Luck of the Dragon: Hobson's Choice© 2008 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
“Cranium Island?” Shin repeated, as if doubting what her ears had just told her. Recovering herself quickly she asked, “Are you certain you want me to be your pilot? I know nothing about the place, so I’d be a poor native guide.” She forced herself to keep from asking if they were both insane, but then it was rumored that quite a lot of people on Cranium were sanity-challenged.
It made sense that a whole island of madmen would attract other loonies.
Fisher smiled and made a curious motion with his left paw across his tie tack, as if he were stroking it. “You are familiar with the island’s reputation, as well as the waters around it.”
“Everyone living in the Nimitz Sea knows Cranium’s reputation,” Shin said. “That’s why it’s marked with big red letters that read STAY AWAY. I don’t do suicide missions.”
“True,” Cobb said, “and this is not a suicide mission. You have two slight advantages over the other candidates.”
“You have a junior student in your school from that place,” the avian said. “You could ask her a few things that would help us.”
The Chinese girl twitched an ear. Considering how she and her dorm mates had tweaked Nancy Rote’s tail time and again, she really didn’t think Alpha Rote would be forthcoming with any information – short of a recipe for red panda jerky.
Few people knew what the shrew carried in her pockets, and fewer still felt courageous enough to ask.
Still, she stayed in her seat. “What kind of things? And what is the other ‘slight advantage?’” Apart from my gullibility, apparently, she thought.
She could almost hear her father lecturing her about being too trusting in a business venture.
“Any advice she might have for visitors. Also, you’re a rational person, believing only what your senses tell you,” the calico feline said. “You won’t be taken in.”
By what? “Flattery will get you nowhere, I’m afraid.”
“It’s not flattery, Mrs. Wo. We’ve checked around before asking for you, and we believe that you are the best pilot for this job.”
“And what is the job?”
Cobb smiled, a rather interesting expression for a creature whose beak was supposedly rigid. “That is our business. As we said, you fly us to Cranium Island. We’ve hired a plane that should be sufficient for our needs, and it’s on floats so you won’t actually have to land on solid ground. Standard pilot’s rate of pay, forfeited if you don’t return the plane to the people we hired it from.”
“So you won’t need me to guide you.”
“No, we won’t.”
She cupped her chin with a paw, eyes narrowing, then asked again, “Specifically, what kind of things do you want me to ask Alpha Rote about?”
Shin had been right. At first the shrew had refused to even look at her, and then refused to speak to her. It had taken two dishes of durian ice cream at Song Sodas to get the girl to sit down and hear her out.
When the red panda had finished, Alpha Zarahoff Rote sat perfectly still for exactly one minute (the longest anyone at Songmark had ever seen her sit still) before asking in her usual precise tones, “Describe these two again. Exactly.”
Shin did so, even down to the curious gesture Fisher had made; as much detail as she could recall. When she was done, Alpha thought for a few seconds longer before smiling sunnily.
“Tell them to only travel by day, to head west, and to avoid starting a fire,” the shrew said, and obstinately refused to say anything else.
“She said that? She said only that?” Fisher pressed the next day.
“Yes,” she replied for the third time. She flourished a scrap of paper. “I even wrote it down.”
The two looked at each other. Some sort of signal passed between them, and Fisher said, “All right. This week, Edmund?”
“Sooner the better, Alan.” The bird turned to Shin. “When’s the earliest you can fly us there?”
“Depends,” she said, “on what type of aircraft you have, and when I can secure permission to go. Say, this coming weekend?”
“Acceptable,” Fisher said, his whiskers twitching slightly. “The plane is a single-engine monoplane with a rotary engine.”
Shin thought for a moment. Rotary engine? Does he think I’m stupid, or is he? “It might have enough range for a non-stop flight, depending on how much luggage you’ll be carrying. Depending on that and the weather you may be looking at a refueling stop at Mildendo Island. Is that okay?”
Again, the cat and the bird looked at each other, then Cobb nodded, raising a paw to smooth back the feathers on the back of his neck. “Well, with that settled, let’s get the contract signed and witnessed, shall we?”
“If we do,” Shin said, “I’ll want triple what you’re offering to pay me. Hazard pay,” she added, looking from one to the other.
“Hmm,” Fisher said, and again the two shared a significant glance. “Can we negotiate?”
“That’s up to you,” came the flat reply.
Cobb cocked an eye at her, and started haggling. Shin stood her ground and eventually the trio settled on paying her two and a quarter times the going rate. When she finally nodded in assent to the terms, the feline sighed. “Very well, Mrs. Wo. You drive hard bargains, but then I’d expect that. Done.”
The contract was simply written, with no florid legal language. The amount she was to be paid was lined through and the new figure initialed by all three of them. Each page was numbered ‘1 of 4,’ ‘2 of 4,’ and so on. The last page was partially blank, and she sniffed at the paper for any sign of invisible ink before she drew a thick X over the blank portion.
Only then did she sign it.
The Pilot’s Union representative was a notary, and he witnessed the signatures and sealed the document. When he took the contract away to be recorded, Cobb extended a paw, a business card in his fingers. “We’ll be waiting for you, Mrs. Wo. Please let us know when you’ll be able to leave.”
She looked at the card. All it bore was Fisher’s name, the same curious symbol of a chemist’s retort, and a paw-written phone number. “I will.”
“Cranium Island? Are ye daft, girl?” Brigit exclaimed. Tatiana and Liberty just stared openmouthed at their compatriot, the Russian looking concerned and the New Havenite finally managing to appear indifferent (she was still mad at the red panda over the Dewey Commission news last month, and looked as if she felt that Songmark’s loss might be Cranium’s gain). “Look,” the Irish setter said, “I know ye’ve been after wantin’ ta get a job an’ add more hours ta yer log, Shin, but have ye taken a giant leap away from yer good senses?”
Shin smiled, propping her chin on her fist as she sat on her bed. “No, Brigit, I haven’t gone crazy. It’s actually a pretty good deal, and I don’t have to set foot on dry land.” Her smile widened. “At more than double the pay, too.”
“But what of the waters around the place?” Tatiana asked skeptically.
“Well, I’m not going there naked,” she told the sable. “I plan on going well-prepared.”
Liberty spoke up. “I’m told that those precautions won’t work, with some of the things they have there,” and she smiled unpleasantly.
The red panda favored the half-coyote with a sour smile. “Want to come with me, Liberty, and find out if it’s true? I’m sure the mad scientists there would benefit from an exposition of Trotskyite dialectic.” Her smile broadened as the New Haven girl scowled. “I’m not going blind, either. I’m from this area, and everyone’s heard stories about Cranium and what goes on there. Odd place, if Alpha’s any example.
“The hard part will be getting our tutors to agree to let me go.”
Catherine Devinski scowled at Shin as the red panda finished laying out her case. Her copy of the contract lay on the desk, and the Labrador tapped at the small sheaf of paper with a claw. “A weekend trip to Cranium Island,” the canine finally said in a deceptively soft voice.
“Yes, ma’am.” Shin stood at attention.
“I’ve seen no sign of a death wish in you, Shin. Did that canine shooting at you last month affect you mentally?”
The red panda flicked her ears forward. “No, ma’am. As I’ve stated, the two gave their reasons for wanting to go, and the contract stipulates very clearly that my job is to take them there and leave. Which I plan to do immediately,” she added.
“And it is your plan to adhere to the letter of the contract?”
“So you’re not going to leave them in the lurch on Mildendo? Or Krupmark?”
Shin smiled. “No, ma’am. If I’m going to establish a reputation as a commercial pilot, I need to follow this contract to the best of my ability.”
“All nicely legal?”
A smile. “Absolutely, ma’am.”
Devinski nodded, tapping the side of her muzzle with a finger as she thought for a moment more. Finally she said in a brisk tone, “You will receive a pass for this weekend. You will also adhere strictly to your contract, as agreed, and you will file a report with us when you return. If you are late in returning, I will expect a full account. Clear?”
Shin straightened. “Yes, ma’am.”
A smile touched the canine’s lips. “I will also insist you be examined afterward. You are dismissed.”
“Ma’am.” Shin turned and walked out of the office.
Finding the plane that she was expected to fly had proved to be no problem. After leaving the school grounds that afternoon she had called the contact number on the card and spoke with Cobb. Surprisingly, the pigeon seemed brusque, almost rude as he gave her directions to an address on the opposite side of Eastern Island. She barely had time to thank him before the line went dead.
The address proved to be a small house, neatly whitewashed, with an adjoining dock. The sign out in front read Friends Mission Air Service.
Shin noticed a young blonde-furred equine sweeping the front porch, and she called out, “Hello!”
The young woman (who seemed to be as old as the red panda) paused and leaned on her broom, one paw flicking a stray lock of headfur from her face. “Hello!” she said cheerfully. “Are you Wo Shin?”
The girl switched to Mandarin Chinese almost effortlessly, causing Shin’s ears to perk up in surprise. “Good. We were told you were coming to look at the plane. I’m Esther. Come on inside and I’ll fetch some tea.”