Chapter 23: Reuniting in Wall Market
Cosmo raced ahead to the Wall Market, Tails’ voice fading as she left him behind. She scampered into the gate and watched for the convertible among the growing morning crowds. She cursed softly. “Lost it,” she muttered to herself.
She hurried through the main thoroughfare and pushed through the crowds in search of someone. Cosmo soon found the individual she was looking for, standing in front of a dingy, one-roomed shack next to a small diner. “Aunt Viv!” she called out.
An elderly, swamp-green coloured alligator turned her head. She was short and thin in stature and her wizened features stretched into a toothy smile at the sight of the flower girl. She wore a white, paisley-patterned frock, a pair of sky blue sandals, had a large handbag over her shoulder and supported herself using a gnarled cane.
She began to trundle on the dirt path over to Cosmo, beaming. “Well, Goddess bless my soul, if it ain’t little Cosmo!” she said in a voice that was as reedy as she was. “How long has it been since I last-”
“I don’t mean to be rude, dear Aunt,” Cosmo cut in. “But I really need your help!”
Viv’s face fell at the flower girl’s panicked look. She straightened her back and looked Cosmo in the eye. “What happened,” she asked, her voice turning serious.
Cosmo quickly explained the situation. As she spoke, the alligator’s frown deepened. “Hmm… I see. So, where is this ‘Tails’ character anyway?” Viv asked.
Just then the aforementioned fox appeared, his burning glare parting the crowd in front of him. “Cosmo!” Tails called. “What the hell was that all about? I can-” but before he could finish, Viv’s cane rapped him on his head. Not expecting the surprise attack, Tails hissed and looked in the direction of his attacker, ready to strike. He stopped himself once he saw the old alligator, who gave him a stern and disapproving look.
“You… you whippersnapper!” she hollered, her thin body quivering with rage. “You don’t yell at a lady when she’s addressing her elders! Who raised you?! A pack of dimwitted Humans?!”
Cosmo watched as Tails covered his ears through the verbal tirade. Once the elder reptile had calmed down slightly, she spoke to her. “Now Aunt Viv,” the flower girl said. “Don’t mind Tails, he excites easily. Specifically when it comes to a very pretty bunny girl, the one I was telling you about.” The fox harrumphed, scowling at her while rubbing the spot on his head where Viv whacked him. She ignored him. “Now, by any chance, did you see her pass by? She was in a grey hovercar with the top down, but I lost her.”
Viv smiled gently at Cosmo. “Well, yes dearie, I did get a good look at her,” she said. Her eyes then danced mischievously and an impish smile grew on her face. “And I have to say, she must be very lucky that you and that decent-looking whippersnapper over there are out to chase after her. I mean, I would give up men myself just to spend a few moments with someone that gorgeous.” She winked at the two suggestively. “Makes me wonder if she’s into foursomes…”
The reptile threw her head back and laughed heartily as both Mobian’s jaws dropped. Cosmo bowed her head and blushed a horrible shade of cherry red. ‘Oh, Goddess… Glad to see that her perverted sense of humour is as embarrassing as ever… I’m a bit miffed that I’m still affected by it after all these years…’
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the normally stoic fox’s face contort to a combination of horror, shock and embarrassment, his face also reddening. His left eye also started to twitch.
The alligator’s laughs started to subside as Cosmo regained her composure and gave her a withering glare. “Yes dearie, I did see her,” she said, still chuckling. She pointed a claw towards the east side of the Market. “That hovercar you’re looking for was headed for the red light district, most likely the Peacock Tail Inn. Another one of Corneo’s ‘brides’ I’m assuming?” She eyed the fox, whose brows were furrowed darkly. “From the look he’s giving, it doesn’t seem like she’s here of her own free will…”
“Well… we don’t know,” Tails said after a pause. “Which is why we need to find her. Something’s not right here.”
“…Then you better get off of your ass and hop to it!” Viv exclaimed, waving her cane threateningly. Tails paled and backed away slowly, not wishing for another lump on his head.
“Thanks for letting us know where she went, dear aunt,” Cosmo said, hugging her. “I’ll see you again soon!”
Viv called out to Cosmo as she left for the east side with Tails in tow. “Goodbye, dearie! And teach that boy some manners!”
As soon as they were out of earshot, Tails spoke. “Who was that?” he asked, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the bright neon-lighted signs scattered around the settlement.
“That’s Viv,” Cosmo answered as they kept walking down the winding path. “She’s an old friend of my mother’s. She used to come around to visit us when I was growing up – back when the road was actually safe to travel through – and I’ve always called her Aunt because of that. She’s got a bad limp and can’t walk very far without being winded, so I make an effort to come and visit her every once in a while to make sure she’s OK.”
They continued to walk through the Wall Market. The large slum consisted of numerous shanties, some built for one person, others built for small families. Some of the shacks also doubled as storefronts or restaurants with the residents peddling wares of all sorts to eke out a living. The two stopped off at a reasonable-looking dive to eat some breakfast.
She continued talking as the two entered the restaurant and sat in a booth. A sour-looking tabby cat soon took their orders and quietly served coffee for the two before retreating to the diner’s counter. “Viv’s one of those old folks that knows practically everything that goes on here in Wall Market. She has a bit of a reputation as an incurable gossip, but there’s no one else here I can trust to get information than her.” ‘Also, she’s a shameless pervert, but I think you already found that out for yourself…’
“OK, so here’s a little more information for you, Mr. Know-It-All,” Cosmo chided playfully as they received their food. She then grew serious and spoke in a hushed tone. “Don Corneo is well known as an industrialist within the slums. If something built down here is not Kintobor related, it usually involves him. In fact, Wall Market grew from a small and decent place to live to what it is today: a centre for low-end knock-offs, sleazy entertainment and narcotics. And all of that happened because of Corneo.” She took a swig of water to wet her throat. “At least, that’s what Aunt Viv told me.”
Tails frowned and tapped the table with his finger. “OK, so he’s a bigshot around here. That doesn’t explain how Cream’s involved?” he questioned, his eyes narrowed in thought. “Thinking about it now, this is highly uncharacteristic of her… Unless-”
“In any case, Wall Market is a scary place to be, especially for a girl,” Cosmo cut in as she dabbed her mouth with a napkin. “So we’ve got to find Cream fast.”
Tails finished eating and then stood up. “Right, then let’s get going,” he said as he threw down several mobium bills to pay for the meal.
Leaving the restaurant, they headed for the red light district in the easternmost part of the settlement. The row was dotted with various love hotels and brothels with escorts and attendants loitering outside and cajoling passersby into staying in their establishments.
“Hey there stud,” a squirrel outside one particular brothel spoke in a thick, seductive tone to Tails. She coquettishly batted her eyelashes to capture his attention. “Ditch the dirty little girl over there and come be with a real lady for the day. I promise you won’t regret it.
“Not interested,” Tails replied bluntly as he strode past her. Cosmo giggled and stuck her tongue out at the squirrel, who looked haughtily and incensed at the retreating pair.
A few blocks later, they soon saw the inn Viv mentioned. It was the largest building in the area; a two-story complex with an exterior facade consisting of thick plaster columns arranged evenly around the side facing the street Atop the columns on the second floor was a terrace where a group of scantily-dressed women of different species either openly lounged about or tried to entice the bystanders passing by the inn. One threw comely looks, while the other two wolf-whistled and yelled sexual come-ons. A large, royal blue sign on the front read “The Peacock Tail Inn” in gold lettering which was superimposed onto an image of several, golden tails belonging to numerous species splayed out in a fan-like pattern.
The front entrance was guarded by two muscular hippos wearing identical black shirts, shoes, jeans and dark sunglasses. A sharply dressed brown newt in a black suit stood in front as an attendant.
As they approached the building, Cosmo had a thought. ‘How exactly are we going to get in? We shouldn’t cause a scene and there’s no way we can both go in individually… but…‘
She suddenly pulled the fox into an alleyway, her eyes alight with realization. She felt another painful spasm in her chest at the thought of what she was about to propose, but she pushed it down. ‘Again, now is not the time,‘ she thought sullenly as she rounded on the fox and pulled him in close. “OK, I think I have an idea of how we’re getting in,” she said, keeping her voice low. “But you have to trust me on this. Now, listen carefully…”
Several minutes later, the two Mobians left the alley and stepped towards the inn. Cosmo’s arm looped around Tails’. “Follow my lead,” she whispered into the fox’s ear as she released his arm and approached the newt. ‘Oh Goddess, I hope this works…’ “Hi, there!” she called to the attendant cheerfully, her voice taking on a bubbly, airheaded tone. “Is this really the famous Peacock Tail Inn?”
The newt smiled brightly at her. “Why yes it is!” he said in an oily voice. “How can I help you today, my vision of loveliness?”
‘Blech,’ Hiding her disgust, Cosmo leaned in closer and lowered her voice. “Well, you see, here’s the thing: that guy with the large sword? That’s my boyfriend.” She ignored another swell of pain in her heart as she continued. “He’s back from a very important mission and I wanted to treat him to something… s-special.” She cursed inwardly as she began to lose her nerve. “I’ve… I’ve always told him that I’m… I’m up for experimentation, which-”
“Which is why you’re here,” the newt finished, leaning back and flashing a smarmy grin. He didn’t notice Cosmo exhale in relief. “Here at the Peacock Tail Inn, we’ve seen all kinds of Mobians come and go from here and we cater to various tastes. If you two would like to enter and speak to Suzy at the reception desk, I’m sure she’ll help you find exactly what you’re seeking.” He looked back and nodded to the bouncers. They stepped aside. “Please, come inside and be our guests,” he said, brandishing another flashy smile.
Cosmo looped her arm around Tails’, who stared back at her, bemused. “C’mon baby, let’s go,” she said, her stomach churning as she pulled him inside.
The reception area was small and dimly lit, making the space look exotic and mysterious. The walls were covered in a patterned royal blue wallpaper with gold trim on the edges where the wallpaper met the off-white floor and ceiling crown mouldings. In the back were a set of stairs covered in deep blue carpeting leading to the rooms on the second floor. The reception desk was made of polished oak. Behind the desk on the wall was a screen displaying various women, their names and their measurements. The images cycled, showing a new girl every few seconds. Near the desk was a door with a sign that read ‘Employees Only.’
‘Alright, phase one complete…’ Cosmo looked around the space, her heart beating fast. Despite it being late in the morning, there were already a few Mobians loitering around. An old, wrinkled turtle sat on a chintz loveseat by the wall closest to the stairs. He had his hands around two girls and his grey bushy moustache was twitching excitedly. On the opposite side was a cockatoo with wild, spiky hair and sunglasses chatting up another of his species who batted her eyelashes playfully at him. Her finger danced along the collar of his black tank top.
The flower girl summoned up all of her courage and feigned intimacy by getting close to and giggling in the fox’s ear. She could feel him tense up in alarm. “Sorry, I hope you don’t mind me being in your personal space,” she whispered apologetically. “I’m only doing this so we don’t look too suspicious. Now, let’s go gather some information and find your friend.” She broke away and the two headed for the front desk.
The receptionist was a perky, giggly chipmunk wearing a black barrette and a blue and gold mini-dress. She looked up from the desk monitor and gave the two Mobians a large, exuberant grin. “Hell-o!” she squeaked cheerfully. “Welcome to the Peacock Tail Inn, where all your fantasies can become real! My name is Suzy! How can I assist you today?”
Cosmo was about to speak, but Tails beat her to it. “You know a girl named Cream?” he asked bluntly. He placed an elbow on the counter and leaned in expectantly.
Cosmo shot him a glare. “What are you doing?!” she hissed in his ear.
To her surprise, the chipmunk giggled again. “Oh! You’re quick on the uptake,” she exclaimed airily, turning her attention back to the monitor on her desk. “Cream is the newest girl here. She’s just finished her interview right now, but she can’t see anyone until tomorrow.” She nudged her head towards the Employees Only door. “At the Peacock Tail Inn, it’s customary for all the new girls to see Don Corneo at his mansion at the far end of Wall Market before they start. Did you know Mr. Corneo is a very famous dilettante?” she jabbered away, not noticing that the two Mobians looked to each other before slowly sidling over to the door she pointed to. “He’s looking for a bride to settle down with and he’s hoping that one of the new hires here can help him with that goal. So far, he hasn’t had much luck, but I’m confident he’ll find that special someone real soon – huh?” She looked back up to see that the two had disappeared. She grabbed the barrette off her head and started wringing it in her hands tightly.
“Oh no, not again!” she whined. “I talked so much that they just left!”
“Phew, I thought we’d never get away from her.”
Tails moved his hand away from the door, which he coated with a light Ice spell. He was pleased to find that his ability to use magic was unaffected, despite the injuries he sustained only a day ago. ‘Must’ve been Cosmo’s healing that helped with that,’ he thought as the pair stole through the staff corridor.
Unlike the reception area, the hall they were in looked dingy and cold. Grey concrete walls lined the short passage which led to a dead end. The seven doors along the hall were evenly spaced out and had faded, peeling labels on them to describe their purpose.
Tails paused at each door they came across and pressed his ear against it to listen in. Four doors down, he stopped. “She’s here,” he said to Cosmo quietly.
Cosmo nodded. “OK,” she replied with a whisper. “But Tails? I… think you should let me go first.”
The fox raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
She frowned at him and placed her hands on her hips. “Because what if she’s changing or something? You can’t just barge in on her!”
Tails crossed his arms and bowed his head in thought. “Hmm, yeah, you’re right,” he conceded with a grimace. “I’ll wait here then. Give me a signal that it’s OK to come in. And be quick too. I don’t want to stand out here too long in case that newt, the chipmunk and their goons start lookin’ for us.”
Cosmo nodded again. She grasped the knob and then turned her head back towards the fox. “Better not peek now!” she said cheekily, winking at him. She then opened the door wide enough so she could fit through and then closed it softly.
As soon as she entered, Tails crouched down to the floor. He then leaned against the door and angled his head so he could pick up the conversation. ‘Gotta love SOLDIER enhancements,” he smirked softly to himself.
He listened as Cosmo approached Cream. “Cream?” she called. “It’s nice to meet you, I’m Cosmo. Tails has told me a lot about you.”
“Hm? Oh!” Cream exclaimed, startled. “You were the one with Tails earlier…”
“Yeah, with Tails,” Cosmo responded.
“Oh…” was Cream’s response. Tails thought she sounded a bit crestfallen. There was tense silence before the flower girl gave a startled cry.
“Ah! Don’t worry!” Cosmo reassured her. Tails imagined that the flower girl was shaking her head in denial. “We just met, it’s nothing.”
“‘Don’t worry?” came Cream’s questioning response. She then gasped. “Oh, no, don’t misunderstand. Tails and I are childhood friends, nothing more.”
For some reason, the fox found himself feeling slightly hurt at the comment. He pushed it aside as he heard Cosmo chuckle.
“Aw poor Tails, having to stand out there and listen to us call him nothing,” he heard her say mirthfully. “I know you’re listening, you can come in, it’s safe.”
Feeling slightly abashed, but still keeping his muzzle stoic, the fox stood up and entered the room.
Cream gaped at him. “My goodness, Miles!” she cried out. “What are you doing here? Never mind that,” she cut in before the fox could talk. “What happened to you after the fall?! Are you hurt! Are you-“
“Hey, give me a chance to answer!” Tails exclaimed, motioning her to settle down. He heard Cosmo giggle beside him. “Cosmo and I… snuck in after we found out that you were here.” He didn’t dare tell her that they had to pretend to be a couple to get in. “Beyond that, I’m alright. Cosmo helped me out. And what did I tell you? Call me Tails,” he glared mildly at her.
Cream threw him a mollifying smile. “Sorry Tails,” she said sheepishly.
“So what’s going on here, Cream?” Tails asked, his arms crossed and his eyes narrowed. “What are you doing in a place like this?”
“Umm…” The rabbit peered over Tails’ shoulder to Cosmo. The fox followed suit and saw the flower girl give them a knowing smile.
“I’ll be outside,” she said. She left the room and closed the door softly behind her.
Cream breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m so glad you’re OK, Tails,” she said.
“Thanks. Now, tell me what’s going on,” Tails replied tersely.
As Cream explained how she got herself in this predicament, Tails swept his eyes over his childhood friend. Instead of the white cropped tank top, the dark brown skirt, steel-toed boots and leather gloves that she normally wore, she wore a figure-hugging midnight blue dress that ended right over the knees. The dress had a halter and a V-neckline that stopped just above the top of her abdomen. Her ears were swept back and her hair was pinned in an updo with a blue clip. On her feet were a pair of matching blue pumps, raising her a few inches. He had to admit, she looked extremely pretty.
“So, remember that lech that was following me three weeks ago? When we saw each other again for the first time in s – five years?” Cream said. Tails noticed the hitch in her voice but paid it no mind. “When Bark and I got back into Sector 7, he was tailing us again, which I thought was strange. We cornered him and… squeezed some information out of him.” Her eyes were downcast as she said this.
“I’m guessing that’s when the Don’s name popped up?” Tails said. ‘What’s with that look?’ he wondered as an afterthought.
“Right, Don Corneo,” Cream said quickly. “Bark told me to leave him alone, but… something’s been bothering me.” Her eyes looked to the side. “Why were Corneo’s thugs tailing me for weeks on end? I don’t think it’s because they wanted to recruit me for a job at the inn… I kinda felt that there had to have been some other reason?”
“I see, so you’re here to get the story straight from the source,” Tails said, a look of understanding in his eyes.
“That’s right. So, I applied for this position, knowing that I’d be in contact with Corneo directly,” Cream said. She suddenly started rubbing her arm and looked very uncomfortable. “But… but now I’m in a bind. Corneo is looking for a bride. He takes three girls every night, chooses one and… well…” she trailed off and looked away, unable to finish her sentence.
Tails looked at the rabbit in disbelief. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me…’
“What’s more,” Cream continued, her jaw tightening. “I’m the first new girl who’s applied in a month. Apparently, Corneo had his goons search for new girls as he wasn’t satisfied with the ones he already has. The attendant in the front told me ‘The esteemed Corneo’s tastes lean towards fresher-faced girls,’” Cream mimicked the newt’s slimy voice and rolled her eyes as she did so. “Or so he says.”
“What does that mean for you?” Tails asked, feeling a burning sensation build up in the pit of his stomach.
“…That unless I get two more new girls to join me tonight… I’ll.. have to…” Cream gulped and then quickly changed the subject. “Anyway, I have to get in there somehow and confront him… but how?” she paused, letting out a deep breath.
At that moment, Cosmo barged in, a sheepish smile crossing her lips. “Sorry, I overheard,” she said unapologetically. “If you know the three girls though, it should be easy, right?”
“True…” Cream answered from behind Tails, who was giving Cosmo a flat look.
“Well, we have two here, right?”
‘OK, that’s enough!‘ The fox cut in, giving Cosmo a severe glare. “No way Cosmo, I can’t let you get involved!”
Cosmo shot him a beguiling look. “Oh? And it’s OK for Cream to be in danger then?” she said innocently.
He scowled back at her. “No, I don’t want her in-” he shot back through gritted teeth. He was cut off mid-sentence when Cream stepped towards the flower girl.
“Is it alright with you?” she asked Cosmo, who nodded in response.
“I grew up in the slums,” she said. “I’m used to danger.” She then looked into the rabbit’s eyes, bright blue locked onto amber. “Question is: Do you trust me?” she asked.
Cream nodded back without hesitation. “Yes, I do. Thanks, Ms. Cosmo.”
“Just Cosmo is fine,” she responded, waving a hand flippantly.
“There’s just one problem though,” Tails jumped back in, his arms crossed. He looked thoroughly annoyed at the two women. “We still need a third. Who are we gonna get before tonight?” He snorted. “If you ask me, it’d probably be easier to barge in and get our answers by force.”
“But if we do that, we might be playing right into Kintobor’s hands?” Cream said, frowning. “Say we charge in and cause a commotion, that might tip them off and cause them to raid the Sector 7 Slums? We can’t risk that happening?”
Tails scoffed irritably. “So then, what’s the plan?” he asked, his brow knitted in thought.
The room went silent for a moment. It was broken only when Cosmo started giggling.
The two other Mobians in the room looked at her, perplexed. “What’s so funny?” Tails asked, an eyebrow raised.
Cosmo’s giggles turned into full-blown laughter and her eyes began to water. Tails and Cream looked at each other, both of them bewildered at her behaviour. Soon enough, the flower girl calmed down enough to speak.
“Tails… Y-you should…” she sniggered, exhaled loudly to steady herself down and then continued quickly before she could break down again. “Tails, you should dress up as a girl! It’s the only way!”
“WHAT!?” Tails gaped amid the flower girl’s cackling. “N-no way, I’m no-”
“That’s actually a great idea!” Cream chimed in, a mischievous grin suddenly growing on her lips. “I mean, it can work! You definitely have very feminine features, Tails.”
The fox whirled on Cream, a look of horror on his face. “C’mon! Not you too!?” he exclaimed as the rabbit girl fought back a chuckle.
“OK, so that’s the plan!” Cosmo said, ignoring Tails’ complaints. “Cream, you tell those guys that you know two other girls who are willing to meet the Don. Meanwhile, I’ll handle foxy here and get him all dolled up for tonight.”
“Don’t I even get a say in this?” Tails moaned.
Cosmo gave him an admonishing look, placing her hands on her hips. “Well, you want to get Cream out of this, don’t you?” she asked. “And, as I said, this is the only way to do it, so buck up mister and let’s go!”
The fox let out a deep and resigned sigh. “… Fine,” he spat out, scowling. “But you tell… NO ONE about this.”
Cosmo beamed at him before rounding on Cream. “So, how do we get out of here?” she asked the fighter.”We can’t go through the front; it’d be obvious where we went to?”
“Go all the way to the end of the hall. The last door there leads to the back alley,” Cream said, her face screwed up to prevent herself from laughing at her friend’s predicament. “No one really goes there except for the smokers, so you should be safe from view. The end of that alley should lead you out of the red light district.”
“Alright, let’s go and get this over with then,” Tails grumbled, stomping out of the room. ‘I can’t freaking believe this…’
Had he paid any attention as he left, he would have caught Cream whispering to Cosmo, saying “Please get that on film!”