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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
©2003 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark Academy used by permission of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
The police sergeant scowled as he closed the door on the crime scene and curtly ordered an officer to stand guard until the detective could arrive. Something didn’t smell right about this, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He had ordered the panda and the canine moved to Ni’s room as a temporary measure, but all he had to go on was the excited statement that the dead canine had committed suicide.
Ni Hao was known to the police, as was all of his family, but
nothing could ever be directly laid at his feet. The police had a
file (or tried to maintain one) on every person who actually called Krupmark
Island a home. Based on his statement and the evidence, though, he
seemed to be completely innocent.
Pilar started shaking almost the instant the door closed and sank to the bed, clasping her paws together. “I … I think I’m going to be sick,” she stammered.
“Never seen anyone shot before?” Hao asked incredulously. “I’d think you secret police types had seen everything,” he added coldly, but considerately grabbed an empty wastepaper basket from a corner and handed it to her. He dragged up a chair and sat down facing her, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees. “Now, suppose you start talking, my dear.”
Pilar blushed as she met his gaze and lowered her eyes, wringing her paws as she replied, “I don’t know where to start.”
“Start at the beginning, then. Who are you, really?”
“My name’s not Pilar, Hao,” she replied. “I’m Lieutenant Anna Simonova of the Soviet Union’s State Security.” Tears dampened the fur around her eyes. “I was assigned to make contact with you and learn what you intended to do with the planes you acquired from our commissar in Vladivostok. And, to kill you if I perceived that you were a threat.”
Hao’s eyes narrowed and his tail hung stock-still. “I see,” he said softly. “Who the hell was that?”
“Our country’s trade attaché. I was supposed to keep him aware of what I was finding out.” She put her paws to her face and wept, trembling.
Hao found his heart going out to her, despite the fact that she’d lied to him and was supposed to kill him. He’d faced overenthusiastic gunsels in the past, most recently Soviet troops as he and his men managed to abscond with the two I-15 fighters. But Pilar – Anna, he corrected himself – she didn’t really fit the type of person he usually dealt with. “You’ve never done anything like this before, have you?” he asked.
She shook her head, and he asked, “Would you have killed me?”
She looked up at him, and sniffed. “Bef – before I met you … yes,” she replied. “But not after – after … I love you, Hao,” and she started crying again. Anna flinched as he moved to sit beside her, and Hao hugged her to him, feeling her sob as he let her rest her head on his shoulder.
He rubbed her back as he said, “I believe you, Anna.” She drew back to look at him as he added, “And I love you, too. But now we have a problem.” She blinked and looked at him questioningly as he stood and tiptoed to the door, pressing one ear to the wood. He padded back to her and whispered, “I think that the police will accept our story that the guy killed himself, and once they finish their investigation I can leave for Krupmark. It’ll be safer for me there, since I’m sure you won’t be the first to come after me about those damn planes.” His tail swished in irritation. The two fighters were land-based, not amphibians or seaplanes, and he finally admitted to himself that they were fast becoming more trouble than they were worth. “So, you see,” he resumed, “I can leave Spontoon as soon as the police clear the case. You, on the other paw …”
“Me?” she asked.
“Yes, you. The attaché said that he’d already reported. I think you’d have some trouble facing you when you got back to Mother Russia,” Hao said quietly, sitting down and taking her paws in his. “I see two possibilities, Anna,” and he smiled as he said her real name.
“First, you stay here and request asylum. Second, come with me.”
“Come with you?” she asked. “Why?”
He smiled and kissed her. “Because on Krupmark you can start over, with me, or obtain a fake passport and go anywhere you want. I don’t want to hurt you, Anna, because I love you.” He kissed her as she put her arms around him.
The police detective asked roughly the same questions, and got the same answers. No, neither of them had seen the canine before. No, she had no idea why he’d suddenly think of her as his girlfriend. Yes, Hao had tried to stop him from committing suicide. Finally the detective finished writing in his notebook, and had Hao and Anna sign their statements. He left, and Hao commented as he closed the door, “I’m starving.”
“Me, too,” Pilar said, looking embarrassed as her stomach abruptly rumbled. He laughed and nuzzled her, then said, “So, let’s go out to eat. I know this little place that’s open late. The food’s good.”
The ‘little place’ turned out to be a restaurant near the warehouse district, made of weather-beaten planks and inexplicably sporting the bow of a small boat protruding above the entrance. “Nice,” Pilar commented dryly as they entered and a trio of canines in one corner whooped and whistled at her.
Hao grinned. “It’s great, isn’t it? The owner’s a friend of mine, and he used to captain the boat before he retired and scrapped it for building materials. I come in here a lot.” They took seats at a table in an opposite corner and gave their orders to a feline dressed in ragged denim shorts and an apron. “Now,” Hao said as the waiter walked off, “maybe you start telling me a few real things about yourself, Anna.”
She looked down at the scarred wooden table and said quietly, “Not much to tell that I haven’t already told you. I was born in Smolensk – I really do have three older brothers, and I’m in State Security. Or was,” she added lamely. She looked up at him and he could see her eyes wet with unshed tears. “Can you help me, Hao? You’re right; if I go back I’m dead.”
Hao smiled and nodded. “I’ll do what I can,” he said, his tail moving slightly. Two felines nursing their beers caught the signal, paid their bar tabs and walked out of the place. He was about to say more, but the waiter arrived with their food and he closed his mouth.
It was nearly two in the morning when they returned to his room, and
Anna nearly fell asleep in a chair, worn out by the strain of seeing her
superior killed, the knowledge that if she went home she’d be killed herself,
and unburdening herself to Hao. Hao put her to bed and paused as
he shed his shirt, looking at her for a moment. He put his shirt
back on and slipped out of the room.
* * * * * * * * *
Tuesday was payday at the Lucky Dragon, and the day started early for Peng. She sat at her desk in her second-floor office as the clock chimed seven, and greeted the hostesses and other employees who came in for their pay envelopes with a smile and an encouraging word. As always, Wo Fang stood nearby, just in case any management/labor disputes arose. Finally the last amount was recorded and paid out, and Peng locked the strongbox. As Wo Fang secured the box in a nearby safe she said, “Wo Fang, I am certain both you and Shin are quite interested in what Hei has to say about your request for marriage.”
The big tiger straightened and smiled as he turned to face her. “It has crossed our minds from time to time, Madam Ni. We’re both interested in what your husband has to say.”
“Good.” Peng picked up a small lacquered fan; it promised to be a hot day. “We shall have lunch together today. My husband wishes to say a few things.” She winked at Fang as she walked out of the room.
Wo Fang stood there, blinking for a few seconds. The Nis could be inscrutable, but Peng’s wink … he laughed and headed out of the room to find Shin.
He found her down in the still-empty casino, showing a group of new dealers a few tricks. “Now,” she said briskly as she held up a three of clubs, “watch closely.” She slipped the card into the middle of the deck and started shuffling. As her paws manipulated the cards, she never stopped looking at the watching group. After a full minute she paused and flashed the three of clubs from the top of the deck. Another minute of shuffling, and she produced the card from the bottom. “How are you doing that?” a young feline asked as the others muttered quietly.
Shin smiled. “Easy. I marked the card with a claw, like this,” and she flashed the card again, this time pointing to the slightly bent corner. “It’s a handy trick to know, but you have to be able to spot it,” she explained. “We have people in here all the time, trying to cheat the house or each other,” and she placed the deck on the table in front of her and fanned them, then flipped them over.
“Now, that’s not to say you can’t do some cheating yourselves,” she said with a grin, “but remember two things. They can catch you at it, in which case our reputation suffers – and you know Madam Peng wouldn’t appreciate that – or you can get too good and we start losing customers. Generally we try to let luck determine who wins and loses – oh, hi Fang.” She looked up at the tiger as he stepped behind the group of dealers. “Practice makes perfect, so off you go,” and she watched the group pair off and head for the other tables to work on their skills.
Fang slipped around the table and hugged her. “Good group?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she replied. “Some of them will do well, others will probably end up as waitresses,” and she winked. The waitresses at the Lucky Dragon didn’t just serve drinks; they served as lookouts to spot cheaters or the very occasional professional gambler who came in. “Any trouble with the girls upstairs?” she asked.
“Not a bit. Your mother and father want to have us over for lunch,” and he explained what Shin’s mother had told him. When he was finished, she frowned.
“A wink’s not much to go on,” she said, and her tail drooped a bit, then she perked up. “But let’s hope for the best.”
* * * * * * * * *
Peng-wum blinked awake as the Tillamook Airways flying boat set down, and he squinted at the sunlight pouring through the window by his seat. He yawned and checked his watch, blinked and checked it again. Stretching, he grabbed his briefcase as the plane was towed to the dockside.
His first stop was the wireless office, and he sent a telegram to Krupmark, telling Frank and Ahmad to come and get him. He then walked along the quayside to the nearest newsstand and bought the latest copy of the International Herald-Tribune, turning to the business pages.
What he read made his tail go rigid and his mouth went dry.
* * * * * * * * *
“Ah, Shin and Fang, come in,” Hei said as his daughter and her beau opened the door to the family dining room. Lunch was set and Hei and Peng sat at one end of the table. “Please, sit down,” the elder Ni added. “We have something to discuss.”
“Thank you sir,” Fang said courteously as he sat beside Shin and accepted a plate of dim sum and chicken fried rice. It was standard fare among the Ni Family, but he would have vastly preferred a steak, cooked medium rare. The quartet ate in silence until finally Shin spoke up. “Father, have you come to a decision?” she asked.
Her father smiled at her. “Yes, I have. Both of you, and you as well, Peng; listen closely. I’ve come to a decision, and I am prepared to grant my blessing on your marriage.” He was interrupted by a shriek of joy from his daughter as she flung herself out of her chair and into his arms. Hugging her tightly he said, “Wait, I have something else to tell you.
“Shin, my daughter, I know that you love Wo Fang here, and your mother has convinced me that I should acknowledge him for what he is – the fur who’ll marry you.” He smiled at the tiger as Fang stood, hastily wiping his mouth with a napkin. He still didn’t believe what the older panda was saying. “But, I think you need something before you marry.” A subtle gleam shone in Ni Hei’s eyes as he smiled, savoring the moment.
Shin’s gaze wavered up to her father’s. “More, Father?” she asked softly.
“Yes, more. Both your mother and I went to university before we got married; I in America, and your mother in Japan,” he explained. “You are eighteen years old, and will be nineteen in a few months. It stretched the entrance requirements somewhat, but you are enrolled in Songmark Academy starting in January.”
His daughter gaped at him as Fang stepped toward her and rested a paw on her shoulder. “Isn’t she a bit old, sir?” Fang asked.
Hei chuckled. “As I said, it stretched the entrance requirements a bit. So, you two,” he said to the quite stunned furs in the room, “I give you a choice: Marry now, or wait until Shin’s education is complete.”