The B Team

All characters that appear in this chapter of B-Team are my own. This story is a continuation of the original four part "B-Team". My special thanks to Tigermark for his continued assistance, participation, and encouragement in the crafting of this story.

This is for my Lola.

The B Team is copyright © The Silver Coyote
2003, 2004

Black Velvet

Claws drummed quietly on an oak desktop.

There were two identical oak desks in the large room, each a corner next to the entry doors. Each desk was comfortably appointed, and each contained a networked computer with LCD flat screen. Small vases of fresh flowers were in a corner of each desk. At the unoccupied desk a small, framed photograph of Joe Latrans and his two pups sat on the desktop just to the left of the LCD display.

The center of the room was occupied by a paw-made solid oak conference table, which in turn was surrounded by half a dozen leather-upholstered chairs. The carpeted room was warmly appointed with photographs of scenic locations, mostly of the intermountain west, and illuminated by recessed lighting. The wall opposite the double entry doors was mostly glass. Large potted plants grew in the corners adjacent to the windows, beyond which the city of Englewood, Colorado was visible in the mid-morning sun.

A handsome hyena in his mid-thirties reclined in a leather chair at the occupied desk, a telephone pawset to his left ear. The claws of his right paw continued to drum quietly on the desktop before him, scant inches from a slowly cooling, half- empty mug of black coffee. On his desk were two file folders and several large sheets of paper depicting building plans for a current project. The maleís markings were fairly typical of a spotted hyena, his fur was a sandy yellow color punctuated with dark brown spots over most of his upper body and legs. As the fur was dressed in "business casual" attire consisting of dress slacks and a polo shirt, only the markings on his arms and head were visible. He was strong and muscular, with a thick neck and broad shoulders, but not particularly tall. His muzzle was dark gray, as were his relatively large, rounded ears. His eyes were a dark brown color, yet highlights within them advertised his pleasant demeanor.

Clark Randsburg was on hold, waiting for a connection with the Engineer for the City of Arvada. As he waited he grimaced slightly as he listened to the canned "music on hold", a disturbing rendition of an old Beatles tune involving an accordion and an electronic keyboard. The City of Arvada used exactly the same kind of audible effluvia that Design By Fox used on their own telephone system. He would have preferred something more contemporary from the progressive country charts, but his boss was the one who selected the canned music. Clark grinned. He knew Annie Latrans couldnít stand it any more than he could, but she believed that the generic elevator music was the most acceptable "music on hold" fare, palatable to the widest audience.

Out in the lobby of Design By Fox a young squirrel sat at a reception desk. She was busily engaged in updating some spreadsheets on her computer while at the same time preparing some printed invoices for mailing. Hannah Yagerís desk faced the main entrance to the small office building that was her place of work, on the other side of the windows she could see the trees shading the lawn and small parking lot out front, and the street beyond. Hannah occasionally stole a glance towards the windows as she worked.

Presently, during one of her glances up, Hannah observed a pearl-colored Cadillac STS pulling in to a parking stall. She extended a paw towards her telephone intercom.

A pleasantly youthful, female voice sounded from Clarkís telephone base unit. "Annieís here."

"Sweet," Clark muttered to himself as, still on hold, he reached for the intercom button on his phone. Turning momentarily away from the pawset as he pressed the button he said "Thanks, Hannah."

Out in the lobby the squirrel continued to look through the windows, watching as a red fox slid her legs out of the car and stood up. Annie was dressed in her typical business attire consisting of a silk scoop neck blouse with matching skirt of moderate (for her) length, a butterscotch thigh length leather jacket, and three inch heels. A diamond pendant hung at her throat, and her Oakleys were on her face to shade her eyes from the bright winter sun. She was smiling as she removed her briefcase from the trunk of her car, her ears were up and her tail echoed her happy mood.

Hannah watched her boss as the fox strolled towards the front door of the office. She loved working for Annie Latrans. The squirrel was only nineteen years old, a college sophomore, and had no resume to speak of. Yet Annie had offered her the receptionist position after a brief twenty minute interview with she and Clark, and Hannah had now been with Design By Fox for a bit over four months. Annie was a good boss, explaining what she needed of Hannah and getting her the resources she needed to get the work done. Annie wasnít a prude about dress and didnít object to a little music now and then. In fact, like as not Annie would ask Hannah to turn up whatever it was she had on the local rock station when she walked in, stopping to listen to a song she liked. But what Hannah really appreciated was Annieís flexibility in hours, letting Hannah schedule her work hours around her demanding school schedule.

"Good morning, Hannah!"

The squirrel smiled up to the red fox. "Hi Annie. How are you this morning?"

"Social Distortion!" Annie exclaimed, smiling in greeting as she stopped at the reception desk and placed her briefcase on the floor. "ĎReach For The Skyí, right?"

Hannah giggled. She guessed her boss to be about fifteen years older than her, maybe even twenty. Sheíd have guessed her to be more of a Cyndi Lauper or Madonna fan, and was always pleasantly surprised by Annieís enjoyment of current music.

"Yes it is," she replied, her grin exposing bright white teeth.

Annie nodded. "Whatís been happening, anything unusual going on?" She hadnít been in to the office for a couple of days.

The squirrel shook her head. "Clark has a couple of new contacts for you, one residential, the other is some sort of business, I think. Heíll tell you about it. Iím wrapping up the monthly invoices right now, Iíll get them in the mail before lunch."

Annie nodded again. "Great. Howís school?"

Hannah smiled. "OK. It feels like the homework keeps my social life to a matter of a few minutes on the phone now and then, but Iím doing good. My GPA is holding where it should be."

"Keep at it," the red fox replied. "As crazy as this business gets, Iíll probably need a psych major on staff sometime soon." The fox regarded the squirrel for a moment. "Howís that marmot you were telling me about?"

The squirrelís face reddened slightly. "Oh... my... God...," she replied breathlessly. "Yesterday in chemistry lab he asked me out to dinner!" Hannah giggled, bouncing slightly in her seat as her tail waved back and forth. "Weíre going out to dinner at Jade West this Saturday."

"Hmmm...," Annie nodded, grinning. "Nice place." She winked at her receptionist. "They have cute waitresses there... dress to kill."

Hannah giggled again. "Donít worry!" She motioned towards a small kitchen down the hall with a paw. "I just made some fresh coffee for Clark. Would you like me to bring you a cup?"

As the final notes of the song on the radio faded into the DJís chatter Annie nodded as she bent at the waist to pick up her briefcase. Straightening, she said "Please! That would be wonderful."

As her boss turned towards the office she shared with her co-worker Hannah said "Iíll have it for you as soon as I finish this materials spreadsheet."

# # #

The amount of labor involved in opening a new office for Intermountain Charter was a blessing for Joe Latrans. Along with Janie and Timmy Riggins, Joe was at the hangar at Centennial airport from dawn until dusk or later each day. The busy schedule and heavy workload had done a lot to help Joe put his fatherís death behind him.

Matt and Steve had brought The Bitch out to Centennial two days after Joe and Annie returned from California. The hangar wasnít big enough for her, so she sat on the ramp out front like a magnet, across the taxiway from Intermountainís hangar. In her new livery she attracted a lot of attention from the local pilots and hangar bums. More than a few of them had wandered by to introduce themselves to Joe or Tim and ask a few questions about the venerable if freshly painted veteran.

Inside the hangar there was just enough room for the King Air, Joeís Duke, and the Caravan. At one end of the hangar was a small shop and equipment room, mostly vacant, and an office. Above these, accessible by a staircase within the hangar, were three more offices, each with a window overlooking the hangar floor. These, too, were mostly vacant. In fact, only the lower level office had any furniture in it.

It was here that Janie Riggins had started to leave her imprint upon Intermountain Charterís western office. Taking the funding for office equipment that Matt had provided them, and adding a not inconsiderable amount of her own funds to that, Janie had begun. First on her list was "paint day", actually two full days for she and her husband and Joe, wherein all four offices and the equipment room were repainted with brush, roller, and sprayer. Next came the new carpet for the offices. The day after that the furniture was delivered for the main office downstairs; a reception desk, a smaller "managerís" desk, and several tables and chairs. The tables were arranged along two walls in such a way as to maximize work area for several furs at once. The reception desk and itís extensions were arranged in the center of the room, and the managerís desk was towards a corner, near the doorway to the hangar.

After that the money really began to roll. Next came telecommunications. "I didnít know she knew anything about this stuff," Timmy exclaimed in exasperation to Joe one evening over a beer in the hangar. The tech arrived late one morning with an order for a DSL data circuit and five individual telephone circuits. While these were being installed Janie showed up with several desk phones and a small piece of equipment she referred to as a "switch". By the end of the day the internal telephone system was set up. Each of the three offices upstairs had a telephone with itís own outside number. Downstairs similar phones were at reception and the managerís desk. All of these were tied together via the "switch" so calls could be transferred around within the building. Several more telephones of an "internal only" type were on the work tables, one more in the shop, and a wireless base and handset was on a wall in the hangar.

Her last major expense was to bring in the computers. Janie had shopped around a bit, and the day after the telephone systems went in she showed up with a router, a server, half a dozen desktops, and two laptops. The router and the server went into the equipment room, one desktop went on the reception desk, another to the "managerís" desk, and the rest went to the work tables downstairs, and the laptops to two of the upstairs offices. Timmy was further astounded when Janie then produced a spool of CAT-5e cable, a box of various connectors and wall plates, a cable tester, and some small paw tools and proceeded to spend the balance of the day wiring up a network.

Over dinner that night the Riggins and the Latrans celebrated the "turning up" of Intermountainís new office at Don Miguels, a favorite restaurant. Timmy was alight with awe, heíd never suspected the talents that his wife had exhibited in the past few days.

"Whereíd you learn all this stuff?" heíd asked in astonishment at one point.

Janie had winked while smiling coyly, her tail flicking in amusement. "What did you think I was doing while you were at Langley all day? Did you think office management meant looking pretty and answering phones?"

In a few short days, with the assistance of Mattís money and a little moral support and guidance from Angie, Janie had taken a collection of empty rooms and turned them into a place of business. To be sure, there was minimal furniture in the upstairs offices, but that would come as furs came on board and the space was needed. At least they were ready for that future need in terms of network and telecom capability.

While Janie had been expressing her claws and digging into the office, Joe and Timmy had been busily engaged on the other side of the walls in the hangar. The first order of business was to finish vacating Joeís old hangar at Jeffco, which involved moving a considerable amount of tools, parts, manuals, and miscellaneous stuff to Centennial. Three trips with a rented moving van took care of that, and the next day saw the boys arranging and organizing all the gear in the equipment room at Intermountainís new hangar.

Matt had brought along a C-130 full of stuff from Columbus. Foremost amongst the numerous items on the manifest was one of the Allison turbines and a disassembled propeller assembly, but there was a lot of other stuff like power carts for The Bitch and the King Air, salvaged useable assemblies from some of The Bitch's more recent repairs as well as some smaller parts, documentation, and duplicate tools for maintaining their C-130. There were also some APUs (auxiliary power units) used with the corporate jets, and some equipment related to maintaining the jetís interiors after a charter. This and many more boxes of quasi-mysterious stuff made their way from the cargo hold of The Bitch into the hangar and itís equipment room on The Bitchís first day at Centennial. Joe and Tim also spent a day adding some electrical circuits in the hangar for the power carts, and some additional circuits for future work benches and power tools in the equipment room.

Timmy spent a day organizing all the records and documentation that would be required of them for a Part 135 operation. The feds always had to have all the proper forms filed and the proper "supporting documentation" on hand. While he was engaged in this Joe spent some time on the phone with Angie and various representatives of the fuel vendors on Centennial airport. By the end of the day they had a new bulk fuel account established, with credit arranged and billing set up.

And this very morning they had quietly celebrated with a dawn cup of coffee as Timmy and Randy had fired up the Caravan for their first official charter out of the western office. Randy had come out to Colorado for a while to build some time in the Cessna freighter with them before he returned to Columbus to his own pilotís position there. Ever the practical one, he had shown up with a bedroll and a backpack, expecting to sleep at the hangar. Timmy and Janie werenít having any of that, and in short order Randy found himself "assigned" to their guest bedroom for the duration.

The boys had departed at sunup with a bunch of oil prospecting equipment for an airstrip in northeastern Arizona. Because of itís remote location, accessible only by unimproved, rarely maintained trails, it was actually preferable to supply by air than it was by all-terrain truck. At least that was the view of the customer.

Now Joe and Janie sat in the office, each with full paws. Janie was setting up the business software on their server so that each computer on their internal network would have access to it. She sat at the reception desk, paws a blur over the keyboard as she stared intently at the screen before her. On the desk next to her was a checklist of other things she needed to do, which included providing network and telephone links to various aviation-related agencies like the FAA and the National Weather Service for use by her pilots.

Joe was on the phone with Matt discussing start-up issues.

"So are you settling in?" Matt asked.

Joe growled, an almost happy sound. "You know me Matt, Iím a pilot like you. All this office stuff is ground-pounder bailiwick. Iíd rather be in the air somewhere."

"Get used to it, my friend," the Labrador replied. "Unless and until you get the office self-sustaining, youíre going to have to keep your paws in it and make sure things go right." Joe heard a sipping sound in his pawset, followed by a small, nostalgic sigh. "It was Hell when I started this operation. For every hour I spent flying I spent ten here in the office."

"Donít tell me that..." Joe threatened humorously. He and his boss both paused in reflection before Joe added "Iíll tell you one thing Matt, Janie has really taken the bit in her teeth with this office work. You ought to see her. Sheís a house a-fire..."

"I know," Matt interrupted with a note of comical frustration in his voice. "Angieís been telling me..." The Labrador paused before adding "Every chance she gets."

They both laughed briefly.

"Hey," Matt exclaimed. "Iíve got Jerry on the hunt for you, fishing for an A&P for your outfit." Sooner or later the western operation was going to have to become self-reliant, Joe knew, and the sooner they got an Airframe and Powerplant mechanic on board, the better off and more reliable their aircraft would become. "Heís got some friends here and there that may be able to turn us on to someone." There was another sipping sound in Joeís pawset.

"Great," Joe replied, wishing he had some coffee of his own. He made a mental note to pick up a coffee maker for their office later that day. "Any idea how soon that could happen?"

"Jerry and I are having a meeting Monday to discuss prospects. I understand heís already got a couple of potentials."

"Sweet!" Joe smiled. Maybe these staffing issues werenít going to be such a headache afterall.

"Iíve got a couple of surprises for you, my friend."

The coyoteís ears pricked up. "Yeah? Howís that?"

"Some of your crew issues have already been resolved. Iíve got a number two for The Bitch, and a loadmaster, too."

Joeís muzzle and eyes expressed surprise. He and Timmy had discussed placing ads in the western industry rags for pilots and crew, but had yet to get going with that. They had been concentrating on the physical plant to the exclusion of crew and airframe issues. So far. So Joe was pleased to hear that this particular issue might be lifted from their collective shoulders. "Do tell!" he urged.

"You already know your loadmaster," Matt began. "Randy will have to train him a bit, but this guyís got the build and the experience."

"I know him?" Joe asked.

The Labrador chuckled as he took another sip of coffee. "Joe, Slamís hitch in the Corps is up the end of this month. Heíll be processed out and on line with us by the first of the year."

Joeís tail thumped several times against the frame of his chair, causing Janie to look up momentarily from her work. Without knowing why the cougar threw him a quick grin before returning her attention to the LCD display before her.

"Thatís great!" Joe exclaimed. Slam was a known quantity and a good fur. Joe admired him for his faith, his character, and his boundless sense of humor. And Slam was a handy fur to have around when heavy work needed to be done or a fight was at paw. While mostly coyote like Joe, Slam was half Joeís age and towered over him like a tree, leaving Joe in his shadow. The Arizona native had been escorting military or national security cargo with Intermountain for over a year now, and had become popular with and well liked by the crews at Columbus. "Heíll be a good fit with us. Iím assuming heíll be moving west with us?"

"Iím not aware of the detail of that yet," Matt replied, "but he did tell me he wanted to work with you and Steve on The Bitch. He knows that you and Steve will eventually be captains of your own ships, and I think heíll be staying with you out west. When Randy comes back to Columbus to fly the Caravan heís agreed to fly as loadmaster on the other Herk here, so it sort of makes sense for Slam to stay out west with you guys."

"Howís that new Herk looking?" Joe inquired.

Matt sighed into his pawset, and Joe involuntarily steeled himself for bad news.

"Well, itís worse than we thought," Matt began with a note of resignation. "Jerry did a preliminary inspection on the airframe and found some issues weíll need to deal with over and above the engine fire. She needs the wing box mods, and her avionics suck. She leaks fluids like a lawn sprinkler"

In his office Matt took another sip from his grubby and service-worn coffee mug as he leaned back into his chair. "That number one turbine, the one that caught fire? It needs to go. It was almost due for a major overhaul anyway, and while it is repairable, Jerry can get the replacement turbine here mounted and ready in less than a week, that's far less time than it would take to rebuild the existing one." Matt's expression brightened as he put his mug back on the desk in front of him. "On the plus side sheís got three strong engines with relatively low hours. Their time ranges from less than two hundred hours on number three to about a thousand hours on number two." Some humor returned to Matt's voice. "And Jerry discovered something very interesting about her that has just confused the Hell out of all of us."

"Whatís that?"

Matt grinned as he gazed out of his window at the ramp in front of Intermountain's hangar on Port Columbus International. "This Herk is apparently at least five different aircraft. The serial numbers on the right wing components donít match those on the left, and neither set match the fuselage. The entire cockpit has been grafted from a fourth airframe, and the fin has a serial number painted on it that matches nothing else on the aircraft." Matt chuckled again. "Sheís gonna be the real red- headed, bastard third cousin in our airframe family. Jerry has already taken to calling her ĎNumbersí."

"ĎNumbersí, huh?" Joe chuckled with his boss. "Any idea when sheíll be ready for Part 135?"

Matt thought a moment. "Jerry wouldnít commit himself, he said heíd need to do a more thorough once-over on her before he could say with certainty. I figure a month, maybe a bit less. Like I said, weíve got the spare turbine here, so the power end of things will take no time at all to resolve."

"Iíll bet Steveís excited about that!" Joe said. He had been worried about Steveís take on the airframe re-assignments with the new western operation, but everything had worked out for the best. Steve had to commute a bit farther to work with the airworthy C-130 now, but he was buying hundred octane low lead for his Cherokee Arrow at Intermountainís bulk price, so he didnít mind that relatively small inconvenience if it meant he could keep flying the Hercules.

Joe was very much looking forward to getting back in the air with their trusty war horse transport, and he knew that Steve was looking forward to that just as much as he was and would be flying with him most of the time. With Slam coming out of the USMC to join them full time, things would be just like the old days in Columbus until "Numbers" became operational.

Then... "What about the other crewfur?" Joe asked suddenly.

# # #

Warm afternoon sun shone through the windows of their office. Annie hung up her telephone and leaned back in her chair with a low growl, her paws going into her hair absently as her gaze drifted up from her PDA to the face that looked at her from across the room.

Clark grinned in his sarcasm. "That sounded like fun."

The red fox again growled softly as she finished running her paws through her strawberry blond hair before replying. "What is it about the Talbot job thatís got us tripping over our own paws?"

The Talbot job, a residential remodel in Arvada, had been dragging on through supply problems, customer-instigated redesigns, and now an engineering problem with the city.

Clark looked closely at his boss as he slowly pushed his orders and specification sheets away from him. Annie looked tired and frustrated. Standing up, Clark reached for the ceiling, slowly stretching his back. This process lasted about ten seconds, after which he finally asked "How about some coffee?"

Annie slowly stood at her desk. "I could use the stretch," she nodded as she reached for her jacket.

As Clark and Annie came into the lobby Hannah looked up from her work.

"We're going to take a break and get some coffee," Annie advised her. "Want us to bring you something?"

Hannah smiled. "No thank you, Annie. I've got about forty minutes left on this order, and then I'll be needing to get to school."

"We'll be back by then," the fox replied as she and her partner headed for the door.

Ten minutes later they were seated at a local Blackstarís coffee house. It was handy because it was within walking distance of their office and offered them a quiet place removed from the office environment to discuss whatever was on their minds. At this moment Annie was using the opportunity to vent a bit about the Arvada city engineer.

"Iíve dealt with Roger for years! Why all of a sudden is this distributed ground system an issue?" she grumbled. "Weíve never been gigged for an electrical problem before, and this is the same engineer and same electrical contractor." She sighed. "I donít understand," she whined quietly.

Clark looked at his boss wordlessly, waiting. They had been working on several projects that day, some new, some finishing, even a new bid. But this one relatively simple review by an engineer had blossomed into a mess that had taken Annie most of the afternoon to clean up, and even now she was trying to unwind from the process. It hadnít been an ordeal as much as it had been an annoyingly unnecessary exercise in persistence. The task had been interrupted several times by customer calls or visits, meetings with contractors, and attention needing to be given to other jobs that were ongoing. Still, as the afternoon wore on, the Talbot job had kept staring Annie in the face, picking away at her reserves of patience.

Annie sipped her caramel macchiato. The sweet coffee drink soothed her nerves a bit, and she smiled at her partner. "Sorry Clark. I donít mean to be growling at you about this."

The hyena smiled. "Thatís OK, Annie. At least we got the problem dealt with."

A cellular telephone began to ring, and both furs reached for theirs. Annie pulled her pawset from her purse and flipped it open. "Hi! This is Annie."

Clark watched as her face lit up. Joe, he thought, smiling slightly.

Annie nodded. "You donít know the day Iíve had," she said in exasperation, smiling to her pawset. "How is your day going?" She paused for a while, listening. "That's great news! Now you don't have to worry about that." Another brief pause, then: "That sounds wonderful, honey. Should I pick you up?"

Clark turned his gaze to the rest of the furs in Blackstarís, tuning out from Annieís conversation. A bulldog and a ferret were seated near the door quietly engaged in a game of chess. An empty table separated them from a small group of college-student-looking furs, noisily discussing God and campus politics. Across the room three females giggled and quietly shared what must have been juicy office gossip. A business-looking fur sat alone at another table, a laptop and a cup of espresso in front of him. Behind the counter a fetching young collie was arranging pastries under the glass counter while her workmate, a badger, polished his espresso machine between orders.

"Heís here right now," Annieís voice intruded on Clarkís slow scan of the room. His gaze returned to his boss.

"Sure, Iíll ask him." Annie turned her eyes to Clarkís. "You remember our friends Janie and Tim Riggins?"

The hyena nodded. "Sure..."

"Weíre meeting them at a club tonight. Want to come along?"

Clark made a face of mild frustration, shaking his head. "Iím sorry, Annie. Lynn and I are going to have dinner with her parents tonight."

Annieís jaw dropped. After a second she quickly collected herself and said "Joe, Iíll call you right back, OK?" A short pause, and then "I love you. Bye..." Annie flipped her phone closed and turned her full attention on her partner.

"Youíre doing what?"

# # #

The club was in the middle of their "open mic" night when the Latrans and Riggins seated themselves at a small table near the center of the room. A live band, all felines, was in the middle of their rendition of an old Lynyrd Skynyrd tune called "Sweet Home Alabama." The music was good, but the would-be vocalist was flat and slightly out of step with the band. Like consummate professionals the band played on, waiting for the amateur vocalist from the audience to catch up.

There was a bobcat bassist, a tabby played electric guitar, another bobcat was on acoustic guitar, a lynx was on drums, and a small tiger played electronic keyboard / synthesizer. The tabby had a harmonica hanging by a short lanyard from his neck, and a saxophone stood on a stand next to the keyboard. The bass drum head in front of the lynx had a small emblem on it with the name of the group: "Spare Change".

The vocalistís efforts trailed away, and then the vocalist followed suit by fading into the crowd, his face red beneath his fur. As their impromptu front fur disappeared the tiger went into the piano riff that finished out the song. As the riff finished the tabby stepped up to the microphone recently vacated by the open mic artist as the band stopped playing.

"Well, in that vein, letís try this," the tabby said with a slight southern drawl. He backed up a step and turned to mutter something to his bandmates. The lynx struck a tempo with his drumsticks, softly chanting "One... two... one, two, three..."

Their version of "Whiskey Rock-A-Roller" was quite good. The tabby even sounded a bit like Johnny Van Zant.

"So what happened to Clark?" Joe asked his wife above the sound of the music as they waited to order drinks.

A memory of her receptionist flashed in Annieís mind as she replied "Oh... my... God...," and grinned. "Heís going to have dinner with Lynnís folks tonight."

At this bit of information Janieís ears pricked up and she looked up quickly from the wine list to meet Annieís animated expression, a grin of her own spreading across her muzzle as her tail flicked eagerly.

Joe was nonplussed as he looked at the marmot across from him. The coyote's left ear wilted slightly in an expression of casual interest. "Is that all?"

"Is that all?" Janie mimicked. She laughed, looking at the lazily curious expression on her husbandís face.

"So theyíre going to have dinner with Lynnís folks," Tim growled in his baritone to his cougar bride. "So what?"

Janie made a face that would imply to any female that males were impossibly dense. Annie giggled, looking at Joeís blank expression.

"So what, coyote mine, is that having dinner with the folks is, like, a major step."

Joe worked to maintain his neutral expression. "Towards what?"

Annie held her paws out, pads up, rolling her eyes in an I give up expression while looking at her best friend. "Why did I marry him?" she asked the cougar rhetorically, trying hard not to laugh.

Joe muzzle quite suddenly split in an evil grin. He licked his chops while winking at Timmy and growled "Fringe benefits!" as he slid an arm about his wifeís waist. Annie giggled slightly as she wiggled a bit towards him, her tail wagging.

Janie looked at her best friends as her paw found Timís. "Joe," she started patiently, "for a lady to introduce her boyfriend to her parents over a meal in their home is a semi-formal statement of serious intent."

Joe looked dumbfounded. "Really?"

"Oh stop it," Annie laughed, punching her husband gently on the arm.

Joe dropped the facade and smiled at his wife. "You think he and Lynn are becoming an item?"

"I think Lynn must think so," Annie replied seriously. She glanced at the cougar as her friend giggled.

"Isnít love wonderful?" Janie gushed.

"I donít know if heís wanting that or ready for it," Annie said. Janieís expression moderated at this bit of information.

The band had finished with their song. In the momentary silence Janie scooted against her husbandís side, her expression clouding a bit. Suddenly the bobcat on acoustic guitar began a very familiar riff, and as first the drummer and then the other guitars joined the melody Annie suddenly brightened and began to bounce slightly on her seat. Joe, too, moved with the music, swaying slightly as his paw tapped in time. The coyote and the fox looked at each other.

"Fall To Pieces!" they said simultaneously.

The band launched into a very convincing version of the hard rock song. Around them other furs in the room were moving with the music as well.

Janie and Tim smiled to each other. Their tastes in music were more towards classic rock, and some of the stuff their friends listened to was a bit too "edgy" for them, but they appreciated good music in any form. For the duration of the song the four were quiet, enjoying the music as it washed over them and flooded their souls.

As the song crashed towards itís conclusion Tim motioned with his free paw to gain his friendís attention. When Joe was looking at him he inquired "So whatís up with the new pilot?"

Joe rolled his shoulders in the sudden absence of music and comparative silence. "Matt said sheíd meet us here."

Three noses were suddenly pointed directly at Joeís head, like weapons. "She?" three voices asked in unison.

"Hi. May I take your order?"

A pretty doe rabbit had appeared at Timmyís elbow with an order pad. She was dressed in typical club waitress attire, which is to say that a minimal amount of material was barely covering the essentials. Her smile glittered in the low light.

Timmy had to work at pulling his mind away from the voluptuous fur before his eyes. Fortunately the gentlefur in him came to the rescue. Turning to his wife he asked "What would you like, dear?"

Staring at Joe, Janie slowly replied "I think Iíd better have a gin and tonic."

The doe turned to Annie. "And for you?"

"Do you have any good Merlots?" the fox asked.

The doe thought for a moment. "We have a 2001 White Oak from the California coast at six fifty a glass. I've tasted it, it's very good."

Annieís expression brightened in anticipation as she nodded. "That sounds good."

The doe turned to Joe. "Sir?"

"Bring a bottle of that Merlot and two glasses." Gesturing at his friend the coyote asked "Or should she bring three glasses?"

Tim shook his head. "Thanks, but I think Iíll have the gin and tonic as well."

The doe offered appetizers as well, and when her customers declined she moved off towards the bar to place their orders. Before she was halfway to the bar, and before any of our heros could continue their conversation, the tabby stepped up to the mic once again. "Ladies and gentlefurs," he said as he pulled the mic from itís stand, "for your pleasure this evening... Lola Baker."

Joe winced visibly as his head suddenly spun around to stare at the stage. The acoustic guitar and the base guitar stumbled into a basic rhythm that the drummer immediately picked up as a young canine stepped up in front of the band and accepted the microphone from the tabby's paw. She swayed with the rhythm for a moment and then whispered something into the mic. She was young, about five foot six, athletic and buxom, and looked very much like a coyote. She began to hum into the mic, a low, melodic sound from deep within her chest.

His companions had noticed Joeís reaction and had directed their attention to the stage as the canid there drew a breath and began to sing in a soft, southern drawl.

Mississippi in the middle of a dry spell
Jimmy Rogers on the Victrola up high
Mama's dancing with baby on her shoulder
The Sun is setting like molasses in the sky.
The boy could sing, knew how to move, everything.
Always wanting more, he'd leave you longing for.

Her voice was perfect. It wasnít a copy of Alannah Myles, it was better. Before she reached the first chorus the other furs in the room had become silent. Even the band members were watching Lola as they maintained the thumping rhythm of the song. The keyboardist picked up at the chorus, adding a mournful whine to the melody.

Black velvet and that little boy smile
Black velvet with that slow southern style
A new religion that'll bring you to your knees
Black velvet if you please.

Lola smiled to the room, seeming to drift effortlessly across the stage as her free paw twirled slowly above her head. The movements of her body matched her soft southern drawl, virtually every eye in the room was riveted to her.

Up in Memphis the music's like a heat wave
White lightning, bound to drive you wild.
Mama's baby's in the heart of every school girl
"Love me tender" leaves 'em cryin' in the aisle
The way he moved, it was a sin, so sweet and true.
Always wanting more, he'd leave you longing for.

Joe gulped and said nothing, but his mind was racing. Matt never said anything about this! What the Hell!? Joe wondered if there was some sort of prank or joke at paw, but couldnít see why or how. Matt was in Columbus, he knew. What would be the point?

Black velvet and that little boy smile
Black velvet with that slow southern style
A new religion that'll bring you to your knees
Black velvet if you please.

As the band and their new-found artist wound towards the conclusion of the ballad Annie looked inquisitively at her husband. The coyoteís face was a mask of mild shock, totally out of character to the song or the surroundings. She wondered about this as she nudged Janieís foot under the table. As the cougar looked at her friend, Annie rolled her eyes towards her husband, and then towards the marmot between them. Timmy looked relaxed, enjoying the show.

Every word of every song that he sang was for you.
In a flash he was gone, it happened so soon,

What could you do?

Along with the rest of the room, Timmy was transfixed by the young femaleís voice and stage presence. While dressed conservatively in comparison to many of the other females in the room, wearing denim jeans and a white button-down blouse, Lola oozed a sensual magnetism that seemed to be magnified by her voice and her actions. She took the mic now in both paws and commenced to sing to it like it was a long lost lover, the emotion plain on her face. Her eyes closed, her head tilted back slightly, and she put everything she had into her performance.

Black velvet and that little boy smile
Black velvet with that slow southern style
A new religion that'll bring you to your knees
Black velvet if you please.

The band began to wrap up for her, and Lola opened her eyes as she began stroll back and forth across the stage. She seemed to make eye contact with every fur in the room. As she sang the final lyrics of the song the band wound down until, at the very end where she pleaded "if you please", she was singing a capella with no music at all.

Black velvet and that little boy smile
Black velvet with that slow southern style
A new religion that'll bring you to your knees
Black velvet if you please.

...If you please
If you please...

The band resumed, playing a short coda as the room erupted in applause, the majority of the furs standing up to give Lola an ovation. She smiled demurely as her gaze slowly swept the crowd once again. She placed the mic back in itís stand and bowed. As she straightened she raised an arm and then swept it towards the band, turning to face them and clapping her paws herself as she looked at them. The furs in the band in turn bowed to her and then the audience. She blew the band members a kiss and turned back to the crowd, hopping from the stage to walk into the crowd that parted for her.

As the applause slowly died the tabby approached the mic. "Lola Baker, everybody!" After a moment the band launched into itís next song. The vocalist took up a direct heading for the table the Latrans and the Riggins occupied.

"You must be Joe Latrans," Lola said as she approached their table through the crowd that was even now beginning to seat itself.

Her hair and fur was a dusty reddish brown color, and her eyes were green. Her smile was infectious. She definitely had the face of a coyote, but her coloring, body structure, and attitude were all fox.

Joe screwed a grin onto his muzzle, trying to cover the shock of their meeting as he replied "I must be." Pointing as he went, he made quick introductions. "My wife Annie, my friend and fellow pilot Tim Riggins, and his wife Janie."

Lola nodded to each of them in turn, smiling as she shook paws, saying "Hello, nice to meet you." Each fur greeted her in return, still not sure what to make of Lola or, in Annieís case, Joeís reaction to her.

In a moment Annie, along with the others, understood perfectly. Turning her attention back to Joe, Lola got right to the point. "Matt tells me youíre looking for a Herk driver." The young coyote smiled to the older one, patting herself on her ample bosom with a paw as the soft southern drawl said "Iím your girl."


To Chapter Twenty: A Rose By Any Other Name.

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