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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
© 2004 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and related characters by permission of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
The work on the fishing boat was hard, and Anna’s arms ached as she helped pull a laden net over the side of the boat. The sun shone through the thin overcast as Hao flicked his cigarette over the side and lent a paw. He was dressed as casually as the rest of the crew, the breeze ruffling his fur and stirring loose threads on his ragged pair of shorts. He squinted up at the sun, then said something to the feline at the wheel. “We’ll be at Mildendo by this afternoon,” he told Anna, “and we’ll drop off the rest of our cargo.”
“Good,” she said, wiping her paws off on a rag. She was dressed similarly to him but wore a shirt, much to the visible disappointment of the entire crew. “Tell me something, Hao,” she said as the boat’s motor chugged and the vessel started south again. “When I was briefed on Spontoon, I was warned to stay away from Cranium Island, with no explanation. What goes on over there?”
Hao sat against the gunwale as he lit a cigarette, the flare of his lighter briefly illuminating his face before he said, “It’s a strange place, by all accounts. I’ve never been there, but I hear plenty. Apparently, various doctors and scientists call it home and they … do things … to – well, it’s got a bad reputation,” he concluded, taking a drag on his cigarette.
Anna nodded. “Worse than Krupmark, then?”
“Much worse,” Hao said. “On Krupmark, you can get either shanghaied or killed – there’s no telling what might happen to you over there,” and he jerked a thumb back toward the north.
“Hao!” the feline at the helm sang out. “Mildendo dead ahead!” The crew turned and several grinned at the sight of a low shield of land bulging out of the sea.
The fish was loaded into wicker baskets as Hao took the wheel and guided the boat into the small harbor, then helped tie the ship to the wharf while Anna and the others offloaded the legal cargo. Shouldering one of the cans of catnip oil, Hao led the rest of the crew, now carrying either weapons or cargo, along the dirt road into the settlement.
Anna felt safer with her pistol openly displayed on her hip, although some of the stares made her feel like she should have drawn the revolver. Finally the group reached a small warehouse, a low structure made of corrugated tin and bearing a faded sign showing a canine looking on in astonishment at an ostrich with a pint beer glass jammed down its throat. Hao rapped twice on the battered wooden door and said a few words in Chinese. The door opened and an unkempt squirrel peered out, then opened the door wide.
The interior was dimly lit as Hao set one can before a shadowy figure. Anna sniffed and could barely make out a fox’s scent against a backdrop of spoilage and wet rot. The fur opened the can, dipped a claw in the oil and sniffed, then shuddered and remarked something in an approving tone. Money changed paws, and Hao led the crew out of the warehouse. “Hao, where are we going?” Anna asked.
He smiled. “We’re getting the hell off this place and back to Krupmark, as soon as we refuel and get some supplies.”
* * * * * * * * *
December 1935 was nearly gone as a small fishing boat made its way through Krupmark’s barrier reef and tied up at the Ni family dock. As crewmembers and dockworkers removed another cargo of fish from the small vessel’s hold, Hao and Anna gathered up two small boxes and made their way to the house. “I stink,” Anna remarked.
“Yeah, we could all use a bath,” Hao replied as they entered and the more sensitive furs nearby abruptly found cause to be elsewhere. The fishing had been good, and two of the crewfurs had showed an odd native dance – native to them, at any rate – that involved a rather intricate step, followed by slapping each other in the face with two small fish. It had ended when two other crewmembers had thrown the two overboard. “But think of it, Anna,” he said, smiling at her, “a nice hot bath … our clothes burning outside …” She laughed and he grinned as they headed up the stairs to Peng-wum’s office.
“Hao, you stink,” Peng-wum said the minute the two entered the office.
Hao put the strongbox down and scratched between his ears, head cocked quizzically. “I do? I wondered why people kept running away.” His booted toe nudged the box. “Here’s the box, by the way.”
“Great.” Peng-wum scooped up the box, placed it on his desk and fished in a drawer for the key. He tried one, then another, finally getting the lock to spring open with the third key. He opened it, and Hao’s smile grew wider at the sight of several bundles of American currency. Peng-wum thumbed through one stack and muttered, “Five hundred,” then tossed the stack back in the box. “I’ll need to count it more accurately, but there’s about two thousand there. Well done, both of you,” he said, grinning. “No trouble, I hope?”
“None at all,” his younger brother replied. “We saw a few air patrols, high up, but we’d offloaded everything by then. Look, Peng-wum, Anna and I need to get cleaned up – "
“Sure, sure,” Peng-wum said, already returning to his ledgers. “Relax; you two’ve earned some rest and so has your entire crew. Wait a minute.” Hao paused, paw on the doorknob as Peng-wum carefully counted the stack he had examined earlier. He tossed the bundle to Hao, who caught it expertly. “That’s your cut, Hao.”
Hao smiled, baring all his teeth. “Thanks, Brother.” He and Anna left the office and they paused as Hao’s ears perked. “I just had an idea,” he announced.
“Oh?” Anna asked, a wary look crossing her face. He chuckled. “I know a place up in the town,” he said. “Hot baths, a massage and the food’s good too. Care to go with me after we’ve paid the crew?”
“Sounds good,” she said, nodding. “By the way, I never learned what the town’s called.”
“You were never briefed on Krupmark?” Hao asked.
“The place is named Fort Bob,” Hao said, heading down the stairs.
Anna nodded and started to follow him, then paused and said out loud, “’Bob?’”
* * * * * * * * *
New Year’s Eve on Casino Island saw a large crowd, native Spontoonies all, gathering around a huge bonfire. One after another, furs came forward and threw plaited palm-leaf sculptures of whatever had caused them the most trouble over the past year into the fire. The rite was to ensure good luck throughout the coming year.
Fang kissed his wife, then picked up a small mat of palm leaves with the word “Ledger” drawn on it and tossed it into the licking flames. Shin, wearing a native skirt under her dark blue Songmark blazer, threw some small sculptures representing planes and firearms into the bonfire. “What was that for?” Fang asked as she rejoined him. His arms went about her as she replied, “Most of the bad luck we’ve had this year has involved planes and guns,” she explained, “so maybe things will be better next year.”
“I hope so.” A cheer lifted from the crowd, and Fang said, “Happy New Year, Shin.”
“Happy New Year, Fang,” his wife said, smiling happily.
* * * * * * * * *
“Oh, this feels great,” Anna sighed as she sank further into a steaming tub of water. She and Hao had paid his crew, then headed up the hill to a small establishment called Ninamuri’s. There they met Hao’s friend, an elderly feline who tut-tutted over them and conducted them into the back room. Then, with Hao’s bodyguard standing vigil beside the door, the canine and the red panda were asked to take off their clothes by three giggling Chinese girls who poured buckets of soapy water over the pair and started scrubbing. After several minutes of this, with Anna looking very uncomfortable, they were rinsed off and led into another room, where two tubs sat. She sighed again, paws rubbing her arms and legs as she said to Hao, “How’d you find this place?”
“I’ve known about this place for years,” Hao said, one ear dipping as he sat forward in his tub, paws scrubbing at his back. “I met this one girl, and she worked up here. I was always a lot cleaner after I left than when I came in,” he laughed, then ducked as she threw a cupped pawful of water at him.
“You’re shameless,” she declared.
He shook water from his headfur. “Yes, I know. I think Mother and Father owe much of their grey fur to me, and the rest to Shin. Peng-wum’s been the quiet one in the group,” and he smiled as the door opened and two of the feline bath girls entered with trays of food. They set them down on tables beside each tub and walked out, whispering to each other. “I wish I knew what they were saying,” Anna said, “but I don’t speak Chinese.”
“They like you, and think you’re very attractive.”
“What?” she asked, staring at Hao.
He smiled and lifted a glass of whisky and soda from his tray. Sipping at it he added, “Well, they don’t like men, you see.”
Anna sank back in the water with a scandalized look crossing her muzzle. Shaking her head, she started to eat the fried chicken on her tray. “Decadence,” she muttered.
Hao laughed, and caught another pawful of water right in his face.
* * * * * * * * *
“Shin! Hello!” Brigit Mulvaney cried as she saw the panda enter the dorm a few days after the New Year. Shin grinned and gave the Irish girl a brief one-armed hug before setting her small suitcase down on the bed assigned to her. “Hello, Brigit,” Shin said. “How was your holiday?”
“Not very bad at all,” the canine girl said. “Me and Liberty stayed at a small guest house on Casino Island. Not much to do but help out with the chores, but the food was good,” and she giggled as she helped Shin unpack.
“She’s staying in here?” came a voice from the open doorway. “I’m not sharing my room with another capitalist,” and Shin turned as Liberty walked in, tail twitching angrily. “Liberty,” Shin said as Brigit backed away slightly, “I’m afraid you have no say in the matter. The staff put me here, and I’m staying.”
“Oh yeah? We’ll see about that,” and the New Haven canine stepped toward her.
Shin didn’t back down; she stood there, waiting, seemingly quite calm. “Do you really want to start trouble so soon, Liberty?” Shin asked. Her right foot slid back as she brought her paws up, and the canine girl paused as she recognized a fighting stance. “We can get along, you know,” she continued, keeping her voice level and reasonable.
Liberty growled something under her breath, then straightened up as Miss Devinski walked in, her expression stern. She looked from Liberty to Shin and back, then asked with pointed nonchalance, “What’s going on, girls?”
Shin straightened and bowed slightly. “I was just showing Liberty a defensive position, ma’am.” She started to say more, but the Labrador’s quelling glare caused her to shut her muzzle.
“I see,” Miss Devinski said in a tone that told Shin she hadn’t believed a word the red panda said. She handed Shin a small book as Liberty walked back to her bed and Brigit brightened. “Shin, here is your rule book,” the tutor said. “I strongly recommend you read it. Now, I’ll give you the short version of what we’ve already told Liberty, Brigit and Tatiana – several times. We expect you four to get along while you’re here at Songmark, and that means living together. You are all responsible for each other’s conduct as well as deportment. That means no fighting,” and she glared at Liberty again. The New Haven canine glared back at the older fur, then dropped her gaze. “Shin, come with me a moment.” She stalked out, Shin following.
Once out in the hall and the door closed, the canine said to Shin, “You do not attend church services, Shin?”
“I see. From now on, unless you or your dorm has demerits or there is something relating to the school going on, you will be allowed to go to South Island on weekends.”
Shin nodded. “Thank you, ma’am.” Miss Devinski nodded. “You will find your books on a shelf beside your bed. Now, go back inside. Dinner will be in an hour.”
“Yes, Miss Devinski,” Shin said, feeling greatly relieved that a fight hadn’t started on her first day at Songmark. She went back into her room to find Brigit and Liberty glaring at each other. “What’s wrong?” Shin asked.
“Nothing,” Liberty muttered, jerking one of her textbooks from its shelf and flipping through the pages moodily.
* * * * * * * * *
“9th January 1936
I’m hoping that in another two weeks or so we’ll be able to meet at the house on South Island.
Life here is settling down a bit since the last time I wrote you, and I’m still adjusting. I had to do things for myself when I was little, but here they demand that you do the ironing and such. The goal’s to make us all self-sufficient, so I’m trying to live up to expectations.
I’m sure things will settle down, because I really need to concentrate on my schoolwork. There’s a lot of math, which Brigit’s helping me with, as well as exercises. LOTS of exercises. I ache. I’d say the food’s good, but it’d be a horrible lie.
I remember poi from when we first arrived on Spontoon and it was all that we could afford. I still hate the stuff, but it’s all we get to eat, and watching the others have to eat it gives me a little lift.
I’ll write as I can.