Luck of the Dragon: Breaking the Bank© 2017 by Walter D. Reimer
“Coming!” said a woman’s voice, and within perhaps a minute a slightly elderly red squirrel femme appeared at the doorway, wiping her paws on a dish towel. She was wearing a skirt and loose-fitting blouse in concession to the summer heat.
Shin nodded pleasantly as Neddie introduced her. The squirrel was English, and a great deal better-mannered than the American Nancy Rote. From the look of things – her clothing, the footwear placed outside the front door and the wraparound lanai on the cottage – the Cruickshanks had acclimated well to the Spontoons, where most people lived out of doors.
“Is Himself in, Miz Cruickshank? Miz Wo here wants to see him about some legal stuff,” Neddie was saying.
“He’s out back in the garden, Ned,” the woman said, and held out a paw to Shin. “Emmeline Cruickshank.”
“Wo Shin,” the red panda said as she shook the older woman’s paw. “You were named for Emmeline Pankhurst?”
“Why, yes!” the woman said proudly, pleased that Shin recalled the name, and went back inside as Neddie led Shin around the outside of the house to the garden.
Another red squirrel, gray streaking his headfur, was working amid a bank of flowering frangipani to the accompaniment of garden shears and a whistled rendition of Livin' in the Sunlight, Lovin' in the Moonlight. He sat back on his heels, bushy tail whisking about. His tufted ears perked and he twisted a bit to his left. “Neddie, good morning! Who is this young woman?" He got to his feet, grunting from the effort. Shin noted that the red squirrel’s tail was shorter than usual, and he had an artificial foot covered in fur and dyed to match his actual fur.
The squirrel saw her looking and grinned up at her cheerfully as Neddie helped him up. “Thanks, lad. Don’t worry about my ersatz appendage, my dear. Lost the original – well, maybe ‘lost’ is the wrong word. I’m fairly sure I know which shell crater in Flanders has it. Neddie, introduce me to this young lady.”
“Sure, Sam. Wo Shin, Samuel Cruickshank.”
“And you’re a lawyer, Mr. Cruickshank?” Shin asked after shaking paws with the man.
“Call me Sam. More a solicitor than a barrister really. I took a degree from the University of Leeds, though I never took silk.”
“That’s not what your missus says, Boss,” and Neddie chuckled as Sam clacked the garden shears in a mock-threatening way.
“I came out here to see the air races back in ’34,” Sam added, “and as soon as I got back to Leeds I told Emmy, ‘Emmy, we’re moving to the Spontoons.’ She asked why, and I told her where else could we spend our latter years? It may get a bit dreary here in winter, but you’re not in snow up to your hips.” He chuckled and led the red panda and the fox to the back lanai and waved them into seats. “Now, young lady, if Ned here’s brought you, you must need a Daedalus to help you navigate the Labyrinth that is the Althing, correct?”
She took a guess. “Yes.”
“My grounding’s in civil law, and despite the Althing’s anarchist pretentions, it still uses British civil and business law systems,” Cruickshank said. “A lot of that’s thanks to old Poynter. I may be retired – well, semiretired – but I might be able to help you.” He leaned forward, clasping his paws in his lap, and his gaze grew hard and keen. “Suppose you tell me what you need now.”
“Hao?” He turned as his wife stopped in the doorway of their room at the Casino and said, “Clarence says that Frieda’s downstairs, wanting to talk to you.”
Hao glanced at the table he’d been working at. A dingy, stained sheet protected the wood from the collection of gun parts arrayed on it. The air was filled with the smells of gun solvent, gun oil and tobacco smoke. He started reassembling the weapon. “Did she say what she wanted?” he asked, his expression showing that he was already trying to think of answers to the question. The hybrid kangaroo-skunk rarely strayed far from The Beach.
“She didn’t tell me,” Xiu replied, “but she spoke to your mother.” She glanced behind her and added, “She came up here in that Duesenberg limousine.”
He nearly fumbled the barrel of the M1911 and closed his fist around it before the spring could make a break for freedom. “Mrs. ‘C,’” he breathed. The canine femme never simply loaned out her treasured car, and no one ever thought of trying to steal or damage it. Hao set his weapon down and wiped his paws on his trouser legs as he stood up. “Let’s go see what she wants.”
Hao’s disquiet only increased when he saw what the doe was wearing. Frieda ordinarily wore nothing but her collar, or a set of lingerie. In winter she usually bundled up in a quilted Chinese peasant’s coat if she was going out. Now she was wearing a sharply tailored dark grey suit with an inch-wide black silk armband sewn onto the left sleeve. She was twisting a silk pawkerchief in her paws, and her eyes were red-rimmed. “Frieda?” Hao asked while he came down the stairs. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, Hao,” his name almost breaking as the hybrid started to sob. “It’s – it’s Mutti. The – the doctor says – “
Xiu saw Hao’s expression turn into a stone mask. “How long?”
“N-not . . . very long.” Frieda said it to his back as Hao turned and went pounding back up the stairs, and Xiu hugged her as she started sobbing again. Madam Ni, flanked by Emilia and Julia, came back from across the street. “M-Madam Ni, I – “
“Shush, Frieda,” and Peng gently took her from Xiu’s arms and dabbed at the flyer’s face with her own pawkerchief. “You knew this day was coming. I know that it’s still hard, but be strong. Carlotta wants you to be strong.”
Frieda gave a hiccupping sob. “I- I’ll try.” The other girls in the Lucky Dragon kept their distance until their employer and her daughter-in-law stepped back, and then they gathered around the girl to offer their own sympathies.
Peng glanced at the staircase as Hao came down the steps, slipping his Colt into the holster under his armpit. He was wearing clean (well, cleaner) trousers and a light jacket to conceal the weapon. “Hao, you heard?”
“Yes, Mother. If Mrs. ‘C’ let Frieda bring her car up here – “
“Carlotta hasn’t very long, yes. Frieda, dear?” The doe blinked at her. “We need to go. Now.” The doe nodded and gently let go of Mildred and Yayo before straightening out her suit and leading the way out of the Casino.
The bodyguards would follow in the family’s truck, and the three women got into the back of the well-maintained limousine. “Where do I sit?” Hao asked.
“Sit up front with Horst and Joshua,” Frieda said, nodding toward the driver and the bodyguard.
Hao squared his shoulders. Horst was a draft stallion from and Joshua was a lion; both were bigger than he was and, save for their collars, quite unclothed. “There might not be enough room.”
His mother said, “Sit on Joshua’s lap, then. Get a move on, my son.”
The lion said in accented English, “Do not worry. I only bite Mistress – when she asks,” and drew a small, threadbare blanket over his lap after he sat beside the chauffeur. He stifled a chuckle as Hao very reluctantly took a seat, and Horst threw the Duesenberg into gear.
The car had a much smoother ride than the family’s truck, and Hao practically jumped from the car as it pulled to a halt in front of the Black Sheep House. A few customers were loitering on the porch, and one or two Chinese bowed as Madam Ni and Xiu were ushered in. The Ni bodyguards fanned out, staying within sight of each other as they took up positions at each corner of the building.
Inside, the employees of the house were gathered in small groups, consoling each other. One of the house owners from up in town waved to Madam Ni. “Peng, I’m so glad you could make it – before,” Regina said, straightening his gown as he stepped forward to exchange bows and hugs with the red panda. Frieda had joined a group of the other girls, who made way for her. The kangaroo-skunk hybrid had been adopted and raised by Baader, who treated the girl as the daughter she’d never had.
“Regina, I got here as quickly as I could,” Peng assured the ‘madam’ of one of the biggest invert houses in Fort Bob. “Where is she?”
The canine pointed an exquisitely manicured finger at the entrance to Madam Baader’s office. “She’s in there, with Alix, Reiko and the rest,” he replied in his affected breathy falsetto, referring to several of the other madams. “I was going to step outside for a cigarette.”
“We’re not allowed to smoke in here now?” Hao asked, glancing nervously at the closed office door.
“Heavens, my dear boy, haven’t you heard?” Regina said. “Madam Carlotta’s breathing oxygen in there. A spark, and we’ll all see if there truly are volcanoes on the Moon.” The canine chuckled as he walked out of the house swaying his hips in what he obviously thought was a seductive manner. A few of the girls giggled despite themselves.
Peng walked to the office door and knocked. It opened a bit, and then opened wider so she could come in. Before it closed, Stephanie stepped out, the wolfess dressed in a black cotton frock and shoulder-length black silk gloves. She smiled when she saw Hao, and crooked a finger at him.
Xiu saw him swallow hard and followed him over to where Stephanie stood. “Guten Tag, Xiu. Hao, Carlotta has called for you,” and she moved slightly as Frieda moved past her and went in the office, “und you remember vhat she told you.”
Hao nodded. “I remember,” he said softly.
“And what was that?” Xiu asked.
Her husband hesitated, and finally stammered out, “Th-that S-Stephanie’s taking Mis – uh, Madam, Baader’s place,” and he looked a bit relieved as Xiu nodded in understanding.
The office door opened and the house’s new staff dominatrix, an Australian feline named Dolores, poked her head out. “Ma’am Stephanie, th’ doc sez she’s gettin’ close. Are ya Ni Hao?” she asked. He nodded, and she said, “Roight. Git yersel’ in here, she’s askin’ fer ya, too.” She stepped back and opened the door further to let the wolfess and the two red pandas enter.
The elderly ewe was emaciated, ribs showing through her closely-trimmed, tobacco-stained white fleece, and she coughed around the rubber air mask that Frieda held for her. The island’s best doctor, a beagle, held the bell of a stethoscope against her chest. He sat back as Hao and Xiu entered. “Madam Baader,” he said quietly, “it won’t be long now.”
A feeble wave of a paw and Frieda took the mask away. She wiped at a bit of bloody froth that had collected on her adopted mother’s lips as Baader wheezed, “That is sehr gut, Herr Doktor, sehr gut indeed. Perhaps . . . perhaps I meet meine liebe Alfred, ach, such a stallion he was . . . “ She signed for the mask again, and spent a few moments trying to gulp oxygen into her emphysema-ravaged lungs. “Steph-Stephanie?”
“Ja, gnädige Dame?“
“You . . . you will look after, after Frieda? As agreed?”
The wolfess nodded. “I have promised it.” She and Frieda shared a long look before Frieda lowered her eyes.
“Gut. Herr Doktor.”
“Yes, Carlotta?” The beagle leaned close at her gesture, and listened intently as she whispered to him. He nodded, then sat back and sighed. “If that’s what you want,” and he stood up and left the room as Frieda abruptly started sobbing again.
“Friedchen, Friedchen,” Carlotta said soothingly, but in an increasingly quieter voice. She reached up, gently cupping the doe’s face and brushing tears from her fur with a thumb. “We have spoken of this, ja. I have raised you as my daughter, and I am proud of you . . . such a pretty woman, so tall and strong . . .” The paw slid up her face to gently grasp one kangaroo-like ear. “You be a good girl now, ja? We see each other again, ja?”
Frieda’s voice caught in her throat and she managed to choke out, “Ja, Mutti. Please, Mutti, won’t you stay? Please? Just – just a bit longer?”
“Nein, my darling child.” The ewe’s voice grew softer as her breaths came more shallowly. “Now, hold me, child, und then a kiss.”
“Ja, Mutti,” and Frieda gathered her up in her arms. “A very big kiss,” she whispered as her lips sought her mother’s.
They hugged, embracing close, as Carlotta Baader’s breathing grew softer and softer, and her arm slid away from Frieda to land limply on the bed.
Frieda began to cry in earnest as Stephanie crossed herself before hugging her consolingly. The other madams came in to pay their respects as Hao and Xiu left the room.
The other women in the house started crying as well, one or two crossing themselves in the Roman or Greek manner. Hao went out onto the porch and took out a cigarette as Xiu asked, “Are you all right?” She moved closer, slipping an arm around his waist. “Hao?”
“Hmm? Yeah, I’ll be okay. She . . . “
“Shh.” She smiled at him. “We can talk about her later.”