Luck of the Dragon: Dealing a Cold Deck© 2008 by Walter Reimer
A’alati turned out to be a slim canine about the same age as Billy, who laughed at a joke the colt made as he clambered into the canoe and eyed Shin curiously. He’d probably never seen a red panda before, and for her part Shin was a bit envious of the native.
It was tropically hot and humid, of course, and she could feel sweat starting to mat down her fur under her clothes. A’alati wore a decorative comb in his headfur, and not a stitch else. Of course, the boy’s fur was oiled and brushed, but that was fairly normal and even fashionable for this part of the world.
The islander, on the other paw, gave her more than a few stares. His gaze seemed to dwell on the pistol adorning her hip and the other firearm nestled under her right armpit. Various bulges elsewhere indicated the presence of at least two knives.
Billy noticed A’alati’s gaze and made a remark in the native language that caused the canine to shrug. “What’re you saying?” Shin asked.
“I told him that you trust in your guns like we trust in the Lord,” the colt said.
“It’s a dangerous world, Billy,” Shin said tersely, keeping her opinion of the Gallup’s religion firmly to herself. They were a job, nothing more.
Just as – no, far more dangerous to me than to you, she thought to herself. Kidnapping for ransom was a sport on Krupmark Island, and she knew that there were those who’d pay handsomely to get their paws on a Songmark girl at any level of training. A third-year, even if she hadn’t started yet at that level, would be a jewel worth almost any price.
It’d be impossible to ransom her back if she did get caught.
And she was alone, and far away from her usual bodyguards (yes, she knew they were with her on Spontoon despite them not being seen) and left to her own wits and abilities. While those were formidable, she was a realist.
Suddenly it felt a bit colder, under the tropical sun.
“Shin!” Esther Gallup called out, a grin breaking out across her muzzle as she waved to the newcomer. “I’m so glad to see you made it.” The equine tossed back her blonde mane. “Has Billy been bothering you about the races?” Mrs. Gallup wore khaki shorts and a loose shirt; her husband was similarly dressed but without a shirt. They were seated on woven grass mats beside an elderly couple near the island’s chief and what appeared to be his wife and one of his children.
“Well, only a little,” the red panda replied, winking at the colt, “but it was an exciting week. The Germans won.”
“Not a big surprise there,” Esther’s husband William said, giving his mate a gentle hug. “Anything else going on back on Spontoon?”
“Not really. Tourist season, mainly – you did well to come down here and get away from it all.”
The brown-furred horse smiled. “Well, we haven’t exactly been idle. Have you met the O’Learys? They live here year-round and we’ve been their guests the past month.”
Shin smiled pleasantly at the pair of canines, and offered a paw. “Wo Shin.”
Mr. O’Leary, a gaunt Irish setter with his headfur predominantly gray, took her paw and shook it strongly. “Sean O’Leary. This is my wife, Mary.” The woman (who obviously looked like she had some wolfhound ancestry at some point) then shook Shin’s paw just as strongly. “Please, sit down. We were waiting for sundown to start eating.”
“Thank you,” and the red panda sat. She smiled as pleasantly as she could to the tribal chief, who nodded stoically and caressed the headfur of the small child seated at his knee. The boy giggled and squirmed.
The rest of the tribe arrived, with a group of men bringing in a whole roast pig and women bearing trays of fruit and other foods. Drums started to play, building to a crescendo and crashing to a stop as Mr. O’Leary stood up to say a blessing.
Shin kept still as the canine spoke in the tribal dialect before sitting down. The rest of the tribe sat down and the feast started.
The Chinese girl enjoyed the food, knowing that she wouldn’t be eating as well as this in about a week. About midway through the meal Mrs. O’Leary leaned over and asked, “Where are you from, Shin?”
“China. Well, I was born in Tientsin.”
“Really! I know the city well. Your accent isn’t quite Chinese, though. William and Esther here say you live on Spontoon.”
“Does your family live there too?”
“My husband and I do.” Shin smiled. “Most of my family lives . . . on Krupmark Island.”
Both older Gallups immediately turned to stare at her, ears pointed straight forward.
She hadn’t told them.
Mr. O’Leary nodded sagely. “Interesting place, so I’ve been told. Tell me, Shin, are any of the Lord’s servants on Krupmark?”
That depends on what ‘Lord’ you’re talking about. The red panda shrugged. “There’s one woman living there, that I know of,” she replied, carefully refraining from telling him that the woman also acted as a factor for some of the less reputable houses on The Beach. “Oh, and then there’s Mad Mac.”
“Who?” William Gallup asked.
“I don’t really know much about him.” Shin drew one knee up to her chest while her other leg stuck straight out. “There’ve been stories, though – but he is, quite definitely, mad. Used to be a priest of some sort or other, so I’m told.”
“Ah, poor fellow,” Mrs. O’Leary said, shaking her head. “Sean, we’ll have to remember him in our prayers tonight.”
“So we will, Mary.” He patted her paw reassuringly.
A bit later, after a filling feast and hulas danced by the women and the men of the tribe, Shin stood up and walked to the extreme edge of the firelight. She leaned against a tree and looked up at the stars.
“Looking for answers?” She turned as Esther came up beside her.
“Just looking up.” Shin’s teeth gleamed in the feeble light as she grinned. “I’m taught to find my own answers.”
“I see. We didn’t know you lived on Krupmark.”
“You didn’t ask.” Shin straightened and faced the woman. “Does that change things? Are you going to fire me when we get back to Spontoon?”
Esther gave a soft nickering chuckle. “No.”
That surprised her.
“We believe that all people are inherently good, Shin. And we think you’re a good pilot.” Both women chuckled at that.
Shin almost gave her usual and very obvious answer about Songmark training, but said, “I keep my end of a contract. My family weren’t always on Krupmark.”
“I’ll hold you to your contract then, and so will William, I’m sure. We’ve arranged a bed for you with the Cuthbertson’s,” she said, naming the couple who ran the radio station, “and you can fly us back to Spontoon in the morning.” A pause. “Is Songmark really as tough as they say it is?”
Shin thought a moment.
“No. It’s tougher.”
The next day and over a hundred miles from Notrubble Atoll Shin finished plotting her position, tapped at a fuel gauge and frowned.
The elder Gallup saw her expression and asked, “Something wrong?”
“Maybe. We’re hitting strong headwinds and we may not have enough fuel to reach Spontoon,” Shin replied. She glanced at the chart in her lap and noted the distances from their current position to the nearest islands. “I suggest that we stop and refuel. I’d feel safer with full tanks for the rest of the trip, William.”
He nodded judiciously. “You’re the pilot. Where do you suggest? Howes Atoll’s not too far off our route.”
The red panda frowned at the horse. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
She considered. “Call it . . . inside information.” Howes was a small smuggler hotbed, and some of the furs there were less than scrupulous. “Our best bet’s Caprara, with the Syndicate base there. Hard dealers, but we can at least get fuel and they don’t water it down. Or try to strip the plane for parts.”
“I . . . see, I think. Well, how far are we from Caprara, then?”
“Hmm. Maybe fifty miles, with a crosswind from the right nearly the whole way.” She caught his glance and laughed. “Don’t worry. I want to get home just as much as you do.” She set the radio to the proper frequency for the Naval Syndicate and let the set warm up before making contact. “Fox Two-Nine Yoke to Syndicate Base Caprara, come in. Base Caprara, come in.”
“-ead you, Two-Nine Yoke.”
“We’re on a flight to Spontoon about fifty miles out, southwest of you at five. Requesting approach and landing, over.”
“Two-Nine Yoke, are you declaring an emergency?”
“No, no emergency, Caprara Tower, but we need fuel.”
“Getting a DF fix on you now, Two-Nine Yoke. I hope you can pay – this ain’t a charity we’re running here.”
Gallup looked at her and Shin chuckled, making sure the microphone was open when she did. “Don’t worry, Caprara Tower. Over.”
“Gotcha, Two-Nine Yoke. Come right to course oh-two-oh and hold; that’ll bring you straight to us. Oh, and don’t mind the fighters in the area, over.”
“Roger, Caprara Tower. I’ll call back when I have you in sight.” Shin slipped the microphone into its bracket and started to bank the plane slightly. She laughed softly to herself and said to Gallup, “Rain Islanders.”
“Are they always so mercenary?” the missionary asked. “I thought they were a socialist country.”
The red panda shrugged, adjusting the plane’s heading as the headwind became a crosswind. Their heading would require constant attention from this point until they landed in order to avoid being sent off course. “They still believe in money. Don’t get me wrong; if we were in actual trouble they’d help and for free, too. But this is just a refueling stop, and only about half a tank as well. If things go well we should be back at Spontoon before sundown.”
It was actually shortly after sundown but still daylight when the Eastern Island tower allowed the Waco to set down in the lagoon and taxi to its dock near the Gallup’s house. Shin busied herself with a post-flight inspection while the father and son unloaded their small amount of baggage. Esther Gallup had gone on ahead, to open up and air out the house.
“Good flying, Shin,” William said to her after everything was done. He offered her his paw, and as they shook he asked, “You look a bit troubled. Is everything okay?”
Shin replied, “Well, before you ask me to go any long distances again I’d like to take a close look at the plane and the engine, if you don’t mind. I start back at school next week, so I’ll try to get it all done by then.”
“You’re showing a high regard for our safety, Shin.”
“And my own, William.” She tapped the side of her muzzle. “Self-interest, you know.”
An office, its size cloaked in shadows, with one solitary lamp casting a pale illumination on two figures seated at a desk. Papers rustled as they were read and passed back and forth before being replaced in a tan dossier.