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Higher for Hire
Rebecca von Bruinwald, a petite brown bearess, sank into her chair with a relieved sigh. She pulled herself as close to her desk as her protruding abdomen would allow. The cub she was expecting sharply kicked her in the ribs, apparently protesting about being wedged against the edge of the desk. Rebecca rubbed her stomach gingerly, murmuring, "Sorry, little one, but Mommy's got work to do." She then wiped a droplet of sweat from her nose, thinking ruefully, I would have to be nine months pregnant during the worst heat wave Cape Suzette's ever had.
Feeling as if she was broiling alive, Rebecca pointed the oscillating fan directly on her face, causing the stacks of weighted-down papers to rustle. There was another fan on the floor beside the desk. She turned it on to 'high'. The fans only blew the hot air around, but it was better than nothing. She took a long gulp of ice-cold lemonade and picked up her pencil.
Just as soon as Rebecca had opened her ledger, the radio on the other side of the room crackled, "Sea Duck to Higher for Hire. Come in, Higher for Hire."
Tossing the pencil aside, Rebecca said through gritted teeth, "I can't get any work done with that bear bothering me every two minutes!" She sighed in exasperation, hoisted herself with difficulty out of the chair, and waddled over to the radio.
As Rebecca laboriously made her way across the room, Baloo repeatedly asked, "Beckers? Are ya there, Becky? Honey?"
The bearess picked up the receiver and jabbed her thumb down on the transmit button. "What is it now, Baloo?"
"Just checkin' up on ya," the pilot replied defensively.
"I've told you time and again - just like I told you ten seconds ago and ten seconds before that - that I'd radio you at the first sign of a contraction."
"I know, honey, but I don't like bein' so far away when the baby might decide ta pop out at any second," Baloo said concernedly, "especially since it's two weeks past yer due date."
Rebecca smirked. "Gee," she said sarcastically, "I wonder where the baby got that. No one in our family is ever late."
"Go ahead, yuk it up, Rebecca," Baloo mumbled, peeved.
Through her laughter, she said, "Okay, I will. Kit, can you please explain to your father that I can take care of myself, and that I have a ton of paperwork that needs to get done if we're going to pay for this baby? Make sure you use small words and speak slowly so that he will understand."
A smile crossed Rebecca's face as she listened to her fourteen-year-old son solemnly repeat what she had said.
"Yeah, yeah, smarty-pants, I heard her the first time," the pilot grumbled.
There was scuffling and bumping as Kit stole the microphone. "No problem, Mom."
Rebecca laughed when Baloo exclaimed, "No fair gangin' up on me! Gimmee the mike, Li'l Britches! Are ya okay, Beckers?"
"Yes, I'm fine. Goodbye, Baloo," she said pointedly.
"All right, all right. Sea Duck out."
Rebecca waited by the radio. She fanned herself with an invoice. It felt like she had her own personal heater strapped to her stomach. Coupled with the oppressive July heat and humidity, it was simply unbearable in the stuffy little office. She'd like to take a refreshing dip in the harbor, but she knew that she'd never be able to get out once she got in.
As she had expected, Baloo asked over the radio, "Are ya one hundred percent, abso-tutely sure yer okay, Becky?"
The bearess burst out laughing. She found her husband's near-manic concern for her both sweet and annoying. It made her want to kiss him and strangle him at the same time. "For the last time YES!" she shouted. Still giggling, she added, "Be careful, guys."
"Love ya, honey. Sea Duck out."
Before Rebecca could turn around, Baloo said, "Hey, Becky, make sure ya remember yer promise."
Picking up the receiver, Rebecca said wearily, "I remember - no Berthas."
"An' no Dexters. I still think ya should name him Baloo, Jr," he hinted none-too-subtly.
"I don't think so, flyboy. One Baloo in the family is more than enough."
"Aw..." the big bear groaned in disappointment.
"Bye, Baloo, and I mean it this time!"
"Yes, sir, boss lady. Sea Duck out."
Rebecca headed towards her desk and the mountain of ledgers and paperwork on it. Halfway across the office, she changed her mind and instead waddled slowly outside. Even though it was only mid-morning, the hot sun beat down on her mercilessly. She made her way around to the rear of Higher for Hire where her eight-year-old daughter Molly was playing in the sandbox underneath the shady elm tree.
"Lookee, Mommy. It's my best one yet," the little yellow cub stated proudly, pointing to her sand castle complete with elaborate turrets, doorways, and windows. She'd worked on it for the past two days.
"Very nice, Pumpkin," her mother said admiringly. She patted the little girl on the head. "Molly, could you play inside and answer the radio for me? Your daddy's driving me up the wall."
"Again?" Molly remarked with a sympathetic smile, slipping her sandy paw into her mother's.
"Yes, again." Rebecca sighed tiredly, putting her free hand on her aching back. "Let's get out of this sun. Maybe I'll radio Baloo and ask him to bring me some snow from Thembria."
Molly looked alarmed. "Don't do that, Mom. He'll get arrested for stealing snow."
"I forgot about that," the bearess murmured, sorely disappointed. Sitting in a bathtub full of snow sounded really appealing. "The heat must be bothering me more than I thought."
It was a typical frigid, blustery day in Thembria's capital city. A thick bank of grey clouds blocked out every vestige of sunlight, leaving the snow-covered, treeless country in gloomy greyness. A howling, piercingly cold wind pummeled everything in its path and whipped the powdery snow around.
Rows and rows of identical snow-roofed houses lined the narrow streets of the city. There was no business district, because there was only one government-controlled Glorious People's General Store. In front of this store stretched an interminable line of shivering, rag-clad warthog peasants. All had waited in that line for hours just to purchase a few turnips and a bowl of gruel, hoping against hope that there wasn't another shortage.
In the middle of the city stood a stoutly-built, five-story, snow-capped stone building that stretched as far as the eye could see. At the exact center of this imposing building was a dome, and atop the dome waved the Thembrian flag - a white semi-circle imposed on a black background. It was a fitting symbol for Thembria's snowy bleakness. This building housed the Glorious Republic of Thembria's official offices. It was also where the perpetual ruler of Thembria - the High Marshall - made all of his important decisions.
At that time, the High Marshall, an extremely portly grey-blue warthog clad in a purple coat with a red sash and a matching cap, was performing a very important task. He was lounging in his comfortable chair, getting his tusks polished.
When the head of the Glorious People's Air Force walked into the room, the High Marshall impatiently pushed the official tusk polisher away. In a thick Thembrian accent, he said languidly, "You are probably wondering why I summoned you, Colonel Nozzle."
"That's Spigot, sir," the very, very short warthog corrected timidly with a pronounced lisp on the letter 'S'. He rocked on his heels nervously and tugged on the collar of his maroon coat. "But Nozzle has such a nice ring to it. I'll change my name at once!"
The High Marshall shot him a withering stare and once again pushed the tusk polisher away. He wondered why he hadn't had Spigot shot long ago. "Whatever, Faucet. Our intelligence officers at the TBG (Thembrian Bureau of Guises) have received word that spies from Usland are preparing to invade our country to do irreparable damage to our beloved Great Patriotic Flying Flounder statue."
"Not the Great Patriotic Flying Flounder statue located in the People's Glorious Square?" Spigot gasped in horror.
"Yes, that one," the High Marshall said, highly peeved at the interruption. "Do not interrupt me again, Drainpipe, or you will be shot."
"A thousand pardons, O Mighty Mucky Muck."
Over the noise of the polishing machine, the High Marshall said, "In an attempt to destroy Thembria's patriotism, these Usland spies are going to attack the statue."
"Nothing can make Thembrians turn their backs on their glorious Mommyland! Not even capitalistic Usland swine!"
Annoyed, the High Marshall shoved the polisher to the floor. The scrawny warthog slunk across the floor to the door, his polisher still whirring. "Your mission - and you will accept it upon penalty of being shot by a firing squad and then hung - is to root out these spies before they desecrate the statue. According to the TBG, the Usland spies' code word for beginning the demolition is 'labor'. That is all you need to know. Now, go away and don't report back until you have successfully completed your task, Colonel Nozzle," he ordered gruffly. He folded his hands and closed his eyes.
"Spigot," the colonel corrected.
The High Marshall cracked one eye open to glare at the colonel. "Just get going."
"Yes, sir. Right away, sir." Colonel Spigot saluted and quickly retreated in search of his toady, Sergeant Dunder.
One story down, Sergeant Dunder sat behind a desk in a high-ceilinged room. The large, mild-mannered warthog was surrounded by mounds of papers as tall as he. He stamped each paper with a black 'W', indicating that those papers were processed on Wednesday. It was long, hard, tedious, taxing work, and he wasn't getting paid very much to do it; however, Dunder wasn't depressed. On the contrary, he was fairly happy, because he was stamping those endlessly endless amounts of papers to the beat of a peppy song on K-CAPE radio, broadcast out of Cape Suzette. Work always seemed to go faster when he was listening to K-CAPE.
"Grey skies are gonna clear up," sang the Gandrews Sisters over the radio in jazzy, three-part harmony; "put on a happy face..."
When he heard the patter of Colonel Spigot's little feet in the hallway, Dunder quickly turned the tuning knob. Listening to anything except State Programming was a capital offence in Thembria.
The man over the radio said in a no-nonsense voice, "This is K-BORE, Thembria's Glorious People's Radio Service. If you listen to anything else, you will be shot. Here's Boris with the weather."
In the bored tone of a man who had related the same forecast day in and day out for the past ten years, Boris droned, "Today - cold, cloudy, chance of snow. Thursday - cold, cloudy, chance of snow. Friday - cold, cloudy, chance of snow."
A new announcer said dramatically, "Now, onto another exciting episode of the Glorious Colossal Thembrian People's Court. Today, the condemned are charged with stealing official Thembrian government ice shavings."
Colonel Spigot stormed across the room and flipped off the radio. "What are you doing, Sergeant Dunder?" he snapped irately.
"Stamping the official DD-D5-AS forms with the official Wednesday stamp like you told me to, sir," Dunder replied, continuing to stamp papers methodically.
"Forget what I told you to do, and do what I'm telling you to do."
Dunder stopped; the hand holding the stamp halted midair. "What are we doing, Colonel Spigot, sir?"
Spigot glanced around furtively. Grunting, he stood on tiptoe to lean over the desk, but it was too tall. He could barely see over it. Instead, he walked around it until he faced Dunder. He whispered, "We're looking for spies."
"Spies, sir?" Dunder's eyes grew wider.
"Shh!" Spigot clapped a paw over Dunder's mouth. "Spies are everywhere! Do you want them to know that we're looking for them?"
With Spigot's hand still over his mouth, Dunder shook his head.
"Follow me, and be quiet!" he shouted, his voice reverberating in the cavernous room. After a nervous, furtive glance around, he hissed, "If those spies know that we're seeking for them, they'll go into hiding." Spigot marched out of the room with Dunder trotting meekly behind.
On the other side of Thembria's capital city, Baloo and Kit were unloading their shipment of pink lawn flamingoes at the Ministry of Lawn Ornaments.
Baloo picked up an unwieldy box almost as tall as himself and staggered down the back hatch's tailgate. "I'm tellin' ya, Kit, we keep draggin' these same birds back an' forth. One of these days, I'm gonna mark one somehow an' prove it to ya."
"If you say so, Papa Bear," Kit said with an amused smile. He secretly thought the drastic temperature shift from hot to cold was wreaking havoc with Baloo's head. He once again bent over his clipboard, scribbling on a big pile of official Thembrian shipping/receiving forms.
Actually, Baloo was correct. The lawn flamingo trade was a vicious cycle in that the Thembrians painted the birds blue and sold them to Usland for fifty cents. Accordingly, Usland repainted them pink and sold them back to Thembria at a dollar apiece. Who knew that lawn ornaments could be the cause of a power struggle between two countries?
When the Colonel Spigot and Sergeant Dunder passed the Sea Duck, Kit watched them rummage through the boxes of flamingoes. Wondering why they were searching through boxes containing pink flamingoes, the boy called out in a friendly manner, "Hey, Dunder, what are you looking for?"
Dunder sauntered over to the cub. "Hi, Kit. The colonel and I are looking for spies. Oops! Shouldn't have told you that. It's top secret," he said, glancing nervously in Spigot's direction. "I might be sent to a firing squad, or something worse."
Kit hid a smile, thinking,Thembrians and their crazy schemes. "Don't worry. Your secret is safe with me." The cub winked, gestured as if he zipped his lip, and returned to filling out official Thembrian paperwork.
Just as Kit had flipped to the twenty-seventh page of the first set of forms, Molly's agitated voice came unexpectedly over the Sea Duck's radio. "Higher for Hire to Sea Duck. Come in Sea Duck. Can you hear me, Daddy? Kit? Anybody? Mommy's in labor, and we're going to the hospital right now!"
Dropping the clipboard, Kit sprinted to the cockpit and picked up the microphone. "I'm here, Molly," he said breathlessly.
Nothing but static.
The boy dropped the receiver and ran through the cargo hold to where his father was trying to lift the box onto a conveyer belt. "Baloo!"
"What?" Baloo turned around - box and all - but couldn't see the boy over the gigantic box.
Kit ran to the other side and tugged on Baloo's elbow. "Papa Bear!"
"What, Kit?" Baloo turned his head the other way.
Giving up on making eye contact with his father, Kit said, "Molly radioed that Mom's in labor."
THUNK went the box that Baloo was carrying as it dropped to the floor. He spun on his heel and began shoving boxes out of the cargo hold as fast as he could. "Becky's in labor? Cargo or no, we gotta go!"
Spigot's ears perked up when he heard the so-called secret code word. He charged up to the two bears. "I'm Colonel Spigot. Perhaps you've heard of me. I'm going to have to detain you for questioning."
"Yer gonna hafta take a rain check on the questions, Spiggy. We've gotta fly back ta Cape Suzette ASAP. My wife's in labor." Baloo stepped around the short colonel.
"Guards! Arrest these bears at once!" Spigot shouted. Four heavily armed, brawny warthogs dragged Baloo and Kit to prison.
"Aw, man, what did we do this time?" Baloo cried.
An Hour Later
Baloo sat alone in a pitch-black room, tied hand and heel to a metal, straight-backed chair. Upon entering the prison, he and Kit had been separated. Kit had been taken to a holding cell whereas Baloo had ended up here - wherever here was. He'd been wrongfully imprisoned, he was freezing, the 'Big Guy' was rumbling, and his wife was in the hospital. No wonder he was grumbling angrily as he attempted to wriggle out of the ropes. "Gotta get ta Cape Suzette. Gotta get ta Becky. Stupid Spiggy! Knew I shoulda stayed home today."
Suddenly, a door slammed open and a bright light shone directly into Baloo's eyes. It took a few minutes for him to accustom himself to the blinding light. "Hey, what's the big idea?" Through the spots, he could see the dark outline of a small form.
"Silence, you! I'll ask the questions!"
"Oh, great," Baloo groaned, "it's Spiggy."
"Spigot! Where were you at 10:00 PM on October 5, 1902?" the colonel snapped, staring the baffled pilot in the face.
Baloo shrugged as best as he could. "I was only two years old. Don't remember what I was doin'. Probably sleepin'."
"A likely alibi. That's what all spies say." Spigot waved his riding whip at the bear.
"Spies?" Baloo snorted. "You think Kit an' me are spies? We're just cargo pilots droppin' off yer silly pink flamingoes." Once again, he tried to twist out of the ropes that constrained him.
"Pink flamingoes?" Spigot paced around the room, deep in thought. Abruptly, he stopped in front of Baloo. "Ah-HA! Suddenly everything is clear. The flamingoes are a brightly-colored distraction so that you can desecrate our Great Patriotic Flounder statue without us knowing it. Everyone knows that flamingoes are blue, not pink!"
"What!" Baloo cried in amazement. A crafty look crossed his face. "Yeah, ya guessed it, Spiggy, an' after we take yer flounder, we're gonna steal the Leanin' Tower of Pizza. It's a plot ta take over the world one monument at a time."
"I knew it! And, I, the brilliant, magnanimous, yet humble, Spigot, am the first to uncover your dastardly plot! I'll be famous! I can see the front page of the Glorious People's Newspaper now - General Ivanov Spigot Stops Spies' Crime Spree." He chortled gleefully to himself, imagining big things in his short head.
Baloo rolled his eyes. "Aw, who cares about yer stupid fish an' yer birds. My wife's in labor." He hopped in his chair across the room towards the open door.
"The secret code word!" Spigot blocked the door with his short frame. "Admit it, Baloo. You are a spy."
"The only thing I spy is a quick exit. Why doncha torture someone yer own size, Spiggy? I'm outta here." Baloo plowed right over the colonel and hopped down the hall.
"Dunder-her-her! Catch...him! Oh..." Spigot moaned weakly while he lay, a crumpled mass, on the floor.
At the prison cell...
"So, 'labor' really, truly means that your mother is having a baby instead of code for 'destroy the Great Patriotic Flounder statue'," Dunder said slowly.
"You've got it!" Kit sighed in relief. He impatiently tapped his fingers on the bars of the cell. After thirty minutes of trying to explain the simple situation, the thick-headed, big, grey warthog finally understood.
"You're not spies?"
"Never have been." Kit smiled innocently.
"Then you shouldn't be here."
"Nope. Baloo really needs to get back to Cape Suzette. Can't you get us free, Dunder? Please?"
"Well...I do have access to the keys, but it's against Thembrian regulations to release a prisoner without filing forms 1234 dash 5 stroke 6 and 9876 dash 5 stroke 4 in triplicate. One in General Gaol's in-box and two in the High Marshall out-box. Signed and stamped by all the proper authorities. It'll take months, maybe even years."
"Years?" Kit squeaked, leaning wearily against the bars. He wondered how old he would be when he finally got out. Twenty? Maybe thirty? He'd never get to fly!
From out of nowhere, a sultry female voice belted out a slow ballad. "Some bear to watch over me..."
Dunder looked around in surprise at the familiar voice. "Is that Rosebeary Clooney? Did the Colonel arrest her, too?"
From beneath his shirt, Kit pulled a small gadget. "Nah, Dunder, it's my portable radio. Wildcat made it, and it gets awesome reception. Last week, Papa Bear and I listened to a Sox game all the way from Zapan."
Dunder gazed wistfully at the radio. "Zapan's on the other side of the world from Usland. That's even farther away than Thembria."
Baloo bounced up to the prison cell, still confined to his chair; the chair made a horrible scraping sound on the cement floor as he scooted along. "Time ta vamoose, Li'l Britches, while Spiggy's down for the count," he panted.
"We're kinda in a hurry. Do the paperwork later, Dunder!" Kit exclaimed desperately. The boy heard the tramping of soldiers' boots in the hallway, and he knew those hulking soldiers would have weapons. It was escape now or never.
"Please, ol' buddy, ol' pal!" Baloo pleaded.
Dunder wavered for a moment, his eyes passing from the big bear to his son.
"I'll give you my radio," Kit offered, holding the small device.
It was a tantalizing offer, but firing squads loomed in the back of his mind. "Oh...I don't know."
"I'll send you new batteries whenever you need them," Kit wheedled.
"Deal!" Without a second thought, Dunder took a key ring from its hook on the wall. He unlocked Kit's cell. "But don't tell anybody about this. I could get in big trouble, you know."
"We won't tell anyone," Kit promised as he sliced through Baloo's ropes with his pocketknife.
As soon as he was free, Baloo started for the door at a run. "Thanks, pal! We owe ya big! If yer ever in Cape Suzette, stop by for a hot dog or ten!" he shouted as the two bears sprinted out of prison.
"Stop! Stop, spies!" Spigot panted, running up to Dunder. He leaned tiredly against the sergeant. "Why didn't you stop them?"
"They were too fast for me, sir." He patted the radio safely concealed in his pocket. Now he could listen to K-CAPE anytime he wanted.
"I'm taking away your radio!" Colonel Spigot yelled, smacking Dunder across the knees with his riding whip.
Dunder forced himself to appear disappointed. "Yes, Colonel Spigot, sir."
Both warthogs stepped outside and began walking towards the big government building. "What am I going to tell the High Marshall?" Spigot said fretfully.
"Tell him it's my fault, sir?" Dunder suggested.
"Yes, Dunder, it's all your fault! This whole situation is your fault!"
"Yes, sir." Dunder, who had been fingering the portable radio, accidentally flipped it on. Carmel Miranda's Spanish voice belted out, "Mama, oh mama, oh mama, quero ser seu..." With wide eyes, he quickly turned it off.
"What did you say, Dunder?" Spigot said, staring at the big warthog suspiciously.
Blushing, Dunder whispered, "Nothing, sir."
Cape Suzette Memorial Hospital
"Oh, I wish Baloo was here," Rebecca murmured, cuddling the infant in her arms.
Ten minutes earlier, she had said the same thing, but with a much, much different connotation: "Oh, I wish Baloo was here! If that bear ever lays a finger on me again, I'll strangle him, fire him, strangle him again, and break every bone in his fat body! Then he'll need a hospital! OWWWWW-OWWWW! DOCTOR, WHERE ARE MY DRUGS!" Shaking the physician violently by his lapels, she screamed, "GIVE! ME! MY! DRUGS!"
But all of the pain and anguish of labor - well, some of it - had been forgotten when the nurse placed her baby in her arms.
"Do you have a name chosen, ma'am?" asked the nurse, clipboard in hand.
Rebecca smiled down at the newborn, then up at the nurse. "Yes, I've just thought of the perfect one."
The Sea Duck
The beautiful blue sky was brushed with wind-swept cirrus clouds and, ten thousand feet below, the radiant, late afternoon sunlight glimmered off of the placid Pacific Ocean. The cockpit was hotter than the interior of a volcano, even with the windows down. But Baloo was oblivious to it all. He didn't even notice the steady stream of perspiration dripping off the end of his nose onto his sweat-drenched shirt. He, hunched over the control yoke, was focused on one thing and one thing only - getting to Cape Suzette Memorial Hospital. He mumbled repeatedly under his breath, "Hang on, Becky, I'm comin'."
In the co-pilot's seat, Kit took off his cap and brushed sweat from his brow with his sleeve. He looked up from the map only to catch a glint of sunlight reflecting off of glass out of the corner of his eye. He stuck his head out the open window. Trouble! Five CT-37s were zooming up fast behind them. "Uh, Papa Bear, you're not going to believe this, but air pirates are on our tail."
Baloo groaned, rubbing his eyes wearily with a massive paw. "Oh, man! What do they want? I don't got any cargo."
Over the radio, the pirate captain Don Karnage said, "Surrender yourselves unto us, Sea Duck, or face the unspeakable, ugly wrath that is Karnage."
"Yer wrath ain't as ugly as yer ugly mug, Don Garbage," Baloo chuckled into the mike.
"It is Karnage! Don Karnage! Roll the 'R'. How can you insult my beautious self?"
"Like this." Baloo blew a raspberry.
Father and son shared impish grins as the wolf screamed, "I'll get you, Bahloo, if it's the last thing I do this minute!"
"Ex-squeeze me, Karny, but ya gotta catch me first, an' I don't got time for fun an' games today." Baloo yanked the control yoke back sharply. "Time for the ol' Baloo Corkscrew! Hang on to yer knees, Li'l Britches!"
Both bears knew that the pirates' CT-37 fighters stalled out at the end of a steep climb and that none of the air pirates could follow complicated aerial maneuvers - a fact that the dim-witted pirates kept forgetting. True to form, the single-man tri-wings began falling away one by one.
The Sea Duck made graceful arcs around the floundering CT-37s and kissed the surface of the ocean before leveling out. The pirates ate proverbial prop wash.
"Louie's is just a mile east of here," Kit mentioned.
"No time for sundaes now, kiddo. Gotta get home." Baloo nudged the throttle up a little. Not for the last time did he wish that he still had his overdrive engines.
Kit grinned wryly to himself. He'd never thought he'd see the day when don't-trouble-me-with-troubles Baloo would pass up a chance to go to his favorite party spot.
But it didn't really surprise him. It was just another small change that Kit had noticed in his Papa Bear since he had literally run into him. On the outside, Baloo appeared the same: he wore the same yellow flight shirt, still possessed his easy-going personality, loved his 'baby', and enjoyed a good snooze in his hammock. However, he had become a little more responsible, a little more punctual, and even put others' needs before his own - sometimes. In a nutshell, Baloo was finally growing up.
In an attempt to be cooler, the young navigator stuck his head out the window and watched the blue ocean speeding by below them. He wondered how his mother and new little sibling were faring.
End of part 1