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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!)
(Inspector Stagg and Sergeant Brush by permission of EO Costello. Thanks!)
Franklin Stagg glanced up from the file he was reading as his sergeant opened his office door. “In here, you,” the fox said brusquely, and half-propelled a younger fur into the room. The slim red panda was maybe an inch shorter than Brush, dressed impeccably in a white linen suit, his headfur slicked back. He favored the fox with a glance as he straightened his jacket and sat down opposite the buck.
“Hello, Inspector Stagg. I’m told you wanted to see me,” he said quietly in accented English.
“Yes. You are Ni Hao, I presume?”
The red panda nodded. “Do you mind if I smoke?” he asked, crossing his legs with studied indolence.
“Be my guest.” Stagg read another page of the file. “Hmm. Seventeen – “
“Eighteen, sir,” Hao said quietly. “Last week.”
“Ah. Thank you. Many happy returns. Do you recall anything of a death while you were in Room 23 of the Grand Hotel on Casino Island in June of last year?” he asked as Hao lit a Fortuna cigarette and took a drag from it.
Hao paused, smoke trickling from his nose as he thought. “It wasn’t my room,” he remarked. “My room was down the hall.”
Stagg made a small note on a file card. “Did you know - “ he looked at the file again “ – Arkady Ivanovich Sobakov?”
“Who?” Hao asked, and looked back at Brush as the fox nudged his shoulder none too gently.
“Don’t play dumb, you know who,” Brush growled. “The bum you whacked.”
Hao looked back at him, and gave a soft snort of contempt that made the fox’s ears lay back. “What makes you think I killed him?” he asked, looking back at Stagg. “He committed suicide. I tried to stop him before he splashed his brains all over the door.”
“Indeed.” Another small note. “Tell me how it happened, then.”
“It should all be there in your reports, Inspector,” Hao said reasonably. “I was in this young lady’s room when this guy came in and started waving a gun around. From the way he was talking, I gathered that he thought the woman was his girlfriend or something.” He flicked some ashes into a nearby ashtray and sat back. “I tried to calm him down, but he stuck the gun under his chin.” Hao sighed. “I tried to stop him, but I was too late.”
“I see.” Stagg’s gaze met his. “And the woman?”
“What, you think I killed her, too?”
That earned him another nudge from Brush, and Hao looked back at the fox, eyes narrowing slightly before he turned to the cervine. “The woman and I parted company, and I didn’t see her again.”
“Who was the dame I saw you with earlier, then?” Brush demanded.
Without turning around, keeping his eyes on Stagg, Hao replied, “Her name’s Anna. She’s an employee in my father’s company.”
“Ah, your father.” Stagg made another note as Hao leaned forward and stubbed out the cigarette. “What business is that?”
“Investments, some cargo shipping and handling,” Hao replied, shrugging. “All perfectly legal.”
“I’m sure.” Stagg raised his gaze to meet Hao’s eyes. “I’m also sure that he operates wholly within the laws and regulations of Krupmark.”
“Of course. You really should come out sometime and look around, Inspector. Bring him with you – I’ll be glad to show you both around the place,” Hao said with a smile as Brush growled something in Spontoonie. Hao chuckled. Stagg merely flipped a few small cards, as if he were playing patience.
“And what do you do for your father, Mr. Ni?” Stagg leaned forward. “Specifically, what did you do to a fur named Wu Tang on your father’s behalf on or about October of last year on Kuo Han?”
Hao blinked. Wu Tang’s death had been discussed openly on Krupmark, so it was only a matter of time before someone spoke of it on Spontoon in some policefur’s hearing. Or, perhaps, there was a police spy or informer on Krupmark … well, he’d have to see about that.
He lit another cigarette and took a few puffs before replying, “Wu Tang was a business associate who tried to cheat my father. I handled the problem so that he would not pose a danger to my family again.”
“And?” Sergeant Brush asked.
“So I cut off his right paw, and his tail,” Hao said bluntly, flicking his thick banded tail in emphasis, “then lashed him to a dock piling so he could watch the tide come in and drown him.” He twisted in his seat and glared at Brush. “Does that answer your question?” he barked in Spontoonie.
Stagg glanced up at his subordinate, and his ears flicked at the expression on the fox’s face. It took a lot to disturb Brush, but right now shock registered on his face, and a hint of actual fear as Hao resumed gazing at Stagg. “But, to get back to the subject, Inspector; I didn’t kill that fur. I tried to stop him. God knows I never want any trouble,” he concluded with a tiny smile.
“Suppose you tell me everything you recall about that night. Please, take your time.”
“Sure.” Hao lit another cigarette. “I met this young woman – um, Pilar was her name, I think … yes, Pilar – a few days or so before … “
And for the better part of an hour Hao related everything about the death of Arkady Sobakov, Stagg prompting him from time to time, helping his recollection along. He even had the red panda act out exactly how he tried to stop the canine from shooting himself. Finally Stagg said, “Well, I think you’ve managed to satisfy my curiosity, Mr. Ni. You can go. Sergeant, show him out, please.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, Sergeant,” Hao said as he stood and walked to the door. “I can find my own way out.” He paused, paw on the knob, and turned back to Stagg. “Inspector, please don’t take this the wrong way, please, but if you need a new suit, I can refer you to a very good tailor. Quite inexpensive.”
His remark only elicited an impassive nod from the buck. Hao left, and as the door closed Orrin Brush reflexively grabbed at his tail and hugged it to himself. “God Almighty, cuttin’ off a guy’s tail …” he murmured.
Stagg nodded. “I understand your reaction, Sergeant, but it’s better to compose yourself, and not let him enjoy the terror he’s sown,” he advised. “He operates by, as the Romans said, ‘oderint dum metuant.’” Stagg scratched an antler thoughtfully, and translated, “’Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.’ You know, I recall when I was a fawn, one of my more wicked uncles would tell me blood-curdling stories about what the Indians used to do to settlers. He used to dwell on tail-cutting, which gave me nightmares. Judging from what else is in Hao’s file,” and Stagg regarded the folder again, “severing tails seem to be relatively mild and merciful. It is evident he likes to send messages, and not by Western Onion, either.
“Certainly, his story makes sense, as far as it goes. According to the autopsy, the pattern of bruises on Sobakov’s arms is consistent with Hao trying to stop him from shooting himself.” Stagg closed the folder. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can use against him,” he concluded. “And until – or if - Kuo Han issues a warrant for him, he even gets away with the death of Wu Tang.” A heavy sigh and he muttered, “I wish I didn’t have to rely on a higher power to punish this one …”
Hao made his way through the groups of tourists, grinning to himself. Hopefully, he mused, he had laid that little problem to rest once and for all, and he could soon resume operations here on Spontoon.
As for his confession about Wu Tang – well, there had been enough money spread around to ensure that the new Governor would never dream of filing a warrant. It had been an excellent investment by the Tongs to guarantee the safety of one of their members, as well as reinforcing the message that the murder signified.
He went back to his room at the hotel, only to find Anna was already in bed, sound asleep. Silently he undressed and slid into bed beside her.
Later, back in his room in Printer’s Lane, Franklin Stagg studied the latest pile of telegrams that the boy had dropped off from the Nimitz-Union office. His messages to Allan Minkerton had gotten some results over the past few weeks. The radio operators to the north had identified at least three different codes originating from or used by operators on Krupmark Island, and had identified several users of those ciphers in other countries.
Despite lurid and embarrassing stories in cheap novels and pulp magazines, breaking a secret code is often slow, painstaking work. It takes great dedication and single-mindedness. The experienced radio operators employed by Nimitz-Union had been able to discern the different users by their distinctive ‘fists’ – in other words, how they handled the Morse telegraph key on their end of the transmission.
After careful consideration, Stagg had managed to divide the intercepted messages into three types, based on what he thought the ciphers were. In a briefly reminiscent flashback to his youth, he had named them after the flowers he had known in the gardens and countryside of New Haven: Lily, Rose, and Daisy. Of the three, Rose and Daisy had the most traffic, totaling nearly twenty messages per day each, while Lily appeared to be the oldest. There were other codes flying about the ether, to be sure, but he selected these as a starting point.
He picked up and studied the latest Lily intercept, a series of ten five-letter groups:
ITETC OAFDR EIRDE 7PEFS CNEDS APFRO WMINB WSNCE IYDSU PTLGX
It was a fairly basic substitution code, he knew; but he also knew that there was a master word somewhere. That one word (which could have been in any language) was the key to the entire message, and thus to the entire code. With the code broken, the radio operators would be able to discover where each of the senders were located
The only problem lay in finding the master word.
Wo Shin drifted awake the next Saturday morning, a fugitive thought asking why it was so bright in the room. A warm breeze stirred her headfur, and she blinked awake.
Two big eyes and a mouthful of sharp teeth confronted her, and with a yelp she twisted and fell off her mattress, landing on the ground as the guard dog cocked his head at her quizzically. Suddenly mindful that she was in her naked fur, she clutched at the bedsheet as laughter sounded above her.
She looked up to see the rest of Red Dorm grinning at her, while the other first years laughed. She looked around wildly as Liberty called down to her, “Will you complain about Tatiana’s snoring again?”
Shin glared up at her. “No.” She then looked at the guard dog as he gave a soft woof at her. The ridiculousness of her situation suddenly struck her, and she started to laugh as the rest of Red Dorm began to sing the chorus of Hard-Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah in tolerably good harmony:
“You ought to see her, you ought to see her,
Outside, she's just as soft as silk;
But socially she's hard as nails,
She's just a gal who hates the males!
And when she's nasty, oh, when she's nasty,
She's 'bout as sweet as sour milk;
Nothin' she likes better than
Feedin’ poisoned food to a man.”
With some dignity the red panda stood up, singing along as she wrapped the sheet around her and started to gather up her mattress. As she straightened, the sheet fell off, and she felt an angry blush as she spotted two of the second year students (from that dorm) studying her admiringly. Using the mattress as a shield she walked into the building.
“That was a dirty trick, Liberty,” she growled as she tossed her mattress on the bed. The New Havenite girl giggled and suddenly yelped as the Krupmark girl pounced on her. The pair grappled with each other for a few moments, neither finding any advantage, before the sable and the canine separated the two. “That was a dirty trick,” Shin repeated.
Liberty grinned, already starting to pant in the heat. “Well, you started it with that pan of warm water a few nights ago.”
At the recollection, Shin smiled, then giggled. “Yeah, that was naughty of me, wasn’t it? Truce?” she asked, one paw extended.
The Trotskyite coyote considered, then grasped the paw. “Truce.” As they shook on it, Shin added, “For now.”
Liberty nodded. “Of course.”