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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter D. Reimer
© 2003 by Walter D. Reimer
Hao stood and gaped at his father as the question hung in the air, demanding an answer. As he started thinking furiously he could only wonder how the older fur had found out about it. “Well, Father,” he temporized, “it was only a small job. I mean, independent airfreight service, no connections and no really valuable cargo. And we didn’t hurt anyone,” he added, hoping that it might add a few points in his favor.
Ni Hei stood up and tugged at his vest, straightening it. His suit was like that of almost any prosperous businessman’s from San Francisco, a severe dark red that complimented his fur despite its thin black pinstripes; oyster-gray spats covered his shoes. He stepped around the desk and stood with his back to it, facing his youngest son. “I’m waiting, Hao,” he said quietly. An antique grandfather clock, considerably battered from years of moving from one home to another, ticked loudly as the silence lengthened. Hei crossed his arms across his chest and stared at Hao.
Hao felt his palms growing moist as moments ticked by, and his nostrils flared as he smelled musk overriding the fancy cologne he was wearing. He was afraid, and as he realized it he said quietly, “We got cloth, liquor and machine parts. My partners have it stowed on one of the Kanim Islands, along with the planes.” He looked up at his father. “Please, Father, it was only a minor theft – there was mail there and we left that. We even left the aircrew alive – that’s more than most pirates do.” A minor pleading note had crept into his voice.
“It’s a good thing you left the mail,” his father remarked. “We live on sufferance here, Hao; you know that. The authorities allow pirates and others to live here on Krupmark because we are useful to the island economy. Some smuggling, yes; gambling and women, yes. Those are useful, and lucrative. Especially in the tourist season.” A paw lashed out and slapped Hao hard across one cheek. “But they will stop being lucrative if they perceive us as a threat, eh? Did you ever stop to think of that, my son?” Hei’s voice rose and he stepped close to Hao, almost nose to nose. “How many ‘partners’ do you have?”
“F-fifty, sir.” A paw, shaking as Hao trembled in shame and rage, raised to the slapped cheek. His father’s eyes widened. “How?” he asked.
“I said, ‘How?’”
“Yes, sir?” the younger red panda asked, this time his anger starting to gain on his fear. Why would Father slap him? All he was doing was bringing more income for the family.
Hei opened his mouth, paused, and changed from speaking English to speaking Chinese. “How are you supporting so many?” he asked.
That was better; Hao suppressed a grin as he replied, “Mostly through my income and my allowance, Father. Part of the funds are a subsidy from friends elsewhere.”
“Where?” His father’s whiskers twitched.
Hao shrugged. “Macao and Hong Kong.”
Hei’s tail fluffed out in shock. “You went to the Tongs for money?” he barked. “You’ve allied our family with those criminals?”
The Tongs of Macao and Hong Kong were not known for either their generosity or their benevolence. Although properly Chinese (according to his father’s thinking on such matters), they had been the bane of governments and the occasional intrepid, independent-minded Scotland Yard detective for many years.
Right. And we’re pure as snow. Wake up, Father, Hao thought to himself. Despite the gambling and women, Ni Hei insisted that he and his family’s operations were morally superior to those of other organizations. Aloud he said, “They’ve allowed me enough money to start my own organization, Father.”
Another slap, and Hao stood there and let his father hit him. Had it been anyone else, he’d show that person some tricks one learns only in certain secret places. “Your own tong sign, too, eh? Yes, I learned about that as well,” the older panda said as Hao’s muzzle gaped open in shock. “And you were brazen enough to put that on those two Russian planes! You idiot!” Hei raged, his exposed fur and ringed tail bristling. He stopped before he said or did anything further, sighed and dragged his paws over his headfur. “You are going to be the death of me, Hao my son,” Hei said finally. He seemed to sag as he resumed his chair and muttered, “Why you can’t be more like your brother …” He looked up at Hao. “Take yourself out of my sight until I think of an appropriate course of action,” he said quietly. Hao bowed and left the room before his father could think to ask him anything else.
One hour and a change of clothing later, Hao stood at the jetty behind the Ni & Sons building as the fox from the shadows – a scruffy-looking individual, dressed in blue jeans and a grease-stained flannel shirt - looked over the engine of his personal plane. The craft was one of the few purchases his father was actually proud that Hao had made: a Chinese aircraft, made in China. Hei had been very pleased to see his son buying ‘home-made’ products.
The plane was called a Nin Hai, a wood and fabric biplane whose broad wings and long, slim fuselage made it look like a dragonfly – Hao had that name blazoned in Chinese on its sides. It sat high over its floats, rocking slightly in the gentle swell. It was a single seat aircraft, but perfectly suited for Hao’s needs.
Hao was wearing worn leather boots and a nondescript tan jumpsuit, with a fur-lined leather jacket and a flying helmet with goggles dangling from his paws. A grip containing a change of clothes and toiletries was already stowed behind his pilot’s seat. The fox checked the fuel level and nodded to his boss. “Where you going, Hao, over to Kuo Han?” he asked, referring to the Chinese colony islands to the northeast.
“No, I’ll head over to Casino Island, Hank. Better night life there, and maybe some business,” Hao replied as he put on the jacket and helmet, wincing momentarily as one of his ears bent the wrong way. He climbed into the plane and strapped in as Hank cast off the mooring lines and pushed the floatplane away from the jetty.
The Nin Hai’s seven-cylinder Jimpu radial engine started easily and as the plane began moving Hao taxied toward the stretch of open water between the jetty and the reef that surrounded Krupmark. He advanced the throttle and guided the biplane into the night sky.
The weather was relatively clear as the plane climbed, and Hao pulled the goggles into place over his eyes. When he reached eight thousand feet he switched on the plane’s radio and direction finder, remembering to wait until the sets had warmed up before actually touching the frequency dials. Finally he found Radio LONO, and rotated the DF loop antenna until he found the strongest signal. He checked it against his compass and gently banked until he was on the right path. He settled down; the Nin Hai was designed as a reconnaissance aircraft, and Spontoon was well within its four hundred-mile range. It would still take him over two hours before he would see the harbor lights at Casino Island.
* * *
Four paraffin lamps cast a warm yellow glow over the ledger as another red panda, bearing an older but unmistakable resemblance to Hao pored over the figures for the calendar quarter. Straightening in his chair he sighed and removed his wire-rimmed glasses, a paw massaging the bridge of his snout. “Peng-wum?” Ni Peng asked, poking her head around the open door to her elder son’s office. “Please come away from those books and get something to eat. I have to drag your father away from his work; don’t make me start on you.”
Ni Peng-wum grinned. “Yes, Mother, I’m coming.” He laid his fountain pen aside and closed the ledger, then took it and its three fellows and locked them away in a safe bolted to the floor. Most of the desk was a false front, built specifically to hide the accounts. He had been doing the family’s business accounts since he was eighteen, and had revealed himself to be a bit of a prodigy.
He slid open a drawer and took out a photograph of himself and a feline woman in native dress, their arms around each other as she waved to the photographer. The Finlay process print was starting to fade somewhat, and the originally bright colors were turning pastel. Still, it was an excellently clear print, the Finlay process having been originally developed for aerial photography. Peng-wum’s muzzle broke into a wistful smile, still amazed at his good fortune in finding such a wonderful woman as Nailani. He tucked the picture out of sight, put out the lamps, and headed out of the office.
Hei looked up from his seat at the dinner table as his eldest son walked in, and he smiled warmly. “Peng-wum, how have things been going?” he asked, laying aside a copy of the New China Times. His suit jacket was nowhere to be seen, as was his tie; his vest was opened and his collar loose. Hei always made it a point to relax his usually formal appearance at mealtimes, especially with family.
Peng-wum smiled and helped himself to a bowl of steamed noodles mixed with stir-fried fish and shrimp and dotted with hot peppers. He waited until he had finished his first mouthful before replying, “Things are going well, Father. Our taxes are due the first of the month, as you know.” He accepted a hot cup of green tea from his mother as Hei frowned. “You know we don’t speak of business at the dinner table, son,” he admonished.
The younger panda nodded. “I know, Father, but I wanted to remind you,” and he winked. Peng-wum had three things hanging on the wall of his office, aside from his diploma from Meeting Island High School. One was a photograph of Peng-wum shaking paws with the Commissioner of the United States Internal Revenue Service. For some reason, the mastiff’s smile for the camera looked rather forced, but it may have been the difference in climates between Washington and the Nimitz Sea. The next frame bore an old newspaper article detailing why the man had come all that way just to shake hands: A copy of the family’s accounts from their San Francisco ‘branch office’ was now housed in the Service’s archives as an example of creative bookkeeping so intricate and well-done it was termed a ‘masterpiece.’ The third was an invitation from the Max-Planck-Institut in Berlin to lecture on number theory. Hei laughed at his son’s wink. Peng-wum picked up a small steamed bun. “I heard you and Hao arguing,” he said quietly as he laid his chopsticks aside. “Father, you know as well as I do that Hao has always made money for the family, no matter how he manages to do it,” he said, playing devil’s advocate. “I thought he was going to get seriously burned on that fighter deal, but he walked away with two front-line planes without even a singe on his tail.” Peng-wum shut up as his father glared at him and he realized that he’d said too much.
“You knew about that?” Hei asked, his ears laying back. “You knew and you didn’t tell me?”
“I knew, yes. But I had thought that Hao would have told you by now,” Peng-wum said defensively. “The planes are small, and no real match for the Naval Syndicate if it came to a fight. And we can always use the protection, Father.”
“I don’t like the fact that you and Hao are keeping things from me,” Hei declared in a sharp tone. “You and your brother and sister are losing sight of our task – to recover our fortunes and our ancestral home from the criminal who stole it from us.” Peng-wum groaned inwardly. He, Shin and Hao had had it drilled into their heads for the past six years, but Father never seemed to tire of recounting the tale. Peng-wum waited.
He blinked, surprised, as Hei stopped himself with a visible effort and said, “Suppose you tell me about this fighter plane deal your brother made.” He closed his eyes, ears canting forward.
Peng-wum said, “The Soviet State Industries were experiencing a rapid turnover in aircraft designs, Father. It had something to do with the recent purges and trials, so there was a lot of sixteen I-15s offered for sale. Hao put in a bid for three originally, but settled for two. When he went to Vladivostok six months ago – you recall, Father? – he went there with two pilots to take delivery. The Russians tried to get more money from him, but he managed to get the planes out of Soviet airspace and over to Vostok Island.” Peng-wum smiled reassuringly at his mother, who had sunk into a chair with a stricken look. “Hao is fully capable of looking after himself, Father,” he said. “You should know that, hiring expatriate Shaolin Temple monks as his tutors.”
* * *
The Nin Hai rocked in a slight crosswind as Hao turned the plane to the east. He plucked the microphone from its clip and tuned in the control tower frequency. “GFK-2 to Spontoon Control, requesting landing instructions.” He turned on his landing lights. “I’m just northwest of you.”
“We see you, GFK-2,” the controller replied. Most of the staff in the tower were felines or other furs whose eyesight was exceptional. “Winds are north-northeast at five knots, and the coast patrol reports a one-foot swell on the seaplane lanes. Will you need a towboat? Over.”
“No thank you, Control. I see your landing lights now,” Hao said as he caught sight of the double row of lighted buoys in the seaplane channel. He eased the throttle back as he started to descend, then braced himself as the plane dipped, flared, then skimmed the water on its floats. He had never gotten over being jittery on landings, because there was always the possibility that the struts holding the floats to the plane might give way. But this landing was uneventful, and when he was safely down and water broke over the floats he throttled up again and began to taxi over to the seaplane anchorage.
After the plane was securely tethered to the dock, Hao patted the still-cooling engine cowling for luck. It was a silly superstition, but it always seemed to work. The one time he hadn’t, his fuel line had sprung a leak, dousing him with gas and almost starting a catastrophic fire. On the water he might have had a chance, but the plane was a thousand feet in the air at the time. After that, Hao always patted his plane’s engine.
He went straight to the Grand Hotel, on the hill that overlooked most of Casino Island, checked into a room and changed his clothes. Then, dressed tastefully in slacks and a light suit jacket, he made his way to the nearest restaurant. The long flight had made him hungry.
As he passed a brightly lit hotel veranda a slim canine female in a silk evening gown watched him walk by. Her tail wagged slightly and she smiled as she raised her coffee cup to her lips.