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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!)
Two bodyguards flanked her, since Fat Leon might still be holding a grudge and it was possible that she might be kidnapped for ransom. It hadn’t been done successfully on Krupmark in ten years, but it was still possible. With the burly and heavily armed she-wolves at her sides, Peng felt quite safe as the trio headed down the road to The Beach.
At the western end of the small peninsula, just short of where the road ended in a bank of high brush stood a weather-beaten two-story house. A small crew of furs were working on it in a desultory fashion, trying to straighten out the warping boards before painting it. Faded remnants of previous attempts could be seen in corners and on the lee side of the house. Storms coming from the south and east sandblasted the building to bare wood almost every year, but the proprietors kept trying. Tattered streamers of woven black wool, now faded into a pastel charcoal gray, adorned the porch and gave the establishment its name.
Peng stood at the bottom of the stairs as one of her guardians knocked. A woman with signs of decidedly mixed ancestry (who looked like a kangaroo but had fur and patterning like a skunk) answered the door, and after a whispered conversation the door closed. A few moments later the door opened. “Ja, was ist los?” a woman asked in a harsh, nasal voice.
“Carlotta?” Peng asked. “May I come in?”
“Peng? Peng, is that you?” The woman stepped into the morning sunlight, revealing herself to be a thin, almost willowy sheep with her graying white fleece cut extremely close to her skin and dressed in a heavy Chinese-style robe. She looked as though she rarely smiled, but she grinned in genuine pleasure at the sight of the red panda. “Ni Peng, how wunderbar to see you!” she exclaimed. “How long has it been? Two months, ja?” Before Peng could reply she pushed the door fully opened and beckoned to her. “Come in, come in, please. MARIA!” she shouted, shrilly enough to cause the two wolves to flinch, their ears laying back. “Bring tea!”
Peng smiled as she came up the stairs. Carlotta Baader was not the most visible of The Beach’s madams, but she was certainly the loudest. “Yes, Carlotta, it’s been almost two months since the last meeting,” she replied. The women who ran the various houses on Krupmark met periodically to discuss who might have been declared non grata; furs who were barred from the houses for excessive behavior would sometimes end up alone, or beaten, or worse. “I am here on business,” she amplified, and the sheep frowned.
“Hao, ja. Come, come, let us have tea and talk a bit.” The sheep ushered Peng through the main room of the house and into a small office at the back, the bodyguards remaining in the foyer. Peng glanced at the slightly grim décor and mentally shook her head. Some furs had the strangest notions of what constituted a good time, she thought. The pair of wolves chatted to each other in soft Sicilian accents, one hefting her lupara and resting the sawed-off shotgun on her shoulder.
Once they had sat down and steaming cups of tea were placed before them, Peng asked, “I was told that my youngest son was rather, ah, enthusiastic with one of your girls. Tell me, is the young woman all right?”
Carlotta shrugged. “Some cuts and bruises, but a doctor had to be called to set her shoulder,” she said, sipping at her tea. “She will recover fully, however; Ingrid is quite sturdy.”
“I see.” Peng sipped, and smiled. The tea was excellent. “I am here to assure you that my husband will talk to him, and I am also here to settle the debt he incurred.”
“Ach, so. That is very good of you, Peng, and I thank you for coming,” the sheep said. She set her cup down after taking another sip. Tracing a fingertip along the rim of her cup she ventured, “You do know … why, of course, Hao acted so ‘enthusiastically?’”
“Apparently he had an encounter with Franz Hotman,” Peng replied in an even tone.
“Ah.” Carlotta shivered delicately. “That one. Ja, that would be enough to anger anyone, I think. He is always coming in here, acting like a big shot,” she snorted, then took another sip of her tea.
Peng slipped a paw into her sleeve and removed an envelope. Placing it on the table she said, “Before I forget, this should compensate you for the damages, Carlotta. I had thought that Hotman would prefer a … less refined sort of girl than the ones here on Krupmark.”
The sheep gave a short, nasal laugh that degenerated into a coughing fit. Recovering her breath after a few seconds Carlotta said, “Verrückte Franz? The day that one becomes ‘refined,’ my dear Peng, is the day I become a nun.” Both women laughed, and Peng said, “My dear, I thought you had been a nun.” The two laughed for several minutes at that, until Carlotta started coughing again.
Nearly a quarter-hour later, the two she-wolves got up from a sofa in the main room as Peng walked out of the office, escorted by Carlotta. “Now, you be sure to tell Hao that he will be welcome back as soon as he learns to control himself, ja?” the sheep was saying, and Peng nodded politely as she descended the stairs.
The wolves followed her, and presently one asked, “Will you need us after we get back to the Casino, ma’am?”
“No, Emilia. You and Julia can do what you wish,” Peng replied, and chose not to notice the grins the two wolves shared. She went into the Casino, gave a few orders to the staff, then went to bed.
Shin paused at the door to her dorm as the sound of someone singing caused her ears to perk. The song was English, accented, and sung in a pleasant contralto:
If then the color we must wear be England’s cruel red,
Let it remind us of the blood that Irish furs have shed,
And take the shamrock from your cap, and throw it on the sod
But never fear, ‘twill take root there though underfoot ‘tis trod.”
She opened the door to find Brigit Mulvaney sitting by the half-open window, singing softly to herself as she idly flipped the pages on one of her textbooks. “You know,” Shin said as she tossed her cases onto her bed and Brigit turned in her seat, “you have a beautiful singing voice, Brigit.” She grinned as the Irish girl exclaimed, “Shin! How are ye, m’girl?”
Shin replied, “I’ve been fine, Brigit. Tell me,” she asked as they studied each other, “how you’ve been? What have you been up to the past few weeks?” She sat on her bed and Brigit sat across from her.
The setter’s eyes gleamed as she smiled gleefully. “Ye know that we’re having to write reports about what we did, so. But I’ll tell you, Shin, I found me a job waitin’ tables at a small restaurant over on Casino Island,” she replied, her brogue very much in evidence. “I did manage ta sneak a few drinks here an’ there, although they still won’t be sellin’ to me.” She looked at Shin. “Have ye a drop handy?”
“Not yet,” Shin laughed, “but I’ll find a way to get a bottle in, never fear. What else have you been up to?”
“Ah well, ‘twould be telling,” Brigit replied, “but I’ve struck a blow or two for Holy Ireland, an’ I met a very nice young fellow who’s a busboy at the same place. A fine figure he is, to be sure, an’ goes to Church as well.”
“What’s his name?” Shin pressed.
Brigit laughed. “So you can be stealin’ him away from me?”
“Hardly,” the red panda girl sniffed. “I had a perfectly wonderful time with Fang, thank you. Long walks, candlelight dinners and – “ she leaned over and started whispering in Brigit’s ear.
When she had finished the canine’s tail was locked to one side and her eyes were as big as saucers. She opened her mouth to say something just as an older canine woman walked in. “Hello, you two,” she said.
“Hello, Miss Cardroy,” Brigit said hastily, trying to cover the fact that her tail was sideways.
“Brigit, Shin, I’m pleased to see the two of you back here so soon,” their tutor said, although her tone indicated that she was having some difficulty believing it. “Have either of you seen Liberty or Tatiana?”
Shin shook her head, while Brigit said, “No, ma’am. I hope nothing happened to them,” she said with an insincere smile.
“Hmm,” Miss Cardroy said, and left the room as the two girls started giggling.
Brigit suddenly asked, “Have ye seen what’s on our schedule this term, Shin?”
“No – not yet, at any rate.”
“Well, brace yourself, m’dear. The first week of May we have our first solo flights!” Brigit said exultantly.
Shin’s face lit up like a child’s when confronted by a new toy. “That’s wonderful!” she said. “I’m ready, let me tell you. I’m tired of not being able to fly by myself.” She turned to open her suitcase and asked, “What else did you do? You said something about striking a blow. Fighting?”
“I have not,” the Irish setter said with some dignity, “but there’s a few bloody English who’re lighter by some pounds,” and she winked.
The two girls burst out laughing. “How much did you get?” Shin asked, getting very quiet.
“Near about thirty,” came a quick reply in a hushed tone. Brigit added in a conspiratorial whisper, “I’ve sent the most of it on, and kept a bit for m’self.”
“Sent some on? For ‘world revolution,’ like Tatiana and Liberty?”
“Hah! The only revolution I’m interested in is paying the English back for what they did to m’home and people,” Brigit snarled. “’Tis only a drop in the bucket, but enough drops can make a fur soaking wet,” she added.
“Just be careful, Brigit,” Shin admonished, waggling a finger at her. “Don’t get caught.”
“There’s not a thing wrong about postal orders, there is not,” she sniffed. “And it’s for the best of causes.” At Shin’s nod, she asked insinuatingly, “Unless you can think of a better way to go about it?”
The Chinese girl giggled, but before she could offer any ideas the door slammed open and a half-breed coyote wearing slightly grimy dungarees and a plaid shirt trudged in, carrying a seaman’s duffel bag over one shoulder. Liberty tossed the bag onto her bed and eyed the two. “Well, you two are still alive,” she grumbled.
“We might say the same about you, Liberty,” Shin said. “Have a hard time getting back here?” Her question got a growl as Liberty remarked, “I had to share a water taxi with that imperialist Wop Maria,” and threw herself down on the bed beside her duffel.
“Don’t be telling me you didn’t enjoy your holidays,” Brigit said, and Liberty brightened slightly. “Oh, I did,” she said. “My youth cohort had a great time performing useful labor on the collective farms.”
“That sounds like fun,” Shin said without a trace of irony as she smoothed out her skirt.
Despite Shin’s effort, Liberty’s hackles rose. “Probably a lot more fun than anything you were doing, you criminal b – “ The coyote yelped as Shin jumped on her. The two grappled, each seeking a pressure point or other weak spot, and rolled off the bed with a thump.
As they squirmed, trying to gain some advantage, Brigit hissed, “Stop, both o’ ye! You’ll be bringing the tutors down on us, ye will!”
There was a pause, and the red panda and the coyote separated, dusting themselves off while glaring at each other. “Later,” Shin growled, and started to unpack.
“Uh huh,” the New Havenite grunted. As she opened her duffel Brigit said, “We start solo flying the first week of May, Liberty.”
“We do?” and the coyote grinned. “Great. I’m looking forward to it. What’s the rest of the schedule look like for this term?”
“What do you think?” Brigit said cheerily. “Classes, marksmanship – I can’t wait to get back to the rifle range – even Kilikiti practice.” That made both Shin and Liberty look up, and grin knowingly at each other.
“Tonight’s my last night,” Adele said softly to herself as she examined her appearance in the dusty mirror in her room. As usual, Sally and Mei Ling had made her look perfect. Mei Ling remarked that if she were actually an employee at the Casino she’d have to do her claws herself, and Adele had giggled along with her.
The offpawed remark served to remind her that she needed to be back at Songmark for the start of the summer term. The past weeks had been stressful, but then, she reflected, it was a kind of stress that she found she really didn’t mind. And it kept her in shape as well.
And she was learning so much, too. After the previous night’s encounter with the canine, she had expressed some very particular and rather delicate concerns to Sally. The vixen had laughed, ushered Adele into her room, then casually lifted her dress and demonstrated a certain exercise that most certainly was not taught at Songmark. At her urging, Adele had tried it and found that it worked quite well. She looked at her reflection in the mirror and thought that she had profited by her experiences on Krupmark.
The thought of profit made her think about her dealer’s job, and hoped that she would get paid. Her account balance at the bank on Casino Island was small, and she guarded it well. Any amount added to it would definitely be a help.
Later that night she smiled as she clung to the arm of a rather handsome feline, a Manx who was working aircrew for a small cargo carrier that had stopped at Fort Bob. She took him upstairs, determined to enjoy herself one last time before returning to the school and her education.
For some reason, the crickets seemed louder than usual.