It was a warm spring night with a slightly cool breeze blowing.
People talked as they mingled and browsed shops still open. The occasional whistle from a steamboat setting out on a journey to who knows where echoed through the town.
A pair of donkeys pulled a cart filled with kegs and other boxes. A slight clanging of glass betrayed their contents. It headed away from a darkened building a short distance away. She watched the cart pass by, watching the donkeys and wondering. She noted that their bellies seemed a decent size and they seemed content. Maybe they were former boys, maybe they weren't. She couldn't get close enough to tell. Even if they were, at least these two seemed to be happy.
She knew she needed to focus on her target. There were many other boys—donkeys that weren't so lucky.
As she entered the pub, the mostly clean air gave way to a smoke filled, dark environment. It was hard to see in here and she coughed from the smoke before waving her hand in front of her face. The shadows that shrouded the various patrons seemed almost ominous. She knew that the sort of patrons this pub favored enjoyed having access to such an environment.
To fit in, she'd adopted the form of a male humanoid weasel clad in ratty clothing. She hoped they'd trust her guise.
As alien as being a male weasel felt, she knew it was not as strange or alarming as what the boys who were becoming donkeys were experiencing. She could escape this form if it became uncomfortable and/or if she became concerned about it was effecting on her mind. They on the other hand, could not.
As planned, the Fox better known as Honest John and his feline companion, Gideon were sitting in a dark booth away from prying eyes. She noted that her clothing seemed slightly older and more worn then those John wore. She was hopeful that her choice of form and attire would give her a better understanding of them.
She approached their booth to see them sitting across from each other talking in hushed tones. Honest John smoked a cigar and Gideon drank beer from a glass mug as a cigar sat in an ashtray. A filled but unattended glass of beer sat across from John.
They stopped speaking when she approached.
"I'm afraid this booth is taken friend," John said.
She reached into her coat pocket, noting that John and Gideon both tensed as though they expected her to draw a weapon. They relaxed somewhat when she instead placed money on the table.
John looked in Gideon's direction.
"Well, don't be rude. Give the gentleman some space," John said.
He patted the space beside him before standing to allow Gideon to scramble out of his seat and sit down at the far end of the booth. John sat back down beside Gideon.
She looked back and forth before sitting down across from them. It was odd having to be careful not to sit on her tail. She however, didn't have the luxury of taking the time to adapt to this form before putting it to use. It was another situation the boys were enduring; one that she was growing more empathetic to by the minute.
"How can we be of service?" John asked.
Gideon grinned and raised his hands to his ears before pointing his index fingers upward. John sighed, put his cigar in an ashtray and shook his head before took a swig of beer.
"If you are looking for donkeys, we have some on the way via ferry as we speak. Come to the market tomorrow," John said.
She sighed and suppressed the desire to strike or turn them both into donkeys. Having the power to do so didn't grant her the legal or morale right to use it any more then having a gun made it morally or legally acceptable to shoot someone. The Coachman had chosen to forget this fact. She knew that she had to make sure she didn't, lest she end up like him. She didn't want to lest she end up no better then him.
"Cat got your tongue?" John asked.
Gideon pouted and folded his arms.
"Oh knock it off, it's an expression," John said.
Gideon stuck out his tongue and drank some more beer. John shook his head.
"Donkeys are what I seek to speak with you about. However, I do not wish to purchase any," she said.
Hearing a male voice shocked her. She hoped neither could see her shock. Perhaps the shadows did offer some advantages.
"Then what do you want? Come on now, out with it, we haven't got all night," John said.
Gideon nodded, emptied his mug and seemed to want to say something. She looked back and forth before leaning forward and whispering.
"I know what your friend is doing to the boys he takes with him," she said. "I know that they become the donkeys he sells."
John's eyes went wide and he fidgeted in his seat. He turned to Gideon who seemed on the verge on panic. John held out a hand for a few moments before Gideon calmed down. John retrieved his cigar, leaned back and took a drag.
"Turning boys into donkeys you say? I suggest you seek counsel my friend. Telling such tales is a sign of an ill mind," John said.
"You know this no joke," she said. "I've seen it with my own eyes. Your friend, the so-called Coachman didn't seem too interested in denying it. He even supported his actions, believing them necessary for the better of society."
John frowned and looked at Gideon who held his hands out and shrugged his shoulders.
"Tell me then friend, do you have a talking donkey outside then can corroborate this unlikely story?"
She smiled. "I'm a talking weasel, talking to talking fox and we're speaking in a pub. Somehow, I doubt we have the right to classify something as unlikely."
John smiled and took another drag.
"Even if this farcical accusation is true, then what do we have to do with it?"
"I know you work for the Coachman," she said. "I know you find the boys he later brings to the island."
John put down his cigar and drank a moderate amount of his beer.
"It's an interesting story my friend," John said. "Especially coming from someone we have never met. Unless the Coachman has employed others and not informed us, it would seem you owe us an explanation."
Gideon tapped John's shoulder before making several motions. He pretended to be holding something in his hands that he put up to his mouth and blew while holding out his other hand with the palm facing John. He then put his hand into the shape of a gun.
"You would not be an undercover police officer, would you?"
John retrieved and took another drag from his cigar. Gideon reached into his pocket. John however, held Gideon's arm with his free hand before shaking his head.
"I suggest you speak quickly my friend. My patience is not infinite," John said.
She again needed to suppress her anger.
"I am not a police officer," she said. "I do however want to ask you some questions."
Gideon lay back and frowned.
"And why should we answer then?" John asked.
"If you won't speak, perhaps you'd rather bray," she said.
John laughed. She knew what she had to do. Despite her concerns, she knew they needed a demonstration. It only took a wave of her right index finger to make her point clear. Gideon noticed right away. When John saw Gideon staring, he frowned.
"What is it now?"
Gideon put his hands up to his ears and again extended his index fingers before pointing at John. John rolled his eyes and felt the top of his head only to encounter donkey ears where his normal ones should have been.
"What the hell is this?" John asked.
"Not so amusing when it's happening to you, is it?" she asked.
John looked back and forth, the panic in his eyes impossible to deny.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
She again held out her finger to change John's ears back to normal. He felt them to confirm it before looking around. She assumed he was making sure no one had seen this spectacle.
"I want to know why you're working with the Coachman," she said. "I saw how panicked you were. I imagine the prospect of becoming a donkey is not one you wish to consider."
John took another drag before sighing. "I would not choose it if that is what you ask."
She frowned. "And yet, you lure boys— children to the Coachman knowing full well that's what will happen to them. Imagine experiencing what you just did but your entire body is what changes rather then just your ears."
John recoiled as though he were expecting to become a donkey.
"That is not why I am here. What I want is an explanation," she said. "I want you to speak your minds without fear of what I might do."
John nodded before sighing and hanging his head for a few seconds. He was quick to regain his composure and take yet another drag before he smiled.
"If that is what you wish," John said.
"It is," she said.
"First and foremost, we do not force them to go," he said.
Gideon poked John. When John looked in Gideon's direction, he was pointing at his head and making a goofy expression.
"My sentiments exactly; only a stupid boy would be foolish enough to fall for such a trick," John said. He smirked. "Such boys are not worthy of being boys but make perfect donkeys."
"Does it make is easier for you if see them that way?" she asked.
John's expression changed to one of curiosity as he took another drag.
"What do you mean?" John asked.
"You yourself admitted that you would not choose to become a donkey," she said. "Even a small taste of what those boys are going through was enough to send you into a near panic."
John's eyes narrowed. He took a long sip of his beer.
"Does seeing those boys as somehow less then human, perhaps even donkeys in human clothing make it easier for you to accept what's going to happen to them?"
John chuckled. "Donkeys in human clothing; I like that."
She narrowed her eyes. John sighed, put his drink down and held out his free hand.
"Being human is better then at least some of them deserve," John said. "Do you not agree that a donkey is a more fitting form for at least some of those boys?"
She wanted to protest. However, she knew that even Jiminy had dismissed Lampwick as such a boy. After hearing of Lampwick's behavior from Jiminy and Pinocchio, even she had trouble disagreeing with that assessment. She however, would never agree with putting them to work that was little more then slavery. Even an ass of a boy deserved love and care, even if it was better for him to receive that love and care as a donkey. She knew that for the most part, an ass of boy was just being himself. In a sense, it wasn't his fault he was born into an existence where doing so was destructive.
"Cat got your tongue?" John asked.
Gideon pouted. John looked to see his friend's reaction before John shook his head and chuckled.
"Perhaps you agree with my point," John said.
"I will contend that there are some boys that are more suited to being donkeys," she said. "If their human owners were to treat them with love and respect they could well be happier as donkeys."
"Are you so naive that you think most people give a shit about how their donkeys feel?" John asked.
She frowned at the expletive.
"Treating another as you would wish to be treated in their position should not be a courtesy," she said.
"People don't buy these donkeys because they want a beloved pet. What they want is a donkey that works. They don't care if that donkey is hungry, thirsty, tried or depressed. Most won't treat their fellow man with any more respect or kindness. If anything, turning the sorts of boys you spoke of could be doing them a favor. People will probably treat them like shit no matter their form. Being donkeys at least gives them an excuse for acting like donkeys."
He did have a point. It was not something she wanted to admit, but there was truth to it.
"And what of the boys that are good kids at heart? These boys shouldn't be donkeys. Their only crime is making a terrible mistake. Does it not bother you that you're helping lead them into a trap that will lead to them living out their lives as donkeys?"
John sighed and rubbed his eyes.
"Do you want me to say that I feel sorry for them?"
She folded her arms. "It would be a start."
"And what of the boys that deserve to become donkeys? Do you want me to say they deserve better then someone taking them away from their lives and families to end up as slaves for the rest of their lives? Maybe you want me to say it's wrong to force anyone to live as a different species against his will. Do you want to me to admit that I can't look at a donkey now knowing where that donkey may have come from?"
"There is no shame in admitting that you are not fond of this job," she said.
"Do you really think it would do any good? Do you really think the Coachman gives a shit about what we think?"
She looked back and forth to make sure no one was listening.
"Yet, you still work for him," she said. "If you find him and what he does to those boys so distasteful then why do you work for him?"
Gideon eyed the money that was still on the table. He pointed to it.
"You do all of this for bloody coin?" She asked, frowning.
Gideon hung his head and shook it before hiding partially behind John. John hung his head as well.
"The money helps keep the nightmares and guilt at bay," John said.
His tone was quieter now. Something told her that she was starting to see the truth. That his former hubris was perhaps an act, maybe even as much for himself as it was for her.
"Then why do you work for him? Certainly coin alone…"
"The Coachman is not the sort of person you say no to."
She folded her hands as John took another drag from his cigar.
"You're afraid of him," she said. She exhaled sharply and shook her head.
Gideon sat back down beside John, who put his cigar into the ashtray.
"We thought it was another con; another simple deal, nothing more," John said.
"Then he told us some of his plan," John said. "We thought he was mad. Surely the cops would intervene."
"Then he told you what was really going on," she said.
John and Gideon drank from their mugs, finishing their beer. John picked up his cigar and sighed.
"There's twisted and there's twisted."
Another drag from his cigar accompanied several fidgets of his fingers.
"Go on," she said.
"We've worked with disreputable people in the past. Hell, by most people standards we're disreputable people."
Gideon poked John several times. John looked to see him shaking his head and appearing to be in a panic.
"Enough, whoever he is, he knows. He has us. We might as well come clean now," John said.
Gideon hung his head.
"We knew we were in too deep," John said.
"Why didn't you go to the cops?" she asked.
"The Coachman didn't seem the type one could go to the cops about," John said. "Somehow, we doubted anyone could stop him. As I said, he's not someone you refuse. Even if we did, he'd still find a way to lure those boys. And us, well, we'd likely find ourselves in a rather unpleasant situation that I prefer not to think about, let alone experience."
"Think of all these boys that have become donkeys that are living in unpleasant situations," she said. "What for you is an uncomfortable imagining is reality for them."
John nodded. "I know, believe me, I know. Something however tells me that if he did turn us into donkeys that he'd be showing mercy compared to what he could do."
"Something tells me it was more then his power or implied threats that kept him out of trouble," she said.
John again nodded.
"His plan was good, even ingenious," John said. He took another drag from a cigar that was now almost gone.
"He gave those boys an offer most couldn't refuse. Pleasure Island is a place they can play, break things, fight, drink beer and smoke with no cops or adults to get in their way or tell them what not to do. On top of all of that, it was all free. What kid could refuse such an offer? Hell, what adult would refuse?"
"A place without authority figures may seem tempting but authority figures exist for a reason," she said. "The limitations a parent places on their children as well as the limitations the law places on all of us may seem constrictive but those limits exist for a reason."
"But how many of us knew that when we were kids? How many of us would have taken that free ride without a second thought?" John asked. "Think about it, no school or rules; just pure unadulterated fun."
"Such fun rarely comes without a price."
Gideon nodded and pointed to the money still on the table.
"Indeed it does. In this case, we both know what that price is," John said. "But, by the boys realize this, it's too late."
She remembered how Pinocchio said he'd only realized the truth when he saw Lampwick change. Without that demonstration, he too may have become a donkey before Jiminy got back to him. She felt sadness for Lampwick. He didn't have the benefit of such a warning.
"There are some boys that see their friends change," she said. "They realize the island's true purpose."
John nodded. "But by the time that happens, it's too late."
"Imagine how terrifying it must be for them to lose a friend before their eyes and to be unable to help," she said. "Making matters worse, they know they are next as soon as they begin to change."
"Losing may be an extreme way of putting it," John said. "However, I do agree that it's of little wonder they could not stop braying when they were in those crates. Fear does terrible things to people. Experiencing what they experience could well drive many to madness."
She remembered Pinocchio telling her of Lampwick's panic after he changed.
"And they had no idea that Pleasure Island was not what it appeared to be?"
"All the warnings signs were there if one knew to look for them," John said. "Before you judge them too harshly, remember that even the best of people fall for tricks or schemes. Human greed and temptation have a way of winning out over one's better judgment. Hell, even if they knew they were to become donkeys— all you need to do is paint a colorful enough picture of donkey life. Tell someone what they want to hear, put on a good enough act and they'll be begging you to turn them into a donkey."
"If even an adult could fall for such temptation, imagine how vulnerable a child can be. When one is young, their judgment has yet to fully develop. This lapse of judgment however…"
John nodded as Gideon hung his head.
"It's one thing to scam some coin out of someone," John said. "Selling anyone into slavery is evil enough. I won't defend anyone that does that."
Gideon flailed his arms.
"I'm getting to that!" John said. He sighed and cradled his head with his free hand for a few seconds.
"Turning them into donkeys however…"
"It makes them as much a slave to their changed forms as it does their owners," she said. "They can't escape that."
"It's a chilling sort of beauty. These aren't fancy costume they can't remove. By the time the night is over, they are donkeys," John said. "Who knows how much of their human minds remain. I could judge by their behavior as donkeys. However…"
"They were not gentlemen when on the island," she said.
"Humans are funny creatures that way. One only need to read a book to see how quickly humans will abandon the virtues many claim to posses should they end up in an less then civilized situation," John said. "When we saw how they acted on the island, we knew that some of those boys might as well have been donkeys already. That they became literal donkeys seemed almost poetic."
"And that's when you started to feel that they deserved it?"
"Some might have grown up to be just as bad as the Coachman given enough time and opportunity," John said. "It was easier to be disgusted with their conduct and to see them as getting what they deserved."
Gideon hung his head.
She hung her head as well. She remembered what she'd said to Pinocchio about lies being as plain as the nose on one's face. The trials Pinocchio had been through had shown her that he was worthy of being a so-called real boy. He'd shown her that he deserved the privilege of being human and that he could handle the temptations that came with it.
In this case, it was easy to think the boys had shown they couldn't handle being human and/or had failed a trial. It was easy to think of it as a black or white scenario where the form of a donkey and the life that came with it was a more fitting form for someone that had conducted or wanted to conduct themselves in that manor.
As a donkey, they could give into their temptations with far less guilt. However, being a donkey also came with in some cases, significant limitations. Some of those boys would no doubt be willing to live with those limitations in exchange for the few freedoms donkey life would grant them if their care takers treated them well. She believed in truth above everything, including being true to one's self. If a boy felt himself to be a donkey and wanted to be one, then she would not force him to be a boy. However, it also meant that she'd never accept forcing a boy to be a donkey when she knew he wasn't one.
"There are some cases where such a form is better for a boy but most of those boys were never meant to become donkeys," she said.
"We both knew he was going too far. We knew it was cruel and unusual. If he just turned them into donkeys, it still would have been wrong but something I could perhaps learn to tolerate. I could convince myself that he knew better then I what was best for them."
"But he didn't want this to be a mere lesson or some form of twisted justice," she said.
"Selling them for labor, taking them away from their families and the only life and existence they ever knew? That's evil."
"And all this time, no one knew or suspected something wasn't right about these donkeys or about him?"
A sly grin crossed John's face. "The best place to hide something is in plain sight as they say. Think of all of the donkeys that will be at the market tomorrow. The evidence of the Coachman's crime displayed for everyone to see. He knows, the donkeys know, but no one else knows it. I'm sure some suspect something strange is going on. But at the end of the day, he provides what they need so they don't ask questions."
He finished off his cigar with one last drag.
"Who can blame them? He is giving them donkeys after all. There are no laws saying you can't sell a donkey or many donkeys," John said.
John reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pack of cigars.
"Want one?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Thank you for the offer but I don't smoke."
John shrugged his shoulders and nodded. He retrieved a cigar, put the box back and had soon lit a match from a matchbox he kept in another pocket and was taking another drag.
"Anyway, that's what makes it so beautiful – and so twisted. If a boy grows up to be a man there are obligations society expects of him whether he likes it or not. If he grows up to be a donkey—donkeys too have expectations. Even if someone found out the truth, that boy would still be a donkey. So, what would they do? Send him back to school and act as though he's his human self just in a strange body?"
She hung her head.
"The body can affect the mind, especially with time," she said.
Gideon was still hanging his head when he looked at John, pointed to his body and then to his head. John whispered something to Gideon, who nodded.
"Exactly; They may well find themselves acting, feeling and thinking the way donkeys act, feel and think," John said. "And who can blame them?"
She remembered what Jiminy had told her of what he'd seen at the dock. The donkeys in the crates seemed so convincing that Jiminy only realized they were the boys when the Coachman mentioned it. It was a chilling sight she knew haunted Jiminy and likely would for the rest of his days. She knew that once they calmed down that they were able to retain more of their human wits. The donkey thoughts and feelings however remained. A disciplined boy accustomed to resisting temptation could stay in control. A boy more used to giving in however would not be so lucky.
"Don't underestimate them. Discipline and remembering to follow their conscience does help them to stay in control. It is possible for them to hold onto their humanity and be boys on the inside," she said.
John nodded. "Perhaps if being donkeys is not pleasant. One would associate it with unhappy feelings. It might indeed help one resist giving in. However, to paraphrase a famous saying, they are, therefore, they think."
"Do not underestimate the human will. There are many that never lose faith even in the darkest of situations," she said. "They say donkeys are stubborn animals. Perhaps an irony here is that said stubbornness might help some of them hold onto what remains of their humanity."
John took another drag and nodded.
"That may indeed be the case. However, as I said, they would still be donkeys. Even if they were still boys on the inside, the world needs donkeys. Being donkeys grants them unique abilities that society cannot afford to waste. A smart and noble donkey is still a donkey."
She nodded with a sad expression.
"This is why I intend to put an end to this. I'm here to not only stop the Coachman but to change those boys back," she said.
"And what of those donkeys who are donkeys even on the inside? Learning to be a donkey is easy. Going back is not so easy."
"In that case, they will still deserve to go home to their families, even if they do so as donkeys."
"It is a noble goal but the Coachman is not weak."
"I have a plan in mind," she said.
John sighed. Gideon shook his head.
"Somehow, I doubt you'll allow us to walk free," John said. "After all, we might warn him you are coming. I'd rather I never speak with him again but I know you can't risk it."
"It is true that I can't risk you talking. It is also true that you were doing what you did out of fear. However, you still need to answer for what you've done."
John nodded, sighed and hung his head.
"Out of curiosity, why did you talk to me? Certainly my small demonstration was not enough by itself," she asked.
John looked up.
"You seemed willing to listen and to hear our side. Many good guys would simply attack us on sight," John said.
"I think there's more to it then that," she said.
"The Coachman only wants us to do his bidding. If we do well, he rewards us. We don't want to know what happens if we do not," John said. "Besides, we knew that sooner or later, someone was going to catch us. One can only live this life for so long before someone catches he or he tires of it. In a way, it's a relief.
"Come with me," she said. "I am willing to give you a chance at redemption."
Gideon poked John. He looked to see Gideon making the same act with his fingers above his ears.
"Do you think I want to end up like those boys? No, but either way, we're finished," John said. "I'd rather take my chances with him then with the Coachman. Or maybe you'd rather we tell the cops what we've been doing and see what happens if he finds out?"
Gideon shook his head while holding his hat and shaking with fear.
"If I do decide that you are to become donkeys, then I assure you that I will treat you with dignity."
John and Gideon nodded.
"Now, we must leave quickly. I will take you somewhere safe. So as long as you co-operate and show that you truly are remorseful for your actions, I give you my word that I will show mercy."
John paid the barkeeper and they departed the pub. He didn't like what was about to happen and in truth, wanted to run. At the same time however, he was glad this was going to be over.