Luck of the Dragon: Hobson's Choice© 2007 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
The machine gun crews held their peace that evening as the K-85 spiraled in for a landing, Hao carefully tapping out the recognition signal on the plane’s Aldis lamp. After tying up at the dock, Ni Hei left Hao and went upstairs to find his wife.
He eased open the door to their quarters and asked, “Peng?”
“Hei!” Peng had been sitting at her makeup mirror, making certain that her headfur was as immaculate as ever. She leaned up as he bent over and the two smiled as they shared the kiss. “How is our grandson?”
“A wonderful child,” he said, “and it’s excellent joss for Nailani to have a son for her firstborn.”
“I thought you didn’t believe.”
“With all of things that have happened, my love, there are points that I’m willing to concede,” he laughed. “How have things been here?”
“The work you ordered has been going on,” she replied, “and I have had guards posted over the materials and the workers. There were two attempts, but Julia and Emilia managed to persuade them otherwise.” She didn’t need to add that the bodies of the thieves or kidnappers had been dumped out in the street. With two Sicilians on the job, it went without saying. “The sign’s done already.”
“I’m glad that things are going smoothly – “ Hei’s voice trailed off as he moved the curtains aside with a paw and looked across the street.
The Lucky Dragon’s namesake was now outlined in small electric lights, and the principal reason for him to feel fortunate had been freshly painted. “Ah.”
“I believe the Americans call it truth in advertising,” Peng said, carefully deadpan.
The pair started laughing.
After Peng had gone across the street to superintend the business at the Casino, Hei sat down at his desk and started to go over some of the balance sheets Clarence had prepared for him while he was on Spontoon. One of their legitimate investments in Singapore was showing some dividends, and Hei scrawled a note that the profits should be reinvested. With any luck, the stock would improve still further.
A certain chop on a sealed note caught his eye and he opened it and quickly read the contents. Shen Jintao was inviting him to his house at the top of the hill to discuss another business matter with the Persians – no, Iranians, he reminded himself. He lowered the note and frowned.
He had not been entirely forthright with the Inspector (who would have expected him to lie anyway). Krupmark had indeed been a last resort, but his way there had been smoothed by calling in a marker his clan held with the mother lodge of the major Tong on Spontoon and accepting an obligation to Shen Jintao. That obligation had a heavy price, the interest on which Hei was still paying.
Having to pay gnawed at him.
He sighed and read the note again, then put it away carefully. He’d get some food and some sleep before going up the hill in the morning.
Shin and the rest of Red Dorm made it to the Songmark gate less than five minutes before it was due to close, and allowed themselves to be searched by the third years on duty. One of them, a French canine, said “You all have to report to Miss Devinski.”
“Any idea why, Madeleine?” the red panda asked. “Careful with the tailfur, please.”
“Why? Did you visit the salon?”
“With classes tomorrow morning?” Shin snorted. “I just washed it. So, any idea why?”
The poodle gave a Gallic shrug. Shin shrugged along with her and the quartet headed for the offices.
As soon as the office door closed Miss Devinski said, “I’ll take your passes now. All of them.” As she gathered them up she examined them and favored the four younger women with a tiny curl of a smile. “Crusader Dorm is learning how to distinguish between stamped marks made with rubber from those made with raw potato,” and she cocked an eye at Brigit. “Your techniques could stand improvement, of course, but this was a very good collaborative effort. Now, I believe that you all need to get some sleep. You have a busy few weeks ahead of you before your exams for the end of term. Shin?”
The others filed out, Liberty closing the door. The canine regarded the panda for a moment before asking, “Did you accept your father’s gift?”
An eyebrow rose at the rather bland negative. “Why not?”
Shin repeated her reasons and was rewarded with a brief nod. “Very well. Dismissed.”
Catherine Devinski smiled.
Despite everything, Shin was learning.
In the hallway leading to the stairs Shin passed a yellow-furred squirrel. No words were exchanged but the look on Nancy Rote’s face was a tonic for the red panda, who merely grinned and headed up the stairs to her dorm.
She walked in and stopped, confronted by three stern faces, and instinctively moved to a defensive posture. “We agreed,” she said slowly and clearly, “that there’d be no fighting until after end of term.”
“Da, is pravda,” Tatiana said. “But that is not the reason.”
“Then what is?” she asked warily.
“Ye’ve been in sole charge most o’ th’ past week,” Brigit said.
“So you’re out of the leadership rotation for the same number of days,” Liberty said. “Objections?”
Shin thought it over, then relaxed. “That sounds fair. Agreed.”
“Horosha,” the Russian sable said as she broke into a smile. “The schedule for the second years was posted downstairs. We have a very long three weeks ahead.” The others were already starting to get ready for bed.
“What’s on the schedule?” Liberty asked.
“Flying, survival exercises,” Tatiana shook her head. “A very great deal of things.”
Shin poked her head out of the bathroom and remarked, “We’ll do it. We’re Red Dorm, after all.”
The next day an old truck came to a halt at the heavily guarded gate to Shen’s villa and Hei stepped out. His personal bodyguard stepped out as well and remained beside the old Ford as the red panda walked up to the gate.
The gate opened for him and he walked inside to face a tall, grizzled feline. “Colonel Wen,” Hei said.
“Esteemed Ni,” the former soldier and head of Shen’s private militia said. “Honored Shen awaits you. Follow me, please.”
No search? Hei asked himself. Each time he had come to the house, he had been searched by the guards. Shen must either think the need was urgent or he was slipping in his old age.
“Esteemed Ni,” the elderly wolf said as Hei entered the private sanctum and bowed respectfully. “Please, come join us and have a seat. Will you have tea?”
“I would be honored to join you and your guest in taking tea, Honored Shen,” Hei replied, studying the guest. The man was a feline whose waves of thick fur gave him a somewhat effeminate appearance, but the chill in his brown eyes and the military way he wore his suit sneered at the mere possibility that he was soft.
“This is Major Reza Khan,” Shen said after Hei had seated himself and accepted a cup of tea. “He is an emissary from the Shah of Iran, with a business proposal.”
“I am honored to meet you, Major,” Hei said. “I did business with a Colonel Ali last year. I trust he is well?”
The Persian nodded. “Colonel Ali still enjoys the favor of my royal master,” he said, his accent more pronounced than the fallow deer’s had been. He sipped at his tea, and nodded as a servant offered to refill the cup. “We are very pleased to do business with the Ni Family, as our first contact was mutually profitable. We wish to expand our dealings with you, insh’allah.”
Hei’s features remained impassive. “How so?”
“More weapons are needed,” Khan replied, “and in return we shall give your patron greater access to the opium fields in our country and in Afghanistan. The eyes of the infidel British will be elsewhere, you see.”
The red panda nodded as he glanced at the wolf. Shen merely fanned himself, eyes half-closed as he savored the aroma of his tea. Greater access to opium meant more drugs flowing into the veins of furs around the world, and the potential profit from that trade was enormous. “I believe we can accommodate your master in this regard,” he said slowly. “I will contact my suppliers. What are your needs?”
The feline rattled off a long list of various small arms and explosives. Hei nodded. “That is a higher amount than Colonel Ali requested. The price will, of course, be commensurate with the order.”
“That is fair.”
“How do you propose payment?”
Khan smiled thinly. “The British take our oil wealth through the port of Bandar e-Abbas,” he replied. “It is a simple matter to divert some of that flow to other ships, then to sell the oil on the open market. Shall we say twenty-five thousand dollars in gold?”
“It was twenty thousand last year. You want more now. Thirty-five thousand.”
The bargaining went on until a break was called by Shen for lunch. In honor of the major’s visit someone had been found who knew how to cook lamb and other dishes that might appeal to the Persian.
Hei found the cuisine odd, but well-spiced and even somewhat enjoyable. Shen limited himself to one kebab and some rice. From the expression on his face, the old wolf’s stomach seemed to be bothering him.
“Sally? What on earth is that?” Peng asked as the vixen walked into the Casino carrying a roll of dirty canvas under one arm.
“A painting, Madam Ni,” the fox said as she unrolled the canvas on the bar.
The painting was a portrait in oils, which showed signs of wear and tear. It was water stained and cracked in places. “I was thinkin’ it might be a replacement fer th’ mirror,” she said to her boss, “an’ tis not bad ta look at, even in its state.”
Peng had to agree. The portrait showed a feline woman reclining in an odalisque pose upon a padded lounge. Her arms were crossed behind her head, the better to display her obvious charms. “Yes,” she said judiciously, “it would make a good replacement for the mirror, until something better comes along.” She folded back one bottom corner to look for a signature.
What was written was completely illegible, but a few letters and numbers could be discerned: NH 7 2. Peng glanced up at the vixen. “How much did you pay for it?”
Sally blushed. “Um, well, y’see, Madam . . . “
The vixen looked down at the floor. “Five dollars.”
“American? For this?” At Sally’s nod, the red panda reached and cupped Sally’s chin, lifting her head to look up at her. “Sally,” she said in a half-scolding tone, “I indulge you and Mei Ling shamelessly, because you two are the best girls here. Now, I’m willing to forgive this expense due to that fact. But don’t do it again without asking me first. Understood?”
The vixen gulped, realizing just how close to the edge she had come. “Yes, Madam Ni.”