Luck of the Dragon: House Rules© 2006 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters by permission of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
“Is that all they want? Why do they not simply read the newspapers?”
Hao started to grin, then suppressed it quickly. His elder in the Red Talons insisted on strict decorum during meetings. He selected a dim sum from the platter before him and brought his chopsticks to his mouth, chewing thoughtfully before replying, “I guess that they feel we have better sources than the newspapers, Honored Sir.”
The rest of the restaurant’s patrons studiously ignored the pair seated at a corner table in the very back of the establishment. It was in their best interests to do so, and to be both deaf and blind to anything they saw or heard from that direction.
“Hmm,” the grizzled bear mused, tapping his lacquered claws on the arm of his chair. “Their request may be perfectly innocent.”
“But Occidentals are devious,” the ursine reminded himself, “and this request may mask an attempt to find out more.” His tone, and the look he gave Hao, held a warning.
“I shall be on my guard, Honored Sir,” the red panda said, and this time he did allow himself a slight smile. “Westerners play a good game, but we Chinese wrote the rules.”
The bear smiled. “Indeed. You have learned fast, Ni Hao. Keeping one step ahead of the barbarians has helped your wits. You have made mistakes, but you are learning from them. This – deal – with the Naval Syndicate is an example.” He sipped noisily at his tea, and gave a well-mannered soft belch. “One can hope that this will be all they ask for.”
“Yes, Honored Sir.”
The bear noticed that Hao was trying not to say something, and he smiled encouragingly. “Something is on your mind.”
Hao nodded. “My parents are arranging a bride for me,” he admitted. “Her name is Hu Xiu, and I fear that she may not resemble what I have read of her.”
The older fur smiled, and ran a paw over his chin. “I know of this,” he said, stating the obvious, “and your father and mother are making a fine match for you, young Hao. She is everything you have read, you may be assured of that. Honored Chu would never lead a client astray.” He chuckled at the look on Hao’s face. “All young people worry about their prospective mate, Hao.”
The younger man bowed in his seat, still unconvinced.
The lunch over, Hao got up to pay the check. As he turned back toward the table he saw that the chair his superior had been using was empty.
He gave a soft chuckle, thinking that he really needed to learn how to disappear like that.
Hao stepped out into the flow of pedestrian traffic at Ferry Square Park and paused by a collection of souvenir stands. He thought about what the older fur had said, and he suddenly smiled. If this girl was truly as pretty as her picture . . .
Ringed tail held confidently high, Ni Hao strode toward the taxi rank. “South Island, please,” he told the driver. There were things he had to discuss with Wo Fang.
Things only his brother-in-law could tell him.
At Brigit Mulvaney’s call the Vostok first-year paused in the act of stooping to pick up a wrench. Svetlana and the other three members of what was being called ‘Crusader Dorm’ were cleaning up the machine shed at Songmark, while some of the second-years worked on various engines. It was getting hard to stay focused on the work at paw, with the Easter holidays only a few days away.
“What do you want?” the Russian wolverine asked warily.
The red-furred setter wiped a grimy paw over her equally grimy coveralls as she scowled at a small four-cylinder aircraft engine resting on a test stand. The engine was oddly flat, the cylinders lying on their sides and arranged in opposition to each other. A tank of compressed air was connected to it.
“I’m tryin’ ta test these engine cylinders fer blow-by,” Brigit replied, speaking slowly so that the Russian could understand her. “Could ye check th’ oil, please?”
Svetlana walked over, hesitated, and drew the dipstick from the engine.
A gout of castor oil, almost black with age and crankcase sediment, spurted from the dipstick’s spout and splattered all over the girl’s face and coveralls. As she spluttered, wiping ineffectually at the mess, Miss Cardroy walked over from where she had been standing. “Svetlana, weren’t you warned not to check the oil when the engine is under pressure like that?”
The wolverine coughed and, shaking with rage, pointed an accusatory finger at Brigit. “She – she asked me to!”
The Irish girl shrugged. “Faith, an’ here’s me thinkin’ ye’d not be stupid enough ta actually do it.”
The tutor cocked a brow at Brigit. “Clean this mess up, Brigit. Svetlana, go and get washed up.”
As the older feline walked away, Brigit started to collect cleaning materials while trying to get the almost feral grin off her face.
Later, Brigit was washing up in their shared room when Tatiana poked her head in. “Nu?” she asked.
“It worked, right enough,” the Irish girl laughed before she rinsed out her headfur. “Ye’ll be wantin’ ta go after Maureen next.”
The sable grinned. “Da.”
Shin’s idea was working so far.
The windows were open at Ni & Sons, allowing the warm breeze to flow into the usually stuffy office. The wind carried with it the smell of green and growing things and the sound of an occasional gunshot as a new entrepreneur tried to gain a foothold for himself in the island’s society.
Ni Hei already knew a few things about the newcomer, mostly from shopkeepers in the Thieves’ Bazaar. The coati was named Juan Diego Zuniga, and he had been sent by the same furs who had supported Juan the Tramp. With the jaguar’s death last Christmas, drug transactions between South America and Asia had suffered a blow.
Of course, sending a replacement several months after the defrocked priest’s death was very poor timing. That business had passed into other paws, and now Zuniga and his employees were trying to get it back.
Hei found himself wishing the coati luck – but not too much.
Of course, Ni Hei also found some pleasure in knowing that one of his business associates was now dead, of as yet unknown causes. Don Carpanini’s passing would not be lamented in the Ni household, and there was a possibility that a better deal could be struck with the Big Fish’s successor after the dust settled in Los Angeles.
“Mr. Ni?” He looked up as Marco opened the door and Clarence walked in, looking perplexed about something. “A letter just arrived with the courier from Mildendo, sir,” the lion said.
“A letter?” Hei’s brows furrowed, and he held out a paw for the envelope. Clarence sat down at the desk with the newspapers and other messages, waiting politely.
After a few minutes the lion looked up sharply as his employer started to chuckle softly to himself. “What’s the matter, sir?”
“It seems that Don Carpanini’s son needs some assistance,” Hei said with a smile. The Families in America had, at times, settled succession disputes with tactics that mirrored what usually went on at Krupmark in similar circumstances. However, since the end of Prohibition things had settled down somewhat and it looked like the criminal gangs were starting to organize at a higher level.
Emmanuel had explained that the bosses in Chicago and New York were going to arbitrate the dispute he was having, and they would soon be sending representatives. This fact underscored the importance of Los Angeles and its lucrative film industry to the other Families. But, Manny insisted that he needed allies if matters should come to a head.
“My father was very happy to have you as a friend, Mr, Ni,” Manny explained in his letter, “and Peng-wum did tell me when I left Spontoon that it was good to have friends in this world. I find that I need a friend’s help now.” Hei raised a brow at that, and set the letter aside. He would have to summon Peng-wum and have a long talk with him before arriving at any decisions, but business came first.
“What are the latest stock quotes from America, Clarence?” the red panda asked, slipping the letter under his desk blotter and clasping his paws together.
The lion smiled and the two settled down to work. A new series of codes were being developed and would soon be tested. Based on a number of different written sources, with any luck they would prove impervious to the prying mind of a certain police inspector on Spontoon. For the foreseeable future, however, security demanded the use of couriers and other, slower methods.
When the final ledger was closed and the two sat back to drink some tea, Clarence asked, “Will you be sending assistance to Los Angeles, sir?”
The red panda looked at the lion over the rim of his tea cup. “I will need to talk to Peng-wum about it,” he said. “I’m sure that Manny can wait a few more days, although I hope that he doesn’t do anything rash and start a war over there. It would be bad for business.”
“Yours, or theirs?” Clarence asked, and the two laughed.
“Sorry, Hao. I had to settle a customer’s bill,” Wo Fang said as the big Manchurian tiger stepped into the small back office and closed the door behind him. He settled his bulky frame into a chair that groaned under his weight. “What’s up?”
Hao ran a finger around the rim of his whisky glass before asking, “Fang, are you and Shin happy?”
The tiger’s ears flicked forward and Fang asked warily, “Why do you ask? Has something happened at Songmark?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” his brother-in-law hastily assured him. “It’s just that – well, Mother and Father are arranging a marriage for me,” he said, the words coming out in a rush, “and I want to know how it’s working out for you and Shin.”
“I think I get it, Hao,” Fang said. He smiled, and then started to chuckle. “Fill your glass up and pour me one, and let’s talk.” After he had a drink in his paws he gazed levelly at the young red panda. “Well, Hao, it’s like this; your sister and I love each other. The time she spends at that school just makes both of us more anxious to see each other.” He smiled. “We’ve fought a few times, and believe me, what they’re teaching her sure makes her a pawful. But making up’s sometimes worth the effort,” and he winked at Hao, who laughed.
“What you’re asking about is whether Shin and I get along, right? Whether or not we’re satisfied with our marriage?” At Hao’s nod the tiger chuckled. “Hao, you’ll find this out on your own, but having someone to be with – that you can trust – is worth her weight in gold.”
PANGAI VILLAGE, SPONTOON ISLANDS
SON STOP NEED URGENT TALK WITH YOU STOP FRIEND NEEDS HELP WITH A LITTLE FISH STOP