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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter D. Reimer

Chapter 1

Luck of the Dragon: Gambles
© 2003 by Walter D. Reimer

Chapter One

The sky at five thousand feet was that peculiar deep shade of blue that people see when they are flying over the Pacific Ocean.  The sea below gleamed, embellished with small curling breakers around the shoals, reefs and smaller atolls, and the sun, briefly obscured by a bank of clouds, seemed to cast rays of light down as benedictions.

 “Good weather for flying today,” Luke O’Reilly remarked as his canine tail squirmed behind him.  He leaned forward to ease the kink in his backside as his Manx copilot nodded, a feline paw reaching down to adjust the trim tabs on the cargo plane’s flaps.  The Short flying boat, fully loaded, was two hundred miles or so away from sighting the Spontoon Group, and its twin engines had performed like champions – due, the pilot was sure, to last month’s overhaul at Superior Engineering.  “How are we on fuel?” he asked.

 “Hmm … “ A sharp rap on the fuel gauges, and needles swung then settled.  “We’re good,” the copilot replied, tipping a quick smile at the flight engineer, who winked back.  “Another two, maybe three hours’ flying time – with this tail wind we should get there ahead of schedule.”  He glanced out and down.  “That should be Konigi Island, right where it should be,” he remarked, grinning.

 Fangs gleamed as the Irish setter smiled back at his partner.  “Ahead of schedule?” he echoed.  “Bonus time.  Try to tune in the radio station, and we’ll see if we need to – hello, what’s that?” The pilot turned at a small glinting flash out the window to his left.  “What do you make of that, Smitty?” he asked.

 Binoculars were raised to feline eyes.  “Hmm … biplane, cranked upper wing … not a floatplane or amphibian – watch it, Luke!” His yelp was echoed by Luke as he hauled the control yoke hard to the right and down, sending the flying boat into a tight turning descent as a Polikarpov I-15 fighter buzzed past, scant feet from clipping one of the Short’s wings.  Smitty hissed, “Damned fool – what’s he thinking of?  Could get us all killed.”

 “Look sharp,” Luke snapped, and flinched as bright red and yellow splotches appeared in the sky ahead of their plane.  “He’s shooting at us!”

 “They,” Smitty said.  “Another one coming up on our right.  We’ve got the first one overhead … oh, crud.”  He stared out his window at the stubby biplane, whose pilot was making furious downward gestures.  “Luke,” he said, “I think they want us to land.”

 “Like hell.  Get on the radio, try to raise the R.I.N.S. for assistance.”  Luke gritted his teeth as he started to try some evasive maneuvers, rocking the bigger plane’s wings in an effort to force the two small pursuit planes to back off.  More tracer rounds bloomed, and the Short shuddered as bullets tore into its wings.  “We’re hit!” Luke exclaimed as the controls grew sluggish in his paws.

“That’s not the half of it, Luke,” the engineer said from her station.  “They clipped one of the engines.  We’re losing oil pressure on starboard.”  As the flying boat leveled off, the pilot of one of the Polikarpovs again gestured for them to land.  Now.

 “Oh, crud,” Smitty breathed, seeing an insignia on the flank of one of their attackers.  It was a stylized red pawprint, with a black dragon curled in its center.

 The Short continued its descent, the two biplanes chivvying and circling around it like a pair of Border collies shepherding a large ram until the flying boat’s keel touched water near a small island.  The plane coasted to a halt, rocking in the swells as Luke and Smitty opened the cockpit and inspected their stricken plane.

 Engine Two was smoking, but looked none the worse for wear.  Whoever shot at them was well trained.  “Company, Luke,” Smitty said as two motor launches rounded the south side of the island and approached them.  Luke squinted, making out at least ten furs, clad in black.  “Well, we can’t take off again,” he sighed.  “We have to get repairs first.  Did you get the Naval Syndicate before we landed?”

 Smitty’s whiskers drooped.  “About two hours out, and remember – we had a tail wind; they won’t.”  Pilot, copilot and engineer raised their paws as the launches drew near and two Lewis guns were trained on the Short.  One launch drew alongside and black-clad furs swarmed aboard, opening the cargo hatches.  “Hey, you!” Luke protested, seeing his bonus and his job fluttering away in his mind’s eye as his plane was robbed.  His head rocked forward, and he turned toward whoever hit him, his teeth grinding from the pain.

 The barrel of the Great War-vintage Colt .45 looked like the mouth of a sewer pipe, clenched in a red-furred paw.  A black mask obscured most of the fur’s face; his eyes were barely discernible under a battered gray baseball cap.  “Don’t move or nothing,’” the fur said in a soft voice, and gestured with the pistol to emphasize the order.  Luke gulped and stood very still, scenting fox and trying to remember what he could of his attackers.  The Naval Syndicate should mount an operation to stamp these pirates out – provided he and his crew managed to survive the encounter long enough to report.

 “Loading’s done, Boss,” one called up from the cargo hold, and the fox nodded.  “Good.  Tie them up and blindfold them, then we leave.” 

 “Right, Boss.”  Luke felt his paws being roughly pulled behind his back and secured, then he was forced to sit and a rag went over his eyes.  He heard his engineer struggle briefly, then there was a sodden crack and she went silent.  “Don’t worry,” the fox said, “I only knocked her silly.”

 “That won’t help you when the Syndicate gets their paws on you,” Luke growled.  “You’ll end up feeding the sharks.”

 A chuckle, almost a giggle.  “We’ll see.”  There was a sound of unshod feet scrambling over the plane, a splash, and the sound of the boats pulling away.  After a moment, even the drone of the two Polikarpovs receded.

* * *

 Several hours later, two Naval Syndicate patrol planes overflew a brace of small fishing boats that were plying the waters between the Kanim Islands, northwest of the Spontoon group.  Four furs, an otter, two foxes and a raccoon all in native dress, waved; the pilot of one patrol plane waggled his wings in reply as he flew on.

 “Never saw us,” the raccoon laughed.  “We’ll get the bulk of our cargo hidden, then set a course for Krupmark.”  The otter nodded, then laughed as the raccoon grumbled, “And then I can get this dye out of my fur …”

 One of the others smirked.  Ni Hao, their boss, was a red panda, and could easily be mistaken for a fox or raccoon – if one wasn’t too fussy about fur color or scent.

* * * 

 The Lucky Dragon Casino saw a great deal of what passed for nightlife on Krupmark Island, every night, and tonight was no exception.  The gambling tables – every type of game from poker to roulette – were full, the bar was doing a brisk business and the band (a piano player and two former blues artists from Hong Kong) was playing something with a bit of swing to it.  Furs of every description and both genders gathered around, drinking or eating or gaming, or eyeing the hostesses as they circulated around the room.  Occasionally, one patron or another would hold a short conversation with one of the hostesses, and would then look up at a small table on a balcony overlooking the main room.

 A female red panda sat there, a ceramic tea cup and steaming pot at her table.  She was impeccably groomed and dressed in blue silk worked with embroidered red and gold dragons.  Mother-of-pearl combs held her coiffure in place.  When the prospective customer looked to her, she would either nod or scowl, and that was that.  Ni Peng always looked after her hostesses, and always gave good value for a patron’s money.  A door opened behind her, and she smiled as she heard a voice say, “Hi, Mom.”

 “Hao,” she said as he came up to her, leaned forward and kissed her cheek gently.  One of her paws, claws gleaming with lacquer, raised and patted his cheek.  “I trust everything went well the past few days?” she asked as whoops and applause sounded from below.  Someone had just won at the blackjack table.

 “Just great, Mom,” Hao replied, beaming as he took a seat beside his mother.  He was just seventeen, but had the bearing of an adult overlaying a teenager’s façade of bravado.  He was without his trademark graying white and blue Princeton baseball cap; instead he wore his headfur long and slicked back, almost to the collar of his black silk tuxedo, and a lit cigarette dangled from his fingers with studied nonchalance.  Copied from a film he saw on Casino Island a few months earlier, he called it his ‘George Raft look.’  “How’re things here?” he asked, taking a drag from his cigarette.  Freed from the various dyes he used, his fur shone a glossy russet and the white ‘mask’ over his eyes was bright and healthy.

 Ni Peng’s nose crinkled as the smoke wafted past her nose.  A fox wearing a Pan-Asian Airways flying jacket waved up at her, a Siamese hostess on his arm; she smiled down at them, and smiled again as the couple headed for the upstairs rooms.  “Things are going well, Hao.  Why don’t you go downstairs?  Enjoy yourself.”  She smiled as he kissed her again and headed down to the main room, his banded tail waving confidently high over his head.

 Downstairs Hao made his way from table to table, pausing now and then to greet someone he knew or a business associate he was on friendly terms with.  The Lucky Dragon was billed as a place where everyone was welcome, within certain easily understood limits.  Anyone who molested one of the hostesses, or tried to cheat the house, usually didn’t attempt it again.

 The band changed its tune to a slower dance tune as Hao plucked a glass of cheap champagne from a passing tray and took up a position with his back to one wall.  His air of easy indifference never changed as he drank and smoked.  “That cheap stuff’ll kill you, Hao,” a low, growling voice said.  “Better stick to whisky.”

 Hao grinned and turned to look up at his closest friend.  Wo Fang was a Manchurian tiger – and as such was distrusted by his mother and father as being a ‘filthy Northerner,’ and not quite properly Chinese.  Fang was also big, a huge well-muscled fur who wore a black silk slouch suit that contrasted well with his stripes and his orange-white fur pattern.  “Hello, Fang,” Hao said, smiling up at him.  “You working tonight?”

 “Nah,” the tiger replied, cracking his knuckles.  He occasionally worked as a bouncer in the Casino in order to, as he put it, ‘keep in fighting trim.’  “I got paid this afternoon, and I’m here for fun.”  He winked at the smaller red panda, younger than he by three years.  “Reinvesting.”  They both laughed, and Fang asked, “You seen your sister lately?”

 Hao chuckled.  “Shin’s over on Spontoon shopping,” he explained.  “Mom sent her to Casino Island to pick up some things I couldn’t get her on my last shopping trip.”  Small fangs glinted as he winked.

 Fang’s smile faltered a bit.  “Yeah, er, about that, Hao,” he said, his voice dropping as he bent to murmur in his friend’s ear, “your Dad’s been wanting to talk to you ever since you got back.”

Hao turned to look at him quizzically.  “He does?  Did he say what it was about?”  His cigarette dropped to the carpeted floor and he snuffed it out with a glossy patent leather shoe.

 “I dunno, but I expect it’s about your last shopping trip.”

“Okay, Fang.  I’ll go over and see what he wants.”  Hao downed the last of his champagne in a gulp and set the glass on a nearby table, then walked out of the casino.

 The night was typical for late spring – i.e., warm and humid, even at Krupmark’s latitude.  As Hao stepped across the road to a two-story wood building bearing the sign Ni & Sons, Investments, a shadow stirred and an unkempt-looking fox poked his snout out into the dimly-lit street.  He gestured toward Hao, a recognition signal and a question.  The red panda gestured a response and a negative reply, and the fox melted back into the alleyway. 

The Ni and Sons building looked generally like many others on the island; weatherbeaten and faded boards attested to its years of withstanding tropical storms and blazing summer sunshine.  A private jetty extended behind the structure, where a boat and two planes swung at their moorings.  He pushed the door open and headed upstairs, his shoes making the floorboards under the carpeted risers creak protestingly.  They were designed that way - his father was, among other things, very keen on security.  Hao nodded to the well-armed ferret at the top of the stairs and entered his father’s office.

The office was richly carpeted, and small mementoes and knickknacks from China and America – salvage - sat on shelves along one wall.  A huge oak desk sat in front of a shuttered window, and a fur occupied the red leather armchair behind the desk – the only chair, Hao noted sourly.  It was going to be one of those talks.  “You wanted to see me, Pop?” he asked.

The chair swung around and an older fur, his graying headfur showing that he was on the high side of forty, glowered at his youngest son.  “’Pop,’ Hao?” he asked.  “I like to think your mother and I brought you up better than that.”

“Sorry, Father,” Hao said hastily in a more respectful tone.  His father was in a bad mood, and while he wouldn’t hurt his youngest child, he could cut him off without a penny.  Hao had gotten very used to his lifestyle.  “What is the matter, Father?”

“I hear you and your gang of nuisances hijacked a cargo plane a few days ago,” Ni Hei remarked as he picked up a piece of paper, and nodded as he read it.  When he put the paper down, his expression was bleak.  “What did you get, where is it, and explain to me why I shouldn’t hand you over to the Spontoon Police?”