It’s 1952, which is one thousand nine hundred and fifty-two years since mutiny aboard the ark. Sunbeams coat the land as melting icicles trickle off leaves warmed up by their welcome shine - which is curious given that January’s usually bleak for its entirety. Yet sadly for one unfortunate soul, there’s a dark cloud looming ominously overhead.
Detective Lucas Panda lays slumped on a riverbank, cradled by the thick sticky mud so often present at the eerie heart of Old Buck Forest. Life seeps from a cut to his belly - his fur now a mixture of black, white, and speckles of red. He has a pulse, however it’s faint and each breath is an uncomfortable struggle. A tatty cotton shirt, loose cream tie and ripped silver trousers do a poor job of keeping him warm, as icy cold waves gently splash his helpless body. But still the bear clings to hope of a rescue, though hours and darkness have passed, and the river delivers no saviors - no hero steps forth from the background of lanky pine trees.
‘Help…somebody…anybody…please!!’ he wails, raising his head to inspect the damage, but it’s hazy and flops to the sludge. Trembling mucky paws fumble around trying to block the wound, but they only trigger a gasp. As he rattles his head with frustration, the soothing sound of rushing water and insects singing within the marshes, are interrupted by a formidable howl. Evil lurks in the forest, and it’s scuttling with haste towards the bank.
Lucas lays still, his teeth firmly gritted for he dares not breathe or whimper. Knees begin to wobble and each hair on his neck immediately stands to attention. His tiring eyes gaze up at the clouds, half expecting a glimpse of heaven; he takes comfort in the knowledge that when animals pass, their spirit departs and drifts up high, to a better land, a pleasant land – happiness beyond the sky.
A stork flies past, delivering the morning post, but she’s oblivious to the trouble below. Paradise Mail is printed in bold on her satchel, which is bursting with parcels and letters. The panda’s reluctant to shriek for help, fearful of alerting pursuers, but he attempts to flaps his paws. His efforts are futile; staff at Paradise Mail are notoriously slick and efficient. Only a miracle could prize them away from the task at hand.
On the vastly diminished plus side, there’s a bamboo shoot tucked in his pocket; he plucks it out and gnaws with silent delight. What he’d give right now to be sipping a meal at The Bear Pit with all his family and friends – what he’d give for their honey grass soup.
Then suddenly but inevitably, the haunting clatter of footsteps. They creep closer and closer, hurriedly crushing twigs, and leaves, and pine-cones. Lucas winces at the sound of a growl, an oink, and a heart-stopping mighty roar. Three ghastly beasts now gather immediately behind him. Light on the bank turns to shadow.
‘Well, you sure don’t smell like the cavalry…’ he whispers resignedly.
An overwhelming stench of pungent hunters tickles his soggy nostrils, as all hope of evading capture withers away. And the last thing the panda sees before he’s plunged in a sack of darkness, is bedraggled white fur, a wide-open frothing mouth, and eyeballs red as the devil.
Heaven will have to wait.
A fleet of rusty police cars approach with speed in the distance, tearing down a thin muddy path; they’re black at both ends and white in the middle, like big mechanical zebras. Sirens are furiously whirring; the flashing red lights sit atop the roofs like horns, while they unleash their piercing blare. A cluster of motors hurtle towards the site, each one screeching to a halt as it spots the water.
They swiftly circle the scene of a crime.
Enter Detective Jake Bear; the furry white giant clambers out of his ride. He’s wearing a neat white shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to display his numerous scars. Like most detectives he opts for a wide brim hat in darkish brown, with braces to hold up the caramel trousers. There was a nice pair of polished shoes but they’re ruined by the muddy surroundings (don’t mention his beloved red tie because he gets a little touchy – and by touchy I mean he lifts you by the scruff of your neck and shakes you like a rag doll). With a look of both urgency and concern he makes his way down to the river, trying not to slip as he does so.
Numerous pigs in uniform exit their vehicles, each of them officers, with equally despondent looks upon their faces. Anxiously they wait for the bears response. Jake removes his hat before kneeling to inspect the cordoned area. He strokes a patch of claret stained grass and sighs.
‘Looks like they dragged him off the bank,’ says the bear, carefully studying all the marks on the ground. He scratches an ear and gawks at the tight parade of trees, each colossal and prickly, hovering over the cluster of police cars. ‘Maybe took him through the forest towards the Widows Road.’
Bingo - Jake spots a wallet. He flicks it open and skims through the wedge of receipts; they’re all for groceries, which in Lucas’s case means copious amounts of greens. There’s also a crumpled photo stuffed inside a pocket; it’s a black and white shot of Lucas out fishing with panthers - one an adult male, and the other a stroppy young female. Jake taps the snap on his knee while he ponders and scans the river, hoping for a sight of his friend.
Detective Hudson Rhino arrives - fashionably late as always. He’s crammed in a corn yellow shirt struggling to cope with his size and it’s smeared with fragments of breakfast. A cigar drapes from the side of his jaw, where one usually spots a doughnut. He steps out his car and slams the door shut with his pointy horn.
A nervous piggy clutching a notepad approaches immediately; there’s visible beads of sweat on his head which he keeps trying to wipe with a trotter.
‘Errr…factory worker called it in, sir. Heading back from a shift, heard some commotion. She said…ummm…she said the noises sent a chill through her bones, sir.’ The pig decides it’s considerably less nerve wracking if he just mumbles and stares at shaky notes.
‘Species?’ replies the rhino impatiently, tightening and straightening his tie.
‘Ummm, she was a raccoon, sir. So, it’s safe to say she probably isn’t a suspect,’ bumbles the increasingly sweaty officer.
Hudson tilts the officer’s head so there’s eye contact while he scolds him. ‘I’ll decide what’s safe to say, piggy. Now where’s the divers? We need to search the river pronto.’
‘On their way, sir. Four of our best seals. Sir.’
‘Be sure that they are, pig, be sure that they are.’
A tarnished badge is poking from a mound of mud: Kingdom Police Force. Jake immediately retrieves it and wipes the gold clean with a paw.
‘What happened, Luc?’ he mumbles to himself, while his eyes scout for additional clues. A couple of coins and a ticket for the nearby racetrack is the best the ground can offer. After a moment’s pause the bear rises and turns to face the mournful crowd; his high hopes for a year of peace and calm, have quickly been laid to rest.
‘Looks like they took him rather than dump him in the river, so there’s a fair chance he’s still alive. Fetch some more pigs and hit the woods,’ says the polar bear, addressing the crowd of officers. Then he turns to the cigar touting rhino. ‘Hudson, check his apartment and speak to some neighbors. And get on the phone to Frank. If anyone can solve this thing, it’s the penguin.’ Jake returns his hat to his head, curses the filth on his shoes, and slowly trudges back to his car.
Noah’s Kingdom: home to nearly two million walking talking animals. Behold a buzzing concrete jungle bathed in bright lights, forged at the feet and mercy of a towering dam. A thriving metropolis packed with all the good, bad, and ugly creatures you could possibly imagine. Some call it ‘the city that never sleeps’, yet for many, it’s where dreams are lost or found.
Thick grey clouds have been weeping for hours, and streets are approaching submersion.The donkey behind the wheel slams on his brakes, right outside the Arctic Cafe. You’ll struggle to find a bleaker street in all of Noah’s Kingdom; it’s dark and murky even on the sunniest of summer days and riddled with crumbling buildings.
Chico Monkey hops out the taxi and wishes he’d packed an umbrella. Up until last night he was locking up small timers for the West Bay Police Department in a sleepy town at the middle of nowhere. Then, without any say in the matter, he was promptly re-assigned; much to his dismay he was chucked on the earliest train destined for ‘Kingdom’ and told to aid in the search for a panda.
Chico’s young and energetic but cursed with a fondness for sarcasm which often leads to trouble. If he gave as much thought to his choice of words as he did to his choice of outfit, then he’d have avoided a few black eyes. Today it’s a crisp grey suit, matching hat and light blue shirt – closer to crooner than crime fighter. Technically he’s a ‘red howler’ monkey, hence the reddish fur, but the lengthy tail and trendy beard make him reasonably easy to spot. Normally you smell him before you see him though, thanks to the bucket of cheap fruity aftershave he insists on bathing in every morning (today’s scent: Eau De La Nana by Franco Chimpo. The perfect choice for any gent wishing to smell like ripe bananas).
He tosses the driver some coins, pats the roof, and spins around. The ink on the note in his hand is washing away, but the message is still pretty clear: Arctic Cafe. He scrunches the reminder into a soggy ball and stuffs it back in a pocket.
‘You gotta be kidding me,’ he groans, looking through the window of the dingiest diner in town. It’s an ill-kempt cozy joint, and in desperate need of a lick or two of paint, but popular for those seeking coffee and breakfast fresh from the ocean.
Bells chime above the door as the monkey dives inside to escape the relentless downpour. He shakes a few drops off the soaking wet suit and dries his eyes with a sleeve. It’s a pit of chaos: animals queuing for breakfast, trying to eat breakfast, and serving breakfast, all within an inappropriate amount of space.
A pack of sailor seagulls are babbling loudly at their table beside the doorway - typical noisy gulls.
Squidged behind a table in the corner and facing foggy windows, sits a hard-boiled penguin devouring a plate full of scrambled eggs and mackerel. He’s a ‘King’ penguin, so shorter than an ‘Emperor’ but stout with a sharp beak and orange fur at the back of his neck which closely resembles a collar. Meet Frank - the only bird in town wearing a beige crumpled rain mac and chocolate colored fedora (the hat of choice for any true detective). His coat looks a shade too big and the hat’s tilted too far back, but he’s never been one for fashion.
Chico takes a seat opposite Frank, but the penguin barely flinches, such is the desire to finish his breakfast as swiftly as possible. Vote Spots – the monkey can’t help but notice the bold wilting poster of current mayor, George Leopard, overlooking their greasy table.
‘Ahem’. Chico tries to catch his attention. Frank licks the plate clean, before taking a long sip of pitch-black coffee. As the cup returns to the table, he finally sets eyes on his latest partner, and breaks the awkward silence.
‘You must be the chimp? Hot shot from West Bay. They tell me your good,’ he says, tapping the table with a cheap knife and fork. ‘I thought you’d be taller.’ By the sound of his voice you’d think he owned a pizza parlour, as opposed to being the city’s most experienced sleuth.
‘I’m a monkey. We tend to be short. And just for the record, I thought you’d be younger,’ says the monkey, inching closer to deliver his taunt.
‘To be honest, kid, at first glance I could swear you were a drowned rat.’
‘Well, they never warned me I’d be working with a fish.’
Franks turn to lean across the table. ‘I’m a flightless bird, Frank Penguin. Welcome to Noah’s Kingdom.’
‘Charlie Monkey, people call me Chico.’ They shake hands firmly, but with minimal eye contact.
‘What’s with the fancy schmancy suit, kid? Looks like you’re here to sell me insurance,’ says Frank with a hint of smirk. ‘Anyways, you’re late and you nearly missed breakfast. Speak to the walrus - he ain’t too friendly, but you won’t find a tastier way to start the day, in this or any city. And that’s a fact.’ A plate of squid on the table beside them catches his eye; if the platypus who ordered it leaves a few scraps, he’ll undoubtedly be first to pounce.
Chico slumps back in his chair and glances at the blubbery walrus; he’s stroking his whiskers and trying not to gore favored regulars with his prominent tusks, while he takes the orders and yells at the poor rabbit in the apron and chef’s hat. ‘You know what, I’m not too hungry.’
‘Mmm not big on caffeine. More of an OJ kinda monkey.’
‘You sure you’re a cop?’
‘I like to keep in shape. You should try it sometime.’
Frank ignores the cheap dig, licks his lips, and wipes down his precious mac. ‘Ok, look, just so you know it ain’t no picnic being a cop stuck in Kingdom. This place has a habit of wearing you down, till all you got left is despair. And things can get a little rough. But hey, stick close to me and follow my lead, you’ll be fine.’
Chico’s eyebrows raise and his head jolts back with slight disbelief. ‘Appreciate the warning, but I’m no boy scout. I made detective two years back. No hand holding required.’
Frank holds his wings up as if to apologize. ‘Jeeze, relax. All I’m saying is, this ain’t no city of angels. Plenty of devils prowling these streets and chances are you’ll meet ‘em. Trust me, you’re a long way from West Bay, kid.’
‘Read my lips, I can handle it. Devil shows up, I’ll be ready,’ says Chico, sliding out his chair to stand over his newest partner.
Frank wields his fork as a toothpick before wagging it at the hovering monkey. ‘You got spirit I’ll give you that much, and I know you never asked for a ticket to the party, but we could sure do with some help.’ He drops a copy of the Kingdom Chronicle on the table; ‘Detective Feared Dead’ is stamped across the top in a thick bold font. ‘My partner. Week shy of retirement. Snatched off a riverbank, down in Old Buck Forest.’
Chico looks down at the breaking news. In a flash he tastes regret and curses himself for giving the penguin a hard time. ‘I’m sorry…I didn’t realize he was your partner-.’
‘Every morning he’d collapse in that seat you got right there. Never a second late neither and always the prawns on toast. Not a fan of variety,’ says Frank, remembering the good old days.
‘Any leads? Ransom note?’
‘No notes, no leads. Divers came up with his mac though. Slashed up real bad, so that’s something to go on, I guess. Oh, and Detective Bear found this at the scene,’ says Frank, passing Chico the photo from Lucas’s wallet.
‘Fishing with panthers. Any idea who they are?’
Frank is quick to snatch it back once his new partner has taken a peek. ‘I got no idea who the cat is, or the kitten with the face like thunder. Never heard Luc mention no panthers. Anyways, I got some pigs looking into it.’
‘Ok, so, when do we start?’
‘After breakfast, kid. Always after breakfast.’
‘You’ve had breakfast.’
Frank prods the platypus. ‘Buddy, you gonna finish all that? I’m still a bit peckish.’
‘Beat it, penguin!’ snaps the hungry customer.
‘Ok, i’m done. Let’s get to work.’ Frank buttons up the mac, pulls up the collar, and nudges the fedora forward – ready for an onslaught of drizzle. He gives Chico a friendly slap on the shoulder before slipping through the crowds to the exit. ‘Tomorrow, walrus!’ he yells, yanking open the door. Again, the bell chimes, as the caffeine-fuelled penguin fades into a mist of raindrops. Chico takes one last look at the Chronicle upon the table: a picture of Lucas Panda standing proudly in dashing uniform.