Luck of the Dragon: Dealing a Cold Deck© 2008 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
A pair of ivory chopsticks inlaid with a spiral of gold wire snaked out and selected a delicate dim sum from a plate, then lifted the morsel up to the waiting mouth. Chewing with obvious delight at the taste of the minced pork filling, Shen Jintao swallowed and smiled at his dinner guest. “I take it these poor dishes are sufficient?” he asked.
Ni Hei returned his patron’s smile. “Poor dishes? Honored Shen, this food is far too rich for one of my low status.” He paused and gave a soft belch. “In fact, I don’t think I could eat any more.” Actually he could have eaten another plate or two of the food set before them, but it was courteous to politely demur and declare that even a small amount had been enough to satisfy him.
The older wolf’s smile broadened. Ni Hei had been brought up well, that was certain, and despite his education in America and years on Krupmark Island he hadn’t forgotten any of it. He enjoyed these dinners, and the delicate back-and-forth that good manners demanded.
He politely pressed his guest to have more, which caused Hei to make a great show of reluctance while accepting another plate. Any discussion of business could wait until the food (prepared by Shen’s personal chef, a short Tibetan sand fox he had brought with him from China) was eaten and dishes were cleared away.
Small cones of fragrant incense were lit and added a gentle scent to the air as the remnants of the dinner were cleared away and a servant brought in another pot of tea. Another brought Shen his opium pipe, and the old wolf took a few puffs as Hei sipped at his refilled cup.
The Nis had returned to Krupmark a few days earlier. As expected, Clarence had the business of the family well in paw, and things were mainly doing well. Safeguards had been in put in place, of course, to make certain that the lion did his job and no one got greedy.
There had been only two things that needed to be taken care of.
First, one of the girls at the Lucky Dragon had required some disciplinary action. Being slightly older than the rest she had tried to take over in the pecking order from Mei Ling and Sally – doubly ironic, as she was a well-built Canadian goose.
There had also been some dark rumors floated that she was trying to wet her beak in the till, as well.
Peng had personally supervised breaking her, making certain that the process was filmed for later sale. Afterward she had sold the girl to the Black Sheep House for an insultingly minimum sum. Baader and Stephanie would take care of her from there, whereupon the goose would likely be sold off to Kuo Han.
The other matter was of some concern, mainly for Hao’s peace of mind.
As the Keystone had taxied to the dock, Hao had caught a glimpse of his Nin Hai floatplane and had suddenly started swearing in four dialects and three languages.
His prized Dragonfly was partially submerged in the lagoon, its floats and fuselage riddled by gunfire. The Garza-Huacatl moored nearby also had a few bullet holes in it.
The instant the flying boat had reached the dock Hao was out the door, racing along the dock before plunging into the shallows and wading out to the wreckage.
Hei hadn’t had to be near him to see that his youngest son was crying.
Inquiries were swiftly made and it was discovered that the damage wasn’t the result of any malice. The plane had simply gotten caught in the crossfire between two rival gangs of smugglers.
At first, Hei was worried that the destruction of the plane would send Hao into a rage. His youngest son had swallowed his anger, however, giving his parents hope that he was maturing. After learning what had happened he had dismantled the craft without comment, saving the salvageable parts and destroying the rest.
A day later he had left, taking a small pack with him and hiking up to the tiny cabin on the summit of Mount Krupp.
Two days after that he had taken his crew out with him aboard the company’s fishing trawler, headed west to see what might be profitable to acquire.
Hei had wished his youngest well, but found it difficult to put aside his worry.
He brought his attention back to his patron as Shen finally put the pipe aside. “What news have you had from Iran? Does our business go well there?”
Hei nodded, nose wrinkling a bit at the sweet smell of the opium. He’d never liked the stuff, but his distaste never got in the way of selling it.
Money, after all, didn’t smell.
“Our business goes well. I have had reports from our contacts that our traffic in opium and hashish has increased five percent. I, ah, have also started making a few contacts in the oil industry there.”
The wolf perked up, his eyes intent through his minor drug haze. “Oil?”
“Yes, Honored Shen. Machinery needs oil, yes? Profits will increase as the barbarians gird for war and stockpile more and more oil.”
A wide grin, showing one gold fang. “Good. You are doing very well, Esteemed Ni.” His ears dipped and his tail flicked a bit as he added, “But I must caution you against reaching too far. Too long a grasp may find itself being shortened.”
If Hei recognized Shen’s words as a threat, he didn’t show it.
Inside, he started thinking.
We’ll see about that.
“I would not think of overreaching, Honored Shen,” Hei said quietly. “I learned my lesson at Wu Tang’s paws when he tried to ruin my family.”
“A prudent course is always the safest,” Shen agreed, nodding. “So tell me,” he said after taking another sip of his tea, “is your youngest son married yet?”
Hei suppressed a frown. He’d already told Shen about this, and filed away the observation. “Not yet, sir. Hao is now formally engaged to the daughter of Hu Renmin, and they will be married in November.”
“Excellent news. It will bring harmony to the Tongs, for a while at any rate. Will they live here?”
“I am not certain.”
The conversation descended into trivialities until Shen started nodding. Rousing himself, the wolf said, “I have kept you too long, Esteemed Ni. Colonel Wen shall see to you and make sure you return safely home.”
“Thank you, Honored Shen.” Hei stood as the wolf got laboriously to his feet and shuffled out of the room. The red panda watched, and took note. After a moment the gaunt cat who led Shen’s private army stepped into the room.
Hei remained standing and tried not to show any nervousness in Wen’s presence. The former Chinese Army officer was a cold-blooded killer with markedly dissolute tastes even for those who lived on the hill overlooking Fort Bob.
When he had first brought his family to Krupmark, Hei had learned of Wen’s proclivities. He had managed to keep both Shin and Hao away from the feline until they were both over sixteen.
When they would no longer attract Wen’s interest.
“Esteemed Ni,’ the feline said in a soft, dry voice that almost reminded Hei rather jarringly of Inspector Stagg. “Please come with me, and I’ll escort you out to your truck.”
The sooner he was back down the hill, the better.
He felt most conspicuous, as always, walking out to the waiting truck, painfully aware of the guns pointed at him. Marco started the engine and they drove back through the town, and only after they pulled to a stop beside the Ni & Sons building did he breathe any easier.
Once back in his office Hei took a small ledger from the back of one of the desk drawers and added two notes about what he had seen. The ledger was a set of observations he’d started making two years ago, and as he glanced over the previous entries he noted that Shen was apparently starting to feel his age.
Hei closed the small ledger, eyes narrowing as he thought.
Shin finished the last stitch, feeling the needle prod at the pad of her forefinger. She tied off the thread, snipped it close to the knot and turned the sleeve of her blazer right side out to examine her work.
The third bar on the musical note, the mark of a third-year student at Songmark, was securely in place below the two older bars. The stitching was closely set and very tight.
And this time she hadn’t impaled her finger on the needle, as she had in her first year.
She smoothed out the blazer, put it back on its hanger and put it in the closet before packing away her small sewing kit. All Songmark girls had one, although the contents varied. Several people had asked her if she used steel wire for stitching in order to make her clothes bulletproof. Shin had laughed at the suggestion, saying that it wouldn’t work, and that rust would stain the fabric.
And that would cost her and Red Dorm points.
Of course, the lining of the blazer was not standard issue, being several crisscrossing layers of silk that could deflect a knife blade or an errant gunshot. Once the other members of Red Dorm had seen what she had done, they had followed suit as far as their resources allowed.
The first and second-year students would be starting class the next day, with her class starting a week later. Judging from what she’d seen of the previous graduates Red Dorm was in for a very strenuous time.
She glanced at the sunlight slanting into the room through the blinds. It was a hot afternoon.
But still . . .
After a few minutes a red panda dressed in shorts, shirt and heavy steel-toed boots left the bungalow at the Maha Kahuna for a run on the beach.
Through the soft sand.
As she ran, two figures with Guides training trailed after her and kept her in view as much as they could.
Liberty Morgenstern put on her school blazer and critically inspected her image in a mirror before allowing herself a rare smile. The final year of her Three-Year Plan was about to start, and although she couldn’t begin to claim success she could point to at least one accomplishment.
Namely, the photograph that sat in its frame beside the mirror, showing her seated next to the founder of the Fourth International - the closest thing to a patron saint the Red Fist would ever acknowledge.
The half-coyote stretched, feeling the new stitching in the blazer flex and strain as she tested her work. Yes, the stitching held quite well, as she expected it to. A full summer of honest proletarian labor in the summer heat had helped keep her from getting soft like the hordes of bourgeois tourists that annually descended on the islands like a swarm of locusts.
After her work with the road crews she had spent the better part of a week helping Brigit and Tatiana with Fast Eddie’s cargo service. The alcoholic fox had actually started sobering up, after repeated “re-education sessions” at her paws.
She cracked her knuckles at the memory.
Her third year, she decided, was going to be The Year – the year when she finally made the breakthrough and discovered what exactly was preventing Spontoon’s historically inevitable march to true communism.
Brigit Mulvaney was an Irish setter, but she came as close to purring as she was able as she lay on her stomach, the paws of her current beau deeply massaging her shoulders and back. She had met the man, a strongly-built hawk from Rain Island whose feather color almost matched her fur, at the small bar on Main Island that catered to Spontoonies of Irish descent. He was a member of the nation’s Embassy staff and of Irish extraction himself.
Which made three points in his favor.
“Mm . . . Lord love ye, Michael, but ye’ll be puttin’ me ta sleep if ye keep that up,” and she sniffed deeply the better to enjoy the collection of musks in the small bedroom. “An’ wasn’t it yerself suggested we take in a show after supper tonight?”
Michael Fairweather smiled and ran his feathered thumbs down the length of the canine’s spine, causing her to squirm. “Yes, I did think we might catch a film. There’s the latest out of America at the Odeon.”
“Oh?” She moved, and he lifted off of her and sat on the edge of the bed as she rolled over to look up at him. “What’s playing?”
“A horror movie, I think – it’s called Night of the Living Dead Chipmunks.”
She laughed. “Sounds like a fun afters ta th’ supper.” She beckoned him close, and they kissed. “An’ after th’ movie?”
Tatiana Bryzov looked around the small bungalow she shared with her wife and after making sure she was satisfied that it was clean enough started to change her clothes. Although she and her fellow members of Red Dorm had reached a state of armed truce (another girl at Songmark had called it a “Mixtecan standoff”) the Russian still needed to employ certain safeguards to avoid trouble.
Fast Eddie had recovered well enough to start flying on his own, and both she and Brigit were promised jobs when they had the time. Tatiana doubted that the opportunity would present itself anytime in the next year.
But it was an option.
The sable emerged from her house wearing shorts, her boots and a shirt bearing a paw-painted floral pattern many grades higher than the stuff hawked to tourists. Her mother had done the painting on the shirt in various dyes before giving it to her adopted daughter as a present.
Come what may, Tatiana knew she’d treasure the gift.
Shortly after reaching Main Island the Russian headed deep into the jungle and arrived at a certain clearing shortly before the sun began to set.
Just in time.
She changed clothes again, oiling her fur and donning a grass skirt before facing the setting sun and starting her meditation exercises.
Judging from what she knew of her upcoming year at Songmark, she’d need all the help she could get.