Luck of the Dragon: Jacks Over Kings© 2014 by Walter D. Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
Ni Hei sat back in his chair, feeling as if the younger wolf had just punched him in the stomach.
For a second or two he couldn’t see or feel anything.
“M . . . my daughter,” he whispered.
“Yes,” Ming said.
“You – you want my daughter?” The red panda’s glance flicked at Jade.
Ming caught the look. “Oh no, Mr. Ni! Jade is special, and it pleases me to have her as a pet. Jade, stand.” The femme obeyed. “She cost quite a bit, particularly for her training. She was a bit – unruly, as well.” He massaged his left paw, as if recalling an old injury.
“My . . . daughter is willful, Honored Shen,” Hei stammered out, still reeling from what the man wanted. “She married much against my wishes – “
“A minor impediment,” and the dismissive paw-wave chilled Hei to the root of his tail. “And as for willfulness – Jade here was a pawful. Why, she even tried to commit suicide – twice! – but look at her now. She’s so much more, ah, tractable.” He smiled at her fondly. “So much better now.”
Hei looked at Jade again, and suppressed a shudder. She had green eyes, probably the inspiration for her name.
But apart from the color, there was . . . nothing there.
As if her soul had been washed from her.
He had only heard about such things in guarded whispers, and had been all too ready to dismiss it as a fairy tale.
His jaws worked, and he finally managed to whisper, “How?”
Ming was apparently quite ready to answer his question. “Well, there was a certain woman on Kuo Han, who had a singularly rare talent. She died last year under mysterious circumstances, but I assure you they are training her successor as rapidly as possible.”
The elder Shen said, “You look somewhat perturbed, Esteemed Ni.” He signaled to a servant, who refilled Hei’s tea and waited as the red panda gulped the liquid down. “One of the things that attract my great-nephew’s attention is your daughter’s education.”
“Songmark?” he managed to choke out.
“Yes,” Shen affirmed. “There were two Songmark girls in our grasp on Kuo Han – taken here, of all places – but they have so far eluded recapture. They are believed to be connected in some way to the death of the Adjuster.” He looked smug. “Having a Songmark girl in my possession will cause certain furs of my acquaintance to commit suicide out of sheer envy.”
Hei gulped again and forced himself to think. After a moment he ventured, “And . . . what may I receive in return?”
The older Shen said, “It is a fair question, as I know you prize all of your children, but particularly your daughter. Let us say that . . . we shall do away with all obligations. The debt you owe will be forgiven, in its entirety. Your clan will be free.”
Hei thought furiously, wishing he had Peng-wum by his side. His clan’s freedom from all obligations and debts had been something he’d dreamed of since coming to Krupmark nearly nine years ago. That freedom, coupled with the plan going forward in America . . .
But the price of that freedom . . . Shin . . .
A thought occurred to him.
“My . . . my Lord,” Hei said slowly, “it is a magnificent offer.” He drew a breath. “But I cannot.”
Ming half-rose, but sat back down at his great-uncle’s gesture. “Why not?”
“She is still attending school,” Hei replied. “She will not graduate until June.” He looked at the two wolves. “She is not the finished product you desire, my Lord,” and he forced himself to meet Ming’s glare without flinching.
He tried to remember to breathe as Ming thought about it.
“June, you say?”
“That’s more than two months away.”
“Yes, Lord. But if you want her fully trained – “ he stopped talking as Ming’s eyes went hooded and he drummed his fingers on the table.
Finally Ming said, “Very well. I can wait. But I want her as soon as she graduates. I will brook no further delays.”
“Of course not, my Lord.”
The conversation drifted into business and other, more mundane topics. But Hei’s heart wasn’t in it, and neither were his thoughts.
He was dismissed, and Wen showed him out to where Marco was sending a beggar off with a swift kick to the canine’s rump. The ferret slid into the seat beside his employer and asked, “Home, Boss? Boss?” He looked concerned. “You okay, Boss?”
“Hmm? Oh yes, yes Marco, I’m fine. Let’s go home.” He sat staring out the windows as the truck made its way down the hill and back to the Lucky Dragon.
Ni Peng had not seen her mate this distracted in at least two years, since the time he had thought Wu Tang had managed to bankrupt the family. He didn’t have anything to eat and sat at his desk, staring into space and murmuring to himself.
Several times she had caught him checking the revolver he kept in his desk. That disquieted her.
His mate planted her paws on her hips, and responded to this with a series of words that made the fur in his ears curl. “Don’t give me that, Ni Hei. There’s something bothering you, and I need to know about it.”
“You don’t need – “
“If it’s bad enough to make you start acting senile, I do need.” She smiled, pulled him into her arms and whispered, “Tell me.”
“I’m not going to get any peace until I do, is that it?” he sighed.
Then he told her. By the time he was finished, Peng’s tail was fluffed out and almost rigid in shock.
“Shin!?” Peng cried out. “That – that old – “
“It’s not him,” he corrected her. “It’s his heir, that puppy. This is what the Americans call the last straw, my love.”
“I agree. So, what are we going to do about it?”
Peng gave him an arch look. “This concerns the entire family, Hei. Won Lung Ho and Wu Tang weren’t put in their graves by you, but by our children. They’re grown up now, Hei – even Shin.”
“I know, Peng. Let me have a few illusions left.”
“We can’t afford them, not now. Now, get some sleep, and we’ll talk to Peng-wum and Hao in the morning.”
“Peng-wum and Nailani are still here? I would have thought they’d be home by now.”
“Peng-wum and Clarence were working on another deal.”
Shen Ming looked up at the tiger. “Wo Fang. Spontoon, South Island. Maha Kahuna Hotel.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
The talk came after breakfast.
Hei finished what he had to say and sat back. He looked at the group as a short silence reigned.
Peng-wum sat still, a coldly calculating look in his eyes while Nailani looked shocked and sat close to her husband, holding his paw.
Hao was gazing out the window. His eyes had gone cold.
Xiu looked like she was about to be sick.
Finally Peng-wum stirred, patting Nailani's paw before saying, “I’m glad that I decided to wait until today to leave, Father. We need a plan."
"I'll kill him." Heads turned as Hao turned away from the window. "Tell me, Father, please. Give me the order," he said, his voice a low growl, "and I'll make sure of it. That bastard's dead. They’re both dead."
“I agree,” Xiu said softly. Hao looked at her in surprise and she added, “It’s the only way to make sure we’re safe.”
"I agree with you, Hao," Hei said quietly. "This is what they call the last straw. Shen doesn't realize he's dead yet, but we have some things to consider. You can't just walk up to his front gate and ask for his head, eh?"
His youngest son was starting to mature, he noted. Hao actually nodded and turned so that he was facing the table. "The first thing we have to do is make our position here as strong as possible, so that if he strikes we can fall back," Hei explained. "If we do decide to strike first, be aware that Shen is not Won Lung Ho - he will be expecting us, and he has far more resources than we have."
"And he's one of the people on the top of the hill," Xiu added, her eyes narrowing. "Any chance of help from that quarter?"
"No. If we are successful, I want to be beholden to no one ever again," her father-in-law declared. "Of course, we also know that they will not lift a paw to help him. Now, we know the risks - "
"Not the least of which is not knowing how many spies he has in our organization," Peng-wum offered. “I agree with you, Father – Shen Jintao and Shen Ming must die. If it can be managed, we should destroy their entire clan. Are there any other heirs?”
“As far as I know, no,” his father said.
“We’ll have to make sure, then, before we do anything.”
"True. We will have to move carefully and keep this within the family. Hao," he said, "that’s your first job – find the other eyes and ears around here, and shut them. Forever.”
Hao smiled, his paws starting to flex. “Yes, Father."
“I can help with that, as well as discovering if there are any others in the Shen clan,” Peng said. “Xiu, would you like to come with me?”
"Good. Peng-wum, you and I will get a plan set up, then you’ll fly me to Spontoon.” His oldest looked troubled at that, but nodded.
Later in the day Peng-wum sat in his office on Main Island, thinking.
He was good at that.
His wife Nailani was back at their longhouse in Pangai, explaining to her family – his in-laws – the nature of the threat. He was reasonably certain that they would agree to watch over his wife and their children. There was also a chance that they would offer to help, as he was a part of the Mahoku Clan by marriage.
The Mahokus, situated as they were at the far western end of Main Island, were known to take a rather independent view of law and order. The Constabulary rarely intervened except when the clan’s activities actually broke a law.
Defending a clan-member, however, was another matter entirely.
Still, Peng-wum thought, there were two other problems. First, the Mahokus might not wish to travel to Krupmark, preferring to stay on Spontoon and act defensively. Second, if Shen struck first or the Ni’s plans went awry, the surviving members of the family would need a safe place to run to.
And that place couldn’t be Spontoon.
He recalled something Hao had said once . . . a name. Yes; he remembered now – a name in connection with Hao getting a proper, legal pilot’s license.
As soon as he could, he was on a water taxi for Eastern Island.
“Welcome to Songmark! You’re not allowed in.”
Hei nodded pleasantly. “I have no intention of trying to enter,” he said to the two felines at the gate, “but I would like to have one of you give this message to either Miss Devinski or Miss Wildford.” He held out a small envelope sealed with his clan chop impressed into a blob of red wax. “Please let them know that this is urgent.”
One of the women, tall and with a gray tabby fur pattern, cocked her head quizzically. “Why don’t you give it to one of them yourself?”
“I’m sure they’re busy. And if I say that I need to speak to one of them right now, you’ll want money.”
The two felines looked at each other. “You’ve been here before.”
The other woman, who sported short-cropped cream-colored fur, looked at the red panda closely and finally said, “You’re Shin’s Dad, aren’t you?”
“Poor guy. Well, we’ll get this to Miss Devinski,” and one took the letter and ran off. After a few minutes she came back and said, “She’ll be coming to see you.”
In less time than he anticipated a familiar yellow-furred Labrador came to the gate. Catherine Devinski glared at the letter, half-crumpled in her paw, then at Hei. “Mr. Ni.”
“Is what you say in this letter true?”
“Yes.” He took a breath. “I wish to request a meeting with you and Shin – and with her husband present.”
“Wo Fang? Why?”
“This matter touches him, as well. I’ll have to go to South Island and bring him here.”
“Shin’s in class right now. I’ll set a meeting for one o’clock. Song Sodas.”
“That will do. Thank you very much, Ma’am.”
“No, thank you, Mr. Ni.”
“Fang, it’s good to see you.”
“Good to see you too, Father. What’s going on?”
“I need you to come with me to Songmark. I have something I have to talk to you and Shin about.”
In the water taxi on the way to Eastern Island, Hei took advantage of the boat’s engine noise to lean close to his son-in-law and ask, “Can your people at the hotel be trusted?”
The tiger’s eyes widened slightly. “They’re mostly Spontoonie, with a few Chinese,” Fang said. “What the hell’s going on?”
The red panda gestured at the driver, and kept quiet.
Song Sodas had the distinction of being both inside and outside the school’s perimeter fence. It was used as an incentive for the students, while the back rooms of the shop were used for private meetings.
Hei and Fang walked in. “Hello!” the femme behind the counter said. “Can I get you anything?”
Hei frowned, then smiled. “It’s been years,” he said, “but I would like a small dish of ice cream, please. Vanilla.”
“You want chocolate syrup on that?”
“Thank you.” The red panda eased onto a stool, the seat unfamiliar to him, and uncomfortable at first.
“No, just haven’t used one of these in quite a while.” He raised an eyebrow as the girl tittered, then smiled as he realized the joke.
He was finishing the ice cream when Miss Devinski appeared. She beckoned to the tiger and the red panda and ushered them through the public area of the small building and into a back room.
Miss Devinski settled herself into a chair set against the back wall of the soundproofed room. “Shin will be along shortly,” she said. “Mr. Wo,” and she nodded to the Manchurian tiger.
After several minutes there was a soft knock, and Shin stepped in. Her coveralls were grimy and she smelled of engine oil. “Father! Fang! What’s going on?” she asked.
“Sit down, Shin,” the canine Tutor said. “Your father gave me a note earlier today. The gist of it was that there is an imminent threat.” She glanced at Ni Hei.
The red panda took a breath. “On Krupmark, I recently met with our family’s patron, Shen Jintao. His heir, Shen Ming, was present. The elder Shen wishes to retire and give Ming full authority. But there is a catch.”
“There always is,” Fang put in.
“In this case, the Shen will sever all obligations and debts held by us, in return for me giving Shen Ming my daughter.”