Trouble Most Faire
Trouble, the world-famous black cat detective, creeps forward on stealthy paws as his arch-enemy, an international spy cleverly disguised as a gray squirrel, nibbles on a pine nut, oblivious to its peril.
All right, peril might be overstating it a bit. I’m far too cultured a gentleman to actually commit rodenticide. Nonetheless, we crime-solving felines must keep our reflexes honed.
Although I miss my biped, Tammy Lynn, I must admit I’m enjoying my stay at the Sherwood Renaissance Faire. Tammy’s friend Laura is providing me lodgings while Tammy spends a month in Europe on a rare book tour. I can hardly wait to hear about the literary treasures she’ll encounter on her travels. In the meantime, Laura prepares a gourmet dish for me each evening, and while I dine on crisp sea bass or succulent shrimp, we watch DVDs of Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock on her wide-screen telly. Tammy must have told her Sherlock is one of my role models, and that Cumberbatch’s version is my favorite. My father, who is also a famous detective, is a role model as well, but he’s more of a Sam Spade type.
Occasionally, Laura devotes an evening to what she calls my education in geek culture, and we watch programs like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who.
During the day I have the run of the faire grounds, while the year-round employees—otherwise known as the Rennies (or collectively, the Troupe)—prepare for next month’s opening. Laura is a Rennie. The Seasonals will begin arriving soon, and in the meantime, I bask in the mid-March Tennessee sun, explore the grounds, and practice my stalking skills by counting coup on local fauna like this squirrel.
I’m almost close enough to tap his tail when a woman’s voice comes from around a bend in the trail, uttering a quiet, singsong litany of invectives. I recognize them from a documentary I once saw about the Middle Ages in a segment called “Medieval Curses and Insults.” Among my many areas of expertise, I am, if I may say so myself, a well-versed Anglophile. Thus, my rather posh British accent, fashioned after Cumberbatch’s, is more refined than the speech of the other cats in my Alabama hometown of Wetumpka.
“Pediculous ninnyhammer,” she says. And, “Puke-stocking, caddis-gartered, addle-pated mumblecrest!”
The squirrel tenses. As he glances toward the voice, he catches sight of me and leaps sideways with a little squeak. I fix my gaze on him, and he scampers up the nearest tree. Silly little git. I smile to myself, imagining the tales he’ll tell the other squirrels about his narrow escape from the jaws—and claws—of death.
I turn my attention to the path, and a moment later a pretty young woman covered in dust trudges into view, holding what appears to be a hawk carrier in one hand and a small leather purse in the other. Beneath the scents of lavender soap and sweat, I can clearly smell the aroma of a raptor. It has a wild tang one never smells in domestic poultry.
“Zooterkins! Jobberknowl! Nobthatcher!”
The woman is on the small side for a human, and the carrier is, if my memory of avian taxonomy serves me, of a size most likely to contain a kestrel. Kestrels are the smallest of the North American raptors, a size well-suited to this diminutive female.
The woman is wearing khaki trousers and a T-shirt embroidered with an archery logo captioned, “Silent but Deadly.” Her hair, the golden-brown of a perfectly-toasted buttermilk biscuit, is limp with sweat. She blows her fringe out of her eyes and says, “Codswallop. It’s hot out here.”
She stops short, looks at me, and flashes an exhausted smile. “Well. Hello, handsome.”
I like her already. Clearly, this is a woman of impeccable taste.
The black cat rolled onto his back across the trail and batted at a dust mote. He looked sleek and well fed, his eyes clear and greenish-gold in the dappled sunlight. Robbi set the kestrel carrier down and rubbed her aching arms. “Are you lost, big fella?”
The cat cocked his head and graced her with an indignant meow. No, not lost. He looked too well cared for to be a stray.
She pushed a damp strand of hair away from her face and sighed. This wasn’t how she’d planned to make her grand entrance, footsore and covered in trail dust. But her car, the miniature SUV she jokingly called “Old Reliable” because it was anything but, had sputtered to a halt six miles back.
She set down the carrier, then reached into her back pocket and pulled out the hand-scrawled map her best friend Laura had sent. Yes, there was the bend she’d just come around, and just beyond the cat was the footbridge spanning a narrow section of the river. Not far now. Then she could freshen up a bit at Laura’s cottage and gulp down a gallon of ice water before calling for a tow and meeting the rest of the Troupe.
She’d just folded the map and stuffed it back into her pocket when a shriek cut through the stillness, followed by the violent rustling of the underbrush on the far side of the bridge, another long squeal, and a stream of curses more colorful than her own. A small potbellied pig hurtled out of the trees, pursued by the tallest, most muscular woman Robbi had ever seen.
“You little…! Why, I’ll…” The woman gasped, narrowly missing the pig with a blow from her hand axe. “I warned you, Tuck, you little glutton! You’ll be bacon by bedtime!”
Robbi stepped onto the footbridge. The pig shot past her and she spread her arms wide to block the axe-wielder, who skidded to a stop in the middle of the bridge and glowered past her at the pig. The pig slowed to a trot and then dropped, panting, into the dust beside the cat.
Robbi swallowed. The woman looked even bigger at this distance, thick and mannish, with bulging biceps, callused hands, and an angry red face. In her tunic and trousers, blacksmith’s apron, and leather boots, she might have stepped out of a medieval painting. She glared at Robbi and growled, “Step aside, princess.”
Princess? Robbi suppressed a laugh. “I don’t think so.”
“Little early for a Seasonal, aren’t you? Any rate, this is not your business.”
“What’s your problem with the pig? Tuck, you said?”
“Third time this week he’s raided the horse feed, the thievin’ little scoundrel. Now let me by before I…” The woman shook the axe, stuck out her chin. “Don’t make me pitch you in the river.”
Robbi’s shoulders tensed. Was she really going to get into a brawl on her first day here? And with a giantess, no less?
She blew out a slow breath and sank into a defensive stance, like her Tai Chi sifu had taught her. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just grab a couple of ales and talk it out?”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. She glared at the pig again, then at Robbi. Flinging the axe away, she charged.
Robbi wasn’t about to abandon the pig. But the woman had a good ten inches and at least fifty pounds on her, so a grappling defense was impossible. Instead, she’d have to use her attacker’s size and weight for leverage. Borrow her force, as her instructor would say. Robbi took a step toward the railing, then launched herself forward to meet the charge. As she ducked into the woman’s punch, her left hand clasped and pulled the attacker’s wrist, while her right palm pushed against the woman’s opposite shoulder. Momentum lifted the giantess off her feet and spun her over the railing.
Time seemed to slow, and for a moment Robbi saw it like a snapshot—the woman’s flailing arms, her widening eyes, her broad mouth open in a startled “o.” Robbi heard a bark from the far side of the bridge, then caught a flash of movement as a red border collie and a man in a kilt ran toward her from the trees where she’d first seen the pig.
Then time snapped back into place. As the giantess fell, her huge hand clamped over Robbi’s arm and yanked her off her feet. The wooden rails flashed past, then spinning trees and patches of sky.
Robbi had just time enough to fill her lungs before the icy water closed over her.
Mal McClaren clattered onto the bridge and looked over the railing into the water below, which churned with flailing fists and protruding elbows. He couldn’t tell who was winning. The newcomer’s move had been impressive, but the larger woman had the advantage now.
“Joanne!” he shouted. “Stop!”
With Miss Scarlett at his heels, Mal bolted across the bridge and ran past Tuck and the black cat, Trouble, who sat watching the spectacle with interest. Tuck seemed all of a piece, thank goodness. When the pig’s squeals had trailed off, Mal had imagined the worst and prayed for the best. He’d known Joanne for four years, but he’d never been certain how much of her hot temper was bluster.
Mal bounded down the bank and splashed into the river, gasping as the icy water soaked through his leather boots and woolen socks. Despite the long shirt tucked into his waistband, he felt a twinge of embarrassment as the current lifted his kilt. Then the two women came up, sputtering and coughing. Joanne stood up in water to her waist, blacksmith’s apron dripping, water streaming from her short-cropped hair. The smaller woman clambered to her feet.
“For the love of…” Mal splashed toward them, his kilt swirling around his thighs. The women turned to look at him, then back at each other. Joanne’s mouth twitched. Her shoulders shook. The stranger tried and failed to suppress a giggle. Then they were both laughing, and Mal was laughing with them, half with relief and half from self-consciousness.
He held out a hand to Joanne and hauled her back into the shallows. As she climbed onto the bank, he turned back to the smaller woman.
Still smiling, she pushed her hair from her eyes. They were spectacular eyes, big and brown, filled with a mischievous twinkle and framed with long, thick lashes. She looked intelligent, he thought. And not too hard on the eyes, either, even if she did resemble a half-drowned dormouse.
Exactly the kind of woman he went for.
Exactly the kind of woman who meant trouble.
His smile faltering, he held out his hand again, but she didn’t take it. Instead, eyes widening, she looked past his shoulder toward the bridge.
“What’s that?” she said. And then, “Oh. Oh, no.”
It was the billow of white beneath the bridge that had caught Robbi’s eye. A plastic garbage bag, she thought. Then, no, too heavy, too voluminous. More like a bedsheet.
Or a woman’s skirt.
Funny how life could turn in an instant. One minute she was admiring the dimple in a blue-eyed Scotsman’s cheek, and the next she was splashing toward something her heart refused to admit was anything more than flotsam.
She could see it more clearly now, the textured cloth, the pale hand bobbing on the ripples, the long hair splayed across the surface of the river, dark with water but an unmistakably familiar shade of red. The face was turned away, but Robbi knew. Then a small swell rocked the body, and the head tipped upward to reveal bloodless cheeks and sightless eyes.
Robbi lurched forward, crying out. A strong arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her back. “No, lass, no.”
Some part of her mind was aware of his words as he half-tugged, half-carried her to shore, but she could make no sense of them. Wait on the bank…Too late to help her…Call the police… At the edge of her vision, she saw a sleek black shape slink down the bank. The cat.
The Scotsman turned her toward him, and she buried her face in his shirt. It smelled of river water and clean linen. A comforting hint of male musk.
“What is it?” said a gruff female voice. The giantess. “What’s wrong?”
Robbi found her voice. “Under the bridge,” she said, a hitch in her words. “It’s Laura.”