Luck of the Dragon: Breaking the Bank© 2014 by Walter D. Reimer
(Inspector Stagg and Dr. Meffit courtesy of E.O. Costello. Thanks!)
The strains of Happy Days are Here Again resounded from the battered upright piano and lent accompaniment to the dozen or so men gathered around it. They started to belt out another verse as more supporters clustered around Senator McAfee, congratulating him on his victory.
The special election had been held earlier in April, but the returns had been so close that a runoff had been required. The badger’s Republican opponent, Jim Rice, had been a fierce competitor. Only a massive door-to-door canvas by his campaign workers only three days before the polls opened had managed to pull the Farmer-Labor candidate within striking distance.
McAfee’s campaign manager, a terrier named Chuck Barr, sprang onto a chair and waved for quiet. Once he got it he said in a loud, hoarse voice, “Gentlemen – and ladies,” with an exaggerated nod toward the small knot of wives, who tittered, “I present to you the next U. S. Senator from Minnesota, Harold McAfee!”
The fellow at the piano started to bang out Hail Minnesota! as the badger made his way to a microphone set up by the local radio station. Scattered applause rose again as the song ended, and McAfee raised his arms. “Ladies and gentlemen, my fellow citizens,” he said.
“I am humbled and honored by the results of today’s vote.” He looked tired; he’d been up before dawn, and it was now well past midnight. His opponent had hung on until it became utterly impossible for him to reverse the trend. Even then, Rice’s telephone call conceding the race had been slow in coming. “For those of you who helped me win this election, starting with my beloved wife and family, you have my undying thanks.” There was polite applause, and a few cheers.
“My opponent – “ He motioned for quiet as several people muttered “ – My opponent and his supporters are, like all of us, loyal sons and daughters of our great state and our great country. We may choose sides in elections, but after the voting is over it is time to come together, because we are Americans.” He paused as a few people clapped.
“But America is at a dangerous point in its glorious history, my friends. President Long’s policies have put us there, and I relish the opportunity you have given me to represent you in Washington and to put the brakes on these policies.” Several people cheered encouragement as McAfee said, “Down with the Reds Act! Down with the Anti-Wealth Leagues!”
Even as he applauded, Chuck Barr was making his way up to the microphone. He took his boss’ place at the microphone and thanked the various campaign workers and ward captains, then laughed and told everyone to “Go home and get some sleep!”
McAfee was talking to a few newspaper reporters. As the special election had drawn closer, the press had started to mellow somewhat toward the badger. That might have had a bit of inadvertent help from President Long, who crossed his own Party by endorsing Rice. Although the Farmer-Labor Party wasn’t exactly like the Democratic Party, it was damned close.
Barr smoothed back his headfur. McAfee had promised him a job at his side as Chief of Staff when he made the move to Washington. His tasks were only going to get tougher.
The fox deftly scooped up the last mouthful with his chopsticks, slurping up the tasty noodles before drinking the remaining broth straight from the bowl. Giving a mannerly belch, he smiled and passed the empty bowl and the chopsticks to the vendor, who passed them in turn to her daughter to wash up for the next customer. In clear and unaccented Mandarin he said, “Thank you for the meal. It was very good.”
“You are welcome,” the elderly feline said, smiling and bowing as the younger man walked away. Despite his manners, dress and speech, everyone in the town knew that the fox wasn’t a native to Peking.
His given name was Charlie, for a start. Born just before the Great War, he had lived his whole life in China. He barely spoke any English.
It was proof, a few people said, of how the culture of the Middle Kingdom could civilize anyone, even a barbarian.
Hai Wei said goodnight to his boss and left the warehouse to go home. His boss, Zheng Yao, had just paid him.
His pay had increased since he’d started the job to supplement his income on the fishing boat. The Shar Pei needed all the money he could get, and every Chinese on Casino Island knew it.
Word gets around, especially in a small, insular community.
After he left, Yao let a certain canine personage in. After serving him a bottle of Union Maid beer, the man waited. Finally the canine ventured, “So, he saw the cigarettes? And the other things?”
“I made sure he’d see them. And I’m certain that he knew they were smuggled.” Yao smiled.
“And he did nothing.” The canine stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Perhaps – it has been three months, after all – we may explore, ah, increased responsibilities for our young friend. His uncle has hinted in that direction, of course.”
“But we had to make sure,” Yao said. “Hai Fat is safe on Hong Kong, and beyond the reach of the Constabulary.”
“True. Wei’s activities have illustrated how far he has come.” Hai Wei had settled into a routine since getting out of jail, living paycheck to paycheck and eking out a meager living, but still drinking a good portion of his pay.
When he wasn’t spending it on the occasional woman.
He hadn’t been involved in any fights since last December, seemingly content to keep his head down and not be noticed.
“Hmm. When will we interview him?”
“Tomorrow, if you like.”
"You're being quite helpful, Mr. Ni," Stagg said dryly. "One might say suspiciously so." The buck leaned on his cane, flanked by a slightly nervous-looking terrier from the Ministry of Finance. The canine had just finished giving Ni Hei an itemized list of the expenses incurred by Spontoon in rescuing and watching over the red panda.
It made for an impressive list, and an even more impressive total.
Ni Hei smiled around his oxygen mask. "Only trying to help, Inspector," he said, his voice muffled by the rubber. Still, his eyes betrayed a bit of anger at the amount of money. Spontoon was demanding over ten times what he gave Shen Ming the night he tried to kill the wolf.
Between the money he’d given Shen Ming (now burned to ashes) and the amount Peng-wum had spent hiring soldiers, what the Spontoonies were asking for was quite out of the question.
“Quiet," Meffit said sternly. "That oxygen is doing you no good when you waste it by talking." The skunk jotted a note in the red panda’s chart. “I could refer you to a respiratory specialist, but I’m afraid that he’ll give you the same news I have.”
“Which is, Doctor?” Hei asked.
“That the effect of the poisoned smoke on your lungs has, indeed, left them permanently weakened. You will need to have an oxygen tank near you at all times for the rest of your life.” He paused to watch the red panda’s reaction.
Ni Hei stared up at the skunk, then shifted his gaze to look at the whitetail buck and the terrier. “The rest of my life?”
He nodded slowly. “I see.” He looked at the Finance Ministry representative. “I will speak with my daughter. Messages must be relayed. I will be in touch with the Finance Minister.”
The terrier nodded jerkily, looking relieved. “Thank you, Mr. Ni.”
“Inspector, I think you will understand if I tell you that I no longer feel like answering questions.”
Stagg nodded gravely and limped out of the room, trailed by the official. “Doctor?”
“Yes, Mr. Ni?” Meffit replied in a quiet tone. His natural distaste for the red panda was suppressed by his professionalism. He had, after all, just given his patient bad news.
For a moment, there was simply the sound of Ni Hei’s breathing and the hiss of oxygen from the tank. “Tell me, Doctor, is it possible that a change of climate may help me? I’ve heard that consumptives may benefit from drier air.”
The skunk pursed his lips as he thought it over. “It . . . is possible,” he conceded in a judicious tone. “Your condition is not exactly the same as tuberculosis, of course.” He gingerly stepped over the man’s banded tail, which was trailing slackly on the floor, and picked up his stethoscope.
Hei sighed slightly. “I shall want to break the news to my wife.”
Meffit said, “She needs to know.” He spent a few moments listening to the red panda’s breathing. Inspector Stagg would need to be told, naturally; with this news, there was a possibility that the head of the Ni Family would attempt to leave Spontoon.
The fox stirred and sat up as another knock sounded on his door, setting aside the foot-long opium pipe he’d been contemplating. It had been in the family; one might almost say it was an heirloom.
Smoking it had taken both of his parents.
A framed photograph of them, inscribed with the legend West China Missionary Society 1899, hung on one wall. It was practically all he had left of them, apart from his memory. The pipe was also a memory, and a warning.
The tod stood up and slipped a robe on before answering the door. “Yes?”
A taller feline confronted him, someone he knew. Not a friend, but a Brother. “Yes, Brother? What brings you to my home?” the fox asked. His ears were constantly moving. Brother he may be, but the li hua mau might be serving as cover for others.
One paw was firmly in a pocket of the robe.
The feline couldn’t miss the air of menace that seemed to wrap itself around the fox. Suppressing a shudder he offered a folded piece of rice paper, sealed in wax with a very particular clan chop on it. “A message, Brother,” he managed to say. “From the Grand Master himself.”
“I see. Thank you, Brother,” and the fox took the message. “Will you come in and have some tea? I will need to read the message, and compose a suitable reply.”
“Thank you, Brother, for your hospitality,” the man said with no small sense of relief. He stepped inside and the fox closed the door, then carefully, almost reverently, broke the seal.
He read it carefully while he prepared the tea, and made sure that his guest could see what he was doing to allay any fears that the fox was trying to drug or poison him. Finally he poured two cups of the drink and set both down in front of the cat, inviting him to choose one.
The visitor chose the one to his left and sipped. “Very good tea.”
“Thank you.” The fox crumpled the message, seal and all, into a small lump that he then popped into his mouth. He chewed it, adding a mouthful of tea before chewing some more and finally swallowing it. “It’s from India.”
“Really? It is quite good. How did you get it?”
The vulpine shrugged. “I saw it in . . . a marketplace and decided to ‘live it up’ a bit,” and he chuckled softly. His visitor laughed along with him, and they chatted a bit about business and the latest news as they shared the tea. The black market, never entirely gone, had gotten larger after the Japanese had occupied Peking the previous year.
After their tea and chat, the visitor asked, “What reply may I carry back to the Master?”
The fox smiled. “Please tell the Master that I will do it.”
“I will tell him.” And with that, the man left the room, leaving the fox to ponder his assignment.