Plunder and Dancing: A "Cats Don't Dance"/TaleSpin story
By Indy and Chris Silva

Chapter 1 - Making Plans, An Untimely Visit, and Old Friendships Renewed

       Editor's Note - This is a sequel to the story Cats Don't Direct and is based on the plot development for Danny and Sawyer from that story. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it before proceeding.

       Just over a month had passed since the premiere of “A Street Cat Named Desiree”, and things were going as swimmingly as Johnny Weissmuller ever managed. Danny was getting directing offers right and left but he turned them down flat, stating that he was a loyal Mammoth employee. Already he was working on ideas for another film and couldn’t be happier—after all, he was engaged to the love of his life.
       Sawyer had received her share of attention too—she was now the spotlight bride-to-be in Hollywood. That was the subject of the breakfast talk when Danny had visited that morning. She and Danny sipped their coffee in her bright white kitchen and read the latest Hollywood Daily Gab.

       “So why won’t you tell any of them about our plans?” Danny asked. “You’ve already turned down L.B.’s offer to fully fund the shindig!” Sawyer shook her head, stirring some cream into her coffee. “I want our wedding to be special, and I want us to be able to make all the decisions. We were almost alone when we fell in love. I’d want only those closest to us to be there with us on the big day. We’ll have a big Hollywood reception for our celebrity friends and the press after the honeymoon.”
       Danny smiled at that last word. “Well, okay. Where do you want to have the wedding, then? Someplace far off, like Tahiti or something?” Sawyer shrugged. “I don’t have any place in mind. What about your hometown?”
       “Kokomo? Nah, that’s no place to have a wedding! I’m sure my folks would like it, but I’d rather have it be someplace that we’ll both look back on with fond memories.”
       Stevens, Sawyer’s Himalayan cat butler, interrupted them as he walked into the kitchen. “Miss Sawyer, your morning mail—nothing pressing, by the looks of it. Also, your paper.”
       “Oh. Thanks, Stevens.”
       Danny put his paper down as Sawyer picked up the one that Stevens brought in, craning his neck to read the banner. “The Cape Suzette Gazette. Why do you subscribe to that paper?”
       “I was born there,” Sawyer said, starting to read the headlines. “I started taking it again a week ago for old times’ sake and to see if there’s any family or old friends mentioned. Besides, you know we’ve got that engagement with the Jack Benny radio show coming up there.”
       Danny sensed an opportunity. “Hey uh, why don’t we go ahead and take a turn down that way early? I’ve heard it’s a great spot for tourists, and we could catch the sites on our own time! And maybe you’d like to get married there.” Sawyer took on a far-off look and her voice went flat. “There’s not much there for me anymore. The Cape was a long time ago.”
       Danny was surprised at this unexpected turn of Sawyer’s emotions. “Well, okay. Say, that mention about Kokomo reminds me—I’d better let mom know I’m not making the family reunion again this year. Of course, the family’ll come to us for the wedding…I wonder if they’ve changed any. Mind if I use your phone?”

       Sawyer didn’t mind. Now that she was alone, she found herself looking through its pages, wondering what just did lead her to buy the Gazette. She stopped about halfway in, a picture capturing her attention.
       “Hmm...‘Higher For Hire’ lands delivery contract to Klopstokia.”
       Sawyer looked at the picture again—it showed the outside of the modest cargo service, with four people standing in front: a large rotund male bear wearing a flight cap, a stained shirt and an offset grin, a boy bear in a sweater that looked to be about twelve—the boy, not the shirt—a grease-stained lion mechanic who didn’t look all that intelligent and...Sawyer gasped.
       Sawyer leaned over close to the page to study the picture more carefully. Sure enough, the caption read “Rebecca Cunningham, owner of Higher For Hire”. Sawyer put the paper down and rubbed her eyes, forcing the morning grogginess away. She needed to think now and think hard, and immediately she set in to read the rest of the story. After a few minutes, Danny walked back in and started chattering like usual, but Sawyer only heard bits and pieces of it.
       “ anyway the folks’re really looking forward to seeing you and...” At this point, Danny began to notice she wasn’t answering. “Sawyer, is something wrong? You look like you’re a million miles away.”
       Sawyer forced her attention back to the present. “I was. Maybe Cape Suzette would be a good place to have the wedding.” Danny scratched his head. “But I thought you said a minute ago—”
       “Well, there are some good things there. I haven’t seen dad in ages and I can introduce you to a very dear friend I haven’t seen since school.”
       Danny brightened at the mention of that. “Hey, that’s great! I’d love to meet your friend. Do you think he’ll remember you?” Sawyer shrugged. “She, actually. I hope so. It was so long ago, she probably forgot. She helped me out once and I never did repay her properly.”
       Danny came and put an arm around her. “Well, whoever she is, she’s in for a treat! Just what does your friend do, anyway?”

       At Higher For Hire, they had discovered two new scientific laws: the first being that Baloo and naps attract each other. At the moment, a certain cargo pilot was demonstrating this law in attraction on the pier, under the business’ sign. Had he still been the owner of the business in question, that would have been dandy. However, several years back, he’d made the lucky mistake of allowing one Rebecca Cunningham to take over his plane and his business dealings.
       They’d both profited reasonably from the union, although the second scientific law reared its ugly head pretty often as well: for every nap on business time, there was a loud and shrill reaction from the boss.
       “Baloo, get up this instant!”
       Baloo tumbled out of the hammock and landed face-first on the dock. “Yes, your exploding volcanoness! Becky, I’m trying to get some rest. Whatever it is, get someone else to do it.” Rebecca put her hands on her hips. “Oh, maybe I’m under a mistaken impression. As I recall, a certain pilot’s plane still belongs to me, and if he ever wants to earn it back he’ll get off his lazy duff and fly that load of bowling balls to the annual Big Strike convention over on Tenpin Island. Capish?”
       With a groan, the tired bear worked out the kinks in his back and neck. “Yeah, yeah, catfish to you too. I’m going, but I feel like you’re throwing me a gutterball.” Baloo turned to go, then started back to plead his case with Rebecca one last time. What he saw coming—or rather who—made him stop in his tracks.
       “Uh, Becky? You didn’t commit any crimes lately, did ya?” Baloo asked. Rebecca gave him a patronizing glare. “The only one around here who’s done anything criminal is you, for wasting my time. Now I’ve got—”
       Rebecca stopped at this point, because Baloo was pointing behind her and mouthing some words under his breath. It wasn’t working, so Baloo switched to pantomime, pointing at his right cornea. “I’m not in the mood for charades, Baloo. What does your eye have to do with it?” Baloo nodded, then pointed to one of the letters in the sign above them. “The ‘R’?” Rebecca asked. “I…R…”
       “S,” a man’s voice said behind her.

       There were few combinations of letters that could be quite as unsettling as that. Rebecca turned around to find a doberman, dressed in a business suit with a black overcoat and bowler hat to give him that wondrous domineering look.
       “Oh uh, hello,” she said, trying to appear brave. “Rebecca Cunningham. And you are?”
       “Norton Albee, Internal Revenue Service,” the canine said, removing his hat and holding it out for Baloo to take. When the bear complied, Albee set his black leather briefcase on a nearby table and brought out a manila folder containing a bunch of papers. Albee began perusing them as he continued. “We have found a few irregularities in your statements, and we need to—”
       “Statements, plural?” Rebecca asked.
       “Precisely, Miss Cunningham,” Albee said politely, as if he’d just invited her to tea. “They all stem from the loss of equity you’ve claimed in connection with a certain…let me see…ah yes, a certain Don Karnage.”
       Baloo walked up. “What’s old Karny have to do with you blitzing our business?” Albee flipped through the papers in his folder. “Plenty, it would seem. Over the past five years, you’ve made thirty-eight claims for loss of equity due to this Karnage. That’s quite a few claims, you must admit. Highly irregular.”
       “Not in our business!” Rebecca retorted. “He’s always after our cargoes. You can find a report in the newspaper for every one of the times we’ve lost shipments to that prancing prima donna of a pirate!” Albee looked directly at Rebecca. “The job of finding them is not mine, but yours.”
       “WHAT!” Rebecca said.
       “You have to prove that each of those events took place, and corroborate that the loss of equity was directly due to the pirates’ actions against you.”
       “As opposed to what?” Baloo asked.
       Albee started counting on his fingers. “Well, there’s several possibilities: pilot error, acts of God, mechanical failures…” Baloo stopped him right there. “Now wait just a barnstorming minute! I’m the best pilot around, just ask anyone ‘round here! I don’t lose no cargo unless I’m forced to lose it!”
       “Then you’ll have to prove that,” Albee said, reclaiming his hat and tipping it to them both. “Oh, and make sure this year’s statement balances out properly, because I will be looking. Good day.”

       A few minutes later, the team had assembled in Rebecca’s office. The mood was far from pleasant. “Becky, you and I know that the Air Pirates were responsible, but how’re we gonna prove it?” Baloo asked.
       “You leave that to me, for now,” Rebecca said. “Meanwhile, we’ve got another problem.” Baloo didn’t like the sound of this. “Uh, what sort of problem?” Rebecca brought out her accounting book for the year. “The last thing he mentioned, that he’d be looking at this year’s statement. Baloo, because of those pirates we’re running behind.”
       “How far behind?” Baloo asked, knowing he didn’t want to know but had to ask.
       “This far,” Rebecca said, pulling out a folder. “We’ve only got a week before this year’s statement’s due, and there’s only one way we could make up the rest of it. It’s just a single cargo run, but...”
       “Let me guess,” Baloo said, flatly. “It’s nearly impossible, right?”
       Nodding, Rebecca walked over and showed him the file. “Remember the Caliph of Aridia?” Baloo nodded. “Yeah, yeah. The guy who wanted to go skiing in the desert so we brought them that big hunk of ice and chopped it up and all. Or rather Karny and his bunch did when they thought there was some loot in it.”        “Right,” Rebecca said. “So now he wants to build an oasis by his palace, and he’s offering a bundle to anyone who can get him the water he wants.” Baloo shrugged. “So what’s so hard about that?”
       Rebecca turned the page, cringing. “He wants the purest water in the world, which just happens to be from the exact center of the Windshear Mountains in the frozen wasteland of—” Baloo choked when he read the next word. “THEMBRIA! Becky, we’d have to go through the heart of the Thembrian Air Force—well, assuming it’s flying—but do you know what kind of winds there are in that place? No pilot in his right mind would go near it!”
       Rebecca closed the folder. “I’ve talked to a contact of mine in the Thembrian consulate and he’s filling out the paperwork to let us go in legally and get the ice as we speak. It’s either that or six straight days of cargo runs nonstop, with gorilla birds. Baloo, what other choice do we have? If we don’t do it, we lose everything—the business, the Sea Duck, our homes... everything.”
       Baloo started pacing. “Yeah, yeah, I know. We’ve been here before, but never this close to the edge.”
       “Baloo, I have a feeling in my businessperson’s intuition that we can do it! If we leave tomorrow, we can even be back in time to see Jack Benny in person!”
       That was news to Baloo’s liking. “Jack Benny? Aw, but there’s no way we’d get tickets!”
       “Yep, Jack Benny” Rebecca said. “And his whole cast. They’re going to do a live show from the Sterling Towers Hotel. If we get back, I guarantee I can arrange for us to get tickets. So, what do you say?”
       Baloo was all ready to agree when he realized what Rebecca was meaning. “We? Sorry, sweetheart. ‘We’ aren’t doing anything!” Rebecca lowered her eyelids halfway, her voice growing terse. “I’m coming with you on this one, Baloo, and that’s final! I’ve got just as much invested in the success of all this as you do, and more.”

       For a few moments, Baloo thought it over, then shrugged. “Oh, all right. But we’re going to have to install a tank in the back of the plane so there won’t be much room, and we’re going to be way overweight after we get the ice and we won’t be able to carry much, so I don’t know how big a pond he’s gonna have.”
       “Not a tank—ice tongs. We’ll tear off a big enough piece and fly it back. I’ll find out how much we need.”
       “Whoa, we can’t fly dragging a big block of ice!” Baloo countered. “It’ll cause drag and be dead weight. We gotta bring it on board and stow it in back.” Rebecca held her arms straight out like a bird’s wings. “Do like you did with those extra crates that time and attach a set of wings to it. Then when you’re up to speed it’d simply glide behind the plane.”
       “And how do we keep it from melting away to a snowcone?”
       Rebecca walked over to a world map on the office wall. “Oh, most of the run’s over Thembria anyway. We just fly it so that we’re in Thembria as long as possible before heading into Aridia. Besides, the alternative’s getting out on the street and panhandling. Between you and me, I’m grabbing my fur-lined coat.”
       Baloo shook his head. “This is crazy, but I guess we don’t have much choice.” Rebecca managed a shallow smile. “I bet you wouldn’t have it any other way, though.” The veteran cargo pilot gave out a laugh. “When this is over, you owe me a trip to Louie’s. When do we start?”
       Rebecca grabbed up the rest of the folders on her desk. “As soon we get those papers from the Thembrian consulate and I make arrangements with one of my neighbors to take care of Molly while we’re gone. It’ll be tomorrow morning at the earliest. Meanwhile, you get the Sea Duck gassed up and have Wildcat give it a good going-over before we get out of here. I’ll take the rest of these receipts and files along and inventory them so we’ll be ready when the IRS inspector comes back.”
       Baloo headed out of the office, not liking it one bit. Then again, when had he ever? Still, he knew once he was up in the air things would be different. And when they pulled off this miracle he’d tell it a hundred times over at Louie’s. “Wildcat, get the cargo wings ready. We’re going ice fishing!”

       Across town, Danny and Sawyer had just arrived in a Mammoth Studios private plane. When the celebrity cats reached Sterling Towers, all they’d had to mention was that they had come early to see the city before the show and the whole staff bent over backwards to fulfill their every wish. They were in the penthouse, which was in essence one huge circular room that was divided into the usual living and sleeping quarters. Huge picture windows framed the walls and allowed for a 270-degree view of the city, now at sunset.
       “Wow, this is pretty neat, huh?” Danny said, looking around. “Got to admit, though, I miss my antique furniture. This modern 30’s style is okay, but Victorian really says ‘classic’.” Sawyer grinned, shaking her head. “Oh, you’ll survive a week or so in the finest hotel in the city. This is a great town. It’s almost as busy as Hollywood. I wonder why Jack Benny booked us in here, and not himself and his wife Mary?”
       “I thought it was a mistake too, so I called his office while you were settling in and asked him. He said being in the penthouse makes him think about how much it costs, but you could tell that he was just being nice. Say, you’ve been pretty quiet all day. Something on your mind?” Sawyer took a seat on a lovely white plush settee. “Danny, have you talked much with your folks about the wedding? Do they approve of me?”

       Danny grinned, not exactly certain why she’d ask such a question. “Well, sure! They all love you as much as I do. Some of them are a bit quirky, but you’ll get used to that. Well, Josh is always kind of unpredictable.”
       “Josh,” Sawyer said speculatively, “he’s the chain smoker, right?” Danny raised his eyebrows. “That, and a lot more. Mom did her best to straighten him out, but with Josh it was one disaster after another.”
       “Well, we’ll cross that disaster when we come to it,” Sawyer said. “How about the rest of them? Is Ben still married to his job and family?”
       Danny grinned. “Happily. He and Mary Ellen are doing good, and at last report their boy Todd’s still as cute and energetic as ever. They think that he’s going to follow me to Hollywood someday.”
       It was Sawyer’s turn to smirk. “And your first true love? What was her name…Soggy?”
       Danny laughed—it was a private joke between them. Salli had been Danny’s childhood sweetheart, and ever since Danny had admitted to Sawyer his feelings about the cute female bunny, Sawyer loved to tease him over it. “They’ll all be coming into town, Salli included, the day after the radio show,” Danny said. “We’ll have plenty of time to meet and greet them. Believe me, they’ll be happy to get to come. Kokomo’s not exactly the most exciting town on the face of the earth.”
       Sawyer leaned back, putting her hands behind her head. She’d never had a problem enjoying luxury. “I’m sure it’s a lovely town.” Danny let his thoughts drift back. “Oh, it’s nice in the fall, when the leaves are turning. I remember there was this one big wooden bridge that went over a crystal-clear river with all these big rocks in it. I’d stand right out on the middle of that bridge, put my elbows on the railing and just soak in it for hours. It was where I did all my big dreaming.”

       Sawyer had nearly dropped off, listening to Danny. His stories tended to have that kind of effect on her. “Why don’t we call room service and have them send up dinner?”
       “Great idea!” Danny said, grabbing the phone. “Nice of ol’ Jack to put us up here. He sure is different from the cheapskate character he plays.” Danny pulled out a menu and ordered for them both, knowing Sawyer’s likes as well as his own. He hung up the receiver and sat down next to her, hugging his fiancée lovingly.
       Danny wasn’t the greatest romancer in the world, but he had his moments. “I gotta tell you, Starlight, everything that’s happened to me so far pales when it comes to you. If you weren’t in my life…I’d be totally lost. You’ve kept me on a steady beam, which is more than mom ever thought anyone could do for me.”
       Beaming, she looked into his eyes. “I’d still be working for Farley Wink if it wasn’t for you. You gave me my dream back.”
       “And you gave me a dream to last the ages.” Danny kissed her and she wrapped her arms around him, kissing him back. It was a moment of true happiness for them both and Danny nearly sang out when the room service attendants arrived.

       After a lovely catered meal, it was time to get down to business. Mr. Benny had sent them their scripts already, so Danny and Sawyer worked over the lines. The storyline was clever, as it usually was for Jack’s show, and when they laid the scripts down they were both satisfied.
       Danny settled in on the couch, next to Sawyer. “I think Jack’s got another winner on his hands! You know, I just realized that you asked me about my parents but I didn’t ask you about yours. You’ve mentioned your mom to me a few times and how much you miss her, but you never talk about your dad.”
       Sawyer hesitated. “Dad’s always been there for me. He wanted me to finish my degree at Harvard first, but it just wasn’t for me. I hit the road for Hollywood the moment I had the money and never looked back.” Danny had never heard about that part of her life, and it surprised him. “You mean, you struck out totally on your own?”
       “He’d have helped me, but I wanted to prove I could do it alone,” Sawyer said. “That way, I owed as few people as possible. That friend I mentioned, Rebecca Kincaid—well, Cunningham now, she’s one of the few that I really do owe. I’m looking forward to meeting her again.”
       Danny nodded, wondering what else he didn’t know about her. “What about your mom—oh wait, I forgot about that. Sorry.” Sawyer shook her head, her voice growing softer. “That’s all right. Mom’s been gone for quite a few years now.” Danny took her hand. “I didn’t realize you were that alone when we met. Well, you just wait: when mom and dad and Breezy and Jake and Ben and his wife and Todd and all see you, you’ll have more family around than you know what to do with!”
       “And Josh,” Sawyer said. “Don’t forget him.”
       Danny smiled, but it was a forced one. “I’d like to sometimes.”
       Sawyer’s eyes showed her surprise. “How can you say that! Danny, he’s your brother!” Danny appeared apologetic. “I’m sorry, Sawyer, it’s just—I don’t know what to do about him.” With a sly look, Sawyer straightened Danny’s bow tie. “Just smile and treat him nice, no matter what. We’ll make a special effort.”
       Danny gave in. He never could refuse her. “Okay, Sawyer. Nice it is.”
       “As for myself, I’ve been on my own so long I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have family around,” Sawyer admitted.
       The song and dance cat smiled at her. “You’ll remember soon enough. Guess we’d better get some rest now. They’ve got us doing an autograph session in the morning, and then Jack’s probably going to want to do a couple of run-throughs with us to get the timing down for the show.”
       “You’re right, we’d better call it soon. I’ll see you in the morning, tiger.”

       Sawyer kissed him good night and retired to her private bedroom. They each had one, and after Sawyer had changed she pulled out the local phonebook. Rebecca had told her long ago that if she ever needed to talk just to call her, and she found she did need to talk to someone tonight. Sawyer found she was wrong in a way about her notion of family—Rebecca was like a long-lost sister to her. They’d shared a room at Harvard when they were in business school, and Sawyer was thinking on those times when Rebecca’s tired response came over the line.
       “I hope I didn’t catch you sleeping, Rebecca,” Sawyer said. “It’s Sawyer, your old Harvard roommate and current household name? I need to talk to you.” Rebecca gasped—this was the last thing she’d expected. Her tone was instantly one of excitement. “Tweaky? Is it really you?”
       Sawyer winced at the nickname—Rebecca had given it to her when she’d seen what kind of a perfectionist Sawyer was, always tweaking things to make them better. “Sure is, Becks. I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch more, but I was wondering if you’d be free for a visit.”
       “A visit?” Rebecca said, happy at the thought of seeing her old friend. “Where are you this week?”
       “Right here,” Sawyer said. “Danny and I flew in this evening, and we’re doing the show with Jack Benny.” Rebecca was elated. “YOU are? Oh Tweaky, that’s great! But you sound like you’ve got a problem. What’s wrong?”
       “Oh, it’s just that the wedding’s coming up, and all. I love Danny dearly, but…are we doing the right thing?”
       Rebecca grinned. “If you don’t marry that tabby, you’ll be making the worst mistake since that accounting exam you overslept for.” Sawyer smiled on her end as well. “Thanks, I needed that. And thanks, Becks, for all you did at Harvard. I’ve never really thanked you properly, but the next time you come my way, you and your friends are staying with me, okay?”
       “That would be great!” Rebecca said. “I haven’t had a vacation in ages.”
       “You just name the time, but of course after Danny and I get back from our honeymoon. We’re going to Tahiti for two solid non-work-filled weeks!”
       Rebecca sighed. “Oh, it sounds magical. Don’t forget to send a postcard!”
       “I’ll be sure to. So is tomorrow okay for a visit?”
       That brought Rebecca back to reality. “Can’t make it tomorrow, Sawyer. We’re a little behind on things right now, and we’ve got to make a cargo run in the morning. We probably won’t be back for at least two days, but I’ll make sure to be at the show. Don’t worry about that.”
       “I’ll leave a half-dozen tickets for you and your friends at will-call for when you get back. I’m looking forward to it, Becks. Talk to you soon!”

       Rebecca hung up the phone and looked back to the mound of paperwork ahead of her. She smiled though—she’d forgotten about Sawyer calling her “Becks”. It brought back the times they had gone to study hall together, or to the movies or the ice cream parlor. And of course the late night cram sessions in their apartment when they nearly laughed themselves silly because they’d be up at four or five in the morning, trying to get ready for midterms or finals. They’d talked about nearly everything under the sun—boys, clothes, life in general.
       “Life sure seemed simpler then…”

Chapter 2 - If It’s Raining Refrigerators, This Must Be Thembria

       Returning to her work, Rebecca made good headway on the paperwork for the IRS agent before she dragged herself to bed. Still, she was up with the dawn, the old entrepreneurial instincts having kicked in. A cup of coffee and a morning paper later, she was much more herself. Molly was already with Carol Simkins, Rebecca’s friend and next-door neighbor, so she stuffed a danish into her mouth and her papers in her briefcase, heading out for the Thembrian consulate.
       When she got there, she found her contact had indeed lived up to his word. Captain Blunderbuss oversaw the consulate’s paperwork division—which, considering that paperwork amounted to most of what Thembrians did, was quite an important task. The middle-aged warthog had used Higher For Hire a few months back to ship some Thembrian paperweights to Usland, and Rebecca had kept in contact with him for just such an eventuality as her present problem.
       “Ah, Miss Cunningham,” Blunderbuss said, standing as she came in. “It is good to see you once more. The paperweight collector’s convention was big success thanks to you.” With some effort, he handed a telephone-book sized stack of papers to her.
       “All of these!” Rebecca said.
       “You are fortunate I had the short forms,” Blunderbuss said. “Everything is there, filled out in triplicate. There is saying in old country: ‘A man with papers in order will not be shot’. It tends to encourage us to be thorough.”

       Rebecca thanked the captain and hauled the mound of papers over to Higher for Hire. When she got there, she found the dock was far from empty. Baloo and Wildcat had called in a few favors and were attaching a giant pair of ice tongs to the tow rope in the Duck’s cargo bay while Kit looked on.
        “How did you ever manage to get those so fast, Baloo?” Rebecca asked.
       Baloo grinned knowingly. “We know a guy with connections.”
       Rebecca’s voice took on an “I want to know now” tone. “Who!”
       Baloo’s grin grew wider and he pointed behind her. An orangutan in a straw hat, purple lei and a loud green shirt—and sporting a louder voice—marched merrily up the pier. Louie L’Amour was never one to miss a trick, and he planted a solid kiss on Rebecca’s hand to prove it. “When ‘ol Baloo said that my Becky baby was in serious A-number one trouble, who was I to say no? Don’t thank me now, sugar lump—you can dole out your thanks over the next few days because I’m joining this little hayride as of right now!”
       Rebecca shook her head. “Sorry Louie, but we can’t take on the extra pounds that passengers will cause. We’re going to be dangerously overweight according to Baloo.”
       “Hey, whoa, whoa, whoa!” Baloo said, walking over to her. “We’re gonna need all the help we can get, Becky! Louie here’s got connections from one end of the world to the other, and I say he goes!”
       “And when did you become the boss of Higher for Hire, mister tall, gray and shabby?” Rebecca retorted. Wildcat poked his head around the corner of the Sea Duck from inside the cargo hold. “Well actually, he’s sort of more furry than shabby, but maybe if he used a razor or something...”
       “Not shaggy, Wildcat!” Kit said. “She meant shabby, as in low-down.”
       “Oh, okay. Low down where?”
       Baloo tuned up his begging voice. “Aw, c’mon Becky! Look, we’re gonna need all the help we can get. And like it or not, you ‘an me can’t handle this alone. We’re gonna have to have everyone to get that overgrown ice cube to Aridia.”
       Rebecca half-grinned, chiding him. “Are there any hippos and elephants you know that we can throw in the back to help out too?” Louie put an arm around her, flashing a smile. “Now, don’t be mad about it, Becky. After all, Baloo can’t fly the plane all the time, and me and him are used to trading off when it comes to long trips and all. Besides, I bet I don’t weigh a pound over a metric ton.”
       “ can fly a plane?” Rebecca said, then after a moment she snapped at her pilot with all the ferocity of a very ticked-off boss coming to a sudden epiphany. “Baloo, have you let him fly my plane and never told me!”
       “Easy, Beckers! I just let him keep it on course when I needed to grab forty winks and we didn’t have time to land. The autopilot’s only good for letting me grab a soda or something. Say, we’d better hit the silk soon! You told that guy in Aridia that we’re getting him his cold cargo?”
       After a few more glaring moments, Rebecca calmed down. “Yes. The caliph was overjoyed he’d found someone desperate or crazy enough to get what he wanted.” Baloo and Louie did a high-five.
       “That’s us, my man!” Louie said.
       “We’re lookin’ alive and with the jive!” Baloo replied.
       Rebecca headed for the plane, mumbling. “I must be the crazy one for going through with this...”

       Once all was secure, including a box holding the receipts that Rebecca had yet to sort through, Baloo gave the Sea Duck full throttle and once up headed the plane north toward the Arctic Circle. Baloo called toward the rear of the plane. “Hey, Wildcat! Did you get all that cold gear stowed away?”
       “Sure did, Baloo!” Wildcat said. “Say, do you think we could stop over and get some more snow? I never did get to take my snowman home from the last time, and I wanted to make a whole family of them! I could call the father Ray, and his wife would be Imelda and then the kids...”
       While Wildcat prattled away Kit checked the map, as he was the Sea Duck’s navigator. “Papa Bear, speaking of the snow incident, have you thought about how you’re going to get past the Thembrian air force?”
Baloo chuckled. “Spiggy? Oh, he’s a pushover! Besides, Becky’s got the proper forms and all. This’ll be a breeze.”

       In the country of Thembria, one thing was certain: nothing. A few hours after Baloo’s self-assured statement, a rather short (but we wouldn’t say it to his face or risk being shot) warthog was pacing the headquarters of the Glorious People’s Air Force. Short he may have been, but he made up for it with impatience. In a few moments, the object of his ire came running up holding a white cardboard box, breathless.
       “Ah, Sergeant Dunder!” Colonel Spigot said. “Did you get it?”
       “Yes, your mighty craftiness,” Sergeant Dunder replied, his voice mild. “Can I have one, too?” Spigot snatched the box from Dunder’s hands. “No, you may not! Do you know how many forms I had to fill out to get this?”
       Dunder scratched his head. “Actually, I had to fill them out, sir...”
       “Details, details. Now, behold the answer to all our problems!” Spigot opened the box, taking out a paddleball set. “Finally, something to do while we wile away the hours!” Dunder watched as Spigot began to merrily bat the red rubber ball with the paddle, the elastic string (which was only available to high officers) constantly pulling the ball back to the paddle. “Gee, that looks like fun. Can I have a turn?”
       Spigot pulled the paddle away from his sergeant. “No, you may not! And don’t use that word again, Dunder! Do you know what the penalty is for sitting on duty?” Dunder, like all Thembrians, knew the military regulations by heart. “Well, sir, I’m sure it involves a firing squad somewhere...”
       Ignoring his sergeant for the moment, Spigot looked at the huge radar screen in front of him. He had been given the lofty assignment of monitoring Thembrian air space for intruders. For six months, there hadn’t been as much as a sea gull. Spigot yelled at the screen. “Oh, come on! Blip, just once! BLIP! I’ll take anything!”
       Spigot waited, but there was nothing. He leaned back in his chair. “Oh well, back to paddleball...”

       At that moment, the radar screen changed to show the rather unwholesome face of the Thembrian High Marshal. “Spigot! Am I hearing right, and did someone mention the term “having fun” on the Glorious People’s time?” Spigot fell out of his chair, which was a lucky break. It allowed the paddleball to fall to the floor, out of the High Marshal’s line of sight
       Spigot got up quickly, which considering the situation was also a prudent move.
       “Oh, High Marshal!” Spigot and Dunder stood on one foot and made a swimming motion with their arms, the standard Thembrian salute in honor of the Great Flounder who inadvertantly saved Thembria from defeat in battle. “Fun? No, no! We were just monitoring the radar screen and—”
       “See that you don’t, Nozzle,” the High Marshal said. “I am keeping an eye on you...”
       “Uh, that’s Spigot, your mightiness. You know, the Scourge of Sausage Creek?”
       The High Marshal thought a moment. “Ah, yes. I remember your triumph there. The enemy got bored at your posturing and fell asleep on duty. Make sure you do not, or I will line you up in front of the tank squad!”
       Spigot saluted. “Yes, your fierceness!”

       The High Marshal’s picture went off the screen to be replaced once again by the radar again. Spigot turned to his lackey. “Dunder, I have an important mission for you.” Dunder saluted.
       “Yes, sir. You want me to take the blame if you’re ever caught playing paddleball.”
       At that moment, sirens sounded and a red alert flashed on the screen. Spigot dove under a desk. “I didn’t do it! I swear!” Dunder walked over and tapped Spigot on the back. “Sir, that’s the intruder signal. I think a plane’s showed up in a forbidden air vector.” Spigot got up, grateful that he wouldn’t be looking down the barrel of a tank. “It has? Oh, it has! Oh boy, some action at last!”
       Spigot tried to reach the intercom on the desk, but he proved too short. He gestured, and Dunder got on his knees and put his hands on the floor. Spigot climbed up on the sergeant’s back and grabbed the intercom. “To all pilots, this is Colonel Spigot. An intruder has appeared in vector 1129. Be so kind as to force him down...”
       In a few moments the phone rang and Spigot picked it up. He listened, then spoke into the intercom again. “For those of you who don’t know where vector 1129 is, just fly west!” Spigot put away the intercom and got off Dunder’s back—well, physically anyway. “Now, this intruder will feel the wrath of Spigot! And with everyone distracted, I can play paddleball!”

       While Spigot started to master the intricacies of his new toy, Baloo flew the Sea Duck past the coastline of Thembria, heading for the Morslush mountain range. Kit called out a course correction, then compared their direction to their destination. “According to the map, Windshear should be on the far eastern side of Mount Morslush, Baloo. Just keep this heading and follow the mountain range.”
       Baloo did so while checking the skies. “Looks like the Thembrians are nowhere to be found today. Did I tell you or what?” At that moment a loud thud sounded on the Sea Duck’s roof. Louie pointed to the skies above them. “I think it’s ‘or what’ time, cuz!”
       Through the constant clouds that blanketed Thembria, they saw three huge Thembrian planes above them. Ammunition had been a problem for Thembria since the Great War, and considering the amount of paperwork it took to get even a toothbrush, bombs were pretty much out of the question. That didn’t stop them, though. At the moment, they were dropping refrigerators on their target. An annoyed voice spoke over the Sea Duck’s radio.
       “This is Lieutenant Gregor Slush of the Glorious People’s Air Force. You will land immediately for your trial and execution, or you will be pummeled.”
       Baloo picked up the speaker. “This is the Sea Duck. Sorry, Greggy, but we’re in our bounds today. We’ve got signed and sealed permission to be here and collect some ice from Mount Windshear.”
       “My orders are to force you down,” Slush said. “You can show your permission to the judge at your trial before sentence is carried out.”
       That was all Baloo needed to hear. “Don’t have time to plead innocent right now. You and the judge will have to eat my dust!” Baloo turned to the others. “Okay, we’re outta here. Strap yourselves in, everyone!”
       Lieutenant Slush switched his radio frequency, speaking to his comrades. “Dive on them! Force them from the skies!” His wingmen complied, but they also forgot to tell the bombing crews to quit throwing things out the back. Baloo dived and dodged, leading the Thunder Yaks back through the refrigerator storm. One by one, they were knocked off and crashed into the snow-laden hills below.
       Louie slapped Baloo’s hand. “That was some sweet flying, my man!” Rebecca pulled herself out from under some boxes. “Now, can we get on with this?” Baloo stuck out his chest. “Once again I prove that I’m the best. Becky, you may think I’m a lazy idiot, but you can’t doubt my skill in the air.”
       “Yeah, but the only problem is the entire Thembrian Air Force knows we’re here by now,” Rebecca said. “We’ll have company.”

       Back at Thembrian Air Force headquarters, Colonel Spigot wasn’t any bit happier than Rebecca. In fact, he was downright livid, yelling into the phone receiver. “What! All of them have crashed? Why do I waste my legendary talents on such incompetence...” Dunder tapped him on the shoulder. “Because no one would give you any other kind of job?”
       Spigot slammed the phone down. “It just shows how underappreciated my talents are! So, this intruder thinks he can flaunt the wrath of Spigot, does he? Well, he’s in for a surprise.”
       “It had better be pleasant surprise, for me!”
       Spigot turned toward the radar screen, but it was still up and going. He turned around to find a big blue-furred warthog in a ceremonial uniform, looming over him. “How many planes have we now lost this year, Nozzle?” Spigot started to perspire. “Uh, Spigot, your worshipfulness. I couldn’t say precisely, sir. You see, I don’t have the figures and—”
       “Forty-seven, sir,” Dunder said.
       Spigot gave him a “firing squad for you” look—which actually wasn’t much of a threat at the moment considering the bullet rations for the month had already been used up. The High Marshal nodded. “That is correct, sergeant. Forty-seven planes, Nozzle. I expect better from you.”
       “M-me, sir?”
       “And a good start would be capturing the intruders. Or you will be shot, when next ammo supply comes.”
       Spigot saluted, nervous. “Ye…yes, sir! Sergeant Dunder, escort me to my personal plane! I will go after these capitalist intruders myself!” Dunder began following Spigot as he headed out of the room—after they saluted the High Marshal of course. “But sir, you don’t know the first thing about flying a plane.”
       “That’s why you’re going to fly it!” Spigot said. “I’m going to come along and make sure you do a good job.”
       “Can I do a barrel roll?” Dunder asked.
       “No, I get airsick! Now come, while I plot the demise of a certain plane and its crew...”

Chapter 3 - Morning Inspiration, Dreaming Little Dreams, and a Quiet Moment

       The first light of dawn poked its way between the vertical blinds in Danny’s room, highlighting the contour of his face. A few moments later, his eyes opened. He was used to getting up early, a habit engrained in him from his childhood days on the family farm. Quietly, so as not to disturb Sawyer in the next room, Danny dressed and took the elevator downstairs. After a quick cup of coffee and a doughnut, he headed out to breathe the early morning air.
       Danny’s sense of fun and adventure led him toward the city park, and soon he was enjoying a quiet stroll amid the hibiscus and hosta. The warmth of the sun, combined with a jazz tune coming from somebody’s radio, served to get his feet moving. With a will, Danny let himself go and started dancing his way down a path of roses and violets, leading him into the park’s central hub. This area sported a thirty-foot circular concrete area with an ornate fountain in the middle, with three wooden slat benches at the circle’s perimeter and a concession stand for the patrons.
       There was also a group of five kids, around seven or eight years old, who had seen Danny. One in particular—a young female bear—was pointing him out to the others. An argument seemed to be starting over him so Danny walked over, which had the effect of stopping all talk and turning all the young eyes toward him.
       “Hi there, kids!” Danny said, giving them a half-wave and a smile. “What’re you talking about?” None of them had the courage to answer right away, but the young bear stepped forward and it was evident to Danny that she was a fan. “Hello, I’m Nancy Turner. You are Danny, right? The dancing and singing cat from the movies?”
       Danny nodded. “Yep! Sawyer and I will be on the Jack Benny show here in Cape Suzette, and I’ve been in pictures too.” Nancy’s eyes grew large with excitement. “I knew it! You were so good in that ‘Singing in the Rain’ movie! I loved the part where you were on the ladder and sang to the girl.”

       This started the argument anew among the kids. There was among them a young male jaguar, a female hippo, a gangly male bear and a female ostritch. The boy bear, named Otto, was first to start things up. “He was better in ‘Anchors Aweigh’, in that sailor outfit and all! Right, Gus?”
       Gus, the jaguar, shook his head. “The one where he roller-skated was best.” Danny was enjoying the attention, and turned to the two other girls. “What do you two think?” The female hippo girl, named Emily, replied. “Cynthia and me think that we’d like to do a scene with you!”
       “Yeah, that’d be keen!” Gus said.
       “Which scene from which movie?” Danny asked. Nancy’s eyes shone with excitement. “Let’s do something new!” Danny blinked, realizing these kids didn’t understand the concept of choreography. “New? Um, how new?”
       Emily smiled up at him. “You know, just break out into song like you do in the movies!”
       “But I don’t—”
       “Oh, no one can do that!” Otto said.
       “He can too!” Nancy countered, getting nose-to-nose with Otto, then turned to look to the pressured feline. “Can’t you Danny?” Already a group of onlookers had gathered, and he knew he couldn’t let the kids down. “Okay, something new.”
       Gus clapped his hands. “All right! What’ll we do?” Danny thought fast. “All right, what we need is what’s called inspiration.”
       “What’s that?” Emily asked.
       “Well, it’s like something or someone that makes you want to sing and dance.”
       Otto scratched his ursine head. “How do you know when you’re inspirated?” Danny smiled. “Well, I’ll tell you...”

       Danny started in, singing slowly as he explained:

       Inspiration’s like a light, showing us the waaay
       You can see things like they’re new
       Each and ev’ry daaaay…

       Danny took hold of Nancy’s hand, pointing to the roses, then started looking around.

       The roses in April
       A bouncy blue ball
       The sky’s the lim-it
       And that’s not allllll!

       Now Danny started to dance, changing the song to a bouncy and happy pace, and leading the kids in a circumference of the hub:

       You can find fun whenever you try
       And the rainbow’s end is always right by,
       When you I-ma-gine,
       Just try!

       Danny put his arms out from his sides. “Everyone pretend to be a plane!” The kids did so, eagerly following Danny all around as they made plane noises. Danny broke into dance, then showed the kids how to do a few steps. The adults around clapped, and Danny began to sing again.

       You can be what-ev-er you like
       And make your dreams climb ever-so-high,
       Just tell those doubts to take a big hike!
       And try...just try...

       The kids spread their arms when they saw Danny do it again. “And try...just try....” Danny smiled and sang back, “And try....just try!”
       “Just try!” the kids returned, then all together they sang, “The sky’s the lim-it...just tryyyyy!”

       The people around all clapped, and the kids shouted and hugged Danny. He laughed, enjoying every moment, and thanks to a pen and some slips of paper from a nearby vendor he signed autographs for them all. The kids headed off after a while, and Danny continued his tour of the park. He came upon a couple, kissing on a park bench, and he politely turned around and let them be. It turned his thoughts toward Sawyer, which caused him to find an unused bench of his own.
       Danny was never one to express his inner concerns, but he did have a couple about his impending marriage. Not that it was anything to do with Sawyer—**Leaping lollipops, she’s the greatest thing since sliced bread!** No, his concerns were about himself, and as the warm morning sun soaked in, his eyes drooped and in a few moments he was snoozing.

       “Hey, dad!”
       Danny looked around with a start. He was still in the park, but now there were kittens everywhere! Five, to be exact, and they were all looking at him. “Uh, hi there. If you’re looking for more songs, I’m a little tired right now.”
       One of the kittens, a boy, jumped up in his lap. “Dad, what’re you talking about? You know mom’s coming here as soon as she finishes judging that fashion show.” Danny couldn’t believe this boy would tell so obvious a lie. “Where did all you kittens come from? And why are you calling me dad?”
       “Because we are, dads!” another kitten, a girl, said. “After all, you and moms birthed us a while back. I’m Louise, and there’s Mikhail, Preminger and Placido in front of you. And that’s Thomas sitting on your knee. Can I have a cookie?”
       “I want a cookie too!” Placido said.
       “Snacks, now!” Preminger demanded.
       “And hot dogs, yum!” Mikhail added.
       Sawyer suddenly appeared and smiled at Danny. “Well, it looks like it’s time for the pride to go hunting.” Sawyer picked up Thomas from Danny’s lap while he stood up, dumbstruck. “But.. but...but…”
       Sawyer was dressed in a designer outfit that appeared to be the latest in Paris elite fashions. She looked at Danny, like a queen would a peasant. “Oh Dan-Dan, how gauche! And we have the Prime Minister and the studio execs coming over this evening. Do be a dear and slip into something re-spect-a-ble once you’ve seen to the children, would you?”
       Danny ducked his head, wondering when Sawyer had become a fashion freak. “Uh, yeah. Sure, dear. Come along... kids.” Danny led the herd of children out of the park and headed for the nearest diner. Sawyer gave them a queenly wave. “Ta, dear! I’m on my way to the ‘Haute Couture’ to meet with some new clients. Au revoir, cherie!”
       Sawyer left, escorted by her servant, who took the opportunity to “hmmph!” when he passed by Danny. The kids soon had his attention again, and after trying desperately to control them through lunch, he escorted the bunch back to the park and sat back down, exhausted. “I just don’t know if I’m cut out for this.”
       “Cut out for what, father?” Mikhail asked. Danny looked down at the kitten’s expectant face. “To be a dad, or the husband of a high-class lady like Sawyer. Inside, I’m just a kid from the sticks.”
       “But moms loves you, dads!” Louise countered. “How could you doubt her?”
       “Oh, it’s not her, but—well, she’s so fancy and all and at heart I’m just a farmboy with a dream. I can put on a good show, but I’m afraid I don’t really fit in with the cultured crowd.”

       The scene changed, or rather, everything but Danny and the bench changed. He watched as a scene unfolded in front of him. It was from the past, and he remembered the day well. It was a Valentine’s Day from several years back and he’d felt lower than a snake’s belly. Pudge had been rooming with him back then, and when a knock came at the door the little penguin waddled over to answer it. Danny had stayed back of course, but he’d been grateful to hear Sawyer’s voice outside. He was even more grateful to see and taste the bowl of chicken soup she’d brought over.
       The memory of the warmth of it stirred his heart, and then the scene changed again. It was summertime, and he and Sawyer were dancing. The occasion had been a costume ball and they’d come dressed in turn-of-the-century garb. Danny had especially loved Sawyer’s red dress and the matching red bow in her hair. When the waltzing music had started, they were off in their own special world, contentment in their eyes.
       Then there was the time they had that long layover in the train station in Omaha, when they had missed their appointed train to New York. It was one of the longest trips Danny had taken with Sawyer, and during that lag time they’d discussed everything from their early lives to their tastes in food to the books they liked. It happened that there was a bookstall there in the station, and between the two of them they ended up nearly going through the man’s whole supply.
       The scene returned to the park, and the kids were standing there again. “See, dads?” Louise said. “You and moms have had great times. Why’re you scared they won’t keep on being great?” Danny sat down, looking at his children. “I’m just the son of a farmer, who was the son of a farmer from Ireland, who was the son of a farmer, who was the son of a farmer and so on.”
       Danny picked up Louise, who was reaching out her arms for him, and cradled her in his. “I’m not a classy guy, or sophisticated. Sawyer’s all that and more, and when I’m around her friends and the big business people I just want to run and hide out of fear that I’ll embarrass her or something. She’s... am I really good enough for her?”

       Danny felt a tap on the shoulder and there was Sawyer again, in her regular attire, and appearing contrite. “Oh Danny, how could you ever doubt yourself? I don’t know where I’d be without you! I know that I...well, get embarrassed sometimes when you’re dancing and singing in front of people in public, but it’s just because I’d be too shy to do that. People everywhere love you because you’re something genuine. That’s why I love you, dearest.”
       “Even though I’m a salt of the earth type and you’re from the social elite?” Danny asked. Sawyer smiled and kissed him on the nose. “Even with that. By the way, whose kids are these?” Danny gestured to the brood standing in front of the park bench. “These are our kids, I think. Kids, you’d better introduce yourselves to your mom.”
       Louise, still in Danny’s arms, waved at Sawyer. “Hi, moms!”
       Sawyer looked confused. “Moms?”
       “That’s what I call you. I’m Louise.”
       One of the boys walked over and tugged on the bottom of her dress, getting her attention. “And I’m Placido. Hey, mom.”
       Preminger thumbed at himself. “Preminger. Snacks, now?”
       “And ice cream! Oh, I’m Mikhail,” Mikhail said.
       Thomas clapped his hands. “Thomas here. Got any cookies?”
       Sawyer shrugged. “Nope, sorry. Um, what’s going on, Danny? I don’t remember any of this.”
       Danny looked back from the kids to her. “Well, it all started when I met up with these kids in the park—well, not these kids, some others—and sang with them and then I got tired so I...” Danny stopped short, a thought crossing his mind. Sawyer saw his look, and when he looked at her she took on a similar scrutinizing look.
       “Well, about the kids,” Danny started in again, “uh, the names are all right, aren’t they?”
       Sawyer looked back at them. “Well, I’m not sure. I haven’t really even thought about kids yet, especially not about having so many.”
       “You’re telling me. I guess it’s something I thought about before, or they wouldn’t be here, but five seems like a real passel. I guess it goes back to the days on the farm—we were used to bigger families then.”
       Sawyer took a seat next to Danny on the park bench. “I was an only kitten, but a sibling would’ve been nice.” Danny chuckled, thinking about the contrast to his own life. “Besides Ben and Josh and Breezy and me, we often had the neighbors’ kids over. Sometimes there’d be as many as twenty of us playing in the yard! I guess I miss some things about those days, but you’re what’s important to me now. If you want to wait on kids, or not have ‘em at all, that’s okay. We should probably wait to even consider it anyway, with all the things we do.”
       “I’ve always wanted a family of my own,” Sawyer said. “Besides, both our families will pester us to no end if we don’t, but let’s wait at least a little while before we start. Once we do there’s no turning back.”
       “And we’d be going from career cats to family ones. Yeah, I’m all right with that. So you don’t think I’m ‘gauche’, do you?”
       Sawyer hesitated. “Uh, well...not the way you were at first.”

       Danny found himself in his old clothes, including his straw hat, which he removed. “Well, I was pretty naive in those days. I thought that anyplace where you didn’t have to cook your own dinner was spectacular. And after sharing a room with two brothers, having a place all my own was great. I do remember that things didn’t get off too well with us at first, but you were always trying to help.”
       Sawyer made a sarcastic laugh. “You’re too forgiving, Danny. You drove me crazy at first! You had to work hard to get through the wall I built around my heart, but for some reason you wouldn’t give up.” Danny took her hand. “I knew there was a dream in there, asking to be let out. I couldn’t let it die. So, what do you think of me now? Don’t worry about being blunt or anything. I can take it.”
       Danny’s clothes returned to the nice suit he’d been wearing and Sawyer replied. “You’ve matured and become a classy guy who’s made it to the top without losing his innocence or optimism. That’s a pretty rare feat.”
       “I think it sort of helped that we started out famous from the get-go,” Danny said. “Folks were ready to accept us the way we were, rather than make us over into something we weren’t, just for the sake of profit. So are there any deep dark secrets I should know about you before we get married? I think I already mentioned to you the time that Josh talked me into stealing Farmer Bernewski’s prize pumpkins, but fortunately he didn’t get mad and did help get us cut out of the barbed wire.”
       Sawyer chuckled. “I guess the time when I was around four years old that I dyed my fur black using ink to go as a black cat for Halloween. Boy, were my folks steamed!” Danny laughed. “Yeah, that’s a ‘dark’ secret, all right! What did they use to get it out?”
       “Mom took me to her fur dresser and they dyed my fur white again.”
       Danny could just imagine that sight. “I bet they’d never seen anything like that. But you turned out great. Sawyer, I’ve been wondering—if this is a dream and we’re here talking like this, am I a figment of your imagination or are you a figment of mine?”
       Sawyer shrugged. “Well, I’m assuming you’re a figment of my imagination.”
       “Oh—I was assuming the opposite. Wouldn’t it be funny if we were having the same dream?”
       “Well, when we wake up, we’ll compare notes,” Sawyer said, standing up. “But just in case we’re both really here, don’t forget to dress nicely when we go to the dinner tomorrow tonight.”
       Danny winked. “And you won’t get embarrassed if I start up a song and dance?”
       “For you, I’ll only roll my eyes once.”

       Then everything went hazy. Sawyer and the kids faded like fog being chased away by the morning sun, and Danny woke up to find someone jostling his shoulder. It was a boy kitten.
       Danny looked down, the grogginess leaving him. “Uh, hello. Who are you?” The boy looked up at him, smiling, and reached up for him. “Daddy!” Danny began looking around, wondering if the dream was over after all. “Uh, Sawyer, still around?”
       “Oh, there you are!” A nicely-dressed female cat ran up and took the youngster in her arms. She looked at Danny apologetically. “I’m sorry, sir. Johnny got away from me for a moment. His dad does look sort of like you, but he hasn’t seen him in several months. He’s in the navy.”
       “Don’t worry, miss,” Danny said, standing up. “I understand. Looks like he’s going to grow up to be a great guy.” The lady smiled. “His father’s one already. Thank you again, sir.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek and headed off, holding hands with her son. Danny crossed his arms, satisfied, then remembered he had other things to be doing. When Danny returned to the penthouse, he found Sawyer dressed and ready to go
       “So, what’ve you been up to this morning?” Sawyer asked.
       Danny offered her his arms, a merry look in his eyes. “Oh, not much. Just singing and dancing, but not in the rain.” Sawyer shook her head, amused. “Come on, twinkletoes. We’ve got that autograph session downstairs, and then there’s someone I want to go see very muchu. I think you’ll enjoy this, too.”

       With the refrigerator-bombing over, things had quieted down on the Sea Duck, save for Wildcat’s attempts to learn how to use a yo-yo. After the third time he had bonked himself in the noggin, Rebecca took it away from him. She’d set up a makeshift desk in the back and was hard at work, sifting through the last year’s receipts. In a minute, Baloo walked back to check on her progress.
       “Looks like the fun’s over for now, Becky,” Baloo said. “How’s things in the accounting world?” Rebecca surveyed the mound of paper she still had to go through. “Still gloomy. It’s like wading through a swamp—a swamp that’s trying to drag you under every chance it gets.”
       “Aw, I know you’ll make it. We’ve got smooth sailing now to Windshear Mountain. Say, you got any idea why we got audited in the first place? Ain’t never happened before.”
       “It was luck of the draw. The government chooses some people randomly and others they audit for questionable practices.”
       Baloo rubbed his chin. “I dunno. I’ve known quite a bunch of folks involved in deals so shady they’d have fried if the sun ever hit ‘em, and they never caught the audit bug.” Rebecca shrugged. “Unfortunately, we’re the ones who are going to end up broke unless this works out.”
       “Hey now, belay that kinda gab!” Baloo said. “I know we’re in a tight pickle, but we’ve been in worse! Remember that time I accidentally let my pilot’s license expire and you had to pilot the Duck? I thought we were goners for sure!”
       Rebecca grinned, though her eyes showed how tired she was. “And I thought I’d end up being both pilot and manager of Higher For Hire. Now, we’ve got exactly two days and six hours to get this hunk of ice to Aridia. If we stay on schedule, we should be able to get back in plenty of time to pay our bills and get the business out of hock. Oh, I can’t believe this is happening...”
       The overstressed manager sighed, looking at the stack of receipts yet to catalog. “I’m too tired to think right now. Go relieve Louie and let me get some shuteye.” Baloo knew better than to test her patience. “Your wish is my command, Becky. When this is over, it’s time for a visit to Louie’s and the ice cream’s on me.”
       Baloo started heading for the front when Rebecca’s voice stopped him. “Thanks, Baloo. For everything.” Baloo turned around to answer, but she was already asleep. Baloo grinned and grabbed a musty yet serviceable blanket and put it around her.
       “You’re welcome...Rebecca.”

Chapter 4 - Meeting the Family, Father and Daughter, and A Cold Reception in Hot Water

       The drive through town was pleasant for a taxi ride. Danny paid the hippo cabbie, and when they got out he found himself in front of 122 Oakleaf Circle. The three-story house was nice, even by Danny’s standards. “So, who’s this mysterious person we’re visiting? Your old friend?”
       “Nope. My dad,” Sawyer said.
       “Your dad!” Danny said. He found himself fumbling with his wallet, putting it back in place. “Uh, are you sure that he’s home? I remember you said he was a doctor of some kind. Maybe he’s in surgery. We ought to make an appointment and come back later.”
       Sawyer latched onto Danny’s arm. “Oh no, you don’t. He’s a pediatric surgeon, semi-retired, and I knew you’d be nervous about meeting him so I didn’t tell you until we got here. Now come on—he’s been wanting to meet you for years.”
       Sawyer’s father, Dr. Jared Katzenheimer, had done well over the years. His tastes showed in the immaculately-groomed lawn, the custom stone walkway, and the ivy and climbing roses trailing up the brick on both sides of the dark brown wooden overhang that protected the door—and anyone standing in the doorway—from the rain. To Danny, it said “Ivy League Professor”.
       Together they walked to the door and knocked using the antique brass doorknocker. Only in the last few years had Dr. Katzenheimer found the necessity to hire a live-in servant. He was used to handling things himself, and had allowed a cleaning service to come in weekly. Now that he had semi-retired and was using his home as more than a stopping-off place, a servant made more sense. So it was Randolph, himself a retired actor, who met Sawyer and Danny at the door.
       “Oh yes, Miss Sawyer!” the kind-faced bear said. “He said you would be coming today. He’s upstairs, taking his nap. I’ll let him know you’re here.”
       Randolph showed them through a door and down a couple of carpeted steps into a cozy sitting room, just to the right of the tiled floor entrance. The room was obviously for receiving guests, and there were pictures of the family and of Dr. Katzenheimer as a younger man. A few pieces of antique furniture and a couple of his medical degrees completed the adornments.
       In a few moments, Randolph returned with a piping fresh pot of tea and some cups. “He’ll be down in a few minutes. Meanwhile, enjoy the tea. It’s Mr. Katzenheimer’s favorite.”

       Danny sat down in one of the plush chairs and started to pour himself some tea when he realized his hand was shaking. Sawyer saw it and rescued the upholstery before Danny spilled anything. “Hey, what’s with you? You act like you’re all nervous and tense all of a sudden!”
       “Well, I am nervous. I mean, he’s your dad—he’s a doctor, went to college, is looked up to and respected and I’m nothing like that. What if he doesn’t want a song and dance cat as a son-in-law?”
       Sawyer smiled and shook her head. “Oh Danny, he’s not that kind of guy! Sure, he’s been to the ivory tower and spent most of his life working in hospitals, but I’ve never known a kinder soul. He’s always asked about you in his letters, and I’m sure he likes you. Okay, I think I hear him coming—now, you stay right here and I’ll go meet him. Then I’ll introduce you.”
       With a quick kiss on the cheek for encouragement, Sawyer headed toward the main entrance. Right now, Danny needed it. It really hadn’t struck home until they were halfway up the walk to her father’s house—they really were getting married! Danny hadn’t felt this way since one of his grade-school plays, the last time he’d forgotten his lines. C’mon, this isn’t ‘The Wizard of Oz’! Danny chided himself. Now, straighten up and act confident!
       Danny stood up, straightened his bow tie, and put a resolved look on his face. As the door opened and he could hear her father’s voice, the beads of perspiration began rolling. On the other side of the room, out of Danny’s view, Mr. Katzenheimer came in. He was a dark brown tabby with some gray starting to mix in on the sides of his facial fur, his light tan suit providing a pleasing contrast. He also wore a vest over his starched and pressed white shirt, a striped gold-and-brown tie completing the ensemble. To Sawyer, it gave him a look of austerity while not being pretentious about it.
       Sawyer smiled when he took off his tan fedora as he entered the room. She’d never seen him without his trademark hat, and she always thought it made him look dashing. “Dad, it’s so good to see you again!”
       “And you, my dear,” Jared said, giving her a welcoming kiss on the cheek. “Your smile grows larger with every year. Now, where’s Danny? Did he come with you?”
       “Oh yes, dad! And he’s so anxious to meet you, too!” Sawyer brought her father around, and Danny stood up, almost appearing calm with a half-grin, and offered a shaky hand to the elder feline. “’s an honor to finally get to meet you, Dr. Katzenheimer. Sawyer’s told me a lot about you and it’s an honor to finally get to meet you, Dr. Katzenheimer.”
       With an assuring grin of his own, the doctor shook Danny’s hand firmly. “Please, call me Jared. ‘Dr. Katzenheimer’ sounds like I’m talking to one of my patients. You’re about to be one of the family, m’boy!” Jared patted Danny on the back and chuckled. “Come now, sit down and let’s get better acquainted. I’ve wanted to meet you ever since my Sawyer and you became a team. Sadly, we’ve all been too busy up until now.”

       Jared sat down and poured himself a cup of Darjeeling tea, dismissing Randolph who had waited around for further orders. “Now tell me, Danny, what do you think of our fair city? A doctor’s life isn’t his own, and I’ve only explored it myself in the last few years since I gave up full-time practice.”
       “This city’s amazing sir,” Danny said, grabbing a nearby sandwich from a plate Randolph had left with them. “While Hollywood’s all about movies, Cape Suzette’s all about business. We’ll even get to meet Shere Khan himself at a cast party for the Jack Benny show tomorrow night.”
       A shadow quickly passed over Jared’s face, but his voice was as calm as ever. “Shere Khan, yes. He does rate an ‘even’, given his reputation. But I’m straying—tell me about your wedding plans, now. Is a date set?”
       “Not yet,” Sawyer replied. “The studio offered to take care of everything, but they want to make it a star-studded gala with lots of pictures for the press. I’d like something smaller and more personal. If worse comes to worst we can always sneak off and get married in private somewhere.”
       Jared sipped his tea. “I know a few places like that. Judith and I used to schedule a few getaways when we could.” The sunlight shone off of Sawyer’s ring and caught Jared’s attention. “Oh my, I think you could signal airplanes with that sparkler! How many carats is that, if I may ask?”
       Sawyer held out her hand to give him a good look. “Four. Any bigger and the ring would need wheels.” Danny was pleased with Jared’s compliment on the choice of the ring. “That was the biggest stone they could fit on there. Otherwise I would’ve gotten her a bigger one!”
       “A cat after my own tastes,” Jared said, giving Danny a knowing look. “I know that doctors have a reputation for being rich, but there were many times when funds were tight. When Sawyer finished high school, for instance, my clinic was falsely accused of malpractice and the lawyers took most of my savings before the case was finally thrown out. I was so relieved when Sawyer learned that she’d earned a scholarship to Harvard—not that she didn’t deserve it. She’s got one of the keenest minds I’ve ever come across and I could never fool her, even when she was little.”
       Sawyer gave her father a sly smile, taking up a cup of tea for herself. “If it hadn’t been for the singing and dancing lessons as a kitten I might have stayed there and gotten that degree in business, but I never would have been happy. My destiny was elsewhere.”
       Jared faced Danny. “I knew that song and dance was Sawyer’s dream, but whereas I couldn’t fool her, she did a good job with me. She’d convinced me that she was happy going to Harvard—it’s a sweet child that tries to spare a father’s worries. But I knew after a time she wasn’t happy. Then came the letter.”

       Jared got up and went to his oak secretary. He opened a sliding door and brought out a stack of envelopes. “I’m a packrat, Danny, and I’ve saved every one of my girl’s letters. Here’s the one in question—I can imagine how painful it was to write it, because she thought I’d be disappointed in her. Of course, I was nothing of the sort.”
       Danny opened the envelope and took out the letter to read it, written on a cafeteria’s stationery:

       Carefully, Danny refolded the letter and gave it back to Jared after putting it in its envelope. Jared returned the letter to its place in the secretary. “Once I got used to the idea of Sawyer seeking stardom, I offered her all the support I could, financial and emotional.”
       “I appreciated the emotional, but refused the financial,” Sawyer explained. “I was determined to make it on my own, no matter what.” Jared took one of her hands with both of his, the father’s pride evident on his face. “And I admired her for it. She always had the drive to succeed, and never gave up. Of course, there were times she needed help. I’m glad you were there to keep her focused, Danny. It’s easy to give up on one’s dreams. I nearly did that myself when I failed in my first attempt to pass my medical finals. I had never failed at anything before, and I was devastated.”
       Jared got up and took a picture off the wall, handing it to Danny. It was of Jared in his twenties, his arms around a beautiful girl of Sawyer’s fur color and build, with dazzling green eyes. “Judith came along and gave me the strength to try again. Everything I became or accomplished as a professional, I owe partly to her. So I can understand why you love my Sawyer, and find yourself a richer cat for having her around.”
       Danny gave back the picture, looking toward Sawyer. “She’s my Starlight. I’d be nothing without her. Fame and fortune can’t compare to my Sawyer.” Sawyer found herself blushing at all the attention and praise, grinning at them both. “Stop it, you two! You’re going to give me a big head.”
       Jared was jovial at her reaction. “She’s always been this way; never felt comfortable taking compliments. Well, if there’s one person that deserves them, it’s you. Now, Danny, you know a little more about your fiancée. Is there anything you’d like to know about your soon-to-be father in law?”
       “Sawyer’s already told me some about you, so I feel like I already know you. I’m just glad we hit it off. I’ve been very nervous about meeting you.”
       Jared nodded. “Well, then let me add this: I’m a man who likes his simple pleasures, and one of them is an afternoon walk in the park. You’re welcome to join me, or if you’ve got other business we’ll say farewell right here. In any case it’s been wonderful to see you both, and especially you, my girl.”
       Jared hugged Sawyer, shook Danny’s hand, then replaced his fedora on his head as he grabbed a hand-carved walking cane from a cylindrical container by the steps. Sawyer was on her feet in an instant and took her father’s arm. “Danny, would you like to join us? Dad and I haven’t taken a walk in the park together in years.”
       “If it’s okay, I think I’ll take a look around,” Danny said, sensing that they might like to be alone. Jared pulled down the brim of his fedora, his ears sticking through. “Go right ahead, Danny. You’re at home now, and you’ll find a pineapple upside-down cake in the fridge. I have an insufferable sweet tooth—my bane as a physician.”

       Danny went to do some surgery on the cake, and Jared and Sawyer walked outside. The setting here was different from Danny’s morning adventure. Bawani Park was the oldest in Cape Suzette, named for the wife of the first Khan to settle in this seaport town. The air was lovely, the lawn inviting. Soon, the two of them were seated on a cement bench, surrounded by tiger lilies.
       “He’s everything you said he was, my girl,” Jared said. “Now more than ever, I wish I’d made more time for us. I know you never complained, but I also know that there were times you wanted me to be there and I wasn’t.”
       Sawyer patted his hand. “It’s okay, dad. You had your life to live and you couldn’t drop your practice just to cater to me. It would’ve been selfish to ask that. I always knew you were there for me, pulling for me, and I knew you loved me and wanted me to have the best.”
       “Yes, I did. There was hardly a patient who didn’t know about my famous girl’s screen exploits. There’s one girl in particular that I know I’ll never forget. Do you remember Shannon Plummer?”
       Sawyer’s eyes flashed with recognition. “How could I ever forget her? That’s the one time that you and I really worked together to save someone.” Jared tapped his cane on the ground, a habit of his when he was satisfied. “Four years ago—seems like yesterday when little Shannon came into the intensive care ward with double pneumonia. Her parents asked to stay with her, and I told them I was a father too. How could I refuse the worried parents of a five-year-old kitten? They stayed right there with the nurses, round the clock.
       “When they learned who I was, they mentioned that Shannon loved you and your singing. I brought your records in there and played them nonstop. To this day, I don’t know if it was the parents’ faith or your voice that brought her out, but when she opened those blessed eyes I knew there was a God up there.”
       Jared looked over at his daughter, the sparkle of the memory lighting up his soft eyes. “She asked, ‘Where’s Sawyer?’ and I explained. She was happy, and when she got that letter from you she was happier still.”
       Sawyer returned his smile, a warm feeling coming over her. “Well, music has that effect on some people. It’s strange finally being where I always dreamed of being. Where do you go when you’ve reached the top and lived all your dreams?” Jared motioned to the panoramic view they had of the harbor and coastline. “To where you can get a good view, and enjoy it.”
       “I’ve always had the drive to keep reaching for my goal, but now that I’ve reached it, can I be happy just where I am or is there something more to strive for?”
       Jared put an arm around her shoulder. “There’s always more. But take a lesson from someone who’s had to learn it the hard way—make time to enjoy life, now that you can. You and Danny have the means to support yourselves with a very high quality of life. Travel some, give some to charity, along with your time. Strive to make those around you happy, and you’ll find the rewards last a lifetime.”
       Sawyer shook her head, chuckling. After all these years, her dad was still advising her. “You’re so easygoing, dad. I wish I could be more like you. You’re right, though—there is more to life than success in the movies. Danny and I have to enjoy what we have, maybe even start a family one day.”
       Jared smiled, patting her on the shoulder. “A grandchild or three to spoil would be nice. Say, we had best be returning. Danny’s bound to be wondering where we are.” Sawyer pointed an accusing finger his way. “You don’t fool me. You’re worried that he’s going to eat all your cake up.”
       “Well, that too,” Jared said jokingly. “We always did seem to fight over the brownies. Sawyer, my girl, I love you.” Sawyer hugged her dad tightly. “I love you too, dad. You’re my guide, my compass and my dearest friend.”
       “And you are mine.”

       Arm in arm, they returned to Jared’s stately house to find Danny in the middle of a cake raid. They joined in, and soon the assemblage had done considerable damage to the dessert. When they were finished, Jared wished them well and escorted them to the door. Sawyer gave her father one last hug, and it was back to the cab.
       Danny settled back, satisfied. “If nothing else, your dad knows a good cake when he sees one! Sorry about being nervous and all at first, Sawyer. He was nice, just like you said.” Sawyer was satisfied as well, but for different reasons. “Danny, in a short time he’ll be like a father to you. I could always count on dad and you can too.”
       “Good—it’s nice to have someone like that around. And speaking of things you can count on, you can be sure that Mr. Benny will be waiting for us. First rehearsal’s tonight. What do you think of Jack and the others?”
       “They’re a fun bunch, from what I’ve heard. Maybe we can wrangle some future guest appearances on the show.”
       “My thought exactly!” Danny said.

       Back in Thembria, the denizens of the Sea Duck were seeing quite a sight of their own. The Slushmor Mountains were a craggy, icy collection of peaks that only mountain goats dared to call home. Flying through a close pass, Baloo dodged several outcroppings, using the mountains’ bulk to hide his presence if there were any Thembrians looking for them. As they exited the pass, a wondrous view greeted them.
       Mount Windshear would’ve been one of the Ancient Wonders, had anyone of the ancient world ever been able to get there. It was a mountain of solid, nearly transparent ice, blue-tinted. The sun shone off it like the two were made for each other. The glare hit the Sea Duck straight on and Baloo had to shield his eyes.
       “Look at that, a big ol’ mounatin of money just waiting for us to visit!” Baloo said. “Let’s get ready. We don’t know when the Thembrians will show up again.” Kit quickly moved to the rear of the Sea Duck. “Wildcat, get the grapple ready!” Wildcat took up his position at the winch. “Um, okay! I wonder why they called it a grapple. I think I’d have called it ‘the big pinchy metal thingy’...”
       Wildcat opened the cargo door on the Duck and used the power winch to release the grapple. Then he grabbed another lever that would let him work the grapple. “Now, don’t you worry, little mountain. This won’t hurt a bit.”
       Rebecca joined Baloo up front to watch as he throttled down and prepared to pass over the mountain. Baloo called back over his shoulder, “When I touch ‘er down, Wildcat, make sure to grab a chunk of mountain or we’ll skid right off!”

       Baloo angled the Sea Duck in and began fighting the wheel. The harsh downdrafts around Mount Windshear were enough to keep most pilots well away from the awesome sight. However, Baloo knew what his plane was capable of and he managed to skirt the worst of the winds. After putting the Duck through what looked like a strange version of “The Twist” they touched down on an icy plateau. Wildcat used the grapple and snagged an ice shelf behind them. The plane jerked as Wildcat slowed the release of the rope, using it to help Baloo slow the plane’s progress. Soon, they came to a halt.
       Wildcat released the grapple. “That was a real ‘ice’ landing! Ha, ha!”
       Baloo looked smug. “There’s not a place in the world I can’t land on or take off from. Just one more notch on my steering wheel. Becky, you’d better find us some ice and I’ll get the cutting gear ready. Kit and Wildcat, break out the glider wings. Those elastic straps better work, or we’ll lose the Duck’s wings when the blocks start melting.”
       “Don’t you worry, cuz!” Louie said, getting the gear ready. “I’ll cut and you fly. C’mon, Becky-baby, help me pick out the prettiest piece...” Rebecca gave Louie a hard look. “Charming. Hold the end of the tape measure and I’ll mark out the size we need.” Baloo caught the attention of his navigator. “Kit, maybe you should keep a lookout and keep an ear on the radio. They’ll still be looking for us.”
       “Roger that, Papa Bear!” Kit saluted.

       Once Rebecca found an outcropping that was close to the size they needed, Louie brought out a monster chainsaw. The saw was used for industrial logging, the blade extending over three feet from the motor, but could be pressed into service for ice cutting. The orang checked it over, and after looking up and offering a silent prayer that the machine didn’t start an avalanche he cranked her up.
       When Louie inserted the saw in the ice, the long-toothed nose began jouncing up and down with Louie hanging on for dear life. “Hey man, this ain’t no pogo stick! Help me off this broncing buck!”
       Baloo grabbed hold of Louie and pushed him down to the ice, then flipped off the switch. “Man, that’s a saw with power to spare! Better let me take it, Louie. You gotta have enough weight to fight the kickback on this baby.”
       “We’re in good hands there,” Rebecca quipped.
       For nearly an hour Baloo worked over the blue ice, cutting it free and creating angles to allow better airflow. Once the cutting was done, it took another half-hour with the plane’s winch and some pry-bars to move it into position so that the wings could be attached and a makeshift skid moved underneath. After attaching the glider wings, which included affixing the wires, straps and elastic cords, they had invested a good two hours in the project.
       They had just lined up the ice block with the Sea Duck when Kit came running. “Papa Bear! We’ve got company! Thembrians at eleven o’clock!”

       Baloo grabbed some binoculars, and sure enough there were two big Thembrian bombers headed their way, escorting a smaller plane. Baloo was about to suggest they make a break for it but the planes were already too close. They landed—or rather the rough winds pushed the bombers down suddenly and they skidded on the icy plateau, crashing into the ice shelf and cutting the Sea Duck off from leaving. Dunder banked his plane in and when it landed he turned around and used his engines as brakes to end up mildly banging into the bombers.
       “So, you thought you’d outfoxed Colonel Spigot, eh?” the diminutive despot said. “Well, you’ll have to get up pretty early in the night to outsmart me!”
       “Uh, that’s morning, sir,” Dunder interjected.
       Spigot whopped him with his hat as Dunder helped him out of the plane. “It’s not morning, you lamebrain! It’s the middle of the afternoon, and right now we’re about to take in these desperate criminals. Do any of you have any idea what the penalty is for trying to steal the Glorious People’s ice from Mount Windshear?”
       Baloo crossed his arms. “Let me guess, it has something to do with a firing squad, right?”
       “Why no! You’ve desecrated a national monument, plus committed an act of grand theft, so we’re going to make an example of you. You’re going to be sentenced to life—making the Glorious People’s gruel! Plus, you’ll be starring in our new radio reality series, ‘Capitalist Survivor: The Gruel Factory’! Of course, you won’t be paid and the only food you’ll have is the gruel you make. But you’ll be entertaining Thembrians in seven different time zones!”
       Rebecca marched up to Spigot, confident, and pulled out her papers. “I don’t think so, Colonel. You see, I’ve received permission from your government to be here and to extract the ice. All the forms are filled out in triplicate.”

       Spigot snatched the wad of forms from her and began sifting through them, mumbling. Baloo and Rebecca grinned at each other and the veteran pilot started back to work. “Sorry about that, Spiggy, but like I told that Lieutenant Slush before we’re in our bounds this time. Care to lend us a hand?”
       The diminutive dunsel looked up just then, his tone becoming entirely too happy. “I’ll be glad to help you—into prison!” Rebecca gave him a cross look. “Now see here! We filled out every form we had to in order to extract the ice!”
       “That’s true,” Colonel Spigot said. “But you filled these out in another country, which requires form 11303-C, the ‘Official Thembrian Permission Slip To Fill Out Forms In Another Country’ form!” Sergeant Dunder smiled wistfully. “The good old OTP. I sure enjoy seeing one of those.”
       Rebecca sensed that trouble was ahead. “Surely there’s some kind of arrangement we can come to in order to make you overlook this?” Spigot got nose to nose with her—once Dunder had picked him up. “And have me end up on the show instead? Oh no, you’ve earned this one! Now, let’s get going so we can get you processed and have your trial.”
       “Trial?” Louie said. “But you already said what we’re gonna be sentenced to!”
       Spigot grinned. “Oh, the trial’s not for you! It’s to showcase the swift and fair Thembrian justice system, and the prosecuting attorney, who just happens to be moi. Now, no more stalling! Back to headquarters—um, as soon as the bombers are fixed!”

       Fortunately, and not by coincidence, mechanics were required members of all Thembrian flight crews. Soon they were all headed back to the Air Force headquarters, the Sea Duck hauling the block of ice at Colonel Spigot’s insistence to present the “evidence”. Two hours later—Thembrian justice was quick if quirky—the prisoners were before the magistrate.
       “This court will be coming to order,” the magistrate said. “The Glorious People of Thembria versus the imperialist desecrators of Mount Windshear. Defending our Mommyland will be Colonel Spigot.”
       Spigot took up his position, but before he could speak Baloo shouted out, “That’s a great wig you’ve got there, judgey!” Spigot turned on Baloo, angry. “How dare you speak out of turn, and on top of that compliment the judge’s wig before I could!”
       “Silence!” the magistrate said. “I am hearing the defendant’s plea now. You are charged with flying through protected air space without permission, landing in a no-landing zone, stealing the Glorious People’s ice, and leaving the scene of a desecration without filling in your divots. How are you pleading?”
       Baloo looked to his comrades and then to the judge. “Guilty, your honor.”
       “Twenty four hours’ confinement,” the magistrate said.
       “But your honor!” Spigot protested. “They desecrated Mount Windshear!”
       The magistrate adjusted his spectacles. “I know that, Colonel. The bear also complimented me on my wig before you did. That demands a lenient sentence.” Baloo and the others breathed easy. “Well, that’s peachy,” Baloo said. “So, Mr. Judge, when do we get to go home?”
       “Never,” the magistrate said.
       “But you said we were free after twenty four hours!” Rebecca said. The magistrate shook his head. “I said twenty-four hours’ confinement. After that, you will be shot by firing squad. Our latest ammunition shipment arrived early, or actually late since it was the second half of last month’s. I could have sentenced you to gruel factory, but I think that firing squad in morning is sufficient.”
       Rebecca started to cry and moan, and Baloo couldn’t blame her. With the IRS and now this, it just hadn’t been their week. “Doggone,” Baloo said. “Sure did want to see Jack Benny, too.”

Chapter 5 - Return to the Limelight, Fast Talking and Strange Thoughts

       Sawyer exited the hotel the next morning with mixed feelings. Already, just being in Cape Suzette had awakened memories that she’d cast aside like yesterday’s newspaper. Now the past was staring her in the face and she felt she needed a measure of peace with it. That was why when Danny and Sawyer went downstairs, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.
       Danny hailed a taxi. “So who do you want to go see? I thought we were going sightseeing today, since there was nothing on the schedule.”
       “We are, but I’d like to visit a few of my old haunts. It’s been ages since I was here, and when I left I never really looked back. It’s not easy facing the past sometimes, but like my old teacher Miss Browning said, ‘you can’t live in the past and enjoy the present, or look to the future’.”
       A cab pulled up to the curb, and Danny opened it for his betrothed. “Well, let’s tap dance down memory lane then and go see old Miss Browning!” Sawyer took a seat. “Actually, I had someone else in mind.”
       Sawyer waited for Danny to get in beside her, then told the cabbie their destination and they headed to the far side of town. The Cape Suzette Repertory Company had been founded decades ago, when stage acting had been the primary form of entertainment. With the advent of radio and movies, some of the glamour of the “legitimate stage” had been lost. However, its heartbeat was alive and well here. Sawyer had found that out as a young girl of fifteen when she acted in her first play in the ancient but honored building.
       Now the cab pulled up to the old brick theater, named after its founder, Josiah Limelight. The “Old Limelight” as it was known had been kept up well though the years, and as the two cats entered the huge oaken doors out front they found the inside just as well preserved. A rather elderly rabbit dressed in an old-time usher’s outfit stopped when he saw the two of them. “Well, heavens to Betsy! I never thought I’d see those shining eyes grace this place again!”
       Sawyer turned and broke into an instant smile. “Mervin!” Running up, she gave the uniformed rabbit a big hug. “Is Wallace around?” Mervin scratched one of his drooping ears. “Seems to me he’s checking on the stage lights. Go on down the main aisle, and you’ll run into him.”
       Sawyer hugged him again, giddy. “Thanks, Merv. It’s great to see you again.”
       “And you. I’ll never forget the time you brought the house down with that Carmen routine. Folks still talk about it today.”

       As they headed into the main part of the theater, Danny stole a curious glance Sawyer’s way. “What finally prompted you to leave the stage and head for the movies?” Sawyer spoke back, her eyes still darting about the place. “Oh, lots of things. I love stage acting of course, but I’ve had the dream of the movies ever since I saw Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as a little girl. It always had that tingling sense of wonder about it that just lifted me to a whole other place. And don’t you go asking me about that Carmen bit, either!”
       “He won’t have to, wonder girl. I’ll be more than glad to tell him!”
       Their attention turned to a spot on the theatre stage, now lit up. A middle-aged lion wearing glasses and a nice suit walked out. “Hello there, Sawyer. Danny, allow me to introduce myself. I am Wallace P. Steadmore, actor, director and oftentimes custodian of the Limelight. And a devoted fan of the both of you. And there—”
       He pointed to Sawyer at this, taking a dramatic pose. “There is the face that launched a thousand ships! Fair Helen, make me immortal with a kiss!” Sawyer walked up on stage and obliged him with a friendly kiss and then hugged him. “I’m glad you don’t think me a traitor for leaving the stage for the silver screen.”
       Wallace adjusted his glasses. “Not at all, but I noticed your rave reviews when you and Danny starred in ‘Showboat’ in New York—and how pleased you sounded in the interviews after. The stage never leaves your blood once you’ve been there. The Limelight’s touched the lives of a thousand actors and more in its time, and all were the better for it. Now here’s a fellow I’d like to see dancing on these old wooden boards.”
       Wallace shook Danny’s hand as he came near. “You may not believe it, Danny, but your Sawyer was so nervous at her first performance that it took three of us to unhook her claws from where she’d gripped the backstage wall! We got her out there, though, and after that it was history.”
       Danny could believe it all too well. “I did some amateur theater work back home before I made my trip to Tinseltown. We had a lot of fun, especially that musical version of ‘Grapes of Wrath’ we did. Maybe someday Sawyer and I can come back here and work on a show with you.”
       “It would thrill the old town no end,” Wallace said. “Sawyer, why didn’t you ever come back before now? We’ve all missed you.” Sawyer held her hands in front of her. “I know, Wally, and it was wrong of me. There were just too many things tied up with this town that made it tough to visit. I know you remember the time we had to stop the play, right in the middle of ‘The Music Man’.”
       Wallace saw the meaning in her eyes and nodded. “Yes, that was a tough night.” The lion turned to Danny, in the manner of filling him in. “Danny, it was the strangest night I’ve seen at the Limelight. Our lead actor, Junius Phillips, could’ve passed for Shere Khan in those days. Khan had just taken over his father’s business then, and he was just as sensitive about his image then as now. Well, he heard about Junius and came in during the middle of the performance—his family owned the Limelight at that time—and closed us down because he felt we were portraying him as a flim-flam man! Sawyer had words with him that night for ruining her performance.”
       The veteran stage lion gave a knowing look over to Sawyer. “I think even Khan felt embarrassed about it toward the end of the keelhauling you gave him.” Sawyer crossed her arms, the memories coming back. “Well, he had it coming. He’s always wanted to control everyone and everything, and I let him know what I thought of him that night. That was when I decided to leave Cape Suzette for good, because I wasn’t going to let anyone have a say in my future like that again.”
       Danny came up next to her. “The world was made a brighter place by that decision. It’s tough trying to be different. My family was supportive, but I think deep down they didn’t think I’d make it.”
       “My family wanted me to be a career businesswoman, but friends like Wally here were my real parents in a way. He kept me believing and challenged me to develop.”
       Wally smiled like a proud father, being in essence her stage father. “And you surpassed my every expectation, wonder girl. Well, I hate to cut this short but we’ve got a production of Pygmalion in here tonight, and if I don’t get the stage set up we’ll never be ready in time. Sawyer, you know you and Danny never need a ticket here. Just walk right in whenever you feel like it.”
       Danny liked the sound of that. “You know, I’ve seen Pygmalion. It might make a good musical! Oh, well, maybe someday. Come, my fair lady, let’s leave them to their work and see more of what the Cape has to offer. Now, about that Carmen performance...”

       In the Thembrian Air Ministry’s prison, the air conditioning was free. That was about the only positive that could be said for it. Rebecca had long ceased to be upset—now she was livid. “Baloo, this is all your fault!”
       “Mine!” Baloo said. “What’d I do?”
       “You were the one who let that dumb pirate sink our business!” Rebecca retorted. “Now here we are again, about to be broke, shot, and my last meal’s going to be Thembrian gruel! I swore I’d never be back here after that time with that rabbit spy. I hate you!” Rebecca followed up on her statement, pounding her fists on Baloo’s chest in frustration. It didn’t hurt the big bear, of course, but his boss’ words were another matter. He grabbed her hands.
       “Easy, Becky!” Baloo said. “Don’t you worry. Ol’ Baloo’s got something cooking already.” Kit pointed to the exterior of their barred cell. “That’s good, because dinner doesn’t look all that appetizing.”
       Sergeant Dunder came in, carrying five bowls of gruel on a tray. “Hi, everybody. Sorry you got caught and all, but you’ve got to admit it was risky taking ice from Mount Windshear, even with permits.” Dunder passed the bowls out between the bars. Needless to say, it did nothing to help their outlook.
       “Say, man,” Louie said, “how’s about letting us out of here? I’ve got a business to run, and you can’t do that six feet under.” Dunder shook his head. “Sorry Mr. Louie, but Colonel Spigot said he’d use my head for a door knocker if I let you escape.”
       Baloo did indeed have a plan, and now was the time. “Well, that’s too bad. You see, Dundy, we’ve got tickets to the Jack Benny show. Real shame to miss that.” Dunder showed his interest immediately. “Yeah, I heard you mention that. Colonel Spigot wanted to go, but we couldn’t get tickets.”
       Rebecca caught on to what Baloo was driving at. “Say sergeant, what if we could get tickets for you and Colonel Spigot?” Dunder dropped the tray in his hands. “Really? Wow, that would be great! But how are you going to get them if you’re shot in the morning?” Rebecca and Baloo traded grins, and Baloo took over. “Well, I guess you’ll have to let us go so we can arrange it.”

       About ten seconds later, Spigot came running through the door. “You can get us tickets!” Rebecca looked at Baloo. “You knew?” Baloo nodded. “He’s too paranoid not to bug the place. Okay, Spiggy, let us out and we’ll get you the best tickets in the place.”
       “At last!” Spigot said, fishing for the key in his pocket. “But uh, don’t let the High Marshal know. If he found out we were going there to see Jack Benny he’d—”
       “Want a pair of tickets for himself and his wife,” the High Marshal said, walking in. “I like to bug cells too. Can you get us tickets as well, Miss Cunningham?” Rebecca smiled. “Sure thing!” The High Marshal took the key from Colonel Spigot and let them out. “I officially pardon you. Now make sure to have tickets for us when we arrive day of show, or you will be un-pardoned.”

       The gang walked out and Louie pointed the door. “Don’t let him change his mind, folks. Let’s leave this show and blow!” There were no dissenters, and quickly they ran outside. The Thembrians had left everything as it was, ice and all, no doubt planning to use the Sea Duck as an example to all those who would defy Thembrian justice.
       Baloo started up the plane. “C’mon, everyone, we’ve got some ice to deliver!” Spigot ran outside. “Wait! Don’t take the Windshear ice! You still don’t have the proper form filled out, and besides the High Marshal will string me up!” Indeed the High Marshal had followed, and was looking speculatively at Spigot’s neck. Baloo waved at them. “We’ll tell the Caliph of Aridia to send you a carafe of his Aridian Nectar! It’s rare as gold!” The High Marshal smiled. “Is deal. When you are dropping off ice, say hello to Caliph for me. Isaachar and me went to same school.”

       With no further interference from the Thembrians, it was smooth sailing to Aridia. The Caliph was most pleased with his ice, and eagerly agreed to send the nectar to his old friend. Soon, Baloo and company were winging their way back to Cape Suzette under the blanket of night. Everything on board was quiet until Rebecca came forward and asked Louie to go back for a while, taking his seat.
       “I…I wanted to thank you,” Rebecca said, contrite. “I’m sorry about losing my temper back at the jail. You saved Higher For Hire, and my reputation.”
       “Aw, it’s all right, Becky,” Baloo said. “You’d have done the same for me. We’ve still gotta deal with that IRS guy, though. But hey, if we can outdeal the Thembrians, we can handle him!” Rebecca chuckled. “I hope so. You know, we’re only halfway out of the woods. The only real way out of this is to get Karnage to sign a statement that he was responsible for us losing all those cargoes.”
       Baloo gave that some thought. “Well, we’ll just have to figure out a way to trick—convince him to sign it. You look like you got more on your mind than that, though.” Rebecca was surprised that he’d picked up on her agitation. “It’s mainly Molly, I guess. I know she’s okay, but I realized that I might’ve been killed and she’d have been alone. Baloo, if something happened to me and you were still around, would you…”
       The question surprised him, and he realized just how much Rebecca really trusted him. “Sure thing, Becky. I’d treat her just like she was my own.” Rebecca reached over and touched his hand. “Thanks.”
       The two of them traded looks, and Rebecca stood up to go. She stopped just as she passed Baloo’s seat, gave it a moment’s thought, and then kissed him on the cheek before heading back. Baloo watched as she went, then turned back to his flying. Could she be…nah, that was ridiculous. Ever since he and Becky had formed their partnership, they’d been squabbling. Baloo grinned, remembering how many times he’d cajoled his way past Becky to get to Louie’s or whatever he wanted. Just like a husband asking his wife’s—
       That thought really made him stop. Why would he think that way? After all, she was just his boss. No, that wasn’t right. She was his friend, and they’d saved each other’s bacon a dozen times over. But to think of—no, that just didn’t seem right. Baloo shook off the notion, and concentrated on the moonlit ocean’s horizon. Soon enough, a new day would come.

Chapter 6 - A Celebrity Homecoming, Flights of Fancy and a Delightful Duet

       Louie had spelled Baloo for a few hours during the night, so everyone was rested when the cliffs of Cape Suzette shone in the golden light of dawn. After the chills and thrills of Thembria, it was good to see the docks of home coming into view as they cleared the cliffs, and the Sea Duck headed down like a horse galloping toward its barn stall. As they pulled up to Higher For Hire’s dock, Baloo throttled the plane down and switched her off.
       “Whew, what a hayride, but at least we got the dough,” Baloo said. “Now I’m ready for about a week’s worth of shuteye.” Rebecca was there when he turned around. “Now you’ve got to start planning how we’re going to get Don Karnage’s autograph. I’ll have my lawyer draw up the proper document.”
       Rebecca headed inside to catch up on the business they’d missed and to let her friend know that she could bring Molly around. Baloo shook hands with Louie, who headed out to do some shopping in town before returning to his island, then helped Wildcat with a post-flight check of the Sea Duck.
       About a half hour later, Baloo was eyeing his hammock when he spied two figures in the distance getting out of a cab and starting the long walk down the dock toward them. Clients were the last thing that Baloo wanted to see right now and was considering sending them away until they neared. To his amazement, the pilot realized that he knew who they were. “Good gravy, I’m seeing stars! Two of ‘em! Hey Becky, get out there! Movie stars off the port bow!”

       Rebecca came out, ready to chide Baloo again for what she suspected was another way to skip out on her when she clearly heard a female’s voice calling to her. When she turned around, her entire countenance changed and she gasped audibly. “Oh, you’re here! Tweaky!”
       “Tweaky?” Baloo said.
       “Tweaky?” Danny echoed.
       To Baloo’s total shock, Rebecca started giggling and squealing as she ran the distance between her and the well-dressed feline and hugged her neck, excited. “Oh, it’s really you! It’s so good to see you again after all this time! I’ve got so many things I want to tell you. Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just babbling right now. How are you!”
       Sawyer smiled back. “I’m great, Becks, and it’s good to see you again too. Allow me to introduce you to my fiancé, Danny. Danny, this is Rebecca Cunningham, an old school friend.” Danny took Rebecca’s hand, kissing it gentleman-like. “Hello there, Rebecca! It’s really swell getting to meet an old friend of Sawyer’s like this.”
       Rebecca blushed at his attentions. “Oh, the pleasure’s all...mine. You’re really Danny… I’ve seen you and Sawyer in every picture you’ve ever done! I was so happy when your latest one did so well.”
       “Well say, thanks! Who’s your friend, there?” Danny asked. Rebecca turned around to find that Baloo was frozen in place, star struck. “Oh, he’s my pilot, Baloo. Baloo, say hi to Danny and Sawyer!” Baloo waved the fingers of his right hand at them. “H-howdy!”
       Danny marched right over and pumped the bear’s arm, shaking his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Baloo! Wow, this is some place you have here. And hey, is that a real Conwing L-16 seaplane? They only made 184 of those in the series, you know!” Baloo was surprised that a movie star would know about planes, and drew himself up proudly. “That’s my baby, the Sea Duck. I’m surprised a big shot star like you would even know a Conwing from a chicken wing.”
       “Oh, I love classic stuff! I’ll have to show you my car collection sometime. Say, since we’re here and all, how about we hire you for a sky-high tour around the city?”
       “I’d love to, but Attila with her hair in a bun has me working on something.”
       Rebecca walked up, acting like she’d never heard of the word ‘work’ before. “Oh now, Baloo, that can wait! After all, it’s not every day that special friends like these drop by. In fact, like me get my coat and I’ll go with you!” Rebecca ran off, leaving Baloo to scratch his head. “I don’t know where her mind went, but I’m sure it’s coming back sometime...”

       In a few minutes, Rebecca walked back out. She’d obviously been fixing herself up and now had her daughter in tow, she having been dropped off in the interim. “Molly, I’d like you to meet a very special friend of mine. Say hello to Miss Sawyer!” Molly looked up to the famous feline. “Oh, I know who you are! You’re the one that sings so pretty and all. Mom talks about you a lot, especially when she wants to impress people.”
       Sawyer smiled at Molly and chuckled. “Your mom and I go way back. We went to school together before you were born. Rebecca, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you and Baloo were married.” Rebecca and Baloo both blushed, and both choked and stammered for a few seconds to compose themselves. “We’re not married!” Rebecca retorted. “I mean I was married, but not to him—that is, I was married a little while after you and I parted company and when Harry died...well...”
       “Oh, I’m sorry, Rebecca. I wouldn’t have asked—”
       “That’s all right. Come on, let’s get aboard and we can talk some more.”

       The foursome headed for the Sea Duck to find the plane’s mechanic exiting out the side door. Wildcat was one of a kind, but just what kind that is we’ve yet to discover. He recognized Sawyer and Danny instantly, and after wiping off his hands with a shop towel he shook theirs. “Oh, wow, it’s like deja view meeting the two of you! I’ve seen all your pictures where you dance around and sing real good, could I ask you something?”
       Danny found himself liking this fellow. “Well uh, sure.” Wildcat pointed to the hat that Danny was wearing. “How do you do that trick where you disappear into that big hat of yours? I tried doing that with mine, but I could never fit in it!”
       “Oh that. I guess we’ve got a minute. Baloo, got some music lying around?”
       That was music to Baloo’s ears. “Hey, is a pilot at home in the clouds? You bet your ailerons I have!” Baloo brought out his special ‘I’ve Got Them Flat Broke, Sticky-Shoed, No Banana Boogie-Woogie Blues’ album and revved up the old phonograph. Danny was immediately off with the beat, and went into a song-and-dance routine. Sawyer crossed her arms. “Oboy, here we go...”
       Baloo was snapping his fingers to the beat already, but when he saw Danny dancing up a storm he joined right in. “Solid, man! Real solid!” Danny smiled and fell into step with Baloo. Then he did his classic move, and jumped right into his hat and back out. Wildcat clapped and whistled enthusiastically. “Brav-o! I gotta learn that one!”

       The record finished up and Danny and Baloo took their bows. Soon they were on the plane and Baloo was explaining the inner workings of the Sea Duck to him. Rebecca and Sawyer were in just as deep a conversation in the seats behind them. “You’re getting married here in Cape Suzette? Sawyer, that’s marvelous!” Rebecca said.
       “I’m glad you’re happy for us. I’m sorry I forgot what you did for me and it’s time I repaid you. I owe all this to you.”
       “Oh, it was just a favor between friends. After all, you had the talent. I just helped you a little to get there.”
       Sawyer took hold of Rebecca’s hand. “I got everything I dreamed for...well, almost everything I dreamed for, and I wanted to make sure you knew I didn’t forget the people who helped me get where I am.”
       Rebecca hugged Sawyer. “You were always so nice, Tweaky. Life’s been pretty good for me, except for losing Harry of course. Business is okay, though it could be better. As you know, it’s never been that easy for a woman to make it alone in the business world. I’ve made some inroads, but it seems like most of the profits go right back into the business so most of our publicity’s been word-of-mouth.”
       “Heh, yeah,” Baloo quipped. “Except for that time when Becky chipped in for that swanky magazine ad and got us Muffy and Buffy, who turned out to be two chiselers looking for an easy mark.”
       Rebecca “accidentally” stomped on Baloo’s foot. “Don’t listen to him, Sawyer. Things are good. Where are the two of you staying? Maybe we could do lunch or something.”
       “We’re downtown, actually,” Sawyer said. “Jack Benny’s got us booked in at the Sterling Towers hotel. As I understand it, the show’s going to involve some sort of spoof on a time where you and Baloo foiled a local bad guy. What was his name again, Danny?”
       Danny strained to remember. He wasn’t the best with names. “I couldn’t make it out over the phone. I think it was Dom Carnage...” Rebecca shook her head. “Don Karnage, actually. The people at the station were very nice about that, and aside from a nice check for using our experience, they also promised to mention Higher for Hire during the show too. I’m looking forward to it. I wonder who will play me?”
       Baloo just stared. “Becky, why didn’t you say something about this before?”
       “Because you would’ve blabbed it all over town!” Rebecca said. “The contract said we couldn’t reveal the storyline before the radiocast or we’d lose the money. Of course, you can feel free to run off to Louie’s and tell him if you want to make another trip to Thembria…”
       “Okay, mum’s the word,” Baloo said, then realized something. “Speaking of who’s playing Becky, more importantly, who’s playing me!” Danny pulled out a sheet of paper. “I’ve got a preliminary list here. Sawyer, remind me that we need to stop by and grab the final script for this. Hmm...looks like I’m playing the Karnage guy. Sawyer’s going to do the singing of course and Mary Livingstone’s playing you, Rebecca. They’ll have Mr. Benny as Wildcat, though knowing him he’ll end up playing himself, and it says here ‘a character to be announced’. For Baloo—heh, they’re going to use Phil Harris. That should be good. And Dennis Day will be Kit Cloudkicker, who it says is a friend and copilot of yours.”
       “Phil Harris?” Baloo said. “He doesn’t act or sound anything like me!
       “Can it, Baloo,” Rebecca said. “We should be grateful they’re even noticing us.”

       Baloo, now grumbling a bit at the idea of who was playing his role, flew them over Cape Suzette and showed off the sights. He didn’t stay in the dumps long, though—it just wasn’t in his nature, and having Danny along helped to pep him up. As they headed over the skyscrapers, Sawyer pointed to one in particular. “Who owns that big one?”
       “Oh, that’s Khan Tower,” Baloo said. “I’m sure you’ve heard of Shere Khan.”
       “Yeah, like who hasn’t?” Danny said. “Ruthless to the bone, because he ate all the meat off of it.” Sawyer gave the towers a hard look. “Yeah, ruthless…”
       Rebecca gave her a curious glance. “Did he do something to you, Sawyer?” Sawyer shrugged. “Nothing he hasn’t done to anyone else he’s tried to control or ruin. It goes back to a play of mine he axed. I let him know I wasn’t happy about it.” Baloo laughed. “I’ll bet that was a sight to see!”
       Baloo was about to turn back toward Cape Suzette when his arm started twitching. Danny was instantly concerned for his new friend. “What’s the matter, Baloo?” Baloo was a great actor in his own right, especially when it came to getting what he wanted. “I dunno if I’m gonna make it...without one of Louie’s Krakatoa Specials....”
       “Baloo, don’t you dare!” Rebecca said.

       Too late—Baloo zipped around and despite Rebecca’s protests they were soon landing at Louie’s place. The small island had once been the site of a shipwreck, and the entrepreneurial orangutan had built the remains into the most popular hangout for pilots and thrill-seekers alike. Rebecca was embarrassed beyond words—her opinion of Louie was so low, she’d have to dive to the ocean’s bottom to find it. That never bothered Louie, though. He treated everybody the same—that is, as long as they had the dough.
       Baloo had already alerted Louie via radio that something “big” was headed his way, and Louie was out on the dock to meet the Sea Duck when it landed. Baloo got out first, and by the smile on his face Louie knew something was up. “All right, my man, you’ve pulled me away from my third encore after my world-famous rendition of ‘O So Are You-O’. So what’s so big that it makes it worth my while?”
       “Put on your sunglasses, Louie! We got the two brightest stars in the world hopin’ to find a place where they can strut their stuff!”
       Louie covered his eyes. “Aw no, man! Not the dudes who juggled those gold hats and chainsaws!” Sawyer pulled Louie’s hands away from his face. “The only thing I ever learned to juggle was my schedule.”
       Opening his eyes, Louie blinked and stared—and blinked again. Danny and Sawyer both shook his limp hand. “Hiya, Louie!” Danny said. “Baloo here says that your place is the swingingest around, so we thought we’d check it out!”
       Baloo elbowed Rebecca, pointing to the flabbergasted simian. It took a few moments more, but when Louie’s mouth got going again his usual suave was back in place. “Right this way, my friends! Louie’s is always glad to cater to the rich and famous!”
       Louie leaned over close to Baloo. “I owe you one, cuz...” The orang ran to open the bamboo front door for Danny and Sawyer. “Louie’s place has got the zing, so grab a partner an’ prepare to swing!”

       The foursome entered the colorful establishment, set out in a South Seas motif. Large fish nets hung from the ceiling holding shells, starfish and other colorful nautical paraphernalia. The makeshift round wooden tables sitting on barrels provided a rustic feel, while the fully stocked bar and the old stage showed signs of many happy patrons. Louie promptly headed for his right-hand monkey, Montgomery, and in a moment he was getting the crowded room’s notice on the piano while Louie addressed them.
       “We’ve got a crazy treat in store today!” Louie said. “Joining us for a toe-tapping time are the stars of stage and screen, Danny and Sawyer!” The crowd stood and cheered as a spotlight came from somewhere and centered on the two famous cats. They waved and shook a few hands.
       Louie pointed toward the piano. “Hit it, Montgomery! Time to show why we’re here...” Danny looked over toward Rebecca and Baloo. “Well, you two are probably more familiar with the style.” Danny quickly grabbed Rebecca’s hand and pulled her into his arms as he led them out onto the dance floor.
       “Come on, Rebecca, show us what you got!” Danny said, starting to dance.
       “Bu..bu..bu..but...” Rebecca said, dumbfounded.
       Baloo shouted over to her, “Take it easy, Becky! Just go with the flow! I’ll show you how it’s done with this pretty lady...” Baloo led Sawyer out on the floor and both of them started moving to the rhythmic jungle beat that the band had started. Dancing was in Sawyer’s blood, so it didn’t take her long to match Baloo step for step. Soon, she was improvising and spinning, throwing some mambo in for good measure.
       “Hey hey, you’ve got some sweet moves there!” Baloo said.
       “That’s why we get top billing,” Sawyer replied. “I think Danny’s loosening up Becks now, too.”
       Danny had that infectious zeal about him, and even prim and proper Rebecca Cunningham couldn’t hold back. Danny showed her how to swing to the beat, and soon they were going right on with the pace. “Hey, you’re good! Pick up the pace, guys!” Danny took her hands in his, helping her to pump her arms.
       “Here we go!”

       The band’s trumpet player let out with a hot solo, and the two couples were burning up the floor. Rebecca was doing her best to stay with Danny, but she was hard-pressed. Baloo and Sawyer were going at it like old pros, and when the music reached a crescendo, Danny and Baloo switched partners. The rhythm switched to a hot jazz tune, and Danny and Sawyer were off in danceland. Rebecca was still trying to recover from the whirling dervish named Danny when Baloo took her hand.
       “You’re getting with the beat, Becky, but let’s see you step out with the old master now...” Baloo crooned. Rebecca was so startled by suddenly being Baloo’s dance partner that she was too stunned to object. Baloo starting jitterbugging with her, twirling her first one way, then the other.
       “Go, man, go!” Louie said, swaying to the rhythm.
       Rebecca was thinking **Stop, please stop!** but Baloo was into jungle dance fever now. He cavorted, strutted, spun and dipped his partner with a zest that seemed to belie his proportions. After a minute, though, Rebecca forgot about all the other people around her and what they might think and actually began to have some fun. As with Danny, Baloo’s love of dancing was infectious, and soon Rebecca—to Louie’s shocked surprise—was actually laughing and cavorting some too.

       When the music ended, the audience stood up and clapped as one. Danny and Sawyer took their usual bows, and Baloo joined them. Rebecca was sort of stunned by it all, but on the inside found that she liked the applause. Before she had a chance to ponder that, the two famous cats had come back over.
       Sawyer gave Rebecca an amused look. “Becks, you never moved like that in college! If you had, I’d have asked you to head for fame and fortune with me.”
       “You were great too, Baloo!” Danny said. “Looks like you and Rebecca here are a real item.”
       With that comment Baloo and Becky snapped back to reality and took a step apart from each other, both looking very embarrassed. “Aw, it’s nothing like that,” Baloo said. “I’m sure Becky will give me heck for it as soon as we’re back home.” Sawyer’s look went from amused to sly now. “I’m sure she wouldn’t do that to a sweet guy like you. Would you now, Becks?”
       Rebecca gave Sawyer a dirty look, and then shared it with Baloo. “Well, probably not, but just don’t do it again...without time.” Baloo and Louie exchanged looks at that reply, and Baloo figured it was best not to tempt fate any further and moved things along. “Say Louie, why don’t you show these two what your triple-decker cherry soda whipped cream jelly bean surprise looks like?”
       “It will be a pleasure, cuz!” Louie said. “Step this way for a big dessert tray!”
       After they’d all enjoyed Louie’s culinary delights, Louie gave them an open invitation to visit anytime then walked over to Sawyer. “I don’t suppose I could get you to do a duet with me, could I? Folks say I have the best set of pipes around.”
       “Yeah, when they’re not clogged up from all the tall stories you tell!” Baloo quipped.
       “Don’t mind him. He’s just jealous,” Louie said.
       Sawyer was flattered, of course. “It will be cold day in a hot place when I’m not up for a song at a moment’s notice. Let’s sing, Louie.” Louie pointed to Montgomery again and the music of Cole Porter filled the room as the two of them took the stage:

       Sawyer started it off, facing Louie. “You’re the top! You’re the Coliseum.”
       “You’re the top!” Louie said, using his hands to “frame” her. “You’re the Louvre Museum”
       “You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss!”
       “You’re a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet, you’re Mickey Mouse!”

       Sawyer grinned, breaking out of the singing. “How hard have you looked lately?”
       “Hard enough to crack that bear’s noggin over there,” Louie said, pointing to Baloo.

       Sawyer and the audience laughed at Baloo’s miffed expression, then she continued, “You’re the Nile, you’re the Tower of Pisa!” Louie pulled back his gums to show his pearly whites. “You’re the smile on the Mona Lisa.”
       Sawyer leaned her elbow on the piano, then her head as she sang, “I’m a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop.”
       “But if, Baby, I’m the bottom,” Louie replied, plopping on the stage.
       Sawyer held her arms up. “You’re the top!”

       They continued on through another verse, ending up with Louie singing, “But if, Baby, I’m the bottom,” and then both Sawyer and Louie, their arms around each other’s backs, “Oh, Ba-by, you’re the tooooop!”
       The crowd erupted in applause and Louie kissed Sawyer’s hand. “Say, Sawyer baby, why don’t you and Danny forgot about that film crowd and stick around here? I can guarantee you a packed house and all the ice cream you can eat ev’ry night!”
       “It’s a tempting offer, but I like the big screen,” Sawyer said. “This is a really swinging place, though. I could see stopping by here now and then.”
       “Make it once a month and I’ll change the name to Sawyer’s Place...”
       Sawyer half-smiled. “I’ll think about it. We’d better be getting back, Baloo. Lots to do yet.” Baloo offered his arm to Rebecca, who just snorted at him. It didn’t bother him, though—he was just teasing her anyway. “Okay. Thanks, Louie!”
       “Anytime, my man,” Louie said, slapping his hand.

Chapter 7 - That Kind of Thing, The Khan and I, and a Pretty Wild Dream

       The ride back to Cape Suzette was filled with talk of Louie’s and singing and dancing. Sawyer kidded Rebecca once more about Baloo, but stopped when she saw Rebecca’s icy look. It surprised her that Rebecca would spend so much time with such an obviously nice guy as Baloo and not have feelings for him. She made a mental note to talk to her about that later.
       Baloo landed the Sea Duck effortlessly and a certain young bruin was waiting on them rather impatiently. When he saw who came out of the plane with Baloo and Rebecca, he forgot all about the waiting part. “Whoa! I didn’t know they were actually coming here!”
       Kit rushed up to Danny and Sawyer, an autograph book seemingly appearing in his hands out of thin air. “Can I have your autographs? I’ve seen all your movies!”
       “Hello there!” Danny said, taking his book. “I bet you’re Kit Cloudkicker.”
       “You know my name? I had no idea I was that famous!”
       Danny laughed. “Fame and notoriety go in the same hat.” Danny signed Kit’s book and then handed the book over to Sawyer, who did the same. “Here you go, sport. So, what’s your job around here?”
       “I’m navigator for Baloo, and whatever else needs doing,” Kit said.
       “I bet you’re a good one, too. Nice to meet you, Kit,” Sawyer said, shaking his hand. Molly, whom Kit had been watching, ran up and caught Sawyer’s tail. “And me, Miss Sawyer?” Sawyer chuckled. “And you too, sweetie. Goodbye, all! See you later!”

       Danny and Sawyer hailed a cab, and after filling Kit in on what has happening Baloo and Rebecca went into her office for a private talk. Rebecca did at least have the presence of mind to wait to loose her vitriol until they were alone. “Baloo, I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life!”
       “Huh?” Baloo asked, confused. “When was that?”
       “WHEN!” Rebecca shouted. “When you took me to that dump you call a hangout. How could you think of taking such important people to Louie’s?” Baloo chuckled. “Hey Becky, I knew they’d love it! It’s their kind of spot. Besides, you saw how much they enjoyed it.”
       “You got lucky,” Rebecca said, crossing her arms. “If you ever pull a stunt like that again, I’ll…I’ll…”
       “Okay, okay,” Baloo said. “Message received. But uh, you did have a good time yourself, y’know. If you’d quit trying to impress everyone and just be yourself—”
       “Oh, like you?” Rebecca retorted. “I suppose you want me to end up being a slob who likes to dance more than do his job.”
       “No, not a slob like—hey, I’m not a slob! I’m just loosely organized.”
       Rebecca smirked at him. “If you were any more loosely organized, you couldn’t find the Sea Duck.” Baloo’s dander was up now. For some reason she was riding herd on him, but he couldn’t figure out why. “All right, Re-becca. If that’s the way you want it, fine. I’m gonna go grab that shuteye I was after.”
       Baloo headed off and immediately Rebecca was sorry for what she’d said. She’d felt vulnerable, and Sawyer and Baloo both teasing her didn’t help. Rebecca headed for her desk and Molly came in after a minute. “Mom, why were you and Baloo fighting?”
       Rebecca picked her up. “Oh honey, it’s nothing. It’s just, well, we get that way sometimes.”
       Molly looked perplexed. “Why’s that, mom?”
       “When you’re sixteen or so, you’ll understand.”
       “Oh, that kind of thing,” Molly said, heading for her room. Rebecca watched her go. It was only after Molly had gone that it suddenly sank in what Molly had implied.
       “No! It’s not that kind of thing…I think.”

       The next night, the scene at Sterling Towers was as glitzy and glamorous as anything Hollywood had to offer. A line of extravagant cars decorated the street in front of Sterling Towers. The classy hotel’s ballroom had been reserved by Shere Khan for the purpose of a welcoming celebration for Jack Benny and his famous team of radio performers, plus Danny and Sawyer. Out of one of these cars, specially-rented for the occasion, came Danny and Sawyer plus a hesitant guest.

       Rebecca had been elated when Sawyer had asked her to come with them, but then sweet reason had taken over and she’d made the excuse that she didn’t have anything nice enough to wear. That didn’t last long, as Sawyer had dragged her old friend into Cape Suzette’s best formal shop, then to a swanky beauty salon.
       Now, Rebecca was outfitted like a duchess in a sparkling blue evening gown, her hair up and arranged elegantly, and some of Sawyer’s jeweled earrings and a diamond choker finished the look. Still, Rebecca felt out of place.
       “Maybe I shouldn’t have come,” Rebecca said, leaning and whispering to Sawyer as they headed for the engraved front door of the hotel. “I know that since they’re telling my and Baloo’s story it’s technically okay, but it’s still gate-crashing. Are you sure Khan won’t get angry?”
       “Let Khan get angry,” Sawyer said. She’d loved playing dress-up a rtist for Rebecca, especially when she saw how enthralled her old friend was with the transformation. “I invited you. If Khan has a problem, he can take it up with me. If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have this life, Becks. I owe you the chance to share in some of it.”
       Danny wormed his way between them, taking an arm on both sides. “Besides, it’s going to be great fun! Haven’t you wanted to meet Jack Benny?” Rebecca paused before she nodded. “I’ve always loved his show. Okay, but if things get messy I’m counting on you two to rescue me!” Sawyer laughed warmly at Rebecca’s nervousness. “Don’t worry. If anything goes wrong we’re out the window.”

       Khan started things off with a short but cordial speech, and then the orchestra started playing. Everyone was splendidly attired, and when the people weren’t dancing they were schmoozing with the local bigwigs.
       Meanwhile, Danny and Sawyer were making small talk with their fellow performers, at the moment speaking with Mr. Benny and Rochester. “It’s sure a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Benny! We never miss your radio show,” Danny said.
       “And the idea of your being a skinflint was so original,” Sawyer added. “Where’d you ever come up with that idea?” Jack smiled, enjoying the attention. “It developed over many years, Sawyer. The character needed to be someone we could laugh at, yet feel sympathy for at the same time.”
       “And we sure could laugh at the idea of his sympathy!” Rochester quipped.
       Danny and Sawyer laughed, while Jack crossed his arms. The laughter brought over the rest of the crew—Dennis Day, Phil Harris and his wife Alice Faye, Mary Livingstone, and Don Wilson. Don shook the cats’ hands first. “It’s certainly a pleasure to meet two cats that have been so successful. Tell me, do either of you like Jell-O?”
       “I like cherry,” Danny said.
       “I like lime, with banana slices in mine,” Sawyer said. “Don, what’s your favorite? You’ve been singing its praises for years. You probably don’t even like the stuff.” Don patted his large tummy, responding with a jolly tone. “Why, what a notion! I like all those fruity flavors, and vanilla and chocolate too. There’s always room for Jell-O!”
       Phil sauntered over to Sawyer. “Don’t mind him, toots. Our sponsors are in the room tonight. Say, you two are a swinging wonder! We ought to get together and jam the night fantastic sometime.”

       Rebecca hesitantly stayed in the background—Sawyer had invited her and the others to come, but only Rebecca had the courage to go. Now she was having second thoughts about allowing Sawyer to bring her. Her business sense had told her to come, but her common sense told her she had just crashed a party thrown by Shere Khan for some of the biggest names in radio and movies.
       Sawyer saw her reluctance and took her arm, dragging her over to meet Mr. Benny. “Jack, I’d like you to meet an old friend of mine, Rebecca Cunningham. This is the young woman whose company inspired this week’s episode of your show.” Rebecca blushed, intimidated. “Uh, hello, Mr. Benny. It’s an honor to meet you.”
       Jack shook her hand. “Well now, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Rebecca, this is Mary...” Mary Livingstone was the brains of the operation when it came to Jack and her friends. She was also an excellent judge of taste. “Oh, a pleasure. I love what you’ve done with your hair!”
       Rebecca passed her hand up to her professionally-sculpted hairdo, flattered. “Oh this! I’ve worn it this way forever. I guess it never goes out of style. I envy you, Mary, but it must have taken a lot of hard work to get where you are.”
       Mary glanced at Jack. “You don’t know the half of it.”
       “Hmm....” Jack hmmed.
       Rebecca got introduced to the others in turn, Phil Harris coming last. Phil was a rascal and it showed when he bowed to her. “Say, you’re a charmer! How’d a sweet thang like you stay free of all the attentions of the gentlemanly set?” There was something strangely familiar about Phil that Becky couldn’t quite put her finger on. “Well, Mr. Harris, I’m a very busy person. I’m the owner and manager of an air freight company and I don’t really have much chance to socialize.”
       “The head honcho, no kiddin’!” Phil said, impressed. “Say, you’re doing all right, kid. Must be nice, staying in one place all the time, getting to know your neighbors and all. Me and Alice, we’re always on the fly, but leastwise we’re together. Don’t put off life too long, though, sister—I can tell you firsthand my secret to it’s finding reasons to let myself be happy. The trip’s too short to be timid about it.”
       Phil kissed her hand. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’m wanted. Au re-vo-ir!”
       “It was a pleasure, Mr. Harris.” Rebecca always kept a wary eye out for Khan, hoping she could do her schmoozing without his notice. She made the rounds, chatting and smiling and handing out business cards whenever possible.

       Across the room, Shere Khan was making himself known—or rather, others were doing their best to makes themselves known to him. The austere tiger strode through the crowd like some Caesar of bygone days, expecting adulation from the masses, and for the most part he got it. When he came to the performers, he found one certain cat who wasn’t in the mood.
       “I am gratified that all of you could attend this night’s festivities,” Khan said. “I find that entertainers are often some of the best faces a businessman can hire to put before him. Phil strode up. “I couldn’t agree more, Jackson!”
       Phil slapped Khan on the back, getting the notice of half the room for this breach of protocol. Phil didn’t even notice, and Khan uncharacteristically chuckled, though subtly. “Yes, quite humorous. And I must not neglect our feline celebrities, either. Some years ago, I made a decision that at the time adversely affected her career. She made it plain that my decision was not to her liking. I am not used to being reproved, but I came to have a level of respect for her. As I’m sure all those who have known her do.”
       Danny strode up boldly and took Khan’s hand and shook it vigorously. “Sawyer and I both think it’s swell that you invited us to be on your Jell-O program and for throwing this great party and all. It’s a real shindig, Mr. Khan!”
       “Yes, indeed. I esteem a cat who knows what he wants and stops at nothing to attain his goals. Your directorial debut was commendable. And what of your plans for the future?”
       Danny smiled, thinking. “A friend had suggested a monster musical. I might go with that. You should be in pictures, Mr. Khan! You’d have an imposing screen presence.” Khan raised an eyebrow. “I find that reality demands my time and concentration sufficiently, young man. With that in mind, I have a staff meeting first thing in the morning. I bid you all good evening—Jack, Phil, Miss Livingstone...Miss Sawyer...”

       Khan started to leave when another face in the crowd caught his eye. Rebecca had forgotten about Khan and now found herself in lively conversation with three of the better-known businessmen in the city and was more than holding her own. They stepped back when the mercurial mogul approached, and Rebecca turned to find herself face-to-face with him.
       “Uh, hello Mr. Khan,” Rebecca said, trying not to show her fear.
       Khan raised an eyebrow. “Ah, Miss Cunningham. I did not recognize you immediately with your...upgraded appearance. Most becoming.” Rebecca actually blushed. “Thank you. Uh, Sawyer invited me to join her and Danny at the party.”
       “So I gathered. You may continue, gentlemen.” Khan nodded to Rebecca before turning away. “Miss Cunningham.”
       Khan walked away, followed by a raft of lackeys and staff members. Phil broke up the ensuing silence. “Man, they ought to call him ‘Cucumber’, because he’s cold as one—chilled, solid chilled.”

       The talented cats conversed a little while longer with the others, then excused themselves. Before Danny and Sawyer went upstairs, they escorted Rebecca to their rented car with the instructions to drop her off at her apartment. She’d started off in that direction when she remembered some papers from the office that she needed to look over. The driver agreed to her request and soon they were at Higher For Hire. Rebecca slipped in the dockside door, not wanting to awaken anyone.
       She managed to get the papers out of her file cabinet quietly, but fate wouldn’t miss a chance like this. Baloo was restless in his hammock, and he figured a triple-decker peanut butter and salami sandwich would calm things down. He opened the door to go downstairs then rubbed his eyes when he noticed some movement. Moving cautiously, he picked up a nearby baseball bat and crept down the stairs until he reached a light switch and flicked it on.
       Baloo started in on the attack, then pulled up. “Okay, hold it right there or I’ll—wow...” Rebecca had turned around, and Baloo was so surprised he let go of the bat. “Rebecca? That you in that Lady Astor getup?”
       Rebecca smiled and stood, slowly spinning around for dramatic effect. “I attended that cast party for the Jack Benny show with Danny and Sawyer. I met Shere Khan as well. You don’t go into that crowd without being dressed to kill.”
       Baloo had remembered the invitation but it hadn’t interested him. The vision in front of him now… “Oh, baby. You’re killing me right now with that—” Baloo caught himself. He had no idea that Rebecca could look this good. The pilot fought for his composure and started to talk fast as he worked his way toward the stairs.
       “Uh, I mean, I bet you knocked ’em dead there! Well, I guess I’d better be getting some shuteye. No telling what kind of cargo runs we might have tomorrow and all!”
       Rebecca might have thought it wicked later, but she enjoyed every moment. “It was a night to remember. Goodnight, Baloo! Pleasant dreams.”

       Baloo waved at her and tripped backwards at the top of the stairs, getting up fast and heading for his door. “Okay, you too! Night, Becky!”
       Baloo closed the door behind him, trying to get a grip. He’d starting flirting with her! Still, she had looked—but this was Becky. Baloo removed his flight cap and ran a hand though his head fur, confused. What had come over him? He headed for his hammock, and Kit—who had been asleep in his own hammock—rolled over to see what the ruckus was.
       “What’s going on, Papa Bear?” Kit asked. “Someone downstairs?”
       “I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you, Little Britches,” Baloo said, picking up his nightcap. Kit chuckled. “Sounds like you had a pretty wild dream.”
       Baloo laughed back, but his voice was uncertain as he climbed into his hammock. “Yeah, a pretty wild dream...”

Chapter 8 - Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, The Pirates of Benzance, and One of Our Cats is Missing

       Editor's Note: The following chapter presents a mock performance of the old radio comedy program “The Jack Benny Show”. The performance is written with the assumption that the reader is relatively familiar with the show. If you are not, then we recommend visiting Jack Benny on the Web. Click on "Jell-O Folks!" to learn more about this great comedian.

       Khan Tower stood out in the light of dawn like some great shiny glass and steel colossus of old. At the top of the building, an impeccably-dressed tiger emerged from his private rooms. Shere Khan had moved into his tower from day one, believing that if one wished to remain atop the financial world, it was necessary to be as close to the action as possible.
       Taking the elevator down to the level of his office, he found that his secretary Ms. Snarly had already received the morning mail—he paid a premium to have it delivered to him first—and had it organized as to priority. As he walked, he thumbed through the most pressing letters, mentally cataloguing them and what actions the information they contained would demand.
       When he entered his office, his dutiful assistant Stanford was waiting. He was a tiger as well, but not close to the same class as Khan. Stanford was half Khan’s height, quiet, dutiful, and eager to please. His dark vest and bow tie over his short-sleeve dress shirt, combined with the old-fashioned spectacles he wore gave him the look of a turn-of-the-century office assistant—which was of course by Khan’s design.
       Everything around him carried that design. To say his office was spacious was like referring to the Rocky Mountains as simply large. The entire motif of the place gave one the feeling of being in a jungle—the rare plants that Khan loved to tend, the Africanesque patterning on the walls—it all reflected the big vision of the mogul who had selected them.

       Stanford waited until Khan had seated himself at his huge desk. Even to this day, the huge swivel chair Khan occupied reminded him of the old-timey coffins. And there was that rumor—but no, such a thing was ridiculous. Still, he almost cringed despite himself when he fell under Khan’s eye, and Khan never missed anything.
       “I’ll have the morning report now, Stanford. What of the project I discussed with you yesterday?”
       Stanford was eager to please, and his natural smile showed that all was well. “All the arrangements are made, sir. The recipient is ready to talk at anytime.” Khan straightened the papers on his desk. “Splendid. Inform my driver that I will lunch at Sterling Towers today. Make the necessary arrangements.”
       Stanford nearly did a spit-take. Khan altering his schedule was like Niagra Falls reversing its flow. “Sir?”
       “You heard me, Stanford. Now go.”
       Stanford did so, and Khan picked up the receiver of his phone. Ms. Snarly patched him through, and in a few moments he was in the middle of a conversation. “You will wait until after the performance. Good, you understand me perfectly. Now, he is not to be...permanently damaged. I simply wish him out of the picture for the present...the price and the details do not concern me—results do. Follow my instructions to the letter, or…”
       Khan unsheathed the claws of his free paw. “I shall be quite inconvenienced. You will find him outside the hotel at precisely seven minutes after five.” Khan hung up the phone, frowning for a moment, then shifted his attention. He started to open a locked drawer on the right side of his desk, but refrained, muttering. “You nearly had me that time, but not quite. I will see this through.”

       At the lunch location in question, Danny and Sawyer had already joined the regulars to prepare for the broadcast. When lunch did come they saw Khan, and saw further that he took a prominent place in the audience for the radio show. Next came the Thembrians. Rebecca had arranged with Sawyer to get them VIP tickets. Sergeant Dunder, wearing a dress uniform, brought out the red carpet and rolled it into the entranceway—there was already one there for Khan, but Thembrians like to use their own carpets. Colonel Spigot cleared the way, also in his dress whites, and the High Marshal and his wife entered along with Thembrian secret service.
       Baloo and Rebecca’s crowd was there as well. Baloo, Kit and Wildcat were dressed up in suits—well, in Wildcat’s case it was a tan tweed sportcoat and baggy brown trousers that looked to have seen more time in a vaudeville show than anything, and the big red tie seemed to set it off perfectly. Baloo had on a horsehair suit coat that had him constantly itching, and Rebecca kept elbowing him to keep from scratching. Molly was fidgeting in a light blue dress and hair ribbons and hating every moment of it. Sawyer's dad waved to her from down front. He was pleased to see his daughter in action, and she smiled and waved back.
       Soon the dignitaries were seated near Shere Khan, and the place settled down again. The hotel people were overjoyed at this attention, particularly from Khan, knowing it was equivalent to having royalty attend. Khan’s social manners were as polished as ever, and soon he had comfortably settled in and had his every want taken care of.
       Sawyer had done her best to ignore Khan in all this and Danny had taken note of it. Maybe he’s here to try to make up for having closed down her performance at the Limelight. The producer called “five minutes!”, shaking Danny out of his reflecting. He and Sawyer grabbed the papers with their lines and headed for their positions behind the microphone stands on stage.

       Five minutes later, the peppy music of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” played and Don Wilson’s voice boomed. “It’s the Jack Benny show! With Rochester, Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Dennis Day, and yours truly, Don Wilson. This week, a special performance from the Sterling Towers in Cape Suzette. And now, your host, Jack Benny!”
       “Jell-O folks!” Jack said, waiting for the laugh. “This is Flyboy Benny coming to you this week from lovely Cape Suzette. Everyone here’s just been so nice to us. The flight in was a little rough, what with the threat of air pirates and all. Dennis, you were late coming in. What was the problem?”
       “Oh, I just got into town and boy are my arms tired!” Dennis said, getting the usual laugh.
       “Now cut that out!” Jack said. “Your jokes are almost as bad as Phil’s.”
       Phil interrupted, “Hiya, Jackson!”
       Once the audience quit clapping, Jack took over again. “Hey, it’s our bandleader Phil Harris. Phil, how do you like Cape Suzette?”
       “It’s a really swingin’ town! Lotsa jumpin’ joints and a lotta swingin’ music. A guy could get used to a place like this.”
       “Well don’t get too used to it, Phil,” Mary said, breaking in. “In the last town you got used to, we ended up getting sued.” The audience applauded Mary’s joining the repartee, and Phil addressed her now. “Aw, don’t mention it again, Mary! I’ve apologized every way I know how!”
       “Hey, what happened?” Dennis asked. “What’d you get sued over?”
       Mary’s voice was pedantic. “We were sued for invasion of privacy and criminal abuse.”
       “By who?”
       “The town drunk.”

       The crowd roared with laughter, and Jack took center stage again. “Well, this week we’ll try to leave a town in better shape than when we found it. Ladies and gentlemen, this week we have an extra special show for you. We have some great guests who will be joining us for an very unique performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Pirates of Penzance’. Our version’s lovingly called ‘Pirates of Benzance’.
       “Anyone who knows anything about movies will instantly recognize the names Danny and Sawyer. Their roles in our melodrama are as timely as today’s headlines. It’s a sort-of-true story taken from right here in Cape Suzette of a brave pilot named Baloo, played by our own Phil Harris, his lovely boss Rebecca Cunningham, and their arch enemy, the singing pirate king, Don Karnage.”
       “Lucky Gilbert and Sullivan aren’t around or they’d sue us too,” Mary said.
       “Sue?” Jack asked.
       “Si,” came the reply, from Mary, who started giggling. The crowd burst out laughing.
       “Mary, if you’re going to do Mel Blanc’s routine, at least wear a sombrero!” Jack exclaimed in a mock miffed tone.

       Jack took a deep breath. “Our story begins along the pier at Rebecca’s air freight business, Higher for Hire.” The segway music came up and the actors took their places in front of the mikes. Mary was Rebecca in this instance, and she and Phil started things off.
       “Baloo, hey, Baloo-oo!” Mary said. “Where’s that lazy slob gotten off to now? Probably wasting time with the other pilots, like usual.”
       “Okay, okay, toots,” Phil said, to the audience’s applause. “Just stop with the yelling! It sounds like you’re playing a drum solo on my eardrums. What do we have to do now, fly cargo to Thembria or somethin’ else equally easy and run of the mill?”
       The audience applauded and laughed some, the High Marshal bellowing in particular. “No, no,” Mary said. “Today we’ve got more precious cargo. You’ll be taking Miss Evelyn Canary, the famous singer, on a tour of the city and out to Roundhill Island where she’ll be giving a special concert.”
       Phil chuckled. “Well, if she’s a looker maybe I can talk her into a side trip to Louie’s on the way. Maybe some dinner and dancin’. You know, expand my horizons.”
       “If you expanded your horizons any more you wouldn’t fit in the plane.”
       The audience laughed and Rebecca had to cover her mouth—she’d suggested that line. A new voice entered the fray, humming. “Excuse me, is this Higher For Hire?” Sawyer asked. The crowd clapped and whistled loudly.
       “Yes, it is!” Mary said. “I’m Rebecca Cunningham, and this walking food magnet is my pilot, Baloo.” Sawyer chuckled. “Yes, I can see. Do you like singing, Baloo?”
       “You better believe it, sister!” Phil said. “And you gotta be the prettiest singer I ever saw...uh yeah, I like singers. I can belt out a tune or two myself.”
       “Well, we’ll see,” Sawyer said. “By the way, I’m Evelyn.”
       “The Divine Miss E?” Phil said, putting on the charm. “Oh baby, croon some tunes my way!” The band started up with “And the Angels Sing”:

       We meet, and the angels sing...
       The angels sing the sweetest song I ever heard...
       We kiss, and the angels sing...
       And leave their music ringing in my heart!

       The song ended up with a stirring trumpet solo, and the audience applauded loudly.
       “So what brings you here, toots?” Phil asked.
       “I want a big load of fireworks delivered to my concert,” Sawyer said. Phil chuckled. “Hey, sounds like a real blowout. When do you want ‘em there?” Sawyer sounded patronizing. “Yesterday of course.”
       “As long as you’ve got the dough, I’m your bear!”
       “Did someone mention dough?” this was Jack, playing Wildcat. “I really like dough, especially when it’s all soft and gushy and—oh wait, wait. Does anyone really talk like this?”
       “You forgot sticky!” Wildcat called from the audience. Jack raised his eyebrows. “And sticky. Boy, this fellow’s really from another world. Say Mary, do you have change for a dime? I forgot to tip the bellboy.”
       The audience chuckled, and waited for Mary’s retort. They weren’t disappointed. “At least he’s not from planet Frugal.”

       The audience roared as the show went to commercial, and when it returned sound effects simulated the Sea Duck’s engines roaring in the background and signaled a return to the story. “Fireworks for bigwigs’ parties,” Phil complained. “What’s the world coming to...”
       A voice on the plane’s radio interrupted Phil’s reverie. “I do not know, but I am preparing an explosive reception for you!” Phil groaned in annoyance. “Hey Karny, go crash in an ocean somewhere. I’m busy!”
       The sound effects of a grappling hook grabbing the plane overshadowed everything, and in a moment the voice of Danny as Karnage joined them in the “cockpit”. “It is I, the terror of the skies, the prince of plunderers, the pirate of tomorrow today—Don Karnage! Hold your applause...”
       The audience laughed, then Phil spoke up again. “And you’re going to be the pirate with my footprint on your backside if you don’t scram! I have a job to do for this lovely lady and you’re not getting in my way.” Danny gasped, as if seeing Sawyer for the first time. “Ah, I had no idea that you were transporting such a lovely passenger. I doff my tailor-made hat to you, lovely one, but I am fearing that I still must be taking the boom-boom makers for my own personal celebration when I plunder Cape Suzette!”
       “And just who are you?” Sawyer asked.
       “Who am I? Well, I shall tell you, fair lady!” Danny said. The music to “Pirate King” started up, with a group of male singers backing Danny up as the Air Pirates:

       I am Air Pirate king!
       You are! You are, Air Pirate king!
       And it is, it is, a glorious thing to be Air Pirate king!
       I am Air Pirate king!
       You are! You are, Air Pirate king!
       And it is, it is, a glorious thing to be Air Pirate king!
       You are Air Pirate king, you are Air Pi-rate....Kiiing!

       The crowd clapped, and Sawyer started up again, shouting back, “You’ll do no such thing! I need these fireworks for my concert!”
       “Concert?” Danny said. “What concert is complete without a pirate serenade? Once I have inspected your incendiary cargo, I would deem it an extreme honor for yourself if I escorted you there!”
       The audience laughed again, and Sawyer countered back. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Karnage, but I hardly count air pirates among my dinner guests.” Now it was Phil’s turn. “You’re not going anywhere, buster! If I had a sword I’d show you that I’m twice the man you are.”
       “Then let us settle this pirate fashion,” Danny said. “I will give you a sword, but by the size of your belly, you’re thrice the man I am!”
       “Ha ha. Now let’s fight.”

       Just then the sounds of bullets firing from a machine gun sounded, and the pirates sounded worried. “Who is out there making with the bang-bangs?” Danny asked. Over the radio came the answer. “You forgot about me!”
       “No!” Danny said. “It cannot be! Not—”
       Phil completed his thought. “Whistlestop Jackson, hero to millions! A barnstormer with talent in spades. A legend in his own time!”
       “Get him, men!” Karnage shouted.
       Indeed it was Jackson, or rather Jack’s voice as the aviation “legend in his own time”. More shots rang out, and a slide and splash sound effect indicated that Karnage’s planes were dropping fast. Back aboard the Sea Duck, the sound of sword fighting clanged over everything, then a wh-ziiiiip noise indicated that Karnage lost his sword. “You have beated me! No one has ever beaten the Pirate King before!”
       “You mean this week?” Phil said. The audience chuckled, and Jack’s voice came over the speakers. “Ha, ha! No one beats the great Whistlestop Jackson!”
       “At least at getting a word in edgewise,” Mary quipped.
       “Now, let’s see what some pirate shiskabob looks like!” Phil said. Danny’s voice showed desperation. “I just wanted to go to Miss Canary’s party! Do you know what it’s like, always been left out in the cold storage? I cannot even get a local golf membership!”
       More chuckling. “You’re jus’ stalling. Take this!” Phil said.
       Sawyer interjected. “No wait! Karnage, I feel sorry for you. You really wanted to go to my concert?”
       “The life of the pirate is a lonely one, señorita,” Karnage said. “Imagine how hard it is to get anyone to come to my birthday parties! I have to give my guests the engraved invitation of my sword to have anyone being there!”
       Another round of laughter, and the music to “Poor Wand’ring One” started up:

       Poor Plund’ring One,
       Thou now art surely frayed...
       Take my advice
       Treat me real nice,
       Or a cold ce-ell, i-it is thine!

       Poor Plund’ing One,
       Thou needs to give up this cri-ime,
       Turn now a-way
       Don’t stop to stray!
       Take heart i-in this rhyme!

       A group of singers backed up Sawyer as she lightly sang the chorus, and then performed a reprise, ending with a loud, “Take heart!” The crowd applauded wildly, and Danny as Karnage spoke again. “I am yielding and parallel parking, fair one, before your words. Don Karnage is a pirate of mercy. But before I am taking my leave, might I say that you are being the loveliest vision I have ever beheld. And now, I must go—the candy stores are only keeping their doors open for so long. Adios!”
       The crowd laughed and applauded, and Sawyer took up her song again to end the parody. Jack took over once the clapping settled down. “I’d like to thank our guests Danny and Sawyer and our own Phil Harris and Mary Livingstone for their great performances this evening. Hopefully the real Don Karnage can take a little good natured ribbing, but just to be on the safe side I’ll take a boat when I leave town.”

       The show went into its wrap-up music and after Don Wilson gave the closing credits the NBC three-toned theme played and the stars began mingling with the audience. A short time later, a penguin in a pageboy’s outfit entered the room, asking for Danny. When the pageboy reached him, Danny found it was a telegram for him. He signed for it, opening the envelope:

       Need to talk to you alone at once about Sawyer. Urgent.


       Danny saw Sawyer coming out of his peripheral vision and pushed the telegram into his pocket. “So, what’s the telegram about?” Sawyer asked. Danny had to put her off. “Uh, nothing. I have to take care of something right away. Meet you at the hotel later! Love you, bye!” Danny gave her a quick kiss and bolted for the stairs.
       “Now, what was that all about...oh well.” Sawyer went back to talking with the others, while outside the hotel Danny hailed a taxi. One was at the ready and he jumped in, giving the driver the address. In moments they were zooming away.
       Danny’s mind was totally on Jared and what he could possibly have to tell him that was so urgent, or he’d have noticed the way the driver was checking the skies. When they reached Bawani Park, the driver pulled over to the sidewalk and pulled a gun on Danny.
       “I’m afraid that you’re getting a longer ride than you bargained for, cat!”
       Danny stared down the gun’s barrel. “Hey, if you wanted an autograph, all you had to do was ask!” The cabbie removed a disguise, revealing a pirate costume. “Oh, we want a lot more than that.”
       “We? We who?”

       A tapping on the window to his right caught Danny’s attention, and to his shocked surprise he found the very fellow he’d been imitating not thirty minutes ago stood there. Karnage opened the door, motioning him out with his sword. “Greetings, talented one! I was listening to your disheartening parody of my glorious self, and could not resist the opportunity to be thanking you in person! Now, if you would be joining us?”
       Danny had no choice, so he did as they asked. An autogyro stood on the grass nearby and the three got into the ungainly contraption and flew off. However, they didn’t leave unobserved. Within minutes Sawyer got a page of her own. When she reached the hotel’s front desk, she found her father standing there, agitated.
       “Sawyer, Danny’s been kidnapped by the Air Pirates!” Jared said. “I just heard it from one of the policemen in the lobby.” It took a moment for Sawyer to realize what her father had said. “What?! How could that happen? How could they get into town? What’s going to happen to Danny?”
       “Now calm down, my girl! They stole an autogyro from somewhere and must’ve used it to evade the cliff guns. I’ve already called the authorities, and they said they’d notify the cliff gunners that Karnage has Danny. They also said they’d call me as soon as they heard anything. The pirates must be headed back to the Iron Vulture. I’m sure they’ll bring us their demands soon, and we’ll get him back.”
       “I hope you’re right,” Sawyer said. She hugged her father, suddenly afraid. “Could you take me home? I could use some of that tea you’re famous for making, and some company.”
       “My thoughts exactly.”

Chapter 9 - Gloating and Big Ideas, Baloo’s Weak Spot and an Indecent Proposition

       Meanwhile, the pirates and their prisoner were flying through the opening in the cliffs, leaving Cape Suzette. The cliff gunners watched in frustration—with Danny on board, they didn’t dare risk the life of an innocent. The pirates stuck their tongues out and made other derisive gestures to the cliff gunners as they left the cliffs behind.
       Soon, they were in range of the giant zeppelin known as the Iron Vulture, modified for the pirates’ use. The “beak” of the Vulture opened and the pirates entered the airship’s interior. When they landed, the other pirates celebrated when they saw Karnage escorting the guest of honor. Karnage was in a gloating mood, and Danny was the target at the moment.
       “Now, my famous hostage du jour, did you enjoy your ride?” Karnage asked. “My mechanic Ratchet put together this autogyro, and also put the Cape Suzette defenses to shame! I think after this mission, I shall return and treat myself to a shopping spree.”
       Danny struggled, his hands tied in front of him. “What’s the deal, Mr. Karnage? I hope you know that kidnapping’s a crime, probably a serious one!” The pirates all laughed, and Karnage swished his sword through the air. “Of course, I am knowing this! Why do you think I took the considerable trouble to bring you here in the first place? I am like the investment banker, Danny. I believe in going after what is most secure. And a star admired on stage and screen, with many wealthy and powerful friends, will bring a more than reasonable fortune for my crafty efforts, yes-no?”
       “Uh, was that a question, or am I supposed to choose?” Danny asked.
       Karnage pointed his sword at Danny, the tip almost touching his nose. “Do not try my patience, dancing cat. I heard the many derisive laughs at my embarrassed expense on that radio program. My speech is not, how do you say, ‘by the book’, but I do get my point across I trust...”
       Danny started perspiring. “Uh, yeah. About the show, I hope you realize it was all just in fun. No offense.” Karnage put an arm around Danny, acting like an old friend. “Oh, perish the ugly thought! The hijinkings by you and your charming friends was most entertaining. In fact, I am now thinking of embarking on a new line of unemployment. What say you to ‘Don Karnage: Prince of Plunder!’—the movie, of course. My stunning face alone should be enough to win me the Academy Award for best portrayal of a dashing pirate.”
       “Well, you do have the right look…and the self-confidence,” Danny said, trying not to insult his host further. “With some help from a dialog coach you might be able to do it, but due to your criminal past you’d probably have to film the movie outside of Hollywood.”
       Karnage’s ego knew no bounds, so Danny’s words were like honey to a hungry bear. “So what? I will kidnap...that is, invite a prominent director and crew to film my splashy debut! After all, location is most crucial and no one knows where Pirate Island is, save us pirates! Now, follow Dumptruck here and we will treat you to the humble inhospitality we have to offer. I am sure we can be reaching a generous-to-me deal with your friends soon enough.”
       Danny obeyed, following the Swedish-accented pirate, then stopped when he had a thought. “If you have some time you could tell me about your exploits and maybe I could help you whip up a treatment for a script.”

       As a doctor, Jared had developed a comforting “bedside manner” over the years. Normally, it was useful in distracting his patients. Now he was using it to distract his daughter while they waited for Karnage’s demands. Sawyer had jumped up and nearly attacked the phone when the cliff gunners had reported the pirates leaving the city. Jared had brought the phone over by him, and when it rang he promptly answered it.
       “Yes? Just one moment...” Jared handed the phone to Sawyer. “It’s Rebecca Cunningham, asking after you.” Sawyer had let her friendship with Rebecca fade over the years, but now she hoped she could still count on an old friend. Fighting back her fear and her tears she took the receiver. “Hello, Becks. I could really use a friend right now. The pirates have taken Danny!”
       “I know,” Rebecca said. “Baloo just heard about it on the radio and told me. I’m so sorry this happened! Do you want me to come over?” Sawyer blew her nose. “I’d like that. You’ve dealt with the pirates before. What are they going to do to Danny?”
       Rebecca tried to sound reassuring. “It’ll be okay, Sawyer. When they take somebody hostage, they don’t hurt them. They just hold them for ransom.” Sawyer let her frustrations fly, along with the pencil she’d picked up to jot down anything important in case the pirates called. “It just doesn’t make sense! If they wanted hostages, why didn’t they take us both? Why did they have Danny and I split up first?”
       “With the pirates, who knows? I think they’re crazy. Anyway, maybe Baloo can get an answer out of them. He, Kit and Wildcat are planning on going to see if they can get Danny out of there. Kit used to be an Air Pirate, and he knows where they are.”
       There was silence on the phone for several moments. “They’re going to rescue Danny from the pirates? Don’t leave yet, I’m on my way!” Sawyer said. Rebecca mentally bonked herself for telling her. “But Sawyer, wait! They’re not...Sawyer? Saw-yer!”
       Rebecca waited a few seconds more and hung up the phone. “Me and my big mouth...”

       In one of the wilder cab rides in recorded history, Sawyer zoomed through the streets of Cape Suzette. She’d promised the cabbie a 100-dollar bonus if he could get her to Higher For Hire in five minutes, and the thin-set young bear was giving it his all. After a half-dozen near-misses and a turn that took them up on two wheels, the cab pulled up to the air cargo building with eight seconds to spare. Despite being jounced around like a ping-pong ball, Sawyer readily forked the money over.
       As she ran up the dock, Sawyer found Rebecca and Baloo in the middle of a heated argument. When they saw her, they both pointed at her. “I told you, I ain’t bringing no dames with me on this sleigh ride!” Baloo said. “Going to Pirate Island’s bad enough, but having to watch over you and her? Oh no! Not this bear!”
       “Stop treating us like we’re helpless!” Rebecca shouted. “I can take care of myself!”
       “And I know how to take care of myself too,” Sawyer said, walking up. “The pirates are the ones who are going to have to worry. Look, Baloo, name your price and I’ll pay it.” Baloo shook his head. “Uh-uh, I don’t play it that way. Do you have any idea of what we’re gonna be flying into? Pirate Island’s an active volcano! And then there’s the booby traps and the pirates and all, and...”
       Baloo stopped when he saw Sawyer’s eyes brimming over with tears. “Aw, now don’t go there! This old bear can’t stand it when a dame cries.” Baloo rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ve gotta be the a-number-one fool for this, but come on. Just promise me you’ll stay out of trouble.”
       Sawyer headed for the Sea Duck. “I’m sorry, Baloo, but I make no promises. If Karnage hurts Danny, then Karnage is the one who’s in for trouble.” Baloo sighed and helped Sawyer into the Sea Duck. Rebecca was soon to follow, and with Kit and Wildcat the team was assembled.
       Kit sat in the copilot’s seat and brought out the navigational map, turning to Baloo. “You know they’re going to be expecting something like this, Papa Bear.” Baloo finished his preflight check. “Yeah, they’ll expect some kind of rescue, but I don’t think they’ll be expecting the Sea Duck. They probably don’t remember we know where Pirate Island is.”
       “Well, they know that I know,” Kit said. “But if we come in the back way and stay low, we might just take them unawares. Once we’re up, set your heading west-southwest. We’ll pass by Pirate Island to the north, and then circle back to land at the rear entrance.”
       Baloo powered up the plane. “We’re in your hands, Little Britches. Lead the way!”
       Soon the Sea Duck pulled away from the dock, heading for open water and open skies.

       At the island in question, Karnage and his plundering goon squad had already made Danny feel welcome. Once they were past the giant metal doors that prevented anyone but them from entering their stronghold by the “front door”, they had maneuvered the Iron Vulture into the large opening and into the island itself. Pirate Island was, as Baloo noted, an active volcano with a myriad number of lava-created caves and tunnels. The Vulture was now docked in the largest of these caves.
       The pirates escorted Danny from the dock, Karnage showing him the sights like some eccentric tour guide. They entered a room filled with jewels, gold bars and coins of just about every denomination on the planet. “And this is my little piggy bank!,” Karnage said. “As you can see, the life of a pirate is not without benefit. My treasure room is a source of constant amusement for my glorious self. You know, I could see clear to releasing you, if the incentive was right...”
       “Well, I’m against kidnapping and such, but I’m not in any position to arrest you,” Danny said. “The studio will probably pay whatever ransom you asked, but don’t expect me to think kindly of you when this is all over, mister.”
       Karnage kept on talking like he hardly heard him. “I have been thinking it over in my overly clever mind, and I think that we could be receiving much more money for that beautiful partner of yours. If you were to aid our noble efforts, I could see clear to giving you an even share of the profits. What say you to that?”

       If Karnage had asked him to end the practice of dancing, he couldn’t be any angrier. “So help me, if you ever so much as look at Sawyer I’ll take you apart!” With cat-like reflexes, Danny took a swing at Karnage, nearly clawing him. The pirate leader was more surprised than anything, ending up on his backside.
       Danny was ready to leap on him when Mad Dog and Dumptruck grabbed his arms, holding him back. Karnage stood, dusting himself off. “Really, Danny! Do you know how hard it is to find the good dry-cleaning place out here? Besides, what is this Sawyer to you? True, she is the lovely female, but celebrity-types such as you work with droves of them. Why not join us, and I promise no harm will come to a hair on her dainty head.”
       “She’s the woman I love!” Danny shouted. “And I’m a gentleman, and a gentleman doesn’t plot to kidnap a lady.”
       Karnage raised an eyebrow. “Love, yet! Well, that does put a horse of a different collar on things. As for being the gentlemen, Don Karnage is a pirate of honor, so I will not kill you for that remark. Men, to the dungeon!” Mad Dog and Dumptruck looked confused for a moment, then shrugged their shoulders, turned, and began walking away—without Danny.
       Karnage cleared his throat, bringing them to a halt. “Men, take our guest to the dungeon.”

       With Danny in tow, the pirates took their captive deeper into the bowels of Pirate Island. The dungeon was actually just another cave, with a couple of 10-by-10 foot cells in the cave wall, next to each other. They threw Danny into one and locked the cell door, laughing as they left. Danny tested the strength of the bars—they were a little rusty, but solid enough. Then he saw some movement from the cell adjacent to him and someone stood up.
       It was a female cat with blonde hair, and a deep voice that Danny knew he’d heard somewhere before. “So, they really did get you,” she said. “They bragged they would, but I didn’t think they could pull it off. Are you hurt?” Danny was taken aback when the girl moved into the light. “Kitten Kaboodle? Wow, they’ve been busy. I’m fine, though. Are you okay? Have they been...ungentlemanly toward you?”
       Kitten shook her head, though Danny could see concern in her eyes. “No, nothing like that. You see, I’ve been dating Tom—you know, that hearthrob who’s always chasing that mouse? Well, they figure Tom’ll pay big-time to get me back. The only thing is, he dumped me a couple weeks back but they don’t know it! And I’m sort of scared that when they find out, that they’ll...they’ll...”
       Kitten’s eyes filled up with tears and she turned aside, crying softly into her hands. Danny reached through the bars—his cell shared a wall with hers—and patted her shoulder. “Don’t fret, Kitten, nobody’s getting left behind here. I’ll figure a way out of this...somehow.”
       “I won’t that you’re here,” Kitten said, drying her eyes.

       Shere Khan was a strict creature of habit, which set well with those who served him. It was Saturday, so his personal chef knew he preferred duck a l’orange, beef brisket served au jus, and pork chops in white sauce. His secretary knew that he would review the Wallaby Street Journal and check the futures markets. His personal assistant knew that a fresh gallon of liquid fertilizer should be in place for Khan’s weekly inspection tour of his plants, and his maid knew not to enter his private office until the light went out.
       All of this they knew, but none of them really knew the true Shere Khan. That was just how Khan would have it, though. If there was one thing he knew would make or break a corporation like his, it was the control of the flow of information. That was something his father, Rama Khan, had taught him from his earliest days.
       The Khans had always had an eye for business, and when they had migrated to America from India that business acumen had migrated with them. Vishnu Khan, the first of the Khans in America, had made his fortune in shipping. The family fortune had been passed from generation to generation, growing in stature and stead, until Shere Khan had inherited it. Under his care, the Khan empire had grown to national and indeed world prominence, but still no one truly knew the man who lived at the top of Khan Tower.
       At the moment, he was sitting at his huge oaken desk. Khan had finished his newspaper and had walked over to his immense bookshelves. All of civilized thought and fact was here, and Khan particularly enjoyed reading the autobiographies of conquerors past. He was currently perusing Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul and chuckled as he turned the pages. His assistant Stanford had to break in at this point, which did not thrill him.
       “Pardon me, Mr. Khan, but you asked me to keep you posted,” Stanford said. Khan placed a gold bookmark in the book and focused on the smaller tiger. “Yes, very well. Report.”
       “They said that part one failed. Part two will be underway soon. What does that mean?”
       Khan’s face was like stone. “You are not required to know that. Reply per my instructions. You may go.” The assistant left, kowtowing, and Khan looked back to his book. However, his mind was no longer in ancient France. “So, you resisted the trial of greed. We shall see if beauty can sway you. And failing that...”

       Once the Sea Duck had left Cape Suzette behind, Baloo directed her over the open water, avoiding the usual shipping and cargo plane routes. Rebecca and Sawyer caught up on old times and the latest Cape Suzette gossip while Kit and Wildcat played checkers. Sawyer looked up from her conversation when Baloo turned the plane.
       “Are we there?” Sawyer asked.
       “Naw, not yet,” Baloo said. “Just making the turn that’ll have us coming up on the back side of Pirate Island. Pretty soon we’ll be in fog so thick that you’ll need a jackhammer to bust through it. That’s why most folks steer clear of the islands here—not to mention the volcanoes.”
       “Oh, peachy. Tell me something I don’t know.”
       Wildcat was glad to oblige. “Well, one time I went to this jungle out in the desert, and there were all these dinosaurs—I’ve got models of all of ‘em!—and I was feeding them jelly beans when—”
       “Uh, not right now, Wildcat,” Kit said. “Miss Sawyer, ma’am, what’s it like being in front of those cameras and all? Do you ever get scared of it?” Sawyer could see that while Kit was young, he was savvy. “Of course, but you have to learn to control your fear rather than let it control you. I’m terrified right now of what might happen to Danny, but I can’t let that fear affect me or I won’t be able to help him.”
       Rebecca touched Sawyer’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Sawyer. We’re all in this with you, and we won’t rest until Danny’s free. Do you think he’s holding up okay?” Sawyer took on a wistful grin. “Even though he’s being held for ransom by pirates, I’m sure Danny has a smile on his face and a plan of escape in the works. We work in Hollywood, after all. Kidnapping by pirates isn’t that big a leap from what we deal with on a daily basis.”

Chapter 10 - Adventure, Intrigue and Improvising on Pirate Island

       Danny was barely hanging onto the bars with his left hand, his right going to his throat. “Water! Water! I’m going to...pass out...” Danny fell to the foundation of his cell, sprawled on the rock floor. All was silence for a few moments, then wild applause broke out. He’d been entertaining the pirate guards and Kitten with some of his more memorable on-screen moments.
       Danny jumped up, taking a bow. “Thank you, thank you! You’re a wonderful audience.” Dumptruck in particular was enjoying it, being a longtime fan. “Er, could you do the dancing thingy from ‘All That Pizzazz’?” Mad Dog pushed him aside. “No! I want him to do the umbrella bit from that rain movie!”
       “Guys, guys! There’s plenty of time for all that,” Danny said, then a dinner bell echoed from another cave. “Now, if I’m not mistaken, I think it’s your dinner time.” The guards checked the clock on the wall, and sure enough it was. “Oh, goody! I’m a-starving, yah!” Dumptruck said.

       The guards left, giving Danny a chance to talk with Kitten. “Whew! I needed a break after fifteen scenes. How are you holding up?” Kitten sighed. “Better, now that there’s a friendly face here beside me. I have to admit I’m worried. Who’s going to pay my ransom? The head of my studio probably danced for joy when he heard I was kidnapped. They’d probably pay more for the pirates to keep me than to let me go.”
       “Oh now, I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that. After all, you’re bound to still have some friends back in Hollywood, right?”
       Kitten lowered her head, shaking it. “No, I tried to kill them all.”
       Danny nodded, remembering when her story had hit the papers. Kitten Kaboodle had been one of the hottest new female actors in Hollywood, but her talent had never matched her looks. She’d ended up in second-rate films, and when it appeared her career was taking a downturn she’d decided to stage several accidents to gain publicity for her film. Her mistake came when she finagled Baloo into flying a plane in the film, then tried to sabotage it. Rebecca found her out, and Kitten ended up in jail.
       Danny paused from his reflecting, trying to think of the best way to proceed. “Uh, right. So, what are your plans once you get out of here, other than finding a new boyfriend?” Kitten came over to the barred wall that separated them. “I don’t know. Maybe try to go straight. Hollywood can really tear the heart and soul out of a person. I envy you, Danny. You somehow managed to stay innocent on your climb to the top. I’d give anything to be up there at the top with you,” she said as she reached through the bars, lightly stroking his cheek.
       Danny didn’t come close to catching the innuendo. “Well, all it takes is hard work and dedication! Speaking of which, I suspect that Sawyer’s put together some kind of rescue effort by now. Don’t worry—we’ll get out of this yet.” Kitten reached through the bars with her other hand and took Danny’s hand. “When you say it, I can almost believe it.”

       If Sawyer had known with whom Danny was holding hands, she probably wouldn’t have been a happy camper. At the moment, her attention was on something else entirely. Ten minutes ago, the Sea Duck had entered the fog-laden area surrounding Pirate Island and now they were traveling through clouds that brought their visibility down to near-zero. Sawyer was nervous, but Kit reassured her that they weren’t near any rocky obstacles in their way.
       A few minutes later the fog broke and Sawyer was able to get her first glimpse of Pirate Island. The volcanic island was a dark and craggy thing, with a look to it that bordered on menacing. Rib-like outcroppings of rock protruded out of the water, guarding the back way into the island. Baloo maneuvered the Sea Duck nimbly between these as they landed and entered the cave mouth beyond that formed the island’s back door. Once inside, they took a quick right to avoid being taken down the falls ahead and beached the Sea Duck on the sandy landing. Baloo cut the motor and he and Wildcat got out and secured the plane.
       The others got out and followed, Baloo signaling them to huddle up. “Okay now, here’s the plan: we’re gonna go through the pirates’ workshop and head into the middle of the island. They’ve got cells in there, and that’s most likely where Danny is. You gals stay here and we’ll be back before you can say Jack Frost!”
       “Whoa!” Sawyer said, her voice echoing in the cave. “I’m not sitting here waiting for you. I’m coming with you or I’m going on my own. You got that?” As Baloo prepared to retort, they heard noises coming from the pirates’ workshop and they all headed into the shadows. The echoes made it too hard to catch every word, but they could tell that Don Karnage was warning the other pirates about being ready in case someone showed up. They grabbed up some equipment and headed back into the island’s interior, allowing the invaders to breathe again.
       “All right, now you see why you’re not going?” Baloo said. “Wildcat, Kit, let’s get in there and find us a cat!” Sawyer grabbed Baloo’s wrist and sunk her claws in. “If I’m staying, your hand’s staying here with me.”
       “Yeowch! Okay, okay, but I don’t need to be a Baloo pincushion!”

       Sawyer sheathed her claws and the group as one left the entrance cave and entered the workshop. The room was huge, containing enough equipment to run a good-sized construction company with. This was Ratchet’s domain, the pirates’ inventor and mechanic, who maintained the Iron Vulture and developed new weapons and machinery for their dastardly plots. At the moment, only the hum of a generator filled the huge cavern.
       Keeping to the edge of the walls, the five rescuers moved from one piece of machinery to the next, on the lookout for pirates. When they reached the door on the far side, they found no one to block their path. Baloo motioned them forward and they headed into the pirates’ treasure room. Again they met with no resistance and started down a narrow pathway. Kit stopped before they could continue.
       “Papa Bear, something’s not right,” Kit whispered. “We should’ve seen at least three sentries by now.”
       “Maybe they’re on a snooze break or something,” Baloo whispered back.
       “I wouldn’t count on it,” Kit said, sneaking a look around the corner. Wildcat tapped Baloo’s shoulder. “Baloo, what has eight arms, eight eyes and a big point?” Baloo was in no mood for games. “A spider with an attitude?”
       “No, my silly interloping friend! It is four pirates with an attitude!”

       The group turned to find Karnage and three of his pirate lackeys there, swords drawn. “You will pardon the messiness around here, but that is the price you pay for showing up unannounced!” Baloo looked over the business end of Karnage’s sword. “Hi, Karny. We’ll just grab Danny and be on our way.”
       “Oh, I am not thinking so,” Karnage said, then bowed low to Sawyer and Rebecca. “Ladies, I am honored by your glamorous presence. However, Don Karnage is a pirate and a gentlemen. Two of my comrades here will escort you back to your plane, which we had the good fortune hunting to discover.”
       Sawyer marched right up to him. “Look buster, I’m not going anywhere until I see Danny.” Karnage shrugged. “Very well. Dumptruck, Mad Dog! Bring the toe-tapper out here!”
       The pirates in question obeyed, and soon Sawyer could see that Danny was okay, if at the pirates’ mercy. She rushed up to him and hugged him. “Danny! I was so worried about you! Don’t worry, we’ll get you out of here. Okay, Karnage, what will it take to get us out of here? Do we have to beat you in a fight or something?”
       “Not at all, my feline beauty!” Karnage said, pouring on the charm. “I have already wired to your most worthy studio, and they assure me that my reasonably profitable ransom demand will be met. Once it comes, your fiancé is free to go. Until then, he is my guest, and I must detain your other allies as well. Now, it is time for you to be going.”
       Sawyer looked back at Danny, fearing for him. Danny smiled, putting on his best bravado. “Don’t worry about me. You heard him—L.B.’s probably got someone handling the ransom right now. We’ll be out of here by morning.” Sawyer looked to Rebecca and Baloo, expectant. “That’s it? Don’t we fight it out or something? This isn’t a business transaction. This is kidnapping!”
       Rebecca pointed to the pirate. “Sawyer, if you haven’t noticed, they’re the ones with the guns and swords.” Karnage chuckled. “An excellent observation, Miss Cunningham. And now, it is time for the tearful goodbyes...”

       Sawyer put up a nasty struggle, but the pirates forced her to go with them. Rebecca was with her, and soon they were on their way to the rear of the island. Karnage watched them leave then turned to the dancing cat. “Do not be fearing, Danny. The girl of your dreams will not be harmed. Now, you must return to your private room and these gentlemen will come with us to some special accommodations we have arranged.”
       The “special” accommodations turned out to be several sets of wrist and ankle cuffs with chains that attached Baloo, Kit and Wildcat to the wall of the pirates’ workshop. Meanwhile, Sawyer and Rebecca had entered the rear chamber of the island. In a few minutes, Mad Dog replaced the lackeys who had been guarding the ladies. He forced them into the Sea Duck and began the preflight.
       “I don’t know why Don Karnage is giving up the two of you, but orders are orders,” Mad Dog said. “Go ahead and buckle up, and I’ll get you out of here.” Sawyer was ready to scratch Mad Dog’s eyes out, but Rebecca pulled her into one of the rear seats. “What are you doing!” Sawyer hissed. “We can’t leave Danny and the others stranded out here!”
       “I know, but this takes planning,” Rebecca said. “We’ll need to wait until he’s got the Sea Duck up in air. Then we’ll fix him.”

       Back on Pirate Island, the pirates pushed Danny back into his cell. Soon, he was alone with his frustrations—or almost alone, rather. Kitten could hear him pacing. “What happened out there, Danny? I could hear voices, but couldn’t make out what everyone was saying.”
       “My fiancée and her friends tried to rescue me and now some of them are prisoners here too! I really wish we hadn’t come to this town. People could get hurt.”
       “Oh Danny, I’m so sorry. But I do have some good news.”
       Danny looked at her curiously, wondering what could possibly serve as good news at the moment. “Someone’s paying your ransom?” Kitten smirked at him. “Better. One of my first jobs was working as a magician’s assistant, and I learned a few things. After Dumptruck took you out, he came back and I turned on the old charm for him. And when he wasn’t looking—”
       Kitten produced a set of keys. “Presto!”
       Danny’s face lit up in amazement. “That’s great! Let’s get out of here and rescue our rescuers and get out of here.”
       “My thoughts exactly. When we—”

       They heard the pirates returning, and Kitten hid the keys. Dumptruck and Ratchet came in, and Dumptruck started to open Kitten’s cell to give her a tray of food but found his pocket was empty. “Have you seen the key ring, Rachet? I had it just a few minutes ago.”
       Ratchet crossed his arms, disapproving. “If you didn’t have your ears attached to you, you’d lose them too! Come on, maybe they’re in the workshop.” The piratical duo left, and Kitten wasted no time. She unlocked her door and promptly opened Danny’s cell too. When he came out, she hugged him.
       “I knew we’d make it out of here!” Kitten said.
       Danny started out of the room when Kitten held onto his hand. He turned, and she gave him a meaningful look. “Danny, I can’t hide it anymore. I like you. You’re so brave, and strong-willed. You kept my hopes up and now...” Kitten put a hand on Danny’s face and kissed him lovingly. “Thank you, for everything.”
       Danny’s brain short-circuited for a moment and he blushed. “Gosh, that’s really sweet, miss, but my heart’s already spoken for. I’m sure there’s someone nice out there for you.” Kitten played with one of Danny’s ears. “Are you really sure, Danny? We could leave here and set off for the tropics or anyplace you like. No one would know. All it takes is a ‘yes’...”
       “No,” Danny said, firmly. “In other circumstances I’d be upset at what you’re asking, but we’re both a bit bothered and bewildered to be here. Just get hold of yourself and we’ll find a way out of here.”
       Kitten grimaced and her eyes filled with tears. “You don’t care about me? Not even a little bit?” Danny turned to see if any pirates were coming. “Not in the way you’re talking about. What’s gotten into you? We’re prisoners on Pirate Island and you’re acting like this is a romantic interlude!” Kitten became angry and punched Danny’s arm. “Fine! Have it your way, then!”
       With a huff, Kitten turned around and marched toward the door, only to find Don Karnage there to meet her. “So, trying to check out without paying, eh? Well, nevermind. I overheard your little conversation before. Your ransom has been paid after all, Miss Kaboodle. It would seem your boyfriend is more loyal than you had thought. Ratchet, take her back to the mainland! As for the dancing cat...”
       Danny rolled his eyes. “I know, I know. Back in the cell.”

       While Danny did an about-face, on the Sea Duck Rebecca had just given Sawyer the signal. They’d both stayed quiet and acted frightened, and their tactic had lulled Mad Dog into complacency. With his attention now elsewhere, the two ladies crept up to the front. Rebecca was about to pounce on the pirate when Sawyer reached into her purse. She whistled low at Mad Dog, who turned around just in time to receive a kiss from Sawyer’s brass knuckles.
       Mad Dog went down in a heap, and while Sawyer tied him up Rebecca took over the pilot’s chair. In a minute Sawyer rejoined her friend, removing the heavy weapon from her hand. “I always say a lady can’t be too careful. Besides, it comes in handy when the press gets too pushy. You do know how to fly this thing, right?”
       Rebecca took hold of the stick. “Yeah—well, sort of.”
       “Sort of? Sort of ‘yes’, or sort of ‘no’?” Sawyer asked.
       Rebecca checked the instruments in front of her. “I’ve flown the Sea Duck a couple of times, and Baloo’s given me some pointers too so I think I can get us back to where we were. Now let’s see...this one controls the air speed...”
       Rebecca pulled a knob, which opened the cargo hold. “Or not. Don’t worry, it’ll come back to me...” Sawyer cringed in the co-pilot’s seat. “All the same, I’m glad this is an amphibious plane. How are we going to get the guys out of that jam? We’re outnumbered!”
       “I don’t know, but we’ll figure something out. Maybe we can find something in their workshop to help us. Oboy, hang on...” Rebecca turned the plane around and now they were nearing the fogbank that surrounded Pirate Island. She had found the lever to lower the air speed, and now she remembered what Baloo had done to get the plane down in this pea soup and did her best to imitate him, gritting her teeth. “C’mon, baby! Mama needs a new pair of shoes!”
       Sawyer glanced over and noticed Becky wasn’t wearing shoes. “I hope you know what you’re doing or they’ll be cleaning us up with a shovel.”

       Back in the dungeon, Danny was locked up tighter than a tutu on Tillie. The pirates had harangued him some, jeering about his escape attempt. Now they left, apparently to go off and celebrate their captures. That was all Danny had been waiting for. “She may have been a magician’s assistant, but I know a trick or two myself.”
       Danny produced the key ring that Kitten had procured earlier—he knew that something was wrong about her when she kissed him, and when she’d thrown herself at him the second time he’d deftly lifted the keys from her. As quietly as possible, he unlocked the door and tiptoed out to where he could peek into the next room. There was no one, but when he was about halfway across he heard Dumptruck coming. Quickly he ducked into a dark shadowy part of the room and waited.
       The dull-witted Swede pirate came in, apparently about to go check on him. Danny thought fast, and then he remembered a trick he’d learned from some of the vaudeville stars he’d worked with. Working his larynx, the cat threw his voice across the room so that it sounded like Don Karnage, speaking from the treasure room. “Dumptruck, you sloppy slob of slowness! You had best be putting your face before mine before I chop your unthinking head off!”
       Dumptruck held onto his hat, not liking the sound of the chopping part. “Oh yah, coming right avay, Don Karnage!” Danny crossed the room after Dumptruck did and saw the confused pirate in there, scratching his head. “Where’d you go?” Dumptruck asked.
       “I am invisible, you sorry teacher’s excuse for a pirate!” Danny said.
       Dumptruck nodded, stupefied. “Oh, that was my next guess...” Danny grinned—the trick was working. “You will be doing me a favor, and take all the gold bricks on the left side of the room and be stacking them on the right side of the room, yes-no?”
       “Er, okie-dokie. But why would you want that?”
       “BECAUSE I LIKE THEM OVER THERE!” That was all the persuasion Dumptruck needed. He started moving the bricks, one by one. Danny smirked and headed for the workshop.

       At Khan Tower, the stolid tiger had been enjoying cutting back one of his hibiscus trees when an alert came over a radio set he had ordered installed in his office. Khan walked over and flipped the key on the console, grabbing the microphone. “Report, captain.”
       “Sir, we’ve spotted the Sea Duck returning to Pirate Island,” an official-sounding voice said. “Looks like they’ve double-crossed you.”
       Khan raised an eyebrow. “Indeed? Well, you know what to do.”
       “Yes, sir. We’ll make sure he won’t break another deal again.”

Chapter 11 - A Private Talk, The Dancing Duelist, The Price of Honor, and Rebecca’s Coup de Grace

       Sawyer had already buckled her safety belt, but she didn’t feel safe by any means. They were headed into the fog now, looking for a place to land, and hoping not to collect a hood ornament the size of Mount Rushmore. Becky nosed the plane down and in a few moments it was possible to see a little farther.
       Sawyer pointed off to the right. “Look, there’s a clear area! Well, as long as you can keep it between those two little islands...”
       “Looks good to me!” Rebecca said. She turned hard, the tip of the Sea Duck’s right wing actually brushing the water. Easing the throttle back, Rebecca let the Sea Duck go down until it was touching the waves and then cut the power. The plane began to slow, and Rebecca and Sawyer held their collective breath as they passed perilously close between two rock outcroppings a dozen feet high.
       They stopped, or rather began to drift, and soon bumped into a third outcropping they hadn’t seen for the fog. Rebecca went to the cargo hold and opened it, letting out some of the line on the electric winch. This she attached to the rock they were next to, and the plane was now anchored.
       “There, that should handle things for now. Well, not too bad for a businessperson,” Rebecca said, satisfied with herself. Sawyer joined her at the hold. “Okay, what’s the next step How are we going to find the guys?” Rebecca looked around and pointed to an item on one of the shelves. “Aha! I knew Baloo kept an inflatable raft back here somewhere. Help me get it down and we’ll see about pumping it up.”
       Sawyer and Rebecca quickly got the raft unpacked and inflated, and soon they were on the water, quietly paddling their way to the island. As they headed through the chill and the dampness, Sawyer voiced her thoughts. “Becks, why did Baloo and the others come along? They don’t know Danny and me. Why’d they put themselves in danger like that?”
       Rebecca picked her way through the fog, looking back after a moment to answer. “Oh, they’d do that for anybody. Baloo, Kit, Wildcat—they all believe in doing what’s right. I do too, for that matter.” Rebecca pulled out a compass she’d grabbed from the Sea Duck’s stores and pointed. “Now the island should be east of here, so let’s go this way...”

       They followed the compass, rowing through the thick fog. It was an oppressive atmosphere and gave Rebecca the feeling of being alone. She decided to take her mind off of it. “So, once we’re out of this, I bet you’re looking forward to the wedding and a quiet honeymoon somewhere.”
       “Being anywhere would be better than being here right now,” Sawyer said. “I knew love wouldn’t be easy, but Danny getting kidnapped and fighting pirates out in the middle of nowhere wasn’t anywhere in the description.”
       Rebecca gave out a sarcastic laugh. “Tell me about it! Considering all the times that Baloo and I have been through this sort of thing, it’s amazing that either of us is in one piece.” Sawyer was confused by that. “Then why do you keep working together?”
       Rebecca kept looking ahead, paddling. “Well, I don’t’s just been a good business partnership I guess. I own the Sea Duck and the business, and Baloo works for me.” Rebecca stifled a chuckle. “When I can get him to work, that is. He’s the laziest guy I know and has more excuses for going to Louie’s than I can count. Still, he’s always there in the clutch, and I know he’d give his right arm to save me or any of his other friends.”
       “That’s what really matters,” Sawyer said. “It took me a long time to find a guy like that.” Rebecca nearly dropped her paddle and she turned around, spluttering. “No, no! He’s not my guy. It’s not like that! Uh, you see, we’re just friends and all and we look out for each other. There’s nothing more to it, really.”
       Sawyer’s sly look belied her response. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize...”
       Rebecca’s cheeks were hot, and when she turned around to start paddling again she felt guilty for some reason. What was wrong with her? All Sawyer had done was mistaken her and Baloo what? Sure, they’d had some good times together and even a couple of intimate ones, but Baloo was far from being a man about town. He was crude, uncultured, insensitive, gauche, common and...
       “I’m sorry about that, Sawyer,” Rebecca said. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess after all the time I’ve spent trying to make a name for myself in the business world, I haven’t really let myself think about a man that way.” An uncomfortable silence fell over them, both realizing they had said too much, then Rebecca started again. “We should catch them off guard. They won’t be expecting our return.”
       “Yeah. Well, never let it be said awkward moments only come on land. I think I see it now, Becks. Off to the left!” Sawyer said, pointing.

       Indeed, the ribcage rocks that guarded the rear entrance were just visible. Rebecca gratefully headed for them, anything being preferable to continuing the conversation. Once they’d entered the back way, they paddled hard for the shore to the right to avoid the waterfall. After they had pulled the raft behind some rocks to hide its presence, they silently stole into the island’s interior.
       Their timing was good, and as Sawyer had said surprise was on their side. The pirates were at their ease now and it was an simple matter to sneak past the few guards walking about and slip into the workshop unnoticed. The guys were glad to see them, but obviously concerned too. They started talking as the ladies approached, whispering.
       “What’re you two doing back here?” Baloo said. “This ain’t no cookout here, Becky!”
       “Shut up, Baloo. I’m here because I can’t leave any of you in danger. Let’s hurry and get out of here.”
       Sawyer studied the cuffs. “How are we going to open these locks, Becks? We don’t have the keys!” Wildcat replied right off. “Well, all you need is a good mold and the original, plus some melted metal and all. Personally, I like gold keys ‘cause they’re all shiny. Or you could just use that hammer and chisel over there on the table and bust the locks. Of course, silver’s kinda nice too.”
       Becky quickly rushed to the workbench and got what she needed. Sawyer kept watch. With difficulty, Becky opened Baloo’s restraints and gave him a hammer and chisel as well and shortly they were all free.
       “What about Danny?” Kit asked.
       “We’ll get him out,” Baloo said. “Everyone grab something heavy and follow me!”

       Armed with everything from a sledgehammer to an oversized slide rule, the five of them headed for the front exit of the workshop. Baloo signaled when he saw someone coming, and they all lifted their makeshift weapons. Baloo was ready to conk the interloper on the head when Sawyer recognized the form and stopped him.
       “DANNY!” She launched herself at him, gathering him in a vise grip. Danny was surprised, happy, and fighting for breath. “Hey, everyone! Say, what’re you all doing crouching in the shadows with those weapons of house construction?”
       When Baloo saw it was Danny, he breathed a royal sigh of relief, as did Rebecca, Kit and Wildcat. “Well, whattaya know? Actors can do their own stunts!” Baloo said. Danny took hold of Sawyer’s hand. “Okay, nothing can stop us now. We’ll be out of here in a jiffy!”
       “I think it is going to be more than one jiffy, my show-stopping friend.”
       Danny turned to find Karnage there, alone, but armed with a sword. He motioned them out of the workshop into the large cavern that housed the Iron Vulture. This main room was lined with weapons and Danny walked to a nearby receptacle in the wall and picked up a sword of his own.
       “Okay, Karnage,” Danny replied, “I’m normally a nice guy, but kidnapping me definitely crosses the ‘not-nice’ line.” Karnage looked at him, almost laughing. “And so the brave dancing cat is going to fight Don Karnage, master of the swordplay? I think a few of your screwdrivers are loose!”
       “So do I!” Sawyer said. “Danny, you can’t fight him!”
       Danny put Sawyer behind him. “Don’t worry, Sawyer, I’ll get us out of this. Karnage and me are going to settle this, one to one.” Karnage raised his sword and Danny felt the fur rise on the back of his neck. “Uh, well, on guard!”

       Karnage chuckled and whiffed his sword in the air, amused. He knew Danny was outclassed, but he was also in the mood for some bravado before humiliating this cat. The pirate circled, and so did Danny. He stabbed at him and Danny dodged, using his dancing skills to his advantage.
       “So, you can maneuver well, eh? Let us see how your sword sings when I play the swansong on it!” Karnage said. Danny had done a little swordplay in his time. He’d learned some from the movie coaches, but just enough to look good. Right now, he was just managing to hold his own as the blades clashed and clanged against each other. Danny concentrated on defense, blocking Karnage’s attacks, and hoped for a miracle.
       For his part, Karnage was amused at this ploy. “Well, you do know something of the fencing, dancing cat. But you are no match for the prince of plunder! Now I will be humbling you in the face of my superior and dashing self.”
       Danny steadied himself to take on another attack, then his attention was drawn by something else. He pointed behind Karnage. “Look out!” Karnage couldn’t believe Danny would try something like that. “Come, come! You do not think you can pull the steel wool over—”

       But Danny didn’t give Karnage the change to finish his sentence. He’d seen two panthers in pilot gear sneaking up, pointing guns. Danny lunged and knocked Karnage to the ground just at the guns went off. The bullets went over their heads, and in a moment Karnage had rushed to a red button on the wall and pushed it. Red alert klaxons sounded throughout the island, and before the pilots could close in and finish the job, they were surrounded and disarmed by Karnage’s minions.
       Karnage straightened his colorful clothes. “So, you have come to do harm to the great Don Karnage, eh?” One of the pilots, wearing captain’s bars, spoke up. “Khan sent us to make sure you didn’t hurt his friends.” Karnage poked the tip of his sword just under the captain’s chin. “I will be calling your boss about this, and I will at least be getting a little ransom for your impolite selves. Then you can tell Shere Khan that I do not like anyone telling me what I will and will not do! To the dungeon!”
       A couple of the pirates started walking off without the pilots, and Karnage picked up one of the pilot’s guns, shooting it off in the air. “Did you learn nothing last time? Now, take them away!” The goons hastily escorted the pilots, then Karnage turned his attention to Danny. “And as for you...” Danny took up a fencing position. “Ready for more?” Karnage laid down his sword. “You were risking your life to save mine, Danny. You are a cat of honor, so I am forfeiting the match to you. Men, let them go.”
       Ratchet looked at Karnage, dumbfounded. “What did you say?”
       “Are you deaf and stupid? Let them go!” Karnage said, pushing the pirates off of prisoners. The pirates obeyed, confused. Baloo was as confused as the rest of them, but grateful to be going free. “Thanks Karny. We’ll just be scooting out the door now…”
       “Oh no, we won’t!” Rebecca said, producing a piece of paper. “Mr. Karnage, I need your autograph.” Karnage was surprised. “You want my wondrous autograph? Well, of course, Miss Cunningham. Don Karnage is always happy to oblige a fan.”
       Rebecca produced a blank piece of paper, save for a dotted line at the bottom. Karnage signed, and Rebecca smiled back. “Thank you ever so much, Karnage. You have no idea how much this means to me.” Karnage bowed again, eating up the attention. “A woman of your obvious good taste is always a welcome guest here.”
       Sawyer wasn’t satisfied, though, and she walked up to the pirate leader. “All right, who put you up to this? Don’t tell me you and these yahoos came up with the idea!” Rebecca pointed toward the way out. “No time to argue, Sawyer, let’s get out of here!”
       Karnage for his part was unflappable. “This fellow saved me, so I am returning the favor. You may all be going now, but next time we meet I will not be rolling out the red carpets for you.” Baloo knew the better part of valor when he saw it. “I’m not going to look this gift horse in the mouth. Let’s make like a banana and split!”
       “Thanks again, Karnage,” Danny said. “You know, for a ruthless pirate, you’re a pretty nice guy.” Karnage bowed. “Just be sure not to be spreading the word around. I have my merciless reputation to be upholding, after all. And if you know any good directors I could invite for my film, be letting me know!”

       The gang headed for the raft but there were too many of them to make the trip to the Sear Duck at once. Baloo and Kit remained behind, and Wildcat returned for them presently. Once they’d all piled into the plane, Baloo fired up the engines. “Music to a bear’s ears. Time to lose this place like a bad memory!”
       It took a little doing, but Baloo’s skill soon had them up in the air. As everyone settled in, Sawyer realized something didn’t add up. “Baloo, who were those guys that fired at Karnage? They certainly weren’t his own men.”
       “Naw,” Baloo said. “Those were some of Khan’s elite pilot squadron.”
       Sawyer stood up. “Now wait a minute—Khan’s men were there? Baloo, isn’t this island supposed to be secret or something? How did Khan’s men know how to get there?”
       “If there’s one thing I know in life…” Baloo started.
       “That’s debatable,” Rebecca quipped.
       Baloo cleared his throat. “If there’s one thing I know in life, it’s not to ask questions about Shere Khan. He probably knows about the pirates since they get in his fur too. He must’ve sent some men to bust you two out.” Rebecca nodded. “It makes sense. You come to his city under his protection and pirates kidnap you right under his nose. It can’t be good publicity for his company.”
       “Or his radio shows,” Kit said. “Jell-O sales are probably already down.”
       Wildcat brightened. “Oh, I like Jell-O! Especially I like making molds with it, sort of like keys, but Jell-O keys don’t open anything. I’ve got this one mold of a submarine that’s really neat and when I eat a Jell-O submarine I pretend like I’m this giant squid!”
       Danny had learned to ignore Wildcat’s prattling. “That’s what his men said, too. They were there to make sure we all came back okay.” Sawyer turned that over in her mind. “We all came back okay? Is that exactly what they said?”
       “Uh, yeah. What are you getting at, Sawyer?”
       “I’m not sure. But I think once we’re back I’m going to pay a visit to the illustrious Mr. Khan and tell him a few things.”

       Baloo had nothing of the sort on his mind. “Whatever the reason, I’m just glad to be outta there! We end up meeting Karnage far too often. Becky, I think after this we deserve a vacation, or maybe we could make a detour to Louie’s on the way back.”
       “Don’t even think of it, Baloo. We need to get back home and alert the authorities and get Sawyer back to her father. Get on the radio and let the Cape know we’re coming back. We don’t want to get shot down by the cliff guns.”
       “Too late, Becky, I already thought about it. But I guess it can wait for now. Say, what was the idea of getting Karnage’s John Hancock on that piece of paper, anyway?”
       Rebecca grinned, pulling out the paper. “You mean this? Oh, I just thought it would come in handy.” After a moment, she took what was actually a cover page off, revealing a legal document. Baloo just stared. “Is that what I think it is?”
       “You bet it is!” Rebecca said. “Karnage acknowledges that he was the cause of all the accidents itemized in our tax returns.” Baloo laughed until he started to cry. “Becky, that’s amazing! I’ve heard of craftiness, but you’ve got the crafter to beat ‘em all! Wait’ll I tell the guys about this one—it’ll spread farther than manure in summer!”
       “Not until we have the IRS man cosign it,” Rebecca warned. “After that, well, you can let them know that the superior businessperson won.” Sawyer patted her on the back. “I’m glad you’re on our side, Becks.”

Chapter 12 - An Unpleasant Meeting and The Truth Revealed

       In his sitting room, Jared poured himself a cup of herbal tea. In front of him on the coffee table was a large manila envelope, sealed. He hadn’t taken his eyes from it for the last hour because he knew its contents and how it was about to change his life forever. Jared had been relieved a few minutes ago when he’d received a phone call that Sawyer and Danny were okay. He’d been worried ever since she’d left to go to Baloo’s. Now, however, he was more worried and the source of that phone call had everything to do with it.

       He sipped his tea, recalling the events of the last hour:

       “A Mr. Katzenheimer to see you, sir,” Ms. Snarly said over the intercom. Khan pressed the reply button. “Very well. Send him in.”
       When the tiger-stripe doors opened, Jared found Shere Khan engaged in pruning back some of the foliage that decorated his office. Khan continued his work, talking. “I expected your call of course, Dr. Katzenheimer. However, I am at a loss as to why you should wish to see me in person so urgently.”
       Jared stormed up to Khan. “How could you do it, Khan! I didn’t think even you would be this cruel!” Khan removed the gardening gloves he had been wearing, his face revealing nothing. The mogul motioned Jared to a chair, facing his desk, and Khan enthroned himself behind it. “Cruelty is a relative term, doctor. It is reserved for those who wish to be protected from those with power and influence. My time is valuable—come to the point of your visit.”
       Standing up, Jared slammed a fist down on Khan’s desk. “How could you put Sawyer and Danny through your perverse little test?” Khan waited a beat or two before responding. “It is understood that none of this conversation will be repeated outside this office. As to the ‘test’ you refer to, it is none of your affair. This is business, and in matters of business I make the rules.”
       Khan stood up as well, leaning over on his desk. “However, I can assure you they will come to no harm. I think you know why.” Jared wasn’t intimidated, staring Khan down. “You make me sick! Sawyer’s just a thing to you, like everyone else you meddle with!”
       “An apt description. However, I never go back on a deal. Good day, Dr. Katzenheimer.”
       Jared stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind him. Khan returned to his desk, looking over to the drawer he had drawn the picture frame from before, and this time he took the frame in both of his hands and stared at it long and hard. “Francesca...I know what you’re thinking, but I won’t be swayed. There is too much at stake. I promised you, but that does not mean I cannot look out for myself.”
       Khan put the frame away, grimacing. In a few minutes, he returned to Caesar in Gaul and did his best to forget the emotions that had briefly made him speak so openly.

       Jared’s tea had long since grown cold while thinking on the meeting, but he had not noticed. He did notice when someone came in the door, and he knew instinctively it was Sawyer. Randolph showed her in, per his instructions. Sawyer walked in and rushed to her father’s waiting arms. “Dad, I tell you, I don’t know what else could happen today to make my life...more...what is it?”
       She’d seen the look on his face and it brought her up short. He motioned for her to sit down. “My girl, I’ve got some things to tell you. It’s not going to be easy, but I’d rather you heard it from me than someone else.” Sawyer stumbled to a seat and looked at him with concern. “What’s wrong? What’s happened? Are you okay?”
       Jared seemed about to speak when he stopped himself. “I’m all right, really. It’s just the strain and all of being concerned about you and Danny. I know I shouldn’t let myself worry like that—after all, you’re a grown woman. But after all these years, I’m still a doting father.”
       Sawyer smiled, hugging him. “And a caring one. If you don’t mind, I think I’m going to go ahead and grab some shuteye. Danny’s waiting for me back at the hotel, and I just popped in to let you see I’m okay.”
       “Okay, princess, sleep well. Please, stop by for breakfast so we can talk.”
       “Okay, dad. Going to treat me to those famous Belgian waffles of yours?”
       Jared nodded, trying to smile. “Sure, whatever you want.”

       Sawyer waved goodbye and Jared walked to the window as he watched her head for her cab. He felt like a real heel for not speaking what was truly on his mind, but he was torn between his need to protect her on one side and his duty to speak out on the other. When breakfast time came, Sawyer was there with bells on and Jared had fixed an extra-large batch of waffles.
       “Oh, I remember when I used to live on these!” Sawyer said. “Dad, I still say you should’ve sold the recipe. It’s worth its weight in gold!”
       Sawyer ate some more and when her father didn’t chime in she spoke again. “Danny was sorry about missing breakfast with us, but he wanted to meet with Mr. Benny about possibly scheduling a tour and this morning was the only time they could get together.”
       “I’m glad he wasn’t more putout by his kidnapping and I’m glad you weren’t either, of course,” Jared said. Sawyer poured on some more syrup. “Oh, once Danny and Karnage were reconciled, it was like another personal appearance for him. As for me, Karnage was never willing to put me or Becks in danger. Whether it was his sense of honor or something else, I don’t know.”
       “Yes, that sounds about right,” Jared said, standing up. “Uh, Sawyer, there’s something I need to give you. Now that you’re going to be married soon there’s something your mother left for you...a letter.”
       That stopped Sawyer cold. “From mom? But why didn’t you give it to me sooner?” Jared produced the large envelope. “She wanted me to give it to you when the time was right, but when is any time ever the right time?” He set it on the table in front of her. “When you read it you’ll understand my hesitation.”
       Jared got up and straightway left the room. Sawyer didn’t quite know what to make of her father’s words or actions. She looked at the manila envelope in front of her: it was addressed to her, and in a handwriting that she didn’t recall. Then again, she’d been so young when her mother passed on. For all the life she remembered, it was pretty much herself and Jared. Now, a part of her past was staring her in the face.

       Sawyer turned the envelope over and unwound a string that held the envelope’s flap down. A letter opener sufficed for the rest of the unsealing. The first thing to catch Sawyer’s eye was a white letter-sized envelope with the words “read this first” on it. Sawyer took the envelope in her hands, then slowly opened the flap with the letter opener. The letter inside was on plain white paper, and was hand-written.

       Sawyer’s eyes grew wide at the implications of that statement. She sat up straight from reading the letter, letting it go from her hand. She wasn’t Jared’s daughter? It seemed impossible—from her earliest memory, she could recall Jared being there. What then could it mean? Sawyer looked back to the letter again, not sure that she wanted to continue but knowing she had to.

       Sawyer dropped the letter again, her hands coming up in reflex to cover the shocked gasp from her mouth. She shook her head, trying to deny, to forget the words she’d read on the page. How? How could this thing be? Sawyer stood up, dazed, walking around the kitchen a couple of times. She felt like a caged animal with no way out. Of all the people on the planet, her father was Khan?
       Pouring herself a cup of coffee, Sawyer sat back down at her stool, and, after another minute, turned the letter over to page two:

       Sawyer drank some more coffee, hardly daring to breathe as she turned to page three and continued reading:

       Sawyer put the letter down and began to cry. She looked through the rest of the larger envelope, finding documents that proved what her mother said was true beyond all doubt. After she composed herself, she went to find Jared. She found him in the study, smoking a pipe, something he only did on the rarest of occasions. He looked up at her. “Sawyer, how do you feel?”
       It took a few moments for her to find words again. “I don’t know, I...I never suspected. Does Khan know about you?” Jared nodded. “Khan kept an eye on your mother and I from the start. His influence was always there in some shadowy form.”
       Still dazed, Sawyer came and sat down in a nearby chair. She looked at the man she’d called father all of her life and realized for the first time that he wasn’t. “Do you would’ve approved of how I came out, and of Danny?” Jared smiled. “She’s be positively thrilled. One of her fears was that Khan would gain control over you and make you one of his minions. The fact you’ve become a success on your own was her greatest wish, and mine as well.”
       Sawyer managed a small smile in return at that. “I guess that could explain why I was driven to succeed, being his daughter. And you never told me—I know I ought to be screaming at you, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to. I guess mom realized that you’d treat me better than Khan ever would and it looks like she was right about that. Khan might be my father, but you’re my dad. I’m going to have to go talk with him, though.”
       Jared hesitantly hugged his daughter, hoping she wouldn’t object now. “He’s a hard-hearted man, but he did love you and your mother enough to let you go.” Sawyer grabbed on to Jared’s neck tightly, letting the tears come. “Don’t you ever let me go, dad...”
       “Don’t worry sweetheart, I’ll always be there for you. Now go, do what you must.”

Chapter 13 - Unexpected Benefits and Showdown at Khan Tower

       Sawyer told the cabdriver outside to head for Khan Tower, but as soon as she heard herself say it she knew she wasn’t quite ready for that. She needed Danny, and she also needed to see how her friends were. Fortunately all of the above were at Higher for Hire. A quick change in course and fifteen minutes had her in front of the old building, which she was now beginning to think of more as a home than a business. Sawyer was halfway down the pier when Rebecca saw her and began running to her, excited.
       “We’re cleared! We’re cleared!” Before Sawyer could wonder what that meant, Rebecca had caught her up in a heartfelt hug. “Oh, this is the best day of my life! I don’t know how you did it, but I’ll never forget you for this!”
       Sawyer was at a total loss. “How did I do what? What happened?”
       Rebecca was too happy to catch on to her confusion. “Oh, don’t be modest! You helped to clear things up with that IRS agent that’s been auditing us. This morning he comes by and we had the money and Karnage’s signature. I don’t mind telling you, I was worried sick that despite it all we were going out of business. Sawyer, not only did he apologize, he found that I’d overpaid in back taxes by five thousand dollars!”
       Rebecca went off, squealing with pleasure, and Danny emerged from the building’s front door. “Hi there!” Danny hugged Sawyer, then noticed the strange look on her face. “Hey, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve got it in for somebody. Hope it’s not me...”
       Sawyer hugged Danny back. “Danny, I’m good. After everything we’ve been through lately, it’ll just take a little while to get over it. Plus we still have the wedding to deal with.” That brought a smile to Danny’s face. “Oh yeah, can’t forget that! Which remind me, my family got delayed. Mom called me this morning and they’re still in Kokomo—something about having trouble getting everyone’s schedules togther. That’s probably good, because we haven’t decided on exactly where we’re having the ceremony. Uh, speaking of that, Baloo and I were talking and uh...”
       Giving Danny a sideways glance, Sawyer took on an “I know what’s coming” expression. “Okay big guy, spill it.” Danny cleared his throat and continued. “Anyway, I mentioned how much we enjoyed our first visit to Louie’s, and Baloo suggested we have the wedding there. Hey, what do you think?”
       Sawyer loosed her claws and brought them up, then laughed when she saw Danny starting to panic and hugged him. “We’ll have the swingingest wedding ever! That sounds better than some ordinary church.” From across the way, Baloo waved as he approached. “Oh, baby! This is one scene I won’t dare to miss. I’ll let Louie know, Sawyer! He’ll deck the island out chuck full of class for ya!”
       “And we’ll spare no expense, as the studio has agreed to pick up the tab,” Sawyer said. “After all we’ve been through, it’s the least they can do for us.” Kit was right in there with that. “Well, you can bet we’ll be looking forward to it, Miss Sawyer, ma’am. It’s going to be the biggest event to hit Cape Suzette in years!”
       Sawyer had her own thoughts on what would qualify for that title. “Come on, Danny. I need to run uptown for a little while. We’ll see you again tomorrow!”

       As they headed away from Higher for Hire, Danny noticed Sawyer’s scowl he’d seen earlier returning and her pace quickening. Whatever was ahead, it surely wasn’t shopping. When they were in the cab, he asked her what was up but she put him off, ordering the driver to head for their hotel. When they got out of the cab, Danny couldn’t hold off any longer.
       “Sawyer, what’s this all about?” Danny asked.
       “It’s some personal business,” Sawyer said, staying next to the cab. “Dad gave me a letter that mom wrote me years back and there were some surprises in it. I’m not really ready to talk about it yet—I just need a little time to think. None of this affects my feelings about you, though. It’s just some things in my family’s past.”
       Danny nodded. “Say no more, Sawyer. You still headed uptown?”
       “Yes. Make reservations at the best restaurant in town and we’ll have a romantic candlelit dinner tonight.”
       “You got it, Starlight.”

       Sawyer kissed him goodbye then got back in the cab. The afternoon traffic downtown made the trip more adventuresome than Sawyer would have liked, but her slight annoyance at the cabby’s driving skills melted when she saw Khan Tower steadily growing larger though the cab’s right rear window.
       After Sawyer paid the cabbie, she walked up to the stylish oversized glass doors. A doorman opened them, bowing slightly to her respectfully. Sawyer went to the information desk and found Ms. Snarly in attendance. “I’d like to see Mr. Khan. I don’t have an appointment.”
       “That won’t be necessary. Mr. Khan’s expecting you,” Ms. Snarly said.
       Of course he is, Sawyer thought. He probably had someone tailing me the whole time. Sawyer got into a large elevator and rode it to the top of the tower. When she got out, Khan’s lackey Stanford was there, waiting to escort her in. Well, he’s being nice about it so far. Let’s see how he likes a piece of my mind.
       Stanford preceded Sawyer as they entered Khan’s huge office. Khan was facing away from them, sitting in his huge office chair. “That will be all, Stanford. Tell Ms. Snarly to hold my calls and cancel the meeting with the senator.” Stanford nodded, exiting respectfully. Sawyer slowly padded across the plush carpeting, stopping when she reached Khan’s desk. He still hadn’t turned around, so she took a seat in one of the two chairs available to her.
       “Hello, father.”
       Khan’s chair squeaked a little as he leaned forward, as if appreciating the view through the plate-glass window. “Your mother would doubtless find this moment satisfying. She disapproved of me and my methods. Francesca was determined that I was to have no influence on you, and she did so.” Khan turned around, facing Sawyer. “You are...not dissimilar in appearance to the way she was at your age. I was fond of her.”
       Sawyer’s eyes were like ice. “Not fond enough, obviously.”
       The mogul took a moment to soak her in. Sawyer had that same aloofness that he’d come to know so well in himself. “Fondness has myriad forms of expression, some not so obvious as others,” Khan noted. “However, I suspect you have guessed one such form by now. I knew she was your friend, and that she had aided you in your aspirations. Miss Cunningham, while not the daughter I could have helped—had Francesca allowed it—provided me with an outlet of occasional benevolence that no one would associate with the true target of my largesse.”
       Sawyer pressed the issue. “What does this have to do with Becks? Did you have something to do with that IRS business?” Khan allowed a slight smile to form. “Then you did perceive my handiwork. Since I knew you would never accept assistance from me directly, nor was I able to provide it by reason of my promise to your mother, I chose to assist your benefactress. I have aided her efforts from time to time.”

       Sawyer, who had been resting her arms on Khan’s desk suddenly sank her claws into the desktop and pulled them back, gouging deep grooves in its surface. “It’s my life! You have no right to do anything to anyone in it to appease your guilty conscience!”
       Khan just sat there, his hands folded in front of him, and Sawyer’s eyes narrowed down to slits as she continued. “Becks is my age, but she’s a widow trying to raise a daughter and run a business and deal! Did you have...” Khan shook his head. “No. I had nothing to do with the death of her husband. People do die of natural causes, on occasion.”
       The financial giant stood up, turning his back on her once more and looking out the window again, his hands folded behind his back. “I’ve destroyed many dreams, including some of my own. I make no apologies, nor any excuses. Where I perceive I owe a debt, I pay it. Where I feel I have been maligned, I pay that debt as well.”
       “You owe her all right, because she did what you didn’t have the guts to do!” Sawyer countered, the pain evident in her voice. “She was there for me when it mattered!”

       Shere Khan turned sharply at this, and for a brief moment Sawyer wondered if he was reacting to her calling him a coward. He simply opened a locked drawer on the right side of his desk, taking from it a specially-crafted framed picture. Khan handed it to Sawyer. “You are the only person other than myself and Francesca to see this picture. It was taken two days after our marriage. It was a...different…time, then.”
       Sawyer looked from him to the photograph. It was certainly a different image of Khan than any she would have dreamed up. Khan and Francesca were on the beach. There he was, stripes and all, dressed in swim trunks and actually cavorting with her. She was wearing a one-piece swimsuit, laughter frozen on her face. Khan was right—she was quite similar-looking to her mother.
       “For a time, I put aside my ambitions and lived life through your mother’s eyes,” Khan continued. “She loved living, and every day was an adventure to her. So it was for me, for a time.” Sawyer was confused. “Why didn’t you let her go before the marriage and save yourselves all that heartache?”
       “As Robert Burns said, ‘to see her was to love her’. Love still blinds. And for a time, that was enough. But my purpose had been too long instilled in me. I had to see it though, and Francesca never forgave me for that.”
       “She had every right to,” Sawyer said. “I’ve seen big shots like you in Hollywood. Money is life to people like you, and you think the world revolves around you. Danny’s kidnapping, that was your doing too, wasn’t it? You’ve probably been manipulating both of us since we got into town.”
       Khan focused his predator’s eyes on her. “I wished to know if he truly cherished you, or if this wedding was simply a common celebrity event. Legally, he would share in Khan Industries along with you, pending my death. I am a man of details, and a detail with that magnitude of impact demanded action.”
       “So you nearly had him killed to find out if he was a coward or a gold-digger?” Sawyer said, then crossed her arms to mirror Khan’s stance. “It must have put your tail in a knot when I set out for stardom instead of business.”

       Khan frowned slightly. “It was an inconvenience. However, I must confess, I have followed your career with satisfaction. You evinced the same determination and desire to succeed that I would have displayed in your place.”
       That got a sarcastic laugh from Sawyer. “I guess I should feel grateful that you were willing to let mom and I go rather than trapping us in the suffocating, loveless world you live in. In the letter mom left for me, she also mentioned that you wanted a son. A daughter wasn’t good enough for the Khan name I suppose. You’re a...”
       Sawyer had to bite her tongue to keep from using the words she wanted to say. “What’s going to change, now that I know the truth? Are you going to interfere more or less in my life?” Khan came and stood by her, showing more warmth in his voice than Sawyer would have expected. “What do you want?”
       “I want nothing from you,” Sawyer replied. “Not your money, not your business and not your name.”
       Khan nodded once. “As you wish. However, if there is any service I can render you, you need but ask. I trust our mutual knowledge of each other will remain unknown to the world at large. Francesca was correct on that would be dangerous for you, and compromising for me.”
       “Yeah, heaven forbid anything should compromise your business,” Sawyer said. “Leave my friends and family alone. But don’t worry, I’ve only known one father all my life and he’ll always be my dad. Your secret shame won’t ever be known.”

       Khan suddenly put one of his massive paws on her shoulder and Sawyer found she couldn’t get away. She looked up at him, defiant, and he spoke. “I was never ashamed of you, daughter, nor am I now. When you came into the world, it was true that I was hoping for a son. However, I came to know you, and your…innocent joy. I had never experienced it before, and rarely since.”
       Khan removed his paw. “While I can shield my inner self from others, that is not so possible where you are concerned. The love and admiration I felt for you are still present, and will be when my time here is done.” Sawyer looked up at him, distrustful. “I’m sorry, Khan, but it’s too much to accept. You’ve manipulated and hurt people I care about, and only now when you’re confronted by me do you admit that you’re my father. I leave you to the world you made for yourself and I’m going back to mine. Goodbye, Shere Khan.”
       Without waiting for more, Sawyer strode out of the office. Khan returned to his office chair, again looking out the window.
       “To see her was to love her...”

Chapter 14 - The Big Day, Old Friends and New Revelations

       The preparations for the wedding moved along quickly over the next few days, and it wasn’t long before the word spread. Media from across the country were there when Sawyer and Danny left via the Sea Duck for Louie’s Island. They had put some rent-a-cops out to patrol the island’s perimeter against party crashers. When word came that Khan offered the use of his elite pilot squadron to them, Danny wasn’t surprised when Sawyer turned him down flatly. They both had experienced enough of them.
       When the stars arrived at the island, Louie and his team of employees were there at the dock to greet them. Louie insisted on helping Sawyer out of the plane, kissing her hand. “Enchanté to see vous again, mad-mo-selle! We’ve got the place lean, mean and clean! Plus I managed to, acquire the usual wedding flourishes and all. Think of it as a package deal.”
       Sawyer had come to like Louie for the rogue he was. “Thanks Louie, and thanks for letting us impose on you like this when we hardly know you.”
       “Impose? Lady, when this is over I’m going to triple my customer base with folks wanting to hear the story of two of the most famous stars of Hollywood getting hitched right here in my place!” Louie said. “Truth is, I should be paying you, but the dough helps too. Guess you wouldn’t consider letting me rename the place ‘Danny, Sawyer and Louie’s Place’?”
       Sawyer shook her head. “Even the brightest stars fade eventually. Fifty years from now people will ask who Danny and Sawyer are.”
       Louie winked. “If they forget, I’ll tell ‘em.”

       Rebecca met her at the dock and hugged her. Sawyer grinned, imagining the scene inside. “Now it will be a party! This is going to be a great wedding. Thanks for getting all this taken care of, Becks.”
       “You’re welcome, Tweaky,” Rebecca said. “Well, I can’t take full credit. A friend of yours helped me quite a lot.” A certain hippo poked her nose around the corner. “Did I hear a helpful hippo mentioned?”
       “Tillie!” Sawyer said. “You big sneak! How long have you been here?”
       “Since this morning,” Tillie said. “I’m supervising the food table.”
       Sawyer shared a hug with her old friend. “Thanks for making sure all of our Hollywood friends could get here, Tillie. You’ve just got a way with people.” Tillie walked beside her, giggling, then checked Sawyer over to be sure every stitch was in place. “Oh, that’s no bother. Besides, that orangutan is such a charmer! Hee hee! I think he’s got a crush on me!”
       Rebecca put both hands over her mouth to stifle the giggles at the thought of Tillie and Louie. “Louie’s a charmer, all right.”
       “Yes, quite,” a mature female fish said. “Reminded me of my second husband. Always talking and never to be trusted, you know.”
       “Frances!” Sawyer said, hugging her as well. “Oh, this is so wonderful. It’d be worth seeing the lot of you here, even if I weren’t getting married!”

       The girls all laughed and Sawyer proceeded on inside with Louie and the entourage. The interior had been entirely redecorated for the occasion with colorful sea-themed arrangements placed tastefully throughout the establishment. The tables had been taken up, and now a beautiful altar stood at one end of the room with plenty of plush chairs for the guests. White festoons and balloons made it look festive, and just having Louie in a tuxedo and top hat made it memorable.
       Rebecca was supervising, which explained why everything was looking good. “I hope you like it,” Rebecca said. “It’s not often I get to be the wedding planner for the rich and famous.”
       “It’s magnificent, Becks,” Sawyer said. “You’ve done a great job! I’m so excited! It’s finally the big day. No going back now.” Rebecca winked at her. “You’d better land him fast, honey, before someone else does!”

       The girls laughed and Sawyer went upstairs to a private bungalo reserved for her to make preparations. A few minutes later, Danny came out from a small room behind the stage, wearing a white tuxedo and looking sharp. He was about to check and see if Sawyer had arrived when a “yoo-hoo!” caught his attention.
       Danny’s whole family had just arrived and Louie was with them, pointing them in the right direction. Etta Mae was more than pleased to see her boy. “Oh, there you are! Don’t you just look so handsome!”
       Etta hugged him tight and pinched his cheek, as she was wont to do at times. Danny didn’t mind too much since she did it to everyone. “Hey, ma! I bet they had to drag you kicking and screaming from the farmhouse. This must be the longest trip you’ve taken in years!”
       “Now you know I wouldn’t miss this day, Daniel,” Etta Mae said. “It means a lot to all of us. Just wait till your father sees you! Our famous son getting married, and to such a sweet girl.”
       “That reminds me, I need to check and see if she’s here yet,” Danny said. Danny’s younger sister, named Breezy, put the stop to his effort. “Whoa there, hot shot! I’ve already checked with Louie here. She’s fine. And you didn’t think you were going to say another word without a big hug from me, did you?”
       Breezy had that same joie de vivre that Danny did and she leaped into the air, giggling as he caught her and spun her around. It was a reminder of the old days and the fun they’d had as kids back in Kokomo. Breezy was still a kid in many ways, but Danny noticed that she’d turned into a real beauty. “So when’s your wedding day, Breezy? I bet you’ve got suitors from here to old man Johnson’s farm back home!”
       “Oh, go on!” Breezy said. “You know that I’m happy the way I am. Besides, I may just follow your lead and star in few movies of my own someday.” Danny knew she was just kidding, but then she’d always been a kidder. “You know you’re welcome, little sis. Say, where’d Josh and Ben go?”
       “They’re around here somewhere. But speaking of wedding days, one of ‘em beat you to it.”
       Danny couldn’t figure that one. “Why would Ben have remarried?”
       Breezy grinned wide. “Not Ben, Josh.”

       If Breezy had told him gravity had been repealed, it would’ve had less impact. Josh had always been the black sheep of the family and getting into one mess after another, usually dragging Danny along with him in the process. Danny scratched his head. “But who’d be crazy enough to marry Josh?”
       “I would.”
       Danny turned, and the rest of the world was gone. There, facing him, was a white female rabbit whose soft eyes had always been able to trap him inside of them. The dancing cat’s reply came out barely above a whisper.

       It was no longer his wedding day, and Danny was no longer at Louie’s. He was back in Kokomo, a three-year-old kitten who was just beginning to wonder at the world around him. This day, he was making sand molds using an old bucket that his mom said he could have. Several of the other kids were playing in his family’s yard, too, but all of them were older. Still, it didn’t really bother Danny—he was having fun.
       Then he heard someone say, “Can I play?” He turned around to see a cute-faced girl bunny with pleasant eyes. Salli’s mother had brought her over and had told her to stay in the yard while she went in and joined the knitting group. All this Salli had promptly told him, and then looked around him toward the sand, expectantly.
       Danny smiled. “Sure, c’mon!”
       From that day, he and Salli had always been friends. They’d shared their lunchtimes together at school and their study times on the grassy knoll overlooking Salli’s house. Salli had also been the girl to give Danny his first kiss, coincidentally in that same sandbox a year after they’d met. It was just Salli having her usual fun, but it hadn’t been the last kiss between them.
       Danny’s thoughts advanced to days when he’d pushed Salli on the tire swing and they’d talked about their futures. Danny had always wanted to be a star, but Salli was practical and a homebody. They’d remained close friends, but as time passed their separate goals for their lives began to pull them apart.
       Finally had come the day when Danny was forced to decide. He’d asked Salli to go with him to Hollywood, but both of them knew her answer. She’d asked him to stay, but they knew the answer to that one too. She’d kissed him, and Danny could still remember the warmth of her tears. But he also remembered her words: “Don’t ever give up, Danny.”

       Danny snapped back to the present and found that he was off in a corner now with Salli, and she’d been telling him something. She waved a hand in front of his face. “Danny? Earth to Danny!”
       “Oh, sorry,” Danny said, grinning sheepishly. “A large part of my life flashed before my eyes. So you’re working at the old dress shop in town now?” Salli nodded. “Breezy and me work there, and we’ve renovated a lot of the place. Josh helped a lot.”
       This mystified Danny. “Josh? Salli, I just can’t picture you with him. I thought he’d show up here with a cigarette in his mouth, a beer bottle in his hand and a black eye. Um, he didn’t, did he?” Salli gave him mock frown. “No! Danny, your brother had a hard time growing up. He always felt inadequate around you because Etta Mae was continually singing your praises, and when you became a star being in your shadow was too much to bear.”
       “He never told me.”
       “He couldn’t tell you,” Salli said. “He felt it wasn’t worth trying, so he didn’t. One day I found him out behind your folks’ place, crying, and my heart went out to him. You know how he always put on a big act, but inside he was very small. He needed someone to love him in the worst way, and I took up the job.”
       “But you’re married now,” Danny said. “Why didn’t anyone tell me, or invite me? You know I’d have dropped everything to be there!”
       Salli ducked her head shamefully. “I’m sorry, Danny, but it was my decision and Josh’s. It wasn’t anything against you, it was just…well…”
       Danny began to see the light. “You didn’t want me there.”
       “As bad as that sounds, yeah,” Salli said. “Josh still felt inferior to you then, and he and I both wanted a small private wedding with no fanfare. If you’d come, our faces would’ve been plastered from here to Hoboken.”
       Danny couldn’t hide that he was hurt, but he knew what they said made sense. “I wish I could’ve been there. I’d have loved singing for your wedding.” Salli smiled at him. “I’d have liked that too. I’m really sorry about this, Danny. We both regretted it when you weren’t there, but it seemed like the only way at the time. Please don’t hold it against us.”
       “Oh, you know I could never stay mad at you,” Danny said. “And I’ll tell Josh so as soon as I see him.” Salli smiled, pointing behind Danny. “Well, there he is.”

       Danny turned, and he was nearly as floored as when he’d seen Salli. There had always been a lazy and cynical look in Josh’s eyes before, but now it was replaced with purpose and feeling. When Josh smiled, Danny realized this wasn’t the same cat he’d grown up with at all.
       “Hello, Danny,” Josh said, stretching out a hand. Danny stood up, almost in a trance, and shook his brother’s hand. Josh looked uncomfortable at his brother’s stare. “Things have changed a lot since you left. Salli’s been good for me, and I gave up all the stuff that I used to do. I’m a house builder now, working on starting my own business one day.”
       Danny didn’t know what to say. “Wow. Josh I…wow!” Danny reached to hug the brother he’d never really known, and Josh clapped his back. In a minute, they were laughing and talking over old times, Salli joining in. Danny could see the love between them was real, and he found it made him happy.
       “So, what are your plans together?” Danny asked.
       “Well, we’ll be pretty busy when the baby arrives,” Salli replied, taking Josh’s hand.
       “Baby?” Danny asked in astonishment. Salli smiled a big smile and turned profile to Danny, running her free hand over the slight bulge of her stomach.
       “We’ll have the little one in December,” Josh said proudly.
       “It’ll be our most wonderful Christmas present,” Salli said as she hugged Josh.
       Danny found his eyes were watering up—before him was the girl whose heart he had broken when he had followed his dreams and the brother he had a love/hate relationship with since nearly day one. Now the two had become one, and both had found the love and happiness they had both sought for in vain so long. Josh and Salli both hugged Danny, seemingly reading his emotions and understanding his tears.

       With the awkward moment behind them, the trio returned to find Breezy and Etta Mae talking with Rebecca. Danny brought Baloo and Louie over. “Mom, these guys are friends of mine. Baloo, Louie, meet Etta Mae, my mom and the best cook on her side of the Mississippi!”
       Baloo took off his top hat. “Ma’am, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Baloo. Danny’s given us quite an adventure since he got here.” Etta Mae looked Baloo over. “Now, you look like a fellow that knows how to eat well. You’ll have to visit, and I’ll make you one of my famous gooseberry pies.”
       Breezy poked in, which was her way. “Rebecca says that you’re a pilot. I bet that must be the greatest! Can I go flying with you if we have time?”
       “Flying’s in my blood, little lady,” Baloo said. “When the wedding’s over, I’ll take the whole family for a flight!” Breezy just lit up at the idea. “Oh, that’d be so keen! Mom, what about you?” Etta Mae adjusted her spectacles. “The good Lord made me with my feet on the ground, and that’s where they’re staying.”
       “I knew you’d say that,” Breezy said.
       “Hey, there’s my boy!”
       Danny turned around at the deep Irish brogue and there was his father. Sean was the last of Danny’s family to be born in Ireland. He’d come over as an infant and had put the tradition of Irish farming to good use. He was a strong cat, made so by the years of toil and sweat, but his eyes gleamed whenever he told the stories of the Emerald Isle his father had passed on to him.
       “Dad!” Danny said, hugging him hard. Sean picked his boy up, laughing loudly. “Now, sure here’s a fine sight! My famous boy staying away and only calling his kin to clan when he’s about to be hitched. If I had a willow switch around here, I’d remind you of manners from better days!”
       Danny winced, but Sean’s mock-anger didn’t last. It never did, and the willow switch had always been more bark than bite. Sean laughed the more, clapping Danny on the back. “Now come, m’lad! We’ve got people to meet and libations to drink to this happy day! A shame we’ve no Bunratty Meade, though. Here, lad.”
       Sean handed him a small pair of bells, tied together. “That’s so you and your Sawyer will always be happy. Hang the two over your doorframe where they’ll ring when the guests come in, and they’ll remind you of this grand day and keep you out of spats.”
       “Not that it seemed to work well with us, Sean,” Etta Mae said, joining her husband. “I remember a few times we woke the whole county with our disagreements.” Sean grinned large. “Ah, but we’re here now, happy and healthy, to prove the bells kept us on the straight and narrow! You do likewise, Danny m’boy.”
       “Yes, sir,” Danny said. “We both will.”

Chapter 15 - The Wedding

       Upstairs, Sawyer checked her wedding dress in a full-length mirror. She’d gone for a traditional look, but of course had the dress tailor-made. The white silk shimmered in the daylight filtering in, and the jeweled gold necklace she was wearing set it off nicely. The necklace was a family heirloom that Jared had given her to wear as the “something old” part.
       Tillie straightened it on her neck, and Sawyer found herself staring at her reflection.
       There was a time when she thought she’d never have worn a dress like this. It had taken real ambition to break off on her own and follow her heart. She’d had plenty of offers of course, most of them bogus. After a time, she’d developed a cynical veneer toward men, feeling that she “knew better” than to trust one. And then, Danny had come along.
       At first, it had been a total disaster. Sawyer liked things stable and Danny was like a fur-covered earthquake: unpredictable and constantly shaking things up. She’d finally managed to talk some sense into him, but it turned out that she was the one that needed to come to her senses. The doubts and cynicism had pushed her dreams aside until she’d felt they were impossible to attain, but in one fell swoop one cat who believed pulled her out of the doldrums and helped make her the most recognized female dancer and singer of her day.
       And somewhere in there, they’d fallen in love. It had started the night of their premiere, but that had only been the beginning. Slowly, as their careers built into stardom, they grew to depend on each other more and more. There was hardly a day that went by that Danny wouldn’t ask Sawyer her opinion on nearly everything, and Sawyer preferred Danny’s company to anyone else’s—even though he did embarrass her in public with his dancing antics. She’d gotten past that, though, and simply accepted it as part of him. Now she was going to take that part, and all the rest.

       Sawyer checked her dress over again, finding everything to her taste. And yes, Danny was to her taste as well. They were friends first, but their love was strong and supportive. Sawyer had relaxed some at that idea when Rebecca spoke and startled her.
       “Oh, sorry,” Rebecca said. “Looked like you were somewhere else then. How are you doing?”
       “I feel strangely calm,” Sawyer said. “This is the next step, not a step into the unknown.”
       Rebecca checked Sawyer’s train. “You’re really fortunate to have someone like Danny in you life. I’ve had to put my career first, which meant sacrificing other parts of my life. How do you manage it, Sawyer?”
       “Danny and I are lucky. We both do what we love for a living and we both have the same passion for our work that we have for each other.”
       “Well, in my case...oh never mind.”
       Frances had been mostly quiet up till then, mainly lounging and waiting for the big event to get going. “So Rebecca, Sawyer tells me you were married once, and didn’t take the plunge again. You’ve got potential you aren’t using, dahling.”
       Rebecca’s mirth quickly faded. “I lost my husband and...and that’s a pain I never want to experience again as long as I live.” Sawyer patted her back in sympathy. “Oh honey, you can’t let that be a reason! I know it would tear me apart if something happened to Danny, but it would whether we were married or not.”
       Tillie could see it was a touchy topic and changed it. “Say, you’d all better get ready! They’ll be blowing the whistle down there anytime now!” Breezy popped up, coming up the stairs behind Tillie. “Correction, the whistle’s blown. They say they’re ready anytime you give the signal, Sawyer—oh, that’s such a marvelous dress! Can I borrow it if or when, you know...”
       Rebecca nodded at Breezy and quickly gave everyone a lookover to make sure the bridesmaids were all in proper order. “Okay, troops, this is it. Everyone ready?”
       “Ready and able, commander!” Tillie said, saluting.
       “I’m always ready, dahling,” Frances said. “It’s a fish trait.”
       “I’m ready, too!” Breezy said.
       Rebecca took hold of her train and Sawyer stood up. “Okay Breezy, tell ‘em it’s time.”

       Breezy did so, and by the time Sawyer had walked down she found everyone assembled. The bridesmaids, escorted by the groomsmen, were to go first. Jared stood at the ready to lead her girl down the aisle, formed by an opening in the rows of chairs. “My, you look smashing! Feeling all right?”
       “Dad, I’ve waited for this for a long time. I’ve never felt better.”
       Jared smiled, and offered her his arm. She took it, waiting for the procession to start. The place was packed with Danny and Sawyer’s friends, including L.B. Mammoth and Flanigan, as well as Farley Wink. Montgomery was playing Tchaikovsky’s “Rhapsody No. 2” as the bridesmaids and groomsmen started in, showing off his repertoire.

       Tillie and Pudge were first to come in as maid of honor and best man, preceded by Breezy as the flower girl. Pudge was in a top hat and tails, almost a redundancy considering he was a penguin. Tillie picked him up after a few steps, afraid she’d step on him, which drew a few scattered laughs. The bridesmaids were all dressed in pink lace, and Breezy’s infectious smile made a fitting beginning to things.
       Frances and Cranston were next. Cranston was similarly-attired as Pudge, but he was naturally cranky about it. He tried to turn around and get away, but Frances jerked him forward, the old goat grumbling all the way. T.W. came behind them, escorting a female skunk. They’d met during tryouts at MouseWorks Studio, and there had been rumors of them being an “item”. For the moment, T.W. was still a confirmed bachelor, not to mention a superstitious one. When they reached the 13th board they had to cross, the turtle jumped it. Woolie the mammoth shook the boards of the old place, he also escorting an acquaintance from MouseWorks—in this case the actress that had played the mother of a certain flying pachyderm.
       Rebecca and Baloo were next. Baloo was in his top hat and wearing a cutaway over a white dress shirt and a cummerbund. In other words he felt totally uncomfortable. “Man, this dressing up deal’s a pain, Beckers. Gotta admit, you look pretty as a postcard.” Becky gave him a gentle elbow in the ribs. “Thanks, Baloo. It’s gratifying to dress so finely now and then. You look nice.”
       Baloo watched for their cue. “Aw, didn’t that time with those uppercrusts on the Spruce Moose teach ya nothin’? It’s what’s inside that counts. But I guess it ain’t all that bad to put on the dog every now and again. Uh oh, we’re on, your highness...”

       Rebecca took Baloo’s arm and they started walking down the aisle together. Baloo stole a glance at Rebecca—she seemed happy about today, and that was good. Not that he minded her usual yelling, really, but it was nice to get a break from it. And he told the truth when he said she was pretty. Rebecca rarely wore dresses, and this one set off her figure quite nicely. Baloo almost had to do a double-take at that thought. Could he be—nah, it wasn’t possible. Besides, things would go back to normal after all this.
       For Rebecca’s part, she’d caught him looking, and for some reason it pleased her. She’d have been embarrassed to admit it, but she did have an ego and she liked to be admired on occasion. Of course, Baloo wasn’t all that picky and all—but then again, he hadn’t been dating anyone in several years. Rebecca almost had to do a double-take at that thought. Could she be—no way, not a chance. Besides, things would be back to normal after all this.

       As they reached the head of the aisle, they looked at each other once more then quickly looked away as they headed for their respective places. Montgomery changed the tune to the wedding march, and everyone stood up as Jared and Sawyer appeared at the rear of the aisle. During all this, Danny had been doing his best not to be nervous, and had nearly succeeded. He’d had to stop himself three times from twiddling his thumbs, and now he found himself pulling on his collar. Then he saw her.
       Deliberately, he tried to force calmness on himself. What did he have to be nervous about, after all? This was Sawyer! They saw each other every day. They were the best of friends, the legendary dancing duo. It didn’t help. The cat was sweating bullets.
       The nervousness sent him back in time mentally to his early Hollywood days. It had been lonely at first, but then this talented cat had crossed his path. He’d seen the potential in Sawyer from the start, but it struck him as amazing that she didn’t. Eventually he’d turned her around, and then the coldness in her heart melted and she glowed like the starlight that had inspired his nickname for her.
       He’d found another like Salli in whom he could confide and share his life. But Sawyer was far more than a replacement—she constantly pushed him to improve, to go to greater heights. She believed in him too, but he found that above all she needed him.
       It was that need—really that mutual need—that had led them to this point. And as Danny found Sawyer’s eyes locking onto his, he knew it was a point that had been well worth attaining. A feeling came over him like the delirious joy he felt when he was at his heights with his dancing. There was a place he could reach where he felt he was dancing on air, where no one but he existed.
       Now he was feeling that again, and there was not one, but two.

       Sawyer smirked as she headed down the aisle. Danny looked like he was in a trance or something. I bet he’s so nervous he doesn’t know what day it is. As the music ended, the pastor took his place in front of them. “Who gives this woman to be married?”
       “I do.” Jared placed Sawyer’s hand in Danny’s and stepped back. Sawyer happened to glance back at him and saw to her surprise that Shere Khan was in the second row. He smiled slightly and nodded at her as Jared sat down. Sawyer didn’t know whether to be angry or happy about it, so she just let it go. This was too important a moment to her anyway.
       The pastor, an elderly lion and a family friend of Sawyer’s, continued. “Do you, Daniel Scott Gene Kellian, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, through sickness and health, for richer or poorer, till death do you part?”
       “Yeah!” Danny said. “Uh, I mean yes.”
       The crowd tittered a little at his enthusiastic reply, then the pastor turned to the veiled Sawyer. “And do you, Shelley Francesca Katzenheimer, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, through sickness and health, for richer or poorer, till death do you part?”
       A small wave of surprise filtered through the onlookers. Sawyer had kept her real name secret from the public at large, though Danny and her acting friends knew of it. She’d used the nickname Sawyer for years from the character in her favorite childhood book, and it had made a fitting stage name. Now her attention returned to the matter at hand and she looked into Danny’s shining emerald eyes.
       Sawyer’s response was almost a purr. “I do.”
       “The rings?” the pastor asked.
       Quickly, Pudge brought Danny the ring to give to Sawyer. “Here you go—whoa!”

       Pudge would later chide himself for not having washed his hands after eating that third glazed doughnut, but for now the immediate problem was the ring that had slipped from his flipper. It bounced along, rolling and chiming as it sped over the wooden floor.
       “I’ve got it!” Danny said, running after the ring. He pounced at it like a cat would a favorite toy. The ring eluded him, though, and when it hit the wall it started off in another direction.
       Cranston shook his head. “Should’ve known—couldn’t get through this without some kind of craziness.” At last, the ring ran out of momentum and Danny picked it up, ironically almost where he’d started from. He looked at the audience, apologetic. “Well, at least the roof didn’t fall in on us or anything.”
       At that moment, something bumped the roof hard, causing Sawyer and everyone else in the place to flinch. Danny looked up. “Just kidding!” The pastor grinned and shook his head. “Danny, place the ring on Sawyer’s finger and repeat after me. ‘With this ring, I thee wed’.” Danny took her dainty hand in his and slid the ring onto her finger. “With this ring I wed thee, Sawyer.”
       The pastor nodded, turning to Sawyer. “And now you, Sawyer, take your ring and place it on Danny’s finger and say, ‘With this ring, I thee wed’.”
       “With this ring, I thee wed,” Sawyer said, winking at Danny.
       “Join hands, please,” the pastor said. “By the power vested in me, under the auspices of the Almighty and the county of Cape Suzette, I pronounce you husband and wife. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present Mr. and Mrs. Kellian. You may kiss the bride, young man.”

       Danny grabbed her hand and spun her around and dipped her. Sawyer pulled back her veil and they kissed. Baloo laughed. “Now that’s the fanciest job of a first kiss I’ve ever seen!”
       Louie stood up, pointing to the nearby stage. “Let ‘er rip, boys!”
       As Danny and Sawyer completed their kiss, the processional began and white confetti and balloons streamed down from the ceiling. “Wow!” Danny said. “All that happened because I kissed you, Mrs. Kellian?”
       “Maybe you’d better try again, Mr. Kellian,” Sawyer said. “Who knows what’ll happen this time...”
       They did so, the assemblage clapping approvingly. In a few moments, Louie and his friends had removed all the chairs and it was time for the first dance. Danny’s eyes bulged in surprise when some of the biggest names in big band history came onto the small stage and assembled there. Danny looked back to Sawyer, her eyes dancing with delight.
       “You got them to come, just for me?” Danny asked. “Wow, Benny Goodman! Harry James! Lionel Hampton! Tommy Dorsey!”
       “Nothin’ but the best for the guests at Louie’s,” Baloo said.
       “That, and a few strings Tillie and I pulled,” Sawyer added. “Better get started, Danny. They charge by the hour.”

       Danny laughed as she winked, and they started in with Benny Goodman’s “Don’t Be That Way”. It couldn’t have been a more pleasant scene, and soon the others were dancing too. The boys in the band played all their biggest hits, the crowd and the newlyweds egging them on for more.
       Then it was Danny’s father’s turn. “Ah, miss Sawyer,” Sean said, kissing her hand. “You’ve got the lilt of Killarney and the River Shannon in your voice. Would I could be a lad again and taking the place of my son.” Sawyer grinned and nodded, amused. “I bet Etta Mae couldn’t take her eyes off of you.”
       “If she had, I’d have whopped the lad she had them on!” Sean said, making Sawyer laugh. The elder cat turned to the band. “Do you fancy Dans know ‘Crowley’s Reel’?” In a moment, a spirited Irish tune sprung up, and Sean showed why his countrycats had the reputation of being the best dancers.
       “Come on!” Sean said, flying across the floor with Sawyer. “Tis’ the grandest music on God’s green a-playing, and shan’t be wasted!” Danny bowed to his mother. “Shall we?” Etta Mae nodded. “You know I will, Daniel.”
       The next reel went to Sawyer, and she and Danny pranced like they owned the world, which wasn’t far from the fact at the moment. After two more reels, it was time for a break. “Whew, that was great!” Danny said. “When we start back up, let’s ask Glenn Miller to give us a few songs.”

       The band members joined the crowd for refreshments, and Sawyer and Danny started talking with their guests again. Sawyer noticed that Khan was gone, likely having ducked out once the vows were said. The talk was pleasant until a loud thrumming sound came from outside.
       “Say, what’s that?” Sawyer asked, tugging on Danny’s arm.
       The couple headed to the big bamboo doors leading out and pushed them back. A selected bunch of news media had been waiting with their film cameras and were already rolling. Danny and Sawyer followed their lenses and quickly saw the reason. With Khan’s departure, the skies had been largely unpatrolled. The air pirates were flitting around above the building with their autogyro, trailing a big banner:

       Karnage and his bunch circled Louie’s place a few times, and then headed for the roof. Dumptruck was up there, having caused the thump they’d heard earlier. Quickly, the pirates undid the banner from the autogyro and attached it to the roof of the building. They piled in and started to head away then hovered, Karnage taking his moment with the cameras.
       “A little ever-pleasant thank-you for you and your new wife, Danny!” Karnage said. “And remember everyone, when it comes to the swash and the buckling, the only one to call is my glorious self, Don Karnage! Adios!”

       Before the autogyro headed out of sight, the pirates dropped a box attached to a parachute. When it reached the ground, Danny carefully opened it, finding inside a set of magnificent engraved his-and-hers swords. Danny had to laugh at the absurdity of it all. “Well, could anything wilder happen today?”
       Sawyer pointed back at Louie’s place. “I don’t know, but let’s return to the party. I’m sure our folks are ready for their turns dancing with us.” Danny offered his arm to Sawyer. “Yeah, I’m sure there’s lots more folks that want to dance with us.”
       “And I’ve been waiting, too.” Jared shook Danny’s hand as they started back inside. “Welcome to the family, son. Now, I need to borrow your wife for a few minutes. I believe the band has reassembled.”
       In a few moments they’d encouraged Glenn Miller to take over conducting. Danny escorted Etta Mae out on the floor to join Sawyer and her dad, and they started in to the tune of “Moonlight Serenade”. Danny danced with his mother, tears running down her face, and she wore a big smile.
       “I hope the wedding was what you’d always hoped it would be, mom,” Danny said.
       “Oh, it was!” Etta Mae said. “Sawyer was the perfect bride, and you were so handsome up there. It reminded me of the day I married Sean. That was back on the old farm, in the house of course. I think that’s why I’m so attached to that place—so many good memories glue me to it. But this was truly spectacular, Daniel, and made the trip well worth it.”
       “Nothing’s too good for you or Sawyer.”
       Etta Mae decided to breach the next topic. “So, when are you two going to make me a grandmother again?” The question startled Danny and he nearly stumbled over his own feet. “Ma! This isn’t the time to talk about...that.” Danny was blushing at the notion but it didn’t bother Etta Mae. “Stuff and nonsense! It’s as natural as the leaves turning. Besides, when you think of the mountain of talent between the two of you, your kids would be naturals to follow in your footsteps.”
       “Well, don’t ask Sawyer that. It’ll happen when it happens.”
       Etta Mae smiled knowingly. “Oh, I’m sure of that.”

       Across the floor, Sawyer was in a totally different talk with Jared. “Who invited Khan here? He certainly wasn’t on my guest list.” Jared looked back at her kindly. “I asked Khan, but he was also invited by Danny. As he was your host while visiting the city Danny felt it was an important courtesy.”
       Sawyer shot a peeved look in Danny’s direction, which fortunately he didn’t see. “He should’ve left his courtesy back at the hotel. But I suppose if Danny hadn’t invited him he’d have found another way to be here.” Jared sighed and put a hand on Sawyer’s shoulder. “He is your father. I don’t think we should begrudge his wanting to be here on your wedding day.”
       After a few moments, Sawyer sighed as well. “I suppose not. I noticed he did behave himself and left quietly after the vows were over. I guess I ought to pay him a courtesy call before leaving town.”

       The music, talk and fun lasted for several hours more, and when departure time came it was met with reluctance. Sawyer hugged everyone in Danny’s family, receiving the largest hug of course from Sean. In turn, the Kellians all greeted Dr. Katzenheimer in kind. Sean and Jared had hit it off, talking over topics they knew in common. For everything that Sean mentioned, Jared had met a patient or two who had been involved in it. When the two elder gentlemen of the families escorted Danny and Sawyer to the dock with the others, they were like old friends.
       “A blessing on the both of you, and don’t forget to give the first child a proper Irish name!” Sean said. Sawyer knew a rogue when she saw one. “Thanks, Mr. Kellian.”
       Sean put his big arm around her. “You’ll be calling me Sean or I’ll think I’ve lost me good looks!” Sawyer laughed at the big cat’s charm. “Okay Sean, but I pick the name. However, you can be sure they’ll be some Irish in there somewhere.”
       “A woman after me own heart!”
       Jared came up and hugged her once more. “Goodbye, my girl. Danny, you and Sawyer have a great time in Tahiti!” Danny shook his hand. “Oh, don’t worry about that, sir. We’ve got the best place on the island reserved for us.”
       “And don’t forgot to dress nicely, and check in with us,” Etta Mae added.
       “Don’t worry, I’ve got the itinerary,” Sawyer said. “We’re in safe hands. Rebecca, Tillie, Frances, all of you—thanks for making today unforgettable.” Rebecca hugged her tight. “It was a pleasure. Say, you’d better get going! Tahiti’s not next door you know.”

Chapter 16 - Talking in Tahiti

       Danny and Sawyer waved goodbye as their friends and family wished them well. Baloo flew them to the airport, where their company plane was waiting for them. A day and a half later, they found themselves at the Tahiti Beachcomber resort on their own private section of beach outside a traditionally-decorated bungalow. Life was slow and sweet here, and with staff to fulfill their every want it was just surf, sand and fun.
       They had just come out of the water and were lying on the beach when Sawyer caught Danny’s attention. “Danny, there’s something I need to talk over with you.” Danny toweled off and came over. “Sure, Sawyer. What’s on your mind?”
       Danny could have never imagined just what was on her mind, but as she began to talk he got a reasonable clue. Sawyer began to tell him about her mother, about Khan and how the whole trial they had just been through had been orchestrated. Danny watched Sawyer’s face darken some when talking about Khan, and finally he knew why she had been so terse back in Cape Suzette.
       He understood, of course, and he was glad that Sawyer had been able to get this off her chest. At the end of nearly thirty straight minutes of non-stop talking, she had told it all and looked at him, waiting for his reaction. Understandably, it took a minute or two. “Sawyer, I...I don’t know just what to say. I don’t care that your real father’s Shere Khan. Of course, it would make life easier if he wasn’t, but if you want to put him behind you and forget about him then that’s what we’ll do.”
       Sawyer walked over to a nearby wicker table, bedecked with a tropical lunch, and Danny followed. “He says he’ll keep out of my life, but how could I possibly trust him after all that’s happened?”
       “Well, he did keep a low profile at the wedding,” Danny said, starting to dig in. “And from what you’ve said, he has a special place for you inside of him. Maybe you can’t ever trust him, but your mother loved him and apparently he loved her and you.”
       Sawyer frowned at the slice of pineapple she’d just cut. “He has a funny way of showing it. He didn’t want me.”
       “I was thinking about that,” Danny said. “Really, he did you the biggest favor he could when he didn’t keep you around. I mean, if you’d stayed, you would’ve either ended up like him or you’d have been ransom fodder like me. Maybe in a way that was what he was trying to get across when he had Karnage take me. And then there’s Rebecca of course—if he didn’t want you, he shouldn’t have cared about her well-being either way. I think he does care, Sawyer. He just doesn’t feel he’s in a position to do anything about it.”
       Danny sat up in his chair, pulling his legs under him Indian-style. “That’s sad when you think about it. I mean, there he is, probably the richest person in the world. Who has he got to share it all with? No one. Who has he got left to love? Same story. I think he’s been helping your friend because it’s one of the very few outlets he has left to him to show that he’s not just a money-making machine.”
       Sawyer wasn’t impressed. “Mom still would have died when she did if they had stayed together. I would’ve been even more alone than I already felt back then. Khan would probably have shipped me off to boarding school and then business school, and then I’d be working with him at Khan Tower.”
       “And I would have left Hollywood a broken, defeated shell of a cat, with shattered dreams of stardom.”

       Neither said anything for a time, then Sawyer came over and laid her head on Danny’s shoulder. “You’re right about one thing, though. He did the right thing letting me go. I’m a lot richer than he’ll ever be.” Danny felt the stress go out of her, and found he could be content just holding her like this. “So am I.”

Chapter 17 - Back to Better Business, Tweaky and Becks Say Goodbye and Music Hath Charms

       A week later, Baloo was still sweeping rice and festoons from the wedding out of the Sea Duck. Baloo had his reputation as a procrastinator to maintain, after all. It had been a great happening, and he’d been down to the local newspaper to get a few extra dozen copies of the wedding coverage—naturally, Rebecca had managed to get into the picture featured on the front page.
       Baloo had just climbed down from the cockpit onto the dock when Rebecca came running out, excited, and nearly bowled Baloo over into the ocean. “Hey Becky, what gives! I got those papers like you asked for!”
       “Oh Baloo, it’s so wonderful!” Rebecca said, helping him up and hugging him. Baloo didn’t know what to make of this. “Easy now, Becky. I know it’s gonna be good for business having our pictures in the paper and all, but—”
       “We just got a call from Khan Industries!” Rebecca said. “They want to put us on retainer!”
       Baloo scratched his head. “Isn’t that the thingy people with bad teeth use?” Normally Rebecca would’ve clouted him but she was too happy. “No, a retainer in this case is where we’re paid to just be available and we’ll be paid whether they need us or not! The offer stated that since we’ve shown we have ‘special’ talents that have aided Khan in the past, and he’d find it useful if we were at his disposal.”
       “Never!” Baloo said, stomping the dock. “No way are we Khan’s lackeys!”
       “We’ll be paid a thousand dollars a month whether he needs us or not.”
       Baloo grinned. “Old Khanny and me—we were always close.”
       Rebecca grinned back. “I thought you’d see it that way. The downside is that if Khan needs us, we drop everything to do his bidding.” Baloo started doing some rough calculations. “Hmm...a thousand smackers a month. We could do a lot with that kind of dough, Becky.”
       “I could send Molly to the best private school in town!”
       “We could send Kit to pilot training school! He’s a born test pilot, and I want the kid to have the shots I didn’t. With that kind of dough, we could even afford to take on another pilot, and a few more contracts each month and handle it easier than before! That way if Khanny did call us up, we could have a backup guy to keep the shipments going.”
       “And it would finally give us the break we’ve both desperately needed for the last several years!” Rebecca added. Baloo nodded. “I say we go for it, but you’re the one with the nose for business. What do you say about it?”
       Rebecca looked toward town, Khan Tower in the distance. “Well, as we’ve both seen, Khan has a way of making people do his bidding whether they want to or not. It would be nice to be paid for doing it for a change. I say we take it!”
       Baloo and Rebecca shook hands on it, and after a moment Rebecca hugged him. “Thanks, Baloo. I know I don’t say it often, but you’re the best friend anyone could ask for. We’ve gone through a lot—more in the years I’ve known you than at any other time in my life. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

       Baloo was understandably startled by this unexpected action from Rebecca. “Uh, thanks, Becky. You’re a real pal, and I don’t know what would’ve happened to me if you hadn’t bought this place.” Rebecca smiled up at him, an amused look in her eyes. “I do. You’d be over at Louie’s, running the place with him. Or eating him out of house and home.”
       The big gray bruin smirked at that. She was probably right. “Speaking of Louie’s, perhaps a celebrations is in order...”
       “Quite right.”
       “Just as soon as you deliver the back shipments that have piled up,” Rebecca said, pointing to the cargo-laden dock. “There’s the plate glass that goes to Siusimi, and a parcel of legal documents to Sosumi—don’t get those two mixed up—and the golf balls that are for the potentate of Puttaria,”
       Baloo sighed. “I guess some things never change, but maybe that’s a good thing.”
       “Come on,” Rebecca said, chuckling. “I’ll inventory, you haul. After all, Khan or no Khan, Higher for Hire has a reputation to uphold.” Baloo started in. “We’ll haul anything, anywhere for the right price, as long as a trip to Louie’s is involved at some point along the way.” Rebecca grinned, shaking her head. “All right, you scoundrel. But the deliveries come first. Molly!”

       Molly had been inside, pretending to be DangerWoman, and came out in her makeshift costume. She was eager enough to come, but stopped short at what she saw. “Mom, how come you’re holding Baloo’s hand like that?”
       She’d taken the manifest from Baloo, and with her mind turned to matters of business Rebecca hadn’t even been aware that she was still holding onto his hand. Blushing deep red, Baloo released her hand. “Uh, we’re just working...on some stuff. I’d better go feed the plane!”
       Baloo hustled off and Molly came up to her mother, one of her hair ribbons out of place, and Rebecca began working on it. “Baloo’s sure acting weird,” Molly said. “What’s with you guys?”
       “Well, Baloo and I were just talking about some things,” Rebecca said, tying Molly’s ribbon. Molly looked up at her mom. “What kind of things?”
       “Friend things.”
       “Oh, that kind of thing again,” Molly said, now free of her mother’s attentions. “You aren’t gonna be like you were with that Covington guy, are you?” Rebecca shook her head. “No. If it happens at all, I think it will be very different with Baloo.”
       “Oh, that’s good. Baloo’s okay, as long as he spoils me.” Molly started to giggle, and Rebecca had to chuckle some too. “Well, don’t pester him. He and I are still friends and if there’s anything in the future...we’ll just have to wait and see.”
       Molly smiled and winked. “Don’t worry, mom. I’ll make sure to tell you if you slip up.”
       “Thanks, pumpkin. Now run along. I need to help Baloo with the cargo.”

       Rebecca turned to find Sawyer and now Danny coming up the pier toward them. Quickly she ran and hugged her old friend, who was decked out in a brand new Capri outfit. “Oh Sawyer, you look wonderful!”
       “Hey, don’t I get a hug too?” Danny asked. Rebecca grinned and hugged him. “As long as you behave yourself. What brings you back by here?”
       “We just wanted to say goodbye,” Sawyer said. “The trip to Tahiti was great, by the way. I’ll send you pictures when they’re developed. We’re heading back to Hollywood tomorrow, but we couldn’t leave without one last visit. Thanks for everything, Becks.”
       “Yeah, thanks!” Danny added. “You and your friends are the swellest bunch around!”
       Rebecca was really happy now. “I’m glad everything went so well. Now, you’ll have to excuse me. Baloo and I—that is, we’ve got to catch up on cargo runs. We’re looking to take on some additional business soon, so things are looking really good for us.”
       Sawyer returned Rebecca’s smile. “It’s great that business is picking up for you. You’ll take this company to the top eventually, Becks. Khan will have watch his back someday.”
       “He may have to watch it sooner than he thinks,” Rebecca said, satisfied. “He’s going to put us on retainer—that alone should double our business right there!” Sawyer managed to hide most of her surprise. “Did he now? Well, that’s something he should have done a long time ago...for all you’ve done for him. If he was really smart he should have hired you right after graduation.”
       “I did apply there for a junior executive position early on, but they said they weren’t interested,” Rebecca said. “That’s why I’ve worked so hard to prove that women can make it in this world on their own steam. I’m pleased that you have, too.”

       Sawyer walked down the dock with her toward the Sea Duck. “Well, can anyone really say they made it alone? You have Baloo, and I have Danny. We’re both teams. None of us would have made it alone.” Rebecca glanced over at the Sea Duck, where Baloo was packing the cargo, along with Wildcat and Kit’s help. “No, I suppose not. You two come back and see us, okay?”
       “You bet we will!” Danny said. “Maybe all of you should come out and visit us soon! We’ll treat you to the whole Hollywood thing!” Rebecca regained her manifest. “I know Baloo would enjoy that. I expect Louie’s going to want to come along too, now that he’s met you. Knowing him, he’s probably telling his customers that he was there when you two were discovered!”
       “Well, he’ll be welcome too,” Sawyer said. “The more the merrier.”
       Danny put in a few dance steps. “We might be back a bit more then you’d expect. The studio told us that our appearance on the Jack Benny show got such high ratings they’re considering giving Sawyer and I our own radio show!”
       “Wow, really?” Rebecca said. “Oh, I’ve got loads of great ideas for that. You could call it ‘Uslandian Bandstand’, and have the show live right here in town! You know, bring in all the best musical and singing talent, and you two could emcee the show and bring your friends, too.”
       Danny considered that. “There was this guy I knew named Dick Clark who used to do a radio show like that when I was a kid, but he’s probably too old to do it now.” Sawyer interrupted, “We’re not sure yet. I think it might be Khan’s way of apologizing for the whole kidnapping event.”
       “Sounds like him,” Rebecca said. Baloo and the guys walked over then, receiving handshakes and hugs from the newlywed stars, and were soon updated on the conversation. “Hey, that sounds great!” Baloo said. “I always thought I’d make a great singer.”
       “Which shows your thinking’s flawed, as always,” Rebecca said. “Still, you and Louie do know how to draw a crowd.”
       “They do?” Wildcat said. “I sure wish I could draw, but whenever I do it comes out looking like Chinese or something. Which reminds me, I’ve got my lunch to eat.”
       Sawyer leaned over toward Kit. “You watch after these folks now, y’hear?”
       “Don’t worry, ma’am,” Kit said. “I’ll keep them on the straight and narrow.”

       One more set of goodbyes, and Danny and Sawyer left. Danny knew her next destination and offered to go with her, but he understood when she politely refused. This was something she needed to do on her own. Sawyer entered Khan Tower and Miss Snarly simply nodded as she passed by on her way to the elevator. She entered Khan’s office just as easily, and the captain of industry was there as before.
       Sawyer’s talk with Danny had done her a lot of good and had helped to give her perspective. She had decided on one thing: a grudge is a terrible thing to bear. While she didn’t like what Khan had done, she needed to get over it and move on. This was the first step. Khan was signing some documents, but looked up after a moment.
       “I thought you might be back,” Khan said. Sawyer walked up to his desk. “I’ve had some time to think about things, and I just wanted you to know that I’m not going to hold what you did to mom and me against you anymore. And…I want to thank you for your business offer to Becks.” Khan looked down, signing the paper in front of him. “It was an equitable decision. They have been of service to me in the past, and I trust will continue to be so.”
       He finished what he was doing and looked up to find Sawyer smiling at him. It wasn’t something Khan was used to. Most feared him, and he preferred it that way. Somehow, he knew that she never would—and he found he preferred that even more. A slight smile formed on his own face. “You are welcome. Now, is there any other service I can render you?”
       Sawyer came closer. “No, but there is one I can render you. I didn’t want to go without telling you that I was glad you came to the wedding, and I wanted to thank you also for not pursuing things with mom. I know you could have, but you didn’t. She said that you were a private and lonely man.”
       Khan sighed slightly. “Like you, my facade failed me with her. She knew my thoughts, almost before I had them. She also had the kind of singing voice you do, and I would accompany her on the piano at times. There was one song in particular we enjoyed.”

       Shere Khan stood up and motioned for Sawyer to follow. Upstairs, Khan had a private conservatory with a grand piano and many other instruments. “At times, I will permit accomplished musicians to entertain me in private concerts. It amuses me, and serves to remind me of better days.”
       Khan went to the piano and sat down, warming up for a moment. For such a stolid figure, he seemed quite glad to share his talents with his daughter. Khan began to play, and Sawyer was surprised at how accomplished he was. She recognized the tune at once, and when it hit the main chorus she began to sing.

       To Sawyer’s further surprise, he actually joined her in the singing at this point, his deep, pure baritone nearly shaking the walls:

       Khan finished with a flourish on the piano, then quietly closed the cover over the keys and stood up. Silently he strode to the window and looked out. He was unused to such moments of intimacy, and the memories that this encounter brought up were deep and painful.
       “I could for a moment see and hear your mother again through you—thank you,” Khan said. “You’ve reminded me of what I’ve given up to be where I am today. When the day is done, we all hope that the books tally in our favor, but for me that is not likely. I have quite a few more marks to my detriment than otherwise.”
       Sawyer came up beside him at the window and also looked out. “I don’t hate you, if that helps.” Slowly, as if the motion were new to him, he reached out and placed a huge paw on her back, as a father would. “I know. And perhaps you alone out of all the world can understand who I truly am and why. I do not ask that you care about me or even come to see me, though you are free to do both. Treat me as well as you can.”
       Sawyer took a deep breath and turned and looked up at him. “No more tests or manipulation, right?”
       “None. But should I pass on before you or Danny, my will would bequeath my fortune and empire to you, to do with as you see fit. You would be free to appoint someone to run things in my stead, or liquidate my assets. I know you are not in need of the funds, but you are also the only one I to be sure the power I have accumulated does not fall into the wrong hands.”
       As morbid as the topic was, she smirked at the first name to pop into her mind as the new head of Khan Industries. “Okay, if you’re satisfied with Danny’s worthiness and will let us live our lives... then I guess I could visit my father now and then.”
       Hesitantly, she moved forward and hugged him.

       Shere Khan was a soul removed from the world who looked upon it as his own personal chessboard. For years, he had studied his moves with skill and had won many a game against corporate moguls and speculators alike. What he faced now, his experience had not prepared him for, and he saw only one move was possible—surrender. He remembered the small, smiling face of his daughter when she’d been smaller than his paw. Now, she was still only half his height, but the terrible secret of it was that she had checkmated him with her heart. He gently hugged her in return, staring off into space, as if recalling a distant memory and trying to put a name to it.
       “ you...daughter.”
       The words were strange to him, as if he’d put on a suit that didn’t quite seem to fit right. He looked down at her, and when she looked up Sawyer could see that he appeared like a child at his first day of school—not at all certain of himself or that he wanted to be where he was. “It will take me some time to get there, but I’m willing to try.”
       “As am I,” Khan said.
       He smiled once more, then asserted the control over himself that he was so well-known for. “I have a board of directors meeting I cannot miss. Wouldn’t do for them to think their chief executive had gone soft. Oh, there’s a little something for you on my desk downstairs.”

       Khan looked back once more, then left the room. It had taken all of his self-discipline to keep himself from letting his emotions take over. But no matter how much he might want that, he was Shere Khan, and Shere Khan could not show weakness.
       Still, when he heard Sawyer leave the conservatory, he turned yet again to watch her go. She waved, and he nodded back. I’m sorry things didn’t work out, Francesca. I had best call that staff meeting now.
       Sawyer went downstairs and found a package on Khan’s desk, wrapped in brown paper. She undid it and found a handsomely-framed portrait of Khan and Francesca, including herself in Francesca’s arms. There were several other pictures as well, including a wedding picture. Sawyer also found a note, written in Khan’s hand:

       Sawyer replaced the frame and envelope in the paper along with the other photos and tucked it securely under her arm. Khan watched her go from a flight above then headed for his conference room. He sat, and in a burst of frustration unsheathed his claws and dug them deep into the shined finish and thick oak of the huge table. He pulled, gouging deep furrows in the table. When his executive staff came in, they paused but came on. No one knew what had upset him, but among the gaggle of suits each was hoping he wouldn’t be the target of blame. They would all breathe easier by the end of the meeting, but there was always tomorrow.

Chapter 18 - Life With the Kellians

       When Sawyer returned to the hotel, Danny and the cab to the airport were ready. They boarded their private company plane for home, and they were back in Hollywood in time for lunch. Stephens, Sawyer’s butler, was ready for them and had a splendid repast ready on Sawyer’s large back porch. Stephens and Leo, Danny’s butler, had teamed up to put a big “Congratulations!” banner in the yard between their two large homes. Now that they were home and had a good meal behind them, the two stars sat and looked at each other.
       “Gosh Sawyer, we’re married! We’ve been on the go so much the past few days, it really hadn’t sunk in for me until now. How about you?”
       “Yeah, but my, there are some big changes ahead. We gotta move all your stuff in and get used to each other’s schedules and all kinds of stuff.”
       Danny held his hands in front him, signaling time-out. “Whoa, whoa there! Sawyer, I’m not moving in here. I thought you were moving in my house with me.”
       “No offense, Danny, but that place is from the Stone Age. It’s almost the forties now for crying out loud!"
       Danny crossed his arms defiantly. “Hey, my place has history and tradition on its side. This place is cutesy and all, but it doesn’t have the unique flair that my mansion has.”
       “Cutesy?” Sawyer said, raising an eyebrow. “I paid a fortune to make it unique! It was designed to suit me and reflect my personality...‘doesn’t have unique flair’—thanks a lot, Danny.”
       “Oh hey, don’t get me wrong. It’s got the latest in creature comforts and style and all, but I could never give up my studio. A lot of my best ideas come from there.”
       “And I suppose my studio isn’t good enough for the world famous song and dance cat?” Sawyer stood up, as did Danny and they were both nose to nose.
       “Look, I’m not moving in here, and that’s that!” Danny said.
       “Well, who asked you to!” Sawyer said. “You can sleep in the drive...way...” her voice becoming choked with emotion and tears starting to fill her eyes.

       “Sawyer, what’s wrong with us?” Danny realized they’d let this get too personal. He walked over and took her hands, his smile returned. “We’re married! We didn’t really talk about moving or anything, did we. I guess we’re both used to living our lives our own way. Hey, does this count as a lovers’ quarrel?”
       Sawyer wiped her eyes and put on her cynic face. “I suppose. You’re right, we should have talked about it more. Maybe a compromise. We spend one day in your house, then one day in mine and so on.”
       Danny poked out his chin, thinking. After a minute, he got that “Eureka” look. Sawyer knew what that meant. “Oboy...”
       “I’ve got it! Hang on...”
       Danny ran inside and made a phone call. Sawyer looked on, curious. “Danny, who are you calling?”
       “You’ll see. It’s going to be a while. Let’s take a run by the studio and see L.B. and the gang.”
       They did so, coming back late in the evening after dinner. Sawyer took a step out of the car and stood there in amazement. While they were away, a work crew had managed to link their houses together. One of the foremen came up to Danny with the bill.
       “You were lucky that they had to extend the foundations of both your houses when they built them, or it’d have taken a week or so. The plumbers and electricians said that everything looks okay, but you might want to test things first. Oh, and congratulations—you two are the greatest.”
       “You guys are the greatest. That was an amazing job you did, and so fast too!” Danny said as he wrote a check. He and Sawyer also signed some autographs. “You have no idea how much this means to us,” Sawyer said with a smile.
       The foreman tipped his hard hat and headed off. Danny and Sawyer faced their new home. “See? Our houses are one now, just like we are,” Danny said. “I guess we can live on your side, and we’ll use my side to display all the other awards we collect in our lifetimes.”
       Sawyer took his arm and smiled. “Why not move some of my stuff to your house and some of your stuff to my home? That way they’ll both feel like home to us.”
       Danny smiled back. “Okay, deal.”
       Sawyer had to laugh a little at the sight of their new combined house. “Well, at least we’re maintaining Hollywood’s reputation for uniqueness. Say, where’d you get this idea from?”
       “Funny you should ask...bring it out, Leo!”
       Leo brought out Danny’s piano and Leo, being a proficient player, gave Danny his cue.

       Inspiration lit up my path
       Showing the way to success!
       Inspiration led me to you
       And I bet you can guess...what’s...neeeext...

       Danny held out a hand, and Sawyer smiled and shook her head, then took it. It was Danny’s way of making up to her for before, and now that they were married she figured she might as well get used to cavorting in the open right along with him.

       You can find fun whenever you try
       And the rainbow’s end is always right by,
       When you i-ma-gine,
       Just try!

       Sawyer grinned, singing back:

       We found each other and now we’ll get by
       Our love’s got wings and for-e-ver we’ll fly
       When we i-mag-ine...
       When we i-mag-ine....

       When we imagine...we’ll flyyyyy!

       Happily, they danced around the yard. They got a few onlookers, but they just waved and the cars went on by. They sang the song again and as a full moon rose over their homes the silhouette of the newlyweds’ kiss showed in contrast. Arm in arm, they went into their new home ready to face the greatest challenge together.

Breezy, Etta Mae, Sean, Jared, Josh, Salli, Todd, Ben, and Mary Ellen are copyright Shelley Pleger and used without permission, but I suspect to her great surprise and delight. Judith Katzenheimer/Francesca Khan, Captain Blunderbuss, Lieutenant Slush, Stephens, Leo, Otto, Gus, Cynthia, Leo, Nancy, Mervin, Wallace P. Steadmore, Louise, Mikhail, Preminger, Placido and Thomas are copyright Indy and Chris Silva. Danny, Sawyer, Tillie, T.W., Frances, Woolie, L.B. Mammoth, and Flanigan are copyright Warner Brothers and are used without permission. Baloo, Rebecca, Louie, Kit, Wildcat, Shere Khan, Don Karnage, Dumptruck, Mad Dog, Ratchet, The Thembrian High Marshal, Colonel Spigot and Sergeant Dunder are copyright Disney and used without permission. Jack Benny, Rochester, Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Dennis Day and Don Wilson are copyright themselves and are some of the funniest entertainers ever. "Night and Day" and "You're the Top!" were written by Cole Porter and appear without permission. "And the Angels Sing" was written by Ziggy Elman & Johnny Mercer and appears without permission. The picture of Louie’s place is copyright Disney and is used without permission. The picture of Danny and Sawyer is copyright Shelley Pleger and is used with what I hope is the artist’s approval ;-)