Luck of the Dragon: Hobson's Choice© 2007 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
(Inspector Stagg and Sergeant Brush courtesy of E.O. Costello. Thanks!)
The canine was awake now, gagged and tied securely. His broken arm had been well-splinted and he had been placed in a seated position with his back to a tree. One might have thought he was resting comfortably.
However, his head and arm throbbed unmercifully, and there was the most mystifying and unpleasant dull ache between his legs.
It made him a bit nauseous.
He squirmed a bit against the bole of the tree, his eyes wide in fear as the four young women went back to loudly speculating on the various methods they would use to make him talk. Nests of bull ants, sharp slivers of bamboo driven under his claws, and breaking his fingers had all been discussed so far, along with easily-overheard entreaties to the older feline woman who stood nearby.
“Please, Miss Blande.”
“We’ll no’ get a better chance.”
“I said no.” The older feline glared at the members of Red Dorm. “You will not be allowed to practice interrogation techniques on the prisoner. And no sulking,” she added. “We are waiting for the Constabulary, and that’s final.” She smiled then and said, “Of course, your ideas may be drawn up in a joint report for extra points.”
The others nodded, Shin nodding only grudgingly before they sat down on the ground facing the erstwhile assassin. Her injury, cleaned and bandaged, throbbed slightly. It added to her mood.
The canine gulped when he caught Shin’s gaze, and her grin.
He caught himself wishing that she had killed him outright.
“Watch yer hooves, Sir,” Sergeant Brush cautioned as he led his superior along a path hacked through the underbrush by two Guides swinging machetes. “Don’t want ya ta trip.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Inspector Stagg said, panting only slightly in the mid-May heat, which seemed to be amplified by the dense foliage. “If nothing else, this is giving me some valuable insight into what kind of training Songmark gives its students.” He paused to mop his face with a pawkerchief. “One hopes the parents are getting their money’s worth.”
The burly fox chuckled as they stepped into a slightly open space where the plants had been trampled down, leaving what could charitably be described as a clearing. He eased his Murder Box to the ground and said, “Here we are, an’ looky who’s waitin’ fer us.”
Miss Blande nodded to the whitetail buck. “Inspector Stagg, good afternoon. I’m Miss Blande, one of the tutors at Songmark. I believe you know my charges,” and she favored Red Dorm with a glance.
Surprisingly, Liberty said nothing, but didn’t have to; her posture and her laid-back ears told volumes about her reaction to being so close to People’s Enemy Number Two (the Number One ranking was considered too elitist) and being unable to do anything about it.
Tatiana merely smiled and copied Miss Blande’s polite nod.
Brigit nodded as well. Despite her ingrained dislike of police from any nation, she knew that Stagg was a good Catholic, and was therefore inclined to give him the tiniest benefit of a doubt. Besides, she wasn’t the one in trouble.
Shin crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m glad you’re here, Inspector. I want to press charges on that,” and she pointed an accusing finger at the bound canine.
“Indeed,” the deer said as he pulled a small notebook and a mechanical pencil from a pocket. “What charges?”
“Attempted murder. He was shooting at me.”
The head of the Businessman’s Protective Association for Spontoon studied the dagger and the symbol on it with some distaste before placing it back on the table. “Your wife and family are safe?” the giant panda asked.
“Yes, Honored One,” Peng-wum replied. His studied politeness was not merely good manners; this was a serious matter that required the delicacy that only perfect etiquette could successfully communicate. “My wife and our son are under the protection of the Constabulary and my wife’s family.” The would-be assassin had been found (non-Spontoonies were not usually seen on Main Island) and had met with an unfortunate accident. He sipped at his tea. “I have no affiliation with Jade Phoenix, and my family has always tried to steer a prudent course,” he said.
Lu Ting nodded. “Yes, but your brother is the one who committed this . . . indiscretion. It’s bad business to go after all members of a family for the actions of one, particularly a family as respected as the Ni.” Left unsaid was the fact that the Jade Phoenix’s actions could precipitate a full-scale war between them and the Red Talons, one that would destroy the former and cripple the latter.
“Then what would you suggest, Honored Lu?”
The panda’s huge black-furred paws clasped together as he thought.
Shin’s statement brought no reaction from Stagg. It did, however, get a reaction from Brush, who snickered. “Tryin’ ta kill yez, hanh? Admirer o’ yers?”
The red panda favored the fox with a smile. “No, my admirers usually send me fox pelts.”
Brush smirked. “Now, iffen it were me, I’d use one o’ dem wild tiger traps, wit’ bamboo spikes at th’ bottom. Mebbe a bit o’ spraint on ‘em fer fun.”
“I’ll remember that, Sergeant – next time your kits are out playing.” Shin smiled sunnily as Brush’s expression suddenly grew angry. The other three Red Dorm members watched intently.
“Shin!” Miss Blande exclaimed.
“I’m sorry, Miss Blande,” Shin said smoothly. “I just wanted to point out to the Sergeant what Miss Cardroy taught us – that traps like that are indiscriminate.” She kept her gaze on Brush. “They can catch anything unwary enough to walk over it.”
Before hostilities could be declared, Stagg struck up the swords on the duel with a polite cough. “How did you know he was the one shooting at you, Mrs. Wo?”
“He was the one pointing the rifle at me,” Shin said with an edge of exasperation in her voice. “One bullet’s in a tree over there,” and she pointed. “It should be easy enough to find, even for you. Another went who knows where, but it almost took a chunk out of my shoulder.”
“I see. How did he come to be like this?” Stagg asked, looking at the canine, who looked up at the Inspector with plaintive eyes.
Shin replied, sarcasm dripping from her words, “He tripped and bumped into a tree.”
“Several times,” Tatiana said with a grin.
“Backwards,” Brigit added.
“Then broke his own arm,” Liberty remarked tonelessly.
Stagg gave all four a disapproving glance. Brush, for his part, looked like he was inclined to believe it. “You were saying, Mrs. Wo?”
“I crept up on him, through that,” she said, pointing, “and then hit him with this tree branch,” and her foot nudged the stout length of wood. “As you can see, there’s a small smear of blood on it. I acted to defend myself.”
“Indeed. One suspects that the need for self-defense ended after you broke the branch over his head.”
“Oh. His arm. Well, I was angry.”
Stagg looked up from his notebook. “As I’m sure you know, anger – at least in this context – is a dubious defense. But that will be a matter for the grand jury, not me.”
The red panda’s tail twitched irritably. “Then let the grand jury debate it,” she huffed. “I’m in the right – this guy tried to kill me!”
“As you say. Sergeant, will you start gathering evidence?” Stagg sat down on a fallen tree and one Guide passed him a canteen of water. He took a sip of it and made a few more notes as Brush busied himself with his Murder Box.
Miss Blande spoke up. “Inspector, if you don’t have any more questions for these young women, I’ll be taking them back to Songmark now.”
“Of course, Ma’am. I’ll take charge of the, ah, prisoner. And I may be along to question Mrs. Wo again.”
The feline smiled graciously. “Of course. Shin will be available to you any time, Inspector. Day or night,” and the way she emphasized the words indicated that they should be taken literally. At her gesture, the members of Red Dorm followed her out of the clearing.
The assailant had left a small knapsack a few yards deeper in the forest. One of the girls had found it and left it there, merely tagging it with a piece torn from a pawkerchief to make it easier to locate.
Brush finished digging the bullet out of the tree, packaged it and loped back to the clearing. As he did, he passed two Guides carrying the canine out. “Careful, you!” he said in Spontoonie. “Use both paws!”
That drew a laugh from one of them, an otter. “Okay, Karok.”
“I figger he's bumped inta enough trees fer one day, 'kay?” Brush’s remark brought more laughter as the Guides dragged the man off to deliver him to the waiting constables.
The fox found the whitetail buck studying the tree branch. “A good deal of strength behind that blow. If she could field, I'm sure the Phillies would take her,” Stagg said with a wry look up at his aide.
Brush snorted. “Phillies'd take anyfur. What's anudder homicidal maniac in th' National League, anyhoo?”
A rare dry chuckle from his superior. “Well, since there seems to be nothing else, I think we should be going. You’ll have to lead me out, Sergeant.”
They had walked a short distance when Stagg asked, “Sergeant, what do you know of the Jade Phoenix Tong?”
Brush thought a moment. “Real small-time operators,” he replied. “They ain’t usually seen here on Spontoon – watch yer hoof there, sir – cuz they’re too small ta muscle in on one o’ th’ bigger groups.”
“It makes one wonder, then, why they’d attack a member of the Ni Family. Apart from the obvious reasons, of course. Have you heard of any reports of trouble, Sergeant?”
“Ya mean, up near Ft. Bob? Kinda doubt dat's gonna be in th' Mirror, t'marra. Kinda wish we had th' Krupmark social notes ...“
"I meant elsewhere on Spontoon, Sergeant," Stagg said evenly, although he favored his subordinate's jest with a smile.
“I'll ask th' boys in Patrol,” Brush replied.
Ni Hei stepped away from the gate of Shen’s villa as it was closed behind him. Marco was already getting the truck started, and the red panda climbed in as it drove away and headed back down the hill toward The Beach.
While the old Ford jounced its way down the rutted track Marco asked, “Good news or bad news, Boss?”
Hei glanced at the ferret for a moment before replying, “A bit of both, Marco. The attack on us was not an accident, or some lone person trying to make a name for himself. It was a Tong matter.”
The ferret whistled. He had never been part of a Tong war, but there were tales aplenty told of them. “Any way to stop it?”
Now the older red panda smiled. “That depends . . .”