Perfect Poise: a Tiny Toons Tale

(Author's note: I've always been intrigued by Perfecto Prep, Acme Looniversity's much wealthier arch rivals. Here we see things from their side. This takes place the Autumn before the main Tiny Toon characters graduate, as described in my tales "Spring Fever", "LoonQuest" and "Seven Brides for Seven Bunnies". Now read on…)

Far above Acme Acres and the continent it sat on, an ancient Toon satellite swung in its long,

elliptical orbit. On the furthest point of its trip it reached far out, nearly half-way to the moon and a long way from potential harm's way before swinging in to take a closer look every eleven days.

MOLOT 19 was old. Its surface was scarred with encounters with space junk and scoured by the solar wind. Its batteries were long degraded, and the ancient computer inside only woke up when the eroded solar cells happened to point directly at the sun as it lazily tumbled. Once there had been a whole fleet of them – that was when the red hammer and anvil on the nose cone had been bright and fresh. If it realised it was the last of its kind was debatable. As the old computer stirred briefly into life under the sun's rays, it did remember that last orbit it had seen something at a certain grid location that it really ought to take a close look at next time round.

The targeting computer had the grid reference. It had never heard the name "Acme Acres" – but that was exactly where it would be looking in another nine days' time.

Several miles to the East of that famous city was an establishment that was well known in somewhat exclusive circles; the refined and exclusive Perfecto Prep University. While the military had specialist training grounds for urban, desert and suburban warfare, Perfecto specialised in training its tender students throughout their salad days as corporate raiders, highly unscrupulous lawyers and generally how to be "last toon standing" when the dust settled in any high risk, high profit venture. Their salad days comprised very good quality and very expensive salads.

Honesty, decency, and generally being a good sport – the virtues were all avidly studied at Perfecto. Studied for much the same reason a hunter studies the tracks and habits of something plump and dim-witted that Nature obviously intended to be fleeced, plucked and fricasseed by those rightfully higher on the food chain.

It was the first day of the Autumn term, and Perfecto Prep basked in its usual weather for the time of year. Black clouds hung low on the summit of the mountain it perched on, and occasional bursts of lightning cast into sharp relief the damp faces of the coach-load of new arrivals. Fifty toons trudged up the long, winding road through the grounds from where they had been dropped at the main gates – they were the usual mix of species, some human but the rest comprised two dozen different species, all united in style at the minute as they were all perfecting their impressions of drowned rats. The gravel drive was long and winding, and some looked up at the damp stone statue of Miss Hazel, the "morally unfettered" enchantress who was the founding Principal of Perfecto, as it cast long stark shadows with every flash of lightning.

Watching them cross the drawbridge from the triple-glazed comfort of the senior's recreational lounge high above, a dozen elegantly dressed toons lounged on fine leather couches, drinks in paw as they cast occasional glances down at the miserable procession below.

"Fresh-things," A yellow-green drake raised an eyebrow as he regarded the soaked arrivals now making their way up the steps. "Oh my. Were we ever that bad? I think not."

"Danforth, darling, you were twice as bad." Standing beside him, a tall and stunningly beautiful duck lady tossed back her long mane of purple head-feathers, its artistically tangled mass reaching half-way to her tail. "And I took care - great care - to obtain film of that and a lot worse that you did later. Even on your first day you looked like something pulled backwards through a drainpipe."

Danforth Drake smiled. "You did have film, sweet Margot. Until I took great care to obtain all the copies. A festive little fire they made. Did you get all the copies I had of your early days, you may wonder? Oh, the things you did before you learned discretion." He shook his head in mock disapproval.

Margot Mallard pressed close to her boyfriend and business partner. "Well, one day you'll perhaps find out just how many copies of such an embarrassing little item I still have - if you ever release those films of me." She gave a wicked grin. "Ah, doesn't it just make the game interesting? And down there - how delightful, that they don't even know it, but they're pieces on the board already. Rather damp little pawns - but pieces, just the same."

Danforth nodded, his bill clicking slightly against Margot's as the fowl pair kissed beaks like touching glasses raised in some hellish toast. "So hard to believe - but one day some of them may sit here, bishops and kings and queens in the game. But none of them such a deliciously dark Queen as you."

On the couch next to them, another couple sat together contemplating the arrival of the new students. Both were pure-strain rat toons, he with the dark red-brown quiff of head-fur and a look of savage concentration as he stared at student records on his laptop - she with light reddish-brown fur and an easy gaze that still missed nothing. Roderick and Rhubella Rat (no relation) were a shining example of how to achieve success at Perfecto, as many a trampled toon left scattered along their ruthless ascent could attest.

"Rhubella. What do you think? We've got the usual scatter. Any that deserve - special

interest? Or shall we wait till we see who claws to the top of the pile in a week or two, before lending them a helping paw?"

Rhubella Rat raised an eyebrow. "Lending, Roddy? If they only knew your interest rates." She smiled, her naked tail swishing as she reviewed the student files. Roderick had a mind like a steel rat-trap, though with his species that was not a nice image. She used it anyway.

"Hmm." Rhubella fast-forwarded through the profiles. "This one - and this one - and this one - don't quite fit our style. I'd bet a wooden nickel they don't get past the first year."

Roderick considered the bet. "It'd be the first semester they should get kicked out from - but they've paid for the year. They might turn themselves round. Quite amusing, what some toons will do if you let them know they're on the way out of the door. Still - how could we stay exclusive - unless we -"

"Exclude a few, every now and then." Rhubella finished for him, her rat tail stroking his with a slithering noise. "Well. We're the senior year now, Roddy. It's our duty I suppose - let's go and tell the fresh-things what they've got to look forward to."

Margot Mallard's eyes went wide in glee. "Don't you just love the look on their little faces when they find out?"

Down on the ground floor, the relief at getting out of the storm and finally into Perfecto's hallowed halls did not last long. The doors were closed behind them by silent, liveried servants and for a minute or so the fifty first-years were left to their own devices.

A decidedly miserable-looking black cat sneezed violently. "Despite the similar architecture - when it comes to a good reception, Hogwarts, this isn't." She scanned the faces around her - a wall of expressions ranged from cautious, indifferent to hostile. Perfecto had a reputation of only supporting the best toons (measured to a certain local standard of "best"), and would happily let a rising tide of Dip take the hindmost.

Only one returned a friendly smile. A pink-furred toon rodent stepped forwards and offered her a towel. "Won't do to catch cold on the first day," she said. "We'll have enough to worry about."

The feline accepted it gratefully. It was an interesting if limited technique; instead of using the standard "body pocket" this toon carried her supplies in a bulky, waterproofed knapsack. "Thanks! I'm Felicia Felid." She noted the toon's vaguely English accent - and a few other unusual features. Although she looked rat-like in her size and general shape, her large rounded ears and finely furred tail suggested some mouse ancestry.

The rodent shook paws, ignoring the incredulous stares and raised eyebrows from her new classmates. "Sapphire Van Hoogstraaten. Looks like making friends isn't the done thing around here." She winked. "So let's call it mutual self-interest for now."

Just then, there was a stirring of the curtains from what turned out to be a large balcony looking out over the entrance hall. The curtains drew back to reveal a balcony the size of a small theatre stage, except that in this case the audience was seated relaxed on it, looking down.

"Very like the old amphitheatre. And we're down where they send in the lions," Sapphire whispered, her bright eyes gleaming reflections from the spotlights that suddenly snapped onto illuminate the new arrivals.

An elegantly dressed figure stepped forwards - a smartly casual rat, flanked by a matched pair of huge wolverines wearing Perfecto athletic starter jackets. He looked down at the new arrivals for a minute in silence, keenly scanning each face as his rodent teeth gleamed in a slight sneer.

"Oh, dear me. What HAVE they sent us this time?" The rat shook his head in evident disbelief. "You've obviously come to the wrong place - this is Perfecto Prep. To be a Perfecto student - what is it? It's to be the best. The winners - always, against any odds, by any means. Money will get you in here but it won't get you through. You'll need more than that. And if not - there's the door, and a lot of you will be heading out of it very soon." He waved a paw at the senior toons around him. "And who are we to talk? We're the ones who are still here, after everything they could throw at us. Whereas most of you won't be." He stood down, before seeming to remember something. "Oh yes, I almost forgot," he looked back over his shoulder. "Welcome to Perfecto Prep University."

Half an hour later, the new arrivals were shown to their new dorm rooms. They were elegant and spacious; the first year female toons' rooms were all along one corridor and Felicia found Sapphire conveniently just across the hall.

"They don't waste money here in making you too welcome," she commented, both doors open as the toons unpacked.

In the corridor, a hawk girl stopped to survey the scene. "Don't fall for everything they try on us here." She gave a supercilious smile. "I'm Irma Falco. And that little speech back there was straight out of any military boot-camp. Cheap psychology."

"Oh, yes. The Sergeant's speech to all the new recruits. 'You 'orrible lot are all nothing but pond-scum and there's not one of you will ever be fit to make a soldier' - I've seen the films too." Sapphire winked.

"My Sister graduated two years ago, and she got through it all," Irma preened her still damp feathers. "She could. I can. You, I don't know about."

"What say we team up?" Felicia suggested. "We've no reason to trust anyone, including each other yet. But with three of us watching each other's backs - we've more of a chance to get through."

"Sensible," Sapphire applauded. "And the first one to sell out her comrade - will have the other two after her. Should keep us honest with each other - at least till the prize is really worth having."

Irma nodded. "I'll go with that for now. Deal?" She stuck out a feather-hand.

"Deal." Sapphire and Felicia shook paws with her. "Now - to business."

An hour later, Sapphire's room was the setting for the first meeting of Clique One, a name Sapphire had invented to general approval. The rodent was leafing through the printed timetables that she had found by the bedside table. "Tomorrow they start us in early. Gym, Social Status Assurance, Ethics (Perfecto style), and then two hours of hazing before lunch."

Felicia's tail drooped. "They actually have it written down on the timetable?"

A raptor beak gave a cruel smile. "We'll live through it. And someday it'll be our turn to dish it out. With interest." She stretched. "I'll never say it to her face of course but - my sister came through it hard as diamond and as good to have around."

"I'll stick with being Sapphire for the time being," that rodent commented, looking through the brochures. "Well - you can trade us some useful information. I'm a … generalist. I've been brought up do - ooh, all sorts of things." Her rodent teeth gleamed as she smiled. "You could say I'm well-travelled. Very, very well travelled. You might be surprised."

"You're English? I'm from BosToon, myself," Felicia volunteered.

The pink mouse raised an ear, as she contemplated her reply. "My family are … world citizens. We do business where the money is. I grew up mostly on my grandparents' place in Spain, nice little villa on the Costa del Sol. Sometimes we had to go off to Rio and places in a hurry."

"With the family business?" Felicia asked, intrigued.

"You could put it like that," Sapphire laughed. "To do with the family business, yes."

The three toons relaxed guardedly, while Irma vainly hunted for cameras and bugs in the room.

"This IS Perfecto, as they keep telling us," Sapphire's whiskers twitched. "They don't do things on the cheap. If there's a bug here it'll be hidden under the plaster, a professional job. If there's anything to find just like that, it'll be because they want you to find it."

Irma nodded, convinced. "They don't buy their stuff from the ACME discount catalogue." She stretched, looking out at the rain-streaked windows. "It's going to be a long day tomorrow - time to hit the nest."

Sapphire stood, the rodent's finely furred tail swishing. "Oh yes. A good night's sleep will help. So I don't expect we're meant to get one. If there's not a hazing raid of some kind I'll be very surprised." She raised an eyebrow. "Here's my first contribution - watch, and I'll show you how to wire your door handle to the mains."

Felicia awoke with the dawn, feeling the fine Egyptian cotton sheets smooth and comfortable against her fur. At Perfecto, she would rarely wake up with tangled "bed fur", she noted with approval.

"A good night's sleep, thanks to Sapphire," she addressed the world and any listening devices. It had not been wholly undisturbed - about three o'clock had come shouts and banging from down the corridor - as some seniors had evidently come for a "wake-up call". Felicia had noted the screams and smell of scorched fur drifting in from the corridor outside as the intruders had tried to do that to Clique One, and promptly fallen asleep again.

Carefully disconnecting the mains cable from the door handle, she took a look outside and removed the "Do not Disturb" sign from the handle - after all, she could hardly say nobody had been warned. All was quiet, and only a lingering scent of scorched fur remained in the corridor. Wedging the door shut, she tried out the luxurious shower in her room - everything was en-suite, down to a powerful fur dryer.

"I think," Felicia announced to the world and possibly the microphones, "That I'm going to like it here."

"At my old school, we did a lot of practical science," Sapphire announced in a conversationally loud voice, as the first-year girls assembled in the corridor before breakfast. Most of them looked irritated and short on sleep; evidently they had been chivvied out by older students for a gratuitous "French-Canadian fire drill" for an hour in the rain. "Our Science teacher, she told us with three-phase electrical power, it's not really dangerous. There's a positive, a neutral and a zero wire - if you touch them all at exactly the same time they cancel out and you won't get a shock."

Felicia noted several of her new classmates taking notes. She waited till nobody was too close. "Is that true?" She whispered in the rodent girl's large ear.

"No." Sapphire smiled happily, and they went into breakfast.

Social Status Awareness class was a course unique to Perfecto Prep. The class was taken by a stunningly beautiful pigeon lady, whose golden head-feathers reached down to her shoulders in an exquisite display of grooming. She wore a finely tailored and utterly respectable business skirt suit that even so had half the male toons' eyes bulging as they traced its curves. A long train of tail-feathers swished elegantly behind her arranged in an equally impeccably coiffure.

"Good morning, class," she cast an appraising eye across the room. "I'm Professor Hatta Mari, and as I teach several classes I'll be seeing a lot of you." Her voice was smooth, with just the trace of a European accent. "At the cheap place, Acme Looniversity, they have a School of Hard Knocks. Here at Perfecto - there are hard knocks around in the world, and many of them. But we teach you how to dodge them." A flawless eyebrow rose. "And hopefully - divert them to land where you want them to."

"My sister told me about her," Irma whispered to Sapphire and Felicia "She's had an impressive career - spied for both sides in World War 2. She's been here since 1944."

"Not 1945? Well I suppose it's not rocket science," Sapphire whispered back.

Either the desks were wired for sound or Professor Mari was an adept at lip and beak-reading. She gave a tight smile, nodding towards where Clique One sat. "Miss Falco - Miss Van Hoogstraaten. As some of you seem to know, I have indeed been here since 1944. Our class on Profit Pursuit isn't till tomorrow, when I'll tell you something of that. But I'll mention it now - if you have to change sides, do it while your old currency is still worth something to your new employers." She fixed them with a steely eye. "And you're both fined a dollar each for talking in class."

"She fined you one dollar?" Felicia smirked, as they walked towards their next class. "I think I can afford to be Class Clown, at that rate."

"Oh no you can't." Irma raised an eyebrow. "It doubles for every offence. Exponential growth. How's your math? Try acting up all year and see how much being Class Clown costs at the end of it."

"As you Americans say," Sapphire murmured, her bright eyes gleaming "Ain't that the sixty-four thousand dollar question?"

Up in the third-year lounge, the seniors were amusing themselves with the edited highlights of the new arrivals' first day as captured by Perfecto's comprehensive security cameras.

"Inspiring," Margot Mallard clapped her hands together in glee. "Our second-years have even learned a lesson or two from last night's hazing raid on the fresh-things." She rewound to the point where a certain second-year mastiff was just about to yank Irma Falco's door open. "Cherri-Jo's certainly got the physique of a brick - shame she's got the intellect to match."

"Indeed," Danforth raised an eyebrow. "Her sister Sherri-Jo is in the new class, too. It looks like there's some sharper ones though. We'll have to think of something humbling for the fresh-things' first main assignment. Something - classical. Something believable. Something with a very nasty sting in the tail."

"A classic raid - on Acme Loo! It's a win-win situation," Margot's eyes gleamed. "Someone will get taken down a peg or two, no matter who wins." The fact that Perfecto had often tried such things over the years with generally dire results was quietly swept under her mental carpet.

"The blue rabbit. I want a sports trophy off him," Roderick Rat looked over the drake's shoulder at the screen. "We'll have the girls raid him. More humiliating for him if they succeed." He snickered. "And if he catches them - I bet they teach them at Acme to never hit a lady."

"Humph!" Rhubella's tail twitched. "In which case, I want the boys to raid that spooky loon." Her eyes narrowed. "She beat me in the July swimming race despite all my - refinements." At Perfecto, cheating was what other people did. "If you want something classical - how classic is a panty raid?"

Danforth cleared his throat. The drake cast an eye at Margot, then at himself. "Rhubella, have you ever - noticed something about us avians and our outfits? As in, what we're not required to wear?"

The rat girl relaxed, nodding. "Oh, I just might have. I know it's an impossible task. If they get caught trying, Shirley will blast them to a crisp. My plan's a lose-lose situation. We'll see which is more entertaining."

End Chapter One