Luck of the Dragon: Hobson's Choice© 2007 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
(Inspector Stagg courtesy of E.O. Costello. Thanks!)
The whitetail buck glanced down at her. “It’s a simple question, Mrs. Wo. Where were you last night at about nine o’clock until now?”
Shin glanced back at Miss Cardroy before replying, “I was in bed, trying to get to sleep. Tatiana has started snoring again and the noise can be a distraction.”
“I see. When did you finally fall asleep?”
“I guess it must have been about ten. I was asleep until Miss Cardroy woke me up to come out and speak to you.” She was determined to tell the precise truth – there was no telling how able the Tutor might be.
Stagg jotted a few notes. He asked, “Have you been out of your dorm at any time between then and now?”
The red panda glanced down at her nightdress. Sure, I like to cavort nearly naked in the dark; the guard dogs appreciate the view she managed to resist saying. She said aloud, “No, sir. Look, what’s going on? Am I allowed to know that?”
“Of course you are. Your alleged assailant was found dead in his cell tonight, by his own paw it seems.” Stagg tipped his hat gravely to Miss Cardroy and then walked out of the little gatehouse.
Shin stood and watched him limp away, dumbfounded. “Killed himself?” She turned to look at the tutor. “And he thinks I did it?”
“I think he may think that either you or your family have a long reach, Shin,” Miss Cardroy replied equably. “Now, run along and get some sleep. We have flying practice in the morning. Oh, and by the way, Shin.”
“Make certain that your report is comprehensive.”
“Yes, Miss Cardroy.” The Chinese girl walked back to the school building, lost in thought.
She eased back into her hard bed and before her head struck the pillow Brigit’s whispered voice hissed, “What’s goin’ on?”
The red panda could tell that the other two were listening intently. She told them, “The guy killed himself in his cell tonight – at least, that’s what Stagg’s saying.”
“Stagg,” Liberty almost spat. “It’d be like him to lie, just to see if he can catch you incriminating yourself.”
“Or to have fellow killed while trying an escape, so he can accuse you,” Tatiana offered.
“Mebbe he killed th’ guy hisself – ‘interrogatin’ him’ - an’ wants ta blame ye,” Brigit remarked.
“Well,” Shin said, “maybe I’ll learn more in the morning. We’re flying tomorrow, so I’m going to try and get some sleep.”
The others grumbled a bit, but after a few minutes all four were fast asleep.
“Flying practice, you said.” Brigit’s voice was accusatory.
Shin crossed her arms over her chest defensively. “That’s what Miss Cardroy said.”
All four were wearing their flight suits, and Brigit and Liberty were both starting to pant from the heat. Tatiana and Shin would soon start feeling it as well.
Two third years were preflighting the school’s biggest plane, a float-mounted Junkers Ju-86. The second years would be taken up by dorm, then would jump out of the plane from an altitude of thirty feet and swim two hundred yards to shore on the southern side of South Island as part of a survival exercise. They had all been taught this in their first year, but the leather Sidcot suits, heavy boots and full knapsacks guaranteed that this drill would be interesting. “Of course,” Shin added, “I suppose it is flying of a sort.”
“Da. Downward,” Tatiana said.
They stood up as one of the tutors beckoned. “Liberty,” Miss Blande said crisply, “you and your dorm are first. Get aboard.”
The New Havenite stiffened. “Yes, Miss Blande.” Red Dorm climbed aboard the plane as the third year pilot started the engines.
Shin watched carefully. The second years would be allowed to actually fly this plane only at the end of their second year, and throughout their third year – an indication of the value placed in the big plane by the Tutors. She suspected that it also justified the hike in fees demanded by the Academy.
Miss Cardroy glanced out the door as the water blurred past, then nodded. “Shin, you’re first,” she said as she stepped away from the door.
“Yes, ma’am,” and after pulling on her flying helmet Shin dove out.
The plane was only thirty feet in the air and was trickily close to its stall speed, but she had time to orient herself in a feet-first position before her boots struck the water with a bone and teeth-jarring impact. She went down, feeling the shock spreading through her body even as she let a little air trickle from her nose. She started kicking, using her paws and arms to make sweeping strokes to get her to the surface quickly.
Her tail started dragging her down, but she was used to that by now.
She broke the surface, took two gulps of air as she looked around, then started swimming toward the shore. A quartet of fishing boats were standing by in case anyone had any trouble, and she could see that the other members of her dorm were also in the water.
As soon as her boots touched the sandy bottom she started walking, feeling the stress in her legs and body and the sodden weight of her clothes, pack and tail. The waves of the Pacific Ocean kept smacking her behind the knees and she fell several times.
She was almost staggering when she reached the beach and the rest of Red Dorm joined her. “Are you three okay?” she asked.
Tatiana grimaced as she massaged her left ankle. “Oh, just fine.”
“Aye,” Brigit said, dumping water from one of her boots.
“Yes,” Liberty replied. The half-coyote watched as the red panda drained the water from her boots before asking, “So, did you have him killed or not?”
Shin looked crossly at Liberty. “I haven’t even been able to make sure he is dead, Liberty. For all I know you could be right – Stagg may be lying in order to trap me.” She grunted as she started wringing her banded tail out. There was a loud drone as the Ju-86 swept overhead to drop the next group of students into the water and she added, “And I haven’t forgotten about my report, either. Or the one you’re supposed to do.”
The canine girl grinned toothily. “I’m looking forward to it,” she said as her tail wagged.
“Better not get too enthusiastic,” Shin warned. “I’m sure they don’t want you to break out the rubber hoses.”
“Oh, there are ways, you know.”
“I know. We all know,” Shin said with a grin.
They all started laughing.
As soon as the last of the students had pulled themselves up and onto the beach the Tutors assessed any injuries (Tatiana had turned her ankle, but not badly enough to slow her down) and had the entire group of students start running above the high-tide mark.
The sand sucked and dragged at the heavy boots, and Shin was panting as hard as Liberty by the time the group made it to the water taxi stand facing Eastern Island. They were ferried back to Songmark and, without a word from the Tutors, cleaned and put their equipment away.
Another run followed, and after the second years got cleaned up they went in for lunch.
The bulk of the afternoon was spent in the cockpits of the Tiger Moth biplanes, doing aerobatic exercises and practicing for the upcoming final exams. At least the weather was improving.
Two hours before dinnertime, Red Dorm went upstairs to their room.
The four members of the dorm sat on two beds, Shin sitting by herself and the other three facing her. The red panda sat and watched, saying nothing as Tatiana, Brigit and Liberty read over the six typewritten pages of her report. Notes were being taken.
When the New Havenite finished the last page Shin asked, “What do you think?”
The half-coyote sneered. “Your report is neither complete nor conclusive.” She didn’t tear the papers in half; the same action a year ago had earned her a black eye and a bloody nose – along with many demerit points.
“Okay. What’d I miss?”
“We’ll be askin’ th’ questions,” Brigit warned. The Irish setter brushed back an errant lock of headfur and asked, “Now then, which way had ye been runnin’?”
“Ye reached the tree.”
“You went to the south side of the tree,” Tatiana said.
“And you placed your paw – right paw – on the trunk.”
“What position was your paw in?”
The questions lasted a bit more than half an hour as the setter and the sable interrogated the red panda’s actions concerning the attack on her. They even had her stand and recreate several of her movements during the incident, Tatiana giggling quietly when the Chinese girl pantomimed kicking the canine in the groin. Finally Brigit and Tatiana nodded to Liberty, who had been jotting her own notes in her usual precise paw-writing.
A very unhealthy look came to the Trotskyite canine’s eyes. “My turn. Now, Wo Shin, tell me – truthfully: What was your state of mind before the first bullet was fired?”
The shift in the questioning made Shin sit back. “What? Well, ah – “
“ANSWER THE QUESTION!” the half-coyote suddenly shouted, half-rising from her seat. Shin started to stand as well, but subsided as the canine smiled. “This will go faster,” Liberty said in a silky tone, “if you cooperate.”
The red panda replied, “I was thinking of a good place to hide so I could complete the exercise.”
“And what were you thinking when the bullet hit the tree?”
“I didn’t think. I reacted.”
Liberty jotted a few lines in her notebook. “What did you think after you took cover?”
Shin suppressed a sigh. The New Havenite had claimed once that she had been taught interrogation techniques by some of her father’s comrades in the Red Fist. She now seemed determined to prove her claims.
The questioning continued for the rest of the two hours. Liberty did her best to keep the Chinese member of their dorm off-balance by going back and forth randomly across the incident’s timeline, snatching Shin’s answers from her and immediately asking another question.
Finally, with the clock by Brigit’s bed showing six o’clock, Liberty closed her notebook. “I think we have enough information, don’t you?”
Brigit studied her own notebook. “Aye.”
Tatiana nodded. “Da.”
Liberty smiled, and it wasn’t a pleasant expression. She had honestly enjoyed the questioning. “Good. We’re done, Shin. After dinner we’ll get our report typed up so we can turn ours in along with yours tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Shin mumbled as she stood and went to wash up. The experience had been an unsettling one for her, to say the least.
But she felt confident of two things.
One, that Stagg wouldn’t question her as thoroughly as her dorm-mates had.
And she knew that her report and the one the others were writing would meet with the Tutor’s approval.