All's Bear in Love and War
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Higher for Hire
A drowsy, contented feeling mingled with the lingering aroma of the delicious Thanksgiving dinner that now reposed in the full tummies of Higher for Hire's crew.
Kit, lounging on a crate by the sunny window, pored over a Flyboy Magazine article touting the latest exploits of one Colonel Conrad.
As the boy gazed at picture after glossy picture of the handsome hero, he read, "'Between peacekeeping missions, Usland's ambassador to Thembria still performs the fantastic flying feats that made him a household name.' Stopped a forest fire by dumping water on it, flew through a blizzard to take medical supplies to a remote mountain hospital, and rescued a kitten from the top of a tree all in one day? Wow! That Col. Conrad must be the best pilot in the world...except for Baloo, that is."
He was going to show Baloo the article about Usland's most famous hero, but one glance at the big bear dozing in his easy chair told him that he would have a better chance of getting the last piece of pumpkin pie than waking his Papa Bear.
Instead, Kit turned his attention to Molly lounging on Baloo's lap, reading a book aloud.
"Then the Papa Bear said, 'Someone's been eating my porridge'. And the Mama Bear said, 'Someone's been eating my porridge'. And the Baby Bear said..."
Indignantly, Molly cried, "That's not what the Baby Bear said." She turned to look up at the big bear. Seeing that he was asleep, she shouted, "Ba-LOO!"
Baloo murmured groggily, "The Three Billy Goats Gruff ate Cinderella's shoe and they all lived happily...ever...after...snore."
Molly frowned for a while, then a devious look crossed her face. She stood up on his lap, and, hands on her hips, said sternly á la her mother, "If you don't get out of here with that cargo this second, buster, you're fired!"
The big bear jerked awake, his heart pounding. "I'm goin', Becky, I'm goin'!" After a moment, his blurry eyes focused on Molly's smirking face. "That was a mean trick to play on ol' Baloo, kiddo."
"Well, you keep falling asleep." She plumped back down on his ample lap and picked up her book. "That Goldilocks sure looks innocent, doesn't she?"
"What do you mean, Molly?" Kit asked, glancing up from his magazine.
"I mean, she doesn't look like someone who would steal porridge."
"Who'd want to steal porridge anyway?" Kit wrinkled up his nose in distaste. "Yee-uck!"
"Baloo, what's porridge?" Noticing that he was already asleep, Molly shouted, "Baloo!"
The big bear awoke with a start. "What? What?"
"You're sleeping again," the little girl sang accusingly.
"That's because Goldilocks and the Three Bears has no planes or adventure, Molly," Kit explained as he jumped off the crate and walked across the room towards the easy chair where he perched on its arm. "If it had something more like: 'The three brave bears had prevented the lying, thieving Goldilocks from stealing their stuff by death-defying aerial maneuvers', he'd stay awake."
"Just like when Baloo saved Cape Suzette from the Panda-La-zians!" Molly exclaimed.
Baloo shrugged modestly. "Aw, it was nuthin'."
"It was a lot more than nothing," Kit countered.
Molly counted on her fingers. "Yeah, you got a parade and your picture in the paper and an award from the mayor."
"And you got to be on the radio and the MovieToon News," Kit added proudly.
"And Mommy took up twelve whole pages in her scrapbook for it." Hugging the big bear, Molly exclaimed, "You were a famous hero!"
"Aw, you kids don't wanna hear about that again." Baloo tried - and failed - to conceal a smile.
"Yes, we do!" Kit and Molly exclaimed simultaneously.
It didn't take much prodding for Baloo to gloat over the glory days, even if the glory days were only a few months ago. "Let's take a look-see at that scrapbook again, Cupcake. That's my kind of reading."
Just as Molly had run across the room to get the scrapbook from the desk, Rebecca came down the stairs with Wildcat right behind her. The lion mechanic was struggling with awkward camera equipment.
"No time for scrapbooks. We're going to have our picture taken," Rebecca informed them brightly.
Baloo groaned. "How come?"
"Because I'm the boss and I said so."
"Now, wait just a prop-spinnin' minute! That ain't fair makin' me get out of this chair on a holiday day."
"It's about as fair as me having to put up with a lazy bum of a pilot." Rebecca pulled Baloo out of his chair and shooed him and the kids outside. "I'm going to include a photograph of all of us with each of our clients' Christmas cards. It'll be good for business."
"It sure ain't good for my nap time," Baloo said through a yawn as he trudged to the end of the weatherbeaten dock. "'Sides, today's Thanksgiving, meaning Christmas is a whole month away."
"Never too soon for everyone to get into the holiday spirit."
"Spirit, schmerit." Baloo grumbled.
"I guess it takes some people longer than others." Rebecca flitted about, retying Molly's hair ribbons, straightening Kit's cap, and brushing crumbs off Baloo's shirt. After she had posed them, she asked, "Camera ready, Wildcat?"
"Roger Wilco, Miz Cunningham. Just gotta set the little timer." When Wildcat pushed the wrong button, the flash went off right in his face. "Look at all the pretty stars! Maybe I can catch one." He whipped a fishing net out of his back pocket and started waving it in front of his eyes.
"Wildcat, stop doing...whatever it is you're doing...and take the picture!" Rebecca snapped.
"All right, Miz Cunningham. The little stars went away anyway," Wildcat said sadly, untangling the net from around his head and returning it to his pocket. Quicker than a flash, he changed the bulb and flipped the timer switch on the camera. "Ten, nine, eight, seven..." he counted as he rushed to join Baloo, Rebecca, Kit, and Molly standing in front of the Sea Duck.
"Everyone say, 'Turkey!'" Rebecca drew Baloo's right arm around her shoulders while gesturing for him to put his other arm around Wildcat.
"That's what I feel like," Baloo muttered sullenly, slinging his arm around Wildcat's wiry shoulders.
Between clenched teeth, Rebecca said, "And smile."
A small door opened in a large warehouse, letting a stream of warm light shoot out over the cold snowdrifts mounded on either side of the door. The warthog who had opened the door cast a long shadow on the snow. As he stepped into the warehouse, it was immediately apparent that he was much shorter than his shadow. However, his stature wasn't as short as his temper. "Sergeant Dunder!" he barked.
Instantly, the faithful sergeant was at his side, clipboard at the ready. "Yes, Colonel Spigot?"
Spigot assumed an air of great importance, comical in one so short. "You have my instructions?"
"Yes, sir." Dunder dutifully read from the clipboard: "One hundred percent of Thembrians are completely satisfied with the High Marshall."
"Those aren't my instructions!"
"Sorry, sir. I've been working on Pat's report." The mild-mannered sergeant flipped a page and read: "No one is to go in or out of this warehouse without clearance from you."
"And...?" Spigot asked expectantly, rocking on his heels.
"And no one can go behind the Iron Curtain that is located in this warehouse."
"Or they will be shot." With as much curiosity as a Thembrian dared, Dunder asked, "What is behind the Iron Curtain, sir?"
Spigot trotted over to the curtain of thick iron rings that partitioned off the majority of the warehouse, thus earning the nickname 'The Iron Curtain'. He lisped, "Something so secret that only the top, top officials are allowed to know."
"Oh. You don't know either, huh, sir?"
"No! The High Marshall said I didn't need to know." Disgruntled, Spigot kicked the Iron Curtain. "Ow!" Clutching at his sore foot, he hopped around in pain.
"I have some salve," Dunder offered helpfully.
"It'll take more than salve if the thing behind the Iron Curtain gets stolen."
"You mean like all the bologna and bathtubs and blindfolds that were stolen from the other warehouses recently?"
"Yes! And if what's in this warehouse gets stolen the High Marshall said that," Spigot gulped, "I would be shot."
"Then we'd better make sure it doesn't get stolen."
"Exactly!" As he paced, Spigot tapped his riding crop against the Iron Curtain, creating a rhythmic, metallic clank. "I want ten, no, twenty, no, a whole platoon of armed guards surrounding this place night and day!"
Sgt. Dunder consulted his clipboard. "All the platoons are patrolling the borders and the city, sir."
"Oh...a couple of tanks then."
Flipping through a few pages on the clipboard, Dunder said, "All the tanks are in for routine repairs, sir."
"They were in for routine repairs two months ago!"
"The parts were stolen, sir," Dunder said apologetically. "There is one tank left, but it's being used for the firing squad."
"We definitely can't use that one, not with the ratings for This Was Your Life going through the roof." Spigot thoughtfully tapped at his temple with riding crop. Then he tapped too hard and winced. But all that tapping must have unleashed an idea, for he shouted, "I've got it!"
"You." Spigot slowly, deliberately pointed his riding crop at Sgt. Dunder.
"Yes, you will stay here and personally guard this warehouse."
"Yes, sir." Dunder cast a curious glace at the curtain.
"And no peeking behind the Iron Curtain!" Col. Spigot snapped, punctuating his order with a door slam.
Higher for Hire
The Following Wednesday
Wildcat perched on a crate beside Rebecca's desk, liberally lubing a piece of machinery while listening to his boss woo a prospective client over the phone.
"Yes, I realize that, Mr. Bearenstein," Rebecca said in the honeyed voice she reserved for potential clients. "We may be a small, family business, but I can give you my full assurance that Higher for Hire always acts in the most profitable...er, professional manner...You will?" she whooped. Embarrassed by her unprofessional outburst, she said staidly, "I mean, we'd be very happy to deliver your Sudsy-Wudsy Soap Flakes on December 24th. Let me get all your information down in my appointment book."
Looking like Christmas had come early, she unlocked her desk drawer and took out her Very-Private-Trespassers-Will-Be-Shot calendar just as the radio on her desk crackled to life.
"Sea Duck callin' Higher for Hire."
"Not now, Baloo..." the petite bearess muttered under her breath. Covering the phone's mouthpiece she pointed to the radio and hissed, "Wildcat, answer that!"
"Come in, Higher for Hire," the voice on the radio said again, more urgently this time. "This is the Sea Duck."
Wildcat plunked the oilcan and greasy part down on the desk, swiped his hands across his overalls to partially clean them, and picked up the microphone. "Gee, Sea Duck, you sound just like Baloo."
"Because it is Baloo."
"Hey, I'm real glad you called, 'cause I got a question for you. What do flies eat? Because I need to get some bait for when you and me and Kit go fly-fishing this weekend."
"Fly-fishin' ain't fishin' for flies. It's...aw!" Baloo let out a frustrated growl. "Just put Becky on, will ya? It's an emergency!"
Rebecca hung up the phone, beaming about Higher for Hire's latest client acquisition. She held out her hand for the microphone. "I can talk to him now, Wildcat. You go do...whatever it is you're doing." She was so happy even the parts dripping grease on her desk didn't bother her.
"I'm trying to reattach the whatchamacallit to the whoosis on my washing machine, but they get along better if they're real slippery." He scooped up his equipment and gave her a cheerful wave good-bye as he headed for the door. "See you later, Miz Cunningham."
"Now I know why they call mechanics 'grease monkeys'." She gave the filthy mike a swipe with her handkerchief before pushing the transmit button. "Rebecca here."
"Before ya start yellin', Becky, lemme explain."
"Flamingos?" Rebecca's eyes narrowed in suspicion. Between the grease on her hands and this conversation, her mood was quickly taking a nosedive. "Baloo, if this is another one of your lame excuses I'm going to strangle you, then revive you so I can strangle you again."
"It ain't a lame excuse. Remember those stupid pink flamingo lawn ornaments you used to have me deliver to Thembria over and over so's they could paint 'em blue and sell 'em back to Cape Suzette?"
"Until Khan Industries undercut us on the contract. Don't remind me. Three hundred dollars a month, a sure thing, down the drain!" she lamented.
"Yeah, well, the head guy at the Ministry of Lawn Ornaments let a plane full of 'em barge in front of me at the unloading dock and that's why I'm..."
"Late," Rebecca concluded with the longsuffering sigh of one who had heard it all before. Feeling a headache coming on, she put a hand to her forehead. "Oh..." She groaned in annoyance as she wiped the smudge off her face with her grease-spotted handkerchief.
"And you said if I was late with any of this week's shipments, you wouldn't buy me burgers on Friday night. You know ol' Baloo never passes up a chance for a free meal."
"You don't pass up a chance for any meal."
"Hey, I resemble that remark!"
"You certainly do, flyboy." Her smirk gave way to seriousness. "Are you sure you're telling the truth about the flamingos?"
"The truth and nothin' but."
"Fine. I'll call Honcho's and explain why their ponchos are being delivered a couple of hours late."
"Thanks, Beckers, you're a pal."
"I know." Her eyes fell on her calendar. The last appointment for Friday was: 'Date with Baloo' encircled by red heart. Ruefully, she added, "That's all I'll ever be."
"What was that last bit?"
Rebecca could have kicked herself over that little slip up. She had tried so hard to hide her feelings for Baloo, and she had almost blown it in a few careless words. To cover her embarrassment, she upped her prickly, picky supervisor act. "I said, no more late shipments! If Higher for Hire is going to take full advantage of the Christmas rush, you're going to have to do a little rushing yourself, buster!"
"Hey, I won't disappoint you, boss lady. I'll deliver everythin' else on time, down to the last partridge in a pear tree. Sea Duck out."
Addressing the framed picture of the Higher for Hire gang on the corner of her desk, she said wistfully, "I sure hope you do, Baloo."
Baloo staggered into Louie's nightclub under the weight of variously sized crates and packages. He precariously picked a path through the maze of tables, narrowly avoiding collision with a simian waiter with a tray full of drinks, a dancing couple, and a pyramid built out of glasses.
"Hey, Louie, I got your..."
"Shh!" the pilot patrons admonished from where they were clustered around the radio on the bar.
Baloo pushed his way through the crowd and plunked his load down, making the frothy fruit drinks and ice cream concoctions on the bar jump. "What gives?"
"This gives. Listen." Louie turned up the volume.
Over the radio came: "This is Dog Rather reporting from Mustgo. Just a few moments ago, Thembrian officials announced that they have executed and tried one Uslandian implicated in the recent rash of thefts from Thembrian warehouses, increasing that country's supply shortage."
"Was that a short joke?" came Col. Spigot's irritated voice. There was scuffling and feedback as he grabbed the microphone. "This is Col. Spigot. Perhaps you've heard of me? If the Glorious People's supplies from the Glorious People's warehouses aren't returned to us in 24 hours, it will mean war with Usland. War!"
Dog Rather continued, "Remember, you heard it here first. And now we go to Cape Suzette where Colonel Conrad, Usland's ambassador to Thembria, is standing by. Any comments, Col. Conrad?"
In a reassuringly calm voice, Col. Conrad drawled, "I declare I am going to Thembria today to speak with the High Marshall and, rest assured, I will do everything in my power to resolve and de-solve this crisis."
Dog Rather said, "Thank you, Col. Conrad. Now back to your local programming."
The sultry voice of Broadcast Sally, one of K-CAPE's radio personalities, came over the air: "Today in Cape Suzette, Khan Industries stock was down three points..."
Louie turned off the radio. The pilots, murmuring to each other and to themselves, dispersed.
"That Col. Conrad's a real true-blue Uslandian."
A second pilot nodded. "The biggest hero there ever was."
"Definitely the best pilot our air force has ever had."
"Everything will be fine. We can always count on Col. Conrad. Remember when he...?"
"I'd sure vote for him if he was running for president."
Baloo wearily plunked himself down on a bar stool. "What's Col. Conrad talkin' about, Louie? Why would Thembria declare war on us?"
Louie deftly flipped scoops of ice cream into a half coconut shell. "'Cause, cuz, someone's been swipin' their stuff. Ever since they caught that guy red-handed earlier this week, relations with Thembria have been as hot as bacon on a griddle and twice as poppin'. It's been all over the news all week."
He gestured to a newspaper on the counter. Splashed across the front page was 'Can Colonel Conrad Curb Conflict?' with a large picture of a handsome military man waving from the cockpit of his plane.
"Aw, Rebecca's had me globetrottin' all week, delivering everything from avocados to xylophones. What I wouldn't give for fifty thousand shaboozies to buy back the Sea Duck. Then I'd have nuthin' but flyin', fun, and freedom." Almost too tired to eat, Baloo slowly slurped a spoonful of the sundae Louie had placed in front of him.
"Uh-huh," Louie murmured. He had heard Baloo say that a million times over the past year, but knew his friend too well to believe it.
"Get this, innkeeper, she's even got me playin' postman, deliverin' Christmas cards to our clients to save on a couple of measly ol' stamps. Here's yours." He tossed a slightly crumpled envelope on the bar.
Louie opened the envelope and extracted the photograph. "Rebecca's in fi-hine form, as usual." Then, he teasingly tacked on, "The rest of the family ain't bad neither."
"Fam...family?" Baloo coughed, shocked at what his friend has just said.
"Hey, slow down there, fuzzy. You're liable to get a speeding ticket, feedin' your face that fast." The orangutan picked up a glass with his foot, blew on it, and began vigorously polishing it with a white towel.
As Baloo stared at the picture, his sleep-deprived mind conjured up an image of himself, happy and carefree, bounding towards the Sea Duck. Just as he reached the cockpit door...
Clang! A heavy, over-sized manacle was slapped around his right wrist.
"What in the...?" the dream-Baloo exclaimed.
Clang! Clang! Clang! Three more manacles appeared around his left wrist and both ankles.
Looking back, he saw that the manacles' chains were attached not to cannonballs, but to Rebecca, Kit, Molly, and Wildcat, who were all tugging backwards, pulling him away from the seaplane, the beckoning blue sky, and freedom.
The dream-Baloo yelled, "Noooo!"
Baloo was jerked out of his nightmarish daydream when Louie said, "Who'd wanna steal from them Thembrians anyhow? They ain't got nuthin' for crooks to rook."
Vaguely, as if far-away Thembrian was the furthest thing from his mind, Baloo said, "Uh, yeah, I hear that, man. Just a vast frozen wasteland with ice, snow, and the occasional firing squad. Speaking of firing squads, I'm gonna face my own if I don't skedaddle back home." He rose, his bar stool scraping against the bare wooden floor.
Slyly, Louie said, "Home to...?" He jabbed a long finger at the picture.
"Gimme that!" Baloo angrily snatched up the picture and crammed it into his shirt pocket. As he stomped towards the door, he threw over his shoulder, "I'm gone. Solid gone!"
Louie shook his head as he cleared away Baloo's untouched sundae. It was unlike the overweight bear to pass up food, a sure sign that he was agitated. And he doubted that the impending war was the cause. "The only place he's going is down De Nile."
A Little While Later...
The Sea Duck sped through the narrow opening in the cliffs that enfolded the tropical city of Cape Suzette in their protective arms.
The entire flight from Louie's Place had barely registered with Baloo, who had been puzzling over something that, frankly, scared the ailerons off him.
"Fam... family?" The big bear's lips stumbled over the panic-provoking word as he extracted the black-and-white photograph from his pocket. When the previous image of the Higher for Higher gang shackled to him tried to force his way into his mind again, he gulped and willed his stomach to stop barrel rolling.
He laughed shakily, then shook his head to clear the image from it and laughed again, scoffingly. "Ha! Louie don't know what he's talkin' about. Me and Kit could leave Higher for Hire anytime we wanted. Just like that," he said, snapping his fingers for emphasis. "All it would take is fifty thousand buckeroos for the Duck and we would be adios, bye-bye. Higher for Hire don't mean a thing, not one single, soli-toot-tinary thing. It's just a job like any other job, and Becky's just a boss like any other boss. After all, I can't be tied down or nuthin', right? Right!"
Satisfied that he finally convinced himself of those facts, he shoved the picture back in his pocket.
The weariness that had weighed on him for the last thousand miles lifted a little as he began the plane's descent towards the placid blue harbor in front of the plain wooden building he called home. After a week of being away, he didn't know what excited him more - the prospect of sleeping in his own bed, eating a big lunch with a side of dinner, or regaling wide-eyed Molly, cheering Kit, and slightly skeptical Rebecca with his most recent adventures.
Before he could decide, he noticed that a late model, navy-and-white seaplane with a large government seal on the cockpit door and twin booms was moored in front of Higher for Hire.
"Hey, someone's been parkin' in my spot!" he exclaimed with an annoyed frown.
After Baloo had taxied the Sea Duck up to the dock, he hastily jumped out and hurried to the office where he flung open the door. The first thing that caught his eye was the bowl Rebecca usually kept on her desk, stocked with fruit to appease her pilot's voracious appetite.
It was empty.
Baloo's frown deepened. "Someone's been eatin' my fruit!"
He spun around and saw Rebecca, Kit, and Molly gathered around a uniformed man sitting in the easy chair. He knew he'd been gone a week, but to have some interloper sitting in his chair was really the last straw.
Clenching his fists, he growled, "Someone's been sittin' in my chair...and there he is!"
"Zip it, Baloo!" Rebecca whispered, rushing over to grab his arm and give it a fierce warning squeeze. "Don't you know who this is?"
When the man in the chair stood, Baloo's frown turned upside-down. "You better believe I do! You're Col. Conrad, the Uslandian ambassador to Thembria and a bone-y fide-y hero to boot! Man, oh, man, you can park in my space, eat my fruit, and sit in my chair all you want to!"
"Oh, Baloo! Mind your manners," Rebecca snapped, plucking her pilot's cap off his head.
Even in person, the ursine Colonel Conrad seemed larger than life. Perhaps it was the accumulation of his past heroic deeds that hung on him like the many medals on his uniform. Perhaps it was his square, broad shoulders that seemed to be able to carry the weight of the world. Or perhaps it the handsomely charming effect of his frank, lopsided grin coupled with an unruly mop of curly blond hair. Whatever it was, Col. Conrad had it, and had it in abundance.
Baloo fidgeted a little, not knowing whether to salute, bow, or shake this great man's hand. Col. Conrad resolved that by grabbing his paw and pumping it as if they were old friends. With a smile that crinkled the corners of his twinkling brown eyes, he drawled in a southern accent, "It shore is a decided delight to meet a fellow flyboy."
"Did ya hear that, Becky?" Baloo said, nearly dancing with joy. "Col. Conrad's delighted to meet me!"
"I heard," Rebecca said wryly.
Molly tugged on the hem of Baloo's shirt, saying, "Did you know that Col. Conrad got all those pretty medals for bravery?"
From Baloo's other side, Kit chimed in: "And Col. Conrad's flown everything from an Aironca P-39 Thunderbuster, a Douglas Dolphinfin, and that Martinique PB&J Seafarer sitting out there is the very first of its kind."
"Brand-new too," Conrad added. "Though I prefer the classics like your Conwing L-16, Mr. Baloo. I'm sure the MovieToon clips and newspaper pictures didn't do it justice. I'd be delighted if you would let me take a little look-see. Maybe take her out for a spin sometime, just the two of us?"
Baloo beamed. Nothing made him happier than talking about 'his baby'. "Well, sure, Connie!"
"He's been telling us about all his parades. He's had fourteen!" Molly exclaimed.
"Thirteen-and-a-half," Conrad corrected modestly. "Hero work waits for no parade."
"You ought to see him fly. He's...he's...wow!" Kit said, gazing up at the ambassador with hero-worship. "Can we go for a ride in your plane, Col. Conrad?"
"Please?" Molly pleaded, clasping her little hands.
Col. Conrad flashed his famous smile. "Maybe a little later on, kids."
Rebecca explained, "Col. Conrad has more important things to do now. He's here because Baloo's being honored with a position on his staff."
"You, sir. Your exploits are quite well-known, ya know," Col. Conrad said, causing Baloo to blush. "My next mission requires someone with your skills, your expertise, your..."
"Hero-ing abilities?" Baloo supplied, puffing out his chest.
"Precisely! This mission calls for a huge hero. Someone able to attract all the attention of the Gle-orious Thembrian People."
"Shucks, I'm used to attracting attention."
"I reckon ya are. That's why I've chosen ya'll to be my official chauffeur," Conrad said with the air of a man conferring a great favor.
"Chauffeur?" Baloo's chest - and ego - deflated. "Wait a prop-spinnin' minute! If you're such a hotshot pilot why don't you fly yourself to Thembria?"
Indignantly, Rebecca said, "Whoever heard of a very important ambassador flying himself to a very important peacekeeping mission?"
"I guess ya got a point there, Becky. What happened to your last chauffeur?"
"I reckon he's not longer, er...available." Conrad's famous smile flickered, but only for a moment. "I promise ya'll be fairly recompensed." He pulled a big wad of cash out of his pocket and offered it to Baloo.
Snatching the money greedily, Rebecca said, "You've got yourself a pilot."
"Now that that's settled, I reckon we'd better hit the sky," Col. Conrad said, giving Baloo a friendly whack on the shoulder.
"What? Now?" Baloo exclaimed, his face falling. "B-b-b-b-b-but I just got home and..."
"The countdown's on. No time to lose. Besides, we've got to settle this little old Thembrian fracas so Ms. Rebecca and I can make our date tonight at my regular table at the Carousel Club."
"Date? Tonight?" Baloo's gaze went from Rebecca to Col. Conrad, then back again. He didn't like the way they were looking at each other. In fact, he had the strange urge to rearrange the ambassador's gleaming teeth. "But, Becky, I've been lookin' forward to you and me gettin' burgers all week."
"We can get hamburgers anytime," Rebecca replied. She shoved Baloo's hat in his hands and pushed him out the door and down the dock towards the Seafarer while everyone else followed them. "Besides, if you don't fly Col. Conrad to Thembria, hamburgers will be the least of your worries."
Rebecca gave him a rough shove that propelled him through the open cockpit door of the ambassador's plane. "Go!"
"Whatever you say, Miz Rebecca," Baloo said grumpily, slinging his hat on his head.
"I bet you'll get the biggest and bestest parade ever after you stop this war, Col. Conrad," Molly said brightly.
"I'm not stopping this war just for me, little lady. I'm stopping it for you," he patted her head, "and you," he patted Kit's head, "and especially you."
Rebecca tittered like a schoolgirl when the colonel bent to plant a gallant kiss on the back of her hand.
"Somethin' ain't fair here," Baloo muttered under his breath as he sank into the pilot's seat, a scowl etched on his face.
On the Way to Thembria
Baloo had cooled his engines and warmed up to the mission after a few hours in the sky. He decided that chauffeuring Usland's biggest hero to a summit to stop a war was, in fact, a very important job. Besides, it wasn't every day that he got to fly in a brand-new Martinique Seafarer. It was no Conwing L-16, but he grudgingly admitted to himself that it had its merits.
"Say, this is some fancy-pants plane ya got here, Connie," Baloo said, glancing over at the ambassador lounging in the plush co-pilot's seat.
Not even the prospect of spending hours negotiating with the austere High Marshall seemed to shake the cool Colonel's nerves.
"It's got all the bells and whistles and then some," Baloo continued. "But what's this picture that's stamped all over everything?"
Col. Conrad proudly display the seal that was emblazoned on the sleeve of his navy blue uniform - a blue silhouette of two men shaking hands superimposed against a white shield. Across the bottom of the seal was 'Uslandian Ambassador' in red lettering. "That is the official ambassador seal. It means I have diplomatic ee-mmunity."
"Is it catching?" an apprehensive Baloo asked. "I've never come down with that illness. Diplomatic, I mean. When I was a boy, I got lots of immunity to measles and mumps and chicken pox and..."
"It's not a dee-sease," the ambassador chuckled good-naturedly. "What it boils down to is that it's a passport to go an-y-where and do pretty much an-y-thing I want to in a foreign country."
"You mean you can break all the cockamamie Thembrian laws and not be shot or anything?"
"Yessirree," Conrad said, flashing his famous lopsided grin.
"I've gotta get me some of that diplomatic immunity for Christmas!" Baloo chuckled. "Speakin' of Christmas, here we are in Thembria - the land that's colder than Santa's jolly red nose."
After landing the plane on the snow-packed runway, Baloo flung open the door. A frigid gust of wind smacked him in the face and instantly chilled him right down to the bone. "Baby, it's cold outside!" he cried as they jumped down to the ground. "What, no red carpet or welcoming committee?"
"Here he comes," Conrad replied, pointing to a small figure moving towards them.
Col. Spigot was hurrying across the frozen tarmac to greet them as fast as his short legs could go. When he reached them, he peered at both Uslandians suspiciously. Frostily, he said, "Mr. Ambassador, I'm Colonel Spigot. Perhaps you've heard of me?"
"Shore have. Why, you're that fella who commanded the battle of Tiny Tundra in the Great War, right?"
Spigot looked very pleased and a little surprised. There weren't too many people who knew his name, let alone his claims to fame. "Why, yes! That's where I earned the nickname 'The Terror', because everyone was terrified of me. Have you heard the whole story? I'll start at the beginning. It was a dark and snowy night, and the enemy had us surrounded!"
"Oh, brother," Baloo muttered, rolling his eyes.
Col. Conrad took a more diplomatic approach. "I'm so sorry we don't have the time to hear all of your simply fascinatin' story, sir, but I do believe that the High Marshall is expecting me." He pointed at his solid gold wristwatch.
At the mere mention of Thembria's glorious leader, Col. Spigot snapped to attention. "Of course. Can't keep the High Marshall waiting." Almost graciously, he said, "I would offer you a ride, Mr. Ambassador, but..."
Baloo supplied flippantly, "All the vehicles have been stolen."
"Yes. How did you know?" Spigot asked, eying him suspiciously.
"Lucky guess?" Baloo replied with a nervous chuckle.
"Hmm..." After giving the overweight bear a look that clearly said, 'I'm watching you', Spigot abruptly turned on his heel and led Conrad and Baloo on a one-block trek to the long government building that ominously overshadowed the entire city.
Their footsteps echoed as they climbed innumerable stone steps up to the top floor where the High Marshall's offices were.
"In here, Mr. Ambassador," Col. Spigot said, ushering him into a room.
Before Baloo could follow, the door was slammed in his face. "I'll wait out here," he muttered nasally, rubbing his stinging nose.
As he waited, he nervously shifted from one foot to the other. He looked up then down the silent corridor. There didn't seem to be anyone around except the formidable-looking warthog standing guard in front of the High Marshall's office. He stood so still that Baloo had an urge to pinch him to see if he was real. But he refrained because pinching a Thembrian guard would probably result in a trip to the firing squad. Instead, he tentatively struck up a conversation. "So, uh, how's the weather been?"
"Cold," the muscular warthog replied curtly without taking his eyes off the drab grey wall opposite him.
"So's the reception," Baloo muttered under his breath. "Say, is there a little pilot's room around here?"
The guard pointed to the left with the barrel of his rifle. "Two doors down."
"Thanks, and I mean it, bud." All those Orange Fizzies he had drank to keep awake on his long cargo run earlier that day were catching up with him.
A few minutes later, Baloo was washing his hands in the ice-cold trickle coming out of the bathroom sink's tap when a lanky warthog ambled in without knocking.
"Hey!" Baloo exclaimed, recognizing the man as the High Marshall's personal assistant. "That door should have a lock on it."
"Other than the gulag, there are no locks in Thembria," the assistant stated languidly. He carried a stack of grey towels monogrammed with H.M. Atop the towels was a bar of soap and a rubber ducky. "Everything belongs to the Glorious People, but the Glorious People know that if they take anything not given to them by the State, they will be shot."
He drew back a grey curtain that partitioned off the majority of the room, revealing a large, claw-footed bathtub that could have easily accommodated five people or one stout High Marshall.
"Does that belong to the People?" Baloo asked, drying his hands on his shirt.
"This is the High Marshall's." The assistant set the towels on a nearby chair and turned on the tap.
Seeing steam rise from the bathtub, Baloo exclaimed, "Hey, that's hot water! I thought the Thembrian people only had the cold and frozen varieties."
"The People, yes. The High Marshall, no. Immediately remove yourself from the State's estate or be shot."
Once again, Baloo found himself pushed into the hallway and the door slammed in his face.
"Friendly country," he murmured sarcastically, rubbing his throbbing nose.
Inside a Thembrian Warehouse
An Hour Later...
"It was sure nice of the High Marshall to let you have all this stuff as a peace offering." Baloo's voice emerged from behind a bulging burlap bag. "But there's one thing I don't get, Connie. If he gave it to you, why do we hafta go from warehouse to warehouse, pickin' it up?"
Conrad chuckled quietly, derisively, as he stuffed handful after handful of chinchilla earmuffs into the sack. "That's Thembrians for ya. Ornery as all get-out."
"I hear that."
The ambassador cracked open the creaky, cold metal door and peered outside. Sergeant Dunder was pacing around the perimeter of the warehouse across the street. As in everything he did, the sergeant looked very focused on his task. His face was grim and his rifle was perfectly poised on his shoulder as he marched in a never-varying step.
"Think you can handle one more thing?"
"Piece o' carrot cake," Baloo said jauntily. "This is nuthin' compared to what Becky makes me haul around when she goes shoppin'. That gal must think I got the cargo capacity of the Spruce Moose. Oh, man! That reminds me. She'll wanna go Christmas shoppin' sometime. I wish there really was a Santa so's he could handle the present part of it. Speaking of Santa, Molly's already wrote him a letter tellin' him what she wants. She's sure excited about Christmas. Kit too. He wants to get the biggest Christmas tree he can find and decorate it all up. I don't think that kid's had many real Christmases, maybe not any. Neither have I, I guess. That's why this Christmas is gonna be real special. We're..."
Conrad, intent on Sgt. Dunder, didn't hear a word Baloo said. "Follow me," he instructed as the sergeant disappeared around the corner.
"Right behind ya, Connie." Baloo flung the bag over his shoulder and hurried after the colonel, the contents of the sack clinking.
On the other side of the snowy street, Conrad opened the door of the warehouse Dunder was guarding and slipped inside with Baloo right behind. The colonel carefully closed the door.
"What's that?" Baloo asked, nodding towards the curtain of thick metal rings that stretched across the length of the warehouse.
"The Iron Curtain. The High Marshall said I could have a little look-see at what's behind it." The ambassador pushed the metal rings aside and quickly disappeared behind them.
"That High Marshall must be a real generous guy." Baloo set the heavy sack down. "Hey, Connie. What's the world's greatest ambassador want for Christmas?"
"Just a little ol' piece of history," Col. Conrad replied, emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. "How 'bout you? What do you want for Christmas?"
"I don't rightly know," Baloo said, rubbing the back of his neck thoughtfully.
"How 'bout having the fate of the entire world in your hands?" Smiling, he dropped a screw into Baloo's palm. On one end of the screw was a red knob labeled: 'Temperature Control'.
Baloo chuckled. "What are we gonna do with it, Connie? Control the weather?"
Col. Conrad wasn't smiling when he said, "I reckon that little screw will screw up Thembrian-Uslandian relations as we know it. It will start the Cold Water War."
"Cold Water War?" Baloo echoed, shocked. "B-b-b-b-but you're the peace ambassador. You said you fixed everythin' with the High Marshall. And what about the High Marshall's peace offerings?" He gestured to the burlap sack at his feet.
"All the better to hit you over the head with, you stupid stooge."
Before Baloo could react, the heavy sack smacked him full in the face, knocking him out.
A few moments later, Baloo, stretched out on the cold floor, murmured, "You're right, Louie. That four-alarm chili sure packs a wallop."
The big bear opened his eyes. It took a second for them to focus on the little red knob lying right in front of his nose. Scooping it up, he ran outside just in time to see the ambassador's plane roar overhead. As he watched the plane become a smaller and smaller blue dot against the grey sky, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness crushed his spirit like a ton of bricks. "Swell. Stuck without my Duck. What else can go wrong?"
A voice behind him yelled, "Freeze!"
"I had to ask," Baloo muttered as he put his hands up.
End of part 1