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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!)
Even on Krupmark Island, June could be breathlessly hot. People with thick fur either stayed indoors or found other ways to stay cool. At times, the warm wind would blow past the houses on the Beach and up the road to Fort Bob, bearing with it a mixture of musks guaranteed to stand any man’s fur on end.
At the Ni & Sons building and the adjoining Casino the windows were wide open to catch any whiff of a sea breeze. Ni Hei even relaxed his usual dress code and sat behind his desk in shirtsleeves, a small fan held in his paw. He fanned himself as he again regarded the letter on his desk.
The letter had come to him through several paws, all of them belonging to him or beholden to him in some way, so the seals on the envelope were unbroken. Apart from the bare address Ni Hei, c/o Messrs. Ni & Sons, Fort Bob, Krupmark Island, printed in small, precise letters, there was no sign of who had sent it.
The letter itself had given him pause. It was from the redoubtable Detective Inspector of the Spontoon Islands Constabulary, a fur whom he had never met – nor wished to.
“You may have been acquainted with the news of the recent theft and subsequent recovery of the Fire Gem,” the letter read. “In the course of my investigation I had occasion to interview your daughter, Mrs. Wo Shin. Rest assured that my investigation has cleared her completely of any complicity; indeed, her own efforts at uncovering the true thief proved invaluable. Please accept my sincere gratitude for the services your daughter has rendered to the maintenance of law and order in these islands.
“Very truly yours, Franklin J. Stagg, Det. Inspector, Spontoon Islands Constabulary.”
Hei fanned himself a bit faster as he finished rereading the letter. At least Shin hadn’t been so stupid as to try to steal the Fire Gem herself. Apart from the size and relative impossibility of getting the ruby broken up or fenced, there was the curse. He glanced up as Ahmad opened the door. “Excuse me, Boss,” he said.
“What is it, Ahmad?” Hei asked, setting his pen down.
“Someone to see you,” the Algerian fennec replied as he stepped aside and Lars Nordstrom appeared in the doorway.
The red panda stood up and came around the desk, one paw outstretched. “Mister Nordstrom,” he said, “this is a pleasant surprise. I haven’t seen you in quite a while.”
The stag smiled, shaking paws with him. “I’ve been away on business,” he said dryly. “And I’m happy to be back, of course. I would like to speak to you, if you’re not too busy.”
“Of course. Please, sit. Ahmad, find something cool for Mister Nordstrom,” Hei ordered as he sat back down behind his desk.
Ahmad paused at the door. “Iced tea, or Nootnops Red? Perhaps an Orca-Cola, sir?” he asked with a mischievous smile.
Hei frowned at his aide. “Tea, of course,” he said, resisting the urge to spit at the mention of the soft drink that had recently started moving westward from the Sea Bear Republic. It tasted vile and was too cloyingly sweet for the hot weather. Ahmad nodded and closed the door behind him.
“So, on business?” the red panda asked in an inquiring tone.
“Yes,” the stag replied, and Hei realized that was all the answer he’d get. Nordstrom always had a reputation for playing things close to his chest fur. “Since my return to Krupmark,” he added, “I’ve noted that certain of my employees have taken it upon themselves to run things as it suits them. I will have to convince them otherwise.” His face was impassive, but his hazel eyes glittered.
“I see.” Hei rubbed his chin with a paw. “So why come to me?” he asked.
Hoof-hard fingernails tapped on the arm of the chair. “A former employee of yours, Hank Carter, attempted to abscond with a rather valuable piece of property last year. I returned the property, but not Carter, to your oldest son. He assured me that – oh, thank you,” he said as Ahmad reentered and placed glasses of iced tea on the desk. “He assured me that the obligation would be repaid.”
Hei looked his competitor over carefully. Nordstrom looked very at ease, but there was a weariness about him, and certain tension lines showed around his muzzle and eyes. Whatever business he had been on, it had taken some toll on him. “Peng-wum told me about it, yes. And what would you consider a full repayment of this obligation?” he asked, a calculating look in his eyes.
Nordstrom smiled after taking a sip of his tea. “A few of your employees, to assist me and Sstabek,” he replied, a slight tip of his antlers indicating that the Komodo monitor was just outside. “I feel that it will be sufficient.”
“I see,” Hei said, nodding as he considered. “Would my youngest son and several of his employees do?” he finally asked.
A brow rose. “Ni Hao? I think he’d be ideal, if you can spare him.”
“I don’t think he’s doing anything at the moment. Ahmad?” he called out, and the fennec reappeared at the door. His big ears didn’t miss much. “Boss?”
“Find Hao for me and ask him to come here.” The Algerian nodded and closed the door.
The red panda and the stag chatted amiably for a few minutes, each carefully sounding the other out about business and various deals. The two had known each other for years, and had competed for a number of lucrative investments and business relationships in the past.
After nearly a quarter-hour, Hao poked his head into the office. “Yes, Father?”
“Come in, Hao,” Hei said, and after the younger panda had entered he said, “I have a job for you.”
“Yes?” he asked in a slightly sulky tone. He still hadn’t gotten over having his savings raided to compensate the Black Sheep House. Why all the fuss? It was only a girl, and not the first time he’d injured one, either.
Hei nodded, and indicated Lars with a paw. “I want you to gather together a few of your helpers and assist Mr. Nordstrom here,” he said, adding in Chinese, “He is regaining control of his organization. Learn what you can.”
“Yes, Father.” Hao turned to Lars. “How many of my men will you need, sir?”
The stag stood up and regarded the shorter panda. “I think three or four would be enough. I’ll leave how it’s done to you, but don’t leave me running things myself.”
Two nights later, after Lars spoke with two furs in the island’s ruling clique, he and Hao met with one of Nordstrom’s former subordinates. The feline, a Japanese named Alikato who had usurped control over the largest piece of the operation, had openly sneered at the stag as he walked in, trailed by the red panda and two others. Hao took up a position at the back of the room as Lars sat across a table from the feline. “Alikato, I’ve come back for what’s mine,” Lars said simply. “You owe me, or have you forgotten that incident in Taipei?”
The feline laughed in his face, and Lars’ eyes hardened as Alikato said in accented English, “When you left, I considered the debt paid. After all, you left me this.” He gestured expansively and laughed again as Hao put on his ball cap and moved away from the wall. The two canines flanking him grinned, and Alikato suddenly stopped laughing as his eyes went wide.
Lars stood up and glanced at Hao. “Do what you like,” he said quietly as he walked out.
The next morning a corpse was seen in the street in front of Lars Nordstrom’s business. The feline had been bound, and two gaping gunshot wounds in his legs proclaimed that Ni ‘Kap’ was on the stag’s side. The knife slash across Alikato’s throat, however, was just to shut him up. The screaming had gotten on Hao’s nerves.
That night gunshots rang out – or, rather, more gunshots than usual, as a pitched firefight erupted on the west side of Fort Bob near the island’s largest airstrip. When the sun finally rose over the island, two more dead furs were seen in the main street. One of them, a woman, had been mutilated. As the bodies were dragged away, the drugrunner Juan the Tramp watched impassively, and signed the cross over the pair before lurching down the street.
Several days and two more dead furs later, Hao stood in front of Lars’ desk as the stag sat down. Sstabek stood nearby as Lars said, “My compliments, Hao. Very neatly done.”
“Thank you, sir.” Hao smiled and stretched. “It was good practice.”
“I’m sure,” the stag said with no trace of irony. “I can handle things from here on, but please tell your father that I consider this debt paid.”
“I will.” Hao bowed slightly then walked out of the office. Sstabek hissed and said, “That one gives me the creeps.”
Lars nodded. “He always did bear watching, and now that I’ve seen him in action – well.” He shrugged. “A very disturbed young man.”
“Over there, on the left! Not MY left, you idiot!” Liberty shouted as the other girls fanned out in waist-deep water, a fishing net in their paws. The sun was high and the afternoon promised to be blazingly hot, with the only way to cool off the ocean they were currently standing in. And that was warm, too.
Shin moved, her tail almost spooking the shoal of fish they were after as the quartet closed in on their quarry. The four girls had been dropped off on a small island in the Kanims and told to rely on their wits and education, their cooperation with each other, and a few small items of survival gear. It had been Liberty’s idea to bring the net, and the others had brought small but strongly-made survival knives. Their tutors had cautioned them, however, that any decrease in their numbers would result in harsh penalties (as would any knife wounds). The other first-year girls had been deposited on other islands.
The first order of business had been to get a fire started, then to set up appropriate shelter. A fight broke out when it was discovered that no one had brought any matches or flint, and another fight ensued over who was going to collect suitably dry driftwood for the fire. However, after each of the four had collected a number of bruises from blocking punches and kicks, things settled down.
Brigit and Tatiana had started the fire, using skills learned in the Girl Guides and the Komsomol, but since none of them still trusted the others each had built small lean-tos around the fire. With fire and shelter taken care of, finding food was the next priority.
That proved to be somewhat harder, as the Kanims didn’t have much to offer in the way of food or fresh water. Water was available, but it required digging and although it was slightly brackish it would keep them alive for the week they were expected to stay on the island. It took a while to cut through a local palm tree to get at the heart of it, and longer to toast it over the fire until it was palatable. It did, however, keep them fed the first night. The local wildlife, small crabs and seabirds, were elusive, so Liberty’s skill with her net was called upon.
“Come on, I can’t do this alone,” she urged as she waved Tatiana a bit further to her right. “Perfect! Now, let’s move in slowly – we can’t let them get away.” She had boasted of her time aboard a ship in New Haven’s fishing fleet, so after some consideration (and some grumbling from Tatiana) the others had agreed to follow her lead.
It had been worth it, though. After a few failed attempts, the Red Dorm had managed to get this far in a cooperative effort, and as the net closed over a squirming mass of fish, Shin felt her mouth starting to water. Toasted hearts of palm were good, but fish roasted over an open fire were better.
Later, as cleaned and spitted fish cooked over the driftwood fire, Brigit muttered, “Filthy job it is, to be guttin’ fish.”
Liberty chuckled as she bit into hers and chewed. “Yeah? Well, I suppose it’s too much for your soft little paws.” She laughed as the Irish setter threw a carcass at her. Glancing at Shin the half-coyote asked, “What are you looking at, Shin?”
The red panda girl had been gazing northwestward, and at the question she turned and gave a small shrug. “I used to live over there,” she explained, jerking a thumb in the direction of Krupmark Island.
“Da? That whorehouse and gambling den?” Tatiana asked.
Shin laughed at the Russian girl’s question. “Yes, that whorehouse and gambling den,” she replied with a grin, flicking some sand at the sable with her tail. She stretched out under the plaited palm fronds of her shelter, the roof decorated with her drying uniform. The other girls were mainly in their fur as well, although Brigit insisted on wearing her shirt no matter how wet it was.
As the others also got ready to sleep Tatiana sat up. “Shin? Can you give us a song?”
“I don’t know,” she replied with a soft laugh, “you didn’t seem to like my songs.” The other three girls snickered, and Shin added, “But here’s one.”
And as the Moon rose over the Kanims she taught her fellow Red Dorm students all three verses of Hard-Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah.
17 JUNE 1936 1000GMT
ADDRESSEE: ALLAN MINKERTON
C/O MINKERTON DETECTIVE AGENCY
MESSAGE BEGINS ALLAN STOP REQUEST SOME ASSISTANCE STOP DELICATE NATURE STOP MESSAGE ENDS
C/O SPONTOON ISLANDS CONSTABULARY
21 JUNE 1936 0800GMT
ADDRESSEE: FRANKLIN STAGG
C/O SPONTOON ISLANDS CONSTABULARY
MESSAGE BEGINS FRANKLIN STOP NAME IT OLD FRIEND STOP MESSAGE ENDS
C/O MINKERTON DETECTIVE AGENCY