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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
Luck of the Dragon: Payoffs© 2005 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and Songmark characters by permission of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
Ni Hei was not in the best of moods, but then he never was for several days after the fifteenth of April. The United States had instituted income taxes two decades earlier, and the Ni Family’s interests in San Francisco were among the many businesses that had to pay something. It wasn’t much, thanks in part to Peng-wum’s creative accounting practices, but the thought of paying the barbarians still rankled. When he took the time to think about it, he was rather grateful that the education he had received in America had given him the tools he needed to exact his revenge. He headed back upstairs to his office, nodding absently to the ferret standing guard at the landing, when he paused, an ear twitching at a sound coming from his and his wife’s apartment.
“Peng? Peng, what’s wrong?” He asked in a concerned tone as he stepped into their bedroom and stopped in his tracks. His wife was on her knees before two portraits representing two of the Celestial Trio; Fu Hsing, the god of luck, and Lu Hsing, the god of wealth. Fragrant incense smoke wafted up from lit joss sticks as the red panda murmured prayers, her eyes tightly shut. Hei was frankly amazed, because she hadn’t shown this side of herself since they first came to Krupmark.
He knelt beside her and laid a gentle paw on her shoulder. “Peng, my love? Tell me, please. What’s the matter?”
“Hei … it’s our guest, Adele,” she murmured, the joss stick in her clenched paws wavering and dropping a tiny sprinkle of ash onto her furred knuckles. Her ringed tail coiled around her waist as if to hug her as she quickly explained what was going on, and her fear that Adele would unknowingly bankrupt them. “Something has to be done,” she concluded.
So, that was what was bothering her. The Casino was his wife’s part of the overall operation, and he had hoped that Shin would take it over eventually. Now that she was completing her education, Shin’s horizons had broadened, and running an establishment on Krupmark might no longer appeal to his daughter. Hei sat back on his heels and thought. “Well, we could kill her,” he mused aloud, then laughed as Peng’s eyes opened in surprise. “Or we could encourage her to get a job on Casino Island. Based on what you told me, she could bankrupt half our competition within a month.” He laughed again, and she batted at his paw.
“Hei, I’m serious,” she said. “She’s our guest, and is senior to Shin. She could make our daughter’s life miserable if we sent her away with no explanation.”
“I know you’re serious, my love,” he said in a quiet tone. He sat down on the floor, propping his chin on his paw. “Hmm … I can see only one solution. We need to talk her into changing jobs for the rest of her stay here.”
“But how?” his wife asked in a disconsolate tone.
Hei chuckled and hugged her, then took the joss sticks from her paws and placed them before the icons. He paused, then clasped his paws and bowed to them in respect. “You’ll think of something, Peng. After all, you’re very persuasive when you want to be.” A mischievous gleam came to his eyes. “I recall you managed to persuade your parents to let me marry you.”
“I did, didn’t I?” she said, brightening slightly as she let him help her to her feet. She smiled, and he kissed her and saw her struggling to keep her eyes open.
He said, “That’s better. Now, you look tired, so get some sleep and think about it afterward.”
“Yes, my husband,” she said teasingly and slid onto the bed. “I’m just overwrought,” she added. “But I’ll have Mei Ling bring me . . . “ She never finished the sentence, drifting off to sleep as Hei tiptoed out and closed the door behind him.
Later that day, after a hot bath and several cups of strong tea, Peng sat her desk in the Casino’s office and puzzled over how she could persuade Adele to stop dealing cards. Simply telling her (‘I’m sorry, Adele, but you’re costing us a fortune’) didn’t seem to be the best method. A shadow fell across her desk, and she looked up.
It was Adele, dressed for work and looking worried. “What’s the matter, my dear?” Peng asked, gesturing for the young rabbit to sit down.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Adele said as she sat, paws fidgeting as she smoothed her skirt. She was dressed in a tight white blouse and a slightly more than knee-length skirt of blue and gray stripes. “It’s about last night,” the rabbit said diffidently.
“Yes?” Peng asked. “What about it?”
“Well, the other girls have been talking, you see, and I think it’s awful that anyone would try to cheat or steal from a business. Even here on Krupmark,” she added, and wrung her paws nervously.
Peng leaned forward, intrigued. “What is the problem, Adele? Have you been threatened?”
She actually looked shocked by the question. “No, ma’am! I’m getting along great with the girls – it’s just that I don’t like the idea of someone else getting blamed for something they didn’t do. So,” she said, “I want to help.”
Peng blinked. “’Help?’” she echoed.
“Yes, ma’am. I’d like to help you catch whoever is doing this.”
Peng cupped her chin in her paw and thought, studying the younger woman carefully. Could her offer have another motive than simply trying to help? No; Peng had to remind herself that Adele wasn’t raised on Krupmark. The thought of enlisting her services as a house detective made a chill run through her tail. With her apparent luck, the lepine might catch a thief, but the risk of her inadvertently destroying the business was too great. “That could be risky, you know,” Peng said. “I would hate to be the one to tell your tutors that you were hurt or killed.”
Adele looked a bit disturbed at the prospect of danger, but countered, “Ma’am, we’re taught at Songmark to face adventures and be self-sufficient. I want to help you find whoever’s doing this to you,” she said firmly.
She looked on it as an adventure, Peng thought. “Well, I thank you for your offer, my dear. If my own resources do not flush out this thief, I will certainly ask you to help. Right now,” and she stood up, “I would like you to remain a dealer at the blackjack tables. You have some skill there, and I am sure your eyes are sharper than mine.” She smiled.
The rabbit frowned and stood up. “I’ll keep my eyes and ears open, Ma’am,” she said. “But I still want to help.” She walked out, leaving Peng deep in thought for several minutes. She then picked up a small bell on her desk and rang it.
“Here he is, Ma’am,” the bouncer said a few hours later as he ushered a slightly built, dapper-looking hamster into her office. Of course, ‘ushering’ is one way of saying that the bear steered the cardsharp in by a meaty paw on his neck.
“It’s been too long since you graced us with your presence,” Peng said.
The hamster glared at the bear as he straightened his rumpled clothing, then turned to the red panda at her desk. “Too long, Madam Ni? Since you had me thrown out for cheating at roulette, it’s been two months,” he said, his English accented with a singsong Arabic lilt.
“Now, now,” she soothed, “let us not start recriminations. You were caught fairly, after all. It’s the nature of the business, you see. Now, I have a job for you.” She smiled at him as he looked at her.
“You’re not joking.” Suspicion settled into his calculating expression.
“Not at all,” she said. “I have a new dealer, and I want you to test her, as my daughter Shin is away at school.”
“And what’s in it for me?” he asked.
Peng smiled, baring the points of her teeth. “You get to keep everything you win, Bashir.” She extended a paw. “Bargain?”
The Syrian gambler considered for a moment before standing and taking the offered paw. “We have a bargain, Madam Ni,” he said as he bowed, lips lightly brushing her knuckles.
Later that night Peng watched carefully. The hamster had done as he was told, sitting at Adele’s table the entire night and using every trick he knew to cheat the house out of its money. All to no avail. Other furs who played won, while he lost with an infuriating consistency that had the short rodent fuming when he was allowed into her office the next morning.
“Madam Ni, just who is that young woman?” he asked, his voice gone raspy from the cigarettes he chain-smoked.
“No one you need to know, Bashir,” Peng said smoothly. “Now you may go.”
“Go? But what about my money?” he protested.
Peng smiled sweetly. “Our agreement was that you could keep everything you won, Bashir.”
The hamster’s eyes widened in rage. “Why, you – “ Any word he might have added afterward was choked off by a huge ursine paw around his throat.
“Thank you, Eddie,” Peng said, opening her fan and flicking it around to stir the air. “I find this one’s odor distressing. Please escort him out.”
“Yes, Boss,” the bear said, and hoisted the smaller fur effortlessly off his feet and carried him out.
* * * * * * * * *
Ni Hao sat uncomfortably in his chair, moodily sipping at his beer while the muscular rabbit across from him drank down his second bottle. The ache in his crotch had started to ease, but it still made his eyes water. He hoped that the damage wasn’t permanent and silently promised himself that Hotman would pay dearly for his treatment of him.
“Zo, mein young friend,” and he looked up at Franz as he spoke, “vat is a name vorth to you, hm? Money, goods? That little Fraülein I have seen you vith?” He burped loudly and leaned close. “Tell me.”
“It’s worth your life,” Hao said sullenly.
The rabbit paused, and started laughing, banging his empty bottle against the table. Hotman finally said, “I like you, cub. You have spirit. Here,” and he ejected the clip from Hao’s .45 and tossed it to him, the gun clattering on the wooden table.
The rest of the furs in the room went very quiet, some edging toward the door as Hotman said, “I give you back your playtoy. Come after me, you come after me vith a man’s gun, ja? Now, I shall tell you that if you go to the Thieves’ Bazaar you vill find a Schwein named Yefrimov. Das ist der Mann.” He cracked his knuckles and added, “He is not one of my usual employers. Do vat you vish mit him.”
Hao nodded, still looking down at the table, and Hotman stood up and walked to the door. At the threshold he paused and dropped the clip from Hao’s pistol into a cuspidor, then chuckled again and walked out into the night.
The red panda reached out and scooped up his pistol, tucked it under his shirt again and paid for the beers. He stood up, wincing slightly, and dragged a paw over his still-oozing nose. “Are you all right, Hao?” the restaurant’s owner asked in Spontoonie.
“I think so,” Hao replied, and walked out into the street after paying for the beers and his dinner. He removed his clip from the spittoon (fortunately it was empty) and reloaded before walking out of the restaurant. The sun was setting, and he trudged miserably to his hotel.
Young men usually have a larger dose of ego than most furs, and Hao had more than most. To have Hotman get the drop on him as easily as he did, and to humiliate him on top of it, were strong blows to his sense of importance. He made his way to his hotel room and got into bed, trying hard not to cry.
* * * * * * * * *
Fang stepped out of the small house he shared with his wife, smoking a cigarette as he watched her. The path leading to the house gave an unobstructed view of the beach in front of the Maha Kahuna Hotel, and he could see Shin racing along the firmly packed sand. His wife was dressed in her school shorts and one of his shirts as she finished her exercises and slowed, barely breathing hard as she loped up the path to him. “Hi,” she panted.
“Good morning, love,” he said, leaning down to kiss her. She returned the kiss hungrily, then grinned. “Sure you won’t join me on the beach some morning – or maybe some night?” and she winked at him.
Fang laughed. “Some night sounds good, provided we can find a small cove where we won’t disturb anyone. Daven told me that one of the guests complained yesterday about the noise.”
“Really?” Shin laughed. “Was I hurting my widdle kitty?” she teased, and easily evaded his grab as he growled at her. “Come on, Fang,” she said. “Let’s get cleaned up and get some breakfast.” She headed into the house, and Fang followed after he dropped the cigarette into the sand and ground it underpaw.
Over their food Fang asked, “Have you given any thoughts of what you plan on doing after Songmark? I mean, you’ll have your pilot’s license then.”
Shin paused, then sipped her tea. Lowering the cup she replied, “I haven’t given it much thought. Air piracy might be fun,” and she winked at her husband. He grinned, knowing that Shin kept three pictures on a shelf in her dorm. One was of her family, one was a picture of the two of them after their marriage, taken in Tokyo, and the other was a yellowed and faded newspaper clipping of one Letitia Fosbury-Smythe, self-proclaimed ‘Air Pirate Queen of the South Seas.’ Shin idolized her, and had first become interested in Songmark after reading about her exploits.
“Well, air piracy might be fun, at that. Any other ideas?”
Shin looked thoughtful. “I still have two years, Fang. There’s a lot of choices to be made between now and then. I might go to work for Father, or we could strike out on our own.” She looked at him as she raised her teacup, her dark eyes expressive. “All I know is I want to make those choices with you.”