Luck of the Dragon: Breaking the Bank© 2016 by Walter D. Reimer
Still, having full cisterns was a good thing, and at least the plants were well-watered.
Mei Ling’s garden was tucked into a corner near the much larger vegetable garden used by the Lucky Dragon’s cooks. It was separated from the garden by a fence and a lattice-work screen for very good reasons. The Chinese feline was Madam Ni’s herbalist and much of what she had growing in the various pots could be fatal if used improperly.
Of course, they could also be fatal if used properly.
Among the plants kept in carefully-tended pots were tansy, pennyroyal and bitter melon. Mei Ling, wearing a pair of dirt-stained trousers and a dingy man’s undershirt, was industriously repotting when her ears perked at a sound. Her paw strayed to the sheathed knife on her ankle as she slowly turned to look.
It was Xiu. The Chinese feline immediately relaxed, dropped her paw from her ankle and gave a cheerful smile. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” the red panda said, looking around the entrance before stepping into the enclosure. Since getting married and coming to Krupmark only a few months ago, she was starting to learn to automatically check every doorway for potential traps. “Um, about what we were talking about a few days ago – “
“Yes?” The feline started to turn back to what she’d been doing.
Mei Ling paused. “Yes?”
“Twice now.” The younger woman looked perturbed. “I think I – I’m not sure – “ Her banded tail started to twitch nervously.
Mei Ling smiled. “If you have missed twice in a row, Xiu, I believe that you are pregnant, yes.” Her smile widened as the young red panda seemed to deflate visibly and her nervousness increased. “What’s the matter?”
Xiu’s jaw worked, but no sound came out as she obviously struggled to get her brain in gear. Mei Ling fancied she could hear gears grinding. “I’m just wondering how to tell Hao.”
“Ah. Well, if you wish to avoid that, may I suggest this?” She indicated a pennyroyal plant. “The leaves are steeped to make a tea,” she said in a brisk, businesslike tone. “Of course, you can probably guess that it will make you very ill, but it would have the desired result.”
“’Desired resul’ – “ Xiu’s eyes narrowed. “What are you saying?”
Now it was Mei Ling’s turn to blink. “Hm? I’m the Casino’s herbalist.”
Mei Ling sighed. For a girl educated in Hong Kong, Xiu was pretty much a babe in the woods about certain things. Well, time for the blunt approach.
The older feline said patiently, “Unwanted children have to go somewhere.”
Xiu’s eyes went wider and she stumbled back a few steps, fetching up hard against the wall of the Casino where it joined the garden fence. “A-are you talking about – NO!” she yelped so loudly that they both felt their ears flatten in the enclosed space. She put a paw to her chest as she got her breath back under control and hissed, “How could you even think that?”
Because your husband’s a murderous lunatic? Mei Ling thought to herself. She’d seen Hao kill once, when she was entertaining a customer at the Casino, and she still suppressed a shiver whenever he walked past her.
And, she suddenly realized, this was his wife . . .
Real, bowel-loosening fear coursed through her. Not so much about insulting Xiu, but what might happen if she told her husband and he took offense at what the feline suggested. Mei Ling dropped to her knees and kowtowed, touching her forehead to the still-damp impacted soil. “I beg forgiveness, Esteemed Xiu. This unworthy creature did not understand your intentions,” she said in Chinese, and meant every word of it.
She felt paws on her shoulders and heard Xiu say, “Please, Mei Ling, do get up,” and she allowed herself to be raised to a kneeling position. The red panda knelt down in front of her and took her paws in hers. The feline blinked; the red panda looked as if she was about to cry. “I’m the one who should be apologizing, Mei Ling,” the younger woman said. “I misunderstood what you were saying, and I didn’t make myself clear when I first told you that I thought I might be pregnant.”
The feline swallowed. “I-I accept your apology,” she said, scarcely believing her luck. She got to her feet, Xiu rising to stand facing her. “If that’s your intention, I think you should talk to Madam Ni.” A slight smile creased her muzzle. “You’ll also have to tell Hao sometime, you know.”
Xiu gave a relieved sigh. “I know. I’m trying to figure out how to tell him.”
“An’ why, I’m askin,’ is it that a fellow comes all the long way from Washington – from th’ President hisself, no less – to find out a few things about our Senator McAfee?” the dapper little feline asked. Seated a short distance away from the tabby’s desk, a cadaverously thin whippet smirked and tapped a line of cigarette ash into an ashtray.
Claude LaFarge smiled, a rather disturbing expression for an alligator to make. He crossed his legs and sat back in his chair. “I’m just looking for some information on the Senator.”
“Information, is it? Whisht, you can find things out by askin’ him, or his friends,” the tabby said. He sat back, an ear flicking back at the open window as a police siren tore down the road, siren blaring.
Again, the gator smiled, placing his paws in his lap and lacing his fingers together. He said in a friendly tone, “Suppose you tell me, then, how he managed to get enough money to run a statewide race?”
The whippet stopped smirking and slowly sat up.
The feline glanced at the canine and flicked an ear. As the whippet relaxed he said to LaFarge, “There’s nothing illegal been done, I’ll tell you that.”
The alligator shrugged. “I don’t care if it was illegal or not. President Long wanted to know how he got the money.”
The Irish feline gave the Louisianan a long, calculating look. It didn’t take a genius to figure exactly why the Catahoula hound, who was rumored to be quite vindictive when it suited him, would want to know how the freshman Senator had gotten into office. The man glanced up and to his left, where a crucifix was affixed to the wall, then replied, “An’ how do we know you’ll not bring J. Edgar Rover an’ his G-men down on our necks as soon as you learn this?”
“Director Rover doesn’t know about this meeting, or the fact that I’m here. And neither does the Attorney General,” LaFarge added. Huey didn’t like Cummings much anyway. “This is between you, me, and the President.”
“On your honor now?”
“I swear by Holy Mary and the Saints,” and the gator crossed himself.
The feline’s ears laid back and he crossed himself reflexively. “You’re a Catholic, are you?”
“I am. Haven’t been to Mass this week. I was thinking of going on Sunday.”
“Well, for a good son of the Church . . . we had a few people come in, from Chicago they were – Irish, mind – an’ they ask for a bit of help with ‘persuading’ McAfee to agree to run.” The feline paused, doubtless expecting the alligator to ask what type of persuasion.
LaFarge merely nodded. He was from Louisiana, and had first-paw experience with political dirty tricks. “Go on, please.” He wasn’t taking notes.
Hai Wei finished getting dressed and switched off the lights as he walked out of the bedroom. The Shar Pei had been told that he was going out with a fishing crew that morning. Having accomplished a few deliveries for his boss already, Hai had a fairly good guess where the crew would be going and what they might be ‘fishing’ for.
The canine made sure that the gas was off before switching off the lights and leaving the apartment. He dropped his keys into his landlord’s mailbox as he walked by the man’s rooms. The landlord would keep the keys until Hai returned.
The sea being a harsh and unpredictable environment, there was a possibility that the fishing boat might not come back. In that event, there was a clause in the lease where the landlord had agreed to wait a full week after the boat was reported lost before selling his tenant’s effects and finding another renter.
The canine passed by a mailbox and paused to drop in a letter. He set his sea bag down and knelt to retie one of his boots before going on his way to the docks.
“’Morning, Wei,” the ship’s mate said as the Shar Pei half-jumped across the gap between the dock and the boat. “There’s tea in the galley.”
“Thanks, Wu,” and he headed below to stow his gear and grab a quick cup before he was expected on deck. There were a few deckpaws walking around, making last-minute checks on the nets, winches and rigging. The captain and the helmsfur were in the wheelhouse, going over the charts.
Stores for a two-week trip were stowed everywhere, even in the crew quarters. Fortunately most of the furs aboard would sleep above the deck, in hammocks. Hai had learned how to use one on his trips with the fishing fleet, at the price of bumps, bruises, and injured pride as his crewmates laughed at him.
He put his sea bag away securely and went back up on deck to help get the boat underway. One of the mechanics was grumbling as he worked on a balky winch. “Hei?” the rat asked. “Could you lend a paw here? Damned clutch . . . “
“Sure,” and the Shar Pei knelt on the deck beside the rodent. Rust had fouled a gear, and required removing it and using a file to clear the teeth. The rat managed to free the gear, and attended to the rest of the motor while Hai busied himself with the file. An oily rag and a pot of grease sat nearby.
The Captain called out orders and deckpaws moved to cast off. A rumble below decks, and black smoke belched against the early-morning sky as the fishing boat got underway.
Hai Wei finished smearing grease on the balky gear and was helping the mechanic fit it back into the winch when the boat moved into the lagoon’s main shipping channel, headed northeast. One of the Matsen Line ships, the S.S. Makana, sat placidly in the main ocean liner anchorage. Early tourists to Spontoon.
Another rat, this one a bit shorter and tubbier, walked past, and Hai quirked an eyebrow. He recognized the man.
Olaf? One of Hao’s crew here? He thought as the self-described ‘pirate accountant’ stepped into the wheelhouse.
What for? He wondered.
“Mother? What are you doing up?” Hao asked. Clarence had asked him to come to his father’s office, but the lion hadn’t said why. The red panda glanced at his father, then back to his mother and blinked when he realized that his wife was in the room as well. “Is something wrong?”
Xiu shook her head and smiled. “Everything’s fine, Hao. Could you – sit next to me, please?” Her tone of voice belied her smile; she was nervous, and maybe a bit fearful.
Hao sat down beside her and she grasped one of his paws. He could feel – practically smell – the nervousness coming from her. “Xiu, what’s wrong? Is everything all right with your parents?” He glanced, mystified, at his parents. “What’s wrong?” Her nervousness was starting to affect him, and he could feel his tail twitching.
“Relax, Hao,” Ni Hei said between breaths from his air mask. “Nothing’s wrong.” He took another breath. “Your wife came in to tell me something, and I woke your mother. Then I sent Clarence to find you.” He stopped and coughed a few times. “It’s good news, but I think that Xiu should tell you, not us.”
His youngest son nodded and leaned a bit closer to Xiu. “What do you have to tell me, Xiu?” he asked.
“Um, well, umm, Hao . . . I love you, you know that?”
“Sure.” His dark brown eyes narrowed.
“And, um, well, I know we, ah, were going to discuss this – “
He leaned in close, his gaze darkening and his ears laying back slightly. “What. Is. It?”
Xiu took a deep breath and leaned toward him.
She whispered, “I’m pregnant.” She bit her lower lip and looked at him expectantly.
“ . . . “