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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!)
On the first of September Shin stood at the seaplane terminal and watched passengers disembark, keeping a close eye out for the newest arrivals to Songmark. A telephone call from Miss Wildford had peremptorily ordered her to get up early the next day and head out to Eastern Island. She had merely said, “Yes, ma’am,” and got out her new, freshly tailored uniform. She had smiled at the sight of the neatly sewn double staff that marked her as a second-year student, and again she thanked the gods for helping her thus far.
Another girl was waiting there with her. Rumiko was a Japanese girl, ordinarily someone Shin could care less about. The sentiment was definitely mutual, as Rumiko stayed at least three arm’s lengths away from her. It was just as well; the two had had words the previous term after Rumiko made disparaging comments about the caliber of the Chinese that dared to stand in the way of her “God-Emperor’s” armies. Shin had smiled and said sweetly that the Japanese ruler had less than savory tastes in farm animals, and it was only the fact that Miss Blande had walked by that prevented the two from settling their dispute on the spot.
Shin spied a canine girl in a light brown tweed suit and skirt and clutching a small suitcase who was standing by the entrance to the Customs shed. She waved, and the girl’s ears perked up as she headed over. “Hello,” the girl said in English with an accent that sounded a bit softer than Amelia’s but not as pronounced as Brigit’s. “Are you two from Songmark?” she asked in a diffident tone.
“That’s right,” the red panda said. “I’m Wo Shin, and this is Rumiko. I guess I’m supposed to welcome you to Spontoon. What’s your name?” she asked, pulling a list from a pocket of her skirt.
“Maureen McNemara,” the canine replied, “from Ulster.”
“Is that England?” Rumiko asked in her habitually quiet voice.
“No, it’s northern Ireland,” the younger canine replied. Shin said, “You’ll like it here then. We’ve got another student here from your country,” and smiled as the girl looked happy. Shin resolved to tell Brigit the good news at the first opportunity. She hadn’t seen the Irish girl since the summer holiday started – but then, she hadn’t seen either Liberty or Tatiana either.
She decided to stop by the temple in the Chinese quarter of Casino Island later to thank the gods for giving her such a gift as Rumiko gave the new girl her first orientation to the islands, and admonished her to find a hotel for the few weeks before the new term started. Shin wanted to suggest the Grand, but thought better of it as most of the students would not have much money with them. Thinking of money reminded her of her lost bet with Beryl Parkesson, and she resolved that she would find a way to get the ten shells back.
There were several other new arrivals, including a German canine who seemed to already know quite a bit about the area. Finally Shin and Rumiko parted company, which seemed to cheer the Japanese girl up.
After stopping by the temple to pay her respects, Shin strolled through the Chinese section, looking for something to eat before she had to hail a water taxi back to South Island. “Good day, Shin,” a familiar voice rang out, and she turned to see a rather bulky giant panda seated at a small open-air restaurant.
“Hello, Lu Ting,” she replied and took the seat he proffered. “How are you today? How are your wife and children?”
The panda smiled, revealing teeth stained from chewing betel nuts. With a mischievous twinkle in his eye he recited in English, “I am fine, and they are fine, and all is fine, tooroora-lay,” before laughing heartily, his heavy paunch shaking. Shin laughed with him as a waiter set a cup and a pot of fragrant tea down in front of her. As she poured, Lu said, “I trust you are doing well, in that hotel you are running.”
“Yes, Fang and I are doing quite well,” she said before breathing in the tea’s aroma and taking a sip. An errant breeze blew down the street, ruffling her fur as she faced into it briefly, then ventured, “Business has been going well, too.”
“That is good,” Lu said, raising his cup to her in salute before drinking. His eyes sparkled at her expression, knowing that a transaction was in the offing.
She refilled her cup, accidentally spilling a bit of tea onto the table. “We’re doing well attracting tourists, and I’ve even suggested a few ideas to attract more customers,” she said as she dipped a finger in the liquid and traced what appeared to be a random pattern.
Lu’s eyes flickered down at the pattern, then up to meet her gaze as he rested his paws on the table. One fingertip raised as he said, “One must, at times, think and act innovatively … in order to increase one’s business.”
One of Shin’s ears dipped. The first offer was refused, and in response the giant panda raised a paw and rubbed the back of his neck. Frustration was expressed, and another finger tapped the table. “I agree,” Shin said. “I had thought of going into the hotel business after I graduate.” The ear dipped again as she took another drink of her tea.
The two conversations – one overt, the other dependent on silent codes that could be generations old – continued for almost an hour before a deal was struck. She reached into a pocket of her blazer for a tissue, blew her nose and placed the wadded up piece of paper on the table beside the teapot. More pleasantries were exchanged, and Shin finally paid her bill and walked away. The earrings had been dropped efficiently, and the haggling had gone in her favor. The money would arrive at the Maha Kahuna later; Lu Ting was well-respected, and his word on a deal was law.
Besides, knowing that the jewelry was out of the house would make both her and Fang a bit more comfortable.
“Do you really have to leave, Liberty?” Mrs. Yakan asked as she watched the New Haven girl pack her meager belongings in her knapsack. The girl had been acting strangely since the potlatch the week before. She had driven herself almost to exhaustion working alone in the fields and the orchard, and didn’t leave much time to tell stories to the older children. Mrs. Yakan had tried to draw her out, but it was like trying to pry open a tightly closed clam.
“Yes, ma’am,” Liberty said brusquely. She had been ashamed after the potlatch, ashamed of losing control and getting drunk. What had shamed her more was the question Taka had asked her just a few days ago. While telling him and his sister about Comrade Trotsky he had abruptly asked if Liberty was actually a girl. It had taken quite a bit of self-control to prevent her from hitting the boy. Songmark training was effective, but if used improperly could cause severe damage or even kill.
It was for the best, she thought as she rechecked the contents of her knapsack. Everything was in order, even the small amount of money she needed for the water taxi back to Eastern Island. She would find a place to sleep, even if it meant going back to sleeping in the second-year dorm. “I really need to go,” she amplified, turning to face the older woman. “I … I want to thank you for your hospitality, and for the opportunity to work for you,” she said.
Mrs. Yakan regarded the slim nineteen-year-old for a long moment, then stepped close to her and hugged her. Liberty stiffened, then relaxed slightly and made a tentative effort to return the gesture. The coyote murmured a blessing, then stepped back and said, “If it’s your decision to go, Liberty, then be safe and remember that you would be welcome back here if you want.”
Her young guest looked uncertain, then straightened and said, “Thank you, ma’am.” She then shouldered her pack and walked out of the Yakan family longhouse. As she walked up the path, Mrs. Yakan watched her go, then shook her head. “Such a pity,” she mused aloud, “that someone that young should have that starved a soul.”
Liberty started walking and didn’t pause until the sun was higher in the sky and she could see the village on the south side of the island. She had made good time, and could probably be back at Songmark before the evening meal. Opening up her pack, she put on her Songmark boots and a pair of socks, tested the fit, then started to run down the hill to the docks, guessing that the added exercise wouldn’t hurt her.
She stopped to take a breather in the village, dropping her knapsack on the dock before sitting down on the worn wood planking. Looking out over the water she thought back to Mrs. Yakan’s parting words with her. Why did she hug her? she wondered as she watched a Shawnee Skypaths seaplane take off. No one had hugged her in years, not even her parents when the Committee of Nine had chosen to send her to Spontoon.
After about a half hour, in which the warm sun and the cool breeze caused her to briefly doze off, Liberty shrugged and reached for her pack, dragging it over to her as she opened it to get out her water taxi fare. She dug around in the serviceable canvas satchel, and as she searched her eyes started to widen. Finally she dumped the entire bag out on the dock and combed through its contents minutely. She sat back, stunned.
“I could have sworn I had that money …”
“Please come in, Inspector,” the maid said quietly. “The Magistrate will see you in the library.” The two constables were shown in, and the pair entered the room to find an elderly canine seated in a high-backed chair sipping at his morning tea. Magistrate Poynter looked up and smiled. “Inspector Stagg, and Sergeant Brush!” he said. “Dear me, this is a shock. Why, I haven’t seen either of you in my house since that Catto affair, wasn’t it?”
“Very true, Your Honor,” Stagg said. He glanced at a chair and, at the old hound’s nod, took a seat before taking several folded papers from his suit jacket. “Your Honor,” Stagg said, “Sergeant Brush and I are here on a rather delicate matter.” He smoothed out the bundled papers and passed them to the old magistrate.
Poynter chuckled. “A delicate matter, eh?” he asked as he started studying the material through his pince-nez glasses, a slightly shaking paw holding the glasses as he read. “You’ve been doing jolly well excellent work, Inspector, and never mind what that damned upstart Spaniel has to say … “ His voice trailed off as he read through the affidavit with increasing astonishment; finally, his paw dropped his glasses. “This … this is monstrous, Inspector,” he murmured as his hackles rose in anger. “To think that something like this is going on almost under our noses … and an Oxford, no, a Madgalen fur, at that … simply monstrous.”
Stagg nodded solemnly. “Would you be interested in assisting us in bringing these people to justice, Your Honor?” he asked quietly.
The elderly canine fixed the whitetail buck with a glare. “If you had brought this to me on my deathbed, Inspector Stagg, I should rise Lazarus-like and do all I could. Simply not to be believed,” he muttered again, shaking his head. Soon he looked up. “What do you wish me to do?”
Stagg explained, a matter that took perhaps thirty minutes. When he was finished, Poynter nodded. “Of course,” he said. “I’ll be happy to assist you, Inspector. Will you stay and have some tea while we discuss this further?”
“Unfortunately, Your Honor,” Stagg said as he stood, “Sergeant Brush and I have a prior appointment over on Moon Island. Let’s go, Sergeant.” As Brush headed to the door, Stagg lingered, and spoke in a low voice. “This may involve some risk, sir,” he said as the judge gave the papers back to him.
The old hound waved away the thought with a chuckle. “Do you know any Shakespeare?” At the buck’s nod the hound said, “There’s a line from Julius Caesar: ‘Thou like an exorcist hast conjured up my mortified spirit. Now bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible, yea, get the better of them.’” He winked. “One last adventure before they bundle me off to retirement, Inspector,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “I’m quite looking forward to this.”
Perhaps an hour later a feline petty officer in the dark blue jumpsuit of the Rain Island Naval Syndicate ushered the two constables into an office. “Inspector Stagg and Sergeant Brush of the SIC, Captain Maxwell,” the rating said.
“Thank you, Henson. Please wait outside,” the canine behind the desk said as he stood and gestured for his two guests to take seats. While the black-furred Labrador wore the same type of dark blue jumpsuit, three gold stripes on his shoulders proclaimed his rank to be a captain’s. “Well, gentlemen,” Maxwell said after shaking paws, “what can I do for you? One of my sailors get in some trouble?”
Stagg replied, “Not at all, Captain. As a matter of fact, I rarely hear of any misconduct on the part of the furs in your command.”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” the officer said heartily. “Which, of course, begs the question about why you two are here.” He leaned against his desk. “Now, what can the RINS do for you, Inspector?”
Stagg explained, and the officer nodded as he thought it over. “It would be nicer to send the Southern Group over to Krupmark and flatten the place completely,” Maxwell said as Brush’s ears perked, “and I see that your sergeant fancies that idea as well. However, I have my orders.
“Now, I can see no flaw in your plan, Inspector, but there would be a matter of convincing my superiors in Seathl City. There would be a question as to where the money would come from, you understand,” he added, choosing his words carefully.
Stagg nodded. “I believe I can answer that as well, Captain,” he said as he took the papers from his coat. “As you can see from this cable,” he said as he passed one page to the Naval Syndicate officer, “there is a reward involved. The amount should be sufficient to cover the expenses.”
Maxwell read over the paper, then looked over it at Stagg. “And this is confirmed?”
“Yes, sir. Both the warrant and the reward have been confirmed. I have a letter to that effect from the British Consulate.”
Maxwell nodded, thinking it over again. Finally he smiled and extended a paw. “Tell me when you need us, Inspector. Always glad to help maintain law and order in the Spontoons.”
On the water taxi headed back to Meeting Island, Brush asked, “What’s next, sir?”
“Next, Sergeant,” Stagg said, “we go to the Chief of Patrol in order to put the final pieces in place.”
Liberty glowered at the contents of her pack. She had only dozed off for a short while; it wasn’t conceivable that anyone would steal from her. But the money was gone, plain and simple. And, she was certain, the water taxi drivers would not accept her word or an offer of assistance in exchange for a trip to Eastern Island.
There was, however, one way to get back to the island - and the water was still warm. She checked her pack one last time to ensure that nothing in it would be harmed by the water, took her shoes and socks off, and dove into the channel.
As she surfaced and started swimming, she heard the kitten she had spoken to days earlier jeering at her in Spontoonie. Her ears went back against her head as she guessed what he was laughing about, but she shut out the sound of his voice and headed for the small islet that stood at the entrance to the cove that sheltered Main Village. It was closer than Eastern, and she could catch a short breather there.
“Pssst…” Shin paused as she stepped out of Mahanish’s, her ears flicking at the sound. She took another step and the sound came again, this time with some urgency. The red panda stepped over to a nearby stand of trees that grew right to the edge of the water and looked down.
To her surprise, a very wet and very unclothed half-coyote looked back up at her. “Liberty?” Shin asked. “What the hell are you doing there?”
The New Havenite quickly explained, adding, “My skirt came off in the water – it was only bark cloth, after all – and I can’t get into Songmark. The place is closed for the summer.” She sounded a bit desperate, which struck Shin as funny.
“Look here,” the Chinese girl said, “why don’t you use the clothes in your pack?”
“They’re all wet, and … well,” she said.
Shin nodded; Liberty didn’t have much, but she didn’t usually want to advertise the fact. “And of course you don’t have any money. Get dressed anyway,” she said, “and come on out of there. Do you want a lift to your Embassy?”
A short time later Liberty faced into the breeze as the water taxi headed for Meeting Island, then turned to look at Shin. The Chinese girl was wearing a simple shirt and trousers. “Why are you doing this?” the New Havenite asked suddenly.
“What?” the other second-year student asked.
“Helping me,” Liberty amplified, a suspicious look in her eyes. “You never do anything unless it can benefit you somehow.”
“Right,” Shin said brightly. “By helping you, I’m helping myself and the rest of the dorm.” She grinned and brushed her tail with a paw. “Figure that out for yourself.”