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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!)
Mrs. Yakan wiped her paws on a rag as she listened to her son and daughter, considering what to say to them. She had returned from the village after buying several large fish for dinner and had seen Liberty talking to the children. They had seemed thoroughly engrossed in what she was saying, which pleased the older woman. It kept the younger ones out of mischief, at least until Liberty went to check on Hanu.
Taka and Haku had greeted their mother, and had started telling her about the wonderful stories Liberty had told them. She had smiled as they told her about their guest’s home on the other side of the world, but her expression faltered as they repeated Liberty’s description of Inspector Stagg. While she had never laid eyes on him, word of his exploits and his respect for the Spontoonies had spread rapidly over the past two years. What her guest was saying was completely at odds with what the Wise Ones had told her and her husband.
She thought for a moment, then smiled as she decided what to say. “Children,” she said gently, “you mustn’t believe everything Liberty tells you, you know.”
“Why not, Mother?” Taka asked, cocking his head to one side.
The woman smiled. “You recall the old stories of Wisgatcak, don’t you?” At the boy’s nod she continued, “We who are coyotes have a relation to the Old Trickster, and you know he loves to tell stories and make fun of others. Some people are very good at telling stories, you see, which shows that they are close to Him.”
Taka just looked blankly at her, but her daughter was a bit faster on the uptake. “So Liberty is telling made-up stories, like people tell at festival time?” Haku asked.
“That’s right,” their mother said firmly. “She’s a very smart girl, you see – she goes to the flying school, after all – and she is telling you stories about her home and the people there.” The children nodded in understanding. “So you mustn’t take what Liberty tells you very seriously,” she cautioned. “Now, run along and play while I cook dinner.” Her children ran off, and she went back to preparing the meal.
Later, as Liberty was helping clean the longhouse, Mrs. Yakan said, “I heard there is to be a potlatch tomorrow, Liberty. Would you like to come with us?”
The half-coyote cocked her head. “Potlatch? What’s that?”
The older woman smiled. “It’s a type of party,” she explained. “The fishing fleet has come in early, and the village wants to celebrate. You’re invited, of course.”
“Oh. Um, I … “ Liberty’s voice faltered. Aside from the usual Revolutionary celebrations back home, she had never been invited to a party before. She straightened up, determined to learn as much as she could. “I’d love to go,” she said. “Can I help with anything?”
“Certainly,” Mrs. Yakan said. “I’ll be bringing some food to it. You can help me.”
“I’d be glad to help,” the younger woman said. She had actually done pretty well the few times she had been called upon to cook at Songmark, despite that little mishap with the rice.
The next day the population of the village and many of the outlying farms gathered at the shore and headed in a long procession to a huge longhouse crafted of carved cedar logs. The people were preceded by masked priests, who chanted as they danced along.
Inside, chicken sizzled on low beds of coals and broad fillets of salmon staked out around blazing fires of alder wood cooked fragrantly while people bustled about, exchanging gifts and talking. Some sang, and others would join in. Liberty gave up trying to join in the singing, and busied herself with trying to explain how much happier everyone would be if they threw off their chains and embraced the Revolution. Some listened, but others didn’t understand her.
Finally she found herself sitting along one wall of the longhouse after giving out her last pamphlet. There was a thin haze of smoke hovering about the high ceiling of the building, and wooden platters of food were starting to be passed around.
Two young men sat down on either side of her, offering her tidbits from their own plates as she ate. She refused them politely but firmly, which seemed to only encourage them. The crowd noise died away, and she started paying attention as drums started to beat.
Furs wearing carved wooden masks and multicolored robes moved to the center of the floor and began dancing as jugs of drink were passed around. The young man to her left, a full-blooded coyote, took a deep swallow of the drink and passed it to her. She took an experimental sniff, then drank.
It was a bit sweet, but it felt warm going down and before she passed it on to the fur on her right she had drunk quite a bit. As the dancing went on and priests started to chant, the jugs of corn liquor were passed around again and again.
She started to feel quite lightheaded, and the musk from the two males on either side of her was enticing. When the one on her left nuzzled her, she surprised herself by nuzzling him in return.
Then they were outside, in the darkness.
Adele snuggled down, smiling as she smelled her own musk and those of the pony and the canine on either side of her. Jimmy and Shawn had been very playful, sharing jokes with her and generally making her work seem more like fun. She definitely enjoyed herself in more ways than one.
She looked up drowsily as the door opened, and hastily pulled the sheet up to her throat as Peng walked in. “Good morning, Adele,” she said. “I see you’ve met the Dog and Pony Show.” She smiled as Sally moved behind her, opening the window. “Hello, you two.”
“Hi, Madam Ni,” Jimmy said, propping his head up on his fist, “how’s tricks?” Shawn just grinned and burrowed deeper under the sheet, nestling closer to Adele. The rabbit tried to maintain her decorum, but would occasionally poke at the equine’s head in response to whatever he was doing. “You know them, Madam Ni?” she asked.
“Of course,” the red panda said. “Shawn and Jimmy are a performing act, you see. Quite well-known in certain parts of the world.” She frowned. “Shawn, where is Felicity? I didn’t see her last night.”
“She’s not coming,” came the pony’s voice from under the covers. He giggled, and Adele suddenly squealed in laughter at being tickled. “She broke her leg, so we left her in the hospital in Hong Kong.”
Peng’s expression grew worried. “That’s a problem,” she said. “It’s coming in two days, and you don’t have a woman for your act.”
Adele listened to the conversation, a troubled look on her face. “What act is that?” she asked.
“Well, the three of us perform, um, various acts for an audience, you see,” Jimmy said, and looked amused as the lepine’s eyes went wide. She suddenly reached with both paws and started swatting at Shawn’s head while the pony whinnied and she squirmed. “Hey, Jimmy,” his muffled voice said, “I like her. Think we can convince her to take Felicity’s place?”
“Dunno, Shawn,” and the canine looked appraisingly at her. Adele blushed and looked at Peng. “What are they talking about?” the rabbit asked.
“We have a party coming up,” Peng explained. “It’s – well, you would call it a social event. The biggest people on the island will be here, and several have requested Jimmy and Shawn’s act. However, with Felicity sick, we might not be able to do it.” She looked troubled. “It would mean a great loss of face to the family, and we might lose business because of it,” she added.
Adele squirmed, backing up against Jimmy as she tried to avoid Shawn tickling her. “You do – this – in public?’ she asked, glancing behind her at Jimmy.
“Uh-huh,” he replied, “and I think you’d make a great stand-in for Felicity.” Adele looked at Peng. “Did you plan this, Madam Ni?” she asked in an almost accusatory tone.
The red panda frowned. “I assure you, Adele, I did not,” she said flatly. “The party is always scheduled for this time in the summer. Now, you obviously enjoyed yourself last night,” she observed, sniffing the air delicately, “and you are definitely fit enough to keep up with both of them. Naturally, there will be a bonus for your services.”
The rabbit’s eyes narrowed. “How much?” she asked.
Peng matched her gaze, realizing with approval that this young rabbit had started learning how things were done on Krupmark. “It will depend on your performance, of course,” she said evenly. “Rest assured, it will be a fair amount. Now, will you do it?”
As Adele thought about it, a muffled voice came from under the sheet. “Aw, c’mon Adele, be a sport. You’ll have fun,” Shawn said.
Jimmy reached over Adele and rapped Shawn in the head with his knuckles. “Shut up, Shawn,” he said. “Adele’s got to agree on her own.”
“Well … okay, Madam Ni,” the lepine said finally. She had come to the realization that she had been enjoying herself at the Lucky Dragon. It certainly was an easy way of making money, although the idea of working off a debt to the Nis still rankled. “When is the party?”
“Three days from now,” Peng said. “You won’t be expected to work during that time, since Shawn and Jimmy have to show you what you’ll be doing.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to do a few things. Come, Sally,” and she and the vixen left the room. Adele looked down at the lump in the sheets that marked Shawn’s head, and rubbed between his ears. He nickered softly before asking, “So you’ll do it?”
“Sure,” she said.
“Chyort! For the last damn time, Hao, I said no!” Anna said, stamping one foot. She looked around their shared room in exasperation. “There is no way you’re using me as bait to trap Franz,” she repeated.
“Look, Anna, it’s the perfect setup,” Hao said. “He has a thing for vixens, and he feels safe at the Black Sheep House. What better place to spring a trap on him?”
She walked over to him and placed a paw on his shoulder. “Look, I know it’s a good plan. In fact, it’s something I’d expect the NKVD to arrange. But I’ve seen that lunatic, and I’m not going to risk my own safety.”
“Okay.” The red panda gathered his tail in his paws, stroking the banded fur absently. He looked up. “Suppose – suppose I was in the room with you?”
She frowned. “Wouldn’t work,” she declared, shaking her head. “Even if you disguised yourself as a fox, he’d scent another guy and start getting suspicious.”
“Then he won’t smell another guy in the room,” he said, and her jaw dropped in shock. “You’re not serious,” she said, and at his nod she started to laugh.
She laughed until her sides hurt, the first long bout of genuine, unaffected laughter she’d had since coming to Spontoon the previous year. Finally she tossed her headfur back and wiped tears from her eyes. Hao said, “I’m serious. Hell, having two vixens might be even more attractive to him.”
She thought about it, then nodded, an amused look on her face. “Then in that case, I’ll do it. I have to see what kind of a girl you make.”
Inspector Stagg sat in his small apartment, looking over a one-page report from the Minkerton operative at the Nimitz-Union office. The radio station at Nuevo San Gabriel had been very useful. A trained operative there had carefully imitated the former operator’s ‘fist,’ and had used a pattern of innocuous messages to pinpoint other stations in the Nimitz Sea area. Interestingly, there were only five: Manila, Singapore, Yaoming on Kuo Han (which was revealed to be ‘Station 4’), Krupmark (‘Station 11’), and Portland.
There were hints of more, scattered throughout the world.
He passed the report to his sergeant, who read it quickly. “Portland? Where’s that?” Brush asked after he had read the report.
“Oregon, north of California,” Stagg explained. “It’s actually a more desirable port than either San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Dingo. A bit smaller, and few would bother to look closely at it.”
The fox nodded, placing the report on the table. “So, whadda we do now, sir?”
“Now, Sergeant, I think we should start thinking about setting a trap,” Stagg said, “and for an effective trap, we need bait. I should think that, considering our quarry’s noble blood, he might be very interested in something either very rare or very exotic.”
“Not just any girl’ll do, hah?” Brush mused, rubbing a paw against the back of his head.
“Exactly,” the buck said as he placed the report in an ashtray and touched a lit match to one corner. The single piece of nitrocellulose paper caught and vanished in a swift blaze.