Luck of the Dragon: Hedging Bets© 2011 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
The only way he knew that it was his release day was when he heard the oncoming jailer say “Merry Christmas” to the constable he was relieving. Wei had cadged a cigarette and a light from the feline after breakfast; now, savoring the smoke and sipping at his cooling cup of coffee, he was rereading yesterday’s newspaper. The coffee served with breakfast was not the same as what he’d gotten at Luchow’s once upon a time, but after seven days it was what he’d come to expect.
The past week he had made himself somewhat useful, cleaning his cell and the other cells in the jail. It gave him something productive to do apart from the Elele’s crossword puzzles or staring at the graffiti on the walls.
After three days he had even volunteered to paint the graffiti over.
It took a bit of persuasion on his part, but his onetime fellow constables took him at his word. Several cans of light-gray paint had been purchased and he’d worked at his self-imposed task diligently. A few times Brush would walk by, sneer and go on about his business.
K’ooka had proved to be a good friend, giving him newspapers and a pencil so he could try his paw at the crossword puzzles. One time a Chinese-language Bible appeared with his meal, and a few other books had also been given to him. Since Brush or any of the line constables hadn’t even tried to confiscate them, Wei suspected the books were courtesy of Inspector Stagg.
He’d always had a high opinion of the buck, and the gesture only raised his estimation of the New Havenite.
“Wei!” the constable said. The vulpine (not precisely one of Brush’s relatives) opened the cell door and tossed a paper bag containing the Shar Pei’s effects onto the bed beside him. “You ready to get outta here?”
“Yeah. I was ready to go a week ago,” and he picked up the small sack and poked his nose in it, making sure everything was there. It was, right down to the money he’d had in his pocket when he’d been arrested. “Need to do some quick Christmas shopping,” and he grinned at the fox, who laughed along with him.
“Take care of yourself, Wei,” the vulpine said. “Have a happy New Year.”
“You’ll probably see me at Hoopy Jaloopy,” and Wei walked out of the cellblock.
The sun was peeking out among scraps of high overcast as he boarded a water taxi and headed for his apartment on Casino Island. His first priority was to make sure that his things were still there, then to see if he still had a job. Then he’d see about getting a meal that wasn’t jail food.
Then, he thought, perhaps a visit to a temple.
Two black-furred paws rested on a broad striped back, then moved up to a thick, muscular neck, fingertips scrubbing the fur the wrong way until the paws rested around the base of the man’s skull. The big Manchurian tiger purred, then growled softly, “Shin.”
“I’ll give you two weeks to stop doing that,” her husband said quietly.
“Or what?” she whispered in his ear, just before nipping at the organ.
“Or I won’t give you your Christmas present.”
She shifted position, resting her full weight on his back and propping her chin in her paw. “You know,” she said as a finger traced lazy arabesques in his fur, “I thought you gave me my present last night.”
Fang chuckled. He reached behind him with a paw and tousled his wife’s headfur. “No, that was my present.”
“So I get mine today?”
Her husband chuckled again, and she snuggled against his broad back.
Christmas wasn’t celebrated in the People’s Republic of New Haven, nor was any other religious or bourgeois occasion. Because Christmas had been a very significant event in New Haven, however, the day was regarded as the Winter Festival by the Red Fist. Gifts would be exchanged and the towns and collective farms would celebrate with communal parties.
Liberty Morgenstern, working in a certain village on the northern shore of Main Island through part of her school holiday, awakened and sat up. She stretched and yawned before looking around the longhouse she was staying in, with the family of her acquaintance.
‘Acquaintance’ wasn’t exactly what Shin or Brigit would call him. Liberty conceded that she was quite satisfied physically with him, but also liked him because he could teach her things. Her knowledge of Spontoonie (which she now spoke, and well, with a Main Island North accent) and native fashions and customs had grown quite a bit since they had met in the summer.
It was raining outside. She laid back down and smiled as Walking Fox, a full-blooded coyote, drowsily slipped an arm around her waist. The fishing fleet would be headed out soon, and she decided to get as much rest as possible before starting work.
Christmas morning dawned clear and cold in central Minnesota, with a fresh dusting of snow on the drifts already lining the roads in the town. A tall, stocky badger dressed in his pajamas, dressing gown and a heavy coat and boots stamped out through the snow, whistling Winter Wonderland. He picked up the morning paper, his breath misting in the chill air, and went back into the house.
Harold McAfee slipped off his coat and removed his boots, then resumed humming as he started to look at the headlines. He had quite purposely gotten up early today, determined to treat his wife of thirty years to holiday breakfast in bed. Their children would be along later with the grandkids for presents.
The headlines had little cheerful news, mostly having to do with President Long’s battles with Congress. He grimaced at one article before laying the paper aside and busying himself with getting the coffee started. Getting plates and assorted ingredients for breakfast, he accidentally nudged the newspaper off the kitchen table. It fell to the floor and a buff envelope fell out.
McAfee paused as he got the eggs out of the refrigerator and looked down at the envelope. What was that? He wondered. The outside of the envelope was in simple block letters, addressed to him. The badger picked it up and opened it.
Inside were several photographs, and a piece of paper.
The badger felt the pit of his stomach go cold as he looked at the pictures. They were black and white, good quality, and one showed him at his office Christmas party three days earlier.
The rest were taken in what appeared to be a hotel room.
A hotel room he vividly recalled.
The images showed him with a young woman, a mephitess that he also recalled quite vividly. She was wearing stockings and a garter belt – his memory reminded him that the stockings and belt had been real silk, of a pewter color that contrasted perfectly with her monochrome fur.
What they were doing was not left to the imagination either. One in particular showed that, pushing sixty as he was, State Senator McAfee was still possessed of a certain youthful vigor. A vigor that stood him in good stead in the Minnesota Senate, but was being used in the photograph in a manner that would surprise his fellows in the Farmer-Labor Party.
The badger paged through the photographs in a stunned daze before he reached the piece of paper. This was a reflex print, white letters on a black background.
The girl’s birth certificate.
McAfee groped blindly for a chair and sat down, trying to get his heart under control. According to this (if it was to be believed), the young woman was below the legal age of consent in the state. The chill knot in his stomach spread to his chest when he suddenly realized that if word of this ever got out, the absolute least he could expect would be the destruction of his marriage.
At worst, he’d be going to prison for a very long time.
His ears twitched and he looked up in terror at the sounds from the second floor. Maud was stirring upstairs.
The sounds spurred him into action. He hurriedly stuffed the pictures and the paper back into the envelope and dashed to the spare room he used as an office. Maud only went in there to clean, and kept away from his desk. The envelope was stuffed into a drawer and he fumbled with his keys for a moment until he found the right one and locked the drawer securely.
He then hurried back to the kitchen and started making breakfast. Midway through the eggs his wife, yawning and her headfur in curlers, walked into the room. “Good morning, Harry,” and she kissed his cheek. “Merry Christmas.”
He smiled at her and returned the kiss. “Merry Christmas, darling. You should be back upstairs.”
He smiled and cocked an eyebrow at her. “Breakfast in bed, my dear,” and grinned as she giggled like a schoolgirl and kissed him again. He gave her tailfur a gentle swat with his paw before returning his attention to the frying pan.
Hal Junior, his wife and two sons arrived about midmorning, and in the distracting fun of opening presents McAfee managed to push the envelope and its contents to the back of its mind.
After attending church, they settled down for a light holiday lunch (Maud and Jill were going to cook dinner). McAfee was sitting in the living room as little Hal and Jimmy played Cowboys and Indians when the hallway phone rang. “I’ll get it, Pop,” his son said, reaching for the phone before the older badger could get up from his chair. “Hello, McAfee residence . . . No, this is his son . . . What? Oh, sure. Pop? It’s for you.”
“Who is it?” McAfee asked as he stood up.
“He says he’s called to wish you a Merry Christmas,” Hal said with a mystified look on his muzzle.
The older badger took the pawset from his son. “Harold McAfee.”
The voice was a man’s. He couldn’t place the accent, but it sounded like he might have been from Chicago. “Senator McAfee, Merry Christmas. Did you get my present?”
McAfee froze, and tried to look around unobtrusively. The women were still in the kitchen, and his son was playing horsies with the children. The radio was playing a selection of holiday tunes, a rather welcome respite from Father Coughlin. He turned his attention back to the phone. “Who is this?” he hissed.
“Let’s say I have your best interests at heart, Senator,” the caller said, deliberately stressing the phrase. “Eileen sends her regards too.”
That icy feeling settled in his gut again, but before he could say anything the man said, “Your office. Tomorrow morning at nine.” There was a pause, and the line went dead.
McAfee looked at the pawset for a long moment before placing it back in its cradle. “Who was it, Pop?” Hal asked.
Badgers are usually considered slow by other furs, a stereotype on a par with the old saw that foxes are usually considered clever. McAfee proved the stereotype wrong as he smiled and said, “No one special. Just a guy who wanted to talk to me about a piece of legislation.”
“He didn’t sound like he was from around here.”
“No, I don’t think he was,” and McAfee chuckled with a good humor that he didn’t exactly feel at the moment.