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!)
“Well, what?” Shin riposted, looking around the corner of the shower stall at Liberty.
“We’d like ta know,” Brigit said.
“Nu, it does seem out of character for you, Shin,” Tatiana commented.
The red panda had to concede that point.
“Why didn’t you kill him?” Liberty persisted. “You could have concealed the body and no one would have found it in that jungle.”
Shin ducked under the showerhead, rinsing off for the third time. Mrs. Oelabe had checked her wound, nodded approvingly at how it’d been treated, and ordered her to get cleaned up. Shaking water from her muzzle she replied, “True.” She shut off the water and started squeezing the excess from her fur before toweling off. “I’ll admit I wanted to kill him,” she said as she ran the towel over her headfur. “He was trying to kill me, so fair’s fair.
“But I wanted to find out who he was and who sent him. So information was more important than revenge at the time,” and she smiled as the others looked skeptical. “It’s the truth – I have no idea why the Jade Phoenix would send someone to kill me.”
“P’raps it’s sommat yer family’s done,” Brigit offered.
“Yeah, I thought about that,” Shin said, trying hard to keep the worry out of her voice. “I only hope that Fang and the others are okay. When these kind of things start, the practice is to try to kill as many members of the opposition before they can react. If we get the weekend off, I’ll send a few messages to see if everything’s all right.”
As she toweled off, the others started getting ready for their meal. “I have to admit, I’m impressed,” Liberty said grudgingly.
“At what, Liberty?” Tatiana asked. It wasn’t like the New Haven girl to be impressed by anything her roommates did.
“Her self-restraint,” the Trotskyite replied.
Word apparently traveled fast; as Shin sat down to dinner she noticed many frank stares not only from the other second year students but also the other two years. Some of the third years seemed impressed, while Crusader Dorm looked quite disappointed. The red panda favored that dorm of first years with a grin before sprinkling her poi with soy and pepper sauce and starting to eat.
A shadow fell over her plate and she looked up, then stood. “Miss Cardroy,” she said.
The feline smiled. “Sit down, Shin. I have a project for you – all of you,” and her gaze took in the other three Red Dorm members. “The assignment’s quite simple.
“Shin, you will write a comprehensive report about the incident earlier today, including your justifications for all of your actions. You three will critique her report and judge whether her actions were appropriate – oh, and you will file a joint report to supplement hers.” Miss Cardroy smiled. “Any questions?”
“No, ma’am,” Shin said.
“Good. It’s due Friday,” and she walked off.
Shin picked at her bowl of poi, then added more pepper sauce. For some reason, it wasn’t tasting nearly as palatable as usual. She glanced at the others, and the measuring, speculative looks on their faces told her that she was going to be in for a rough few days.
The fishing boat waited until the turn of the tide before risking the journey through the gap in the barrier reef. It moved a bit faster than it usually did, as the crew strained the engine almost to its breaking point. As soon as it reached the Ni and Sons dock, one man jumped off the boat and ran to fetch Krupmark’s only doctor, whether he was sober or not.
Hao had his paw bandaged up and he looked angry enough to kill. Repeated dunkings in salt ocean water had kept the wound clean, but had done nothing to improve his mood at being attacked over the death of Lee Lo-sung.
The damned tiger was probably laughing at him from the afterlife.
He stamped into the first-floor office and sat down heavily before starting to unravel the rag that covered the knife cut. Once it was uncovered he glowered at the torn flesh. Yes, it was healing, but it needed a doctor’s care.
The elderly beagle shambled in a few minutes later, propelled by a paw at his back. He looked disheveled and clutched his bag of instruments to his chest. “Hey!” he said, looking back at the man who pushed him. “Leave me ‘lone, ya bastard. Now, who’s hurt?”
“I am, Doc,” Hao said. “Knife wound.”
The beagle squinted at the paw, then poked it a few times while looking at Hao’s face. “That hurts, huh?” he asked as the young red panda grimaced.
“Yeah,” Hao replied as he ground his teeth, “it hurts.”
“Good.” The canine released the paw and opened his bag. “That shows you don’t have any real damage. Now, where’re my suture needles . . . ?”
He dug around in his bag for a moment and as he removed a set of needles and a packet of catgut, Hao’s parents came down the stairs. “Hao!” Hei exclaimed. “What happened?”
The tension he had felt ever since the attack left him at the sight of his parents, leaving him suddenly tired. “One of the crew was Jade Phoenix, Father. I got a knife cut, but the guy’s still alive. I wanted him able to talk before I cut him up – “ He tensed and hissed as the doctor poured whiskey into the wound and pressed a swatch of gauze against his paw. Panting, he glared at the doctor. “Was that really necessary?”
“No,” the beagle said, “but this is,” and Hao started to writhe as the doctor pressed the gauze further into the wound and started cleaning the cut. “Hold still, damn you.” He pulled the now-bloody gauze away and examined the area, then sniffed at the gauze and nodded to himself. “Okay, this is going to hurt – do you want some of this to drink?” and he jerked his head at the bottle.
“Yeah.” Hao grabbed at the bottle with his free paw and took several deep swallows of the liquor. He spat to one side and said, “Okay.”
“Right,” and the doctor started stitching.
Hei watched his youngest son as he said, “The Jade Phoenix also made a try at us, and we’ve received reports that they tried to attack the rest of the family on Spontoon.” As Hao looked up he said, “They’re all right. Peng-wum and Nailani are under Constabulary protection, and Fang’s just too intimidating.”
“A graze, deeper than the one she got last year. Word is she beat her attacker senseless and gave him to Inspector Stagg.”
Hao started to laugh, the sound changing to a hissed intake of breath as the doctor continued to work. “Are you and Mother okay?”
“Yes, dear,” Peng said. “Your father also found out why your friends attacked us.”
“I know. Maybe I should have let Lee have Manny,” Hao said disgustedly. “The damned otter wasn’t any real use on that trip.”
“Well,” Hei said, “Lee’s dead now, so there remains this problem to settle. Now, I have word from Shen that Jade Phoenix is interested in a compromise.”
“Kill me to leave you alone?” Hao asked. The doctor had finished his stitching and was wrapping his paw up in a clean bandage.
“No,” Hei replied. “Shen has been in contact with the leader of the Red Talons on Spontoon. The Jade Phoenix lodge master wants to smooth things over – their alliance must be maintained or the Jade Phoenix will wither if left alone.”
“Which it will, if my lodge brothers go to war over this.” Vendettas had a way of escalating rapidly, as much as on Krupmark as within the Tongs and their complex web of relationships.
“Quite so. A proposal has been made.”
“What’s in the proposal?” Hao asked.
Hei smiled. “An alliance with the Black Dragon Tong.”
“That sounds tricky,” Hao said, “but I guess it could be worked out. But how does that get me off the hook?”
Peng had finished paying the doctor, who mumbled his thanks at the substantial tip and left the room. She drew up a chair and sat beside her son. “It doesn’t,” she said simply.
“Huh?” The young red panda shook his head. “I guess I’m not feeling well,” he admitted. “I’m not getting either of you.”
“Nothing to get,” Hei said. “Think about it. Right now, let’s get you off to bed. We’ll talk later,” and he signaled to two furs to escort Hao up to his room.
As he watched his son head upstairs, his wife laid a paw on his arm. “Do you think he’ll be mad at us?” Peng asked.
Hei chuckled. “At us? No. At anyone who crosses his path after we tell him? Definitely.”
He had failed.
He’d had the Ni girl in his sights, and he’d missed.
And now he was a prisoner.
The looks the four girls gave him still haunted his dreams as he tried to sleep, along with the whispered threat of a slow and agonizing demise at the paws of his lodge’s enemy.
Her grasp of invective in Hokkien was excellent for one so young.
After he had been taken into custody by the Constabulary he had been first taken to a hospital where his broken arm had been properly set. Now a cast immobilized his entire right arm and the sling pinned the limb against his chest.
Tomorrow, one of the constables had told him, he would be brought before a judge. After that, the explanations got a bit hazy.
That didn’t matter.
He studied the bed sheet in his good paw, then looked critically at the crisscross pattern of steel bars that made up one wall of his cell.
“Ho, canine outlander with broken arm!” one constable called out in Spontoonie as he made his way into the cellblock. He was on a routine walk through the nearly-empty jail, making sure that the prisoners were all right. The Chief had some funny ideas about keeping prisoners safe, so he insisted on regular patrols.
At the sight of the canine he stopped, his jaw dropping.
The prisoner was seated, his back to the bars. A bed sheet had been knotted to a horizontal bar a few feet below the ceiling, and the other end had been tied around his neck. His tongue lolled blue and swollen from his open mouth and his eyes had rolled up.
The constable reached into the cell and felt for a heartbeat. After several frantic moments he stopped his search and withdrew his arm.
Sighing he muttered, “Fire-God take you, canine outlander with broken arm – query reason kill yourself on work-period mine?”
“Shin!” Her name, snapped by Miss Cardroy, and the light coming on in her dorm brought her fully awake. Her reflexes were improving – her eyes opened as the door opened and she was standing up beside her bed before she realized it.
“Yes, ma’am?” she asked, blinking as the other members of Red Dorm awakened.
“Come with me. Now,” and the older feline turned and walked out. Shin followed, knowing that she wouldn’t be allowed to pause to get her robe.
Whatever business she had would have to be done in her nightdress.
Miss Cardroy led her out of the building to the gatehouse. The third years at the gate (from that dorm) knew better to whistle at the red panda, even though they knew it would irritate her. “Here she is,” Miss Cardroy said crisply.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Inspector Stagg said as he stepped forward into the pool of light from one of the fence lamps. “This will not take long, Mrs. Wo. Where were you at about nine o’clock tonight?”