Luck of the Dragon: Hobson's Choice© 2008 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters by permission of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
Shin stopped at Mildendo again, and while the plane was being serviced she walked to the nearest bar, a ramshackle establishment called Fenian Haven that billed itself as the ‘northernmost Irish pub in the Pacific.’ She thought Brigit might enjoy the place, if she ever came out this way.
While she was there she bought and downed two stiff shots of uncut whiskey (paying extra for the good stuff), and browsed some of the shops until she felt her nerves steady themselves sufficiently for her to continue on to Spontoon. It was already well past noon, and she didn’t want to fly at night.
She still felt a bit rattled by what she had seen.
“Fox Two-nine Yoke to Spontoon Tower, come in please.”
“Read you, Two-nine Yoke. Go ahead.”
“Ten miles outbound to north, altitude fifteen hundred, requesting landing clearance according to filed flight plan. Over.”
“Understood, Two-nine Yoke. Traffic pattern two hundred below you; change course ten degrees to starboard to join the line.”
“Understood.” As soon as she was clear of Main Island she descended slightly and joined the landing pattern.
After several minutes her turn came, and she touched the plane down in the seaplane area north of Eastern Island. “Nice landing, Two-nine Yoke,” the tower commented. “Taxi to the Customs shed, please.”
“Roger.” One of the problems in being wholly legitimate and legal, Shin grumbled to herself, was that one had to deal with government in all its various forms.
It hadn’t occurred to her to ask certain people she knew on Mildendo if they had wanted any packages delivered to Spontoon (an indication of how unsettled her experience had left her), so she was passed through Customs without a murmur. She signed for and watched as her weapons (including two more knives and a .45-caliber derringer) were secured in the shed’s gun safe before getting back in the plane and taxiing back to the Gallup’s dock.
“Hello!” the Gallup’s son, a colt who looked to be about ten years old, called out as Shin shut off the engine and stepped out onto a float to moor the plane safely. “Need any help?”
Shin smiled at him. “Sure. Lend a paw with this line, okay?” The young equine leaped to obey her, and between the two of them they got the biplane securely fastened to the dock. As they were finishing up and Shin pulled her charts from the cabin the boy’s father appeared on the dock.
“I see you met Billy,” the elder Gallup said. “How’d the plane handle?”
“Very well,” Shin replied. “The round trip was only a bit over five hundred miles – well within the range, and I never pushed the engine very hard.”
“Good. It’ll be dinnertime soon, and you’re welcome to join us if you wish.”
“That’s certainly generous of you,” the red panda said, “but I have to get back to Songmark and make my report.” She laughed. “I’ll manage to get dinner eventually.”
“Well, the offer’s open,” Gallup said as he gently shooed his son back to the house. “Say, if you’re free tomorrow afternoon, my wife and I have another business proposition for you.”
“I’ll make time to be here. Speaking of which – “
The equine grinned. “Of course.” He led her into the house where he took a bulky envelope from a bookshelf and gave it to her. “Here’s your pay. Do you want to count it?”
“If you don’t mind.” He stood quietly as she broke the seal on the envelope, removed the sheaf of Spontoonie currency and hurriedly counted it. Yes, it was all here, to the cowrie. “Thank you, Mr. Gallup,” she said, offering a paw.
“You’re welcome,” he said as they shook paws. “And remember to drop by tomorrow if you can.”
She stopped by Mahanish’s, the restaurant between Songmark and the airport, and indulged herself in a bowl of their famous caustic chili and a cold Nootnops Red before walking over to the academy gates. Madeleine was at the gate, and the poodle eyed her flight suit before searching her. “Anything you may be hiding, Shin?” she asked.
“No drugs or booze, Madeleine,” and the Chinese girl laughed. “Anything else I leave to your imagination.”
“Shin.” She turned as Miss Blande called her name, and she stood at attention as the tutor walked around her. “Miss Devinski said you were to be examined. Follow me.”
They went straight to the small medical station, where Mrs. Oelabe was waiting. Without being ordered to do so, Shin swiftly stripped herself down to her fur and submitted to a thorough physical by the matron. When she was done, Oelabe nodded and Miss Blande said, “Well, you are apparently in good health, Shin. Get dressed and come with me.”
To her surprise, Shin was led to Song Sodas and Miss Blande indicated one of the back rooms. “Go on in.”
“Miss Blande? I’ve already been examined – “ Shin started to say.
The tutor held up a paw. “You know Cranium Island’s reputation. Not everything that happens there can turn up in a physical exam. So, in you get.”
Shin opened the door and stepped in. “Oh, no.”
“Oh yes,” Amelia Bourne-Phipps said in the serious tone she reserved for dealing with recalcitrant junior students. Her American friend, Helen Ducros, sat at a table, her arms folded over her chest. Amelia shut the door behind Shin and said, “We’ve been told to see if you got into anything, or vice-versa. Please, have a seat.”
When Shin hesitated Helen said in her Texas drawl, “Ah reckon ya still ain’t figgered out how ta folla orders, Shin. Sit down.”
The red panda shrugged. “Oh, I can follow orders, Ducros. But it depends on who’s giving the orders,” and she sat.
The tiger lit a six-inch long candle and moved it to the center of the table as Amelia switched off the lights. “Just watch the candle,” the English feline said, “and we’ll do the rest.”
“Okay.” These two were being trained as priestesses, or so she’d heard. There’d be no harm in playing along, although she really wanted to go home afterward and spend the night with Fang.
“We’re done.” Shin blinked and sat up (when did she slouch?) as the lights came back on and Helen blew out the tiny stub of the candle. A quick glance at her watch and she wondered where the half-hour had gone.
“So, did you find anything?” she asked the two senior students. “Or did you just hypnotize me and make me do dog tricks?”
“Well,” Amelia said with a slight smile, “we didn’t have you do any tricks. You didn’t pick up anything on Cranium Island, though.”
She sounded a bit uncertain, and Shin, curious, asked, “What?”
“Ya been to that church on Krupmark?” Helen asked.
“Couple times, yeah.”
“Just a couple?” came the posh British accent behind her.
“Four, maybe. I just wanted to see what was going on,” the red panda replied with a slightly mischievous smile. “I stopped going after I met Fang. Why? You interested in going back there sometime soon, Lady Allworthy?” She snickered as the feline’s ears went back a bit.
“Hmm,” Amelia said in a disapproving tone, clearly not wanting to rise to the taunt. “Well, we’re done here. You can go see Miss Devinski now,” and Amelia opened the door.
After the Chinese girl left: “You saw it, of course.”
“How couldn’t Ah? Plain as day.”
Shin knocked on the office door, trying to contain her impatience. She started mentally calculating when the Songmark gates would close, and how long after that the water taxis would stop running.
“Come in.” Miss Devinski smiled as the younger red panda entered. “I see that you’ve returned, and Mrs. Oelabe says you passed your physical.”
“And you brought nothing back from Mildendo?”
Shin had long since accepted the fact that the Tutors had sources of information that reached in more directions than she could count. She envied that. “Nothing, ma’am.”
“Well done, then. I look forward to reading your report. Enjoy your weekend,” and the Chinese girl left.
As soon as she was outside the gates Shin breathed a sigh of relief, and practically ran for the taxi rank.
The next morning Fang stirred and sat up, groaning as he stretched. “Shin?” he asked, yawning.
“In here,” and the smell of eggs and bacon met his nose. He got up to find his wife, still in her fur, cooking breakfast. He hugged her and the two shared a kiss. “Good morning, sleepyhead.”
“Good morning yourself,” the Manchurian tiger said as he poured a cup of coffee. He sipped at it and asked, “So, things went well yesterday?”
“Very. It was a short job, but it paid well,” and Shin passed him a full plate. “The people who own the plane said they wanted to talk to me this afternoon.”
She shrugged, bringing her own plate to the small kitchen table. “Maybe. I’ll have to find out more about them.” She grinned as she sprinkled pepper sauce on her eggs. “Great plane, though, practically brand new and a lot better than anything I’ve ever flown before.”
The tiger winked. “So, now I have a rival?”
“Jealous, widdle kitty?”
A grin. “Only if you start neglecting me, my ringtailed beauty. Anything else from that shooting last month?”
“Nothing, apart from us getting bonus points for describing how we would have questioned that guy,” she giggled.
“Let me know what you find out about those people,” Fang said, wiping his mouth with the back of his paw. “I need to get a shower.”
“Missionaries! Can you believe it?” Shin asked indignantly when they met for lunch. “They’re Quakers.”
Fang frowned. “What are they? Christians?”
“Something like that, I suppose,” his wife said in an irritated tone. “I thought they seemed a bit – well, too cheerful, and the wife knew Mandarin pretty well.”
There was a short silence as Shin muttered to herself, until Fang asked, “Are you still going to go talk to them later?”
“Yeah, I should,” she admitted. “Just to hear them out. My reputation might suffer if they start spreading lies about me – that is, if I snub them.”
Fang nodded. “Where are they now?”
“Holding services at the Temperance Hall,” she grumbled. “You know how the Althing feels about stupid Euros setting up churches.”
She wore her best Songmark uniform, the blazer meticulously brushed and the uniform skirt freshly ironed. As she waited by the Gallup’s front gate she felt that she’d start melting soon if she didn’t get out of the mid-June sun.
“Oh, hello Shin!” and she turned to smile at William Gallup as he and his family strode up. “Punctual, I see. Been waiting long?’
“Not very,” she replied as Esther and young Billy went into the house. “You said that you wanted to talk with me.”
The equine looked her up and down slowly, then leaned against the porch railing. “Okay,” he said in a businesslike tone. “We were expecting a pilot to go along with the plane, but we got a cable a week ago.”
“He’s not coming?”
“No, he isn’t. We weren’t sure what to do, but when Fisher and Cobb contracted with us, and picked you, it gave me an idea. What I’d like to do is hire you on as our new pilot.”