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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!)
Peng-wum’s head jerked up, his pen falling from his paw as a bang loud enough to be a pistol shot reverberated through the building, followed by a rapid staccato of shoes on the stairs. He pulled away from his desk and opened a drawer, removing a snub-nosed revolver. He took a breath to steady himself and waited.
The instant the door to his office swung open he dropped the weapon into the drawer. Hao bursting in and slamming doors was uncharacteristic of him, as was the look of barely-contained fury on his face. “Hao!” his older brother exclaimed as he rose to his feet. He absently nodded to the ferret bodyguard as he asked, “What happened? Did you get any information about Hotman?”
The door closed as Hao replied in Chinese, “Yes, Brother. I spoke to him.”
The older red panda’s ears perked. “You did?”
“Yes,” came his younger brother’s reply. He blushed, his banded tail swishing as he added, “He got the drop on me, Peng-wum … we talked. He gave me a name.”
His older brother’s expression changed from shock to concern. How the hell . . . “’Got the drop on you?’ How? Are you all right?”
Peng-wum walked over to him and laid a paw on his shoulder as his brother replied, “I don’t really want to talk about it, Peng-wum.”
“I said I don’t want to talk about it!” Hao barked, pulling away from his older brother and baring his teeth. He got himself under control with a visible effort and said, “Where’s Anna?”
“I sent her and your crew out on another run, picking up some items for our friends in America,” Peng-wum replied. “She should be back tonight.” He swished his tail a bit as he added, “There have also been rumors of something brewing away East of here.” He emphasized the direction, letting Hao know that he meant Japan.
Hao nodded and headed to the door. He paused, paw resting on the knob. “I’ll be down at the Beach. You know where.” He stepped out then, as his older brother nodded.
Peng-wum returned to his desk, a pensive look on his face. There was a certain house at the Beach, he knew, that catered to furs with exotic and sometimes extreme tastes. He found out over a year ago that Hao occasionally visited the place whenever he was angry, rather than run the risk of damaging any of the Lucky Dragon’s girls.
The older panda shrugged and went back to his desk. Some young woman, he was sure, would be feeling the brunt of whatever was eating at Hao before the night was over. He looked up as he started to sit down and Hao reentered the room. “I’m sorry, Peng-wum,” he said morosely. “Look, would you let Sam know where I am when he gets in?”
“Sam?” Peng-wum asked. “Why not Anna?”
“I don’t want her to know about this.” And he stepped out of the office again, closing the door behind him.
Adele leaned against the bar, feeling very conspicuous. She was dressed in a dark red silk sheath dress that hugged her tightly but covered her from her ankles to her throat and down to each wrist. Her hair was immaculate and her claws looked better than they ever had. At least, she reflected, the dress was loose enough to cover the sight of her knees knocking together.
The Casino was starting to get crowded, with some furs looking at her in a way that both pleased her and made her want to hide under the bar. Several times she accepted a glass of water from the bartender, who would shoo away (some gently, some with language that made her eartips flush, and one who fell away from the bar with a bloody nose) patrons who wanted to approach the rabbit. He had been given the word by Peng herself, and he took his business seriously.
She was bait, and she knew it, and for almost the tenth time she debated with herself whether or not she should just go upstairs and hide. After all, these two furs were from Krupmark, and even if they were innocent of stealing from the Casino they were probably guilty of something else.
But, she reminded herself, her Songmark education had instilled in her the drive to finish what she started, and what she was doing was necessary to save lives. The front door opened, and she glanced at the furs walking in.
A quick double take and she felt her heart skip a beat. The two furs walking in had been described to her, but seeing them in the flesh was quite different. One was an opossum, medium height and wearing a threadbare suit jacket over a barely clean shirt and denim pants. His long naked tail whipped around a stool as he took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer. The other one, though …
He was a hare, just as Peng said. But she never said anything about his appearance. He was taller than she was, despite his casual, almost slouching posture. His fur was the same shade of brown as hers, well-groomed and trimmed short. The buck wore a leather pilot’s jacket over his clothes, and he seemed very sure of himself.
Adele found herself hoping that he wasn’t the thief, and felt her tail twitching left and right as she watched him sit at one of the blackjack tables. The opossum picked up two beers and joined his partner at the table, and Adele glanced up at the balcony.
Peng was there, as she always was. Adele caught her eye and flicked one ear toward the blackjack table, then gave her a questioning look. The red panda glanced over at the buck, and nodded as she flicked her fan open and covered her muzzle. So, that was the fur she needed to clear.
But how to get close to him, and how to interest him without tipping him off? she wondered, glancing back at the hare, who was playing out a hand of blackjack and losing. As she watched, he waved a hostess over and spoke to her, then glanced at his cards again while his partner laughed.
That was it. She would take the drink to him, watching carefully to see if he was cheating, and strike up a conversation. Get to know him better before . . . Again, she felt a twinge, unaccountably afraid at the prospect of doing something that so many other girls in her year had few or no moral qualms about. Still, she told herself, he was very handsome. It might not be so bad.
Adele stepped over to the hostess and asked the feline, “What did he order?”
“Hmm? Oh, he ordered a beer,” the Mixtecan ocelot said, brushing a paw across the series of rings set in her pierced ears.
“I’ll take it over to him,” Adele said, and the ocelot nodded, an amused look on her face as the rabbit took the opened bottle and headed for the table. She carried it carefully, hoping she wouldn’t spill it.
As she carried it someone got up from his table, stepping away and inadvertently jostling her. She tried, harder than usual, to maintain her balance while dodging the fur, and failed nevertheless. Adele bumped against the hare and the beer practically leaped from her paws.
“Oops!” A paw scooped the falling bottle up as a strong arm wrapped around her waist and stopped her in mid-fall. Adele twisted in the hare’s grasp to find herself staring into a pair of dark brown eyes that reminded her of a film star’s. As she did her best impression of a wild rabbit caught in the glare of oncoming headlights, the hare chuckled, “Well, hello there! I asked for a beer, and get a chance to save a beautiful girl from falling.” He set the bottle on the table and stood up, setting Adele back on her feet. “My name’s Roger,” he said with a grin, “and this – “ he nodded behind him at the opossum “ – is my partner, Cletus. What’s your name, my dear?”
“Uh . . . oh! Oh, um, my name’s Adele,” she said breathlessly, trying to collect her scattered wits before someone tripped over them. His scent was clean and strong, and she felt her tail quiver. “Um, I’m new here,” she added, trying in a losing effort to put some sophistication in her voice and managing to make it sound like a squeak. She blushed.
“I guessed you were,” he said, his accent American. “I haven’t seen you around here before.” He glanced around, and looked down at his cards before looking back at her. “Care to join me?” he asked.
She gazed at him for several moments before realizing that he’d been speaking to her. “Oh! Oh, um, why … of course, I’d love to,” she stammered, and allowed him to ease her onto his lap. His arm around her waist was not holding her very firmly, but for some reason she didn’t want to try to move away from him. She watched him play for several minutes before he remarked, “You know, Adele, you’re awfully nervous. Let me get you a drink of something.” He paused and growled something she couldn’t catch at Cletus, who laughed and ran a paw over his unruly shock of headfur.
“Um, well, okay,” she said. “Water, please?”
He stared at her, and again she found that she could lose herself in those lovely eyes. “Water won’t calm you down, Adele,” he said with a smile. “You’re wound up so tight I think Cletus could use you to string his guitar,” and here he elbowed his partner.
“I suppose I could have something else,” Adele admitted, blushing. She was coming across as a complete idiot, and desperately hoped that she could salvage the situation. “A Nootnops Red?”
“Hmm,” he said, thinking as he almost absently brushed his cheek against the fur on one of her ears. “I think Nootnops Blue would be better,” he said, his tone softening as he gently nuzzled the ear.
Adele’s emotions went in several directions at once. She didn’t want to get drunk, but on the other paw she was very nervous, and his suggestion was reasonable. Besides, she needed to get him alone so that the plan could work; she was sure Peng was waiting with growing impatience. She said, “That sounds fine, Roger,” unconsciously nestling a bit closer in his lap.
The drink came, and over the course of the next two hours or so her nervousness eased. She took greater interest in how Roger played, at one point applauding when he won. He hugged her, and the embrace felt natural to her as his scent filled her senses.
When he finally suggested that they go upstairs, she thought it such a reasonable idea, and hung on his arm as they walked. Once upstairs, he helped her out of her dress (it was a rather warm spring night, even by Krupmark standards, so that too was reasonable – in fact, everything seemed so perfectly reasonable, and she was amazed that she’d never really tried this before), and then . . .
During a lull in the activity downstairs, ears perked and furs looked up at the sound of something trying to burst through the ceiling over the band. As the muffled sounds of squeaking bedsprings increased, Peng signaled for the band to play louder. As she ordered another cup of tea brought to her, she snapped her fan open and used it as a shield to hide the almost feral smile on her muzzle.
The Moon was up and gibbous later that night as Anna and the rest of Hao’s employees tied their boat up to the dock. The cargo was being unloaded as Hao walked up to the dock and called, “Hey! Need a paw?”
“Sure,” Anna said, her slim form barely illuminated by the glow of the kerosene lamps hung by the boat. He helped the crew offload several boxes. The small crates had an air about them that caused nearly every fur’s eyes to water at the cloyingly sweet stink of raw opium. Anna glanced over at Hao and noted sourly that his clothes were clean and his fur neatly brushed. “Well, it looks like you had a fun time over at Spontoon,” she remarked.
The smile on his face faltered just a tiny bit, almost too little to be noticed, but one of his crewmembers saw it and found an excuse to step back. Hao said, “Not really. It was all business, after all. Why? Jealous?” He looked around at the rest of the furs on the dock. “I’d think you’d like the company,” he jibed.
Anna’s ears dipped as the others laughed. “And if I did, would you get jealous?” she asked, eliciting another round of laughter.
Hao seemed to consider this, one paw cupping his chin, and he laughed as she swatted at him playfully. “Come on,” he said, “business before fun. Where are these crates going?”
“Peng-wum said that two of them go to someone named Juan the Tramp as a ‘peace offering,’” she replied, “and the rest go into our warehouse. It’ll be shipped by plane to Mildendo.”
“Great.” He shouldered one of the crates and started off, one of the Spontoonies carrying another. “Anything, Hao?” he asked in his native tongue.
“Yes,” he replied in the same language. “Ask the others to look around – quietly – for a fur named –“ he glanced around to see where Anna was “- Yefrimov. That was the name Mad Franz gave me.”