Luck of the Dragon: Dealing a Cold Deck© 2010 by Walter Reimer
(Inspector Stagg and related characters courtesy E.O. Costello. Thanks!)
“Happy Birthday!” her parents and fiancé chorused as the cook placed a cake on the dining room table. Xiu laughed and clapped her paws, then took a breath and blew out the candles to the applause of the rest of the people at the table. Slices of the cake, which had been decorated with good-luck hexagrams from the I Ching and Chinese characters for longevity and prosperity, were then put on plates and given to the diners by the cook.
The others at the house that night included several of Xiu’s aunts and uncles, cousins and friends from school. Several of the girls had been in a huddle with his intended for part of the day, giggling and whispering among themselves while staring pointedly at Hao, while he had been kept blushing at the regard.
Some of the girls had eyed him the same way the women at the Black Sheep House and Lucky Dragon had looked at him, and he recalled what Xiu had told him about defending their engagement.
He was also impressed by the sheer number of friends and family members. The Ni Clan had been nearly wiped out, and he didn’t know of any relatives other than his immediate family.
Hao savored the slice of cake he’d been given, and watched as Xiu was given a few presents from her parents and relatives – new dresses, a necklace and a delicately scented fur shampoo from Paris. Her father slid a wrapped box to her. “Happy Birthday, Xiu,” Renmin said.
Xiu unwrapped and opened the box and lifted the lid. “Oh, Father,” she said softly, running her paw over the blued-steel 38-caaliber revolver nestled in the box. Brand new, a small seal embossed in the velvet lining proclaimed that it was a Schmidt and Weston model from the United States.
Her fiancé whistled, craning to look into the box. “That’s beautiful, Xiu. And just the right size, too.”
She grinned at him and gave him a quick kiss as her girlfriends applauded. “Did you get me anything?” she asked him.
Hao blushed and looked down. “Well, you know, I’ve never bought anyone a birthday present before,” he said, and chuckled. “But Father seems to have thought of everything, so he made sure I had enough money.” He fished a small box from his suit jacket and held it out to her. “Happy Birthday, Xiu.”
Her eyes went wide as saucers as the room went quiet. Even the giggling from her school chums petered out as she took the small box and untied the thin silk ribbon holding it closed.
She held her breath as she opened the box.
“Oh, Hao . . . “
Inside the box was a simple gold band with a single diamond.
“It may not fit,” he was saying apologetically, “and I know it’s not very traditional – “
Whatever else he might have said was eclipsed by her kiss and the cheers from her family and friends.
They broke the kiss and Xiu said quietly, “I got you something too.”
She nodded, getting up from the table. “Be back in a moment,” and she dashed back to her room, returning with an object wrapped in paper. “For you,” she said as she resumed her seat.
Hao turned the irregularly-shaped object over in his paws and tore open the paper. He grinned widely. “A ball cap!” The cap was a slightly battered dark blue affair with a faded letter P showing where embroidery had been removed.
“Well, you said you’d lost yours – “
Now it was her turn to be kissed.
Peng-wum read the telegram from Don Carpanini, and smiled.
A small collection of very carefully worded and encrypted telegrams were sent out that afternoon.
The commander of the RINS base on Blefuscu Island watched through a small window into the cell as the man was questioned. As he watched, a question was put to the Malay pirate by the stern badger in the Naval Syndicate uniform, and the civet shook his head violently, waving his paws about to punctuate his words. The badger seemed unmoved by the man’s actions and stood up.
The commander stepped back as the badger came out of the room, shutting and locking the door behind him. “Anything?” the wolf asked.
“Nothing that fresh air can’t fix,” the badger replied, headed for the nearest doorway leading out. “Civets ain’t exactly a perfume factory, and this guy’s been too far away from a bathtub too damned long.”
The wolf followed the burly mustelid out and after the two had spent a few minutes breathing the fresh, salt-tinged air said, “Not getting anything out of them, eh.”
“Oh, I’m getting plenty,” the sergeant replied. “And I think he’s telling the truth – they all are. Problem is they’re nowhere near telling us what we want to know.”
“Well, they claim – almost to a man – that they were hired on at Krupmark to sail that tub to Mildendo. They say they didn’t have a paw in the death of the Japanese crew, and all they know about the boss on the ship is that he’s a red panda.”
“That doesn’t help,” the commander grumbled. “There’s millions and millions of Chinese – “
“They only have themselves to blame for that,” the badger agreed.
“Hmm. And you can’t swing a pickaxe without hitting a panda of some sort or other.” The wolf lit a cigar and took a few puffs before saying, “I say we bind the whole lot over to the court down in Spontoon and charge ‘em with piracy. We let the Jap Embassy in Seathl know about it so they can tell the families.”
“Half a loaf, Ben.”
“Best we can do. You say they’re telling the truth when they say they didn’t have anything to do with killing the Japanese crew.”
“Yeah. Like I said, they ain’t taking responsibility for that. Dai Nihon’s not going to be too happy.”
“Can’t be helped. We might send them all to Nippon,” and the commander gave a suitably lupine grin. “But piracy’s the kind of crime that all nations punish. Jurisdiction doesn’t matter.”
“True.” The badger gauged the wind carefully, and spat downwind before pulling a stained pawkerchief from his back pocket and blowing his nose. “A couple have given us leads on some smuggling routes, drop points and suchlike. Useful stuff, so long as we can verify it and stop them.”
“Okay. Get whatever info you can out of them. I’ll wire Spontoon and see if they want to try a gaggle of pirates.”
Several days later the information and the accompanying query were sent first to Seathl, then to the Naval Syndicate base on Moon Island before it crossed the Spontoon Interior Minister’s desk. That worthy passed it on to the Chief Constable, who then distributed it to the Militia as well as to the two bureaus under his direct command.
Inspector Stagg looked up from his morning report to see his sergeant studying the contents of a largish envelope. “Problem, Sergeant? Or is that the latest pin-up calendar?”
Sergeant Brush gave a sheepish grin, no mean feat considering his vulpine ancestry, and replied, “No, Sir. It ain’t no girly pictures. Seems our friends in th’ Naval Syndicate’ve been busy,” and he laid the small sheaf of papers down on the whitetail buck’s desk.
“Hmm . . . pirated Japanese freighter . . . “ the buck’s ears hiked up slightly as he read through the summary of the report. “Very interesting, and potentially a good starting point for stopping some of the smuggling. But look here, Sergeant,” and Stagg pointed to one page. “One of the pirates states that his superior was a red panda, and that he was hired on Krupmark Island.”
“Yeah, Sir. I saw that. It don’t take onea dem Cranium Island boys ta figger out who it might be.”
“Just so. If I recall, Ni Peng-wum’s offices are on this island, Sergeant. Please walk over there and invite him to come talk with us when he has a spare moment.” Stagg’s smile was wintry, matching the graying skies outside. “I’m sure he’s a rather busy fur.”
The oldest son of the Ni Family was outwardly calm as he sat opposite Stagg. “Good afternoon, Inspector.”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Ni. I apologize for taking you away from your busy schedule.”
“Fortunately, Inspector, it’s the off-season. Most of the investment transactions taking place are off-shore.”
“I see. We received news that a freighter was attacked by pirates recently.”
Peng-wum’s eyes widened. “Really? That’s awful. I hope that the patrols were able to catch them. Piracy’s bad for business.”
“Indeed. One of the pirates claims that their leader was a red panda, who hired them on Krupmark.” Stagg sat back, studying the younger man’s reaction.
The red panda nodded, the end of his banded tail nodding in time with his head. “So you suspect me – or, rather, my family.”
“I’m afraid I have little choice.”
“It’s a sensible suspicion to have, Inspector – although I’m afraid I look silly in an eye patch, and the parakeets on Krupmark are nothing you ever want perching on your shoulder,” and Peng-wum grinned a bit. “They’re almost impossible to tame, you see. But look here, Inspector,” and he leaned forward slightly, “I said earlier that piracy is bad for business. It is. I’m trying to obey my father’s wish to bring the family back into more legitimate lines of commerce, and that makes me want law and order.”
Orrin Brush started to cough, causing the Chinese man’s ears to flick.
“Your father has told me that,” Stagg said quietly. “But you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe him. Perhaps some earnest of your good nature - ?”
Peng-wum grimaced. “The fastest way to die on Krupmark, Inspector, is to be an informant.”
“What’s th’ second fastest?”
“Pick a fight with an enemy you know nothing about, Sergeant.”
“So. You see the quandary I’m in, Mr. Ni. I cannot believe you unless you provide me with some corroborating information.” Stagg finished jotting his last note and closed the folder. “You may go, Mr. Ni. Please, do not try to leave Spontoon – you won’t find the jail as accommodating as your family’s longhouse at Pangai.”
Peng-wum nodded and got to his feet, only to find the doorway blocked by the stocky fox. “Don’t try anything, Ni,” Brush muttered. “I’ve got both eyes on ya now.”
“Need more eyes comparative Deity Watchful-Guardian, Sergeant, emphasis catch self in wrong-doing,” Peng-wum replied in Spontoonie. He gently shouldered the fox aside and walked out.