Luck of the Dragon: Hobson's Choice© 2007 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
“This one should do nicely,” Peng-wum remarked as the real estate agent accompanying him smiled. The other locations had been either too far away from the main business areas of Casino Island, or were buried in the warehouse district, too far off the beaten path.
As it was, the red panda mused as he looked at the façade of the small shop, he’d have to get a feng shui practitioner in to make sure everything was aligned properly for maximum success. And maybe a Wise One could be prevailed upon to add her blessing on his business endeavor.
The shop was similar to a lot of the smaller general stores on the island – a wood frame two-story structure with a small porch running along the front. The front of the building faced west, leaving the paint peeling and faded from years of exposure to the sun. The windows were boarded up and the real estate agent, a thin rat, fussed with a bundle of keys. “Would you like to go inside, Mr. Ni?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you,” and Peng-wum followed him inside. The furs that he knew were watching him would take up guard positions, staying unobtrusive until danger threatened.
Although Peng-wum was concentrating on the family’s legitimate business operations and he could count on the Businessman’s Protective Association, there was still the possibility that someone on Krupmark might want to muscle him.
He hoped that wouldn’t happen. Setting up shop right under the Althing’s collective noses was risky enough.
The interior of the old store resembled the outside. Fading paint, grime and a general air of dilapidation gave the place a depressing air. Peng-wum poked around inside a few of the rooms, and tested the stairs leading up to the second floor before making his decision.
He wiped his paws clean with a pawkerchief before extending a paw to the rat. “I’ll take it.”
The rodent shook paws with him. “Excellent, Mr. Ni. If you’ll come back to my office we’ll get the paperwork drawn up and filed.”
“Good.” The place would need some work, but he had (he hoped) enough money budgeted for repairs. There was also the need to hire employees and train them before opening.
With good luck, the place might open right at the height of tourist season, or just a bit before. Certainly he wanted it opened in time for Speed Week in August, when the rich and powerful were certain to arrive along with a flood of tourists eager to spend their money gambling on the planes.
Either way, Peng-wum was hopeful that the venture would be a success. The family’s fortunes were riding on it, along with regaining its standing as a non-criminal organization.
The room was a bit too small, just a section of the Ni’s warehouse sectioned off with simple walls fashioned from sheets of plywood covered with drapes of cloth. Inside the room the lighting was a bit too bright, and the heat generated by all the lamps was turning the air in the improvised studio into a stifling mixture of musks. A large bed took up most of the room, and occasional sounds coming from that area mixed with the whirring of the camera.
“Okay, stop!” a tall fox wearing only a pair of cutoff shorts said, and the similarly-dressed macaque at the camera stopped cranking the device before shutting down half the lights. “We’ll take a short break. Fred, get yourself some water,” he said to a gray-furred feline who stepped away from the bed panting as he pulled off his black leather executioner’s mask. The vulpine nodded toward the bed’s occupant, still struggling against the ropes that kept her spread-eagled facedown. “Ungag her and get her some water too,” he ordered.
“Right, Todd,” Fred said as he stooped to pick up his shorts.
The fox took a breath and turned around to look at Hao, who had been watching interestedly. “So? What d’ya think, Boss?” he asked.
The red panda gave a judicious nod. “Looking good so far, Todd. The new camera working okay?”
Todd glanced at the simian, who grinned. “Yeah.” The camera and most of the filmstock had been pilfered from a movie crew that had stopped at Mildendo en route to Dioon Island. The crew had hoped to film a documentary there, but now would be going home empty-pawed with some explaining to do to their investors and insurance company.
“Good,” Hao said. It had been Shin’s idea to set up the studio, and their father had thought it a good enough idea to order the warehouse partitioned for the purpose. Whether or not the films would turn a profit was an open question. Similar operations elsewhere had shown some success but had been hampered by the police – but that was not an issue here on Krupmark.
Fred re-entered the room, a gust of cooler air wafting in as the door swung open and closed. He removed the cloth gag from the feline woman’s mouth and offered her a drink. She drank thirstily and relaxed on the bed, her breathing slowly returning to normal.
Now that she wasn’t ‘performing,’ Hao had time to look her over. She had dark headfur and her iron-gray fur was marked by black stripes. She had been supplied by a certain person that Hao knew on Kuo Han, and was one of several girls who now worked at the Lucky Dragon when they weren’t being filmed.
They didn’t add much to the expense side of the Casino’s ledger, being cheap to feed and not getting paid for their work.
He reached out and ran a paw over her buttocks, feeling the heat from the spanking coming through her fur as she flinched. The movie being made wasn’t too extreme and was only part of what they hoped to create in the stuffy, windowless room.
Hao slapped her rear and left the room to smoke a cigarette. The air inside was close enough already, without adding more to the smell. He’d have to see about having a vent or a fan put in.
Unfortunately, no one on Krupmark had the facilities to develop and copy the small reels of eight-millimeter film. But an agreement had been struck with a small company on Mildendo, and (for a consideration, in cash and in kind) the films would be developed, copied, and distributed. It was hoped that the content would be at least competitive among those consumers who got their entertainment in plain brown paper wrappers.
Once word got back from the distributors, the content could be altered to suit the market.
Later that night a fishing boat cast off from the Ni & Sons dock and chugged slowly through the gap in the island’s barrier reef. Hao, now wearing three layers of fur dye and a pair of ragged shorts, stood at the wheel and guided the boat through the gap as his crew arranged nets and made sure that the hold was ready. Their contact would meet them in the waters around Skookum Atoll, and the cargo would be shipped to Mildendo. In order to avoid drawing too much suspicion, the boat’s booms were poised over the water, ready to lower the fishing nets. Fresh fish would be a welcome addition to the menu on Mildendo.
As the crew busied themselves, a short ferret glanced at the red panda, now playing a tanuki to throw any observers off his trail. He turned away and returned to mending a frayed portion of fishing net before Hao felt the stare.
Where was she? the Guide wondered, searching for any signs of the quarry’s passage. He and the two others in his party had been pursuing the girl for several hours, and now the gibbous Moon was dipping toward the western horizon. Her scent had long since gone cold, forcing them to track her by sight and by any telltale signs left in her flight from them.
The trio fanned out, looking for any sign of her tracks until the Moon had set. Finding nothing, the three furs gathered at the base of a tree to compare notes and see if there was any clue, however small, that could tell them where to go next.
Finally they headed west. It was possible she had taken cover in the swamps.
High up in the forest canopy Wo Shin suppressed a soft giggle, contenting herself with a smile despite her weariness. No sound could be permitted – one of the Guides chasing her was a rabbit.
She and the rest of the second year students had been brought to South Island and had been penned up in a makeshift stockade for the better part of a hot afternoon, with no food or water. Finally one of the Tutors pushed the gate open and said, “This is your chance to escape. If you’re not caught by morning, you win.” Without any further orders or urging, all the girls had taken off at a run, scattering into the jungle.
After roughly thirty minutes, the Guides had gone in after them.
Shin had first found a bush growing in the middle of a shallow fen and thrown her Songmark uniform over it. She then ran in the opposite direction. It would ensure that her scent would go in at least two directions for a little while, at least.
Ordinarily, the young red panda was very fastidious, but this wasn’t the time to be neat or clean. She found a patch of mud near a swamp and threw herself in it, smearing her fur down with the thick black slop. It would help hide her as well as masking her scent.
After that she practiced her How Not To Be Seen tactics and managed to evade detection until sundown. Pausing beside a tree, she looked up and started to silently berate herself.
Wild, non-anthro red pandas were arboreal, and she was the second-best climber in Red Dorm (second only to Tatiana; the sable was able to contort herself in ways Shin could only dream about). She made her way deeper into what was called ‘three yard jungle’ before selecting a suitable tree and climbing it, being careful not to leave any sign of her whereabouts.
So far it seemed to be working. In the moonlit darkness she had wrapped herself in dead branches and leaves from the forest canopy and settled into a crook between three limbs to wait out her pursuers.
Spiders and other small creatures crawled or slithered over her, but she forced herself to stay still, moving only when a breeze rustled the branches around her.
In fact, the breeze seemed to be growing stronger. She risked a glance at the sky.
What she saw made her heart sink.
There was nothing she could do at this point but stay where she was as the first drops hit the canopy of leaves over her head. As the rain intensified she could feel the water oozing into her fur.
The Guides were too far away to notice that it was raining mud from one tree.
Half a world and eight hours away, the sun was setting over the bustling port of Bandar e-Abbas as work ended for the day. A tanker flying a British flag sat alongside the main oil terminal’s dock, pipes still transferring oil from the big tanks nearby into the ship’s hold.
It had taken some adroit misdirection on the part of the refinery and terminal workers, but the amount of oil in the British ship’s hold did not match the figures on its manifest.
Later that night a battered ship with its holds full of barrels slipped its moorings and headed out into the Arabian Sea. As it headed for Bombay its course came near (but did not intersect) that of a dhow from Qatar laden with smuggled gold, which in its turn would encounter a tramp steamer carrying a load of weapons as the deal struck between Ni Hei and the Iranian feline went into operation.
Wo Shin peered out from under the leaves and smiled. The sun was just starting to come up in the east.
She had won, and she wondered how the rest of Red Dorm had fared. With a convulsive heave she yawned, arching her back and sending wet mud and dead leaves cascading off her back to fall to the jungle floor below.
Over an hour later, Miss Windlesham marked off Wo Shin’s name on her roster as the red panda stepped out of the jungle. Shin was wearing a grass skirt and carried her uniform and boots in her paws. The storm had dislodged the clothes and they had spent the night soaking in the brackish water, leaving them wet and muddy. Her fur was bedraggled, the usually glossy black and red colors almost obscured by mud and grime.
The fur on her tail looked equally awful, and she wasn’t looking forward to cleaning it.
The girls who had been captured by the Guides sat inside the stockade, and Shin noted with some satisfaction that Rumiko was there. That look swiftly faded when she saw Liberty sitting by the fence and talking with Brigit. “What happened?” the Chinese girl asked as she walked over.
The New Haven girl shook her head. “My disguise needs work,” she said laconically.
Shin looked her over. Liberty was dressed like her, in a grass skirt, with a simple length of cloth covering her chest. The New Haven girl was a bit self-conscious about displaying what she had ‘up top’ – which wasn’t much. “You look pretty convincing,” Shin said. “What gave you away?”
The half-coyote glowered at her and Brigit as Tatiana loped into view. “I’ve learned enough Spontoonie to get by,” she said.
Shin nodded. Liberty had been taking lessons from Shin and – though it irritated her, from Tatiana – after realizing the need to connect with more Spontoonies in their native language in order to accomplish what she called her ‘Three-Year Plan.’ “But?”
“But I still have a New Haven accent.”
Liberty ground her teeth as the other girls laughed.