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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 Peng sat at her desk the next day and scowled as she thought to herself. Having an accomplished gambler like Bashir lose so badly to Adele was actually fun to watch, but she didn’t trust it to last. And lining up all of the cheats and cardsharps on Krupmark just to lose would eventually damage the reputation of the Casino. In such a business, reputation was everything, which was why Peng exercised such control over the gambling and women.
She looked up as Fatima poked her head in the office. “Sorry to disturb you, Madam Ni,” she said in her soft accents, “but may I talk to you?”
“Of course, Fatima,” Peng said, mentally tabling the problem of Adele and folding her paws before her on the desk. “Come in, please. What’s on your mind?”
The Afghan’s headfur was drawn back into a long braid, and she toyed with it as she stepped in and sat. “It’s about this thieving going on,” she said straightforwardly.
“Yes. The other girls’ve been asking questions, mostly having to do with who might be doing it. There have been no fights, but some of them have whispered accusations in my ears.” She gave a shrug, and hitched her robe farther up one shoulder. “These things happen, and God willing they will pass. But there is some tension in the rooms upstairs,” she said in a warning tone.
Peng nodded, smoothing her headfur slightly. Fatima was the first girl she had hired for the Casino, and the two had become friends. In fact, she trusted the Afghan to tell her what might be going on with the other women when she wasn’t around. “Fatima, I am fairly sure that this will pass, as you say. I am also quite positive that this is not the fault of you or any of the girls.” Her paw slid across the table and rested reassuringly on the canine’s arm. “I want you to please let the other girls know that – quietly, of course.”
Fatima smiled and nodded. “As good as done, Madam. If it isn’t one of the staff, then who - ?” she asked.
“I’m trying to find that out,” Peng said in a rueful tone. “Perhaps … “ and her voice trailed off as she cupped her chin with a paw. Fatima looked at her, her ears perking as Peng asked, “Could you find Adele and ask her to come here?”
“I’m sure I could,” Fatima replied, looking at her employer quizzically. The red panda remained impassive, letting the unspoken question hang in the air, and the Afghan stood and walked out.
Several minutes later Adele stood at the doorway. The rabbit was dressed in a bathrobe and was rubbing sleep from one eye as she asked, “Did you want to see me, Madam Ni?”
“Yes, Adele,” Peng said as she set her teacup aside. “Sit down, please. I have a problem.”
The younger fur sat down slowly. “A problem, ma’am?” she echoed.
“Yes.” Peng thought for a moment, as if hesitant to bring up a delicate topic. Finally she placed her paws on the table, palms flat. “As you know,” she said, choosing her words carefully and noting Adele’s ears canting forward to catch what she was saying, “we’ve been having a problem with someone stealing from us.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Adele listened carefully, politely refraining from reminding the older fur that she had offered to help earlier.
“Well, you’ve done very well as a dealer,” Peng replied, “and with your help we’ve managed to eliminate several likely suspects.” There was a pause as she flicked her fan open and briefly waved it. “Of course, I don’t mean ‘eliminate’ the way it sounds,” she chuckled.
“Of course not, ma’am,” Adele said, although her expression told Peng that she expected several furs to turn up missing after each night. Which was sometimes true, depending on what happened or what was needed. Peng suppressed a small shudder.
“There are still a number of people that we must investigate.” Peng looked up at her carefully. "We have two suspects left. Unfortunately they always come in together, and always gamble at the same time so it's hard to say which one. Of course, some of the other casinos around here would just grab both of them and..." she drew a claw across her black throat-fur, noting the young lepine's shudder. "But one of them's certainly innocent. I had a plan to find out which one last night, but it failed."
"Failed, ma'am?" Adele looked at her eyes wide. Krupmark was proving to be just as dangerous in some respects as the stories suggested, but it was a ray of hope to know that some of its inhabitants were less than totally unscrupulous. Or at least were never keen to kill a paying customer, one small voice inside her commented sourly.
Peng nodded. "It was my idea to have Fatima ... entertain the chief suspect, and then we'd do a snap check of all the tables and see if the cash loss had stopped while he was upstairs. Then we'd take action. And Adele? Please believe me when I say that nobody cheats on this island without knowing exactly what the stakes are for being caught. But he turned Fatima down. He turned Mei Ling down. And he told her why."
Adele's tail twisted. "Umm, in my year there's a whole dorm run by my friend Prudence. She's very nice but we all know she's not interested in..." her voice trailed off significantly.
The red panda laughed. "Shin's told me all about them, my dear. No, this gentleman has a very definite interest in girls. But he's one of your type, a hare to be precise - and nothing else interests him." She shrugged. "Some people are like that. Other folk want to ‘visit every cabin on the Ark’ as the saying goes." She leaned forward. "I've asked around if any of the other houses here have a lepine girl we could borrow, and I’ve told them that we'd make it worth everyone's while. But nobody's interested. I'm afraid our rivals would rather give us grief than take our money. And our only lepine is Nailani - she's permanently retired, since she married my son. There's nothing she couldn't teach. But, well, we're back to Plan A. Messy, but if we have to do it, we will."
"Plan A ... you're going to have to kill them both?" Adele spoke quietly, and felt a twinge inside as the older fur nodded regretfully. She was silent a minute.
You'd be solving a crime and saving the life of an innocent fur, she told herself, her thoughts racing and her breath coming faster. And how bad can it be? You've heard the other girls talking about it...
Adele gulped. "Madam Ni, I have a Plan B. I think I'm it."
Peng blinked and her fan closed with a soft snap. “Adele, are you sure you know what you’re saying? I would hate to expose you to any possible harm.”
Her mind now made up, Adele nodded, still a bit uncertainly. She was determined to go through with it, and for good and moral reasons. Despite the methods, she thought, her parents might be pleased that she had done something noble.
The older fur looked unhappy. Finally she said, “It’s against my better judgment, Adele, but since you’re sure – Plan B it is.” She picked up a small bell and rang it, and Mei Ling came to the door. “Yes, Madam Ni?” the feline asked.
“Mei Ling, please find Nailani for me and ask her to come here. Adele, I want you to go upstairs with Mei Ling and get your headfur and claws done before tonight,” she said. She looked at the lepine again. “Are you absolutely certain you want to do this, Adele?”
A nod. “Yes, Madam Ni.”
“Very well.” At her wave, the two younger furs stepped out, and Peng sat back in her chair. She smiled as Hei stepped into the room and asked in Chinese, “You enjoyed that, didn’t you?”
“Yes, my husband,” Peng replied. “Persuading people to use base means for noble ends is a strain.” She chuckled. “But it’s fun.”
Over an hour later Mei Ling said, “Okay, Adele, turn around.” The rabbit turned at the feline’s urging and gasped at her reflection in the slightly clouded mirror. Her headfur had been carefully washed and built up into an immaculate series of ringlets that made her appear taller even if her ears weren’t standing straight up. The rest of her fur was brushed to an almost velvet sheen. “Wow,” she breathed.
“You look beautiful,” the feline said as she critically examined Adele’s paws. “But your claws and your fingers could use more work.”
“I know,” she admitted as her fingers involuntarily curled to hide their tips. “But there’s a lot to do at Songmark, and lots of work to be done with bare paws … “
“Don’t worry,” Mei Ling said consolingly, then chuckled. “Leave it to me. Your claws will be as lovely as you are before I’m through. Sally will pick out a – oh, hello, Nailani!” she exclaimed as another lepine, this one perhaps a year or two older than Adele, stepped into the room.
“Hi, Mei Ling,” Nailani said, and she walked over to Adele. “You must be Adele. Welcome to Krupmark, and I want to thank you for what you’re doing.” At Adele’s questioning glance, Nailani added, “Peng’s told me all about it. What can I do to help? Is there anything you need to know?” she asked with a helpful smile.
Another rabbit helped Adele relax a bit. There were few rabbits at Songmark and she’d seen only a few at the Lucky Dragon, but a lot of felines and canines. While not prejudiced, she never quite escaped a tiny frisson of unease, so Nailani’s presence was a small bit of comfort. “Peng – I mean, Madam Ni – mentioned you, but I haven’t seen you here at the Casino,” Adele said with a smile. “And I’m happy to help if it’ll clear an innocent fur.”
“That’s the spirit!” Nailani said, pulling up a chair and sitting down as Mei Ling started industriously buffing Adele’s claws. “I no longer work – well, at least not upstairs –“ and here she giggled “ – since I married Peng-wum.” She smiled fondly as she sat back in her chair, and Adele’s eyes widened at the sight of her swelling belly. “You’re -?”
“Oh yes, I’m pregnant,” the Spontoonie said, running a paw over her stomach with a serene expression. “My husband works very fast when he wants to,” and she winked, causing Adele to giggle. “I guess you’ve never - ?”
“No.” Adele blushed clear to her eartips as she made the admission. Mei Ling paused, ears twitching, before selecting a clear lacquer and starting to paint it on.
“I see. Well, here’s a few tips, my dear …” and for the next two hours Nailani told Adele a few important things to know about bucks that Adele had never heard before even at Songmark or at her previous school in America. It occurred to her that there were gaps in her education, and again a brief surge of fear caused her tail to twitch. But she steeled herself, because it was for a good cause.
An ungainly biplane waggled its wings as it banked over the collection of buildings along the beach and up the road to the town of Fort Bob, and the machine gun crews idling by their weapons relaxed a bit. Ni Hao’s plane was well-known on Krupmark, and it could reasonably be expected to show up at odd times, either day or night.
The Nin Hai gingerly touched down within the barrier reef, throttled back and taxied to the Ni Family’s pier. A canine stepped out to tie one of the plane’s floats to the dock. “Hey, Boss,” he said, “how’d it go? Did you find anything out?” As the young red panda climbed from the cockpit and dragged off his goggles, the canine noted that he appeared a bit tired and drawn. Hard night, most likely, and the dockpaw grinned as Hao trudged along the dock to the building.