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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!)
Most of the furs had found excuses to step out of the shack before it was over, and many gave each other uncomfortable glances as some fumbled for cigarettes and others mumbled half-forgotten prayers. They had all seen death before – few on Krupmark hadn’t – but few of them had seen someone being treated as Yefrimov had been treated.
The ermine had cracked after only two hours of being alternately questioned and electrocuted. Throughout it all, despite his threats, whimpers and screams, Hao’s expression never wavered and his voice never changed its tone from a quiet, almost conversational level. Not even those who had known Hao for the longest had ever seen the red panda so cold.
Yefrimov sagged sideways in his chair, a long line of spittle trailing from the corner of his mouth to leave a wet stain on his shirt. The scent in the room was enough to make one wish for nose plugs, since the ermine had soiled himself the first time Hao had cranked the old field phone for more than a few minutes. His eyes, suffused with pain, flickered open and fixed on Anna. “Po – pochemu?”
Hao had stepped outside for a cigarette, and the word Why? burned in Anna’s ears. She had translated carefully, leaving out things that she didn’t want Hao to hear. So, while he knew that Yefrimov had indeed hired Hotman, he had been told that the money and orders originated from the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police on Vostok Island. But she also knew what the ermine meant.
“U menya est nye vibor,” she whispered, and in truth she didn’t have much choice. He nodded his understanding, then gulped and struggled to sit up as Hao stepped back into the hut. “So, you’re awake,” Ni Hao remarked as he ran his paws over the boxy field telephone. The ermine’s eyes bulged and he whimpered.
“Oh, you don’t like my toy any more?” Hao asked. “Too bad. Well, I’m satisfied that you’ve told me everything you know, Yefrimov, and that you’ve told me the truth.” He patted the phone, and Anna relaxed slightly. It would be like Hao to have a star-nosed mole around to tell if the ermine were telling the truth. She had sat in on interrogations at Moskva Center as part of her training, and knew that Comrade Bearia kept at least three moles on hand at all times. She had also seen furs tortured the way Yefrimov had, but the fact that Hao had done it – and was more than capable of doing it - made her skin crawl.
“There still remains the fact that you caused one of my friends to get killed,” Hao added, “and that requires … well.” He whistled, and several furs entered the shack, one holding his nose to block out the smell. “Let’s get him up and take him to the Ridge,” the red panda said, and the others untied the ermine from the chair. They hustled him out of the shack, and Anna came up to Hao and rested a paw on his shoulder. “Are you all right?” she asked.
He gave an odd sort of half-smile and patted her paw. “Soon, I promise,” he said, and left the shack. She followed.
The trail went uphill and it was slow going; several times Yefrimov fell and had to be prodded back to his feet. Finally they reached a small clearing at what appeared in the waning moonlight to be the top of the hill. The sound of surf in the distance provided a low descant to the breeze whipping through the grass. “Here we are,” Hao said. “Anna, take a look over there and tell me what you see. But be careful,” he said, and several others chuckled.
Anna walked slowly in the direction he indicated and stopped abruptly. The tall grass was deceptive; the hilltop dropped off sharply and, as far as she could see, it was a sheer drop to the sea. Waves crashing on the rocks below left curls of vaguely phosphorescent foam. “What – what is this place?” she gasped.
“It’s called Traitor’s Ridge,” Hao explained, and grabbed Yefrimov by the shoulders. Propelling him toward the edge he snarled, “Here’s where we part company,” and gave him a final push.
The ermine screamed as he went over the side headfirst, but the cry stopped suddenly as he hit rocks and bounced, headed for a watery grave nearly five hundred feet below. Hao stood and watched while Anna whirled away, a paw over her muzzle until she reached the tree line. The other furs made quiet comments to each other in Spontoonie as retching sounds were heard from the underbrush.
Hao spoke to the others and the group headed back down the trail. He called out, “Anna, care to head back for a drink?”
“I-I’m coming,” she gasped out, stumbling through the brush after him.
Slightly more than an hour later the group entered the Lucky Dragon. Most of them went straight to the bar, while one pulled a small vial of catnip oil from a pocket, linked arms with a pretty feline hostess, and headed straight upstairs. Hao walked to the bar and without being told the bartender put down a full bottle and a glass as the young panda sat. Anna sat beside him, and the bartender gave her a glass. Hao poured half a glass for her, and a full glass for himself. As he took a swallow of the brown liquor, Anna asked warily, “You didn’t like doing that, did you?”
He glanced at her, and took another drink before replying, “I did enjoy it. That bastard caused one of my friends to get killed. And,” he added as her ears went up in shock, “I’ll do it again when I get my paws on Hotman. You watch.”
Anna gulped down the rest of her drink and shuddered at the harsh taste of the whisky. So, this was what lay under the youngest Ni’s charm and teenage exuberance, and the revelation shook her. As she sat and pondered, he leaned next to her and whispered, “Want to go upstairs, Anna?”
She stared at him for a moment. She’d seen Hao kill before, twice in fact, but neither the killing of her control officer nor the death of Wu Tang had prepared her for facing this callous young fur. She downed the rest of her drink and said, “Sure. Let’s go.”
I might need a bath afterward, she thought as she followed him, her paw in his.
Adele had seen a red panda and a slim brown-furred canine walk in, and from the panda’s resemblance to Shin and Peng-wum, guessed that it was Shin’s younger brother. He looked preoccupied with something, and after a drink or two had gone upstairs, the canine in tow.
She had been disappointed that Roger had left, and had learned from Fatima that Cletus had indeed been stealing from the Casino. When she’d asked Peng what had happened to the opossum, the older panda had said simply, “You don’t want to know,” and Adele had let the matter drop.
But clearing Roger had given her a wonderful new outlook on a certain aspect of her life, and she was determined now to make the most of it. Peng’s comment about “visiting other cabins on the Ark” hadn’t made much sense to her at the time, but now she felt she understood why Amelia and Helen were having so much fun. Well, she would have fun, too, at least until it was time for her to leave. Many people on Spontoon (many of the people she knew, at any rate) didn’t want to know what happened on Krupmark, so what happened there would probably stay there. No one needed to know.
She caught the eye of a tall, strongly-built canine who had been loudly regaling the others at the bar in a voice bearing a heavy Icelandic accent, and he smiled broadly. His paw on her arm was gentle, and Adele grinned as Peng smiled at her. The canine then escorted her upstairs.
“She’s really quite pretty,” Hei observed as he slipped into the small balcony room and sat beside his wife. As she fanned herself she poured a cup of tea for him. “A shame we will be taking her back to her school in two days. She’d be an asset to the Casino,” he added, accepting the cup and sipping at the brew.
“Bite your tongue off, my dear husband,” Peng said tartly, her smile belying her tone as she snapped her fan closed and playfully smacked him on the snout. “You saw the same receipts I saw. Imagine what her luck could do to us if she worked here regularly.”
He laughed. “True. Have you seen Hao?”
Peng’s fan flicked to her left. “He and Anna went that way, toward an empty room. I expect they’re – “ She smiled coyly, and he grinned, placing his paw on hers and leaning close to kiss her.
“Excuse me, Madam Ni?” Sally asked. At Peng’s nod, she handed her a folded note. “This came from Mistress Baader at the Black Sheep House, ma’am.” She withdrew, and Peng read the note.
“What is it?” Hei asked.
“A bill for ‘damages,’” Peng said, her muzzle cresting slightly. “It seems that Hao was a bit too zealous in patronizing that establishment, and a doctor had to be called,” she added, switching to English. She handed the note to Hei, who blinked at the amount. “I think I should have a word with him,” he remarked. “I will, of course, take this out of his allowance. After all, one mustn’t repay hospitality by damaging property.”
“I think that will punish our youngest son sufficiently,” Peng said.
“Mmm …” Shin hummed as she leaned upward into Fang’s embrace, savoring the last kiss they would share for at least the next few weeks. It was almost the end of April, and Songmark was reopening for the remainder of the spring term. Shin hugged her husband fiercely. “I wish the Easter vacation lasted longer,” she said.
“And if it did you wouldn’t get your license,” Wo Fang said, grinning down at her. “You’ll write, of course,” he added.
“Of course I will, my widdle kitty,” she giggled as he growled at her use of her pet name for him. “And I have to be honest – I can’t wait to see what they have in store for me and the rest of my dorm.” She broke the embrace reluctantly, then picked up her suitcase and a smaller case that carried her schoolbooks and headed for the water taxi. As it pulled away from the South Island dock she waved at Fang, her ringed tail freshly brushed and her beige sundress flagging in the breeze.
Shin was very satisfied with her vacation. She had exercised, had a wonderful time living with Fang and setting up housekeeping (he really was no good at cleaning), and studied hard for the upcoming term at Songmark.
Leaning against the rail of the small motorboat she wondered idly about the other girls in her dorm. Brigit had said she’d find something to do, while Tatiana and Liberty had abruptly disappeared within hours of the last class. Shin shrugged and chuckled to herself. She’d find out soon enough.
Beryl was standing gate duty today, and Shin felt her tail flick at the sight of the mouse. No one likes competition, and Beryl’s rumored past and current activities classed her as a possible criminal. Or close enough to be a criminal, and therefore someone who could possibly anticipate and stop whatever Shin might have planned. It was practically a school requirement for the second- and third-year students to thwart the first-years.
She sniffed at the senior girl as she stepped through the open gate. “Hello, Beryl. Have fun the past few weeks?” she asked, making an effort to be friendly to the second-year girl.
“Nia hao-may, Shin,” Beryl Parkesson said in almost faultless Chinese, bringing the red panda up short.
She replied in the same language, then asked, “How do you know Chinese? Hanging around the docks with the other Euros?”
The mouse smiled cheerily. “One of my mates at Saint T’s was Chinese, Shin. Her father – you might say he’s very well known.”
Shin thought of what Beryl meant by that. ‘Very well known’ to Shin could mean … her eyes bulged. “You – you know his daughter?” she gasped. At the mouse’s nod she said, “I don’t believe it. You’re lying,” she added, shaking her head.
Beryl’s smile widened. “Care to bet on it? Say, um, ten shells?”
“Proof, positive proof, and don’t think I won’t have it checked,” Shin shot back, her tail bristling.
“Done,” the short murine said with a pleasant smile, and the two shook paws on the bet. Shin grabbed up her cases and headed into the building, muttering to herself that there was no way Beryl could know anyone related to that most famous of China’s geniuses.