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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer

Chapter 137

Luck of the Dragon: Hobson's Choice
© 2008 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber.  Thanks!)

Chapter One-hundred-thirty-seven

        The sign over the shop read Ni & Sons, Investments in English, Spontoonie, and Chinese.
        Hidden within the intricate Oriental motifs around the sign were Spontoonie ideographs for prosperity and protection, and good luck hexagrams from the I Ching.
        Along with three different Tong symbols.
        Peng-wum had arrived a bit early to look over the place before it officially opened that morning at nine o’clock, and he had to admit he was very pleased.  Money can command speed as well as quality, and the business office was ahead of schedule (and only slightly over budget).  The interior smelled of new paint, the desks arranged just so.
        The repeating telegraph in one corner chirped away, spitting a long trail of paper tape into a waste basket.  The red panda walked over and looked at it, reading the stock quotes fresh from San Francisco, who had gotten them from New York.
         Knowing something about the distances involved in getting across the United States, it still amazed him at how anything managed to get done consistently in that country.  Peng-wum let the tape slip from his paws and watched with a smile as the telegraph continued to chatter.
        When Wu Tang had attempted to ruin the family in 1935, Peng-wum had been forced to find safe havens for some of the family’s money.  An article concerning the possible bankruptcy of a telegraph company (unable to compete on an equal footing with the larger firms) had appeared on the back pages of a financial journal, and the company’s plight had caught his eye.
        After some consideration he had an agent approach them, and learned that United North Pacific Telegraph was skirting very close to receivership and needed an immediate infusion of cash.  The agent made an offer that would have made the Ni Family the majority stockholder by a razor-thin margin.
        With creditors waiting (in some cases, literally) outside the door, the company’s board of directors had been looking for a white knight on horseback.  The offer was accepted gratefully after only a token show of reluctance.
        The actual owners of the majority stock were shielded from prying eyes by the usual welter of shell corporations and blind alleys, with only one condition – that the telegraph company set aside a portion of its unused capacity for “privileged business communications.”
        One director demurred, and was reminded by his fellows that the company would go under without the financial support.
        The unused capacity (and a clandestine cable) allowed communications to flow directly to Krupmark without recourse to either couriers or radio, and the new ciphering system guaranteed at least a modicum of security.  It was hoped by the code’s creator that the Spontoon Constabulary wouldn’t be able to crack the code readily, or his own life would be immediately forfeit.
        Of course, the Nis charged what could be considered reasonable fees for the use of the cable by the other concerns on Krupmark, and many of them were happy to pay in exchange for timely and secure information.
        Peng-wum sat down at his own desk as the first members of the office staff walked in.  They were all Chinese of a mix of species, carefully selected for their skills and all dressed identically in white shirts and dark blue trousers.  One came in with a bundle of mail under one arm, while another held a number of United North Pacific telegrams in his paws.
        Work started at nine o’clock as the bells of Saint Paul’s struck the hour.
        Peng-wum was pleased.


        “Your report states that you scaled the fence at a corner.”
        “Yes, ma’am.  I judged that I could get over the fence there, as the junction of the barbed wire – “
        “Strands of hair from your tail were found there, so that corroborates your report.”  Miss Cardroy turned to another page, read it over and laid the report down.  “The flaw in our security will be addressed.  Your term finals start today?”
        “Yes, ma’am.”
        “The first one starts in two minutes.  On your way.”
        Finals Week.
        All of the second year students had been looking forward to it, with a mixture of fear and anticipation.  Fear, because the first year finals had been tough, and the next year’s was promised to be tougher; anticipation, because successful completion of the finals meant that the students had one more year of Songmark before graduation.
        The third year held its own terrors, if the looks on the faces of the 1937 graduating class were any indication.
        Shin slid into her seat in the classroom along with the other members of Red Dorm, took out her pencils and other equipment, and the first test booklet was placed before her.  “Study the problem on the board,” Miss Blande said.  “I want three possible solutions, and show your work in detail.  You may begin.”


        Nine in the morning on Spontoon meant that it was early evening in the bustling southern U.S. port of New Orleans.  President Long had bestowed some of his largesse on his home state’s largest city, improving the levee system and extending the highways to encourage more business.
        Business, and the money it generates, attracts those who want to invest in it, participate in it, or exploit it.
        The Fairmont Hotel was one of (if not the best) hotel in the city, and at this time in the evening in mid-July its restaurant, the Sazerac Room, was serving to those furs who braved the heat of a Louisiana summer in order to make contacts and negotiate deals.
        A squat, burly mouse got up from his seat as a younger otter was shown into the private dining room.  “Don Emmanuel!” the rodent said, shaking paws vigorously with the younger man.  “Welcome to New Orleans.  This your first time out here?”
        Manny Carpanini smiled.  Ignacio Muso was the boss of New Orleans, his territory reaching from Mobile all the way to Dallas and north where it rubbed against the rival territory located in St. Louis.  “Yes, this is my first time out here, Don Ignacio, and I’m glad you could see me.  I hear you haven’t been well.”
        “Ah, doctors, whadda they know.  C’mon, sit down and tell me how things are going in Hollywood.”  The otter and the mouse sat as the rest of their party entered the room; two women dressed in expensive evening gowns, two lawyers and a total of six bodyguards. 
        As always, the hotel staff had been informed about who and what to expect.
        One of the women was a dark-furred feline, whose red silk dress fitted her as if she had been sewn into it, and the other was a slim canine wearing a light blue gown.  She was Chinese, a fact Don Ignacio noted.  The two lawyers were the Carpanini’s consigliere, Paul Conti, and Don Ignacio’s lawyer, Ralph Wisenbaker.  The raccoon and the wolf both looked as if they welcomed the Fairmont’s use of air conditioning.
        Over dinner the otter and the mouse talked about the businesses they were running, either directly or by proxy, and how well they were doing despite the still-shaky economy and President Long’s attempts at ‘leveling out’ the nation’s wealth.  Finally, the feline lit a cigar for Muso, who took a long drag and said, “I heard about that trouble you had a while back.  Joey No Nose got what was comin’ to him, an’ you got new friends.”
        Manny smiled as his current companion, named Yihan, sidled closer to his seat.  “Well, the deal with the Nis is very profitable,” and he winked, “and very attractive too, wouldn’t you say?”
        Muso laughed.  “Kathy here’s good for all sorts of cat and mouse games, if ya know whadda mean.”  The feline muttered something about “Her little angel” and got up to leave, and she gave a pleased yelp and a sultry smile as the mouse swatted her on her rear.
        After she left the room to powder her nose Don Ignacio slumped back in his seat.  “I swear, there’re times when I really want to just smash her head in with a brick.  But, back to business:  Ralph says we can profit by easing things with the unions hereabouts.”
        Manny glanced at Conti, who said, “Ralph and I have been trading letters about this for a while.”
        The otter nodded.  “We have certain goods that can earn us a handsome profit,” he explained, “in places like Miami.  Transporting it discreetly takes trustworthy people, and I know that the cut of the overall take could make it worth your while.” 
        Muso considered this while Manny sat back and caressed the paw Yihan had laid on his thigh.  He’d first resented this young woman foisted on him by the Los Angeles Tongs, but she was a good conduit for communications.
        Not to mention being very pretty.

        There was a lot to cover during the week:  Exams, more exams, practical exercises in survival, first aid, orienteering and everything having to do with flight – from maintenance to navigation to aerobatics. 
        By Friday morning, all of the second years looked tired, while the first years looked exhausted.
        Shin finished her last test and went upstairs, to find Liberty and Brigit already there.  The New Havenite had worked at her usual methodical pace, finishing first out of the quartet; Brigit had fretted her way through, apparently agonizing over every answer, but still managed to finish second.  “Tatiana still down there?” Liberty asked.
        “Yeah.  That last one was a killer,” the red panda complained as she threw herself across her bed.  The bed wasn’t quite as hard as the tree limb she’d slept on the previous weekend, but it was a near thing.  “Don’t run off, either of you,” she said.  “We still have unfinished business before we start our summer.”
        “I haven’t forgotten,” Liberty said, her hackles rising slightly.
        “Nor I,” Brigit added.

        “We still going to do this at that spot on South Island?” Tatiana asked later that afternoon.
        “I’ll be there,” Liberty said.
        “I know ye’ll be,” Brigit told the half-coyote.  “Ye’ve been blue-molded fer want o’ a beatin’ all term now.”
        All four stopped staring daggers at each other and looked toward Miss Cardroy as she appeared in the doorway.  “You will be pleased to know that all four of you have passed.  Dinner at the Bow Thai is on the Songmark staff tonight.”
        Shin smiled.  The Bow’s food was pleasantly spicy.

        After supper the four took a water taxi to South Island and made their way through the thick jungle to reach the deserted strip of beach.  Keeping their distance from each other, they each took up a defensive stance and waited for the first one to move.
        And waited.
        And waited.
        Night was falling fast, the white sand beach starting to look blue in the gloom.
        Finally Tatiana said, “We know each other too well, and we are too evenly matched.”
        “Aye,” Brigit agreed.
        “Try this again tomorrow?” Liberty asked.
        “I’m game,” Shin replied.
        Warily the four dropped their guard and headed into the heavy brush.
        As they walked along, Shin noted that Liberty’s back was to her . . . and there was a tree branch near at paw.
        The half-coyote yelped as the thin branch broke over her head, and the fight was on.  Tatiana turned to see what was going on and caught Brigit aiming a kick at her.
        The four of them fought each other all the way through the jungle to the water taxis, fighting until they were exhausted.
        At the dock Shin explored her mouth for any loose or missing teeth, while Liberty’s right eye was already showing signs of discoloration.  Brigit was limping and Tatiana was pressing a paw against her ribs on the right side, as though breathing too deeply pained her.  All four were disheveled and had bits of leaf litter and grass in their headfur and on their clothes.
        The bruises would likely start showing the next day.
        “We’ll have to do this again sometime,” Liberty said, “but not tomorrow.  I have work to do starting Monday with the Works Ministry.”
        “I agree,” said the Irish setter.  “I’ve a fine red-tailed hawk gentleman takin’ me out fer dinner tomorrow.”
        “Well, can we all agree that we’ve settled our business for this year?” Shin asked.  The other three nodded – Liberty grudgingly - and she said, “Great.  See you all in September.  I’m going to bed,” and with that she headed down the path that led to the Maha Kahuna.

ending the section "Hobson's Choice" and continuing in "Luck of the Dragon: Pilgrimage"