Luck of the Dragon: Jacks Over Kings© 2014 by Walter D. Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
Contrary to popular belief, it is the female mosquito, not the male, which drinks blood. Males generally subsist on the nectar of flowers, while females require blood to nourish their young.
There are some who say that this comes as no surprise to them.
Of course, they tend to say this when their wives or girlfriends are no longer in earshot.
A mosquito, then, lighted on one furred ear and prepared to drive its stylet into vulnerable flesh. A paw came up reflexively and slapped it away. Only momentarily thwarted, the insect flew around, waiting for another opportunity.
The paw scratched at the ear as the wolf sat and quietly regarded his tumbler of whiskey. Below the balcony where he sat the river traffic of Canton flowed on as it had done for centuries. He brought the whiskey to his lips and took a long, savoring sip while the paw that had brushed away the mosquito retrieved his lit cigarette from the ashtray.
If nothing else, the smoke could keep the mosquitoes away.
A soft sound caused his ears to perk, and he turned only slightly in his seat to see a young feline woman, light gray fur and headfur immaculately clean and well-groomed, kneel on the deep carpet and kowtow. She was unclothed except for a simple red velvet choker around her lovely neck. “Pearl,” he said, his voice a low growl.
Still kowtowing the girl said quietly in the flawless Mandarin of the old Imperial Court, “My Lord, this unworthy slave begs to tell you that your bath is ready.”
He sat and smoked as he studied her. Flawless curve to her back and tail . . . she had cost surprisingly little; her training had cost him a bit more. Five years his junior, she now had no thoughts other than to serve him. If he ordered her to leap to her death from the roof, she would do it gladly.
And even if she had been the same species as him, there was no worry about troublesome offspring underfoot. A certain operation had taken care of that.
“Good, Pearl,” he said in an offpaw manner as he stubbed out the cigarette. “A bath might be pleasant. Are Ruby and Jade in my bedroom?”
“Yes, My Lord.”
“That, too, is pleasant.” He looked up, ears rising as he heard a door opening elsewhere in the house, and muted voices. “Go to the bathroom,” he said, “and wait for me there.”
Pearl moved to stand, grace in every motion until she was standing. “As my Lord wishes.” She padded silently out of the room.
Perhaps a minute later, there was a soft knock on the door. The wolf sipped at his whiskey, and the knock was heard again.
Apart from the knocking, there was no sound save for the clock’s metallic ticking. He let them wait. He never had to wait on others; instead, others had to wait upon him. Finally, his whiskey drained to the dregs, he said, “Come in.”
The door opened and his butler, Ling, ushered two men into the room. One, a weasel, gave his hat and coat to the functionary, while the other, a stocky sun bear, simply draped his overcoat over one of the tiger’s brawny arms. The weasel nodded while the bear bowed. “My Lord,” the mustelid said.
The wolf gave a friendly smile and stood. Shaking paws with his visitors he said, “Chang, Mister MacReady. You are welcome. Come, will you have a drink? Perhaps a pipe of opium?” he asked, his easy smile changing to a knowing grin as he caught the weasel’s eye.
Alister MacReady matched his master’s expression. “I thank you, my Lord,” he said, his English marked by a slight Scottish burr, “but the pipe will not be necessary. I know that the scent displeases you.”
Again, the easy, friendly grin. He’d spent a great deal of time practicing it, ever since his days at Eton. “But I would be a poor host if I did not try to make my guests comfortable,” he said, adopting a nonchalant slouch against the carved mantelpiece in the suite’s living room. “Help yourselves to the whiskey, then, and tell me what brings you to Canton.”
Art by Jim Groat
“Thank you, my Lord,” and the Scottish weasel poured two fingers of the excellent single malt, sipped and smacked his lips in appreciation before saying, “Chang and I have come up the river from Hong Kong to bring you a message.”
This was unexpected, and the wolf managed to keep the surprise off his muzzle. Neither of these two would dare show their faces in China unless it was important. His two visitors were bloody-pawed murderers and slavers, wanted in at least six countries each. MacReady was marked for immediate execution by the Nationalist government if he was ever spotted. Chang was similarly condemned.
Their host lit another cigarette, tossing the spent match into the fireplace. He took a few drags on the cigarette and asked, “What is the message?”
Chang spoke, the sun bear’s voice sibilant and his Chinese lisping. He always wore an old-fashioned high shirt collar to hide the ropy scars on his throat, but his injuries betrayed him every time he opened his mouth. “My Lord, we bear word from your honored great-uncle.”
Word, not news.
So the old monster was still alive.
The wolf’s expression changed not a bit. “So.”
“My Lord, the Honored Shen Jintao sends cordial greetings to his esteemed great-nephew and heir,” Chang said, “and invites you to his home. You have much to discuss with him.”
The younger man nodded to himself, still smoking placidly. “Much to discuss,” he echoed. “Such as his retirement, to spend his remaining years in comfort?”
“Just that, my Lord,” MacReady replied.
“So we were led to believe, Master,” Chang added.
“Then I suppose I must go to Krupmark Island.” He tossed the cigarette into the fireplace with a show of weariness. “I confess, gentlemen, that I am watched by the government. Even in these warlike times, they still find the resources to watch someone like me. However,” and he grinned, “money can render even the sharpest set of eyes quite blind.”
The other two grinned at him, Chang even nodding at the truth behind the joke.
“Still, Krupmark Island is such a primitive place,” the wolf said. “Scarcely any amenities to speak of. I shall have to reduce my staff to the barest minimum.” He thought a moment, then gestured with his paw. The bear and the weasel correctly interpreted the wave and bowed, backing away a few steps before leaving the room.
Shen Ming’s carefully friendly expression faded to a dark scowl as soon as the door closed. “Ruby, Jade,” he said, his voice never rising above a conversational tone.
The two women, a red-furred otter and a red panda with dark green eyes, were kneeling before him in an instant. Both were as unclothed as Pearl, with the same velvet choker around their throats. The older by two days, Ruby, whispered, “My Lord?”
“Follow.” The young wolf walked past his pets, who crawled after him until he stepped into the bathroom. Pearl kowtowed, and Ming said, “Undress me.” He stood still as the girls reverently removed his clothes and knelt again as he stepped into the bath.
The water was the perfect temperature, and he enjoyed the feeling of the moisture seeping into his fur. At his instructions, Jade got him another drink while Pearl lit his cigarette. He luxuriated in the bath for several minutes, then dropped the spent cigarette into the empty glass.
He studied the three young women for several minutes as they knelt facing him. “My pets,” he murmured, his voice just above a whisper. “So beautiful and delicate. Hmm, unfortunately I must decide which of you to go with me . . . “ He sat up in the tub and the three girls became more attentive. “You three will pleasure yourselves,” he said with a smile. “The one who pleases me the most with your performance will come with me.” He nodded toward an enameled armoire inlaid with mother-of-pearl mosaics from the Kama Sutra. “You may use whatever you like.”
“Yes, my Lord,” the three girls chorused.
Another mosquito, another ear.
This time the insect lighted on an ear and stepped daintily among the thicket of dark and longer white hairs, dipped its stylet into the flesh and began to feed. It took a matter of a few seconds, whereupon the laden mosquito flew away.
The target of the hungry insect had been too wrapped up in her work to bat the annoying pest away. All her concentration was focused on what she was doing. Minor things like insect bites could be dealt with later.
Her dark brown eyes flicked left and right, and a dark-furred paw reached out.
“See you five,” Wo Shin said as she dropped the five-cowrie coin into the pot, then followed it with another as she added, “and raise you five.”
The others looked at the pot, then at her, before studying their cards again. The pile of coins rested on a considerably scarred wooden table among a couple of used ashtrays and several glasses with varying amounts of whiskey still in them. A nearby table held chipped plates with the remnants of sandwiches and other snacks, largely consumed an hour or so earlier.
It was a slack time at the Lucky Dragon Casino, that lazy time in mid-afternoon when customers were either working or finding enough money to gamble with or pay for a woman for the night. A few of the women lounged around or sat listening to the establishment’s latest act, a blind ferret who played a violin. He might have been faking at being sightless, but there was no doubt he was good at fiddling.
Hao scowled at the money in the pot, then at his cards, then at his older sister. Xiu sat beside him, looking on interestedly. She didn’t play poker well yet, but was at least learning quickly how to cheat and not get caught at it. Peng-wum studied Shin over his pince-nez before adding to the pot, and Fang simply tossed another five-cowrie coin into the center of the table. “Call,” the big tiger said.
Shin smiled sweetly at her husband and laid her cards down. “Baby straight, all spades.”
Hao growled, “Two pair, eights and nines.”
Peng-wum shrugged and tossed his cards onto the table. He raised his head and accepted a consolatory kiss from his wife.
Shin reached out a paw in the direction of the pot and stopped as the Manchurian feline growled. “One moment.”
The red panda femme cocked an eye at her husband. “You’d better not be sitting there and saying you can beat a straight.”
Fang grinned toothily and fanned his cards out. “Full house, tens full of twos.” He laughed at Shin’s expression as her smile changed to a pout, and a big paw swept the coins to him. “Ante up, little girl.”
She pouted again and batted her eyelashes at him. “Can you spot me a few cowries? I’m almost out of money.”
Fang chuckled as he started to shuffle the cards. “How much is it worth to you?” Everyone at the table laughed at Shin’s leer, and Fang shoved about two shell’s worth of coins to her. “I’ll hold you to that stake, Shin,” Fang said as he started dealing another round.
His wife raked in her cards and looked at them critically before glancing at him. “Will you take it in trade?”
The tiger shrugged as he finished dealing. “Don’t know. What’ve you got?”
“If you haven’t figured that out by now, widdle kitty, maybe you should try that place up in the town – you know, the one that has only guys in it?” she asked innocently. She crested back at him as he growled and tossed a coin onto the table. “I’m in.”
Hao added his coin, then Peng-wum and Fang followed suit. Hao showed his cards to Xiu, who nodded. They both looked up as Nailani shook a finger at them and said with a grin, “Now, now, no cheating.” The rabbit doe laughed as Xiu stuck her tongue out at her.
The others chuckled. Family members didn’t try to cheat each other.
Everyone else in the world was fair game.
Fang looked at his cards, and moved one. His whiskers twitched. Shin caught the motion and asked, “See anything you like, lover boy?”
“Only when I’m looking at you, my ringtailed beauty,” he replied, never taking his eyes off his cards.
“I’ve always been amazed by how you two always snap at each other,” Xiu said. “I thought you were going to start fighting when Hao and I got back from our honeymoon.” She slipped an arm around her husband’s shoulders and Hao grinned at her.
“We don’t snap at each other all the time,” Fang said. He tossed two cards onto the table after Hao and Peng-wum had bet, and added a few coins. “Sometimes we sleep.”
Shin giggled. “When I let you sleep, you mean.”
“And who was practically begging me to let her sleep last night, hmm?”
Shin’s paw lashed out to crack Fang across the head, and the Manchurian tiger’s paw caught her wrist in mid-swing. “Are you going to bet, or not?” he asked.
His wife sulked, and laid three cards down on the table after betting. She collected the cards Fang dealt, and kept her expression carefully neutral. Hao looked at his new cards and put them face down. “Out.” He pulled Xiu into his lap and the two sat back to watch.
His older brother laid a ten-cowrie piece down. “I’m in, raise you ten.”
Fang followed suit. “Shin?”
“Waiting on you.”
Fang chuckled, and his wife glared at him. “Fine. See you ten. Three of a kind.”
Peng-wum smiled. “Heart flush.”
Fang’s whiskers drooped. “I just have two pairs.” He laid his cards down. “A pair of nines, and a pair of nines.”
The others all laughed as the tiger collected the pot and leaned over to kiss Shin. She grabbed him by the cheekruffs and the two kissed deeply. “You’ve got a great poker face, sweetheart,” she murmured as they broke the kiss.
“Better than yours?” he asked in the same soft tone.
This time, the ear in question was framed on either side by the gussets in the fedora the plainclothes policeman wore. An easy target for the insect as it homed in on the ear.
She landed, and prepared to feed.
There was a movement, just the barest stirring of air. Better safe than dead, so the mosquito launched herself into the air to wait for another chance.
The sound of wings, a high keening buzzing noise, caused the canine ear to flick as the policeman loitered in the shadows. He had been assigned to watch the house by the river and take note of who went in.
And, more importantly, who came out.
He had actually seen Shen Ming once, when he’d taken a small boat up the river. The wolf liked to flaunt his wealth, and the policeman shivered despite his warm coat when he recalled the rumors around the office about how Shen acquired that wealth.
Why the force – or the Kuomintang – hadn’t arrested and liquidated the wolf was a mystery to him and his fellows. The best explanation was that he owned several high-ranking furs in the police and government.
One rumor held that he even had Chiang Kai-shek dancing to his tune, while another said that it was Madame Chiang.
Earlier in the evening he’d seen two furs entering the building, one that looked like a bear and another, slimmer fellow. He couldn’t be sure, but they resembled people he’d been ordered to keep an eye out for.
He edged a bit closer to the opening of the alleyway, peering out at the entrance to the house.
The canine’s ears stood straight up, dislodging a pesky mosquito. There under the streetlight by the front door stood four figures – the two he’d seen go in earlier, Shen Ming himself, and what appeared to be a woman in a dress.
He had to report this.
The canine had all of his attention directed at the quartet by the streetlamp.
Which meant that he failed to notice the huge paw that gripped his muzzle and jerked his head back. He felt a sharp prick at the base of his neck.
And then he felt nothing more.
Ling eased the body of the policefur to the pavement and purposely did not pull the thin ice-pick from the back of the canine’s neck. Doing so would let blood flow out and possibly stain the tiger’s paws.
That would be unprofessional.
The tiger’s clan had served the Shen since the Jiaqing Emperor in 1800, and he prided himself on his work.