Luck of the Dragon: Breaking the Bank© 2016 by Walter D. Reimer
(Inspector Stagg, Sergeant Brush and Rosie Baumgartner
courtesy of E.O. Costello and M. Mitch Marmel. Thanks!)
“Mei Ling?” The Chinese feline turned and smiled as Xiu walked up to her. “I’d like to talk to you, if you’re not busy,” she asked in Chinese.
The Dragon Li bowed. “What may I do for you, Esteemed Hu?”
The younger red panda blushed at the honorific. “Hao’s told me that you’re the Casino’s herbalist.”
“That is so, yes.” The feline was dressed in a plain brown linen robe, and she tucked her paws into her sleeves. She had a gentle smile on her face as she waited.
Xiu glanced to left and right and leaned in close to the woman’s ear. “Can you tell if someone’s – you know, pregnant?”
Mei Ling blinked as her smile fled. Matching the younger woman’s whisper she asked, “You think that you may be - ?”
“It is possible, yes. If you can discern it, I will be grateful.”
The feline thought for a moment. Xiu was young, and still not quite used to Krupmark’s peculiar way of thinking. Offering to put herself under an obligation was something you didn’t really do if you were smart.
Payment for the obligation could confirm the old adage that some lessons have too high a price.
However, she couldn’t take full advantage of the red panda’s naiveté – she was related to her employers by marriage. She inwardly shuddered, recalling what the young woman’s husband did to the last person who betrayed him.
“I am honored that you repose such confidence in me, Esteemed Hu,” Mei Ling said after a suitable pause for reflection. “After you have had time to rest, please come and see me.” Xiu nodded and walked away to rejoin Hao, leaving the feline to her thoughts.
Hei and his wife had gone upstairs, assisted by Clarence and several workers who were carrying the heavy compressed air bottles up to the living quarters. Hao stood at the bottom of the stairs, and turned as his wife cleared her throat. He grinned at her. She’s learning, he thought to himself. Hao had an aversion to anyone startling him. “Anything going on?” he asked, slipping an arm around her waist.
She smiled at him before resting her head on his shoulder. “I’m just glad that things are starting to get back to normal.”
A staccato of gunfire echoed from the direction of Fort Bob.
With the departure of Ni Hei, things had settled down. Doctor Meffit had engaged a locksmith to change the locks throughout his home and practice, and had conducted a complete inventory of every instrument in his clinic before he could be satisfied that the red panda had not stolen anything.
Sergeant Brush had made inquiries and learned that a commercial firm on Eastern Island had sold the air cylinders. The buyer, a young red panda femme, had paid cash. Another firm had supplied an air compressor to a woman matching Wo Shin’s description.
Stagg was certain that a search of the Maha Kahuna would recover the two receipts. He was equally certain that all of the transactions were legitimate.
The whitetail buck sighed and leaned back in his chair, his bad hoof resting on a very comfortably soft ottoman.
Rosie’s voice brought him out of his brown study. “Yes, Rosie?”
The cheetah grinned at catching him woolgathering. He had taken to spending a lot of time in her apartment over her restaurant, and after dinner had come upstairs. He was already in his pajamas, a nice affair in light gray silk that contrasted with his fur. “I was hanging up your suit,” she said, “and I found this in a pocket.” She held up a small envelope. “It’s addressed to you.”
Stagg gazed up at her. “It’s from Ni Hei.”
“Oh.” Her smile fled, and his ears flicked as she growled a number of choice epithets in Yiddish. “Were you going to read it?”
He sat up and regarded his injured hoof. “I didn’t want to read it this morning, when he turned up missing. I wasn’t in the mood. But, after a long day, and a lovely dinner with good company,” and he smiled up at her as he took her free paw, “I think I can take it.”
Rosie blushed. “Oh, you. Tell you what, let me read it to you. That way, if there’s any sign of him hocking you, I can spot it.”
“Would you?” He smiled again. “I was going to ask you, but since you’re offering – “
“Sure. Besides, I’m curious, and you know what they say about us cats.” She sat down on the ottoman and cradled his hoof in her lap before slitting open the envelope with a claw. “Whaddaya know? It’s written in English. Hmmph, penmanship could be better. Okeh, here goes. Inspector Stagg: By the time you read this, I will no longer be on Spontoon – You know, I thought that the sun was shining a bit brighter.”
“Less editorializing, please.”
She grinned at him and began to massage his right hoof with a paw as she read on.
“ – but I wish to take this moment to thank you. Too many policefurs in my experience, whether in China, America, or Spontoon, would take advantage of their authority and my condition to detain me in far less comfortable or suitable surroundings. You did not. You have gained great face with me, and I consider you an honorable man.” Rosie paused to see that her lover had a thoughtful look on his face. “Franneleh?”
“Should I go on?”
He nodded. “Please, Rosie.”
“I have given Doctor Meffit an amount of money sufficient, in my estimation, to pay for the costs of my care at his paws. I will not offer the same to you, as I believe you would perceive it as either an insult or a bribe – “
“He is quite perceptive,” Stagg murmured.
“ – and reject it out of paw. Nevertheless, I feel that I must offer something that you will value.” Rosie glanced up from the letter to see that her buck had closed his eyes. He wasn’t asleep, despite appearances.
He was thinking.
“The church family I stayed with when I attended university in Illinois spoke much of the milk of kindness. I am pleased to see that, in your case, they were not wrong. Trusting that this finds you well, I remain – and then there’s his name, in English and Chinese,” Rosie said. “That’s all there is to it. He went to school in the States?”
Stagg nodded. “University of Illinois at Champaign, according to the Interior Ministry’s dossier on him,” the buck replied in an absent tone. “May I?” and he held out a paw for the letter.
Rosie gave it to him, and devoted more attention to his injured hoof as he reread the short letter. “Rosie?”
“Could you bring a lit candle in here, please?”
The buxom cheetah’s eyes lit up. “Why, Franklin! That’s very romantic of you,” she said, her tail flirting about.
He looked up at her until they both began to laugh. “You stay put,” she said, “and I’ll bring a candle. Do you think - ?”
“Yes. It’d be very much in his nature, and he knows that I’ve broken Krupmark’s codes before. The last line, about the ‘milk of kindness,’ is a dead giveaway. Almost too obvious, in fact.” Rosie nodded and went into the kitchen, emerging a few moments later with a lit candle in a holder. She resumed her place on the ottoman as Stagg held the letter a short distance from the flame.
It was a rather tedious and delicate undertaking to keep the paper just far enough to scorch but not so close that it charred or took flame. Slowly, though, the outlines of letters began to resolve themselves in the spaces between each line of the text. “What do you think he used?”
“Milk, I’d say,” Stagg said, eyeing the paper critically. He drew the paper away from the flame and set the candle on the table beside the chair.
“What does it say?”
“Little Orphan Amy Says Drink Your – “ He chuckled as she pouted at him, and he said, “He’s giving me a bit of information about a criminal activity south of Spontoon. It could be completely spurious, but it bears looking at. I confess I’m a bit disappointed.”
“If this information is legitimate,” the whitetail buck said, “it’s possible that it’s a competitor. Apprehending anyone there will help the Ni family business.”
“You’re not planning on going yourself, are you?”
Stagg shook his head and blew out the candle before setting the paper aside. “I plan on having a good night’s sleep.” He took her paws in his. “With a beautiful young woman.”
Mirsky’s report arrived in Vladivostok first, passed along to his NKVD control officer in the port city after only a day or two in transit. Smugglers had their uses.
It was the content of the report that gave the man pause. According to Mirsky, Ilyumzhinov and Grigorchuk had had their cover blown before they could liquidate their target over a week earlier. Apparently, in order to blend into the general population of the island, they had visited a brothel. Under the influence (of what, Mirsky didn’t specify, but the man had drawn certain conclusions), one of the assassins had talked.
After that, the report was neither comprehensive nor complete, based on Mirsky’s observations and what the feline had been able to glean from passing conversations. Both the saiga antelope and the bear were believed to be dead, their bodies fed to the sharks that frequented the waters around the island. Mirsky was reasonably certain that their target, Ni Hao, had nothing to do with their deaths, as he had been keeping the red panda under surveillance until the right opportunity to kill him presented itself.
The man appended his own notes to the report and forwarded it to Moscow, all according to procedure. A message was sent back to Mirsky, telling him to maintain his watch on the target, and to gather any information he could discern about the Soviet Union’s class enemies to the east, where the Russian Empire-in-Exile loomed as a constant danger to the advance of Communism.
But then the box had arrived, taking a roundabout route that had sent it as far south as New Penzance before arriving in Russia. It was addressed simply: To I. Starling, Moskva, c/o NKVD.
Based on the various sets of paws it had passed through, chances were excellent that it wasn’t a belated May Day gift to the Red Bird.
It hadn’t been opened, either, but the man’s innate curiosity got the better of him. After all, if it turned out to be a bomb or something just as nasty, he might get rewarded for his diligence and loyalty. Of course, if it were a bomb, that reward might well be posthumous, but he’d take that chance. He broke the seals on the seams of the box’s lid and pried it open.
He slammed the lid down and instinctively crossed himself. Bozhe moi . . . He quickly nailed the lid back down as his assistant came into the office, attracted by the man’s shout. “Comrade, are you all right?” he asked, taking in the man’s bottled-out tail and laid-back ears. “What’s in there?”
“Don’t!” the NKVD chief of section gasped as the younger man reached for it. “Just . . . don’t open it again. Get it on the train and send it to Moscow Center, with the highest possible priority. Do you understand?”
“Da, Comrade. Is it – dangerous?”
“Nyet,” the man replied, getting himself under control. “But it must be seen by the higher-ups, so get it sent off as fast as you can.” He slumped into his chair and fixed the subordinate with a glare. “Understood?”
“Clearly, Comrade.” He picked up the box and left office. Only after the door was closed did the section chief turn to the bottle of samogan vodka and its attendant glass.
Trembling fingers reached out to the small tin and pulled out a pinch of a ragged leafy substance that gleamed wetly in the lantern’s light. The pinch of leaf was stuffed into a pipe and lit with a spill from the fire, the Russian Blue taking a few eager draws on it to start it burning.
Catnip is a controlled substance due to its stimulant effects on virtually all felines. Other furs are affected by it as well, to a greater or lesser degree. It can be chewed, snorted, or smoked.
Leaf catnip that has been soaked in catnip oil has a much increased effect. Smoked mainly by hardcore users, its addictive properties are nearly tripled by the concentrated oil.
Mirsky curled into a ball on his bed, feeling the catnip’s effects seeping through his body. He found himself cradling the pipe in his paws, sucking on the stem like a hungry infant on its mother, begging it to go faster, to help him, to give him renewed vigor.
To help him forget what he’d seen.