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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
© 2003 Walter D. Reimer
“Place your bets, please, ladies and gentlemen,” the croupier announced as he started to spin the roulette wheel. Hao watched as Pilar placed a single red chip onto a colored square, then studied the wheel as it spun. There was a clatter as the ball started to ricochet around, and several other bettors and spectators started to cheer for one number or another. The ball finally came to rest on Number 12, and several of the furs gathered around the table moved away, muttering disgustedly. “Twelve, black,” the croupier said, sliding a few more chips toward Pilar. “The lovely lady wins again.”
The slim canine looked up at Hao as she picked up her winnings. “I can’t believe it,” she said in a breathless tone. “I’ve never done so well before. Why, at the first place we visited, I was sure I was going to lose all my money until you suggested we come here.”
“That just means I’m lucky,” Hao said with a grin, his tail swaying behind him as he nodded to the croupier. That worthy nodded back and announced the next game as the two headed off to the cashier. Of course, it’s also lucky that Dad owns this place, Hao thought very quietly to himself. As she handed her chips over and received a small sheaf of currency, Hao remarked, “Would you like to take a walk around the amusement park? There should be a breeze this time of day, and afterward we can have supper.”
She looked up at him, then coyly lowered her gaze. “That sounds wonderful,” she said.
There was indeed a seaward breeze blowing, making the late afternoon heat bearable. Hao and Pilar skirted the main amusements area, with their games of chance and small concessions booths, and instead strolled along the concourse that surrounded the park. The two would pause occasionally to watch native dancers and musicians perform. At one provocative dance (clearly meant for tourists) Pilar blushed and laughed, “It reminds me of dances I’ve seen back home.”
“Oh yes,” she said, ears dipping. “It’s a town near the American naval base, called Olangapo. It sees a great many sailors, all of whom seem to need a pretty face now and then.” She smiled up at him and winked, angling her parasol to shield him from the sun as well.
He had eyes only for her as they walked, and thus distracted accidentally bumped into a stocky canine, a bulldog or mastiff, wearing a loose white tropic suit bearing the crest of an American university. The red panda looked up at the man who snarled, “Watch where you’re going, Chink.”
Hao’s gaze never wavered, even as he took in the sight of two of the student’s buddies, similarly dressed, turning to see what was going on. He smiled, and bowed slightly. Hao had been to America, just once, and wholeheartedly agreed with his mother’s assessment that they were all barbarians. “Velly solly,” he said in a deliberately mock-pidgin accent, and as he shepherded Pilar around the canine he jostled into him again. By the time the college boy’s eyes rolled back in his head and he had slumped unconscious to the pavement, Hao and Pilar were nowhere to be seen.
As they stepped into the shade of a restaurant veranda, Pilar asked, “I saw you do something as you walked by that college boy. What did you do?”
Hao grinned as he showed her to a table and held her seat out for her. “Just a little trick I learned in school,” he replied. “When you’re a small fur, you learn things fast in order to keep from getting trampled on.” He winked as he took his seat and a waiter approached.
They dined that night on grilled tuna, talking amiably and sometimes provocatively, and afterward they went dancing. Finally Hao escorted Pilar to her room, and smiled as she kissed him gently on the cheek. “Thank you for a lovely day, Hao,” she said softly.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Shall I see you tomorrow? There’s supposed to be a concert tomorrow afternoon.”
“I’d love to see it,” she said. “Good night.”
“Good night.” As the door closed, Hao walked down the hallway to his own room.
Pilar smiled as she locked the door, then stiffened, ears perking straight up as a deep voice said, “Report, Tovarisch Simonova.”
* * * * * * * * *
The Keystone-Loening’s single engine roared as Wo Fang shoved the throttle forward and the seaplane sped up, then lifted clear of the water. He banked the plane gently to the right as it gained altitude, turning toward Krupmark Island and home. Beside him, Hank studied the gauges and kept a paw on the copilot’s control yoke, in case his assistance was needed. When the altimeter read five thousand feet the fox remarked, “So, back home we go, huh?”
The tiger laughed. “Sure thing,” he replied. “Got to get the cargo back to our own warehouses, otherwise it’s just asking for trouble.”
The curtain separating the cockpit from the passenger cabin parted, and Shin poked her muzzle into the compartment. “Got some room up here for a girl to see the sights?” she asked teasingly.
Fang smiled. “Sure, come up here. Hank, why don’t you go check on the cargo? If it shifts, we’re dead meat.” He winked at the fox, who grinned and slid out his seat so that their boss’s daughter could come in and sit. Before the curtain closed, he saw Shin slide onto Fang’s lap.
Hank shook his head, a sour look coming to his face as he watched carefully, ears canted forward until he heard Shin and Fang start laughing. Good, they were distracted, so he crouched down and felt under the seat where Shin had placed the small box she had so jealously guarded. His questing paw ran over the smooth wood and he pulled it into view. Fingers fumbled with the latch, and he bit back a gasp as he lifted the lid and saw the contents.
Inside the box was a necklace and matching earrings, crafted of what looked like sterling silver. Dozens of pure diamonds glittered on the necklace, and framed an emerald maybe the size of a twenty-five-cent piece. Smaller gems hung from the earrings. Hank looked at the baubles critically, then closed the box quickly and stowed it away under the seat. He went aft and checked to make certain the cargo wouldn’t shift if the plane encountered any turbulence, all the while thinking of what to do.
While he didn’t exactly crash last year “Just to prove a point,” as Wo Fang said, Hank had been a pilot with the Ni Family’s interests on Spontoon for two years before his accident. He had been fed up with the snotty attitude from several of the traffic controllers, who seemed to enjoy making him stay aloft until his plane’s engine was breathing fumes. Finally, defying instructions, he started to land the plane and inadvertently clipped the towboat with one wingtip. The plane had spun around and put its nose under water, sinking rather quickly as the tow got out of the way. Hank was nearly drowned, but that cut no ice with either the island authorities or his employers. Ni Hei had personally stripped Hank of his pilot’s wings and put him to work doing mechanic’s jobs or flying shotgun with Wo Fang. It rankled, and he felt the jibes directed at him all the more deeply.
He would do anything to have his pilot’s license back, he thought as his gaze strayed to the seat where the jewelry box lay.
* * * * * * * * *
Ni Hei looked up as someone knocked on his office door. “Come in,” he said, and his bodyguard opened the door as Peng-wum entered, brandishing a piece of paper. “Father, a telegram for you from Kuo Han. A messenger just brought it from the wireless office.”
“Thank you, Peng-wum,” the elder panda said as he slit the envelope open and scanned the contents, a smile crossing his muzzle. “May I know what’s in the message, Father?” Peng-wum prompted.
“It’s from our business associates there,” Hei replied, and holding his pince-nez up to his eyes he read aloud, decoding the message from its obscure rural Chinese dialect, “My Friend: Our mutual friends in Kuo Han and America are ready to deal. If you agree, our two families will control banking and investments from Asia to as far east as Chicago. I hope you agree, and hope to see you here in Wangchung later this year. Best regards and good fortune, Wu Tang.” Hei lowered the telegram and his glasses as Peng-wum said, “If we effect this merger, Father, you will have recovered our family’s fortunes.”
“I know, my son,” Hei said, failing to keep the pleasure from his voice. “And I will have my revenge, for me and for the family.” He smiled as he said this, because revenge was what motivated Ni Hei.
His desire for revenge was twofold: One aspect of it was directed against America, a supposed “land of opportunity” where he been sent as an indemnity student following the end of the Boxer Rebellion. He went to college there, costs borne by parsimonious missionaries, to learn and eke out a small living while bearing the brunt of racist jokes and insults. The Ni Family was a proud clan with a tradition of moneylending, and to be forced to study in an alien land had hurt.
He had gone back to China after his education was finished, to join his father and uncles in the family business. He applied what he had learned, and the family prospered despite the death of the short-lived Republic and the rise of the warlords. After a few years, Hei had taken his wife and children on vacation.
Hei had purchased a new seaplane from a company in the United States, and had it converted to carry passengers in relative comfort. The engine had developed some minor problems, and the family had put down at Spontoon for repairs when disaster struck.
A local warlord had demanded money from Hei’s father and uncles to pay off some of his gambling debts, and when they refused to pay soldiers came in the night and butchered the entire clan. The Ni Family’s assets were confiscated. In an instant, Hei and his family found themselves stranded in the Spontoon Archipelago with what money they had brought with them, and a single plane.
But Hei had some connections remaining, and was able to restart his business – not on Spontoon, but on Krupmark Island, where there were few (oh all right, no) laws and no impediments to an opportunistic fur. Slowly, through great effort, the family had regained some of what it had lost. “Father,” Peng-wum said quietly, “may I say something?”
The older fur snapped out of his musings and looked up at his son. “Of course, Peng-wum,” he said with a smile. “You have a right to give me your opinion of our venture.”
“Thank you, Father.” The younger red panda frowned, thinking a moment before speaking. “Father, this agreement we are contemplating with Wu Tang – aren’t we overextending ourselves? While we have enough funds to carry on as we are, we might not be able to recover if something fails.”
Hei nodded. “I know, son. But Wu Tang’s clan and ours have been allies for decades, all the way back to the Empire. They have resources we do not, while we have more money. While it is risky, so is everything in life. This arrangement will be beneficial to us both.” He smiled again. “Our hard work is beginning to show dividends, Peng-wum, and it is you and Shin and Hao who will benefit from it. We may even be able to leave Krupmark and go back to China, after the warlord who ruined us is safely out of the way.”
Peng-wum nodded mutely. Since meeting Nailani, he had lost a measure of his father’s zeal for recovering the family’s fortunes, but was always at a loss at how to explain his infatuation to his parents. A naturally shy person, he was still mystified and heart-poundingly happy that he was the object of a beautiful girl’s affections. Still, this venture with the Wu Family could enable him to attend school in America, or even farther abroad. And if he could persuade Nailani’s parents to let her come with him …
Hei studied the telegram again, then said, “I want you to start things moving, Peng-wum. Cable Wu Tang and inform him that bank drafts for the money he needs will be sent to him as quickly as possible.”