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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
© 2004 by Walter Reimer
The day had dawned with a line of rainsqualls marching across Krupmark Island, driven on a northerly wind that hailed from Vostok. Now, with the sun down, the cloudy sky had the entire island plunged into darkness.
Inside the Lucky Dragon it was warm and dry, but only a few furs were in the casino. Two felines and two canines played poker good-naturedly while the bartender idled behind her counter. There was no band, the jazz musicians having received their pay and passage off Krupmark to Hong Kong weeks ago. A small, decorated fir tree stood at one end of the bar, and if anyone had bothered to wind the battered gramophone in the corner it would have played a scratched album of several tired carols.
Christmas Eve on Krupmark Island was never very festive. It distracted from business.
“Full house, jacks and kings,” Anna said, laying her cards down as the other canine, a short, short haired fellow wearing a pilot’s flying suit and seated on a box, groaned and asked the tortoiseshell feline across from him, “How the hell she does it, that’s what I want to know.” The terrier’s eyes narrowed as he asked Anna, “You trying to cheat us, lady?”
Anna smiled, although a slight twitch in her tail betrayed her irritation at the question. “No, it’s bad for business to cheat,” she said primly, even as she collected the cards, weighed them in her paw, and placed the deck on the table in front of him. “You shuffle and deal, then, if you don’t trust me,” she said, “and you can deal me out.” She scooped up most of the chips she had collected and stood, then walked over to the bar. There was a clatter as she set the chips down, and the bartender asked, “You want something to drink, Anna?”
“A beer, please, Nailani,” Anna replied, grinning at the rabbit as Peng-wum’s wife busied herself. As she handed her a squat bottle of Mixtecan beer Nailani asked, “How have you and Hao been? I haven’t seen much of you two since you got back from Spontoon.”
“Hao’s been showing me around and teaching me a few things,” Anna replied, sipping at the beer and making a face. “It’s been … interesting. Like my NKVD training, only without the live-fire exercises.” Nailani nodded then leaned toward her, whispering conspiratorially, “Tell me – were you cheating over there?”
Anna grinned. “Da. One of the little skills Hao’s
been teaching me. He asked me to meet him here, so when those pilots
came in and started playing, I decided to apply what I’ve been taught.”
The two women chuckled softly, and Anna asked, “So, what have you and Peng-wum
been up to?”
“I can imagine,” Anna remarked as she saw Hao enter the casino.
The red panda was dressed in baggy denim trousers and a jacket, and his battered baseball cap was pulled over one eye. The pilots seated at the poker table looked up as he entered, and one feline’s tail started to fluff. Hao nodded to the trio, and they all relaxed as he walked over to the bar and nuzzled Anna briefly. “Ready for a little trip, Anna?” he asked softly.
“Where are we going?” she asked, nuzzling him back, then winking at Nailani, who smothered a laugh behind her paw. Hao smiled and said, “Nowhere in particular.” Without waiting to see if she would agree or not, he turned and headed out of the casino, Anna grabbing her beer and following him.
Once out in the darkened street she fell in beside him as one of the hired bodyguards walked in front of the pair. “Hao, you didn’t answer my question,” she said.
“I know,” he replied. “Some things aren’t meant for strangers’ ears, even if we do business with them.” He drew her a bit closer, linking arms as he murmured, “We’ve a little sea voyage ahead of us, somewhat to the north. Do you get seasick easily?”
“Just once, when I thought you’d had me sold off,” she responded tartly. “And don’t think I’ve forgotten it, either.”
“I know you haven’t,” Hao laughed as they headed around the Ni and Sons building and stepped onto the dock. Small waves from the lagoon splashed against the pilings as he helped her over the gunwales into a small fishing boat, and as the crew cast off the lines Hao started the small gasoline engine and took the helm.
As Anna helped the crew get the boat ready to clear the lagoon, she bumped against a fur who whispered in accented English, “Hello, Missy.”
Anna squinted and gave a start as the short rat grinned cheerfully up at her. “You … you’re …” she stuttered.
Hao’s laugh echoed across the water as the rest of the crew snickered. “Anna, surely you haven’t forgotten your friend Olaf?” As the rat smiled Hao added, “Olaf’s from the Icelandic settlements on the north side of Main Island. He helps out from time to time, especially if we do business way down south around Vanirge.”
“Yah, sure,” Olaf said, giving Anna another smile as he joined the others in setting the sails. Once the boat had cleared the reef around the island, Hao shut off the engine and joined Anna by the rail. He slipped an arm around her and whispered, “You’re trembling.”
“I know,” she whispered. “Hao, you have no idea how scared I was of him and the others … “ Her voice trailed off as Hao turned her face to his and kissed her gently. In the darkness, no one noticed.
“I know,” Hao said. “I got a complete report on the whole thing. But you were never in any danger.” He winked. ”I’ll tell you a secret – Olaf’s my accountant. But he likes to play pirate from time to time.”
They kissed again, and Anna whispered, “Now, since we’re among friends, will you tell me where we’re going?”
Hao chuckled. “North. As soon as we’re far enough away from Krupmark, I’ll restart the engine.” He fished a pocket watch from his jacket and flipped it open, examining the radium dial critically. “If we make good time, we’ll be there by midnight, two at the latest.”
“A meeting?” Anna asked.
Hao shrugged and the soft green light silhouetting his face was eclipsed as he shut the pocket watch. “Something like that,” he said softly.
* * * * * * * * *
It was just before one on Christmas morning when the boat entered the maze of shoals and reefs ringing Dioon Island and at Hao’s hissed order the crew lowered the sail. In the feeble starlight another ship could be seen, and Hao picked up a flashlight. He flicked it on and off once, twice. There was a silence, and one crewmember’s paws tensed on the Lewis gun mounted in the bow.
Finally a voice cried out from the other boat, “Wah!”
“Poon-yah!” Hao yelled back, and the sound of the waves was drowned as the two boats started their engines and moved closer. Bumpers were tossed over the rails and as the boats thudded together crewmembers tied them fast. Hao said, “I’d say it’s nice to see you, Sam, but it’s too dark.”
There was a laugh from the other boat and a small acetylene lamp started to hiss. A shade was thrown over to blank out most of its glare as a considerably scarred feline, part of his left ear missing and his form swaddled in a frayed pea coat said, “That better, Hao? We’d best get things taken care of before the light’s seen. Dioon’s no-man’s land, and there’s no telling who’s lurking around here.”
“Right. Lend a hand there, fellows; you too, Anna. The loading will go faster.” Anna suppressed a tart remark and started helping move cargo from Sam’s boat to theirs. The cargo consisted of several heavy crates, three small barrels and nearly half a dozen small boxes.
After a brief break, some more boxes and six heavy steel cans, like paint cans, were handed aboard. “That’s all of it, Hao,” Sam said.
“Okay, Sam. Here you are,” and he handed over a small, squat strongbox.
Sam unlocked it and shone his light into the box, and teeth flashed as he grinned. “That’ll do,” he said as he closed the box, a freshening wind ruffling his fur. “Come on, lads, cast off and let’s get out of here.” The light was extinguished, and the two boats drifted apart.
Hao let the boat drift south until Sam’s boat could no longer be seen by even the felines in the crew, then ordered the sails raised. “Where are we headed now?” Anna asked.
“Due east,” Hao replied. “We have to transfer most of this cargo by dawn. Good thing we’ve got a good wind from the west - if we get caught with this stuff, we’re fish food.”
“Why? What is it?” Anna prodded one of the paint cans.
“Oh, those are no problem,” Hao said. “That’s pure catnip oil.” He patted the larger crates and barrels. “These are the problem. We’re getting paid - quite a bit, in money and favors – to get this stuff to where it’s supposed to be.”
“What is it?” Anna prodded.
She turned as Olaf tapped her on the shoulder. “Missy don’t be askin,’ Hao don’t be lyin.’” He winked at Hao, who grinned and headed aft to talk to the canine at the helm.
* * * * * * * * *
Several hours later, one of the crewmembers softly hissed something in Spontoonie to Hao, who ordered the sails trimmed back sharply so that the boat crept forward. Two others went forward and began to swing leads. “What’s the matter?” Anna asked Hao. She was nervous; she was unused to being on the water, and hated being kept in the dark about things. She thought Hao had trusted her.
“We’re in shoal water,” Hao replied, “and we don’t want to run aground on any sand bars if we can avoid it. Besides, we’re about where we need to be in order to drop some of our cargo off.” He whispered a few words, and crewmembers uncovered and loaded the Lewis gun.
The boat slowed further, the sail luffing as they started to drift; most of the crew lent a paw to wrapping the sail around the yardarm as a lookout signaled that a ship was seen approaching. Anna and Hao both put the bumpers over the rail, and they waited in silence.
The other boat came into view, just barely visible in the gloom. It was a stout, wallowing steam launch that must have been thirty years old. Larger than the fishing boat, it came alongside and a canine silhouette peered over the rail. “Do you have it?” the figure asked in heavily accented Spontoonie.
“Yes, we do,” Hao said, and stepped back as a group of felines swarmed over the side and started transferring the boxes and crates. One nearly dropped the barrel he was carrying as he climbed over the steam launch’s rail. The other felines froze as there was a harsh imprecation in German and the offending feline cried out as a whip cracked.
Hao backed away toward the helm as Anna said softly, “Where are we, Hao? And I want an answer this time.” Her paw drummed on the pistol at her hip, and she made sure Hao knew she was doing it.
“We’re about thirty miles south of Cranium Island,” Hao whispered, “and the cargo’s various, um, substances, as well as machine parts.” He shut up as the canine looked over the launch’s rail.
“That is all we are expecting,” he rasped in English. “You have done well. Here,” and a small box thumped to the deck. The launch started its engine and moved away, black smoke obscuring the stars. After several minutes, Hao ordered the engine started and he had the helm steer southward.
Once clear of the shoals he and the rest of the crew began to relax. Water jugs began to be passed around, along with a meal of coarse bread and smoked fish. Dawn started to glimmer to the east as Anna sat down beside Hao. “Where to now?” she asked.
“Mildendo,” he replied. “We drop off the catnip, then we spend a few days heading back to Krupmark.”
Anna nodded. “Why so long?” He chuckled and said, “Well, this is a fishing boat, and it’d look mighty suspicious if there wasn’t any fish aboard.”
The Russian canine tried to avoid the grimace she knew was trying to twist her features. Ah well, she thought, most of this crew have already seen her in her fur … Her ears perked and she looked toward Hao as, amazingly, he started to sing in Chinese. The song was soft and the tune a simple one, and one of the Chinese furs joined in while the rest of the crew laughed. When Hao finally stopped singing Anna asked, “What was that tune?”
“Oh, an old song suitable for sailing,” Hao replied. “It’s called Row Your Boat.”
* * * * * * * * *
“Merry Christmas!” Shin said as she flung the curtains open. Fang groaned and rolled over in bed, paws squashing the pillow over his face. Shin looked out at the overcast sky, paws smoothing her silk nightdress as she looked back at her husband. “Hmm, not a bad idea,” she mused, closing the curtains and rejoining him in bed.