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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer

Chapter 38

Luck of the Dragon
© 2005 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and Songmark characters by permission of Simon Barber. Thanks!)

Chapter Thirty-eight

        Adele sipped at a glass of water and blinked sleep from her eyes.  It was just past midnight on her first night of work and there was no sign that the activity in the Casino would slow down, let alone stop.  She set the glass down, smiled at the trio of furs seated across from her table, and picked up her deck of cards.  “Ante up, please,” she said, and as bills in several different currencies hit the scarred wood she started to deal.

        The night had been a kaleidoscope so far: furs of every description, noisy shouting, the clink of glasses and the music from a small group of musicians almost made her ears droop, and the thin haze of tobacco smoke made her eyes water.  But she was having fun, learning a great deal and observing everything she could.  She was also learning, very quickly, about currency values and conversion rates (all to the house’s benefit, of course).

        The scene for most of the night reminded her of stories she’d read about saloons in the Old West.  People sang, drank, played games of chance or just sat and talked.  Only one gun was flashed, and the bouncers were on the unlucky feline almost too fast to be seen.  The bouncers, a black bear and a Cape Buffalo, were given a respectfully wide berth by the customers.  Sally had told her that the pair had been hired after Shin’s husband had moved away after their wedding.

        Adele dealt the hole cards, then the first series of cards and waited expectantly as the gamblers checked their cards and made decisions.  She took the time to check her own cards.  A queen and a three looked back at her as money hit the table.  One folded and got up from the table, while the other two increased their bets.  She dealt the next series.

        The two furs each had twenty-one; her own cards added up to eighteen.  “House loses,” she announced, and paid off the two gamblers, who grinned at each other.  One tossed down the last of his bottle of beer and stood, then headed for the door.  The other placed a few bills on the table as a tip and went off to try his luck at the roulette table.

        “’Ey, cherie, how ‘bout you an’ me find somewheres quiet-like?” came a voice at her ear, and she turned to face the man who folded earlier.  A short alligator wearing a pilot’s jumpsuit and a fishing cap leered at her, obviously drunk.  “C’mon, girl, I show you real good time, I gah-rawn-tee,” he drawled in heavy Louisiana accent.

        “I’m sorry,” Adele said, “but I’m not interested.”  Any illusions or doubts she might have had about the other girls – and the Casino’s other activities - had been quickly dispelled.  Fatima, for instance, had shed her robe to reveal herself dressed in gauzy clothing that left very little to the imagination, and during the course of the night had been seen headed upstairs at least twice.  Adele blushed at the thought of what might be going on, and had noticed that Ni Peng was seated overlooking the casino.  When she saw that the matches were dependent on the older woman’s nods or frowns, Adele had felt reassured.
        “Eh, mebbe not now, mon cher, but later you’ll like Henri,” the alligator said, grabbing at her arm.  Before the bouncers could converge on her, she had already taken his paw from her with a bent wrist hold and had him tiptoeing around, hissing in pain.

        “Here,” she told the hulking buffalo, “I think he’s had too much to drink.”  She didn’t release him until the bouncer’s paws were firmly on the alligator, and the buffalo carried the man out.  Adele glanced up at the balcony, and smiled at Peng’s approving nod.  Two more furs seated themselves at her table, and she picked up her cards and started shuffling them.

        Two hours later the two furs left, smiling as they counted their gains from the night.  Adele sighed and stretched, easing a small crick in her back before cracking her knuckles.  The other dealers and hostesses were already closing up and drifting back toward the kitchen for supper (or was it breakfast?), so she put her cards away and turned her remaining money over to the sharp-eyed fennec at the bar.
        As she walked up the stairs to her room, Adele thought that working in a casino was fun.

        Ahmad stuffed the money into a satchel, and with the two bouncers flanking him walked across the street to go over the night’s receipts.  It was something he did every morning, and was always well guarded to prevent him from being attacked and to prevent him from absconding with the money.

        “What!?”  Peng almost shouted three days later after Ahmad, almost in a panic, sent for her.  He had checked and rechecked the receipts for that night and the previous nights and come to a startling discovery.

        “We’re short almost five hundred dollars, Madam Ni,” the Algerian fennec said mournfully, wringing his paws.
        “And how could that have happened?” the red panda hissed venomously, her claws flashing as she counted through the crumpled bills.  “Have the girls been searched?”

        “Mei Ling is doing it, ma’am, accompanied by the bouncers.  But all of the girls have proven trustworthy so far,” he said unnecessarily.

        “So far.”  Peng dropped the wad of money she had counted and considered.  It would be like Leon Allworthy to plant a thief in their midst, in hopes of recovering some of the money Peng-wum and Nailani had stolen from him, but there had been no recent hires or acquisitions.  Of course, any one of the Nis’ competitors were capable of doing such a thing.  “We will act as if nothing has happened, after the search,” she declared.  “And tonight we shall watch very carefully.”

        Adele woke up that afternoon, the commotion raised that morning having passed her by.  Another dress, this one in green with a dark red floral pattern embroidered on it, had already been laid out for her.  After getting washed up and dressed, she went downstairs to find the other girls picking morosely at their food.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.

        The girls glanced at each other, as if daring each other to speak up first.  Finally Fatima said, “The Casino’s been losing money the past few nights, so we were all searched.”  She lit a paw-rolled cigarette and drew her robe a bit tighter around her thin frame.

        “Was it a robbery?” Adele asked.

        Sally shook her head.  “I’m sure Madam Ni would’ve seen a thief or a robber,” she said flatly.  “That one’s got eyes on her like a hawk, she does, especially when it comes to money.”  She sighed.  “’Tis a bad business when we’re not trusted.”

        “If someone was caught stealing, would they get fired?” Adele asked.  It was a forgivable question, as she knew next to nothing about how things were done at Krupmark.
        “’Fired?’” Fatima snorted, tossing her long headfur.  “I think you’d be lucky to get away alive.”  She nodded at Adele’s shocked expression.

        The rest of the girls nodded in agreement with the Afghan girl, and after a while they got up from the table and headed into the main room to start work.  Adele followed them, thinking of what she could do to help.  She had gotten to know several of them in the past few days, and was distressed to think that anything might happen to one of the girls.

        There were more furs in the casino tonight, and Sally whispered to her that they were all employees from across the street, chosen for skill in catching thieves and cheats.  The rabbit went about her business but eagerly hoped that she could be the one to catch whoever was doing this to her hostess.  It would raise the Nis’ estimation of her, and give her something exciting to write about in her report after her return to Songmark.

        Peng sat in her usual seat, but this time she raised a pair of small opera glasses to her eyes.  Her gaze swept the crowd, dwelling on each table in turn.  Everything seemed normal, but a small disturbance drew her attention.

        A fur at Adele’s table was pounding the table exultantly, and indicating to the lepine that he would let his bet ride.  Peng’s eyes narrowed as she watched Adele shuffle the cards and deal.  The rabbit was definitely an amateur as a dealer, but had shown that she at least knew the basics.  She didn’t appear capable of cheating, at least not knowingly.  Had her daughter Shin been at the table, Peng admitted to herself with a faint smile, she would have been a prime target for suspicion.
        Two hands and almost fifty dollars later, Peng lowered the opera glasses, her eyes wide in shock.  The pilot at the table wasn’t cheating, but was winning with a consistency she knew was plainly wrong.  “Oh, dear Lord,” she breathed in English (a language she always preferred to curse in).  She recalled an interesting part of Shin’s letter about her:  “To say she is unlucky would be a lie, Mother.  She’s a disaster.”  And as the lepine dealt another winning hand to the fur at the table, Peng realized that yes, indeed, Adele was a disaster – and her own daughter had dropped her straight into the family business. 

* * * * * * * * *

        Hao stayed perfectly still as a wide, strong paw frisked him hurriedly but thoroughly for weapons.  His pistol was pulled out of his waistband.  “You vere planning on using this on me, eh?” Franz Hotman asked, punctuating his question with a jab of his gun against Hao’s head.  “Answer me, cub, or your parents vill hear that you died in a, ah, very undignified manner.”

        The young red panda had been assessing his chances ever since he had felt the revolver against the back of his head.  There was no way he could turn and attack Hotman in time to prevent his head from being blown off.  “Hello, Franz,” he said quietly.  “And no, I was not hunting you.”

        “No?  Und vhy then are you looking for me, eh meine Liebe?  To invite me to your birthday party?”  There was another jab against the back of his head.
        “Franz,” Hao said patiently, “if I were hunting you, you would have been dead by now.  Your crew attacked me several days ago, and all I wanted was to find out who hired you.”  There was a silence, and Hao closed his eyes, wondering if he’d actually feel the bullet before he died.

        A seeming eternity later the gun was withdrawn.  “Turn around,” Hotman growled.  Hao obeyed and looked at his rival.

        Franz Hotman was a rabbit, but more closely resembled a bear from his size and build.  A powerfully broad chest and massive arms overshadowed the middle-aged paunch that lapped over his belt buckle.  His ears were scarred and notched from years of fighting with anything from paws and teeth to knives.  A series of six nested gold rings marched their way up his gray-furred right ear.  Cold blue eyes with a strange gleam in them looked the red panda up and down as he said, “Do yourself up, meine Liebe.  I don’t like cubs.”

        I’m certainly glad of that, Hao thought as he buttoned his trousers.  The instant his paws dropped to his sides Hotman drove his knee into Hao’s crotch.

        Pain exploded through the red panda, driving the breath from his lungs and causing him to fall to his knees.  As he gasped and coughed, trying to draw breath and quell the surge of gut-wrenching nausea, the German grabbed him by his headfur and jerked his head up.  The muzzle of the revolver swatted him across the nose, hard, and the sharp ache in his midsection was given a junior partner.  “Do not lie to me, young Ni Hao,” Hotman growled.
        “I’m … not lying, damn you,” he managed to gasp out, feeling blood ooze down his nose.  He glared up at the rabbit.  “I just want to know who hired you!”

        Hotman met the younger fur’s gaze, his muzzle twisted into a contemptuous grimace.  His paw tensed on his gun, thumb pulling back the hammer.  Hao’s eyes never wavered, even as he coughed and fought a shuddering breath into his body.  Finally the gun drew back, the muzzle lifting as the German eased the hammer back down.  “Get up,” he said gruffly.  “Ve shall have a drink, und discuss it.”  He helpfully half-dragged the panda to his feet and gave him a shove toward the door.

        A few furs looked up as the burly rabbit and the slightly-built panda emerged from the bathroom, and just as quickly looked away.  Hao and Hotman took seats at a corner table and Hotman bellowed for two beers, his Chinese mangled by a thick Westphalian accent.  After two open bottles were put down and the waiter moved away, the rabbit placed Hao’s .45 on the table and said, “Na, suppose ve talk now.”