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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
Luck of the Dragon: Liar's Poker© 2006 by Walter Reimer
The phone call was brief, and so was Hao’s message. It was a simple series of nonsense phrases in Spontoonie that translated freely as “Anna has gone missing; find her and report to Maha Kahuna.” As soon as the rat at the other end hung up the phone after receiving the message, he was dialing quickly to alert the others. Within a half hour, six of Hao’s employees were looking around and asking discreetly after the canine girl.
The problem was that Anna was a slim, brown-furred canine woman with dark headfur. The same description could easily fit any number of native Spontoonies, as well as Euros and foreigners. Although the six fanned out and looked in all of the likeliest places, starting with the docks area where Hao had last seen her, there was little likelihood she would be found quickly.
The advantage that the six had was that they had all seen and scented the woman before, and were fairly certain that they could spot her and follow her without attracting attention. One of the group, a feline woman named Mikala, paused as she strolled past a line of shops, a thought occurring to her.
One of the last times Hao had brought Anna to Spontoon, the woman had gone to Meeting Island. Well, she’d go over there and see what she could find out. She retraced her steps and went to the docks, stepping into a water taxi. “Meeting Island, please, Manoa,” she said to the driver.
“Sure thing, Mikala,” the goat said as he cast off and started the engine. As the small boat made its way to the north she hoped that she was following the right lead.
Being a taxi driver herself, she paid only half the normal price for the trip. She tipped well, though – almost the cost of a full fare, and Manoa chuckled. “What’s with the tip, Mikala? You and I are in the union.”
“Of course, but I also know you’ve got a wife and six kids,” she said tartly, and he laughed as he pocketed the money.
The feline stepped out onto the dock and resumed her search, trying to place the woman’s scent. Passing traffic and the light northerly breeze wasn’t helping her. Mikala stepped into a tobacconist shop, and asked the shopkeeper if he had seen a fur matching Anna’s description.
Paydirt! The man had seen a woman who looked like that, maybe a half hour ago; she had bumped into the carved tiki by his door and seemed distracted. Mikala thanked him, explaining that the girl was a Euro who had gotten drunk on Nootnops Blue and was now wandering around in a daze. The shopkeeper was heard to remark as Mikala left in the indicated direction that, if he had his way, all Euros would require keepers.
Mikala paused at a street corner and looked up at the sign. This side street led to the foreign embassies, and she considered for a moment. According to what she had heard, Anna was supposed to be some sort of Russian agent who had thrown in with Hao. She looked up at the street sign, then went down the tree-lined lane.
Apart from an admiring whistle from the Marine standing beside the gate of the American Embassy (which she ignored), there was no one else on the street. She walked past the Soviet Embassy and almost paused, her nose twitching constantly.
Anna’s scent. The trees and the walls around some of the legation compounds had acted as a windbreak, and Mikala realized that the woman had passed this way. But did she go in?
Mikala kept on walking down the lane, and headed down the next street. She would hide and see if her theory was correct.
She almost wished it wasn’t. For Anna’s sake.
“I’m sorry. I can not do this any longer,” Anna said, her voice quavering as she stood at a rigid posture of attention in front of the huge desk in the Embassy’s second-floor corner office. She had walked straight to the Embassy, disregarding her fieldcraft in order to save time, and had spoken a code phrase that granted her instant admittance. “My assignment was to get close enough to Ni Hao to gain an understanding of his family’s operation, and to learn about Krupmark,” she added.
The wolf behind the desk tapped his claws on the well-varnished wood, and signaled to an aide with a languid paw. The aide stiffened and crossed the room to a small table, where he filled a tiny glass from a carafe and brought it to the lupine. As the aide approached, he paused as the wolf raised his paw, then gestured toward Anna. The ermine nodded and walked over to Anna as the wolf said, “Be at ease, Comrade Lieutenant. Have a drink to steady your nerves.”
Anna’s shoulders slumped and she took the small glass with a grateful nod before tipping the strong liquor down her throat. She swallowed convulsively and lowered the glass as she smacked her lips. “Thank you, Comrade,” she sighed. “It’s been too long since I last tasted good vodka.” Her muzzle twisted in a grimace. “All they can get on Krupmark was vile Tsarist brew,” she growled.
“Real slobs out there, eh?” the wolf laughed as he gestured for the canine to sit down. “Now please, Comrade Lieutenant, tell me why you wish to come back to us,” the man said as he fixed her with a penetrating gaze.
Anna Simonova took a breath before replying. The wolf seated behind the desk was the Embassy’s Political Officer, and held a major’s rank in the NKVD. He was her controller, and she sat up even as she savored the vulgar warmth of the vodka in her belly. “Comrade Major,” she said, “since I first approached Ni Hao I have been shot at several times, kidnapped, and nearly raped. My contact on Krupmark was tortured and killed, and I could do nothing to save him.” She started to add that the last straw had been when Hao had started thinking of having children. The thought of bearing a child on Krupmark made her shudder.
“I see.” The wolf leaned forward, placing his elbows on his desk and steepling his fingers. He touched his muzzle to his fingertips for a moment before asking, “Your reports ceased shortly after Yefrimov disappeared. Why?”
“I tried to get here to report directly,” she said defensively, “but I could not without making it too obvious. My last direct contact with the Embassy staff entailed a great deal of risk to myself. Ni has several compatriots here, and I believe he might have ordered them to follow me.”
“Were you followed here today?” the wolf asked.
She shook her head. “Nyet, Comrade Major. Ni and his older brother were with me, and Hao had no time to have anyone follow me. I lost them in a crowd,” she added with a smile. At the wolf’s gesture, the aide approached her with the carafe and refilled her glass. “Thank you, Comrade,” she said gratefully.
“So, Comrade Lieutenant,” the wolf said quietly, “you wish to end your assignment and return to Moskva.”
“Yes, Comrade Major. Comrade Bearia’s orders to me were to exercise my discretion,” Anna said, thinking back two years to the cavernous office and the powerful man behind the huge empty desk.
The wolf nodded. “As I was informed following the death of Sobakov. That is well, but I shall require a full debriefing to send on to Center.”
“Of course, Comrade Major,” Anna said as she sipped at her drink. “As always, I serve the Soviet Union and Comrade Starling.”
The Major nodded approvingly, and turned to his aide. “Have a stenographer here. Five minutes.” The ermine straightened with a click of his heels, and left the office.
Four minutes later a severely uniformed canine female bustled in with a shorthand machine, followed by the ermine. She nodded to the wolf and set up the device, then sat expectantly as Anna got to her feet.
“My name is Anna Dmitrievna Simonova, an officer of the NKVD,” she said. “I hold the rank of Lieutenant, and here is my report . . .”
Mikala sighed wearily, then yawned. It was after midnight, and still no sign of her quarry. She ached for a cigarette or a drink, but she wanted to be absolutely sure that her theory was incorrect before reporting back to Hao. She yawned again, and stretched slightly.
From her vantage point up in a tree she had an unobstructed view of the building and its gate. Now, if she could only stay awake . . .
She perked, blinking as the gate swung open, and her feline pupils dilated as far as they could when she saw a slim woman walk out of the compound. Mikala’s heart sank, because she liked Hao and didn’t want to be the one to tell him, and because she liked Anna as well.
Rags of cloud passed before the crescent moon as she gingerly eased out of the tree, dusted herself off and started to follow the canine, keeping downwind of her at all times.
The same crescent moon shone through a window on Krupmark Island as Ni Hei finished reading through yet another stack of documents, then sat back with a sigh. He stood slowly and stretched as he massaged his lower back and the root of his tail, then went to the window.
Several rain squalls had soaked the island, and now the temperature was dropping fast as the first real cold snap came down from Siberia. It might not reach as far as Spontoon, but it would certainly be felt in Fort Bob. He opened the window a few inches and breathed deeply as the cooler air swept into the room. Stretching again, he looked down at the papers he had been reading.
These documents detailed sums of money and other inducements meant to sway members of the Nationalist government in Nanking to adopt a more lenient stance. Of course, organized crime in China was an ancient story, but Leon had tried to take over the entire government. Hei had to admit being impressed by the scope of the dead wolf’s plans.
Only one stack remained, the envelopes marked 'Pyrrhus'. He yawned and glanced at the clock, then closed the window. He’d look at those in the morning, he thought as he left the office, turning the light out as he went to bed.
Mikala had to admit that she was impressed with Anna. She had so far led the feline on a merry chase from one end of Meeting Island to another in an apparent (and in one case, almost successful) attempt to throw off anyone who might possibly be following. She watched from the shadows as Anna made her way to the water taxi stand and stopped.
It was well after midnight, and there were no taxis running. Mikala thought furiously, wondering if Anna had ever seen or scented her. She thought not, so she eased back into the shadows.
Anna scowled to herself as she looked up at the moon, then kicked a dock piling in frustration. Her debriefing had taken quite a bit of time, and had finished with the wolf giving her a set of orders that she didn’t like. Those orders were to return to Krupmark with Hao, where an ‘accident’ would be arranged that would result in Anna’s disappearance. She had protested, aware that she skated on paper-thin ice, but the wolf had been insistent. Finally, though, she had obeyed her orders.
Of course, getting to South Island and the Maha Kahuna meant a long swim. She was in the process of pulling off her boots when her ears perked at the sound of a small engine, and a water taxi rounded the pier. She waved to the driver, who steered the boat in her direction.
“H’lo, missy,” said the driver, “you wantin’ taxi trip?”
“Yes, please,” Anna said. “Can you take me to South Island?”
“South Island long way, charge extra,” the woman said, but made fast to the dock so Anna could climb aboard. The feline cast off and adjusted the throttle, remarking, “You all same lucky. Water taxi not run after full dark. Luck with you that I take Spontoonie to hospital.”
Anna didn’t reply, and the rest of the journey was spent in silence until the taxi hove to at the South Island docks. Anna stood up as the driver said, “Meeting to South, after hours, five shells, missy.”
The canine paid the woman, adding a one-shell tip, and as she headed for the hotel district the water taxi moved off.