Luck of the Dragon: Dealing a Cold Deck© 2009 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
Shin stirred, waking up.
She had started hating waking up.
Ordinarily the red panda would start the day by stretching and yawning before sitting up, trying to move as fast as possible to get to the showers before the others.
But she wasn’t able to do that now.
The cage was too small for her to stretch in, and she was bound anyway (rather expertly, too). And the strong leather muzzle prevented her from yawning.
How long had she been in here? Hard to guess; the room they were in (in separate cages, bolted to the floor and too far apart to reach even if one of them were able to untie themselves) was a windowless bare cube lit by a single light bulb in the ceiling.
Liberty had finally stopped glaring at her reproachfully, at least.
It wasn’t her fault.
The members of Red Dorm had shown up at the RINS base on time, and had received directions from the gate guard. Earlier Shin had given a discreet paw signal to her watching bodyguards, ordering them to go on about their business.
The quartet had passed by a hedge and Shin had slapped at an insect stinging her.
But, it hadn’t been an insect. She realized that now.
Her last memory had been only a fragment, watching Brigit falling across her as everything went dark.
They had all awakened in cages, stripped of clothing and any small items they might have woven into their fur. All four had started making noises, twisting and banging against the steel bars of their cages until they were exhausted.
No food, scant water, and washed with hoses by smirking and always-silent male guards (bears, canines and one red panda who had winked at her and leered) only served to increase Shin’s fear.
Yes, she could admit she was afraid. She’d seen people treated like this on Krupmark, and it was a struggle not to give into the fear that washed over her.
She and the others looked up as the single door to the room opened and a lynxess walked in, dressed in denim trousers, a nondescript work shirt and knee-high rubber boots. She carried a simple wooden chair in one paw, and had a riding crop hanging from her belt. Her expression was hard and she had a calculating look in her eyes.
The lynx placed the chair on the floor and took a moment to position it carefully. She sat down, nodded to herself that they could all see her clearly, and stood again before walking over to the cages.
She squatted and looked in at Tatiana, the sable twisting to meet her gaze and glowering at her. “Hmm,” the lynx said gruffly, half to herself. “Good breeding stock, at least.” She glanced behind her at Brigit as the Irish setter growled. “Spirit, huh? Good. Breaking you will be fun.” She straightened and walked over to Shin’s cage. “You’ll earn me a lot of money, m’girl. Milk your father of every dime he has, and still sell you off as someone’s playtoy.” Her smile faded as she looked over Shin’s cage and spied Liberty.
“You, though – you’ll be a problem,” she told the half-coyote. “Too scrawny to be a decent toy, fur quality’s no good.” She sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “Oh well. I might be able to get a few dollars from selling you as meat.”
Liberty’s eyes went wide and she thrashed about in her cage as the lynxess returned to her chair and sat down. She waited until the New Havenite had worn herself out before speaking.
“My name, for what it’s worth, is Zell,” the feline said, a paw lifting to idly brush back one of the furry ‘horns’ on her ears. “You have all been sold to me for the sum of one Rain Island dollar. Total,” and she smiled as Shin bridled. “Your Tutors have sold you to me in return for training you how to avoid ending up in one of these cages permanently, or worse. And if you think there’s no worse, little puppy,” she said to Brigit, “you really are a babe in the woods, and shouldn’t be allowed outdoors without a nanny.
“Unfortunately, I have my work cut out for me,” she sighed. “Taking all four of you at once was ridiculously easy. So, I am going to need your cooperation and your obedience – otherwise, you’ll just end up back in here, and it’ll start all over again.
“Now, I’m told that you’ve had some training already in spotting ambushes. That’s good, but nowhere near good enough, my pets.” She paused as Shin started squirming, and in a flash she was up and slamming the riding crop against the steel cage. The sound shocked the red panda into immobility and she looked up at the feline.
“Yes, you’re my pet,” Zell hissed, “and don’t forget it. You’re bought and paid for. I won’t use your name, even though I know it. None of you,” and she straightened to look at each of them, “have names unless I choose to give them back to you. In order to earn your names, you will learn everything I teach you, and learn it well. Is that understood?”
One by one, the members of Red Dorm nodded.
30. IX. 37
I’m glad that you’re coming to Hong Kong. Father asked if you were coming, and he told me that two men wanted to speak with you.
I can’t tell you their names.
[two small chop seals]
I hope you can read these. I want you safe, my love.
Hao lowered the letter, folded it hurriedly and stuffed it in a pocket before heading across the street separating the Casino from the Ni and Sons building. Once inside, he went upstairs to see his father.
Ni Hei looked at the letter and his eyes widened at the sight of the two chops. He put the paper down on his desk and looked at his son. “Interesting.”
His youngest son looked morose. “I was sort of hoping that they wouldn’t poke their noses in, Father.”
The older red panda looked at Hao over the tops of his glasses. “I hardly think that’s possible, Hao, considering what your marriage signifies. Will you allow me to give you some advice?”
His father looked at his folded paws for a moment, then said, “When you go, Hao, go with an open mind. But keep your eyes open – and have your gun near at paw.”
Hao smiled and patted his back. “Thank you, Father. That’s excellent advice. I was thinking I’ll take the GH-2, via New Penzance – “
“No? Why not?”
“Oh, you’ll be taking the GH-2 over to Spontoon, of course,” Hei said. “There’s a cargo we acquired that needs to go over there. I want you to go by commercial flight. First class.”
His youngest son blinked at that. “Why?”
“Three reasons, Hao.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “First, because you’re my son. Second, you represent the Ni Clan, and third, you’re traveling to go meet your fiancé.” He smiled. “So we’ll do things right, and I won’t have you flying into Hong Kong in that Mixtecan knockoff.” His eyes narrowed. “What?”
Hao took his time before speaking. When he did, it was obvious he was trying to maintain control of his emotions. “Thank you, Father. I’ll – I’ll make you proud.”
“No again. You already make me proud, my son. Now, go see Clarence. He’ll have the bills of lading for the cargo you’ll take over to Spontoon, along with the letter of credit you’ll require.” He leaned back in his chair as his youngest stepped out of the room, still a bit dazed at his father’s generosity and praise.
“Sir! Mr. Ni!” one of the assistants shouted, looking up from the ticker with a panic-stricken look on his muzzle. The mouse waved at his boss as the red panda came out of his office.
“What’s the matter, Lee?” Peng-wum asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Lee ripped the tape from the mouth of the ticker and ran to meet him, the thin paper trailing after him. “Here, look, look!” he said.
Peng-wum looked, and started back in surprise, almost losing his pince-nez in the process. The New York stock market had just closed down nearly twenty points, with an ending value of 170.2. Volume had been heavy as many investors had sold short.
It took a minute for the oldest Ni son to regain his composure. “Where’s the news from America?”
“Here.” Another set of papers was thrust at him. Peng-wum read them and scowled.
President Long had just realized his primary legislative goal with the passage of the Revenue Reapportionment Act. The Act, a descendant of his earlier Share Our Wealth proposal, capped all private fortunes at one million US dollars, with any excess redistributed among the poor. No Republican had voted for it, and quite a few Democrats had crossed the aisle to ensure that while the Act passed, the margin of victory had been vanishingly thin.
The connection between the Act and the stock market slide was obvious – credit was starting to dry up again, only five years after the start of the Depression. Other factors included the flight of wealth overseas, as the very rich found havens for their money in real estate or foreign investments, and attempts by the government to rein in spending to stem the growing deficit.
All in all, it was a nasty state of affairs that was only going to get nastier. Long had already avoided several assassination attempts – millionaires who wanted to keep things as they were had found that hiring murderers was a buyer’s market – and while Peng-wum immediately entertained the idea, he almost as quickly discarded it.
After the last attempt on his life, the American President had surrounded himself with armed guards and plainclothes detectives. Actually getting to him with a real chance of success would be an expensive proposition.
The red panda thought for a moment, then gathered up the ticker tape and the news. “I need to think. It’s close to closing time, Lee, so send everyone home and lock the place up.”
The mouse nodded, still looking worried.
The Garza-Huacatl’s twin engines rumbled reassuringly as the plane approached Spontoon the next morning. Hao had helped load the cargo (canned goods and cloth, all perfectly legal and with meticulously-forged paperwork to prove it) and had left Krupmark just before dawn. High tide along the island’s barrier reef had helped him get the ungainly flying boat out into open water and into the air.
The Pacific had been a bit choppier than usual; the product of the late September storms in the area, but the plane had been built to stand up to bad weather.
Hao warmed up the radio and listened to Radio LONO for a moment, then tuned the set to the tower frequency. “GFK-3 to Spontoon Tower.”
“Spontoon Tower, go ahead.”
“Inbound, about fifty miles out,” the red panda said, and gave his altitude and bearing. “How’s the weather there right now?”
“GFK-3, I’d be lying if I said it was great,” the controller replied, her voice hiding a chuckle behind a huskiness, as if she smoked too much. “Rain, winds from the north at ten, lagoon choppy. You a cargo flight?”
“That’s right. Inbound private carrier from New Penzance.”
“Long way to go in this slop. There’ll be coffee waiting when you get down.”
Hao smiled. “Right. I’ll let you know when I’m close enough for landing clearance.” He settled back and switched back to the hula music, thinking of Xiu.