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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!)
Hei led McCafferty to the warehouse adjacent to the Lucky Dragon, the red panda having to hurry and the dentist having to shorten his stride. Their visitor walked with a long, loping stride that covered a lot of ground in a very short time. As they stepped into the warehouse the wolfhound sniffed. “An’ how recently did ye kill someone in here?” he asked.
The older red panda glanced back at his youngest son, who had followed them. Hao shrugged. “I took care of a bit of personal business,” he said.
McCafferty laughed and tousled Hao’s headfur. “I recall ye better now, m’darlin’ cub. Ye’re getting’ quite th’ reputation, y’are.” He turned and smiled at the sight of the two safes, and went to the smaller of the two. Sitting on the floor and peering at the brass plate on its face he chuckled. “’Oso Safe Company, 1925,’ he said. “Ah, 1925. ‘Twas a fine year.” He grinned playfully and bent over to kiss the steel box. “This should cause no problem. Where’s m’case?”
Hao held out the man’s suitcase, and McCafferty took it, opened it and withdrew a stethoscope. Fitting it to his ears, he pressed the bell against the door of the safe as his left paw moved the dial. As he twisted the combination back and forth, his eyes drifted closed and his lips moved soundlessly for several moments. Suddenly his eyes snapped open and a smirk crossed his muzzle. “Here y’are, Mr. Ni,” he said as he turned the handle and jerked the safe door open. “’Twas no trouble a’tall, y’see. These Oso safes’re nothin’ special.”
Hei stooped and started to sort through the jumbled contents of the safe. Leon, he knew, had been rather compulsively neat, so the disarray in the safe was due solely to transporting it up the road to the warehouse. There was money, though, quite a lot of it and in several different currencies ranging from British pounds to Rain Island redbacks. There were also several ledgers, and Hei flipped through them quickly. “Looks like the payroll,” he said as Hao started to empty the safe.
Meanwhile, McCafferty had stood and walked over to the larger trunk safe. He pressed against it suddenly as he caressed it with a paw. “Ohhh, m’darlin,’” he whispered. He grinned at Hei. “Ye know what ye’ve got here? Why, ‘tis a Bankmaster, 1885 model! There’s only … Mother o’ saints, mebbe ten left in th’ whole wide world,” he breathed, his eyes going dreamy as he leaned over and shook Hei’s paw. “Thank ye, Mister Ni, fer th’ opportunity ye’ve given me.”
“What’s so special about it?” Hao asked.
“What’s special about it, m’lad, is in th’ lock,” McCafferty explained. He pointed at the front of the safe. “These trunk safes take four keys ta open ’em. Two identical, left an’ right, an’ two different keys, left an’ right. Now then, ye say ye want it open without destroyin’ what’s inside, so the locks’ll have ta be picked. An’ fer that,” he remarked, pointing at Hao, “’Tis yer help I’ll be wantin.’”
“My help? What for?” Hao asked.
“The keys’ll have ta be turned at th’ same time, y’see,” McCafferty said. “So it takes two furs ta do it. Then there’s th’ matter o’ feelin’ out th’ wards … take two, mebbe three days.” His face was a study in pure joy, his nosepad flushed a bit from the earlier bottle of whiskey as he said to Hei, “If y’want this open, sir, I’ll need stiff, strong wires, oil – th’ slickest ye can find, mind ye – an’ time.”
Hei nodded. “We’ll get you what you need, and time’s not an object in this case. Can I interest you in some dinner before you start?” he asked as Hao finished loading the contents of the smaller safe into a satchel.
“Dinner? Aye an’ to be sure, my stomach’s asking if me throat’s been cut,” the wolfhound laughed as he removed his suit jacket. Draping it over one arm he added, “An’ after tha,’ I s’pose p’raps I’ll look up m’friend Sally …”
The long days had taken their toll on all of the members of Red Dorm over the past two weeks, but they had pulled together and helped each other. As Liberty put it (after she had been released from the school’s small dispensary), “They’re just waiting for us to screw up. Let’s spoil their fun.” Shin had already cheered up after the grapevine had told her that Beryl Parkesson had lost a bet that at least one member of their group wouldn’t make it through the first year.
Shin felt physically like a dishrag that had been wrung out too many times, but as she brushed her tail out she took comfort in the knowledge that the two weeks of added classes and tutoring was almost over. She used to teach card tricks to the dealers at the Lucky Dragon, but having to teach Patricia from textbooks had been far more difficult – and, in a strange way, more rewarding. The tutors had been satisfied, though, that the prairie dog would not be too far behind the rest of the first year students.
She sighed, looking at her slightly bloodshot eyes in the mirror. Flying practice had been the hardest thing, as the lack of sleep manifested itself in slower reflexes, but all four of them had managed to keep up.
“What might ye be lookin’ fer, Shin?” Brigit asked as she leaned against the bathroom doorway. “’Tis sure ye’re not getting’ any prettier,” and she laughed to show that she was teasing.
The red panda grinned sourly. “Look who’s talking, Brigit. What are you doing here, anyway? I thought you were still downstairs, learning to eat with a fork.”
Brigit sneered, “Th’ tutors said we’re ta meet them in Miss Wildford’s office at five. An’ it’s close on ta that now.” Her news was greeted by books being closed as Liberty and Tatiana stopped their lessons and headed for the door. Shin tossed her furbrush onto her bed and followed them out.
“Red Dorm present, ma’am,” Tatiana said after they had lined up in the office. Three of their tutors were there: Miss Nordlingen looked back at them impassively, while Blande and Cardroy were conferring in whispered tones. Finally they stopped and glanced at Miss Wildford, who was seated at her desk.
“Well, girls,” Miss Wildford said as she stood up, “the two weeks are nearly over. You’ve performed adequately in your classes and in practical exercises, despite the longer hours.” She walked straight up to Liberty, almost nose to nose with her, and hissed, “Comrade Trotsky is a liar and a thief!”
The half-coyote’s eyes started to widen, but she merely blinked. She didn’t move a muscle, where two weeks ago she would have had to maintain her composure with a visible effort. The oddly patterned feline nodded as she gauged Liberty’s reactions, then moved on to Shin. “Wo cao ni ba bei zi zu zong!” she barked in Mandarin.
This is a test, Shin told herself, she is testing me. She held as still as she could, only a slight twitch of her tail and her fingers betraying her. Miss Wildford quirked a brow at the Chinese girl’s reaction, then snarled something at Brigit in Irish. Brigit turned to glare at the older feline, then stopped and faced front.
When her turn came, Tatiana just smiled. Miss Wildford nodded to herself, and resumed her seat. “It seems that some of your extra classes have borne fruit,” she remarked coolly. “You are showing better control over your anger. I strongly urge all four of you to continue working on that. You’ll need it.
“You will go back to your normal class schedules,” she said crisply, “but remember this, all of you: One more incident like that, and out you all go. No excuses, no explanations, nothing. Understood?”
“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused, and at the feline’s gesture they walked out of the room.
Once they got back to their room, Tatiana asked Shin, “What was that she said to you?”
Shin stopped and closed her eyes. “It – well, she said something bad about my ancestors. Eight generations of them.” She sighed as she let her anger out, then smiled. “But we’re off restriction now, so next weekend I can go to South Island. Anyone want to go with me?”
The others looked at each other, and Brigit nodded. “I think it’d be a fine way to relax after these long days o’ school,” she said. “Stretch out on th’ beach, an’ all.”
“And it’s almost November,” Shin added, “so there won’t be many tourists to bother us.” She grinned. “I’m sure we can think of something.”
Tatiana asked, “Have you seen schedule for next week, Shin?” At the red panda’s blank look the Russian sable replied, “Our dorm will have to cook next week.”
“Oh.” The exercise was to allow the students to supply the school with meals for a week while staying within a rigidly-monitored amount of money. Some dorms had managed it, while others had not. “All the more reason to take this coming weekend and relax,” Shin said firmly. “We’ll be rested and ready to tackle the problem.” She grinned suddenly, and it wasn’t a nice sort of expression. “In fact, I think that we need to invite someone along,” she said.
“Who?” Liberty asked.
“That new squirrel, what’s her name? Nancy,” Shin replied. “She wants to be an amateur detective, doesn’t she? That means that she wants to stop my family from doing business.”
“True enough,” Brigit said, “but what’s that to do with us?”
“Simple,” the Chinese girl replied. “You’ve been saying that the ‘polis’ keep breaking up your friends’ attempts to strike a blow for Ireland, while Liberty and Tatiana are dead set against anyone who works for the entrenched interests and the ‘bourgeois power structure,’ right?” The others warily nodded their heads. “So we start planting some false clues that something – something really big – is happening on South Island, and we can enjoy ourselves watching her go crazy trying to figure out what we’re up to,” she concluded.
The others thought it over, then nodded as they started to smile.
Hao and Anna finished their supper and sat back, Hao lighting a cigarette as the casino started to show signs of resuming its usual business. Things were starting to settle down, new arrangements and alignments had been accepted, and life on Krupmark was fast returning to normal. There were new deals to be struck and money to be made.
Off in a corner Phil McCafferty and one of the vixens who worked upstairs were deep in conversation over empty dinner plates. As Hao glanced over at them, the wolfhound laughed at something Sally said and drank some more whisky. “They make a lovely couple,” Anna remarked.
Hao snorted. “Considering Sally stabbed her second husband to death before coming here, I think they’re ideal for each other,” he said dryly, and grinned at the Russian canine as she gaped at him. “What, you thought she was a working girl all her life?”
“Of course not,” she said in a tart tone. “But she seems like – well, she’s always polite, and doesn’t seem as hard as the others.”
The young red panda raised his own glass of whisky and sipped, feeling the liquor slide down his throat. “Most people are,” he said, “until you push hard enough.” He looked at the remaining whisky in his glass, then looked at her. “Are you all right, Anna?”
The slim canine shrugged. “It’s nothing.”
Hao put his glass down and took her paw. “It’s not nothing,” he said. “What’s the matter?” He gave her paw a gentle squeeze.
She shrugged again, and smiled lopsidedly. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. Mainly about your older brother and his wife,” she said, her eyes lowering slightly.
The paw squeezing hers tightened its grip momentarily. “Is that what I think it meant?” he hazarded, blinking.
Anna blinked at him. “What did you think I meant?” she asked. “I was wondering when his wife will have their child.”
“Oh.” Hao looked thoughtful. “You made me think … that is, I …”
She laughed and took his paw in both of hers. “That I was thinking of children? Hao, that is very sweet and romantic of you,” she said, “but are you ready for a child?” At his look she added, “I could tell you stories that would curl the fur in your ears – or simply ask your own mother.”
Ni Hei closed the last ledger and tapped the small book with a claw. Leon and Susie had done a thriving business, and the smaller of the two safes had indeed carried the payroll. The safe held quite a bit of money, nearly twenty thousand American dollars in several currencies. Now, the question was what should be done with it.
Windfalls like this usually went to improvements, or was saved and invested overseas. He paused, and opened a desk drawer to look at a glossy brochure from the Marten Aircraft Company.
A new plane, adapted for carrying cargo over longer ranges than either of their two current aircraft might be a sound investment. He considered, then took a piece of paper from another drawer and uncapped his fountain pen, scrawling a quick note about a possible foray into a new line of business.