Luck of the Dragon: Dealing a Cold Deck© 2009 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
It’s such a simple matter, really thought Tatiana Bryzov.
Pity the task is never as easy as it looks.
The Russian sable made her way through the press of the crowd, a milling mass of shoppers taking advantage of a break in the October weather to go to the Casino Island market.
The other three members of Red Dorm were also in the crowd, wandering around and doing some shopping. Their bungalow on Moon Island needed some blankets and food, so Zell had given each of them money (including Liberty, who looked at the small collection of shell notes with undisguised loathing) and told them to go shopping for half an hour.
There was a point to this.
Circulating through the crowd were others, members of the Naval Syndicate, armed with small pieces of gummed paper that represented drugged needles. Their job was to stick a piece of paper on as many of the young women as they could without being detected.
So the task was simple. Avoid being tagged.
But with so many people in the crowd, obeying that simple instruction was not an easy matter.
She paused at one stall, looking over some bamboo that she knew Shin favored. Shin was over at a fish stall.
From a corner of the sable’s eye she saw a flicker of movement.
Tatiana twisted aside just in time for the assailant, a slim coyote girl, to stick a piece of paper to the side of the stall. Before she could react the sable closed with her.
The coyote slumped, unconscious.
Tatiana eased her down to the ground and shrugged at the other shoppers. “I guess she fainted,” she said and paid for her purchases before moving on.
When the half hour was over they met where Zell had told them to gather. The place was an empty warehouse and several furs were already there when Tatiana and the others arrived. A few of the Syndicate personnel were sporting bumps and bruises, while two others had to be helped in.
“Put your purchases there,” she ordered, “then line up.” The quartet hastened to comply and stood at attention as the stocky feline looked them over.
She paused at Shin. “Turn around.”
The red panda turned, and Zell flicked at her tailfur. “You got tagged, girl. But your tail’s so thick, and it’s right at the edge, so I’ll judge it as a miss.”
She turned away from the Chinese girl to regard the Russian. “Very sloppy, what you did back there. But you avoided her tag.” She stepped in close and swatted Tatiana across the face gently, and grinned as the sable tensed, then relaxed.
“You two, on the other paw,” she said to Brigit and Liberty, “may as well have backed into a trap, judging by your rears,” and the two canines twisted to see several paper tags on their buttocks. “Tell me,” Zell asked Liberty, “are you numb back there, puppy?”
“No,” the New Havenite growled.
“Ah. So you like having paws on your rear, then?”
This time the growl was inarticulate.
The lynx was unimpressed. “If this is the best New Haven’s revolution can offer, the Red Fist won’t last the decade. And you,” and she turned away from the seething Liberty to face Brigit, “it’s no wonder your people haven’t pushed the British out of Ireland if this is the way you defend yourselves.”
Brigit started growling. The Irish setter glanced at the half-coyote.
They both dove at Zell.
Tatiana and Shin stepped back as there was a flurry of paws. When the three separated, both Brigit and Liberty were on the floor, with Zell standing over them.
Zell snorted. “I’ve been doing this a lot longer than both of you,” she said. “We’ll do this again, and again if necessary, until you get it right. Meanwhile, get your stuff and go back to your quarters.”
She turned her back on them and walked out.
Hao looked out the window of the big Sikorsky flying boat as it circled the harbor of New Penzance. So far, traveling first class was something he could really come to enjoy. The food was good, the small fold-out berth was comfortable and the stewardesses were definitely easy on the eyes.
“I’ll kill her,” Liberty declared. Red Dorm had finally managed to succeed in the exercise on the third time through, each time having to endure Zell’s insults. “Give me the opportunity, and there’ll be one less revisionist Rain Islander.”
“Be careful, or there’ll be one less New Havenite,” Shin remarked. “You forget she laid you out pretty neatly.”
“Aye, an’ me, too,” Brigit said, “an’ it’s yer fault Shin – wantin’ ‘advanced trainin’ from th’ Tutors.”
“I meant it,” Shin said seriously. “In fact, I see what Zell’s aiming to achieve with us.”
“Oh? Trying to see how many insults we can take?” Liberty asked.
“No. Hold still,” and she checked the progress of the lump on the back of Liberty’s head. “It looks like it’s starting to go down, Lib.”
“Good. You were saying?”
The red panda nodded. “We’re all paranoid and distrustful, right? She’s using that as a foundation.”
Tatiana nodded. “Is simple enough – improve on one’s native capabilities.”
“Is that how they do it in the NKVD?” Liberty asked, and frowned as the sable shrugged and grinned.
“By m’count, if she didn’t lie to us about how many days we spent in those bloody cages,” Brigit said, “we’re about startin’ our fourth week o’ this. We’ll be back burrowin’ in th’ mud an’ sleepin’ on hard cots, like m’Great-uncle Terence did in th’ War.”
“An improvement, may be,” Tatiana said as she looked around the dingy bungalow.
Two days of similar exercises followed, all four of them sharpening their observational skills in order to detect a potential assailant before the enemy had time to strike. Liberty was applying herself with a will, determined to prove Zell wrong.
A surprise came on the third day. Rather than live off what they could grub from the land or from the trash cans outside the mess halls they were escorted inside the mess hall for breakfast.
They sat a table set far away from anyone else, though.
All four of them recognized what they were served before the plates were set down before them – the plates were laden with fried eggs, hash brown potatoes and thick slices of ham, with strong hot coffee to drink. It was a pilot’s breakfast, prompting Liberty to ask, “What’s she up to?”
“Eat up,” Zell said as she sat down at a nearby table. “You’ll find out.”
Shin sniffed at her plate suspiciously before sampling the food, the others following suit as the lynx nodded approvingly.
After eating they headed for the seaplane dock. Zell pointed at a Bosanquet transport tied to the dock, the tubby seaplane lacking any sign that it was a Naval Syndicate craft. “Get in and get us airborne.”
“Where to?” Brigit asked.
“I’ll let you know when we get up there,” the feline replied cryptically.
“Is fair,” Tatiana said. “Help me preflight the engines, Shin.”
Soon after the plane was airborne, Liberty, who was in the pilot’s seat, asked, “Where are we going?”
Zell replied, “Mildendo Island. You have a flight plan filed, and all the charts required. Let me know when we get there, and I’ll tell you what you need to do.”
“Okay,” Shin said. “Liberty, steer north-northwest to start with. Let’s break out the charts and figure a course.”
“North-northwest,” and the half-coyote banked the big plane around. “Been there before, Shin?”
“Yes,” the red panda said absently as she started to pore over the charts. She looked up. “These are in Russian!”
Tatiana looked over her shoulder. “Looks like I navigate then, nu. Come, Shin, you take engineer position.” She switched seats with the red panda and pointed. “Watch Number Three; oil pressure not too high.”
Shin nodded and the quartet settled down to fly the plane.
Two hours later Brigit, who was in the co-pilot’s seat, shouted, “Land ho! Now what, Zell?”
The lynx poked her head into the cockpit and said, “Land us on the east side of the island. There’s a few small coves there.”
“I know where they are,” Shin said.
“You should,” the feline said with a grin. “They’re smugglers’ havens, after all.”
Liberty moved smoothly and methodically, bringing the plane down for a fairly soft landing in the choppy water, and Shin and Tatiana jumped out to make the plane fast to the rocky outcrops scattered around the cove. Once they had pulled themselves out Zell called all four of them back to the cargo hold.
“Take a good look at these photographs,” she said, passing around pictures of four men. As soon as each of the young women had one she added, “I want you to hunt these down.”
Shin nodded. “I think I recognize one of them. He’s wanted by the Constabulary.” She brightened. “We might get some reward money for bringing them in – “
The red panda blinked at Zell. “What?”
“These four men traffic in slaves. If you haven’t learned anything by now, you could end up having one of these criminals selling you. So,” the lynxess said, “your task is to stalk them, and kill them quietly. Leave no trace of yourself behind, but bring me one of their ears so I can tell you’ve performed adequately.” She jerked a thumb at the cargo door. “Out you get. Be back here by sunup; if you don’t show, I leave you here.”
The others turned to leave but Liberty said, “Wait a minute. How do we know? All we have to go on is your word; they could be jilted lovers of yours.”
“And so what if they are? I’ve given you a task, little girl. Do it.”
“Not without good reason.”
“I’ve given you all the reason you need.” Zell stepped toward Liberty until the two were almost touching noses. “Don’t tell me the Daughter of the Revolution is a coward?”
Liberty flushed red to her eartips.
The feline snorted in contempt. “Just as I thought. I may as well sell you here, puppy – and I know just who to sell you to. See, in some parts of the world they eat feral canines – you’d be a choice item on the gourmet menu.” Her grin bared her teeth. “And then I’ll go to New Haven and hunt down your parents.”
“What?” The half-coyote’s eyes widened in shock.
“We can’t have another generation of whinging, cowardly puppies soiling the landscape, now can we?”
Shin backed away a half-step as Liberty bared her teeth.
When the New Havenite spoke, it was barely a whisper.
“Knives, over there,” Zell said, jerking her head to one side.
Liberty glanced in the indicated direction, then stepped over to a small rucksack and pulled a sheathed knife from it. She drew it and tested the edge against her thumb.
She walked up to Zell, the knife in her paw.
The lynx raised one eyebrow.
“Does it matter which ear?”
Zell shook her head.
Liberty nodded, sheathed the knife and headed for the plane’s cargo door. When she reached it she paused and looked back at her roommates.
“What are you waiting for?”