Luck of the Dragon: Hobson's Choice© 2007 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
(Art by Kjartan)
Hao blinked and without moving his head tried to look behind him at the ferret. He forced himself to remain still, one paw’s fingers flicking a message to the rest of the crew to stay where they were. As it was, the rest of the crew were shadows behind the flashlight, crouched and waiting like a pack of feral wolves.
Of course, it started raining again.
“Jade Phoenix? But we have an arrangement with you,” he said.
“So, you deny you killed Lee Lo-sung?”
“Lee Lo – oh, him,” Hao almost laughed as memories of his last smuggling expedition with Manny Carpanini surfaced. The scrawny tiger had tried to kill Hao in order to kidnap the Big Fish’s son, and had gotten killed for his pains. “You telling me he was in Jade Phoenix?”
“A brother in good standing,” the ferret replied.
“Why didn’t you try for me in America? You had ample opportunity.” The red panda was sparring for time and he knew it; the blade in the ferret’s left paw was pressed against the jugular vein on the right side of his neck.
The ferret snorted. “We knew you would come back here.”
Hao closed his eyes and concentrated on not tensing his muscles. “I’m not surprised you waited so long,” he said, forcing his voice to sound flippant. “It’s well known that Jade Phoenix can’t fight their way out of a wet paper sack. It’s why you allied yourselves with the Red Talons, isn’t it?”
“That’s a lie!” the ferret blurted, and as he tensed Hao saw the only chance he’d have.
Years ago, Hao had asked a man at the Thieves’ Bazaar to teach him how to fight with a knife. The grizzled rat had smirked and said, “First, cub, you hafta learn how to defend yerself.” With that, he had drawn a long, thin-bladed fishing knife from his boot and came at Hao.
The red panda had flinched backward, and the rat had scowled at him. “First lesson in knife-fighting, cub,” he had said, “is yer gonna get cut, so get used ta the idea.” The rat had then grabbed the twelve-year-old’s left paw by the wrist and slashed him across the palm.
Hao would never forget the tearing, burning sensation as the blade drew through his flesh, and the scar left by that first lesson was a constant reminder.
Hao’s left paw slid up his body and put itself between his neck and the blade, grabbing it and pushing. His teeth ground at the feeling of the knife cutting deep, but as he forced the knife away he twisted to his left and drove his right fist into the ferret’s throat.
His erstwhile assassin gasped, gagging as he loosened his grip on the knife. Hao staggered backward as the rest of the crew dove on the ferret, subduing him and tying his arms behind him with strips torn from his own shirt. “You okay, Hao?” one crewmember asked.
“No, dammit,” Hao growled as he pressed a rag against his wounds. He had several deep gouges, but by wiggling his fingers he could tell that the damage wasn’t so severe that he’d lose the use of the appendage. Wrapping the rag around his paw he asked, “Where’s my gun?”
“Here,” and a feline pressed the .45 into his right paw.
“Thanks,” and Hao walked toward the ferret, who glared up at him. “See? Like I told you – the Jade Phoenix are nothing.”
The ferret spit at him and snarled, “Cao ni ma!”
Hao smiled and shook his head. “No, that was your mother,” and with that pulled the trigger, sending the large-caliber bullet into the ferret’s left knee. The mustelid shrieked and curled up in a fetal position on his side as his blood oozed out on the rainswept deck.
The red panda slumped against the wheelhouse as he slid the pistol back into its usual place at his back. His wound burned, an ugly, throbbing thing and he felt himself fighting off the inevitable shock.
He knew he’d have to lie down shortly or fall down where he stood.
“Gus,” he said to another feline, “stay with this,” and he spurned the mewling ferret with a toe. “Don’t allow him to die – not until we get back to Krupmark.”
The tabby looked dubious. “That’ll be several days, Boss. Ain’t we still going to Mildendo?”
“No. There’re more like him – there have to be - and they wouldn’t just come after me.” Hao forced himself to stand and he went into the wheelhouse.
The fishing boat then turned and set a new course straight for Krupmark, as fast as its engine could safely carry it.
Shin dodged, hearing the rifle fire again. This time the bullet whined past her right ear, and she smothered a cry as the bullet scored the skin on her shoulder, taking a small hank of fur with it. She dove into another thicket, ears straining to hear as she tried to figure out where her assailant was.
The fugitive portion of her mind wondered where the Guides, her tutors, and the rest of Red Dorm might be.
Well, so much for them. She’d have to do it herself.
She had killed before, and now all the Songmark training she had received rose to the forefront of her mind, coupled with her Shaolin instruction and her own instincts.
Self-preservation was her first priority now.
The second shot had confirmed which direction she needed to go, so the red panda slithered through the underbrush, uncaring now about the state of her fur or the insects that crawled on her body. The wound felt superficial, so she ignored it for the moment. She was after bigger game.
The added layers of grime actually helped camouflage her as she moved closer.
There was the clacking sound of a rifle bolt being worked, and her head swiveled, eyes searching the dense foliage.
Yes, there he was. Canine by the look of him.
It didn’t matter.
He was prey.
He just didn’t know it yet.
Her fingers felt their way through the leaf litter until they grasped a small rock, and as she watched him she threw the stone high and to his left.
He whirled, firing the rifle almost the instant he brought the butt up to his shoulder.
As he worked the bolt and felt in a pocket for another bullet, his ears flicked as he heard a noise. The canine turned in time to see the tree branch swinging at his head, just before everything went black.
The canine’s head snapped hard to the left, a tooth flying out of his mouth, and the force of Shin’s swing made him spin around in a complete circle before he fell to the ground with a thump. His rifle flew off to one side and clattered to the dirt a few feet from him.
Eyes wild, Shin struck the canine several more times to make sure that he wouldn’t get up immediately. Then, chest heaving, she stood over him in an alert crouch as she panted from the sprint, looking around and ears flicking this way and that to make sure that he had been her only target.
The rest of the forest was silent and she willed herself to drop the makeshift club.
Who said that Kilikiti wasn’t useful?
“Thank the gods,” she murmured breathlessly in Chinese, leaning over with paws on knees as she felt the adrenalin drain out of her. She ran a paw over the canine’s neck to check his pulse, then kicked his legs apart and drove her foot into his crotch before tugging his shirt open. Distant sounds of bodies moving through the brush alerted her to the fact that help was coming. She ignored it and concentrated on searching her assassin’s inert form.
She pulled the shirt back from his right shoulder, noting from the movement under the cloth that she’d broken his arm midway between shoulder and elbow. She sat back on her haunches, staring at the Jade Phoenix design shaved into his fur. An accompanying tattoo helped enhance the Tong sign.
“Shin! Shin, where are you?” Brigit yelled, long pendant ears pricked up as far as she could manage them to catch the red panda’s voice. With the first gunshot the Tutors had immediately stopped the exercise and had the Guides round up the second years. The realization that one of their number, even if had been their sole Krupmark student, was missing caused Miss Blande to order a full search. The Guides had promptly melted back into the jungle to collect their own rifles and join the Songmark students.
“I’m over here, Brigit,” Shin called out, straightening up and waving.
“I see ye now. Keep on wavin’.” In a few moments the rest of Red Dorm converged on the red panda, Tatiana and Liberty homing in from different directions on the sound of Shin’s voice. “Are ye alright, Shin?” the Irish setter asked.
“We heard shots,” Tatiana added as more students started to arrive.
“Yeah, you did,” Shin said. “This yanse lang tried to kill me,” and she kicked the unconscious canine in the ribs for emphasis. She stood still as Liberty started to examine her shoulder wound.
Brigit tried to memorize what Shin said, for later translation and maybe for her own later use. “Any idea who he is?”
“No name,” Shin replied, shaking her head. “Just the symbol of the Jade Phoenix Tong.”
The other students quieted. “And how do you know that, Shin?” Miss Blande’s voice cut through the hush.
Shin straightened as her Tutor studied her before replying, “Ma’am, he has a patch of fur shaved away, and his skin is tattooed with these symbols,” and she crouched and pulled the shirt back to reveal the markings. “I’ve been taught how to recognize them.”
The older feline nodded as several students craned forward to see and learn the symbol. “And what might have you done to have a Tong assassin – if he is one – try to kill you?”
The red panda frowned up at the taller woman, feeling very conspicuous. Several of the Guides had arrived and were staring at her.
Which made sense; she was unclothed from the waist up, and was wearing only the tattered remnants of a grass skirt. She briefly considered trying to cover up, but discarded the thought. They’d already seen her.
“Ma’am, I do not know,” Shin replied. “I’ve always steered clear of any involvement with those organizations, but I know that the Jade Phoenix is allied with the gang my younger brother belongs to.”
Miss Blande’s eyes narrowed. “I see. You there,” she ordered one of the students standing nearby, “bring that over here,” and she pointed at the rifle. As the student picked the weapon up – carefully, by the trigger guard, and only after locking the bolt back and ensuring that the breech was empty – the tutor turned back to Shin. “We will wait here for the Constabulary. In the meanwhile, the rest of you will head back to the water taxi dock and return to Songmark. Immediately,” and the young women took off through the forest.
The tutor’s frown deepened when she saw that Liberty, Tatiana and Brigit had remained behind. “I thought I told you three to go to the dock.”
Brigit stepped forward as the leader of the dorm for that day. “With respects ta ye, Ma’am, but Shin’s from our dorm.”
“Unit solidarity, is that it?”
The setter, sable and half-coyote all nodded, and Miss Blande caught herself suppressing a smile. These girls were actually learning.
“Very well. You’ll stay here with her until the police arrive. Scout around the area for any clues as to the line of attack. Shin, find your uniform and get dressed. Tatiana, what type of rifle was used?”
The sable studied the weapon for a moment before replying, “A British Lee-Enfield short-chambered rifle, Ma’am, caliber .303. Fitted with a sniper scope.”
“Brigit, what does the type of weapon tell you?”
“That in this jungle, Ma’am, the man was either real confident o’ his abilities or, hm, daft as a brush.”