Lying prone on a thatched roof was like stretching out on a bed of bracken.
Not that Peachy Keane had ever experienced that, but she’d slept rough on many an adventure and this rated as the roughest of mattresses, poking her in the ribs and, if she fidgeted about at all, scratching her arms and legs. Lucky she was wearing her knee and elbow pads.
Oh well, she wasn’t here for a snooze. She was here, apparently, for the vantage point.
Her ‘companion’ was savouring the view – down over the tiered houses and taverns, smithies and stables, cottages and cobbled lanes to the harbour – through the gleaming brass telescope mounted on the spine of his musket.
It was a glorious day. The sea sparkled as if the sun had splashed down in a billion shards all across the bay. The Barbican and the docked ships had been strung with bright bunting and ribbons. The Tortenschloss town band om-pom-pommed to entertain the crowds jam-packing the quays, while everyone waved flags and cheered at the steamer that was the centre of all the celebration. Nothing had actually happened on board yet, nobody had appeared on deck, but the carnival atmosphere and anticipation were tangible even at this distance.
“I hope you’re not planning to shoot anything,” Peachy warned.
Beside her, the gent coughed and puffed out his cheeks. He had a ruddy, youthful complexion but his wild wavy locks plus rusty moustache and sideburns added a decade at least. “Not just at this minute.” One eye glued to the telescope, he gestured breezily at the rooftops arrayed before them. “Gulls and jeopards, everywhere you look. This town is infested with the beggars. Such common vermin can’t possibly be of any interest to a chap who’s travelled as extensively as yours truly.”
Peachy frowned. “Well, good.”
The seagulls were a grey-and-white fixture in the Tortenschloss skies, often dive-bombing for unguarded lunches and frequently flecking roof tiles, carts, coats and cobblestones with brown and white. They competed for territory atop the houses with the jeopards who, with the appearance and manners of leopard-spotted baboonish hyenas, did their utmost to be as big a menace as the gulls. Even so, they were as much a part of the town’s character as the capricious weather, the sea-dampened stone, the chimney smoke and the riot of smells wafting from the bakeries, breweries, fish markets and tanneries that huddled so closely together along the hilly streets she knew as home.
“You’re the one who has to live here with the blighters. Now, do be quiet. I’m not paying you to yap.”
Peachy sighed. She was sure the fellow would have preferred a faithful spaniel to play fetch for him. It would save him the paltry few shillings he was shelling out in wages. But he was some cousin of Mayor Harpsburg’s, not nearly enough times removed. In her day job, Peachy delivered newspapers for the Tortenschloss Tribune; but her alternative career as an adventuress had earned her the recognition and attention of the city’s higher-ups. Which led to various honours, unfortunately including ‘official requests’ to baby-sit this seasoned explorer, Solomon Heligoland-Harpsburg, for the duration of his stay.
“Fine, but I’m meant to be your guide. And as your guide, I can tell you that Grancarmody’s Floating Menagerie comes to Tortenschloss once or twice a year, tops. So you’d probably get to enjoy more down there by the dockside – you know, where the party’s happening. Instead of nesting up here like a couple of seagulls.”
Peachy wondered if gulls felt the twigs of their nests prodding into their feathery flanks.
Solomon wrinkled his nose. “Ignorance can be charming in the young, but you’ll grow out of it.” A patronising smile lurked somewhere under the moustache, which currently looked like a couple of squirrels – one up each nostril – swishing their tails. “We are observing the bigger picture. The Floating Menagerie presents a rarer opportunity than you realise. But in order to avail ourselves of the prize, we can’t go filing in to sample its wonders with the rabble. We must board her under cover of darkness.”
Peachy groaned. She thought a number of unpleasant things about the Mayor and his ‘official requests’.
“Grancarmody’s Menagerie is the last refuge of the Sinoan Panda,” continued Solomon. “And you, my girl, are going to help me bag one for my collection.”
Peachy shoved herself up onto her knees, ready to go. “Huh. No I’m not.”
“‘Render my cousin every assistance.’ I believe those were my cousin’s words.”
Peachy had a leaden feeling in her stomach and hoped it would send her sinking through the thatch.
A gull wheeled overhead, screeched, and pooped on the roof, ominously close to her hand.
[To Be Continued…]