Luck of the Dragon: Hobson's Choice© 2007 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
Liberty sat back on her haunches and glowered, watching the other members of Red Dorm laugh. “Had enough fun yet?” she finally asked as the other three girls caught their breath and looked at her.
“Yeah, for now,” Shin said with a grin. “If your accent’s a problem, Liberty, we’ll get to work on that over the summer. You’ll be able to pass as a native in no time.” Native to all but an actual Spontoonie, the red panda thought to herself as she masterfully suppressed a giggle. The New Havenite might be able to pass as a native in some of the Main Island villages, but her half-coyote ancestry would make her conspicuous almost everywhere else. And Liberty steadfastly refused to dye her fur, protesting loudly that it was a “bourgeois adornment.”
Shin had to privately agree with her on that. Fur dye was a bother to get right, and a problem to get completely out of one’s fur. How Hao learned how to do it, and manage the trick so consistently, she couldn’t guess.
Of course, she’d always meant to ask him how he’d managed to pass successfully as a vixen.
The red panda scratched under her ribs and looked glumly at the caked grime under her claws. The swamp mud was almost as bad as actual dye and smelled slightly worse. She found herself looking forward to the showers at the school.
“And how’d you manage to hide?” Liberty abruptly asked Tatiana. “You levitate or whatever it is that mouse is teaching you?”
The sable chuckled. “Nyet,” she said. “I found a nice deep hole on a riverbank and hid.” She turned to the other canine in their dorm. “Brigit?”
“Found a handy spot on the roof of a shed an’ hid in th’ thatching,” the Irish setter replied. “Right by a pig wallow. Hid m’scent well,” and she swiped at her nose with a paw before adding, “almost too well – I may not be getting’ me sense o’ smell back anytime soon.” All four chuckled at that.
The entire group of second years were given a hot but not quite filling breakfast of mashed breadfruit and milk before Miss Blande quieted them and announced, “That was Round One, girls. Round Two will take place in daylight. In one hour, the Guides will be sent out to find you.
“The same ground rules apply – you are not allowed off South Island. Hiding in the sea is considered ‘off the island,’” she remarked, with a glare at two students who were still shivering slightly from spending most of the night just offshore. “Remember, cold weather training is next year.
“Your hour starts – now,” she said, one eye on her watch.
When she looked up, the stockade was empty.
Shin pelted into the jungle, looking for the densest part of the forest before dumping her school uniform again. It smelled of the fen and was therefore an impediment. The Guides would be able to track her easily if she smelled of swamp instead of rain forest. Luckily the rain had washed the bulk of the muck out of her fur.
And she’d surely lose points if she repeated a tactic, even a successful one.
The red panda dove into a drift of leaf litter, rolling in it to further mask her scent before making her way deeper into the woods. As she rounded a tree she paused as she heard a twig snap some distance away.
The bullet struck the trunk of the tree bare inches from her paw, gouging out a neat hole and sending splinters into her fur.
The report from the vintage sniper rifle arrived a split second later.
Shin was no longer there.
She lay deep under a bush, ears standing straight up and eyes wide as she fought to get her breathing under control. What the hell was that about? she wondered.
No one had told them the Guides would be using live ammunition – could the Tutors be throwing some new problem at them?
She caught herself.
The Guides wouldn’t be using live ammunition, not in training.
She gulped with the realization that someone was shooting at her.
This was no longer about points, or even eluding a search team.
The captain of the steamer ground out his cigarette and resisted the urge to start gnawing on his claws as the last crate of guns was lifted out of the ship’s hold and put over the side into the smaller boat. A small flotilla of them had come alongside, ostensibly on fishing trips but really to collect the weapons sold to the Shah’s forces by Krupmark.
As the last of the boats chugged off, the captain started breathing again, ordering the steamer’s running lights turned back on and the ship put back on course for Basra. There it would pick up a load of grain before heading back to Bombay.
“Peng-wum? Come in, love, it’s almost mealtime,” Nailani said as she poked her head out of the window of their longhouse. She smiled at her husband as he played with their child beside their garden plot. “Better get washed up first,” she suggested.
“Good idea, Nailani,” the red panda said as he scooped their cub up in his arms and walked to the door.
A knife struck the doorjamb just at his head level, and the red panda dove into the house, cuddling Mikilani close as he rolled and scrambled clear of the doorway. “Get away from the windows!” he hissed at his wife.
Nailani had been a Guide at school, and had spent some time on Krupmark. Her reaction to his words was almost as fast as his reflexes.
They lay on the floor, ears perked to listen for any sign that whoever had thrown the knife might be approaching. Finally Peng-wum crawled to where Nailani sat and gave her the baby. “I’m going to see if there’s anything,” he whispered.
She nodded, hugging the child close as he edged toward the door.
In times like this, he thought, I could really use a gun.
The knife was still there, and Peng-wum risked reaching around the opening to wrench it free of the wood. He studied it carefully, his tail bottling out slightly.
The dagger was perfectly balanced for throwing, a professional’s blade; whoever hurled it had aimed at that precise spot when he could have simply driven it straight into Peng-wum’s back. The hilt was simply but efficiently made, but a design on the pommel caught his eye.
The design was familiar, and he almost dropped the blade in shock.
A relatively quiet afternoon on Krupmark was shattered by an explosion that rattled the window of Ni Hei’s office, cracking one pane of glass. Without thinking he stood and looked out the window.
His eyes suddenly widened.
Even middle-aged, Hei could still move swiftly if necessary; now he dove aside as the harsh chatter of a Tommy gun opened up, its sound almost eclipsing the sound of shattering glass and chipping wood. The red panda ducked, using his desk for cover as Marco stormed into the office. “You okay?” the ferret barked.
“I’m fine,’ Hei said. “What was that explosion?”
“Sounded like it came from the warehouse,” Marco said as he edged close to the window, then raised his shotgun and fired as two more rounds of shotgun fire erupted from the vicinity of the Lucky Dragon. The chatter from the Thompson faltered and stopped, and the ferret waved.
“Who was that?” Hei asked as he stood up, straightening his suit.
“Emilia and Julia,” Marco replied, reloading his weapon. He waved again and yelled, “Everyone okay over there?”
“Si,” one of the she-wolves yelled back. “But there is the fire in the warehouse,” and she gestured to where a trickle of black smoke could be seen over the roof of the Casino.
“Marco,” Hei said as the ferret turned away from the window, “get with our people up in Fort Bob – have Clarence help you – and find out who did this. I want names, and then we’ll see about getting them alive.” Dead, they were no use as sources of information.
The ferret nodded and left the office as Hei opened a desk drawer and fished out a revolver. He checked the cylinder and snapped it closed, his expression grim. Already he could hear distant gunfire, growing closer as some of the furs in Fort Bob assumed that someone was trying to barge in on the Ni’s business, and wanted a cut of the spoils.
It would take some time to convince them otherwise.
A rain squall helped to block out the moonlight, and the storm also guaranteed that the airborne patrols might not be so inquisitive. Hao’s fishing boat lay alongside a larger craft as various crates and bales of various substances were placed aboard the smaller boat. As soon as Hao verified each of the contents, money changed paws and the small steamer chugged away.
“Where to now, Boss?” the helmsfur asked.
The disguised red panda switched on a flashlight and studied a map. “Steer us south and a little east,” he said. “We’ll drop the nets as soon as we’re out of the way of this storm.” He glanced back at the cargo hold and added, “I hate getting fish all over that stuff – it stinks enough as it is.”
The canine at the helm laughed. “You said it, Boss.” Raw catnip was almost instantly recognizable to anyone with half a nose.
Hao grinned, his teeth flashing in the dim light. “Once we get it offloaded at Mildendo we’ll have to air the hold out,” and as the helmsfur started the small craft’s engine Hao stepped out onto the deck.
It wasn’t a bad storm and the deck was steady under his unshod feet. He ducked under the overhanging roof of the wheelhouse and lit a cigarette. Most of the crew were either below where it was relatively dry or were keeping a lookout for anyone following them. Along with the catnip, they were carrying various other items that would be valuable in the right places (and very valuable in some wrong places).
Hao shivered, and not because of the rain.
At least he wasn’t making another cargo run to Cranium Island.
One of his newer employees, a thin ferret with a notch in one ear, shuffled past him. “Nice night for ducks, eh Boss?” he asked in Chinese, his dialect indicating that he was from the Shanghai area.
“Yeah.” Hao flicked the butt of the cigarette over the rail and started to turn away.
He caught a wet gleam out of the corner of his eye just before the knife blade pressed against his neck. A paw felt around his waist and his pistol clattered to the deck as Hao, trying to stay frozen in place, asked, “What’s this all about?”
Two more crewmen came around the wheelhouse and stopped, one shining a flashlight. When they saw Hao with a knife to his throat one ran aft to rouse the rest of the crew. “You won’t get away with this, whoever you are,” the red panda said.
“I don’t need to,” the ferret hissed. “A Red Talon should have known better than to kill a Jade Phoenix Lodge’s brother.”