shattered against the floor and walls, sending jagged shards flying. One fragment grazed the ear of a busboy, making him yelp. Two heavier waiters started to push forward.
The commander drew a pistol, pointed it at the ceiling, and fired.
A waitress screamed on a single high quavering note, and other screams joined her as the customers and staff began to panic.
“Get the tablets!” barked the commander, and the room dissolved into pandemonium.
Arizona backhanded the first of the CLAW soldiers to reach them, only to be struck across the face by the second. She blinked, shook her head to clear it, then grabbed the backs of their collars and slammed their heads together.
Katy threw herself across the front of the table, her arms spread wide as though to protect the tablets with her own body. One of the soldiers grabbed her around the waist, roughly slinging her over his shoulder. She screamed and beat a frantic tattoo on his back.
“Help! Put me DOWN!” Her eyes flashed with fear and rage. “Take your hands off me, you... you hoodlum!”
Myra scooped up one of the dropped trays and climbed up onto the table. Closing her eyes, she brought the heavy tray down on his head, hard. The soldier’s eyes glazed, and he keeled over. Fortunately for Katy, he fell backwards, or he would have landed on top of her. As it was, though, she landed on him.
He woozily tried to lift his head. She delivered a surprisingly loud slap, stunning him, before standing up and brushing herself off. “Creep.”
“You’re welcome, Katy,” Myra mumbled. “Oh!” Another soldier had pushed past the fracas and was coming in behind her. This time she used the edge of the tray, hitting him in the forehead with a resounding gong!
A tall, solidly built soldier reached for O’Bowens’s neck, his sausage-like fingers flexing with eager anticipation. Suddenly a twisted white cord whipped about the soldier’s throat and was pulled taut. His eyes bulged and he gasped for air as Arizona, one knee planted firmly in the small of his back, leaned away and kept pulling the makeshift garrote tighter, until the soldier passed out at her feet. She calmly retrieved and untwisted the cord, revealing it to be one of her long white gloves, which she pulled back over her hand.
O’Bowens’s eyes lit up, and he reached under his tuxedo jacket and pulled out his favorite weapon --- a coiled bullwhip. With a flick of his wrist, he unfurled it, then drew his arm back, aiming for another goon. “Evil never triumphs! Now feel the fury of my whip!”
Unfortunately, the tail of the whip promptly wrapped around his own ankles, tumbling him to the floor. He sat up, dazed. “I hate it when that happens…”
“Hey!” Arizona snatched the whip from O’Bowens and pulled him to his feet in the same motion, then effortlessly snagged the CLAW captain’s feet with the lash. “If you don’t know how to use one of these things---” and with a brutal yank, she sent the soldier toppling to the ground. “--- you have no business carrying one!”
“Oh,” O’Bowens said, looking down at the fallen Hounlander, then at Arizona, crestfallen.
“I thought you were quite brave,” Katy told him, glaring at Arizona.
Meanwhile, Li’l was busy dodging the broken glass and falling bodies. Weaving through several pairs of legs, she managed to climb on top of the bar, and jump one of their assailants from behind. Clinging to him, piggyback fashion, she sank her sharp little teeth into his earlobe. The agent let out a screech of pain and flailed at the kitten, turning in circles as he tried to reach her, until he collided with a table and went crashing to the floor. Li’l leaped clear and spun around to see who else needed help.
Nobody seemed to. The violence was more or less over; Arizona was coiling up O’Bowens’s bullwhip, and Katy was carefully tucking away tendrils of hair that had become disheveled in the fight.
Myra and Li’l collected the packages into the bag while the others stood over the fallen agents, surveying the damage. Casa Luis was in shambles. Nearly everyone had deserted the building, leaving unconscious black-uniformed figures, overturned tables and chairs, spilled drinks and torn netting. The innkeeper was picking himself up from the wreckage of a table, bemoaning his loss of clientele.
Arizona removed a few bills from the envelope she was going to give Charlie and tossed them onto the bar. “Sorry about the mess.”
As they were leaving, she glanced down. “Look at this man’s pocket.”
On the breast pocket of the soldier’s uniform was a strange insignia --- a white circle inside a red square. Inside the circle were four slender black claws arranged almost like the petals of a flower.
Outside, Katy spoke up. “So why don’t we interrogate one of those goons?”
Arizona was silent for a moment, then said, “The insignia is obscure, but I recognize it as an organization within the CLAW.”
“This is terrible,” O’Bowens murmured. “They play for keeps.”
“What could the CLAW want with us?” Katy sounded indignant.
“Not us,” Arizona told her. “These.” She held up the bag containing the tablets.
“This is it. We’re on to something big!” Katy’s eyes glowed with fervor.
“Maybe bigger than anything we’ve ever searched for before…” O’Bowens rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“This is a great discovery!” Myra said. “We should work together, um, don’t you think?”
“We need a safe place to translate the rest of the tablets,” O’Bowens said, glancing nervously over his shoulder. “Safer than this place, anyway.”
“But where could we go? This town is probably crawling with those slimy creeps.” Katy added with a shudder.
“We could use my hotel room,” suggested Myra. “The Lookover Hotel…it’s not far.”
“Fine,” Arizona agreed, almost grudgingly. She and Li’l exchanged a look that clearly telegraphed: This should be fun…
She added, “We’re staying there too. Let’s use my room.”
* * *
All three women had removed their shoes for the long walk to the hotel, with Katy holding out the longest, not wishing to compromise her ensemble. When they arrived at Arizona and Li’l’s room, however, she sank to one of the beds with a groan. She kicked off her heels and began to rub her aching feet.
“I thought you said it wasn’t far,” she complained.
Myra gave an apologetic shrug. “Sorry. Taxis are scarce in Mexicasa.”
“That last mile was a killer,” O’Bowens agreed. “Would you like me to ring for some ice, Miss Dodd?”
She grimaced. “Thanks, but that’s all right. I don’t want to be any trouble. Let’s just get started on the translation.”
In the small hotel room the overhead fan spun lazily, its chain swinging. There were two beds with simple metal frames, two wicker bedside tables, and a round wooden table with four chairs. An oil painting of sunset over the mountains, done in thick, amateurish brushstrokes with colors that hurt the eyes, hung on the wall. A pair of delicate wicker chairs was arranged beneath the painting.
They closed the shutters, wary of spies or objects that might be hurled through the window. Only the standing lamp by the round table was on, encircling the five of them in a yellow pool of light. The rest of the room lay in shadow. Arizona and Myra sat side by side, leaning over one tablet, while O’Bowens and Katy studied the other. Li’l Bit stood by Arizona’s chair, straining over her arm to see the tablet.
Myra turned the tablet to the left, then to the right, then to the left again. She frowned. “I'm not sure this one is right side up.”
“We need to be sure.” Arizona tilted her head to examine it. “Remember, it’s left to right and top to bottom. Upside down or sideways they can mean something else entirely.”
O'Bowens gave a sudden pleased exclamation. “Ooo! This one says something about... rain?” He squinted at the tablet he held in both hands and at the book he held with one foot. “Pearls and rain? No, sorry, got it backwards. It says Rain of pearls.”
“That's two solved!” Arizona took the tablet and set it down on the table next to the first. “River of gold and rain of pearls. I think I see a pattern here.”
“Speaking of patterns, what are these supposed to be for?" Katy wondered aloud, tracing a pale blue line that curved across her tablet behind the hieroglyphs. “They're pretty, but they don't seem to mean anything.”
“And each one's different,” Myra noted. “But notice how well the color's held? And this has to be centuries old. Amazing techniques, the Yurans, truly amazing...”
“Any luck on yours?" Arizona asked. "We've got the first and second solved.”
Li'l Bit leaned over to peer at the two tablets on the table. “First and third,” she corrected.
Arizona blinked at her. “What d'you mean, kid?”
“Look!” The kitten pointed to the red crosshatching across the upper left-hand corner of each tablet. “One… two... three.”
Myra hurried over and gave a delighted gasp. “Why, yes! One mark, three marks. And this one has two --- Katy, does yours have four?”
“It does!” Katy brushed her fingers along the corner of her own tablet. “So now we know what order they're meant to be in.”
“And which is right side up!” Myra turned hers over and scanned it again, then looked at a scroll for comparison. “Ground ... something. Ground unstable? No, wait...” She squinted at the scroll. “Wrong pictograph. Ground of ... oh my! It says 'Ground of emeralds'!” Beaming, she set the tablet down on the table between the other two.
“I don't know about the rest of you, but I like the sound of this better and better.” Arizona smiled, and turned to Katy. "Yours?"
“The last word's 'rubies'… I think.” Katy brushed at the tablet with the tip of one finger. “And I'm still not sure what this blue design is meant to be. Rubies... and trees. Trees of rubies? Does that make sense?”
Arizona's smile broadened into a grin. "It's making all kinds of sense to me."
Li'l Bit looked up at her. “Fortune and glory?”
The tigress ruffled the kitten's head. “Fortune and glory.”
O'Bowens took the tablet and set it in place on the table, then scowled at the set. “River of gold, ground of emeralds, rain of pearls, and trees of rubies. But none of that tells us where it is!”
Arizona studied the four tablets in order. “Do you think those designs might form a map?”
Katy pursed her lips in concentration. “I suppose it could be. Forested country, a river.... But I've never seen any land formation that looks like this. And there's no way of knowing the scale.”
Myra started to say something else, and interrupted herself with a jaw-cracking yawn. “Excuse me.”
“Well, it is getting late,” O'Bowens pointed out. “We could all use some sleep.”
“Speak for yourself,” Arizona told him without raising her head from the tablets arranged on the table.
“Well, I could certainly use some sleep,” Katy said.
Arizona looked around at the others. “The rest of you want to call it a night?"
“I think so," Myra nodded, delicately covering another yawn.
“I not sleepy,” Li'l Bit put in defiantly.
Arizona grinned. "All right, small stuff, you can be my assistant.”
“Yes,” O’Bowens added, “You two can keep at it a li’l bit longer.” His chuckle died away as Arizona shot him a look. Li’l Bit, her elbows propped on the table on either side of a tablet, chin in hands as she studied it, seemed to have missed the pun completely.
The others left for their own rooms, and the tigress turned back to the tablets, arranging them in order from left to right. “Li'l Bit,” she said over her shoulder, “Could you get me one of the books from my bag? Maps of the Ancients, by Hugh Q. Smartypants?”
Li'l hesitated, then sat down next to the bag and rummaged through it. "This one?" she asked, holding up a slender blue volume.
Ari glanced over her shoulder again. "No. It's one of the brown ones. Maps of the Ancients, the name's on the cover." She turned back to the tablets, rearranging them so that they were lined up from top to bottom.
Li'l looked into the bag again and pulled out a brown book. "This one?"
"Does it say Maps of the Ancients on the cover?" Arizona asked patiently.
The kitten shrugged. "You tell me."
Arizona stopped and turned to stare at the girl. "Li'l Bit," she said slowly, "are you trying to tell me that you can't read?"
Another lopsided shrug. "Don't know. Never tried."
The tigress touched one finger to her lips. One striped ear twitched. Then she lowered her hand, let out a breath, and gave a soft chuckle. “Of course. You being raised in Q’ilu, you can’t read Uslandish.”
Arizona rose and went over to her bag, then pulled out the book in question herself. She paused, staring down at her tomes for a moment. Her glance slid to Li’l, and then she reached in and pulled out a book with an intricate, curling alphabet scattered with numerous smaller marks. Still holding Maps of the Ancients in one hand, she held the other book out in front of Li’l. “What’s this one called?” she asked.
The kitten leaned closer, and frowned. “Something about towns.”
“What about towns?”
Li’l waved a hand dismissively. “Who cares?”
“Li’l,” Arizona said sharply, and the kitten looked up at her, surprised. “Can you or can you not read what this says?”
“Only one word --- town,” said Li’l.
Arizona sank into one of the wicker chairs, which creaked under her slender weight. “You can’t read Q’ilu, either? Your native language?”
“Can too! Know all street signs in Ahalan. And can read names of villages near desert. And there big sign on building say ‘police’ and sometimes one that say ‘keep out no... no... no tres... that big word you use once.”
“Trespassing,” Arizona said automatically. She sighed, rubbing between her eyes with two fingers. “You can read enough to get by, street signs, but you can’t read books. Well, that shouldn’t surprise me either, I guess. Nobody raised you...” She stopped rubbing and looked at Li’l. “What happened to your parents, anyway?”
Li’l turned and began placing the big books on the table into neat stacks. She dropped each volume with a soft yet emphatic thud. Her whiskers quivered before she said with a scowl, “Don’t know. Don’t care. They never care what happen me.”
With the kitten’s back to her, Arizona started to reach out a hand to touch Li’l’s shoulder, but stopped herself. “All right,” she said briskly. “If you don’t wish to talk about it, you don’t have to. I was once on the streets myself, you know. I ran away from home. But I was lucky. I ended up with the chance to go to boarding school and I got an education because I wanted one. Li’l, if you’re going to become an archaeologist like me, you have to know how to read. Not just Q’ilu or Uslandish but dozens of other languages as well. And not ancient ones, although your grasp for heiroglyphics and pictographs is beyond that of some professors I’ve known.” The tigress joined the kitten at the table.
pulled out a few sheets of paper and spread them out on the newly cleared space
on the tabletop. Arizona licked the end of her pencil, and wrote the first
letter of the Q’ilu alphabet, and then the Uslandish equivalent next to it. The
kitten watched her with wide eyes. “Now tell, me, Li’l, what letter is that? In
both languages, please.”
* * *
Dawn came slowly and with growing warmth and brilliance over the verdant jungles outside the Mexicasan village. Birds with brilliantly colored plumage stirred and cried in the dense foliage beyond the village borders. A truck rumbled down the empty main street of the town, past still, white stucco houses with salmon-colored rooftops or more humble shacks made of adobe or wood. A dog barked. Somewhere, a radio got switched on and a voice began talking in rapid Mexicasan.
The sun’s rays slid up the side of the hotel, and finally lanced through the slats of the blinds covering the window of Arizona Johnson’s hotel room. The ray inched along the concrete floor, over the woven mat, and right into the face of the sleeping tigress.
Arizona blinked, stirred, and made a small growling noise in her throat as she sat up, disoriented. The bed was still made; she had been curled up on the foot of it. Her gaze strayed to the table strewn with books and sheets of paper with various alphabets written on them.
Li’l Bit was curled up with her feet beneath her on the wicker chair, her head down on an open book, in deep slumber. Her tail twitched softly and her claws kneaded in and out.
The tigress smiled ruefully, then covered the kitten with a blanket. Li'l stirred slightly.
Hearing something, Arizona put her head to one side, then leaned her face down closer to the sleeping kitten. She heard a soft rumbling sound; Li’l was purring.
“Never heard you do that before,” Arizona whispered, her face still down near the kitten’s. She watched Li’l sleep a few seconds longer, and then briskly straightened up and touched her finger to one of the kitten’s ears. The ear twitched in response.
Arizona Johnson stood up, yawned, and stretched, claws extended, showing her sharp teeth. Then she put on her fedora and wandered off in search of breakfast.