Chance Nitro stood in front of the three-section full-length mirror and sized himself up. He wore a tan snakeskin suit with boots (including spurs) and a belt of a darker shade. Attached to the belt were holsters with two gleaming six shooters. The handles were ivory and he had cuff links to match.
Chance smoothed his fake moustache and put on a beaver fur cowboy hat. Tonight, for the Baron’s ball, he was millionaire/cattle baron/big game hunter Texan Sam Houston Walker. He pushed the hat up with a forefinger and said “Evening m’am.” Chance faced down his reflection and was about to ask if it were talking to him, when a knock came at the door.
“Come in.” Humility Go, posing as his wife Cissy Mae, entered. She was dressed in a variety of furs. Her form fitting sheath was leopard (tail attached), as were her shoes and headband. Her stole and wristbands were mink. Her dark hair was piled up and she wore more make up than usual-especially heavy on the blue eye shadow-which gave her the look of a slightly drugged Wilma Flintstone singing at the Grand Ole Opery.
Chance took off his hat. “Hot damn sugar cakes, you’re as pretty as…as, um, a cactus in a desert of…damn, I got nothing.”
“I feel absolutely barbaric.” She grimaced. “I’m just grateful I won’t see anybody I know. You look very reptilian.”
“Aw shucks.” Chance put his hat back on. Behind Humility were their two contacts, Thomas Hyde-Smith of MI6 and Interpol’s Jean-Luc Vague. Both appeared rather nervous. Vague was smoking a Gauloise, over half of which was ash, and Hyde-Smith wouldn’t stop fiddling with his ascot.
“Right. Well, you both look smashing. Watch out, the RSC may snatch you up.” He smiled crookedly.
Chance gave him a blank stare.
“Ahem. Now we don’t know much about what will trespass. We need you to get in, of course, and get us as much information as possible. You’ve both been equipped with micro-transmitters, which will give us the coordinates. Mr. Nitro you cufflinks will provide us with sound, Ms. Go, your headband is equipped with several tiny cameras…”
“Won’t we be searched?” Chance asked.
Vague broke in, “Monsieur Chance, Mademoiselle Go, we realize this operation is dangerous.” He dropped his cigarette in an ahstray and lit another. “There are a lot of, how do you say, unknown factors.” He took an envelope out of his jacket. “This is the invitation. Note the polar bear hologram and barcode to prevent forgery. We believe they’ll scan it to verify your identity. Fortunately, the Baron and the Walkers have never met in person. Now Arthur will drive you to the address. It’s out in Cornwall. Our men checked it out and found nothing. We assume the Baron’s men will meet you out there and take you to the actual location…”
“Everything seems a little hazy considering it’s our lives at stake,” Humility interjected.
“Blast it all, it’s the best we could do on short notice!” Hyde-Smith burst out. “We can’t send in the bloody marines, you know!” He dabbed his brow with a handkerchief. “Sorry about that. Bad form.”
“It’s alright,” Chance said. “We knew the risks. What’s my name again? Up top!” Vague awkwardly slapped him five.
“Quite right. Now remember the Baron is our prime objective. As soon as we get your location, we’ll send in our lads. So keep your eyes on him at all times. We might not get this chance again. Good luck.” Hyde-Smith shook both of their hands. Vague nodded at them.
Chance pulled out a pistol and spun it. “Luck? Pardner, where we come from. You make your own luck.”
Hyde-Smith attempted a smile. “Well said old boy. Let’s launch Operation: Doolittle.”
Several hours later, Arthur pulled into an overgrown gravel driveway. About half a mile up the driveway, there was a dilapidated cottage.
“I think this is it. It looks abandoned. Shall I wait?”
“No Arthur, we’ll take it from here. You’ve been a dear.” Humility gave him a peck on the cheek and got out of the car.
“Do take of yourselves. Good luck.”
Arthur pulled away and when the tail lights faded, it was suddenly very dark.
“I hope this isn’t a set up,” Chance said, hand on a pistol. “How’s my moustache look?”
“I can’t see a thing. It’s freezing out.”
“Aren’t the furs keeping you warm there? Hey Conan called, he wants his outfit back.”
Chance couldn’t see Humility’s expression, but was sure it was unpleasant. There was a noise and three figures suddenly emerged. They had flashlights and Uzis.
“Goddamn son!” Chance said, affecting a broad Texas accent. “You scared us rustling around in the bushes like an armadillo! I’m Sam Houston Walker and this is my wife.”
“Cissy Mae Huston. How y’all doin’?” Humility grinned and smacked her gum.
One of the men inclined his head slightly. “I apologize for the inconvenience Mr. and Mrs. Walker. You understand our need for precautions, I’m sure.”
He was looking at Chance’s pistols.
“Hell, these ain’t loaded.” Chance deftly removed them and showed him the empty chambers.
“Thank you. Your invitation please.” Humility removed it from her zebra skin clutch purse and handed it to him with a toothy, Miss Congeniality smile. The man took out a small device and scanned the barcode. The device beeped approvingly and he handed the invitation back.
“Thank you so much. This way please.” They followed him through a small opening in the bushes and to the back of the house, which was caved in.
“Maid’s day off?” Chance joked. The man smiled and pushed a button on his belt. There was the whir of gears and a patch of grass slid away to reveal a staircase. Chance whistled approvingly. They all went down to large empty room. There was a red roller coaster-like cart. Chance and Humility were seated in the cart, which hummed quietly and started moving down a tunnel.
“Thanks boys,” Humility called with a wave. She and Chance were silent as the cart, propelled by air jets, moved down the metallic tunnel, lit by small lights along the floor and ceiling. “We seem to be going down slightly.”
After a few minutes they began to hear noise and saw bright lights ahead. The cart came to a stop and two tuxedoed men helped them out.
“Welcome to the Baron’s Ball,” they said in unison.
They were in a huge ballroom, all of which seemed to glitter. Peacocks strolled the floor, an Amur tiger prowled in a suspended gilded cage, a group of Humboldt penguins played on a makeshift ice island, an aquarium, crowded with marine life, took up an entire wall. There was a large painting of Noah leading the animals to the ark. The face of Noah was the Baron’s.
Chance and Humility absorbed the spectacle until a woman in what appeared to be a porcupine quill caftan said, “Hello there. So nice to see you, em…”
“Walker, Sam Houston and my wife Cissy Mae. From South Texas!”
“Lovely.” She handed him a paddle with the number 213 on it. “This will be your bid number for the auction later. It will be a real treat.” She looked around surreptitiously and then whispered. “There’s going to be ocelots!” She touched her nose and moved on.
“What the hell’s an ocelot?” Chance murmured.
“A small, spotted South American cat,” Humility replied.
They moved into the crowd. It didn’t take long to pinpoint the guards, who all had small earpieces and were dressed less ostentatiously than the guests. The guests were attired in all manner of fur, skin, feathers, and shells.
“It looks like a zoo exploded over Fashion Week.”
“Damn, I don’t see any monkey butlers.” Chance adjusted his bolo tie. “Let’s mingle darlin’.” He took Humility’s arm and steered her into the midst of the crowds. He stopped a waiter with a tray of drinks in martini glasses. He grabbed one and gulped it down.
“Yee-haw! What is that?”
“It’s a venom-tini sir. Asp, I believe.”
“Tarnation! You can really taste the venom.” A couple strolled up to them. The woman was wearing a hat made of a tortoise shell; the man was dressed simply in a suit.
“Love your outfit,” the woman said to Humility.
“Aw how sweet. I love yours too hon. What is that?” Humility asked, pointing to the woman’s vest.
“It’s kangaroo.” She put her hands in it. “It even has the pouch!”
The couple introduced themselves as the Von Stutgarts, from Austria. Von Stutgart pointed to his suit. “Shark skin. Seriously.”
Another waiter came by with a tray of finger quiches.
“Made from condor eggs. We only have them once a year.”
Chance looked serious, leaned in, and said, “Excuse me, is there a vegetarian alternative?” There was an awkward pause. Then both couples burst into laughter. Von Stutgart slapped him on the back.
“You Americans! Always joking! Like your Three Stooges!”
Chance and Humility both passed on the quiche. After a few more pleasantries with the Von Stutgarts, they agreed to split up. Neither had seen the Baron yet.
Half an hour later, they still hadn’t seen him. Humility stood over by the aquarium, sipping on a glass of red wine, the only non-animal beverage she was able to find. She was watching an upside down jelly gracefully rise past a bright orange sea star fastened to the glass.
“Extraordinary, aren’t they? Almost extraterrestrial. And to think that some selfish human beings want to keep them hidden away in the ocean.” Humility turned to see the man from the photograph at her right arm, holding an ocelot on a leash. “You’re rather a rare creature too.”
Humility quickly switched back on. “Ain’t you sweet. Cissy Mae Walker.” She extended her hand for him to kiss.
“I’m the Baron.”
“Is there a Baroness?” Humility forced a giggle. “Charmed, I’m sure.” Something about the Baron immediately made Humility uncomfortable.
“I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure before. Excuse me.” He took off his dark glasses, turned away from her, and put in some eye drops. “Such a bother, having no eyelids.”
“Ewww. How do you sleep?”
“A special hydrating mask. You are here with your husband, is that so?”
“Yup. I don’t know where he got to…”
“Yes, I believe he was in the middle of a charming anecdote about whale hunting in Iceland.”
“Sounds like him. So, Baron,” she said, touching his arm. “Oh, what is this? It’s so soft.”
“Baby seal fur. I clubbed it myself.”
“How cute.” The Baron touched his earpiece. He looked up at Humility and smiled. Her blood turned cold.
“You’ll excuse me Ms. Go, there’s something I must attend to. Come Rio.” The Baron made a little bow and left her.
She spied Chance across the room, gesticulating wildly to the small crowd around him, and tried to get his attention. The Baron moved past him and to a small raised platform. He looked over the crowd, the ocelot sitting docilely at his side. The crowd quieted down and gave him their attention. Humility noticed the guards moving discreetly throughout the room and looked for something to throw.
“My friends, fellow animal lovers. Welcome to this year’s ball. Our biggest and best yet. Once again we make a haven away from the ugliness and madness of the world. As it fights and pollutes and breeds and tears itself apart, we uphold civilization. We alone know the value of these precious beasts we wear and eat and keep as pets.” He looked down with affection at Rio. “It is not hate or greed or vanity, as our enemies say, that draws us to these animals, but love. Love.” The room exploded into applause. The Baron put in some more eye drops. “It makes me wonder who truly are the savages? Those who seek to protect or those who truly cherish these animals? Please continue to enjoy yourselves. On one minor note, it appears we have some uninvited guests. Know that we have the situation well in hand and, perhaps, this will provide us with some amusing entertainment later.”
Chance looked around for Humility and saw the guards moving in. He tore off his fake moustache and whipped out his guns. “Alright evil Dr. Doolittle, I’m Chance Nitro and this party is over! Who wants to die!?”
…Tune in next week for the explosive conclusion!
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED