Luck of the Dragon: Breaking the Bank© 2016 by Walter D. Reimer
“Want another cup of coffee?”
“No, thanks,” Claude LaFarge said, smiling up at the waitress. The rabbit smiled back and walked off, a paw idly smoothing one of her ears as the alligator returned to his newspaper. His coffee was still hot, and there was enough to wash down the remains of his scrambled eggs and sausage.
He did spare an admiring glance at her retreating tailfur. He might be happily married, but he wasn’t dead.
He chewed the last forkful of breakfast as he read the lede for a local story about Minneapolis’ city council debating a bond issue, then washed the food down with the rest of his coffee. Setting the cup aside, he opened the paper and folded it over to read the national news.
War Secretary Calls for More Materiel caught his eye. Butler was in Norfolk, Virginia, talking to a gathering of government and business leaders about his recent trips abroad. The thrust of his argument was that while the United States was neutral and would remain so, it was ordinary prudence to equip the Army and Navy (and, doubtless, the Marines – Smedley Butler was Corps through and through) with enough of the best planes, ships and other armaments to ensure the nation’s defense. The bulldog added a sweetener in his remarks, according to the article: building all of these things would stimulate business and put idle men to work, helping to bring the country out of the recession.
That ought to please Huey, LaFarge thought as he finished the article and went on to glance at a small item about a meteorite in western Pennsylvania. It was a simple statement, no speculation or wild surmises.
The alligator glanced at the check before placing some money on the counter. The amount should cover a nice tip. The food at the diner had been very good, as such things went. Tagging along after Huey Long meant occasionally eating in the best restaurants, or at the White House, or any number of places around the country.
But there were times when he got nostalgic for a simple bowl of jambalaya. Maybe after this errand he’d get back down home and enjoy the food he was brought up eating. As he walked out of the eatery he involuntarily licked his lips at the remembered taste of crawfish.
The city was fairly clean, as such places went, and while he walked he fished a paw into a pocket and pulled out the note that Forrester had given him. On it was a name and address, a low-level contact that could get the gator in touch with the man who ran one of the criminal gangs in the area.
LaFarge sighed. Life had been so much simpler down in Plaquemines.
The high walls of the Kremlin keep much of the Moscow traffic noise from reaching Red Square, but sounds such as tram bells and factory whistles can still be heard.
Of course, this is not to say that the space within the walls was silent. There were always some NKVD troops drilling nearby, and occasionally one could hear a small snatch of conversation (something innocuous, naturally), but more often one could hear the wind in the trees and the songs of the various feral birds.
On the hour, the bells in the Spasskaya Tower would ring.
As the bells rang nine o’clock that evening, the office windows in the Grand Kremlin Palace on the far side of the complex were open to catch the breeze. The echoes of the bells died away, leaving only the ticking of the office clock and the rustling of paper.
One wall of the office bore a number of glass-fronted bookshelves, with the opposite wall dominated by a desk and a side table that bore a number of telephones. The wall behind the desk bore a framed photograph of the nation’s founder, N. Lemming. There were four small electric lamps to illuminate the room.
There were four men in the office, three standing and the fourth seated at the desk.
Facing the desk was the Chairman of the NKVD, Lavrenti Bearia. The ursine stood stolidly, but there was a certain tension in the set of his ears and shoulders. Any ordinary man would find it hard to restrain himself from shifting from foot to foot nervously.
Standing beside him at attention was a wolf in faultless Red Army uniform with the three red diamonds of a Komkor on his collar tabs. Dmitri Kirillovich Simonov had been awakened by three unsmiling NKVD men fifteen hours earlier and taken directly to the Lubyanka. There he had found his brother-in-law evasive and clearly agitated. Meals had been brought to the office, but both of them had been accompanied by guards whenever they left the office. That, and the long wait, was unsettling.
At least, he thought as they had been driven to the Kremlin at seven that evening, he and Lavrenti Pavlovich had met in the Chairman’s office, and not in the basement. The wolf glanced to his right, where a samovar and two carafes sat on a side table. One carafe held vodka, and the other a red wine from Georgia that the office’s occupant was known to favor.
Simonov couldn’t decide which one he wanted.
The third man in the room was a burly horse who merely stood beside the desk, his arms crossed over his chest and his expression completely unreadable. Of course, both Simonov and Bearia knew him: Vasili Blokhin, the NKVD’s chief executioner, and very good at his job. He didn’t take orders from the Chairman, Bearia, despite his rank and his place in the organizational chart.
That was the privilege of the man seated at the desk
Iosif Vissarionovich Shavprinveli was better known by his revolutionary name of Starling, and had been nicknamed ‘The Red Bird’ by quite a few people, including some in the Soviet Union. The color described his ideology, not his plumage, which was so solid a black that it gained indigo highlights if the light caught it just so. He was dressed simply, in a medium gray jacket with four pockets, the collar hanging loosely open, and his pipe sat unlit in its ashtray.
While the clock in the room ticked softly Starling carefully reread the contents of the file folder before him. Bearia had given it to him a few weeks earlier, from the NKVD’s foreign archives, when the bear had persuaded him to have Blokhin assign two of the stallion’s best operatives to Krupmark Island.
Ilyumzhinov hadn’t come back.
Grigorchuk had – nu, some of him, anyway.
The opened wooden tea chest sat on a corner of the desk, facing Bearia and Simonov accusingly. The Ukrainian bear’s head had been carefully stuffed and mounted on a wooden plaque, along with his tail. The eyes were hollow sockets, and his jaws had been wired closed over a lacquered bamboo tube that had been sealed with wax at both ends.
The message in the bamboo tube had been in Mandarin, and had been translated by two linguists who had been ordered by Starling personally to “get it right.”
The contents of the file included contact reports, observations and assessments of the young red panda’s personality and motivations, along with a summary of the NKVD investigation into counterrevolutionary wrecking and speculation by the commander and staff at a Red Air Force base in Vladivostok. Komkor Simonov’s daughter’s reports and a contact report by Rovah Kleb rounded out the file.
There was even a photograph, abstracted from the Spontoon Mirror’s offices, showing Ni Hao on his wedding day with his new bride.
Starling clicked his beak softly. The girl was rather pretty.
He slowly closed the folder and clasped his paws together, looking up at the two men facing him. “Lavrenti Pavlovich.”
Bearia leaned forward fractionally. “Comrade?”
“Did you read the message that came with this?” A black-feathered paw gestured slightly toward the mounted head.
“Nyet, Comrade Starling.”
The avian nodded slightly. “Vasili Mikhailovich, take Grigorchuk out of here, please. See to his resting place, and let his family know that they’ll be compensated. Ilyumzhinov’s as well.” The stallion nodded and fitted the bear’s head back into the box, then left the office with it.
The door closed.
Starling stood up and walked over to the two carafes on the side table. He poured a measure of red wine into a glass, downed it, and poured a second, larger measure. “Relax, both of you,” he said affably. “If I had wanted you two dead, you would be by now.” He waved a paw as he walked back to his desk. “Have a drink, and come over here.”
Simonov hesitated before going over to the table, and chose to get a glass of tea. He spooned a dollop of strawberry preserves into the steaming liquid before rejoining his brother-in-law.
“This young fellow has been a bit of an irritation,” the Red Bird said judiciously. “First he is involved in a business deal for several fighter planes in Vladivostok, then he is involved in the death of our officer in Spontoon. Then there is Lieutenant Simonova,” and he glanced up to see her father’s ears lay back. “How has she been doing, Dmitri Kirillovich? Are the doctors helping?”
“Yes, Comrade Starling,” the wolf replied, studying his now half-full glass of tea. “My wife and I are very grateful to you for your generous assistance. Anya has been getting better, and she was well when I saw her last night.”
“That is good, and give her a hug for me when you go home,” Starling said with a smile. “And finally,” he returned to the subject at paw, “there is this matter with Blokhin’s men. You and Lavrenti Pavlovich talked me into allowing this.”
There was no denying it. Simonov replied, “Yes, Comrade.”
“With Blokhin sending two of his best, the possibility of success was good. But it appears that this young Chinaman has a great deal of luck.” Starling took a sip of his wine and tapped a finger on the folder for a moment. He set the wineglass aside and stood up. “But this ends. Now.”
Simonov felt a cold frisson, colder than the Siberian winter, run down his spine to his testicles, and his tail instinctively tucked between his legs. The blood that had flowed from the Trial of the Twenty-One two months earlier hadn't yet been forgotten. Beside him, Bearia remained silent, but the canine saw the man's throat work as he gulped.
Despite the official portraits of him, Starling was not a tall man, only about five feet six. Yet there was a presence about him that made the taller wolf want to cringe. Starling looked at him and said, “Comrade Lavrenti Pavlovich.”
“Continue to watch that young man. Perhaps we can make use of him at some time, but we will no longer try to attack him.”
The general stiffened. “Da, Comrade.”
“I know you still want your revenge on this little matyeryebets, but I am telling you now to forego your anger.” A corner of his beak quirked. “Such stress is very bad for your health.”
Simonov got the hint instantly. “Da, Comrade. I serve the Soviet Union.”
“And you serve it well, da.” It was true. Simonov was a member of the Party known for his integrity and loyalty. Despite his marriage to Bearia’s sister, he had never used that connection for advancement or gain. He was like Budyonny – one of the good men who could get things done.
“Still, there is one area where your military expertise is needed,” the Chairman said. “I need you to do an inspection of our frontier forces along our western borders. The Pilsudniki in Warsaw show signs of stirring up trouble in the Baltics and among their puppets in Western Ukraine.”
Simonov’s face grew hard. “Da, Comrade. I shall leave at once.”
A paw clapped him on the shoulder. “Nyet. You will leave in two days. Papers on what you need to look for will be sent to you, so in the meantime, I want you to do something for me.”
“Go home and be with your family.” The paw retreated. “Now, go. I wish to speak with Lavrenti Pavlovich.”
“Da, Comrade.” Simonov walked to the table and set the tea glass down, then saluted before leaving the office.
“I am sorry, Comrade,” Bearia found his voice. “I didn’t know that the Poles – “
A soft chuckle. “There is nothing going on in Poland.”
The bear blinked. “Then why - ?”
“Why send Simonov out there? Very simple, Lavrenti. Your brother-in-law is a man who does. Thinking’s not his strong point; he wants things to do, and in this way we keep him from dwelling on his daughter’s difficulties.” Starling poured a second glass of Georgian wine and held it out to the NKVD leader, then retrieved his own. “Now tell me: Is Anya Simonova actually getting better, or is it her father’s hopes speaking?”
“She is,” Bearia replied. He took a sip of wine and added, “She actually recognized me a few days ago.” He smiled. “She called me ‘Uncle.’”