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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
Luck of the Dragon: Liar's Poker© 2005 by Walter Reimer
Shin, Fang and Peng-wum sat frozen momentarily as what Hao said sank in. The family had standards, and those standards tended to require extreme consequences when someone crossed one of its members. Hao had cheerfully stabbed to death an employee who had been caught with his paw in the till at the Casino, and there was always the example of Wu Tang. Shin drew a bit closer to her younger brother as Peng-wum came slowly out of his chair to stand behind Hao, ready to restrain him if necessary.
Shin asked softly, “Who has betrayed you, Hao?” She leaned toward him, almost nose to nose as she rested a paw on his thigh. “Tell me.” When Hao was in this state it was always best to speak quietly and not make any sudden moves.
Hao looked up at his older sister for a moment as his jaws worked silently. Finally he growled in a quiet tone, “Anna. She didn’t defect . . . never did.”
Shin sat back, her eyes wide, and Peng-wum looked shocked at the news. “I trusted her … I … “ and Hao suddenly leaned forward and buried his head in his paws, shoulders shaking in rage. The others looked at each other and all realized that something needed to be done, before Hao did anything rash.
Peng-wum warily rested a paw on his younger brother’s shoulder, a determined expression coming to his features as his grasp grew firmer. “We’re here, Hao,” he said. “We’ll take care of it.”
Hao looked up at his older brother, his eyes still cold and dead-looking. “I’ll handle it, Peng-wum. It’s my problem,” he snarled.
A paw smacked him across the face and Hao suddenly gasped as if he had just surfaced from deep water. “No, you won’t,” Shin said angrily, grabbing the younger fur by both ears and turning his head to face her. “Listen to me, Ni Hao: your problems are our problems. We are a family, and we take care of things together. Got that?”
His eyes changed as his chest heaved. Finally he slowly nodded, and Shin glared into his eyes to make certain that he was completely back before releasing him. Hao sat back, rubbing his ears as Fang stood up.
“Look, Hao,” the tiger said, “we’ll let you take the lead on this, but Shin’s right. What do you want to do?” The powerfully-built feline stretched and rubbed his paws together as if anticipating a fight.
Hao nodded miserably, then essayed a smile. “Okay,” he said, “let me think about it for a moment.”
“Hao?” Heads turned as Anna walked into the dining room. Hao straightened up, then stood. As Shin watched, her brother’s expression changed, and he turned to the canine woman with an affectionate smile on his face. “Is it all right to come back, or are Shin’s friends still here?” Anna asked.
“They’ve gone,” Hao said, placing a paw on the table. A fingertip tapped on his cards, and the others read the signal. Fang raised an eyebrow and sat back down, while Shin sat back and Peng-wum walked over to the bar to get another drink.
Shin smiled. “I’m really sorry you had to stay away, Anna. You would have loved the tricks we played on that squirrel.”
Anna chuckled. “I look forward to hearing about it. Can you deal me in for the next game?” she asked, gesturing toward the cards.
“Sure,” Hao said, kissing her on the muzzle. “We were just getting started when you came in. I think we can start over, if that’s okay,” he said, glancing at the others.
Peng-wum nodded as he walked back to the table, and Shin said with a chuckle, “Of course, but Anna deals.” When her older brother looked at her, she added, “You froze that deck solid, brother. I want at least one chance.”
They all laughed as they sat back down, and Anna gathered the cards together and started to shuffle.
Anna slowly drifted back to consciousness, then tensed as she realized that something was dreadfully wrong. She cast back in her mind, recalling that she had fallen asleep beside Hao after playing cards until after midnight. There was a foul taste in her mouth, and she guessed that she had been chloroformed. She started to tense again when she tried to get up and open her eyes, and realized that she was tied to a chair and blindfolded.
How long had she been out? No real way of telling, but she had the feeling that she had not been unconscious for very long, certainly not long enough to be on Krupmark. Somewhere on Spontoon, then. Where specifically would have to wait.
She turned her head as she started to assess her surroundings. The air felt close and damp, so she was indoors, probably a small room. A change in the temperature above her head and to the right was possibly a light bulb or oil lamp. She tried to take a sniff, and was surprised to find that there were nose plugs in her nostrils. It was impossible to tell, except by sound, whether there was anyone in the room with her.
There was no air moving, but from what she could feel she was in her fur, tied to a chair with her arms secured behind the back of the chair. The ropes were tight, almost uncomfortably so.
Her tongue wet her lips as the thought hit her.
Somehow, he knew.
Memories of Yefrimov, Hotman, and of her ‘kidnapping’ over a year ago surged into her mind, and she whimpered involuntarily as she thought about what the red panda might do to her. She struggled briefly, then subsided when she found that the ropes gave her very little freedom of movement – certainly not enough to work a paw free.
Panic fueled by the memories made her hackles rise and she felt almost about to soil herself. She gritted her teeth and the urges fled as she reminded herself of her training. Yefrimov had been a sergeant, and worse he had been in the GRU, not State Security. There was no way he had been trained as well as she had. Franz? He was a dissipated old rapist. Hao’s methods had been unorthodox, but very effective. Even when Hao had gotten her away from Spontoon, he had only been trying to scare her.
She swallowed to moisten her throat and asked, “Is there anyone there?” There was no answer, but she added, “If this is a joke, it’s in poor taste.” She tried to keep her voice steady.
“It’s no joke.” Her ears perked at the sound of Hao’s voice. It sounded different somehow, very soft and cold. Her imagination thought of dry branches stirred by a chill wind, and she forced the image back.
“So, you know.” There was no sense in trying to brazen it out.
“Yes. Did you think that you wouldn’t be watched, Anna?” he asked, his voice still soft. It sounded like he was seated against a far wall, behind her; she had to strain a bit to hear him.
“So, what now? Electrocution, or will you beat me to death?” she asked, and her blood ran cold as he chuckled quietly.
“Neither.” Her ears twitched as she heard him stand up and move around the room, circling her. “You see, Franz and Yefrimov – even Wu Tang - were just business.” A paw smacked her across her face, pain flaring as the inner lining of her cheek was cut against one of her teeth. “You, on the other paw, are personal.”
There was a pause, and she screamed despite herself as the lit end of a cigarette drove into her left armpit. She fought to control her breathing, but that was denied her as his fist drove into her stomach. She retched, coughing as her spasming diaphragm struggled to draw breath, and a moist warmth between her legs accused her of losing control. “Do you know why it’s personal with you, Anna?” Hao’s voice dropped to a whisper and his lips drew very close to her right ear.
Before she could have the chance to answer he replied to his own question, his voice rising from an angry whisper to a near-demented scream. “I loved you! I trusted you! I wanted to marry you!” and his voice quavered as he stressed the word. He struck her across the face with his fist hard enough to knock her sideways, and she grunted as her shoulder hit the hard floor. “And that’s what makes it personal,” he said, his voice almost breaking.
Anna fought her way up through the pain. Despite the fear that was rising up within her she asked, “So, how will you kill me? Skin me alive?”
That earned her a hard kick to the stomach, and she whined in pain as she heard him walking around her. “No,” he said in a voice shaking in anger and sorrow, “you won’t die – not if I have any say in the matter. I have something else in mind.”
Another pair of footfalls scuffed across the floor, and a paw grabbed her by one arm. Something cool and wet touched the crook of her elbow, and it was followed by a harsh sting that made her flinch. An injection! Poison, or drugs? She couldn’t move away, but squirmed as much as she could as a sharp burning sensation traveled up her arm. The needle withdrew after depositing its contents, and her elbow was crudely bandaged.
Things went quiet; Hao said nothing (and she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of begging). Gradually she felt lightheaded, a bit sick at her stomach as a momentary wave of nausea hit her. She wanted to moisten her lips but her tongue and mouth felt unaccountably dry, and the sounds in the room began to sound impossibly distant. Soon, as her brain felt swaddled in cotton wool and the sensations of the ropes and the burn felt as if they belonged to someone else, she heard voices.
She couldn’t recognize the language, and she didn’t make any effort to interpret what she heard. It was so much better to just lie there and sleep . . .
“Was that enough?” Hao asked in Chinese as the canine woman lapsed into unconsciousness.
“For a start,” the other fur said. “Another injection in about six hours. Any more right now would kill her.”
“And I don’t want that,” the young red panda said absently, nudging Anna’s foot with his toe. “How long will she stay asleep?”
A shrug. “Eight hours, perhaps. It was quite a large amount, you see.”
Money changed paws. “I will instruct the ones who will come for her. You can go.” Footsteps, and a door opening and closing.
Ni Hao put his back to the wall of the fetid basement somewhere on Casino Island, then slid down it until he was sitting facing the sleeping canine. She looked very peaceful, and he found himself hoping that she was enjoying it. Anna would have very little peace once she was loaded onto the boat.
And even less when she arrived in Macao.
He cradled his head in his paws and sighed. “I loved you,” he whispered brokenly, as tears started to dampen his fur.
Superior Engineering had done their usual excellent (and expensive) job of overhauling the Keystone’s Wasp engine, and after a brief trip it sat on the beach near Pangai. Peng-wum glanced at his younger brother as he shut off the engine and asked, “Are you okay?”
Hao thought about the question, then nodded jerkily. “Sort of,” he ventured. “I may want a little time to myself, you know. Just to think things over.”
Peng-wum nodded, and the two got out of the seaplane and started up the path to the village. They both carried a variety of boxes and packages, the results of the shopping list that Nailani had given to her husband.
Their mother was waiting for them by the longhouse, and she smiled as they approached. “You two look well,” Peng said as they entered the longhouse, and when Hao came out she asked, “Where is Anna?”
Hao looked away. “She’s not coming.” His mother raised one eyebrow, then nodded. “Will you want to stay here longer, Mother?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “This was just a short visit,” she said, “and I want to get home and see to business. I also want to see what your father may have found from Leon’s papers. And,” and here she eyed her youngest child critically, “I think you need to go home as well.” She knew Hao’s moods, and realized that something dreadful had happened. But she wouldn’t pry now; when he wanted to talk, he would.