Luck of the Dragon: Dealing a Cold Deck© 2009 by Walter Reimer
Hao started from his seat, reaching for his pistol before belatedly realizing he hadn’t brought it with him.
He had thought he would be safe, here of all places.
The guards in the room had reflexively leveled their weapons at him, and the Red Talons Master shouted, “Stop! Put your weapons away.” They complied, and the tiger said, “Hao, relax.”
“Yes. Relax, Brother,” the tiger said quietly. “You are in no danger here.”
“But she – “
“I realize that.” They were both speaking Chinese. Hopefully the Russian would not understand the dialect they were using. “She is here merely to ask questions. Our agreement with the Communists is very clear on that point. I will stay with you, if you wish, as surety.”
Hao thought it over. If the alliance was that important, neither of the Tongs would allow him to be hurt or killed by the barbarians.
But he knew what the conversation would be about.
It was an old wound to him, and one he didn’t want to pick at.
Finally the young red panda nodded, and sat back down. “She is here to ask questions,” he said in English. “So, what do you want to know?”
Throughout the conversation, the Russian had stood unmoving. Now she jerked into life like some sort of clockwork toy and moved further into the room, flanked by two burly wolves in equally ill-fitting suits. One of the guards brought a chair for her, and she sat facing Hao. Her two guards moved to stand on either side of him.
“You are Ni Hao.” It was a statement, not a question. Her voice was flat and harsh, not feminine at all.
“That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”
Her right paw flexed, and it was fairly evident that if she hadn’t had orders to the contrary she would have slapped him across the muzzle. She overcame the impulse with an effort and said, “I am with the Committee for State Security.” She glanced at her right paw for a moment, then looked at Hao. Her eyes were chips of gray ice.
Kleb said, “You have information relating to Lieutenant Anna Dmitrievna Simonova.”
“Never heard of her.”
The gray ice hardened. “I warn you once. Do not lie to me. You know her.”
“Hao . . . “ the tiger said in an admonitory tone.
Hao sighed. “What do you wish to know?”
“I need to know her whereabouts and whether she is still alive.”
“I’m surprised. What took you so long?”
His flippant reply nearly brought the State Security officer out of her seat. Kleb sank back down and her lips writhed as she fought to keep from cresting at him.
“That is not your concern, why we were . . . delayed . . . in searching for her. Is she still alive?”
“She was when I saw her last.”
“You are sure?”
Hao smiled. “I know the difference between alive and dead.”
“Nu? Then is she still alive now?”
Hao thought a moment. “If she dies, those holding her – associates of mine - have instructions to let me know.”
“And they have not.”
“Then where is she?”
His banded tail snaked into his lap. “Why are you so interested?” His eyes narrowed. “What’s it worth to you?”
Now the canine femme growled. “It is worth your life, and that of your family.”
Hao let this pass. He figured they’d threaten him and the family; of course, hurting as he was he was sure he could kill this woman with his bare paws before either of her guards could do anything. Her neck looked scrawny enough to snap like a twig. “Why so interested, if you’re willing to come here and make threats?”
“That is not your concern.”
“I’m making it my concern. This is a business transaction. I have her, you want her. That is my payment.”
Kleb sat back, glancing up at her two guards. The wolves just stood there, like statues crafted of flesh and bone. Finally she said, “Leytenant Simonova is . . . a relative . . . of Comrade Bearia.”
Hao’s eyebrows rose.
“She never let on,” he said in surprise. “And isn’t your boss ursine?”
“She is his niece.”
“So. Where is she?”
“Got a pencil on you?”
“No need. Vasily,” and one of the wolves stiffened. “Tell him.”
Hao recited a certain address in Macao. “Want me to repeat that?”
Vasily gave it back to him, word for word, even mimicking his tone of voice. When he was finished, Hao applauded. “One more thing,” he said.
Kleb said, “Yes.”
“She may not be in the . . . best . . . of condition by now,” Hao said softly.
“I had thought not. We are prepared for that.” She allowed herself a smile that was more smirk than any pleasant expression. “On a professional note, Mr. Ni, you are to be congratulated on your solution to Lt. Simonova. You would have made a fine State Security officer.”
“I’m not Russian.”
Kleb said, “Neither is Comrade Bearia. In Soviet Union, career is open to talent.” She stood, and the three Soviets left the room.
daysnights daysnights daysnights daysnightsdaysnightsdaysnights daysnightsdaysnightsdaysnightsdaysnights . . .
The days had piled in on her, one by one, almost tangible things as they grew and weighed on her, trying to crush her mind and memory under the stroboscopic sequence of light and dark and their dreary sameness.
Despite it all, she still remembered her name (although that was getting harder and harder to do). Other memories were more difficult to pin down, slipping like droplets of mercury through her grasp.
But there was a face. Always a face.
The face that loomed in her dreams and could cause her to awaken screaming until she was beaten back into silence.
The face out of her nightmares.
The face was many furs, but always the same.
The face . . . she knew she had to forget the face, but she clung to it as she clung to the fading memory of her name, a slowly fraying lifeline above an abyss.
It was almost as bad as the needles, sinking into her flesh like steel mosquitoes.
She hated them, and loved them.
Hated them for the noxious pricking of her flesh, the dull wash of fire through her veins and the swooping nausea, leaving her washed up on a shore where men existed to take their pleasure of her flesh.
There had been – or were there? - many men.
But all had worn his face.
She loved the needles then, for the warm cottony embrace that buzzed in her head and sang a siren’s song in her mind, cajoling her to forget, to flee, to hide from the horror that her life had become. To forget the pain from the changes in her body; a moment like so many other moments, but one that had led to a beating and the vile-tasting drink.
She had not known what it was.
But something had stirred within her, and been stilled.
She still found herself crying for no reason.
And she might have clung to those times, as a drowning woman might cling to the frailest of lifelines, against the swelling tides of the needles and the endless days.
But she still, somehow, recalled her name.
Even though it was getting harder and harder to do so.
And the face, of course, even though she could no longer find a name to give it.
It was so easy, so easy to just let go and sink . . .
Then . . . there were loud voices, louder than the roars of the men, louder than the women . . .
Rough paws seized her, shook her.
A voice, words half-remembered, swimming down to her as she lay at the bottom of the well . . .
“Leytenant Simonova? . . . ”
“Leytenant, mozhete vy uslischat’ menya?”
She moaned at the shaking, then whimpered. She was to make no sound, on pain of another beating.
Another voice, this one somewhat clearer: “Tovarisch Polkovnik, ona v ochen plokhom sostoyanyi.”
The voices jumbled, reformed, then spun around her, so confusing, yet somehow comforting . . .
“Chevo dolzhni my sdelat’ s etimi?”
“Nashe soglasovaniye obespokoyennoye on, nye evo svyazivayet.” This voice was harder, and her mind reached out to it like a drowning fur will reach out for a rock. “Ubaitye ikh.”
“Da, Tovarisch Polkovnik.”
Then there were screams and very loud noises, like the noise of summer thunder . . .