Luck of the Dragon: Breaking the Bank© 2016 by Walter D. Reimer
A fist crashed into the side of his face.
His cry turned into a strangled wheeze as the other, older boy’s fist struck him just under his breastbone.
The older boy snatched up his food as he lay curled up in the mud, wheezing harshly and struggling to get his breath back. He felt spittle strike his face as the boy and his friends spit on him before walking off, sharing the food they’d just stolen from him. It was all the food he was going to have until that night.
Hao got painfully to his knees and started to sob.
The eleven-year-old wanted to go home, even though Mother and Father had explained to all of the children that they couldn’t go back to China. He still couldn’t really understand why they couldn’t return to Tientsin.
Shin still cried herself to sleep from time-to-time, and Peng-wum just looked sad.
The young red panda wiped the mud and tears from his face, dragged himself to his feet and started to limp back to the old warehouse that was home now. He wasn’t sure when he finally stopped crying.
But as he walked, he made himself a promise.
No one would ever beat him up again.
He would be the one doing the beating.
He just had to learn how . . .
Despite being told to leave, the twelve-year-old lingered by the closed door.
On the other side of the door, there had been a lot of angry shouting, in Chinese and in another language that wasn’t English. Hao couldn’t understand it, and pressed his ear to the door when he heard his father switch to English.
The other adult in the room was a fellow named Juan the Tramp. He was always dirty and smelled bad, and dressed like one of the Long-skirt Priests that he had seen back home.
He would always offer Hao candy when he visited, but the way he looked at the child made him nervous. He’d told his mother about it, and Father had intervened.
“Stay away from him,” Ni Hei was saying. “Go near my son again, and I’ll kill you myself.” He’d heard his father when he was angry, but this tone made him shiver.
“Hao?” He stirred and blinked a few times as Xiu gave his shoulder a slight squeeze. “Love?” He turned to look at her, and her eyebrows rose at the blank expression on his face. “Did you hear me?”
Yes. Yes, he had.
“Have you two given any thought to where you’ll live when you get back?”
He looked away from his mother to Xiu. “Well, I know you’d like to live on Krupmark–“
“It seems like an exciting place.”
He chuckled. “Pretty exciting, yes. But I don’t think it’s really safe, and – sorry, Mother, Father, but it’s true – it’s no place to raise kids.”
No, it wasn’t.
He recalled something his parents had told him and his brother and sister, about always having plans made and thinking through potential problems.
The Ni had done well, and he had the scars to prove it.
She liked his scars.
Now, to plan ahead.
The spell seemed to break. Hao sat up a bit straighter and took a deep breath as he closed and opened his eyes a few times. “Hao?” Xiu asked.
“Are you okay?”
He took her paw in his and smiled at her, before glancing around to see the concerned expressions on his parents’ faces. “I’m all right. You just caught me, that’s all. So, you’re pregnant?”
His wife nodded, and her expression gave way to a guarded look. “Are you all right with that?”
He kissed her paws and replied, “Sure. It’s – it’s –“ he closed his eyes for a moment and his tail twitched before he reopened them, “it’s what we talked about, right?” His grip on her paws tightened slightly. “It’s just a bit s-sudden, you know?”
She nodded. “I know.” She glanced at Hei and Peng for moral support, and was pleased to see her in-laws smiling at her. “I’m sorry to add this to everything else on your mind, Hao.”
“Are you sure, son?” Hei asked in a quiet measured tone. His voice was a bit muffled by his breathing mask. “It’s a lot to take in.” He looked over at his wife. “It causes a lot of changes in plans, I can tell you.”
The older red panda saw his son’s shoulders shake and his ringed tail quiver a bit – definite danger signs, if he was any judge of his youngest child’s moods. Hao took a deep breath and calmed himself as he studied his and Xiu’s clasped paws. He then leaned in, and kissed her.
“I had planned on going over to Spontoon – you know, people to see and all that – but I was going to leave you here.” His expression hardened. “But that’s changed,” he said, gazing levelly into her eyes. “I’m taking you with me. And when I come back here, you’re staying on Spontoon.” His tone was flat.
“Hao – “
“NO!” She flinched at his shout. “I won’t have our kids growing up here! Where they can beaten, o-or hurt, o-or killed, or . . . I’m not having it! You don’t know what this place is like for a little kid,” and he started shaking. He hunched over a bit, and gave his parents a glowering, baleful look under lowered brows. “You never had any idea,” he whispered.
“Door’s open,” a woman’s voice came in answer to his knock on the door. The alligator took off his fedora before entering, taking a wary look around before setting his paw on the doorknob. The people who had arranged this meeting at a seedy apartment house in Saint Paul had given assurances that there would be no funny business, but he wasn’t taking any chances.
There were the background sounds that he might expect from such a place: passing traffic, car horns, two fighting children whose yells turned to yowls as someone dispensed swift justice. Nothing out of the ordinary.
His paw tightened on the knob, turned it, and he eased the door open, looking around again suspiciously before slipping inside and closing the door.
“Make yourself at home. I’ll be out in a minute.” The woman sounded young, but there was an underlying gravelly coarseness to her voice that spoke of too many cigarettes and just a bit too much rotgut whiskey. LaFarge looked around the small apartment, his hat in his paws.
The apartment had one bedroom, a bathroom, and a living room that did triple duty as a kitchen and dining room. His hostess was apparently in the bedroom. The main room had some threadbare furniture and old, tobacco-stained wallpaper. He turned toward the bedroom door as the toilet flushed and she stepped out.
The girl was a skunk, her tailfur thick and lovingly brushed, with a willowy figure that was filled out pleasingly in all the right places. She was wearing a thin gray chintz robe with a Japanese crane motif on it, and was wearing underwear beneath the robe.
Thank the Lord, LaFarge thought.
“Hi there!” the girl said pleasantly, giving him a long look and a toothy grin. “Ain’t seen anyone like ya around here before.” She didn’t sit, she draped herself on the bedraggled sofa and patted the seat beside her. “Come on and siddown, don’t be shy. I’m Eileen.”
One of his sources called her the Tail of Two Cities. “Claude, Miss,” the alligator said. “You should have been told I was coming.”
Eileen smirked. “Yeah, Mikey said you’d be coming up. Just want to talk, huh?”
The skunk shrugged. “Suit yourself, but . . . I like what I see so far, Claude. If I still like what I see, I might give you a discount.”
“Just talk,” LaFarge said.
“Okay.” She reached over to the side table and lit a cigarette. “Whaddaya wanna know?” she asked in a bored tone.
LaFarge took a seat on a chair facing her. “What can you tell me about Harold McAfee?”
The gator frowned. There was no way this girl could be that empty-headed. “Older guy, badger, you had him in bed with cameras going back around Christmas last year?”
“Oh, him!” She leaned over and stretched out on the divan in an odalisque pose, her head and one arm propped on the arm of the sofa. “He was cute. Good manners, even when he was tanked to the whiskers. You a lawyer? Did he die and leave me a lot of money?”
Despite himself, LaFarge smiled. “No, he’s a Senator now.”
“Don’t you read the papers?”
“Pfft.” She laughed and coughed away a cloud of smoke. “I don’t care about none of that. I read the trades,” and she gestured at a stack of copies of Miscellany, a trade paper from Hollywood. “I’m gonna head West and get into Hollywood,” Eileen said. “Mikey says I oughta be in pictures.”
And I’m sure you’ll see a lot of casting couches, the alligator thought to himself, or maybe just the ceilings. “You set people up like this a lot?”
Another puff of smoke as she drew on the cigarette and shook her head. “Only when Mikey asks.”
“And you’re sixteen?”
The mephitess gave him a smile and managed to make the act of getting to her feet an attempt to seduce him. She opened her robe. “Can you tell just by looking at me, sugar?”
He had to admit it. “No.”
“You’re a gentleman, you are.” She turned and sashayed over to her stove, her tail swinging in counterpoint to the roll and sway of her hips, and he had to concede that she knew what attracted a man. She turned back to him and let her robe fall open again.
Interestingly, she’d managed to unclasp and remove her bra while walking across the room. He expected that she’d gotten instructions from ‘Mikey’ on how to handle this rube from Louisiana.
“Sure I can’t interest you in something?” she asked. Her right index finger traced the rim of a teacup on the counter beside the stove.
The alligator spent a few moments staring at her figure before giving her a lazy smile. “Cover yourself back up, girl. My wife'd kill me,” and the smile twisted into a smirk, “and if I ever do want some on the side I'll go to Storyville." He put his fedora on, touched two fingers to the brim as she gaped at him, and left the apartment.
He was two steps down the hall when he heard a teacup smash against the wall, and a girlish voice giving voice to a frustrated “Ooh!"