Luck of the Dragon: Jacks Over Kings© 2014 by Walter D. Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
(Inspector Stagg and Sergeant Brush courtesy of E.O. Costello. Thanks!)
The afterlife, Ni Hei discovered, was a bit . . . disappointing.
There had been too many sounds.
It was too loud.
The lights were too bright.
The air tasted bitter.
And he felt really tired.
His eyes opened, closed reflexively, opened again more slowly.
The room was painted a creamy white, and the sun shone through a set of curtains to one side. Everything looked somehow distorted until he realized that he was looking through panels of clear flexible acetate, and that he wasn't wearing his glasses.
A dull pain communicated itself to him, and he glanced at his left arm, where a thin tube connected a needle in the crook of his elbow to a glass bottle suspended from a hook.
Other aches and pains made themselves known, in his ribs (well taped up, it appeared) and the right side of his head.
It gradually dawned on him that he was alive.
The plan had worked, apparently.
His movements had attracted someone's attention, as a fur who had been sitting by the door stood and peered through the acetate at him. The rodent was dressed as a Spontoon constable, which further reinforced the notion that he wasn't dead. Hei opened his mouth, but his throat was too dry and hoarse to do anything more than make a strangled sound. The constable nodded and called out something in Spontoonie, then went back to his chair.
After a few moments a pretty canine femme in a nurse's uniform walked in. In briskly efficient tones she said in Chinese, "Can you hear me, Mr. Ni?"
He nodded, and with an effort raised his right paw to point at his throat. She smiled. "I'll get you a glass of water and a straw, and I'll let the doctor know you're awake."
The red panda nodded again, and relaxed.
Just happy to be alive.
His first sip of water burned like acid in his throat, but subsequent sips put the fire out and made him feel a bit better. He was taking another sip as a skunk in a doctor's coat walked in. "Good morning, Mr. Ni," the doctor said. "I am Dr. James Meffit, your physician."
Hei swallowed and said, "I am very pleased to meet you, Doctor. I guess that you are responsible for saving my life?" His voice was still raspy, like the worst sore throat he’d ever had.
"Your daughter did a lot of that," the skunk conceded, "by getting you here in a timely fashion. As I told her, had you been in that room for another hour you might have been beyond saving." He pulled a stethoscope from a pocket and said, "Now, I want you to roll over on your left side for me, so I can listen to your chest."
The red panda obeyed, surprised at how stiff he felt, and meekly followed Meffit's instructions to breathe as deeply as he could. The coughing fit these breaths engendered surprised him.
"Hmm," the doctor said as he straightened up and removed the stethoscope from his ears. "You may have ended up with some scarring on your lungs as a reward for your efforts. Your ribs are bruised on the right side as well. How do you feel?"
Hei took his time and thought about the question before replying, "I feel a bit stiff, perhaps sore, and my throat is still very dry. I also have a splitting headache. Was I asleep long? Am I allowed visitors?"
Meffit nodded, making notations on a clipboard that hung at the foot of the bed. He noted that the left side of the red panda’s face was drooping, slightly lower than the right. "What was the last day you remember, Mr. Ni?" he asked as he shone a flashlight at the man’s pupils.
"Today is Thursday. What is the date?”
“If today is Thursday, then it must be, um . . . April the fourteenth?”
“Good. You’re correct. What year?”
Meffit jotted another note. “Very good. Last night I had the oxygen mask removed from you, and replaced with this tent," and he gestured at the acetate panels. "As to whether you are allowed visitors or not, I will have to refer you to the constables who are presently guarding you." Carefully trimmed whiskers semaphored against coal-black fur. "Inspector Stagg will also want to talk to you, I expect."
Ni Hei gave a gentle smile as he rolled onto his back. "I suppose he will. Please let him know that I'm not going anywhere, Doctor? I wouldn't want him to worry on my account."
"Hmm. When was your last physical examination?"
"Now that, I am ashamed to admit, was a while ago. Let me think . . . nineteen twenty-eight. I think."
"I'll have a physical scheduled for later in the week," the skunk said as he walked out of the room. As the constable returned to his reading, the red panda laid back and fell asleep again, hoping that everything was going as planned back home.
The hot water felt wonderful, and the soap – the harsh, cheap soap that all Songmark students had learned to tolerate eventually – was sheer heaven. Shin scrubbed herself thoroughly, rinsed, and washed herself again.
The second shower succeeded in getting rid of the smell of Ming’s blood on her paws.
Liberty and Brigit were washing up as well as the red panda stepped out of the shower.
Tatiana was standing there.
“Hello, Tatiana,” Shin said as she rubbed her headfur dry one last time.
“Shin.” The sable seemed to hesitate, then suddenly lunged at the red panda, hugging her tightly. “I am very glad to see you all home, and safe,” the Russian member of Red Dorm said. She broke the hug and looked at Shin critically. “My friend.”
The red panda smiled. “Thanks, Tatiana.”
It hadn’t taken long for the people who lived in Fort Bob to realize just who had taken out Shen Jintao.
Practically simultaneously, odds started being set and wagers laid on just how long the Ni would be able to hold onto their new and precarious position.
Defensive measures were being taken. Stones and sandbags were being piled up against the front walls of the Casino and the other building, and the roof of the Ni & Sons building now sported three machine guns instead of one.
“They’re coming!” one of Hao’s crew shouted as he ran at breakneck speed down the rutted track that served as the main road. Speeding past two low hills that flanked the road, he dove into a hastily-dug trench.
What was coming could best be described as a mob, a group of furs armed with a motley assortment of weapons and led by a middle-tier smuggler named U Win. The Burmese feline was in the lead, brandishing a machete and a Mauser C96.
Two ramshackle sheds stood on the crest of each hill, but the crowd had their eyes on the Casino, the offices and the warehouse beyond the two structures. U Win had assured his followers that the Nis were shaky, having just managed to kill off the wolf at a ruinous cost to their own strength. Fueled by a combination of confidence and straight grain alcohol, his followers had agreed that this was their chance.
However, as soon as they reached a point roughly fifty yards from the two low hills, the sheds abruptly fell apart.
Revealing that they each contained two twenty-millimeter cannon on homemade mounts.
The four cannon opened up with a stuttering roar, and a flurry of explosions and shrapnel sent U Win’s gang into a panicked flight back up to Fort Bob. Several limped, having been wounded by the cannon fire or trampled by their friends.
U Win himself had lost. His shattered corpse lay in the middle of the track.
Ni Hao signaled for the guns to cease fire, and several of his crewmembers cheered. “Great job,” he said, “but they won’t be tricked so easily next time. We’ll have to put armor around these, I think.”
Clarence, whose expertise had been called upon for the sighting of the guns, smiled. “Very likely, Hao. But the word will spread fast that we can defend ourselves.” The lion cocked his head quizzically. “How much did you bet on us?”
The young man grinned. “If the bookie comes through, I just made about seven hundred. You?”
The Englishman merely winked and recited, "No matter what, we have got / The Maxim Gun, and they have not."
The meal he was given after he had awakened was quite tasty, being mostly fruit and baked fish, with fruit juice. He was finishing his meal when there was a knock on the door.
The constable stood up and stepped aside as an all-too-familiar cervine walked in. "Good afternoon, Inspector," Hei said.
“Good afternoon, Mister Ni. Are you feeling well?”
“Very, thanks to the doctor.” He did feel weak on his left side, which disquieted him. He hoped that it would pass soon.
“You might also wish to thank your children and their friends. They had no small part to play in how you come to be here.”
“They’ll be thanked in due time, of course. You have questions.”
“Very perceptive of you.”
“I’ll answer them, of course. I have no reason to lie to you.”
“Not even conspiring to commit murder, Mister Ni?” The buck already had his notebook and pencil out.
“A father will do anything to defend his children, Inspector.” Hei watched the words sink in.
The buck’s face grew graver than usual.
“Reports,” Brigit said.
“And due the day we return to class,” Liberty added. Both canines glared at Shin.
“Hey, I’m in the same boat,” the red panda protested, “so don’t get – put that down, Lib – Hey!”
The sound of pillows hitting the red panda were joined by laughter as the young women finally released all the pent-up stress of the past days.
It had taken nearly a full week before Shin was able to take a water taxi to the hospital. She and the rest of Red Dorm had completed and turned in their reports of their plan and the assault on Shen. Much to her surprise, the Tutors had graded them favorably.
Hearing that copies of the reports had been sent on to the Constabulary didn’t surprise her.
The reason for the delay was that Shin still had things to do. Crusader Dorm had successfully completed their pilot’s exams, but the Tutors still felt that the junior girls needed help with their classes.
And she’d found she was helping to run two businesses.
The Maha Kahuna’s staff were used to her, and preparations for the tourist season were speeding up. Most of them were pleased to see her, while a few others (who apparently had had an eye to putting a paw in the till) looked a bit disappointed.
She’d deal with them in due course.
Peng-wum’s office, on the other paw, was a different matter entirely. Investments had to be tracked, and the office furs were looking to her for advice and guidance. She’d had to learn fast.
It made for long days, and even longer nights.
Seeing to her and Fang’s bungalow had been relatively easy. Most of the blood had been scrubbed away before the Constabulary had stuck their paws in, and the saber that she had received from the unlamented Ming was now hung on the wall near the Fleetik painting of her in her fur.
A few inquiries at the hospital’s front desk revealed that her father was in a different room, on the south side of the building. She still had to get past the constable at the door, though, and idly wondered what it was costing Spontoon to look after him.
And whether the Nis would be presented with a bill.
Doctor Meffit insisted on talking to her before she visited, and she was admitted into his office. “I’m pleased you could come see him,” the skunk said. “I’ll be having him moved on Monday to my private clinic.”
“So he’s better?”
“Yes, much better. His X-rays showed that he had a skull fracture, and I was worried about bleeding into his brain. However, apart from a bit of weakness on his left side he seems to be recovering.”
“I’m very glad. Thank you for all your trouble, Doctor.”
Meffit eyed her. “It’s no trouble, Mrs, Wo. It’s my profession. There is one thing, though.”
“He’ll need to have an oxygen tank nearby, in case he has trouble breathing.”
“I thought you said he was better.”
“He is, but after inhaling smoke laced with cyanide he damaged his lungs. I’m afraid he’ll have an asthma-like condition for the rest of his life.”
Shin thought that over, her tail resting limply in her lap. Finally she said, “I’ll remember that. Thank you, Doctor. May I go see him now?”
“By all means.”
Her father was playing cards with the other constable. Outside the open window, the breeze ruffled the carefully clipped hedges. He looked up and grinned. “Shin! Daughter!”
He stood up and gathered her up in his arms, hugging her tightly – right-pawed – as the constable stepped out of the room. “Let me look at you. Are you all right? How are Hao and Peng-wum?” How’s Fang?
“They’re all right, Father,” Shin said reassuringly. “Peng-wum managed to get a full report sent over yesterday,” and she pulled a few pieces of paper from a pocket. She passed them to him and sat on the bed as he read them carefully. He had to squint and hold the pages at arm’s length. “I’m sorry.”
“Eh? What about?”
“I didn’t bring your glasses with us from Krupmark.”
“I can always get another pair of glasses, Daughter,” he said with a smile. The expression was curiously lopsided.
Finally he put the papers down. “It was a close thing,” he said, “and I have instructions for you to pass on to Peng-wum and your mother. I am proud of all of you.”
“Thank you, Father – or should I start calling you Honored Father?” Shin smiled impishly.
“You do and we’ll see if you’re too old to spank,” Hei chuckled. “I’ll have to think of a way to reward your three friends for their help – “
“Tatiana didn’t come with us, Father. In fact, I want to tell you something she said to me.” She then recounted what the sable had told her, about Anna and her father.
And her father’s troops.
Ni Hei sat down and gazed for a while out the window at the fine spring afternoon. “I wasn’t aware that Anna had those kinds of connections,” he said, “but what’s done is done. I never wanted a ‘seat at the table,’ as Miss C put it,” he added quietly, “but maybe it can be put to some use.”
Ni Hei smiled. “Get a pencil, Shin. I have some orders to give you.” When his daughter had the pencil and one of the pieces of paper, the red panda started speaking in Mandarin.
Shin wrote as rapidly as she could, trying to keep up with him. At one point she paused at what he said, and looked up at him.
His daughter nodded dutifully, and kept writing.
Ending the story section: "Jacks Over Kings"