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Luck of the Dragon
by Walter Reimer
Luck of the Dragon: Upping the Ante© 2006 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
Brigit came down the stairs at the summons, and a third-year student passed her the pawset of the telephone. “Thank ye,” she said, careful to not antagonize the third-year. Only after the other girl had moved off did Brigit bring the phone to her ear.
“Yes?” the Irish setter asked, and her ears suddenly perked. “Hello! Well, I was after expectin’ ye ta not show up,” she said, and nodded. “True, true, ‘tis ashamed I should be, thinkin’ ye wouldn’t be comin.’ Right! I’ll be there.” She hung up the phone and ran up the stairs to get her single suitcase.
She paused to look around at the empty room before closing the door. The other three members of Red Dorm had already left for their pilot’s examinations, starting with Liberty leaving three days ago. The half-coyote said that she would be working passage aboard a freighter bound for Seathl. Despite the unsavory look of the crew, none of the others had any concern for the New Havenite’s safety on her trip.
Tatiana had taken a water taxi to her embassy, and there had been some speculation as to what might have happened to her. Shin sniffed and thought that she flew out, fur dyed and under a different passport, on a Soviet diplomatic courier. Odds were offered on any of a half-dozen likely outcomes for the Russian sable’s trip, with no takers.
Shin had left shortly afterward, practically preening as she announced to all and sundry that she would be taking a well-earned rest while undergoing her exams.
The idea that the rest was ‘well-earned’ was the cause of some skepticism.
The red panda’s attitude had been improved considerably by the mysterious appearance of deposits to her bank account totaling almost a thousand American dollars. Brigit and the others thought that the people who ran Krupmark were rewarding Ni Hei’s daughter for a job well done, but Shin refused to say anything (if she had even known). At any rate, she booked a first-class seat on a clipper seaplane bound from Spontoon to Seathl.
Before Liberty had left, Shin had challenged her to a drinking match in Seathl after they had passed their exams. The possibility that one of them might fail the test was never considered. Liberty had thought it over before accepting, certain that she could drink the Chinese girl under the table. Brigit grinned, thinking of what might happen when Shin and Liberty met up.
The Irish girl took a water taxi over to Eastern Island, and she smiled when she saw the odd silhouette of Hao’s GH-2. Shin’s brother was up on the wing, poking about in the starboard engine while singing. At least, she thought it was singing; the words were in Chinese but the tune was familiar. “Tha’s Sniper Sandy, annit?” Brigit asked.
Hao glanced down at her and grinned. “Yes,” he replied. “Do you know it?”
“I do, so,” she said proudly. “My Da was in th’ Irish Guards fer th’ War,” and she began to recite:
‘Sniper Sandy’s slaying Saxon soldiers,
And Saxon soldiers seldom shew but Sandy slays a few,
And every day the Boches put up little wooden crosses,
In the cemetery for Saxon soldiers sniper Sandy slew.’”
She giggled and dropped a mock curtsy as Hao clapped. “Do you know Hard-Hearted Hannah?” he asked.
“Sure I do,” Brigit said. “Yer sister’s taught us a lot o’ th’ naughty songs.”
Hao laughed and wiped his paws on an oily rag. “That’s all Shin knows,” he said. “Care to come up and help me get this thing ready to fly?”
“Sure!” and after stowing her suitcase Brigit helped the red panda do his preflight checks on the aircraft. When they had finished, Brigit untied the seaplane and pushed it away from the dock while Hao started up the engines.
The two aftermarket BMW engines roared as the plane lifted off and while it gained altitude Brigit watched Hao with a critical eye. “Ye’re not too well trained a pilot, I see.”
Hao tipped a smile at her, despite his tail twitching at her observation. “Well, the plane’s a bit hard to handle,” he explained. “And I never had the type of training you get at Songmark.” He banked the plane and turned to the heading that would take them to New Penzance, and he suddenly grinned. “Actually, I never went to a flight school.”
The Irish setter’s eyes widened and her paws reflexively gripped the arms of her seat. “But . . . ye do have a pilot’s license?”
“Sure I do.” He paused until she started to relax, then added, “The best money can buy.” She stared, and he explained, “I learned how to fly from a few of the cargo pilots that visit Krupmark, and my license is from Kuo Han’s Ministry of Transportation.” He winked. “I had to wait for the ink to dry on it. Don’t worry,” he soothed, “I’m a good pilot, and apart from one engine problem I’ve never had any trouble,” and he tapped the wooden rim of the control wheel with his knuckles. He grinned at the look on her face as she suddenly realized that she was nearly two thousand feet in midair with a pilot who had a forged license and no real training.
The Irish girl suppressed the sudden urge to tighten her seat belt. “Ye really should get a license, Hao,” Brigit said seriously. “One o’ these days ye might get caught by the polis.” She tossed back her headfur and remarked, “I’d hate ta see ye in gaol.”
“I’d hate to be in jail, too,” Hao agreed, “and I’ve been thinking of taking the time and spending the money for real pilot’s training.” He sat back, keeping one paw on the wheel.
The freighter S.S. Old Jasper entered the main shipping channel that led up the fjord to the city of Seathl. It had made good time after leaving Spontoon, and everyone from the captain on down had been pleased with the prospect of increases in their pay envelopes. The crew was hard at work mopping decks, chipping paint, and tending the old ship’s cranky oil-fired boilers.
Liberty was enjoying herself. One or two of the crewmen had gotten a bit grabby after she had first come on board, but she had more than earned her grade in unarmed combat, and after a few walked away with bruises everyone got along with the new girl.
There was plenty of hard work to be done, the crew were all honest proletarians, and – best of all – they were Socialists. Not exactly Starlingists or Trotskyites, though; they were adherents of that peculiarly American brand of Socialism that wanted World Revolution, but only if it gave the worker better hours and higher pay. But it was a step in the right direction, she reasoned, and they were ready to sit and listen to her.
She leaned against the rail and watched the forested hills and small villages slipping past the freighter. The channel was alive with shipping, twin flocks of huge sheep shepherded by small tugs and harbor patrol boats. As the ship made its way around the finger of tumbled rocks and scraggly trees known as West Point, she thought of what lay ahead of her.
Of course, she was confident that she would pass; that was assumed. Liberty was the product of her father’s rigorous education and Songmark’s curriculum (with all of the most diabolically difficult mental and physical tests the faculty there could devise). But Rain Island was an unknown quantity, and despite all of her research she was still uncertain about the place. They were Socialists – of a sort; at least they weren’t anarchists like that little Spaniard back on Spontoon.
“Liberty!” the boatswain called out, and she turned away from the rail and looked up at him. The marten waved a paw aft as he said, “We need to get the lines set out and ready. We’ll be docking soon.”
She acknowledged him with a wave and headed aft, enjoying the salt tang of the air with only a tiny pang of homesickness.
“Strasvuitye, Tovarisch Nikhonova,” the GRU lieutenant said with a smile and a wink as Tatiana stepped off the plane. The sable’s fur had been dyed a honey blonde with caramel highlights, making her look like a crossbred mink, and she was dressed in a uniform with the rank of private. The collar tabs on the uniform fitted her cover identity of a low-level clerk in the Soviet Union’s military intelligence department.
She hated it.
Saluting the officer, she gave him her orders while managing to completely ignore the admiring looks the vulpine was giving her. The fox read over the orders, looking up to glare at her as he finally noticed that he was being snubbed in front of subordinates. Besides, her papers were in order. The lieutenant gave the orders back to her and ‘Comrade Nikhonova’ saluted again, grabbed her suitcase and headed for the low building at the south end of the runway.
Her orders were read again, and the private at the door snapped to attention before hastily opening the door for her. She took a deep breath and smiled for the first time since leaving Spontoon. She couldn’t wait to get out of these GRU rags and into more appropriate clothing.
Wo Shin smiled.
At this rate, if she smiled any more her face might freeze in that expression and she’d end up scaring the hell out of the first-years when she returned to Songmark.
That thought made her laugh as she regarded her reflection in the hotel restaurant’s windows. The lights of the city gleamed below, moving with a majestic slowness as the restaurant rotated atop the roof of the hotel.
Getting a room at the best hotel in Seathl had been expensive, but she had chosen to pamper herself. Now she sipped at a very dark whisky and soda as she waited for her dinner to arrive. She was dressed in a way that covered her modestly but left little to the imagination, a perfectly tailored gray suit and skirt that contrasted well with her fur.
Interestingly, she had traveled with only two small suitcases, and was fully prepared to leave one behind if necessary. The other she would be taking with her to the RINS base the next day for her exams, and after beating Liberty in a drinking match afterward she had promised herself that she would be coming back to the hotel for the second suitcase prior to flying back to Spontoon.
She looked away from the window as the waiter arrived with her dinner, and she savored the aroma of maple syrup and pepper-glazed roast chicken with steamed bamboo shoots. Shin tucked into her dinner while the Moon rose and the dining room slowly spun around.
“Excuse me, sir?” Ni Hei looked up from his desk as Clarence stood in the doorway, a paw poised to knock on the doorframe. “A letter has arrived for you.”
“Thank you, Clarence,” the red panda said. His respect for the lion had grown since the unpleasantness over the Christmas holidays. The ex-British Army sergeant-major was a crack shot and had been a very able defender of the Family holdings. Hei had expressed his admiration by increasing the lion’s pay, brushing aside Clarence’s attempts to stop him.
Clarence gave the letter to him and left the office, and Hei studied it carefully before opening it. The seal on the envelope appeared to be intact, but there were ways of opening it, and a competitor might try to put poison inside. After satisfying himself that it didn’t appear to be tampered with, he checked the address.
Hei frowned suddenly. Why would Don Carpanini be writing to him? Ordinarily, a telegram would be sent; could the raids several months ago have crippled the otter’s organization that badly?
Taking up a small knife, he held the letter over the wastepaper basket and slit it open. Nothing within but the letter, so he took it out and opened it, mildly surprised to learn that it wasn’t from Vittorio Carpanini, but from his lawyer:
March 10, 1937
Don Vittorio sends his warm regards to you and hopes that this letter finds you well and your family thriving. He wishes to express his gratitude for the telegram you sent him last December, and in the spirit of friendship has asked me to request a favor from you on his behalf.
Don Carpanini may have mentioned his son Emmanuel at your last meeting with him, and he wishes to have his son visit you in order to learn your methods of doing business. If you agree, please respond by return of post.
Paul Conti, Esq.
Hei grimaced as he read the letter, then smiled as he considered the matter further. He pulled a sheet of paper from a drawer, took out his fountain pen, and started to think through what he wanted to say.