Luck of the Dragon: Jacks Over Kings© 2014 by Walter D. Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)Chapter One-hundred-ninety-four
A Shahtoosh ring scarf.
That weekend she had a word with her mate about it.
Fang disclaimed all responsibility for the presents. “Honestly, Shin,” the big tiger had said. “Even if we could afford things like that, I’m damned if I’d send it to you at Songmark.”
“Oh? And why not?”
“Ouch! Let go of that before you break it.”
“Now, my love.”
“Oh, all right. There, happy now?”
“Well, happier.” Fang massaged feeling back into his finger. “Look, even if we had the money to buy things like that, I wouldn’t advertise it so blatantly. And I know how much you need face at school – I would do nothing to jeopardize that.”
Shin smiled and hugged her husband. “I’m sorry I accused you, Fang.”
“Love you, too, widdle kitty. So, any ideas on who the hell keeps sending me this stuff? That scarf’s worth fifteen hundred!”
“Shells, or dollars?”
That caused Fang’s ears to lay flat. “You’re kidding.”
“I had it appraised.”
Fang nodded. Perfectly in character. “Going to sell them?”
“Of course. Add a bit more weight to the bank account.”
“Good.” His tail snaked around her far furrier one. “I don’t like being accused of things, Shin.”
The red panda glared up at him, then her features softened and she rested her head against his chest. “I’m sorry,” she sighed. He stroked her headfur as she said, “It just gets so – “
“Well it does.”
“I can imagine. Where are you going to sell that stuff?”
She looked up at him, and named two people.
“Not bad. Since they’re gifts, the Constabulary can’t cry about it.”
Shin grinned. “You know, sweetheart, I had a talk with Liberty a few weeks ago.”
The Manchurian’s left eyebrow quirked. “Is Liberty setting up a Communist lonely hearts column? ‘Advice to married couples, by the Daughter of the Revolution?’” They both started laughing.
“No, just for us,” and Shin explained what she had asked the New Havenite to consider before they had gone to the Aleutians. When she was done, Fang looked thoughtful.
“A partnership might solve a few problems,” he said, but then his hug tightened. “But I’d hate to see our fun slow down, my ringtailed beauty.”
“Me too, widdle kitty,” and the two mock-growled at each other. “I still have a few hours before I have to go back to Eastern.”
“Perfect,” they chorused, and Shin started to laugh as Fang scooped her up in his arms.
“Why is Shen asking for you now?” Ni Peng asked in a worried tone as her husband adjusted his necktie.
“I have no idea, Peng,” Ni Hei replied. He shouldered into his suit jacket and kissed her on the nose. “He wasn’t expected to talk to me again for another month.”
“Probably wants more money.”
He nodded. “Possible. It’s also possible he’s thought of an entirely new way to insult me.” They kissed and Hei said, “Wish me luck.”
“Good luck, my love.” She watched her husband leave their quarters across the street from the Lucky Dragon and saw him climb into the considerably battered Ford truck that the family owned. His personal bodyguard, Marco, put the truck in gear and swerved around the bus as it bumped its way up the hill.
Peng wrung her paws, worried despite herself.
“Your Secret Admirer strikes again, Wo.” Rumiko sneered at her Chinese rival.
Shin responded with an obscene gesture. “What is it this time? The Mirror, Sword and Gem?” She grinned at the Japanese girl’s hissed intake of breath at mention of the God-Emperor’s sacred regalia and went through the open gate.
“What the hell’s this?” she asked a few minutes later, hefting a slim box roughly five feet long. Like all the other packages she’d received over the past week or so, it had no name on it and no return address. Brigit and another third year stood by watching interestedly, while Miss Blande merely looked curious.
“Long earrings?” Brigit asked in her best innocent tone, to assorted giggles.
Shin growled and started opening the box. When she was done she took an involuntary step back. “Wow.”
Nestled in wrapping paper was a miao dao, a type of Chinese saber with a single-edged, slightly curved blade nearly four feet long from the hilt guard to the point. The sheath was beautifully lacquered and inlaid with mother-or-pearl lotus blossoms and dragons.
“Quite an interesting gift, Shin,” Miss Blande remarked, “but you can’t keep it here, I’m afraid.”
“Keep it, Miss Blande?” Shin asked. “I never asked for it. It’s too big to use, in fact – give me a good knife or a gun any day.” She partially drew the blade, studying the mirror gloss of the steel. “Good workmanship, though.”
The Tutor looked it over, her feline tail twitching. “My advice, Shin.”
“Keep it. It’s quite valuable.”
“But the size of it! It’s useless!”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
The truck jounced to a stop at the gate to Shen’s compound. The gate was made of wood, topped with barbed wire; the wall on either side of it was made of brick topped with barbed wire and broken glass to deter intruders. The plaster and whitewash on the brickwork was gouged by stray bullets and stained with mud and less savory substances. Armed guards were at the gate and more within the walls.
Even compared to most of the other estates on the hill above Fort Bob, it wasn’t a very welcoming place.
Still, it was defensible and boasted its own well. Shen’s people rarely had to deal with the occasional bouts of dysentery and cholera that swept through the nearby settlement, whose hovels and small shops clustered close to the wall. Not too close, however; a dirt road kept the rest of the island’s denizens at arm’s-length.
And a line of pikes along the wall served as an additional deterrent.
The only pike that was decorated with a head today bore the moldering skull of a fur named Toohey. Toohey had been a noted figure about Krupmark, striding along in a faded and moth-eaten long black cape and equally battered floppy hat. The Kraschin boar was usually tolerated as he would ordinarily make pronouncements and critiques, rarely breaking into violent action. Merely a harmless crank.
His fatal moment of temerity had been to approach the gates of Shen's home, accuse him of being part of the petit-bourgeois socio-economic structure, and further indicate that he had no taste.
For the latter remark, Shen had immediately had the wall redecorated with Toohey's head, complete with hat nailed to skull. The expression of outrage was still discernible, frozen in death as in life.
Hei climbed out of the truck as Marco held the door open. “Any rumors about what’s going on, Marco?” the red panda asked the ferret.
The Italian shrugged. “Too many, Boss.”
“What’s the betting?”
A lazy grin. “Odds are three to two the old man’s dying.”
Hei’s nose twitched. “I’d be tempted, but Shen’s lasted so long Death might’ve forgotten about him.” Two guards started to open the gate, and Hei said, “Wait here for me, please.”
“Sure, Boss.” The ferret eased his shotgun into a deer hunter’s carry as his employer went inside. As the gate swung closed, another safeguard could be glimpsed, in this case a Great War Maxim gun set in place behind sandbags. Water dripped from its cooling jacket as its crew played cards.
To his surprise, he was searched by two furs who had been police officers in the old Shanghai Bund before their corrupt practices had finally managed to offend even the most corrupt members of the police hierarchy. Hei had been a frequent visitor, and hadn’t been searched on recent visits. The red panda was apparently not considered much of a threat. Infrequent visitors were usually searched more thoroughly, as a small barrel of oil attested.
Hei was putting his coat back on when Colonel Wen walked up to him. “Colonel,” the red panda said, nodding.
“Mister Ni,” the feline said crisply. “You are expected. Follow me.”
“Of course.” Hei noted that the head of Shen’s private army was dressed in a new uniform, with appropriate rank insignia. That was interesting in itself, as Wen usually wore civilian clothes.
The house had two floors, with Shen’s personal quarters on the second floor. The first floor was the one Hei was most familiar with, and although he knew the way he let Colonel Wen guide him.
The entry hall had holes in the walls, set at regular intervals and a uniform height above the floor. He’d seen a shotgun barrel protruding from one of the holes once in the past eight years. Their purpose had been abundantly clear to him after that. The hall and the corridor to the right were furnished simply, but with great taste.
Hei was shown into a private dining room that he knew well, because his monthly interviews with Shen took place in them. Wen closed the door behind him.
Shen sat at one end of the table, and Hei bowed. As he straightened he saw a younger man in a far corner, behind the old wolf and to his right and smoking a cigarette. “Honored Shen,” the red panda said respectfully.
“Esteemed Ni,” Shen said, “please come in. This,” and he indicated the younger wolf with a wrinkled paw, “is my great-nephew and heir, Shen Ming.”
Hei bowed. “Honored Shen.”
Ming smirked and nodded as he took a seat and Shen gestured. Hei sat down at the far end of the table, which was ten feet long and made of highly lacquered wood and probably worth more – much more - than the Ni family’s truck. A servant entered, silent on unshod feet, and lit small cones of incense as another started bringing out dinner.
Shen had brought his personal chef with him when he’d been forced to leave China. The Tibetan sand fox had justified the wolf’s faith in him over the years. The food was excellent, although Hei followed good etiquette by claiming that the small amount he’d had satisfied him. Shen would smile and urge more food on him, which the red panda would accept after making a great show of reluctance.
Ming, however, filled his plate and ate with gusto, looking amused at the older furs’ ritual dancing.
When dinner was finally over, tea was brought out and Shen said, “I have confirmed my esteemed great-nephew as my heir. I shall retire soon.”
Hei nodded carefully, making a mental note of the older man’s blunt tone.
“Ming shall have full authority within the clan and the organization,” Shen went on, “and, as is traditional, our associates shall offer tokens of their esteem to their new employer.” He waited expectantly.
The red panda thought it over. Shen expected a gift for his heir. After a few moments he gestured to a servant to refill his teacup and ventured, “My family will welcome the coming to power of Shen Ming with a gift of twenty thousand American dollars.”
Ming looked a bit impressed by this. “I was unaware you had such resources.”
“Such a gift would strain our resources, Honored Shen,” Hei said truthfully.
“Hmm, well, we can’t have that,” the younger man said, ignoring Hei’s startled look. The older Shen looked disturbed. “I am a man of simple tastes, Ni Hei.”
“Yes. Jade.” Hei turned as the door opened, and felt his breath catch in his throat.
The woman was simply a dream of a perfect woman, unclothed except for a collar. She was what every male red panda considered ideal.
He felt his banded tail twitch.
And he didn’t care if the two wolves saw it.
Jade knelt beside Ming and the wolf stroked her headfur with an idle paw. “As you see, simple tastes . . . but that simplicity must be balanced by the utmost quality.”
Hei reminded himself that he was a married man. He tore his gaze away from Jade, swallowed and collected his wits. “Well, of course, sir – I have connections with many of the dealers on Kuo Han and in Macao – ”
“I said ‘utmost quality,’” Ming interposed with just a hint of a growl. “Jade here is flawless, and commanded a high price, as any precious gem should. And she was not acquired from Kuo Han.”
“Forgive me, Honored Shen,” Hei said. “But what could I offer you?”
Ming smiled down at his pet, still stroking her ears. “I desire . . . a bodyguard. The best there is.”
“I’m – I’m afraid I don’t understand. Of course, my youngest son Hao would be pleased to work for you – ”
“I know of your son, and his reputation.” Ming leaned forward.
“It is your daughter that I want.”