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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
Luck of the Dragon: Liar's Poker© 2005 by Walter Reimer
(Inspector Stagg courtesy of EO Costello. Thanks!)
“Hello, my dear,” Peng said cheerfully as she entered her husband’s office. She had left Hao to see to the Keystone after flying home from Pangai, and after explaining to her what had happened she had agreed that his actions were correct. Anna would disappear, and the NKVD would be none the wiser. People died on Krupmark all the time, after all, and it would take some time before anyone noted a new girl in one of Macao’s less reputable houses. “Have you enjoyed yourself while I was gone?”
Her husband grinned and kissed her cheek, then gestured at the neat stacks of documents arrayed on the floor by his desk. “It’s been very enlightening, my love,” he replied. “And how is our grandson?”
“He is a beautiful little boy, Hei,” she said happily. “You really should get out there to see him. Peng-wum and Nailani have named him Mikilani, after her grandfather, and I think the name fits him.”
A thoughtful look crossed Hei’s face as he said, “We must think of what to get them for a present. But, while we think, my love,” and he gestured for her to sit in his lap, “let me tell you what I’ve done while you were away.” He grinned at her and winked, and she smiled as she sat down.
“Before you say anything further, Hei,” Peng said in a quiet voice, “I also need to tell you some bad news.” And she quickly related what Hao had told her on the flight back to Krupmark. When she was finished, Hei frowned.
“I’ll have to have Hao change a few things,” he said. “There’s no telling how much of our business she might have given away. Still, I must applaud our son for his restraint. He could have simply killed her.” He removed and laid aside his pince-nez, then rubbed where the glasses had matted his fur.
“Well, enough of bad news,” Peng said as she ran a paw through her husband’s headfur. “Tell me what you’ve found.”
Hei smiled and kissed her lightly on the nose. “It’s an interesting pile of information. For example, Susie and Leon had a line into the Constabulary.”
Her eyes widened. “Really?”
He nodded. “It appears so. There are several memos that came straight from the Chief Constable’s office, as well as notes describing things going on here. Did you know that Old Beecham was a police spy?” he asked.
“That old fisherman?” Peng said in a surprised tone. “We used to buy tuna from him.”
“He was apparently working for the police, taking notes on the shipping. I had wondered why he was thrown over Traitor’s Ridge back in the spring, and now I know.” He arched an eyebrow at her. “There were several others, and they’re all dead now – I checked. There are also photographs,” he added with a wink.
“Photographs? Of who?”
Now he laughed out loud. “The Chief Constable and a rather energetic young ewe,” and he laughed again at Peng’s scandalized look.
“Goodness,” she said in a mocking tone as she fanned herself with a paw, “whatever is the world coming to?” Both of them started laughing just as there was a knock on the door.
Marco opened it and Hao walked in, looking morose. “Hello, Father,” he said quietly.
“Hao,” his father said in a sympathetic tone as Peng stood. “Your mother has told me what happened. I want you to know that I think you did the right thing,” and he stood and laid a paw on Hao’s shoulder.
The younger red panda’s muzzle twitched in a halfhearted smile. “Thank you, Father. Will – will you and Mother need me for a few days? I . . . well, I just want to go somewhere and think things over.”
Hei nodded. “Alone?” he asked, and as his youngest child nodded he gathered Hao into his arms and hugged him. As Peng watched, Hao gingerly returned the hug and then started to cry as he buried his face against his father’s shirt. For several minutes the two furs stood there, Hei holding his youngest son while he wept. When he had stopped crying, Hao stepped back and sniffed, then drew the back of a paw across his nose. “You will be back, of course,” Hei observed.
Hao blinked at his father and nodded, then kissed his mother and walked out of the office.
Hei knew that Hao would return, once he had things sorted out and had gotten over the hurt that he knew the younger fur was feeling. He had made his remark deliberately, reminding Hao that he was still a member of the family, and that his parents loved him.
A little more than a half-hour later an ungainly Nin Hai biplane took off from the patch of water between the shore and the barrier reef, and headed north.
A gentle tapping on the door roused Franklin Stagg, who flinched as he awakened to find that he was lying on his bed in a fetal position, surrounded by old books. He at first blinked, trying to recall where he was, then sighed.
After breaking the Rose cipher, he had spent several nights getting every old dictionary from the bookstore’s shelves as he could find. Herr Nerzmann had smiled when he discovered that the books had been moved, and had obligingly moved the reference stacks closer to Stagg’s door. “I am just happy to see that they are being used, Herr Inspektor,” he had laughed when Stagg had apologized for putting the elderly mink through so much trouble.
Stagg laboriously sat up on the bed and ran a paw over his face. This past night had been very hard on him, since he had chosen to break and translate all of the remaining Rose intercepts in one marathon session. Then when he had finally finished and tried to sleep, they came to him again. He glanced blearily at his small clock. He’d had perhaps an hours’ rest, and it would have to be enough.
The tapping came again, and he said, “One moment, please.” He got to his feet and put his shirt on before answering the door.
It was Frau Nerzmann, and the minkess held a bowl of lightly seasoned oats. “Would you like some breakfast, Inspector?” she asked.
He closed his eyes briefly as he felt the pain in his stomachs, then he smiled and took the small bowl. “Thank you very much, Mrs. Nerzmann,” he said. “I apologize if I made any noise last night.”
She waved his apology away with a paw, then smoothed her apron as she said, “Ach, Inspector, you are a kind guest. Your work down here no longer bothers either of us.” She smiled. “In fact, is a comfort to hear you downstairs, and Jakob is pleased that you are reading his books.”
“You’re very kind, Mrs. Nerzmann,” Stagg said, and he retreated into his room, closing the door behind him and placing the bowl on the last clear spot on his table. A very tiny whiff of cinnamon reached his nose, and he winced as bile rose in his throat from his rebellious stomachs. He forced the rising gorge down as he started to get ready for work.
Work reminded him of what he had done the previous night, and he glanced down at the impressive stack of decoded and translated messages. Most of them had told of business deals with varying levels of legitimacy, along with some comments about local competitors. A few, he had noted wryly, concerned him, and varied widely in terms of their eloquence and originality when referring to his parentage, personal habits and taste in clothes.
What had surprised him was the depth and breadth of the operations based on Krupmark. The various criminal concerns had sunk roots deep into practically every type of business, as well as into several governments.
Stagg paused as he shouldered his way into his suit jacket, and a fugitive thought teased him by saying that maybe he should have taken up Ni Hao on that offer of a new suit. But it would have looked too much like a bribe, so he pushed the thought away, chided himself for unethical thoughts, and sat down to eat.
He managed to keep most of it down on the second attempt, and finished squaring himself away before Sergeant Brush came to walk with him to work. As he opened the door to his tiny apartment, Stagg resolved that, now that he knew the key to the Rose code, he should try to break the Daisy cipher that night. There were some points of similarity between the two codes that should make breaking Daisy a relatively simple matter. And, he reflected, it was better to be doing something constructive rather than dealing with his nightmares.
The Nin Hai had been grounded on a sandy stretch of beach, and moored fast to two nearby trees for good measure. Hao had taken a small pack and some supplies with him and had struck inland, headed for the nearly symmetrical cone of Mount Krupp.
This part of the island was uninhabited except for the occasional expedition sent to hunt down and snare animals for the exotic export market. At times, someone would send a party up to the peak of the old volcano in order to scout for any threats on the horizon. As part of his old deal with the Naval Syndicate, Hao was supposed to have furs up there all the time, but business (as always) took priority.
The forest was more temperate than tropical, and palms were few and stunted in relation to stands of pine and other trees. Dense undergrowth and high grass filled in the spaces between the trees. His boots scraped and scuffed against volcanic scree and exposed rocks as he paused to take a drink from his canteen.
A flock of Krupmark parakeets, or ‘jailbirds,’ flew overhead, their black and white barred wings and loud, raucous cries following him as he climbed. Finally the trees ended and were replaced by lower-growing bushes as the amount of bare rock increased.
The small shack at the summit was still there, and looked as if it had weathered the typhoon in fine shape. After inspecting it minutely and checking around for any intruders, Hao entered and put his pack down with a sigh.
After setting up camp, he stepped back outside and went to a nearby spur, rearing itself more than ten feet above the lip of the crater. Mount Krupp was an old volcano, and long since dead; the crater that had once held seething lava now cradled a pristine lake. Hao climbed to the top of the spur and looked around, a pair of binoculars to his eyes.
He swept the entire horizon, seeing nothing, then climbed down from the spur and busied himself with gathering wood and starting a campfire.
It was after supper, when he was in the cabin and wrapped in blankets, that he drifted off to sleep and began to dream.
Several years earlier he had been a student at Meeting Island when an older student had dared him to swim out to Sacred Island and spend an entire night there. Sure of himself, Hao had agreed to the dare and swam out to the place (he had taken a water taxi to South Island before swimming, of course – it was a shorter route).
The place was quiet and overgrown, the haunt of nothing but lizards and birds. It had been a hot day and promised to be a warm night, so he had fallen asleep on a broad, flat stone that he cushioned with leaves and branches. He had been perfectly comfortable.
Hao had failed in the dare, showing up pale and shaking later that night, and ever since had steadfastly refused to say what had happened. It was the one thing he had kept from his family, and he would always shy away from Sacred Island. His experience would come back to him from time to time, as if someone decided that he needed a reminder.
So that night, in a cabin on the summit of Mount Krupp, the dream came to Hao again.
He stood in the middle of the main street of Fort Bob, midway between the town and the Beach, watching helplessly as yet another flight of bombers receded. Fort Bob and all of the buildings on the hill were destroyed, reduced to smoldering piles of masonry or burning pyres of lumber and cargo. Troops, which nation he’d never know, had landed and were shooting everyone who dared show his muzzle.
His home and the Casino were in ruins, along with every house on the Beach. Two bullet-mangled corpses at what was once the Casino’s entrance made him gulp and try to turn away, but the vision was insistent and he knew that they were his parents. Screams made him turn to see a sight that wrenched his heart – his sister Shin bound and being hauled away by two soldiers. The screams continued even after she was pulled out of sight, and the sounds tore at his mind like a dragon’s claws. The sky was a lurid red streaked with gray from the fires that still burned, and the stink of burning fur made his stomach turn.
A scream split the night on Mount Krupp’s peak, startling a few jailbirds that had taken refuge in a small tree. The still-burning campfire cast its flickering light into the cabin to illuminate Ni Hao as he sat cringing in a corner, wrapped in a blanket and his eyes staring blankly, wild-eyed in terror.