The first thing that crossed Captain Star’s mind that morning was that he had a splitting migraine. He blearily eyed the clock on his bedside table, exactly four thirty in the morning, his standard time of rising. The nearly empty whiskey bottle behind the alarm clock reminded him of his half-drunken mutterings and ramblings the night before. He winced as his trembling fingers felt their way towards the bedside lamp switch, cursing profoundly at the searing brightness that tore into his corneas. He lay there, arm draped over his bloodshot eyes, trying to become used to the bright beam of yellow piercing the inky blackness of his room; listening to the profoundly dark silence around him, ears sharply focused to the skittering of an insect across the floorboards. He groaned, again wincing as he rolled over and attempted to push himself up off the bed.
Godsdamned whiskey…when will I learn?
He swayed as he stood, taking mincingly small steps so as not to overcompensate for the rising nausea bubbling up from his stomach. Reaching the safety of the bathroom, Patrick couldn’t hold back the surge, depositing last night’s dinner and the copius amount of alcohol he’d consumed before bed into the safety of the porcelain bus. He stayed there on his knees for the good part of half an hour, ensuring he was well rid of every last scrap of the stuff. He was never going to get used to the alcohol and what it did to him on a consistent basis. At least the pounding rhythm in his head had subsided some, enough for him to get to his feet steadily and brush his teeth and mouth clean of the awfulness of the acid and bile. Deciding against facing the day with a pounding head and an aching back, Patrick reached for the medicine cabinet, popping two of the liquid-filled green tablets into his hand and swallowing them with the aid of a handful of clear water from the tap.
Still somewhat bleary-eyed, he showered, shaved, exited and got dressed in the dim brightness eminating from his bedside lamp. He somewhat cursed himself for even getting used to such godawful times of the morning to start his working ethic. His father had preferred six o’clock to maintain a healthy decorum state, but he was far from being as agile as his old man had been. The thought of his mother marrying someone else mere months after his father’s passing sent a searing blaze of anger into his thoughts.
He had never bothered returning her phonecalls or letters. As far as he was concerned, marrying into ‘a proper title’ was far from his mind. Winston, her latest marriage proposal, had tried to sneak his way past his already-alert defenses when it came to the question of inheritance. Unfortunately, his father had cultivated quite a few…friends…in the Navy where Winston served, and his needling and shirking of his many duties was met with quite a show of resistance. As Patrick buttoned up his shirt, he smiled grimly at the thought of some weeks ago whereupon Winston had been formally charged with theft and fraud. The searing look his mother had given him on her way out of the courtroom had made him shrug simply, collect his belongings and leave as promptly as he had arrived.
Family to this young man were his boys – and that’s how it was going to stay.
Folding down his collar and adjusting it, Patrick’s mind drifted back to just before his father’s passing, when he announced the Navy had served him despicably – that the Star Team were disbanded from that day forth. He had watched his father, a proud, tall Captain, wither and die from the moment he read the orders to his faithful crew. No amount of friends that his dear parent had cultivated could overturn the decision. Three years of hitting the bottle, watching his beloved mother divorce him for everything he had left, the loss of his beloved team and his eventual move to an old seafarer’s home, Patrick had come home to Admiral Lasseter’s terrible news – that his father had ended his life as quickly as the decision to end his crew had come through on that naval stamped letter.
The uncaring bitch that was his mother after her marriage to Joseph, then Robert, then Steven and finally Winston had never pressured him into his decision to take over where his father had left off. The eager support he’d had from Admiral Lasseter, his father’s oldest friend, had ensured that he had a good rapport with them from day one. Patrick ran his fingers through his unkempt hair, tucking its length under the black, white and gold cap that had once belonged to his father. He sighed, wishing his old man was still around to see his crew carrying on the Star Team’s proud tradition. Somewhere in the back of his mind, the question of a riverlands member coming for a trial run resurfaced.
Tory, his father’s original leader was a river-born city boy. The entire crew had been riverland boys. There was something there in them, his father had said of countless numbers of successes they’d had, that binds a crew together at its very soul. He had never understood how, even though he was clearly the apple of his father’s eye, the riverlands boys brought out an even brighter light in everything his old man did. His father’s old lessons, things he had barely paid much attention to then but missed sorely now, spoke highly of the riverland boys.
What the hell is so different about them, Dad? Why wouldn’t you tell me?
Patrick sighed, reaching for his jacket and the job list he’d received the afternoon before, striding purposefully towards the door. Perhaps this time he’d find the answer out for himself? As he headed downstairs, he could hear the sizzle of bacon and the crack of eggs against the frying pan eminating from the kitchen. A quick glance at the grandfather clock at the foot of the stairs tolled the hour – five o’clock in the morning.
“Jones?” Captain Star called, pulling his arm through his sleeve..
“Erm, about forty years too young for that, Cap’n!” came the cheerful voice of Tennie Connor Hedgehog, his youngest acquisition. “Morning, Sir!”
Patrick flinched slightly at the brightness of the boy’s tone as he entered the kitchen, the headache still faintly echoed in his temple. Tennie gestured to a mug of steaming black coffee to his left.
“Figured you’d be comin’ down so I made you a coffee, Sir.”
Patrick nodded gratefully, taking a long draught of the scalding drink, feeling it course down to his toes. Tennie was still limping around a little he noticed, as the boy set down a plate of bacon, eggs and toast in front of him. The boy was always so thoughtful, cooking more than he needed so that the other boys, when they finally arose from the dregs of sleep, they’d have no need to crowd the stove.
“Yeah. A little sore still, but I’m alright.”
“Good to hear,” Patrick replied, reaching for the daily paper at the centre of the table. “Let’s not have that happen again, eh, Connor?”
Tennie sighed, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. “Sorry, Cap’n. But Xavier, he…”
“I’m well aware he’s a spiteful bully, Connor. But retaliation is not one of our rules. I don’t want to hear of it happening ever again. Are we clear?”
“Yes, Sir,” the hedgehog sighed.
“Mornin’ Cap’n, Connor,” Mackenzie, the timber wolf, called as he entered the kitchen. “Mm, smells great, kid,” he grinned
“Thanks, Mac. Pull up a plate and I’ll load it, heh.”
“Mac, good job for yesterday,” Patrick crunched his toast, eating as he spoke. “The clients were very pleased with the work you did.”
“Oh good,” the wolf rumbled as he politely refused an extra strip of bacon. “I was worried the rain might’ve washed out the whole kit and kaboodle before I got done with it.”
“The weather’s been very odd lately, I agree. But no, you won us that contract with ease. We’ll be getting a lot more work from the O’Bannhans now.”
“You should be in bed still, kid,” Mackenzie grinned. “It’s a godawful hour for you to be up and cooking breakfast.”
“Eh, deal with it. I couldn’t sleep.”
“Too excited for today, huh?”
Patrick merely buried his interest in the financial section of the paper, carefully avoiding discussion. He was still smarting from his dark thoughts the night before on the subject.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“You guess so?” the wolf grinned. “Ain’t often we look to recruit newbies.”
Mackenzie noticed Tennie’s quick but careful glance at Captain Star before he returned his attention to the eggs he was frying. The wolf looked away, recalling the discussion at the table the previous night. The Captain, like some of the others, was still very unsure about the idea of a riverland boy joining them. Mac couldn’t really see what the big deal was about them. They weren’t arrogant lumps of limp lard, unlike some cougars he could mention. He took a piece of toast from the piled-high plate in the centre of the kitchen bench where they were seated, applying a liberal amount of butter to it before he took a bite, revelling in the delicious taste.
“I guess I’m more wondering what Xavier’s going to try and pull on me today,” Connor went on. “The swill bucket trick was just lame.”
“Thomas certainly didn’t appreciate being the unwilling victim,” Mac agreed. “That alley cat’s heading for someone punching him in the kisser soon.”
“Just as long as it’s neither of you two doing the punching,” rumbled the Captain from behind his newspaper.
Mackenzie and Tennie exchanged glances and smiled secretively. If only the Captain knew what the old wolf had been teaching the young hedgehog! Some of the others in the crew joined them at that moment, Connor taking plates and piling them high with breakfast. Charleston Jnr, the cougar, was nowhere to be seen.
“What the…where’s Orion?”
“Orion’s out and about organising flights and such for himself and Lady Marlena.”
“Oh, that’s right. She requested he accompany her to her chalet in the mountains for her father’s birthday.”
“And what about Charleston?”
“Still abed at this hour!” Jones sighed.
“The cat needs his beauty sleep obviously,” Mackenzie drolled to Tennie’s giggles.
“Hmm. I’ll wake him after we’ve all eaten,” Thomas replied.
“How do you put up with him, Douglas?” the hedgehog asked as he slipped into the chair inbetween the Professor and Mackenzie. “Honestly?”
“He’s my best friend,” the raccoon shrugged. “Someone’s gotta put up with ‘im, yeah?”
“But why you?”
The raccoon offered little more than a shrug as a reply. Thomas Douglas Marlesbury had been recruited around the same time as Charleston Keyves Jnr – and the others had found it very hard to believe the cougar hadn’t killed the clumsy college boy yet. But the cougar tolerated his presence and his clumsiness streak and the raccoon tolerated his uppity and sarcastic nature. It seemed very much like a friendship made in heaven.
“Thomas, you’ve got garbage collection this morning with Percival and Hugh,” said the Captain. “Mackenzie, you’re back at the National with Charleston…”
“Oh joy of joys,” the wolf muttered into his eggs.
“Professor, you’ve got a lecture this morning?”
“That I do, Captain,” the old owl grinned. “But I finish early, around eleven.”
“Good. You’ll be helping Mac and Charleston.”
“Couldn’t you cancel and leave earlier?”
“Sorry, Mac,” Jones apologised, “First-term exams are up and my presence is booked. If it were any other time, I could.”
“Charleston is not that bad, Mackenzie,” Captain Star replied firmly. “If we can put up with him, you can too.”
“You barely put up with him as is, Captain,” the wolf retorted.
“Unless you want to swap with me,” Thomas offered politely. “I can handle whatever he decides to complain about.”
Mac sighed. Thomas was a good guy but Percival and Hugh were not much better than being stuck in a tree full of woodpeckers. He shook his head.
“No, I’ll tolerate him, I guess. Thanks anyway, Thomas.”
“And you, Tennie,” the Captain went on, “You’ve got the newcomer with you today. Morning deliveries to the JazzCat, Puffa and Lilliena…”
The phone in the hallway rang before Tennie could ask his question. The Captain went to answer it and the other four strained to listen. Charleston appeared moments later, much to their surprise. Usually the big cat needed to be woken up.
“Morning, Keyves,” Thomas smiled, calling his friend by his pet name.
“Good morning, Marlesbury, morning chaps,” the big cat replied, serving himself breakfast. “What’s going on?”
“Phonecall. Sounds important.”
“I missed the briefing obviously?”
“You’re with me at the National,” the timber wolf sighed.
The feeling on the cat’s end was mutual by the way his tail fluffed up as he reached for the salt and pepper shakers.
“Lovely,” he growled slightly. “I trust you’re not happy either?”
“Fine. So will I.”
Jones, Connor and Thomas sighed softly. Morning briefing was always a trite affair with those two. Charleston slipped into the empty stool beside the Raccoon, closest to the Captain, mercifully avoiding Mackenzie. The timber wolf was glad of it – he didn’t much like the big cat, for reasons even he didn’t fully understand himself. However, secretly, he admired Thomas’s patience for Charleston. The raccoon had never offered any more of an explanation why the big cat was such a good friend to him, and Mac had been carefully and secretly keeping an eye on them. Being the loner of the Star Team, Thomas and Tennie had done their best to get to know him, and the hedgehog was slowly warming to him as a mentor. Thomas however was like the solid neutral ground between him and the cat, and the idea bothered the wolf a lot. He never liked putting people in the middle of his arguments.
Captain Star’s reappearance in the kitchen startled them.
“That was Councillor Margreaves,” he seemed almost out of breath. “Her Royal Highness, The Duchess Lorianna is returning to Bigg City…”
“Are you serious?!”
“Honestly?” Jones gasped. “But I thought…after her divorce…she was done with this place?”
“So did I,” Patrick agreed. “She’s attending a Royal Ball at the Magistrates Music Hall in two nights’ time…”
“That must be why the whole area’s cordoned off,” Thomas began. “Percival reckoned it had something to do with the Princess Alice though.”
“No, from what Margreaves said she won’t be present.”
“Oh thank the Gods,” Charleston sighed in relief. “She’s a holy terror that one!”
“But what stuns me completely is that Lady Lorianna herself requested us…as her escorts!” the Captain grinned, half out of nerves and the other half out of sheer excitement. “The Lady herself has asked for us!”
The general atmosphere of the room broken into excited cheers. The Captain smiled broadly.
“Which will mean full dress uniform for the occasion…”
There was a sharp groan from Tennie, who hated the team’s dress uniform immensely and some laughter from the others.
“Come now, Connor,” Charleston said grandly. “It’ll only be for one night!”
“I dunno what you like so much about it.”
“Oh come on…you’re turning down free food?”
“Think about it – mingling with the Royal Family and their respective familial members,” the cat was well chuffed. “Do you have any idea what that will do for our reputation? It’ll bolster it immensely!”
“Agreed,” Captain Star nodded. “So, it’ll be best behaviour and immaculate grooming. Take care of yourselves for the next couple of days, no accidents and no incidents,” he glanced meaningfully at Tennie, “Lady Lorianna asked for us by name. This is a big chance for us, alright?”
“Understood, Captain Star,” the team agreed.
“’Tis a pity Orion won’t be here,” Mackenzie sighed. “She’ll be most disappointed.”
“Can’t be helped, I’m afraid,” Patrick shook his head. “Marlena had him booked weeks ago.”
“Lucky bastard,” Charleston grinned. “That chalet is beautiful. He’ll be mingling with the best there. I should know, I accompanied him once. Dear gods, the food…exquisite!”
“Hopefully he won’t go cavorting with any other broads there. I’d hate to think of Lilliena’s reaction.”
“She trusts him, Mac,” Tennie replied, somewhat defensively. “They’re engaged, remember?”
“Hasn’t stopped him from sweet-talking every other dame in this city.”
“That’s just the way he is.”
“Yeah, well, can’t say I’d trust him much if I was her.”
“She’s got the eyes and tongues of every other single guy in this city and yet Orion doesn’t bat an eyelash at them. He trusts her, she trusts him.”
“I suppose y’ got a point there, kid.”
“What’s the name of the guy coming to help us?”
The Captain flipped the jobsheet over, his eyes scouring the page carefully for the boy’s name and age.
“Sunnie River’ynn,” he spoke at last. “Eleven years old.”
“Not much of a gap ‘twixt you two then,” Jones smiled.
“He’s…from the riverlands.”
Tennie grinned, ignoring the sudden dark shadow that crossed the faces of the others in the team, including his Captain.
“Oh cool! I’ve always wanted to go back there!”
“Yes,” the Captain continued, albeit somewhat forced, something Tennie didn’t notice in his excitement. “You’ll be meeting him a few streets down from the JazzCat this morning.”
“Yes, Sir!” Tennie grinned, swallowing his last few segments of egg and toast.
The gathering had gone strangely quiet as Tennie slipped off his chair and went to wash his plate. The Captain shook his head to clear his thoughts before glancing at the clock on the wall.
“Six Thirty,” he clapped his hands together eagerly. “Alright lads, off to work with you. I’ll see you back here at dusk.”
“Where will you be this morning, Captain?”
“Meeting with Councillor Margreaves today,” he replied. “Hence the threads. He wants to go over some of the procedures in regards to The Duchess.”
“Ah. Same ol’ same ol’?”
“Yes, indeed. Now off with you. Tennie, I want to know how the new lad goes with you today as soon as you’re able.”
“You got it, Cap’n!”
And with that, the entire crew filed out of the Star Building, heading for their respective jobs and meetings.
Sunnie felt hopelessly lost.
Maybe telling Dad I can make it on my own from here wasn’t such a good idea after all?
The place where he was supposed to meet his hero, Tennie Connor Hedgehog, was supposed to have been right there…across the maze of streets and intersections…somewhere. He sighed as he joined the throng of the morning workforce crowd, heading across to the other side of the busy street, all the while glancing at the address on the advert. He had to admit Bigg City was definitely a highlight, filled with highrise buildings of wood and sandstone and concrete and steel. He could get used to this place pretty easy if he managed to make it into the Star Team.
Hope swelled inside his heart as he thought about what he’d made earlier that morning as they travelled by train towards the massive towers of this thriving, busy place. Banjo had been watching him the whole time during the journey – he must have looked somewhere between excited and ecstatic. Now it hung around his neck, tucked under the collar of his sweater, a shiny silver star pendant on a long chain he’d made from old silver scraps he’d found at the metallurgist’s place further downriver. When the train had arrived, Banjo had to stay on for the return trip, having not enough money to take a later train. He had confidently remarked he knew where he was going and didn’t need his father there with him. Now wandering the city streets, he needed his father more than ever!
His stomach growled uncomfortably, having been far too excited to eat either breakfast or the light morning meal on the train. He reached into his pocket, pulling out a small satchel of coins, probably just enough for a sandwich and a coffee maybe. Asking for directions wasn’t a strong suit of his, being somewhat shy and scared of the bustling cityfolk, but he did so anyway. The kindly elderly couple pointed him in the direction of the JazzCat Café, a local hangout for all. Thanking them profusely in his sweet, respective little manner, Sunnie made his way towards the Café, stomach growling all the way.
Nobody batted an eyelid at the shy little tree panda who sidled up to one of the seats at the front counter at first. Several waitresses smiled brightly at him as they bustled past, carrying trays of colourful and delicious foods. A particular waitress caught his eye – a hybrid, he realised. Here were the bright red, white and spectacular black feathers of a Robin-Magpie cross. She must have noticed him shyly glancing in her direction as she arrived at the front counter, because she gave him a bright smile which seared warmth all the way down to his toes.
“You’re a new face,” she chirped kindly. “Visiting, sugah?”
“I hope to stay,” he replied softly, trying to avoid looking in her eyes for fear of blushing. “M’name’s Sunnie River’ynn, ma’am. I’m here to try out for the Star Team.”
“Eee, that’s just grand!” the woman chirped. “Well, Sunnie, my name’s Sally Highmyle. Pleasure ta meet’cha!”
His stomach growling caused him to blush several shades of red. Sally giggled.
“Hey Tony? Reckon you can whip up a breakfast special for this charmin’ lil’ fellah up front?”
A big doberman inclined his head from the office where he was working, his eyes falling on the smallish form of the tree panda seated at the counter next to where Sally was standing.
“Oh aye? What’s yer name, son?”
“Sunnie, Sir,” he answered respectfully.
“Well, Sunnie, make y’self at home. The girls out back will be right out with yer tucker.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Sunnie reached for his coin purse, but Sally put her hand over his gently.
“On th’ house,” she winked. “Big Tony likes respectful folks, and believe me, very few come in here on a daily basis. Y’all sit tight.”
“Thanks, Miss Sally.”
“Just Sal’, Sunnie, sugah!”
Sunnie tried not to look around. He could feel questioning stares aimed in his direction from some of the other patrons, remembering he was riverfolk and they were cityfolk. It could be trouble if he so much as looked up. Unfortunately, a couple of big cats, a leopard and a panther, strode over, putting themselves over the suddenly-frightened boy.
“Riverlands folk, ain’tcha?” the panther sneered.
“Uh…y-yes?” Sunnie hoped his voice was steady.
“We don’t take too kind to your kind in heah, kid,” the leopard smirked. “Clear off a’fore we make ya!”
“I’ve as much right as you…”
The way Zac grabbed Sunnie by his collar made the tree panda realise he was in way over his head. There were some quiet sniggers around the room, bets being made that the boy would be hurt before Big Tony showed up.
“Oh look, Hygar. We got ourselves a wise-ass!”
“Yeah, a riverlands one at that,” Hygar smirked, unsheathing a set of the sharpest claws Sunnie had ever laid eyes on. “You think yer tough, don’tcha, kid?”
“I can name a couple of heavies who are gonna leave here in pieces if’n they don’t drop ‘im right now!”
Zac felt the hot breath on the back of his neck before he looked up. Towering over him was the formidable form of the doberman, Big Tony – the owner and proprietor of the JazzCat Café.
“Heh, Zac?” he grinned, showing a mouthful of sharp white gleaming fangs. “Ain’t this the very last time I’m gonna take your crap in my establishment before I make sure you ain’t in any condition to walk again?”
It was as if all the wind had been blown out of the panther’s sails as both he and Hygar realised the remaining patrons had their eyes directly on the unfolding situation. Big Tony loved three things in his life – the JazzCat, his girls and his customers – and this little tree panda was obviously a familiar to the big, muscled dog.
“Heh…er…we was just leavin’, heh, Tony.”
“Really? Then what’re your claws doin’ out there, Hygar?”
Tony reached over and gripped the leopard’s wrist hard, causing the cat’s knees to buckle. The dog had an steel-titanium grip and if he grabbed you, good luck getting free of him!
“Sheath ‘em,” the dog ordered, his voice harsh. “Right now.”
Hygar didn’t hesistate. The sharp points vanished as quickly as they appeared. Tony relenquished his grip, leaving the cat whimpering in pain. Zac took one look at Hygar, dropped his grip on Sunnie and bolted clean out of the café, not sticking around to find out what Big Tony had in mind for him. Tony pointed towards the door.
“Y’all get out! G’wan! GET!” he yelled viciously.
Hygar left the café with his tail between his legs, bolting after Zac as soon as he was clear of the door. Sunnie was left shaken by the ordeal, trying to straighten his collar amidst his trembling paws. Big Tony scanned the room silently, watching for anyone sniggering or laughing at the youngster’s fright. Sally crossed the room in an instant.
“Sunnie, sugah, are you alright?” she asked worriedly.
Sunnie could only manage a shake of his head. Big Tony, content that no one else in the café dared to utter a sound in the tree panda’s direction, handed Sally the keys to his office.
“Let him eat in m’ office, lil’ darlin’,” he ordered. “I’m going after those two clowns. I’ve had enough with those Zero Boys. You and Maxi are in charge.”
“A’ight. Be careful out there, eh, Tony?”
“You know I always am, m’love.”
Sally steered Sunnie down the back passageway, casting a withering glare at a group of tittering ladies who were smirking and laughing in the frightened boy’s direction. One of the other girls brought his plate of food into Big Tony’s spacious office.
“Y’all sit in here and eat, okay, Sunnie?” she soothed.
Sunnie looked to the floor, shamed by his actions.
“I shouldna said a word.”
“Honey, those two clowns have been causin’ trouble for the JazzCat fer plum ages. Yer the first one Big Tony’s ever stood up for in such a manner. He can see the good in lotsa people that man.”
“Maybe if’n I wasn’t such a coward…”
Sally watched Sunnie carefully, noting his demeanour and how his tail was draped against the carpet. She was a fair judge of character and she could tell times had been real tough for the little guy.
“Huh, hon, th’ real cowards were those two. Chin up.” She lifted his chin and smiled as their eyes met, “Yer real sweet-natured and yer very respectful. Y’all keep that up and everyone here is gonna know yer name soon enough and not give two hoots where ya from. Okay?”
Sally seemed to know instinctively how to make him feel better almost immediately. He drew several lines of similarity between her and his beloved mother back home.
“Okay, Mi---Sal’,” he corrected himself just in time, blushing slightly.
“So, yer tryin’ out fer the Star Team, ain’tcha?” she asked as Sunnie ate. “Good ta hear. I’ve been awful worried sick about Connor since Xavier had at him and Thomas.”
“You know Tennie Connor Hedgehog?”
“Ah sure do,” Sally grinned. “I’ve known him since he was much younger and smaller’n you. His big bro is engaged to be married to m’ best friend, Lilliena. I betcha you’ll meet her sometime soon. She’s a sweet darlin’ that one. Crash course in world travel, oh losh sakes, I’m so envious o’ her!”
Sunnie let Sally talk, listening with eager hopes as she explained about the City and the surrounding areas, as well as some of the characters that made the JazzCat feel like home.
“Them Zero Gang lads are the worst,” she shook her head. “We allsa had trouble wit’ ‘em the last time purty Lady Marlena Vienna was ‘ere. Oh lord, thank the stars above she’s a patient old doe and doesn’t anger easy. Poor Stars were left scrambling tryin’ to salvage their reps after that incident. Damn bunch of fools led by a tough guy buyin’ drinks on his cap’n’s tab.”
“Who is he?”
“Xavier Corlette. Meanest alley cat in this entire city and that’s sayin’ a lot, honey. Cain’t deny they do some darn fine work when they put their minds to it, but damn if they ain’t a bunch of bullies.”
“Yeah, I noticed.”
“Chin up, hon. Now that they know you’re under Big Tony’s protection, I don’t think they’ll try anythin’ else.”
But secretly, Sally was worried...