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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
Luck of the Dragon: Liar's Poker© 2006 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
(Inspector Stagg courtesy of EO Costello. Thanks!)
Franklin Stagg finished dressing for the day, and as he stooped to pick up his threadbare suit jacket he paused to look again at the two squat pieces of machinery hidden under his bed. A box beside the two electric typewriters held the rest of a week’s worth of careful shopping and scavenging: small relays and lengths of wire that, he hoped, would be of great help to him.
The germ of the idea had come to him during the Great War when, as the intelligence officer of the New Haven Flying Corps he had taken part in code breaking activities against the Germans. As the War ended and things settled down, he realized that codes would become increasingly sophisticated, to the point that no ordinary mind could sort through all of the possible combinations of letters and numbers to arrive at a solution. So, he reasoned, why not let technology do the heavy work that was too tedious or confusing for mortal minds?
He had fiddled with various means of wiring together a machine that would decrypt a coded message, and after establishing a sound theory as to how the device would operate, he had submitted a report to the New Haven General Assembly. The Assembly had thanked him for his help, filed the report away, and had promptly forgotten about it. Where the report ended up was a matter of conjecture, as most of the NHGA’s records and files were destroyed by the Red Fist after they seized power in 1931. Those that weren’t destroyed had very likely been scattered to the four winds by now.
Stagg straightened wearily and put his jacket on, paws settling an upturned fold of the collar. With the death of the Allworthys, there were no more coded messages using the Lily cipher. That left the Rose and Daisy codes – and a third that had caught his notice, which he had named Buttercup. They were harder to crack, and the points of similarity between them were fewer and farther between. He had almost given up when he remembered that the theories and diagrams were still in his memory.
It had taken long nights to tease the memories out of his head, and longer to set them to paper. But he finally had the diagrams ready, and now had the materials. All he had to do was build the thing, and see if it actually worked.
It still hurt to breathe, and it hurt even more for her to put any weight on her injured ankle, but Mrs. Oelabe had assured Patricia that she would make a complete recovery and rejoin her dorm. The fact that she had not been expelled from Songmark made her feel a bit better.
A knock sounded on the door and she said, “Come in,” then instantly regretted saying it. The red panda that was in Red Dorm walked in, closing the door behind her. She carried several textbooks and a pad of paper in her arms. “You!” Patricia said in shock and surprise, clutching the bedsheets up to her chest fearfully. “You stay away from me!”
Shin smiled as she set the books down on a nearby table. “That’s not going to be easy,” she said, “because the staff want me and the rest of my dorm to tutor you so you don’t fall behind.”
“What?” the prairie dog yelped, and the red panda nodded, her banded tail waving slightly.
“Quite true,” the Chinese girl said. “The tutors come up with weird punishments sometimes. Part of our punishment is to make sure you don’t fall behind.”
“B-but you lot want to kill me,” Patricia whispered.
Shin laughed as she sorted through the books. “Listen, chun zi,” she said seriously, “if I or any of the others had really wanted to kill you, you never would have reached the door. All we wanted to do was – well, teach you a lesson.” She cocked her head to one side as she turned to look at the younger student. “You did learn something from all this, didn’t you?” she asked, a smile touching her muzzle.
The question caused the New Zealander to pause. “I – I’m not sure.” She looked over at Shin, who was holding a basic navigation text in her paws. “What was I supposed to learn?”
“Good question.” Shin sat at a corner of the bed. “I’d say you learned three things. One, you learned that you don’t rub another fur’s rhubarb – in other words, don’t tell someone like me that their life’s a lie, okay? You’ll live longer. Two, you learned what you’re capable of doing in order to save yourself. You’ll learn more about that as you go on here, trust me. And third – “ She broke off as a disturbance erupted outside the door. While Patricia watched, Shin got up, went to the door and opened it. “What happened?” she asked. She nodded at the answer and closed the door, sighing.
“What was it?” Patricia asked.
“A fight between Rumiko and Liberty,” Shin said, shrugging. “More down marks for her. Well, where was I? Oh, yes. I’m assigned to tutor you today, as part of our punishment, so pick up that book and turn to page 26 – “
“What was the third thing?” Patricia suddenly asked.
“Huh? Oh, that.” Shin thought for a moment, then grinned. “You learned your first words of Chinese.”
“’Chun zi?’ What’s that mean?”
The red panda’s grin got wider. “’Moron,’ in the Mandarin dialect. Now, let’s get on with your lessons. With our punishment added in, we’re working sixteen-hour days for the next two weeks.”
“Sir?” At the steward’s voice, the wolfhound’s eyes opened, and the shorter canine in the natty Pan-Nimitz uniform handed him a message. “This just came over our radio, sir,” the steward said quietly before walking back along the aisle to assist another passenger.
McCafferty looked at the message, slightly impressed. It took a great deal of money – whether a bribe or outright transaction – to slip a message into a plane’s usual radio traffic. He opened it and glanced at the contents.
ON ARRIVAL SPONTOON YOU WILL BE MET
He nodded, folded the message and tucked it into his pocket before lapsing back into a doze as the plane flew through slightly overcast skies toward its destination. The big wolfhound smiled, then opened his eyes again as a woman’s voice asked, “Excuse me, young man, could you change seats with me? I want to look out the window.”
McCafferty turned to see an elderly otter looking down at him. He smiled and started to get up from his seat. “O’ course, ma’am,” he said politely, noting her accent was American, not English. He made his way into the aisle and gently ushered her into his vacated seat.
As he took another seat she watched him go and remarked to herself, “Such a nice man.”
Shepherd’s Hotel on Casino Island catered to a slightly higher class of fur (well, those who paid more, anyway) than their competitors, and the quality of their food and drink reflected that quality. Early in the morning, with the clouds promising some rain, trucks pulled up to the rear of the hotel to unload food and other supplies.
Among the supplies were cases of liquor, including a strong single-malt Irish whisky that went by the brand name Old Bog-Mould. The squat bottles were distinctive, and the whisky was guaranteed to be a minimum of twelve years old.
Some of the furs offloading the trucks paused to admire a young canine girl as she walked down the lane. When they returned to their tasks, a single case of the whisky was missing from the inventory. After some searching and a few harsh words, the warehouse was blamed, and the rest of the supplies were delivered to the hotel.
“All that trouble,” Anna groused later, “and it’s not even vodka.” She turned her nose up at the case of liquor sitting in the passenger cabin of the Ni Family’s Keystone-Loening as Hao leaned against the dock piling the seaplane was moored to. “How will you know who to look for?” she asked.
The youngest son of the Ni Family shrugged. “I was given a full description,” he said, “and I’ve seen him once before.” A large Pan-Nimitz flying boat was taxiing to its dock at the seaplane terminal, and he straightened up. “Wait here, okay?” he asked her.
Anna nodded, and watched him go as a brief spatter of rain started to mark the plane’s windscreen. She drummed her fingers on the arms of her chair, thinking.
She sat up a few minutes later as Hao reappeared, a tall canine in tow, and she blinked. The man was well over six feet tall, lean but well-muscled as far as she could tell, his fur close-cropped. Hao tossed his single suitcase into the passenger cabin and waved the taller fur inside, then started untying the mooring line.
As the wolfhound sat and started putting on his seatbelt, Anna leaned over in her seat and smiled at him. “Hello,” she said. “My name’s Anna.”
He smiled, looking down his long muzzle at her before replying, “Phillip McCafferty, DDS, at yer service, ma’am.”
“’DDS?’” she asked.
“Doctor o’ Dental Surgery,” he said with a wink and an impish smile, settling back in his seat and running a possessive paw over the suitcase. Anna withdrew into the forward cabin as Hao secured the door and moved to the pilot’s seat. As he started the Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine, Anna kept thinking.
“Doctor! It’s wonderful to see you again,” Ni Hei said, a wide smile on his face as he shook paws with the Irish canine. “Would you like to see the patients now,” he asked with a chuckle, “or would you prefer to settle in first?”
“Well, sir,” McCafferty said, craning his neck as he watched Hao carry a distinctive case into the Ni & Sons building, “if ‘tis all th’ same ta ye, I’d prefer a drop o’ tha’ whisky yer son’s been after teasin’ me with this whole long way.”
“Of course,” the older red panda said. “This way, please,” and he led the wolfhound through the office and across the road to the Lucky Dragon. “We have the same room you had last year set up for you,” he explained, “and your tour company has forwarded us with instructions.”
McCafferty nodded. “Well, I’ll get settled, then, an’ have a drop,” he said, “an’ then I’ll see how yer patients fare.” He paused in the main room of the casino, looking around. “I see ye’ve repainted th’ roulette wheel,” and he grinned as he asked, “Is Sally still here?”
Hei matched his grin. “Of course.”
The wolfhound winked at him and spotted one of the bottles on the bar. His eyes lit up and he went straight to it, looked for a corkscrew, then grasped the bottle in his paw and expertly cracked the neck of the bottle against the edge of the bar. The neck broke cleanly, and he took a healthy swallow of the whisky, his eyes closing in rapture as he savored the strong brown liquor. “Ah!” he exclaimed. “Now that’s a proper drink,” he sighed. “Reminds me o’ fine times in Dublin.”
Hei stood by politely as the man drank off the contents of the bottle, then whooped and placed the empty on the bar. McCafferty closed his eyes, took a deep breath and shuddered from his ears to the tip of his tail. “Fer certain tha’s great whisky. Has th’ spirit an’ fay fire o’ old Eire in it. Now, m’dear friend,” he said, “s’posin’ ye show me where m’patients are?”