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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
Luck of the Dragon: Liar's Poker© 2005 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
Ni Hei stepped out of the truck to be greeted by a thin, unsmiling weasel who bowed and escorted him into the building. The house had a six-foot wall around it, and bodyguards stood attentively and watched as the red panda entered. He felt a bit naked without his own bodyguard with him, but was secure in the knowledge that he would not die here. After all, Shen believed in face.
Shen Jintao had been a mandarin at the Imperial Court in Peking up until the Revolution in 1912. After that, he had parlayed his Court connections and other talents into an operation that stretched throughout Asia.
The wolf bowed in response to Hei’s deeper, more respectful bow and said, “I am honored that you have come.”
“Please, sir, the honor is mine,” Hei said in the proper deferential tone. Shen, dressed in a smartly tailored suit that demonstrated the latest fashion from Paris, smiled and the two walked into the dining room.
The cuisine was entirely Chinese, and Hei gave his host face by first praising the variety and amount of food offered, then politely protesting that the small amount he had eaten was enough to fill his stomach. Shen, for his part, returned the favor by complimenting his guest on his taste in clothes and gently urging him to eat. It was an old game in etiquette, and both knew how to play it.
Finally, both had eaten enough to be satisfied and as the last dishes were taken away and their teacups were refilled, Shen said, “Now, my good friend, how are your wife and children?”
Hei smiled. “My wife is still beautiful, and I consider myself blessed by her presence,” he said. “My eldest son and his wife expect their first child this very month.”
The wolf raised his cup in salute. “That is indeed good news. Your daughter and her husband?”
“My daughter grows lovelier every day, in my opinion,” the red panda said proudly. “Like a sword – beautiful and terrible, like my youngest son. Her husband does well in his new line of work, so I hear.”
Shen laughed. “You are blessed to have such fine children. And, of course, you have a thriving business to go along with your thriving family.” The hint about Hao was well taken; he had a growing reputation on the island. There was a pause as he sipped at his tea, and a servant refilled the cup. “I said earlier that with greater resources can come greater obligations,” he observed. “You pay fifteen thousand a year now?”
“Yes, sir,” Hai replied, mentally bracing himself.
“You’ve managed to acquire two new houses, both on the Beach,” Shen pointed out. “Although I can’t help but wonder why one burned down, and in the middle of a typhoon at that.”
“My youngest son made the decision to destroy the place,” Hei said. He then quickly explained what Hao told him had been found in the basement of the house. When he finished, Shen shuddered almost imperceptibly and sipped at his tea.
“We knew,” Shen said, “that Leon had certain connections of a very unsavory nature. It had been hoped that the loss of Mr. Key last year would have induced him to be more careful.” The wolf shrugged. “Personally, I feel that your son Hao did the right thing. It would be bad joss to leave the house standing after so much had happened – the spirits would be quite upset.”
“Once I have acquired materials, I plan on rebuilding the house,” Hei went on, “as well as repairing the building Susie left behind. And here’s what I would like to do, with your gracious permission,” and he quickly outlined the plan that had formed in his head on the ride through Fort Bob.
When he was finished, Shen sat back and took a little snuff from an exquisitely-carved gold and jade box. “Hmm,” he said after inhaling a pinch of the powdered tobacco, “this idea is a good one. But – ahchoo! – I can see where it will involve some initial expense on your part,” he added, wiping his nose with a silk handkerchief. “In light of that, I feel that your obligation will remain the same. However, we shall watch carefully, Ni Hei.”
“Of course, sir,” the red panda said. “Once the houses begin to turn a profit, you will want to ensure that your returns are commensurate with mine.”
“Exactly.” The conversation then trailed off into further pleasantries followed by some good-natured bantering as Hei politely refused an offering of a pipe of opium. It was far past sundown when Shen saw his guest to the door. “You will be certain to come back, and please let me know if Peng-wum’s wife has a son,” Shen admonished. “Sons are a great blessing to a man.”
Hei bowed. “I’ll be certain to let you know, sir.” He walked out of the walled property then, and his bodyguard opened the door of the truck for him. As it made its way through the now-quiet streets of the town, the ferret asked, “Everything go okay, Boss?”
“Yes, Marco,” the red panda said with a smile. “Everything went very well.”
“YOU!” At the shouted word Shin looked up to see a furious red setter girl standing in the doorway. Brigit’s chest heaved and her fists were clenched. “Ye ringtailed …” she never finished the sentence but launched herself at Shin with a snarl.
The Chinese girl threw herself off her bed just in time to meet Brigit’s initial rush, paws and feet flying as she backed away, dodging and blocking a variety of punches and kicks. She sought her own openings and struck back, only once or twice landing a paw on the other girl. Her Shaolin training helped, but she had found it gave her only a slight advantage over the others in unarmed combat.
Finally the two grappled on the floor, locking together so tightly that neither could get any opening to exploit. Shin panted, muzzle inches from Brigit’s own, “What the hell’s your problem?”
“You, ye flufftailed leafeatin’ … an’ ye told me that th’ new girl’s from Ireland,” Brigit growled, and Shin blinked.
“She said she was from Ireland,” Shin said. “What’s wrong?”
Brigit growled, her teeth baring. “She’s from NORTHERN IRELAND!” she fairly screamed.
“SO WHAT?” the Chinese girl screamed back after wincing from the shout.
“I’ll tell ye so what, I will,” Brigit growled, tightening her grip and Shin matching her attempt to gain an opening, “that girl’s from Ulster, an’ she’s a bleedin’ Protestant.” At Shin’s look of blank incomprehension, she amplified, “Her kind’s oppressed me an’ mine fer hundreds o’ years. Why, ‘tis only because she’s in first year kept me from rippin’ her headfur out by th’ roots, so.”
Shin nodded as far as their mutual hold allowed. “I see now. Kind of like Tatiana and Liberty?”
“Yes,” Brigit said, “an’ ye didn’ know?”
“How could I?” Shin asked. “Hell, I don’t pay much attention to religion outside of what Mom taught me when I was little.” She looked at Brigit until the Irish girl realized the truth behind what she was saying, then added, “Now, are we going to stay like this? If anyone walks by, they’re going to think we’re doing more than fighting.” She smiled, then winked at her fellow Red Dorm student.
Brigit blinked, then smiled and finally started to laugh. “Truce, then. On three?”
“Ready.” The two of them tensed, staring into each other’s eyes as they chanted, “One.”
“Three!” and as they said the word they released the grip they had on each other and rolled apart, springing to their feet. Shin cracked her knuckles while Brigit massaged some feeling back into her left ankle. “Honestly, Brigit,” Shin said, “I had no idea.” Her ears perked at the sound of footsteps on the stairs. “Miss Windlesham.”
The two instantly moved to their beds, Shin reopening her textbook while Brigit lay down and started humming. One of the tutors looked in on them. “Is everything all right, girls?”
Brigit stopped humming. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good.” The older woman left, and as her footsteps receded the two younger girls started to giggle. Finally Brigit asked, “You really don’t pay attention ta yer religion, Shin?”
“Well, maybe once or twice I’ll stop by and light a stick of incense – thank one or the other of the gods if things are going my way,” Shin replied. “But I usually don’t think of it, and I have better things to do on Sundays, so don’t bother inviting me.”
Brigit laughed. “I know, so I won’t bother. Tell me, have ye ever been out t’Sacred Island? I hear it’s a strange place.”
“No, never have,” Shin said flatly. “My younger brother spent the night there on a dare a few years back. Hao – well, Hao usually confides in me, and he’s never said a word about what he saw or what happened.”
Adele sat and waited outside of Mrs. Oelabe’s office along with several other girls waiting to have their physical examinations. She was quite confident that nothing would be found, and she had been very careful about taking precautions. With luck, she thought, she could avoid a repeat of what happened last May.
“Next,” and Adele stood as another girl walked out, looking a bit flustered. The rabbit walked in and the matron glanced up at her. “Adele, how nice to see you. Did you have a good summer?”
“Yes, ma’am,” and for the next twenty minutes sat quietly as Mrs. Oelabe poked and prodded and listened. Finally she gestured to a nearby padded table. “You know what you need to do, Adele,” she said.
The rabbit shed her remaining clothing and got up on the table, and Mrs. Oelabe started to examine her. The feline suddenly looked up at her, then back down, then back up at her, finally shaking her head and stepping back. “Off the table, please. Get dressed,” she said tersely. As Adele put her shorts on the matron looked closely at her face. “Adele, when did you first notice that?” she asked.
“Notice what, ma’am?”
The feline gestured with a finger. “That rash around your nose.”
Adele involuntarily brought a paw up to her muzzle. “I – I don’t know, Mrs. Oelabe.”
“Hmm.” She scribbled a note on a piece of paper and passed it to Adele. “Take this and yourself off to Meeting Island Hospital, Adele. I don’t know what you might’ve gotten into over the summer, but I want to make sure that no one can catch it.”
Adele’s ears burned with embarrassment as she took the note. Saying meekly, “Yes, ma’am,” she headed for the door.
A singular event marked the end of the first week of October and the resumption of regular business, as the new radio mast was erected near the main airstrip at Fort Bob. Boisterous people fired rifles into the air, but were quickly (and, in some cases, violently) hushed in order to avoid another incident like the one on the previous fifth of May.
The radio operators soon had their paws full of message traffic, both incoming and outgoing. Some of the people in charge sent out cautiously worded inquiries for precise details of the fate of Leon and Susie, while others concerned financial transactions and deals that needed to be made.
Along with all the other traffic was a message sent by Ni Hei to a contact in Singapore. From there it was relayed, sometimes by radio and other times by courier, to Calcutta, to Bombay, to Cairo, to London and finally to Cobh, on the southeastern Irish coast. Once there it was decoded, read, and delivered into the paws of the intended recipients.