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28 November 2005

Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer

"Liar's Poker"

Chapter 62

Luck of the Dragon: Liar's Poker
© 2005 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and Songmark characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)

Chapter Sixty-two

        For Adele, the next three weeks with Miss Chartwell (which, she learned, was definitely not her real name) were alternately enlightening and terrifying.  At times they were almost enjoyable, once she had overcome her initial shame and reluctance (she had finally understood what girls like Ada and Prudence saw in other women).  She also learned a great deal about how the island actually worked.

        She did have a bad time when, nearly ten days into her stay, she had been called in to the older woman’s office.  “Adele,” Miss Chartwell had sighed theatrically, “sometimes I really do despair of you.”  She held out the pawful of photographs that had been taken of the rabbit at the Lucky Dragon.  “Take a long look at these and tell me what you see – or, rather, what you don’t.”

        Adele had looked at her quizzically and studied the pictures again.  When she shook her head, the older canine looked irritated.  “Negatives?” she prompted.

        It was practically an epiphany, and Adele’s expression would probably have been comical had it been seen anywhere else.  “Oh my God,” she breathed.

        “I suppose so,” Miss Chartwell said dryly.  “Now, what are you going to do about it?”

        The question made the rabbit frown as she thought furiously, studying and discarding alternatives before finally saying, “I – I don’t know,” she finally admitted.  “I guess I’ll have to go work for them again the next time they ask.”

        “Really?”  A brow arched as her tail swished.  “Is that all you can think of?”

        “I could try to steal them, or find some way to get Shin to give them to me without having to come back here,” Adele said as her ears and tail drooped.  “I really can’t think of a way.”

        “Hmm.  You do have one alternative,” Miss Chartwell said, and Adele looked at her.
        “Really, ma’am,” the rabbit said, “I wouldn’t want to impose on you any more that I already have – “

        The canine smiled, and the sight of her teeth Adele shut her mouth.  “It’s no imposition,” she said.  “You b – er, work for me, not for the Nis.  Nik?” and before she could ask again the cheetah was at her side.
        “Yes, Mistress?” he asked, bowing.

        Miss Chartwell patted the feline on the paw.  “Go down to Ni and Sons,” she said, “and tell Peng that I want all of the negatives that go with Adele’s pictures.  Every single one, and do it quickly.”  The cheetah bowed again and left the room, leaving Adele speechless.  Finally she asked, “Why are you being – “

        “So good to you, my dear?  Is that your question?”  At the rabbit’s nod the canine replied, “Several reasons, I daresay.  One is that I do not want anyone who is employed by me to serve another.  Another is that I want you to learn a lesson from this: that getting yourself into a situation may cause you to get into another.  Now, come here,” and she pointed to a spot on the carpeted floor at her feet.  As Adele complied, Miss Chartwell added, “You are very attractive, you know.  Lord and Lady are both quite taken with you.”  At her gesture, the rabbit swallowed hard and knelt.  She shivered slightly as the older woman’s paw ran over her neck.  “As am I.”

        Adele had shivered again, whether in fear or in anticipation, she couldn’t tell …

        A loud giggle, and she blinked.  She was no longer on Krupmark but back in school, and the other girls at the third-year’s table were snickering at her – or, more specifically, at her rapidly twitching tail.  “Looks like someone had a fun vacation,” Missy Kanaloa remarked, and Prudence giggled.

        Adele ducked her head to cover her blush, but despite herself she couldn’t help smiling.


        The third week of September saw a burst of constructive and purposeful activity around Fort Bob and everywhere else on Krupmark Island, as storm shutters and boards were nailed into place over windows and anything that could blow away was either brought inside or tied down.  The Ni Family’s aircraft had been taken around to the old caldera known as Smuggler’s Cove and beached, where a heavy guard guaranteed that the three planes would be ride out the storm unmolested.

        The typhoon that was expected had been forming in the warm sea between Midway and Hawaii, and every plane or ship that had crossed its path reported that the storm would pass quite close to Krupmark’s east coast.  Seasoned veterans of earlier storms looked south, noted the dull slate-blue smear of clouds and agreed that it was heading straight for the island.

        Waves exploded into clouds of wind-driven spray against the island’s barrier reef, and as the tide rose and the seas grew rougher water started to come over the reef unimpeded.  People living or staying in the various houses along the Beach flinched nervously as the wood-frame structures creaked under the pressure of the wind.
        Hao looked up from the account ledger he was studying as Anna paced back and forth across the floor.  “Relax, Anna,” he urged.  “The storm won’t last long – they never do.”

        “I’ve never been through one of these before,” she confessed, hugging herself as the wind whistled around the planks covering the windows.  The storm sounded like some kind of hungry wild animal prowling around the building looking for a way in.  There was a sudden gust and two of the boards covering one window blew away, and the slim former NKVD officer yelped in surprise at the increase in light.

        She stepped over to the window and looked out, squinting as the wind drove the rain through chinks in the window sashes.  “I can’t see much out there,” she said.  “I wonder what it’s like?”

        “Would you like to go out and see?” Hao asked, closing the book.  His father had given him the ledger (last quarter’s) in order to show him how the bookkeeping was done for the family business, but he still despaired of being able to make head or tails out of it.

        Anna gaped at him.  “Are you serious?” she asked.  “You’d blow away in that wind.”

        “That’s right,” he said, “which is why I asked if you would like to go out and see.”  He grinned at her angry look and sat back, gesturing for her to come and sit on his lap.  She did so, and he put his arms around her.  “It’ll be okay, Anna, so relax,” he said quietly.  “This place has stood up to some really nasty storms,” he remarked as a clatter on the roof heralded the loss of some shingles.
        There was a pounding on the door and Anna opened it to reveal Ahmad, soaked clear through despite the oilskins he was wearing.  “Hao,” he panted as he tried to get the water from his oversized ears, “your father wants you in his office – hurry!”  He ducked out of the room as Hao and Anna both stood and followed him.
        The Casino’s main room was alive with furs who had taken shelter from the storm.  Most were drinking, while some played cards and others talked with the hostesses.  Hao blinked as he realized that few of the family’s hired guards could be seen.  “Ahmad, where –“ he started to ask.

        The Algerian fennec nodded.  “There’s enough here, insh’allah.  They’ll look after things.”
        The trio dashed out into the road and was nearly bowled off their feet by the howling gale sweeping down the hill as the typhoon passed the island’s eastern coast.  Wind-driven rain pelted them like chill needles as they made their way past fallen shingles and tumbling pieces of debris to the Ni and Sons building.

        Once inside, Hao stared as he saw most of the family’s employees strapping on pistols and loading their pockets with ammunition.  Spying his father, Hao walked over to him and Ni Hei asked, “Do you have your weapon, Son?”

        “Always, Father,” he replied automatically, “but what - ?”

        “A small piece of news came over the shortwave set from the BBC, before the aerial blew down,” Hei replied.  “It seems that Leon and his sister are both dead.”

        Hao’s eyes went wide in shock.  “Dead?” he echoed.

        His father nodded.  “Get down there and bring back what you can.  Claim both of his places if possible, and let some of the women know that we’ll be hiring them if they’re interested.”  He smiled as his youngest son nodded.  Hao checked his pistol, saw that Anna was holding a pump-action shotgun in her paws, and turned to the rest of the furs.  “We know what to do,” he said, “so let’s go.”
        With the wind at their backs, running down the hill to the Beach was fairly easy, although several of the twenty-two furs slipped and fell in the rain-churned mud.  When they reached the two-story house Hao waved a group of five furs forward, while the others moved to provide covering fire.
        Fat Leon’s House was a mess, with windows broken and some furniture lying out on the sand while his employees enjoyed a drunken binge.  As soon as one saw Ni Hao, however, an alarm was raised and the brief bright flashes of gunfire started to be seen against the gray downpour.

        Anna saw the first shots and divided the remaining furs into two groups, each covering the other as they crawled up to the sides of the house.  The fire coming from the house was wildly inaccurate, and Hao guessed that the people inside had gotten into the Allworthy liquor cabinet even before the news had arrived.  Hao’s group had taken cover by the front steps, and as Anna’s two teams drew fire away from them they managed to get in the front door.

        Hao grabbed a shotgun from a dead feline just inside the foyer, stuffing his pistol into a pocket as he led his team further in.  Some of the women cowered, holding up their paws to show that they were unarmed.  Anna and several other furs stood guard over them as Hao and the others went through the house, finally meeting back in the main room.  “Well?” Hao asked Ahmad as several more gunshots went off inside the house.

        Ahmad ticked off items on his fingers.  “There’ll be two safes, one large, one small … the large one will cause us some trouble, I think … a lot of valuables are likely already missing,” he said.  Virtually every business on Krupmark had spies in their organization, keeping track of deals, movements and assets that could be stolen.  There were at least three in the Ni Family’s operation, probably belonging to the furs who ran the island.

        Hao nodded.  He’d seen something like this a few times since his family had come to Krupmark.  Whenever a business owner died or was killed, his employees and competitors could be relied upon to steal anything that wasn’t bolted down – or saw through the floor and take it anyway.  “Anna,” he called out and as she turned he said, “take some people over to Susie’s place – the Lavender House, you can’t miss it – and hold it against all comers.  We might be able to take it over completely.”

        “Too late,” one of the girls said.  “Word already got out before ya got here.  Is what ya sayin’ true?  Ya gonna offer us jobs?”

        Hao shrugged.  “Maybe.”  A canine came up to him and whispered in his ear.  He nodded and followed the terrier out of the room

        As soon as they were in the next room Hao asked, “What is it, Hiro?”

        The Japanese canine looked uncomfortable.  “You should see this, Boss.”  He led the red panda into a closet, where the pillaging had revealed a secret door that concealed a flight of stairs.  Hao took a lantern from the man, lit it, and walked down the stairs.

        The scent told him before his eyes did, and he felt his tail fluff out as he surveyed the scene.  He stood there, looking at what was hung from a meat hook in the center of the basement room, before going back upstairs.

        He passed the lantern back to Hiro and said, “Make sure that whatever it is down there is dead.  I want this house searched thoroughly.  Get the safes up to the Casino.  Then burn this place to the ground.”

        “Yes, Boss.”  Hiro went downstairs as Hao went to look at the safes.  He paused as a muffled shot rang out, then he continued on his way.

        The smaller of the two safes was similar to the one Peng-wum and Nailani had opened the previous year, if it wasn’t the same one.  The desk that had concealed it had been chopped up with an axe, and rain from a shattered window still pelted it.  Hao wiped the water and pieces of wood from it to look at the engraved plate on its face.  “Oso Safe Company?” he muttered, and smiled.  “Not-so-safe, they mean.”  He looked across the room at the other one and his ears went down as he realized what Ahmad had said.

        The other safe must have weighed over a half-ton, easily; Hao idly wondered how Leon had managed to get it shipped in.  It was a trunk safe, with two doors secured by a total of four keys.  God only knew where the keys were, so opening it without destroying the contents wouldn’t be easy.  “Maybe we can rig a sledge,” Ahmad said helpfully.

        “Maybe,” Hao said.  “But whatever we do, we need to get it done before the weather clears and everyone else comes down here.  What else did you find?”  Sounds began to be heard from upstairs as the house was searched with simple, brutal efficiency.  Walls were being ripped open.

        “Well, we found some of his silver service,” the fennec said, “although quite a lot has already been taken.  Much of the other valuables are also gone.”

        Hao nodded.