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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer

Chapter 22

Luck of the Dragon
© 2004 by Walter Reimer

Chapter Twenty-two

Almost before the K-85 was tied to the family dock at Krupmark, Shin leaped from the open door of the seaplane and ran as fast as she could to the house, her ringed tail the last thing seen before she disappeared inside.  Fang chuckled as he remarked cheerfully, “Looks like she wants to tell the rest of the family herself.”

  Hao laughed as he tightened a halyard to a cleat.  “I know I’d want to,” he said in a half-envious, half-joking tone as the rest of the plane’s passengers stepped out onto the dock.  Peng-wum and Nailani linked arms and walked at a more sedate pace while Fang, Hao and Anna broke into a run.

  When they got upstairs, they found Shin practically dancing in place as she told her parents about her upcoming appointment at Songmark.  As the rest of the family stepped into the room, Hei raised a paw.  “Shin, Shin, we’re all happy about your exam,” he said, laughing, “but tell us what happened in Tientsin.  We know what Hao and Anna did on Kuo Han.  Let’s hear your and Fang’s story.”  The two elder Nis sat, looking expectantly at her.

  Shin stopped, chest heaving as she caught her breath and stared at her father.  “We, uh, took a ship to Shanghai, then a train to Tientsin, Father,” she said haltingly.  “After that, um, we found th-the General, a-and …”  She stopped, unable to go further.

  “You should be very proud of Shin, Hei,” Fang rescued her by placing his paws on her shoulders.  He quickly told the family about how Shin infiltrated the barracks and fought Won, and how the warlord had died.  Shin placed her paws over her husband’s and closed her eyes, bowing her head slightly as he recounted her exploit.  When he finished, Hei and Peng’s eyes were wide with shock.  As Shin raised her head, Peng held out her open arms to her daughter, who collapsed into her embrace, sobbing.

  Hei stood, walked up to Fang and extended his paw.  “Well done, my son,” he said.

  Fang’s usually neutral expression softened at Hei’s words.  They meant he was now truly part of the family, and he shook the offered paw as he said, “Thank you, Father.”  He blinked for a moment, then swallowed against a lump in his throat.  Changing the subject he said, “While we were at Casino Island, Peng-wum had a suggestion,” and he went over what his brother-in-law had proposed.

 When he was done, Hei looked thoughtful.  “Peng-wum,” he said, turning to his oldest son, “it’s a very good idea, and I confess I had been wondering how to fill those vacancies.  However, we can’t have Fang and Shin taking rooms at the hotel – we need those for customers.  Peng and I will search for an acceptable home there for both of you, and we will arrange for the down payment on it,” he remarked, smiling at his daughter and son-in-law.

  “Now, Shin,” and she sniffled and looked up at her father, “you need to get some things together for your exam, and you have about a week and a half to relax.  Everyone,” he said, “needs to rest.  I think you have all had enough adventures for the past two months.”

  The others agreed with Hei, and drifted off to their own rooms to unpack, unwind and make plans.

* * * * * * * * *

  Despite the more lurid stories told about the place, Krupmark Island did have some semblance of law and order.  There were very carefully delineated areas of responsibility, and many unspoken but rigorously enforced rules of conduct.  As stated earlier, taxes (tribute, protection money, call it what you will) were paid up to the ruling body of the island, with a percentage being paid to the Spontoon Althing in order to prevent the Naval Syndicate forces in the area from descending on the place.

  The top dogs (some of them actually were canines, so the expression did fit) constituted the apex of Krupmark’s political and economic pyramid.  Below them were midlevel entrepreneurs such as the Ni Family and their investment business – “investment” sounding far less messy than “money laundering.”  At the bottom were workers and independent operators.

  The ruling clique ordinarily never intervened in the squabbles and turf wars among the middle echelon, provided that those squabbles didn’t intrude on their spheres of influence.  At times, permission had to be sought from one or another of the bosses.  Only occasionally in the island’s history had any member of the ruling clique been toppled from power; the last time was in 1932, and that by a consortium of midlevel operators who had immediately fallen to fighting over the spoils.

  Several days after returning to the island, Peng-wum entered a small room and raised his paws, standing stolidly and expressionlessly as he was frisked for weapons.  When the next door opened, he stepped into the office and bowed.  The fur behind the desk said, “I’ve considered your request, Mister Ni.  You took a chance coming to me, and you know there will be a risk of retaliation.”

  “I know the risks, sir, and I know what I asked,” the red panda said quietly.  The figure considered for a moment more, steepling his paws together on the desk before saying, “I admire someone who knows what he wants, Mister Ni.  Your request is granted.”

* * * * * * * * *

  Hao stepped into the casino before noon the next day and looked around at the currently deserted main room.  The games tables were unoccupied, except for one fur who was fixing the pivot on the roulette wheel and another who was sweeping the wood floor.  The rugs that usually covered the floor were outside being aired.   There was only one customer seated at the bar, while the bartender busied herself with cleaning glasses.  He was a middle-aged canine, dressed in denim trousers and a blue serge shirt; a raincoat sat draped over a nearby chair.  Traces of gray marked the brown fur around his ears and the top of his head.  A glass containing a finger’s-width of whisky sat near a small notebook, and the fur would take a sip of the drink, then jot some notes.  He closed it as Hao walked over and slid onto a bar stool two seats from him.  “Good morning,” he said in English, in an amiable tone.

The canine smiled at him.  “Good morning,” he replied in the same language, but with a flat, nasal twang that Hao couldn’t place.  “Ed Smith,” he added, offering a paw.

“Ni Hao,” the red panda replied, shaking the offered paw.  “What brings you to Krupmark?” he asked.  He kept his face neutral, but the canine’s grip was strong, belying his appearance.  Despite his apparent age, he looked like he could hold his own against Fang.  Smith chuckled and picked up his glass.  “I’m from America – Michigan,” he explained, “here studying soils around the Nimitz Sea area.”  He glanced at his notebook and added with a puckish expression, “And I occasionally write stories for magazines.”

“A tourist?” Hao asked, mystified as he signaled the bartender.  Tourists never came to Krupmark unless they were equipped to cope with the place’s special conditions.  As if to punctuate his question, a gunshot rang out outside as the bartender set a whisky in front of Hao.

Smith didn’t even flinch.  “Not a tourist,” he said.  “The people I work for sent me out here to study soil chemistries.”  He chuckled.  “Usually I have to say I’m ‘Edward Smith, Ph.D.,’ which is a lot of baggage to lug around out here.  We’ve got a little thing back home called the Dust Bowl, and it’d be a great help to find something that might fix the problem.”

“I’ve read about the Dust Bowl in the papers,” Hao said, not believing him for a second.  “It sounds bad.”

Smith smiled.  “A very careful word, ‘bad.’  Well, I ended up here and a boat’s taking me over to Spontoon via Mildendo.  From there I can get a plane back to Frisco.”  He placed a dollar bill on the bar and stood, gathering up his notebook.  “Pleased to meet you, young man,” he said, and walked out as Hao nodded.

 As he walked out, Shin entered the main room and sat next to Hao.  “Who was that?” she asked.

Hao shrugged.  “No idea,” he replied as he took a sip of his whisky.  Shin frowned and poked him in the shoulder with a finger.  “A bit early for drinking, isn’t it little brother?  It’s barely noon,” she said.

“No sense in starting late, is there?” he retorted, then frowned.  “Anna and I had an argument this morning.  She wanted me to teach her to fly today, and I wanted to relax.”  He looked at the remnant of his drink in the bottom of the glass, then shrugged.  “Soon the weather’ll be too nasty for it.  Ow!  What?” he asked, wincing as his older sister flicked one of his ears painfully with a claw.

“Take her flying today, and teach her,” she admonished.  “If you want her to be with you, she has to know how to fly, or you’ll just be toting her around like excess baggage,” and Shin smiled.  “Besides, it’ll look good in your pilot’s logbook.”

A guilty look crossed Hao’s face.  “I haven’t kept up my logbook.  I think it’s been a year since I logged any flying time,” he said, and Shin’s ears stood up in shock.

“Hey, you,” she said tartly and he yelped as she flicked his ear again, “you need to get licensed, and you can’t do that without logging flight time.  Look at it this way, Hao.  Suppose you wanted to start your own business hauling freight or passengers as an alternative to smuggling.  Would people go to you if you weren’t licensed?  No, they wouldn’t.”

“I guess you’re right,” her younger brother grumbled.  “He drained the last of his drink and kissed her on the cheek as he stood up.  When he turned to leave she asked, “Where are you going?”

“To teach Anna to fly, of course,” he said, smiling back at her.

* * * * * * * * *

Nailani looked up and smiled as Peng-wum stepped into the room, and she gave her husband a hug.  “Well?’ she asked, one ear dipping as she scanned his face for any sign of how his meeting went.

“It’s agreed,” he said with a smile as he kissed her.  She grinned and hugged him tightly.  “That’s wonderful, Peng-wum,” she said.  “When do we start?”

“A few more days,” he replied.  “Just long enough to see Shin off to Spontoon.  Hao and Anna will be taking her, which is just as well.”  He smiled at her.

 “Good,” she said, “because I learned a few things recently.”  She told him, and his smile grew wider.