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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!)
It had taken her a few hours to get it right, but her careful observations made during the preceding terms gave her numerous good examples. Being partially unclothed in public had at first offended her sense of modesty when she arrived at Songmark, but personal experience with a passing rain shower had proven the effectiveness of the palm oil that now slicked down her brown-gray-and-russet fur. The grass skirt was definitely a cooler wardrobe option than her Songmark uniform and a woven palm hat kept the sun off her.
Liberty Morgenstern had gone native for the summer.
Since many native Spontoonies were away from their farms and villages this time of year (enslaved to fat bourgeois capitalist tourists – and worse, propagandist filmmakers - who exploited them without regard for their welfare, she thought) she had been able to find an opportunity for productive labor. A small rucksack held a few necessities, a (very little) money for water taxi fare, and pawfuls of pamphlets extolling the virtues of the Great Comrade Trotsky and the benefits of Worldwide Proletarian Revolution.
A bus piled high with passengers and wares of every description honked its horn as it passed her. She smiled when she found herself waving back at the children, reminded of her spring holidays on the collective farms outside New Haven City. The horse-drawn wagons that she and her Young Internationalist cadre had ridden on were as efficient, if not as fast as the bus.
She paused and sternly reminded herself that this was not a soft vacation. It was only a few miles from the water taxi stand to the Yakan family farm, so she welcomed the exercise as a familiar comrade. After the bus was out of sight she stopped, pulled a thin cotton shirt from her rucksack, and put it on.
The road was a mixture of crushed gravel and coral that rasped under her feet, and despite the recent rains the passing bus had raised some dust that caused her to sneeze. Her route was a fairly straight one that made its way through a gap between two hills to the northern side of the island, where the dominant cultural icons changed from tikis and grass skirts to totems and bark aprons.
She waved at a small feline boy. “Excuse me, Comrade,” she asked, “where is the Yakan farm?” She hoped she’d pronounced it right.
The kitten looked at her curiously, but nodded at the name ‘Yakan.’ He spoke back to her, in a rapid patter of words that she didn’t understand. “Wait, wait please,” she said. “Do you speak English?”
“Eenglisch?” Finally light dawned, and the feline grinned. “You outlander, want Yakan?”
Liberty nodded, and the kitten said, “Me Manuhato. Take you Yakan lodge.”
“Good. I’m Liberty.” At the quizzical look, she tapped her chest and said “Liberty.”
“Li-ber-teeh.” The feline laughed and skipped down the road, the New Havenite following.
The road followed the downward slope, branching out in several directions. Manuhato headed down one fork, and finally stopped at a totem. The carving stood perhaps four feet high, carved with likenesses of various seabirds. Just beyond it was a well-trodden path, with a wooden longhouse visible behind a partial screen of trees. “Yakan,” Manuhato said with a smile.
“Thank you,” Liberty said, and fished into her rucksack as the kitten waited expectantly. She pulled out a pamphlet and pressed it into his paw before heading down the path, leaving the young fur standing open-mouthed in shock. Trying to hold back tears at the stinginess of all Euros, he went to complain to his mother.
There was a knocking at his door, and Inspector Stagg blinked awake to find that he had fallen asleep hunched over his desk. Under his paws and stacked to either side were the neat piles of intercepts from Nimitz-Union (he had taken to calling them (very privately) the Recording Angels, harking back to the church classes of his youth) and a ream of blank paper. Balled-up remnants of several failed attempts at decryption lay in and around a small wastepaper basket. The proprietor of the stationer’s supply store across Printer’s Lane had at first wondered about the amount of paper he had been using, but had decided to give Stagg a bulk discount. Much of it had gone to feed Frau Nerzmann’s oven, where it made excellent tinder.
The knock came again, and Sergeant Brush’s voice saying, “Sir? Inspector?” Stagg roused himself and stretched, grimacing at the pain in his shoulders and neck. “I’ll be there in a moment, Sergeant,” he said as he searched for his tie.
Once again he debated with himself whether to let Brush know what he had found, and as he put his jacket on he made a decision. He opened the door to his room and said, “Good morning, Sergeant. Won’t you come in, please?”
He ain’t lookin’ good, Orrin Brush thought to himself as he stepped in. Stagg took a seat at his desk and gestured for Brush to close the door before saying, “I want to congratulate you, Sergeant. You found something rather important last night.”
“Them bits o’ paper, sir?”
“Yes. You noticed a few days ago that I’ve started a hobby,” Stagg said elliptically. The fox waited patiently as the buck continued, “I wondered to myself how operations like the Ni Family and others get their information without their competitors knowing. So, I asked an old friend of mine for his assistance, and here are the results.” A paw indicated the small stacks of telegrams, each neatly bound up in string.
Brush craned his neck and looked at them. “They’re all in code?”
“Exactly.” Stagg tapped one stack with a forefinger. “This one is in a very old type of code, called a substitution cipher. It’s not used much anymore.” He gave the fox a smile. “Ordinarily it would have taken me a few weeks of looking at each code block, trying to discern patterns that could be used to break it. However, you found what I was looking for.”
“Thanks, sir. Thought it was important.” Brush grinned, both at the discovery and the compliment. “Leastways, too important to let them Interior Ministry types get their paws on it.”
Stagg merely nodded, looking up as another knock sounded at the door. Brush opened it, and Frau Nerzmann stood in the doorway holding a bowl of steaming rolled oats. “Herr Inspektor, here is your breakfast,” she said, walking right past Brush and placing it on the desk. “I am thinking you must be hungry, ja? You were quite busy last night, with the pacing.”
“Thank you very much, Frau Nerzmann,” Stagg said as his ears dipped in embarrassment. “I wasn’t aware I was keeping you awake. I will do my walking outdoors from now on.”
The elderly mink smiled. “You are such a kind guest, Herr Inspektor.” She stepped out and Brush closed the door again as Stagg’s voice lowered. “Only you and I will know what’s in these cables, Sergeant. And I apologize for not telling you anything about it at the outset.”
“It’s all right, sir,” Brush said. “I knows you was thinkin’ of Kiki an’ th’ kits. Any of them Krupmark folk get wind that you been readin’ their mail, well that’s gonna cause trouble,” he added, with a slight smile and a cracking of knuckles that showed that he welcomed the prospect of trouble, even more so dealing with it. His way. There was a brief silence as Stagg ate his breakfast, finally pushing the bowl away. “Much as I hate to turn away from Frau Nerzmann’s cooking, I should continue. One of the pieces of paper you discovered had a word written on it in plain English. It’s a shocking breach of security, but the furs using the code are probably overconfident. The word was Magdalen, and here’s how it works.” Stagg drew a blank sheet of paper to him and wrote the word out in pencil:
M A G D A L E N
“Now, you can use this word several times, depending on the length and complexity of the message, but the next step is to number the letters of each word, alphabetically, in the order in which they appear.” He numbered each letter:
M A G D A L E N“So th’ message gets wrote under that, usin’ them numbers in reverse, right?” Brush asked.
7 1 5 3 2 6 4 8
Stagg nodded. “Yes, that’s the concept. As I said, it’s a simple and very old code.”
“So whatcha got, sir?”
“After establishing that the key word was only used once in the ciphering process, I decoded three of the telegrams, including the two you found,” Stagg said, and passed a sheet of paper to Brush. The fox looked at it with a frown.
“WIRE FUNDS TO STATION 7 DOES NEW PRODUCT MEET SPECIFICATIONS”
“PRODUCT TO BE ACQUIRED SOONEST SHIP TO STATION 6”
“STATION 4 TO STATION 6 HAVE LEON SHIP PRODUCT STATION 6 ASAP NLT 15 AUG WILL PAY 15K STATION 4 SENDS”
Brush’s ears went up at the third message, and he passed the paper back to Stagg. “So, whoever it was, was smugglin’ somethin’, an’ payin’ big money fer it too.”
“It seemed that way to me, at first,” Stagg remarked. A paw rested lightly on a bound notebook. “But sometimes it’s a simple matter of adding one and one.
“An old friend of mine, a reporter, had managed to infiltrate a secret society before he died. Natural causes, thank God. That society – well, it’s enough to say they stole the living from their homes, and did unspeakable things to them.” He leveled a bleak gaze on the fox. “Things that even our friend Ni Hao might find terrifying,” and Brush’s eyes went wide.
“So,” Stagg said, “supposing that the ‘product’ is what I think it might be, there remains the matter of learning the locations of these stations, and maybe finding out who this ‘Leon’ is.”
“Um, sir? Betcha anything that’s gonna be Fat Leon,” Brush said, his head cocked slightly as he thought.
“Fat Leon,” Brush amplified. “Really fat wolf. Surprise, hanh? Brit, I think - he runs a whorehouse on Krupmark, maybe other lil’ hobbies too.” He grimaced. “Ain’t never clapped eyes on him. Fat Leon don’t put no footpads offen Krupmark, so I’ve heard.”
Stagg looked thoughtful. “Can we find out anything more about him?”
Brush grinned and ran a paw over the back of his head. “Well, sir,” he said, “I gots a pal’r two in th’ Interior Min’stry. I kin try t’call in a few chits.” He stepped back as Stagg got to his feet, a paw gripping the fox’s shoulder as he said quietly, “Be as discreet as you can, Sergeant.”
“You must be Adele,” Hao said later that morning, and when the brown-furred rabbit nodded he added, “you coming to work for us this summer?”
“Yes,” she replied, returning the curious gaze from the red panda’s canine companion. The slim woman was about Adele’s age, which made her wonder why she’d tag along with an obviously younger fur. “You’re my ride to Krupmark?” she asked.
“Yeah. I’m Ni Hao, Shin’s brother, and this is Anna,” and the canine smiled. Hao waved her toward the GH-2. “Come on, it’s time to go and we have to leave.” Adele grabbed up a small carpetbag (she had chosen to take Shin’s advice and travel light, but still had a few items discreetly tucked away) and followed as he headed for the plane.
As they walked over to the dock, Adele asked Anna, “So, what do you do on Krupmark?’
The girl smiled, a paw absently tucking a long tress of headfur behind her ear. “I help him,” she replied, jerking her chin at Hao’s back. “You might say I’m an employee.”
“At the Casino?” Adele asked curiously.
Anna glanced at her, then chuckled. “No, I’m not in that part of the business,” she said with a smile. “Although I’m sure it has been more exciting.” The three climbed aboard, Adele wondering to herself just what the canine might have done to be considered ‘more exciting’ than working at the Lucky Dragon.
The flight was smooth, the storms the previous week having swept the skies clear, and a strong tailwind lowered the amount of time they were aloft. Hao set the Garza-Huacatl down easily within the island’s barrier reef and taxied slowly to the dock.
Peng and Mei Ling were waiting for Adele as she stepped out of the plane, and the lepine flinched in embarrassment when she saw the feline. For her part, Mei Ling merely smiled as Peng said, “Welcome back, Adele.”
Adele forced a smile and bowed. “Madam Ni,” she said quietly, recalling what everyone else at the Casino called their boss. The older red panda offered a cheek to her son’s kiss before saying briskly, “You and I have business upstairs in my husband’s office, Adele,” and started walking toward the Ni & Sons building. Adele took her bag from Anna and started after her, managing to avoid tripping.
She glanced around the office as Peng led her in, and took a seat as Peng’s husband stood. “Hello, Adele,” he said. “Shin has told me that you wanted a contract arrangement?”
“Yes, sir,” she said politely, silently cursing Shin for forcing her back to this place. Hei nodded to himself and pulled a sheet of paper from his desk drawer, studied it, and passed it to her.
Adele looked it over carefully. It was written in very plain, clear English, with no intricately worded legal phrases. It stipulated everything that Adele and Shin had agreed on: she would work for Ni & Sons and the Casino (including cargo pilot duties, with no questions asked) until her debt was paid off, she would be paid for her services, and all photographs would be given to her before she returned to Eastern Island and Songmark in September.
She studied it twice, then the copy, and finally took the pen and signed her name. Ni Hei signed his name on both documents and affixed his clan chop before nodding. Peng turned to Mei Ling. “Please take Adele over to the Casino and show her to her room,” she said. To Adele she said, “I think you’ll enjoy yourself this summer.”
Outwardly, Adele smiled as she followed the feline maid, but to herself she said Fat chance.