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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer

Chapter 29

Luck of the Dragon
© 2004 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and related characters by permission of Simon Barber.  Thanks!)

Chapter Twenty-nine

  One late night in mid-January Hao felt Anna move in bed beside him.  He stirred, looking at her over one shoulder as she rolled over, paws gripping the covers.  She murmured something, and Hao’s ears flicked as he strained to listen.
  The canine girl whispered, “Vah polnoy … otchyot … Moskva tsentr …”  The words puzzled Hao; he didn’t know Russian.  She repeated the words, along with several others.  Anna rolled over again and fell silent, and Hao laid on his back, looking at the ceiling, thinking.  He rolled the words over in his mind until he was certain he had them memorized, then fell asleep.

  The next day Hao stepped into an office a door down from Peng-wum’s.  “Hao, what can I do for you?’ Ahmad asked, his fennec’s ears canting forward as he started to stand.

  Hao motioned for him to sit back down.  “Ahmad, I need a bit of help,” he said.  He picked up a pencil and wrote what he had heard on a small pad, then tore off the sheet and handed it to the aide.  “I don’t speak Russian, but that’s as good as I can recall it,” he explained.  “Do you know someone who can tell me what it means?  Quietly?”

  “Quietly?  Certainly, insh’allah.  There’s some freight pilots and such here from Sakhalin and Vostok.  They may be able to tell me something.”

  “Good.  Another thing,” and Hao leaned close, pitching his voice low enough so that only the fennec’s huge ears could catch the words, “don’t let Anna know.”

  Ahmad’s eyes narrowed.  “Understood, Boss,” he said as he folded the paper and placed it in a pocket.

* * * * * * * * *
  A week or so later, Shin leaned against the rail of the water taxi and smiled, enjoying the breeze ruffling her fur.  She had been attending Songmark for several weeks now, and aside from a group outing to see a dance performance on Casino Island, this was her first weekend pass.  As soon as she had the coveted slip of paper in her paws, Shin had headed for the docks and the taxis to South Island.  The red panda laughed softly to herself.  Seeing the look on Liberty’s face as she walked out of the dorm had been priceless.

  Fang had been surprised to see her, but they had both had a great deal of fun.  She stretched and massaged the fur around her neck, smiling as her fingers ran over the bitten spots above the collar of her Songmark blazer.  The taxi slowed at the Casino Island dock, and she steadied herself as it came to a halt and more customers came aboard.

  “Excuse me.  Shin, is it?”  The voice and the cultivated English accent caused Shin to turn around.  The fur who had spoken to her was a feline with ginger fur and an interested expression.  Another fur with tiger stripes showing vividly looked over her shoulder.  Both wore school uniforms.

 “Yes,” Shin replied.  “Amelia, is it?”

  Amelia Bourne-Phipps nodded.  “Yes.  May I ask you why you’re out here?  First-years aren’t allowed out without an escort.”

  “It’s all right.  I have a pass,” Shin replied, and smiled as both felines’ ears stood straight up in surprise.

 The tiger, who Shin recognized as one of Amelia’s close friends, frowned skeptically.  “A pass?” she asked in a harsh American accent.  “Let’s see it.”

  “Sure.”  Shin fished the folded paper from her skirt pocket and handed it to the tiger, who along with Amelia studied it minutely.

  “It’s not one of Beryl’s,” the tiger remarked.

  “It’s genuine, Helen,” Amelia said as she passed the paper back to Shin.  “So what are you doing out here by yourself?” she asked, her accent and proper English slightly intimidating.

  Shin grinned slightly, studying the two senior girls and noting that their neckfur was, like hers, rather bitten and rumpled.  “Well, I was spending a very respectable time with my husband, on South Island.”  She stressed the word deliberately, guessing that the two furs weren’t married to anyone.  But from their looks, they’d definitely been having fun.

  If the two felines had been surprised before, they looked definitely shocked now.  “’Husband?’” Helen echoed, and Shin nodded proudly.

 “Yes,” she replied.  “He lives over on South Island, in a nice little house my parents are paying for.  My husband is – hmm … - sort of a troubleshooter, you might say, over on Krupmark Island.  He’s a Manchurian tiger,” and with this remark Shin looked pointedly at Helen, and grinned.  “So keep your paws away from him, my dear.  Please.”  The two senior girls stepped back as Shin turned toward the rail again, enjoying the wind as the taxi neared Eastern Island.

  “You certainly look like you enjoyed yourself, you lucky girl,” Brigit sighed as Shin walked into the dorm.  The red panda grinned and fastidiously hung up her blazer.  At Songmark, neatness counted for a lot, and Shin didn’t want to jeopardize her weekends.

 Liberty turned away from the argument she was having with Tatiana Ryzov, the fourth member of their dorm, and sneered, “Capitalist tramp.”  She went back to arguing with the sable, the discussion one of obscure political and philosophical points that rapidly rose in volume until both girls suddenly stopped and sulked on their beds.

 Shin’s brows rose, and she let the comment pass. 

Brigit merely sighed and went back to her reading as Shin remarked, “Brigit, don’t worry.  I’m sure the staff’ll allow us to look over the local talent a bit more.  You were really taken with a couple of the dancers that night.”

  The Irish setter blushed as she recalled how fast her tail had been wagging that night, and Liberty said mockingly, “Sure, Brigit.  Find yourself a nice disease-ridden capitalist exploiter who’s bigger than you and will – “  Her insults were eclipsed by a yelp as Shin dove at her and grappled her off the bed.

 She sat on the canine’s chest, one paw on her throat and the other poised over her, fingers stiff.  “You were saying, Liberty?” she hissed.  Brigit had stood up as Shin started her leap, and Tatiana just sat on her bed, laughing at Liberty.

  Liberty glared, but said nothing.  “I thought so,” Shin said, and jerked herself to her feet and stepped back as the canine got her feet and resumed her seat on the bed.  Shin walked back to her dresser as Miss Wildford poked her head in.  “What’s wrong?” she asked sternly.

  “Nothing, ma’am,” Shin said in a quiet tone.  “Liberty slipped.”  The older woman’s skunk tail twitched as she looked over at Liberty, the New Haven girl rubbing the back of her head.  Unable to say anything because neither showed signs of a fight, Wildford gave each a hard stare and left the room.

  Later the four were in the dining room, all of them looking rather downcast at their plates.  Poi again, and Shin sighed as she spooned up some more and started eating.  Liberty passed behind her, and she almost bit her tongue as a hard-soled shoe came down on her tail.  “Oops, sorry Shin,” Liberty said in a mock-contrite tone as she sat down.

  “Oh, I like her,” Shin muttered as she pulled her tail around, settling it in her lap as she continued to eat.

* * * * * * * * *

“2nd February 1936

Dear Fang,

I won’t be coming to South Island for the next few weeks, I’m afraid. Liberty and I finally had a fight.

It started out with an argument over what was the best way to pull out of a flat spin, and it became an insult match.  I won, she didn’t like it, and the next thing you know we were on the floor.

Brigit and Tatiana both had to pull me off of her, while one of the third-year girls took Liberty down with a complicated hold I’m just dying to learn.  I have a black eye, though, and Liberty’s got a bloody nose and a sprained knee.

The staff wasn’t amused, although I think they might have hoped I would kill her.  They seemed almost disappointed, but tried hard not to show it as they showered us with demerits and told all four of us that we’d best get used to seeing a lot of each other for the next three weeks.  I have kitchen duty every weekend.

Have to go.  Will write you.

Love, Shin.

* * * * * * * * *

  “It took me a while, Boss,” Ahmad apologized as he sat down beside Hao in the Casino bar.  He slipped a folded paper into Hao’s pocket with the ease of a born thief (which he was) as he added, “Two of them looked scared, and another wanted double the price.”

  “How did you find someone then?” Hao asked.  As he raised his beer he caught the Algerian’s wink, and smiled.  “Never mind, I won’t ask.  Oh, hello Peng-wum.”

 He looked up as his older brother slid onto a stool beside him and signaled the bartender.  “Whisky, please,” he told the canine, and he turned to Hao.  “Hao, I need you to run an errand for me.  To Casino Island.”

  “Okay,” Hao said, nodding, “I’ll need to cable Hai Wei first and give him advance notice –“

  “Fair enough, but you need to do it quickly,” Peng-wum said with a grin.  “You’ll be picking up a few people to bring here, so you’ll need to take your rattletrap GH-2.”

  “Who am I picking up?” Hao asked, pointedly ignoring the comment about his acquired Garza-Huacatl.  Peng-wum took a sip of his drink before replying, “The Shawnee Skypaths plane is scheduled to land in two days, early morning.  It’ll be carrying – “ here his voice dropped “ – Don Carpanini, a bodyguard and his secretary.”

  “The Big Fish?” Hao breathed.  “Coming here?  Must be important.”

  “It is.  I invited him because he expressed an interest in expanding the Fur Families’ business in the Pacific,” Peng-wum said.  “We’re already indebted to him for helping watch our backs in the Wu Tang affair, so I figure that talk can’t hurt our position.”

  “Much, you mean,” Hao said, drinking a hasty gulp of his beer.  “You know how Father feels about dealing with barbarians,” he said in Chinese.

  “Believe me, I know, Brother.  We are beholden to him, so we have little choice,” Peng-wum replied in the same tongue.  “But once our position improves, he’ll find himself on the short end of a long and rather dirty stick, hm?” he asked with an arch look that made the younger panda chuckle.

  “I’d better get over to the telegraph office, and cable Wei,” Hao said as he stood.  Tossing back the last of his beer he nodded to Peng-wum and clapped Ahmad on the shoulder before walking out.

  The road was drying out nicely and there was a warm breath of spring in the air as Hao’s bodyguard fell in beside him.  Hao reached into his pocket and pulled out the piece of paper, studied it, then thrust it back into his pocket.

  The handwriting was poor and the translation’s Roman characters were clumsy.  Figured; the person probably didn’t use English as a first language.  Hao thought about the message.

  Full account … report … Moscow Center …