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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
© 2004 by Walter Reimer
A massive ten-engined flying boat, a multicolored five-pointed star emblazoned on its tail, descended through a thick haze of overcast to emerge into clearer air over the Cook Sea. The pilots adjusted its heading toward the eastern coast of Kuo Han’s largest island after spending five days island-hopping, from Spontoon to Midway to Wake to Guam.
The sprawling port city of Wangchung slumbered under the low clouds as the Colonial Airways Do-X made a long swooping pass over its landing area. The maneuver was necessary to scare away the small groups of sampans that were fishing in the area. Once the boats started moving away from the seaplane lane, the big Dornier flying boat banked around and ponderously settled into its descent path.
Anna swallowed hard as she watched the landing from her window seat, her seatbelt cinched tight. “It’s strange,” she admitted, “that I didn’t flinch when you were flying, but landing in this thing scares me. Why is that?”
Hao smiled, fingers of one paw drumming on the brim of the hat in his lap. “Because you trust me, simple as that,” he averred. “Or maybe it’s because there’s not as many things to go wrong on a smaller plane. Fewer engines, you know.”
He ran his free paw along his neck, smoothing his dyed fur as Anna leaned close and asked, “How will we know where to start? Kuo Han’s a great deal larger than Spontoon, you know.”
“Don’t I know it.” Hao leaned toward her and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “I know I can’t afford the local warlord, but I can buy a few of his people, and others owe me favors. Last I heard, Wu Tang owns the Governor lock, stock and barrel.” An expressive shrug as he straightened, the ten-engine seaplane lurching as it touched down and decelerated. He smiled, and Anna stared as he said in an almost unintelligible accent, “Ready, my dear? We simply must find our hotel.”
She laughed. “I know you’re speaking English, but what was that?”
“An accent I picked up from a sea captain a few years ago,” he replied. “He was from somewhere in America – Georgia, I think he said.” The Dornier wallowed in the swells as it taxied toward the dock, five of its engines quiescent as the others took up the task of moving the huge plane. Sampans and small boats started to converge on the Do-X and people started offering wares and shouting prices even before the seaplane was secured to the dock. Anna looked out the window in thinly disguised distaste, and Hao caught her reflection in the glass. He reached over and touched her paw before she could start grinding her teeth. “Hey, Anna.”
She turned to look at him and he said softly, “I know it offends you, Anna, but this is the way these people live. So please, don’t start talking about Bolshevism. The local authorities here are diehard Nationalists, and I think you look too pretty to be shot.”
Anna smiled and nodded. “We have something to do here,” she agreed. “Anything else can wait.” But her smile still faded at the sight of beggars kept several hundred yards from the quayside by a squad of uniformed police.
“Follow my lead,” he whispered in her ear, and he stood up and offered her his paw. “Come, my dear,” he said aloud in his awful accent, and she suppressed a laugh as she stood and followed him off the plane.
As a crowd of hawkers and small children surged around them like a tide, Hao smiled in an expansive manner, doling out small Bibles and occasionally coins before three policemen surrounded them and fended off the more aggressive beggars. Anna, for her part, kept her face stern and eyes forward, playing the part of a wife whose husband had insisted she accompany him to an Asiatic backwater.
Moving away from the dock area, Hao hailed a small, decrepit Citroen taxicab. As Anna got in, she looked back and watched as he oversaw a trio of feline porters. They loaded their luggage, two suitcases and a steamer trunk, into the rear of the vehicle, and Anna almost missed Hao giving a series of small gestures to one of the porters. The feline gave another gesture in reply, accepted his tip and howled as he protested being giving such a small amount. As the others joined the first in lamenting the stinginess of all Westerners, Hao slid into the back seat of the cab.
He made a huge show of mangling his own native language as he gave the driver directions to the Imperial Hotel. The driver nodded, not even listening as he stomped on the gas pedal and the ancient car’s engine wheezed. The taxi lumbered off, trailing a cloud of oily smoke.
Wangchung was an old and dirty city. Tradition held that it was the original settlement when the island chain had been settled over six hundred years ago. The houses ranged from houseboats and junks clustered along the docks to the Governor’s Palace, a strange building with a traditional pagoda roof and a Western-style colonnaded façade. The Imperial Hotel was in a newer section, one of a collection of buildings commissioned and built after the Revolution in 1912.
After registering and being shown to their room, Hao tipped the porters and closed the door. He held a finger to his lips and listened intently, then relaxed and said quietly, “Okay, we can talk now.”
“Fine,” Anna said. “Who was that guy you were signaling to?”
“Oh, you caught that, huh?” Hao grinned unabashedly. “That’s Chang, one of my contacts here. He’s going to talk to some people that he knows, who’ll speak to some people they know, and hopefully they’ll tell us where Wu Tang’s hiding.” He fiddled with the lock on the steamer trunk and opened it, revealing several trays bearing handguns, knives and several different shades of fur dye.
Anna laughed. “Going to get expensive,” she observed. “But you said that he’s got the Governor in his pocket. Why not hide in the Governor’s Palace?” Hao shrugged. “I expect we’ll know soon enough. In the meanwhile, we have money and a part to play,” he said. He crossed the room to the old ‘candlestick’ telephone. “Shall I order room service, my dear?” he asked, lifting the receiver and chuckling as Anna muffled a laugh at his accent.
“Please,” she said. “I’m starving.”
Later that night one of the hotel’s windows overlooking a dark alley opened. Two figures, dressed in quilted peasant coats and baggy cotton trousers, slipped out of the open window and made their way down the rusting fire escape to the pavement below. Hao, his fox’s dye job deliberately smudged with dirt, kept his paws hidden within his coat’s sleeves. Anna followed suit, nose twitching and eyes shifting left and right. “Are we being followed, do you think?” she asked in a murmur.
“I don’t think so,” he replied in the same soft tone. “The reason I decided we should dress as missionaries is because they’re a pretty common sight here. Few people would think to suspect another pair from America, even if they’re coming via Spontoon.” He paused before a small sign. “Here we are,” he said, and she followed him in.
The place was a gambling house, the air thick with smoke and the sound of voices amid the clattering of mah-jongg tiles. Hao exchanged a word or two with a giant panda, whose black and white fur looked unwashed and mangy. The bouncer huffed and gestured toward the back, and the two disguised foxes entered.
Behind the gambling den was an opium den, and the sickly-sweet smell made Anna’s eyes water. After the noise in the front of the establishment, the silence in here was deafening. Wordlessly, Hao led Anna further back to where the porter they had encountered earlier was laying on a pallet behind gauzy curtains. A long dirty brass pipe lay beside him. Signaling to Anna to stand guard, Hao squatted down beside him, and the two began to speak in whispered tones.
Anna tensed as the two started talking, the paws in her sleeves curling around the butts of two handguns strapped to her forearms. The conversation ended and Hao stood up and grinned at her. “Come on,” he said, and led her out a back door into a garbage-strewn alley. As they headed back out to the street Anna asked, “What did he have to say? Or was he too far gone?”
“Chang? Never uses the stuff,” Hao said with a chuckle. “But a den like that’s a good place to talk in private. He said that Wu Tang’s hiding out in the Old City, with one or two bodyguards. He thinks that he can pinpoint the location for us.” He grinned. “Let’s go back to the hotel, though. We’ve got a busy day tomorrow.”
“Yes, there’s a prayer meeting at around eleven.” Hao snickered at the look on her face. “We have to maintain our disguise, Anna.”
“I guess so,” she grumbled. After making their way back to the hotel, Anna asked, “Why do you use so many disguises, Hao?”
The dyed red panda looked thoughtful for a moment, then replied, “I guess it’s because I don’t want my family involved in some of the things I do. Things can get messy sometimes.”
* * * * * * * * *
The hymn ‘Old Rugged Cross’ was completely unfamiliar to Anna, and in Chinese (even phonetically) she had trouble singing it. Hao, on the other paw, sang loudly with the same bad accent and causing some of the people in the congregation to wince at the way he wove elaborate and bawdy puns into his mangled use of Chinese. The pair stood out like sore thumbs in their white suits. Mercifully, the service was short and they soon stood in the receiving line to meet the resident bishop. That worthy was a heavyset, tired looking bulldog wearing a thin prayer stole made of purple silk over his dark suit. Hao stepped up to him and shook his paw firmly. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” he said in an overly loud and effusive tone. “Bob Horner, from America, and this is my wife Beulah.”
Anna, whose usual exposure to bishops had earlier been limited to reading about them being the Government’s tools to oppress the masses, smiled graciously and shook the bulldog’s paw. “So pleased to meet you, sir.” The trio exchanged pleasantries for a moment, and the bishop seemed pleased with Hao’s announcement that he and Anna were going to move on to mainland China as far as Nanking. Perhaps a bit too pleased.
As they waved down a passing pedal-driven rickshaw cab, Anna said, “’Beulah?’ I should shoot you right now.”
Hao laughed as he helped her into the vehicle and gave instructions to the driver, slipping the powerfully built canine a five-dollar note. The Malay grinned, displaying betel juice-stained teeth, and they started off.
They entered the old walled city at the heart of Wangchung through a huge masonry gate that still bore scars from stray bullets. Hao explained that the shooting had been from Nationalist soldiers fighting off a pack of separatists. “Why do they want to separate from China?” Anna asked.
Hao shrugged. “They think they can get a better deal elsewhere. There are some here who want independence from China, and others who want to ally themselves with Japan or some other nation. Naturally the government wants to stop it, but the rebels won’t be stamped out, no matter what the Kuomintang do. ‘The revolutionary swims among the people as fish swim in the ocean,’” he remarked, and Anna’s ears perked. “That sounds rather Bolshevist,” she observed. “Who said it?”
He shrugged. “Just something I recall reading in a book Dad’s been looking at. Some philosopher or other; probably never amount to much.” As they passed a small inn, their driver jerked his head, and with a soft chuckle Hao said casually, “That’s where he’s supposed to be hiding. Think we should go visiting tonight?”
Anna grinned, an almost wolfish expression.
* * * * * * * * *
A sharp-eyed fur who knew what to look for would have seen two dark-furred canines in peasant costume slip down the hotel’s fire escape and blend into the shadows, then step out of the alley and walk almost nonchalantly down the street. After several blocks the pair hailed a cab and stepped into a battered Japanese-made Otha Phaeton, which lurched down the street and swung through the gateway into the Old City.
The taxi slowed and Hao and Anna stepped out of it, Hao glancing left and right before stepping into an alleyway. Anna moved down the street toward a certain inn, keeping her eyes down as she walked past the place, then paused as if in thought.
Hao crept through the alley, eyes intent on the marten lounging against the rear wall of the inn. When the fur straightened he walked forward, saying in Chinese, “Excuse me, but I seem to have lost my way. I am looking for the Red Lotus,” naming one of the most disreputable brothels in town.
The weasellike fur laughed and pointed to the east. “You definitely are lost,” he chuckled softly, “the Red Lotus is in that direction.”
“Really?” Hao asked. “I thought it was in this direction,” and his right paw struck out at the marten, fingers extended and striking him just at the point of his larynx, shattering the cartilage. As the fur started to choke Hao closed the gap between them, clamping a paw over his muzzle and holding him tightly until he stopped moving. He straightened up then, looking down at the corpse, then grabbed the dead marten by the shoulders and dragged him further into the darkness of the alley.
Anna was looking at a street sign when an ear perked. “Come in,” Hao whispered, and she stepped into the alley, almost stumbling once on the uneven cobblestones before finding her footing. “I got the one at the back,” he said, and she followed him into the building through the now-unguarded back entrance.
* * * * * * * * *
Wu Tang was a very nervous and unhappy red panda. Until a few weeks ago he had lived in luxury in a house by the Governor’s Palace, and had every chance of success in his attempt to swindle his friend Ni Hei. Now the thought of Peng-wum’s deception made him stamp his feet in anger while the thought of what retribution must surely be coming his way made his tail tremble.
Now he was living (if one could call it that) in this dingy, louse-ridden excuse for an inn while he cast about in his mind for a way of escaping the Nis. The fact that no one had come for him or even asked where he might be hiding made him even more paranoid.
No one had come for him yet, he reminded himself. He prowled around the room, hearing the floorboards creak under him. He hated this place, hated the cigarette smoke-stained, yellowing wallpaper, hated the bugs in the bed that seemed to enjoy tormenting his nights. He started at a soft knock at the door, and he called out, “Yes?” and hated himself for the fear he heard in his voice.
Silence, then a soft voice. “Sir, would you like some tea?”
Wu Tang crossed the room and started to open the door to peek out into the hall. His trusted bodyguards were supposed to be on the job, not acting as waiters, he grumbled to himself. But a cup of tea might steady his nerves. He unlocked the door and turned the knob.
The door burst inward, catching him in the face and sending him reeling back as a dark-furred canine rushed in. Another hurried in, dragging the corpse of one of his bodyguards. A knife hilt protruded under the wolf’s chin, limiting any blood flow. The door closed as the second canine nudged it with a foot, while the first clamped a paw over Wu Tang’s bleeding muzzle and drew a knife.
The shock of landing on his tail receded as Wu Tang stared into the canine’s eyes. He felt the tip of the knife nudge under his chin. “Stay still, Wu Tang,” the fur said, and the panda’s blood seemed to turn to ice as he recognized who spoke to him. It was Ni Hei’s youngest son, a fur with a certain reputation for being more direct than his father.
Fear rose like bile in his throat and his stomach twisted as he realized his predicament. His allies among Kuo Han’s government would be looking for a red panda, not another type of fur; Ni Hei could kill him here and now and no one left the wiser. “Please,” he whispered in a pleading tone, “I’ll pay you back … I’ll pay you anything you want! You,” he gasped, turning to face the other canine, “talk to him.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t understand you,” a woman’s voice replied in accented English. Wu Tang shut his muzzle as a tiny tearing pain erupted at his neck, and he felt blood seep into his fur.
“I told you to be still, Wu Tang,” Hao said softly. “I hold your life in my paw. Now, stand up.” As the older panda obeyed, the woman pulled her knife out of his bodyguard’s throat and wiped it clean, then sheathed it. “Ready, Anna?” Hao asked as he turned, the knife he held causing Wu Tang to turn with him.
“Yes,” was all Wu Tang heard before the back of his head exploded in a red haze of pain before fading to black.
“Are you sure that’s what you wanted to do?” Anna asked as she slipped the blackjack back into her sleeve. The oversewn leather tube was filled with lead birdshot, and she found it very uncomfortable to carry. “Peng-wum wanted us to kill him.”
Hao chuckled softly as he sheathed his knife, took two lengths of rope from a pocket and started tying up the unconscious Wu Tang. “That’s the problem with you secret police types,” he joked. “You lack style. I have something in mind, oh yes, definitely,” he added as he looped the rope around the panda’s muzzle and tied it firmly closed.
* * * * * * * * *
Kuo Han is an archipelago of three large islands and five smaller ones; Wangchung was located on the largest of the group. To the northwest at the northern tip of the Big Island was the colony’s second-largest city, the coastal town of Yaoming.
This morning the tide was running slack, at its lowest point around the pilings of the old pier as fishermen readying for the day’s work emerged from the homes and headed for their boats. One paused, then stared and pointed, yelling excitedly. The others turned to see, and rushed into the shallows to the pier. Another dashed back to town, to alert the local police.
There was a body tied to the piling farthest out in the water, and the receding tide had exposed it to the light of day. The body was that of a male red panda, in his late forties.
His tail and right paw had been cut off, but there were signs that he had died of drowning. His missing paw and tail were found later that day in Wangchung, fastened to a doorpost near a business that once belonged to a local businessman named Wu Tang. Although the local police mounted an investigation, those who had some inkling of the truth nodded and smiled to one another. Wu’s attempt to defraud one of his friends had come back to haunt him.
That same day, a pair of foxes, American missionaries, boarded a plane for the Chinese mainland.