Luck of the Dragon: Dealing a Cold Deck© 2009 by Walter Reimer
So far, so good.
Hao stood at the bridge rail of the freighter, muzzle pointing almost straight up as the downpour soaked him. With the onetime Kisama Maru only a hundred miles or so due west of Dioon Island he had taken advantage of the weather, navigating the ship directly into the storm in order to satisfy two objectives.
First, to throw off any additional maritime patrol aircraft.
Second, to enable him to wash the dye from his fur before it started doing irreparable damage. Xiu liked his fur, and the scars that peeked through it – he wasn’t sure how she’d react if she saw him furless.
Being mostly Spontoonie or from nearby islands, his crew hardly turned a hair when their boss had stripped off his clothes. The peoples of the Pacific had a different sense of modesty than that shared by most Euros. One or two actually admired the red panda’s lithe form as he rinsed the soap and remaining dye from his fur one last time, but were careful not to show it.
Hao had very deep-seated feelings about that.
He shook himself, stepped back into the wheelhouse and took a towel from the deck. Rubbing it vigorously against his face and headfur he asked, “Everything going okay so far?”
“No problems,” the helmsfur said. “We’re still on course, doing eight knots. Luckily this storm’s holding up.”
“Great.” Hao stuck a finger into his right ear, tipped his head to that side and gave a hop to clear the water out, then resumed toweling himself off.
“Boss? What do you want us to do with this tub when we’re done taking the cargo off? I mean, it’s kinda big to hide.”
Hao grinned. “I’ve been thinking of that. Loose Mary Waimea might take it off our paws.”
The helmsfur flicked his canine ears at his boss. Waimea was a self-styled pirate queen, actually little more than a smuggler and dealer in stolen goods on Mildendo. ‘Loose’ described her morals and scruples, among certain other attributes. “Five shells she tries to swindle you.”
“Hmm. Three to one she succeeds?”
The two shook paws on it, and Hao laughed. “I’m going below to get some tea.”
“Sure thing, Boss.”
The red panda, now showing his actual fur colors, paused at the doorway and added, “We might want to get some of those guns out of the hold and cleaned up. We may have company when we get where we’re going.”
“Them guns aren’t set up to be carried, Hao.”
“Yeah, I know. I wonder if we might chop up a few of the ship’s rails and make something.” He shrugged and headed below.
The rain stopped nearly an hour before sundown, a fact that the pilot of the Naval Syndicate patrol plane noted in her logbook. Maritime patrols were easier if the weather was fair. Clouds could hide a multitude of problems.
A voice crackled in the ferret’s headphones. “Skipper, ship to port, about ten miles. Coming out of the squall line.”
“Can you get a look at it?”
“Uhhh . . . light’s chancy, but looks like a black star on her funnel.”
“One of ours, then.” She noticed her co-pilot staring at her. “Yeah?”
“Black star, Neil?”
“Yeah,” the lookout said.
“That might be Oceanic Shipping, Skipper.”
“And what of it?”
“My cousin works for ‘em. They don’t usually operate this far south.”
“Might be something new, or off course.”
“I suppose so.” The co-pilot looked doubtful.
The pilot banked the plane slightly, gaining altitude and heading toward Moon Island.
That night, after a filling dinner over which the flight crew had filed their reports, the plane’s co-pilot went to the Syndic. After a lengthy explanation about his misgivings a phone call was made, and soon a short telegram was sent to the head office of Oceanic Shipping.
The next day the pilot was called into the Syndic’s office and was asked why there had been no follow-up regarding the freighter. The pilot’s explanation that Oceanic may just have been trying a new route was countered with a reminder that standing orders were for any ship seen near Dioon Island be positively identified.
The pilot was reassigned to another patrol sector, and fined.
A reminder was issued to all patrols.
The closer the ship got, the more nervous Hao had grown. Most of the approaches to Krupmark Island had never been mapped and the ocean bottom was strewn with wrecks of ships that had either been deliberately sunk or had ripped themselves open on coral fangs or outcrops of basalt.
Making it worse was the fact that the crew had chosen to make the approach under cover of darkness. Boats had been sent over the side to feel their way forward as the freighter daintily picked its way past the reefs and shoals to the ancient sunken caldera known on maps of the area as Smuggler’s Cove.
A lantern could be seen high up on Traitor’s Ridge. An answering lantern was lit and waved in a prearranged pattern, and the light quickly winked out. A radio message had been sent ahead, and with the lantern signal Hao could expect a few of his father’s employees to come and help take off the Japanese ship’s cargo.
High time, too.
Smuggler’s Cove suited Hao for one primary reason. If he had to get rid of the freighter quickly he could scuttle it. The caldera had never been properly charted, and was estimated to be more than a thousand feet deep.
Still, he hoped to get it to Mildendo, or at least get a deal struck with one of Loose Mary’s agents up in Fort Bob.
Just the ship.
There was also the chance that others had seen the signals and knew (or guessed) what they signified, so the crew were armed and ready to repel anyone not immediately recognized as a friend. A pirated ship with a cargo would attract competitors like ants to a picnic, and Hao was painfully aware that he didn’t have enough people with him to put up a good defense for very long.
An hour later a series of small lights could be seen as boats entered the southern end of the cove. Paws tensed on weapons as the searchlight mounted on the freighter’s bridge came on, swept around, and illuminated the lead boat.
“That’s far enough!” Hao yelled, his paws cupped over his muzzle. “Who are you?”
A muzzle flash and the sound of a bullet caroming off the forecastle was all the response he needed. Hao yanked back on the arming lever on the cannon strapped to the searchlight mount and thumbed the trigger.
The twenty-millimeter gun barked, shaking the searchlight mount so hard that he had to sweep the beam of light around again to get the boat back into his sights. Residual grease in the barrel ignited as the projectile left the cannon, sending a gout of flame and a cascade of burning gobbets to the weather deck below.
The shot had hit, though, and the explosion was eclipsed by screams.
Hao’s crew started shooting as the searchlight swept to and fro, picking out the boats as they closed in. Another set of muzzle flashes and the heavy staccato of a Lewis gun heralded the arrival of another set of players to the battle.
Lining up another shot, Hao flinched as fragments of hot steel spattered him. He fired twice, noting that the searchlight mount was starting to shake loose from the deck. He swept the powerful beam over the water again in time to see the flashes of the machine gun seek out the boat he had fired upon and rake it with streams of tracer bullets.
The cove grew quiet save for the occasional pistol shot and Hao’s ears perked.
Someone was calling his name.
Someone he recognized.
“Clarence? That you out there?”
“I should say it is, you young ruffian,” the lion called back. “Looks like we weren’t quite fast enough getting to you.”
“Well, I’m glad you showed up, late or not. Anyone hurt over there?”
“A few grazes. We should get aboard and start stripping that ship out before any more show up.”
The sky was starting to get lighter as the smaller boats, supplemented by the Kisama Maru’s own lifeboats, starting moving the last of the cargo away. The crated aircraft had been the last and by far the heaviest items, requiring two boats each to move them. The guns and ammunition had been first off, followed by nearly all of the ship’s stores and movable equipment. A crew was below, siphoning oil from the freighter’s fuel bunkers.
Hao dragged a paw across his face, then rubbed his eyes. It had been a long night.
Clarence pressed a mug of tea into his paws before taking a sip of his own. “You all right?”
“I’ll be okay. I’ll sleep after I get home.”
“You’d better. You look dead on your feet.”
The red panda favored the taller lion with a sour smile. “Well, if that’s your attitude, I’ll head out on the next boat and leave you guarding this tub until we can get it to Mildendo.”
Clarence chuckled. “By the time your locusts are done with it there mightn’t be much worth selling except for the hull and engines.” He looked up at the rising sun, shading his eyes. “Loose Mary won’t be happy with the merchandise.”
“Then there’ll be someone else. There always is.” Hao slurped his tea and noticed that the lion was staring fixedly at the horizon. “What?”
“Where?” The lion pointed and Hao squinted.
Cross-eyed he might be, but the man had good eyesight.
“Too far away, and with the sun at its back,” Hao remarked. “Can’t see what it is – if it’s a Syndicate plane – “
“Let’s not panic so soon.”
He glared at Clarence. “I’m not panicking. Have you ever known me to panic?”
A curl of a smile. “Never.”
“I don’t intend to start. Let’s have the crew continue what they’re doing. If it is the Syndicate, they might send a patrol boat if we’re spotted.”
“And if it’s an Osprey?”
“I’ll open the sea valves on this thing myself and send it straight down.” Nothing they had at paw could stand up to the heavily armed attack plane’s weapons, particularly the cannon it housed in its nose. There were rumors that it was going to be replaced with something nastier.
How that could be, Hao couldn’t guess.
A few crewfurs were also looking at the approaching plane, and one started shaking his head. He called up in Spontoonie, “Flying machine negative-emphasis flying boat, feline with crossed eyes outlander.”
Clarence snorted at the man’s words. Hao said, “Well, if it’s not a flying boat . . . ahh, look! Floats! It’s a floatplane.”
It drew closer and flew over them, resolving as it closed the distance into a large Fokker trimotor with a varied paint job. It waggled its wings and started to loop around, descending to a landing.
Now that he could see it clearly, Hao recognized it. “What the hell does he want?”