Luck of the Dragon: Upping the Ante© 2006 by Walter Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
(Inspector Stagg and Sergeant Brush courtesy of EO Costello. Thanks!)
After the codes used by Krupmark Island’s organizations proved to be less than completely trustworthy, the Nis had started using actual flesh-and-fur couriers to pass messages back and forth between the island and their various business enterprises. It was by no means as safe as sending telegrams, since couriers ran a series of risks getting to and from their contact points.
One such, a thin feline, made his way through the teeming alleyways and winding streets of the Cholon district in the city of Saigon. He ducked into a shop, passed his message, and thus managed to be empty-pawed when the French colonial police arrested him.
Other paws took up the message, and slowly it made its way to Hanoi, to Hong Kong, to Kuo Han, and finally to Krupmark. Finally a fur stepped off a fishing boat and walked to the back entrance of Ni and Sons.
The macaque was stopped at the door, and promptly answered a series of coded phrases and questions in a Chinese dialect native to Kuo Han before meekly submitting to a search. Only then was he able to pass his messages (for he was the last in a sometimes very long chain of messengers, and such things tended to accumulate) to Ni Hei’s assistant.
“Some messages for you, sir,” Clarence said as he entered the upstairs office. Downstairs the courier was getting fed and paid, and would soon be headed back.
“Thank you, Clarence,” Hei said as he closed a ledger and set it aside. He started reading through them as the lion poured a cup of tea and sat down.
The news was first, and the courier from Kuo Han had gotten there before another could arrive from Spontoon via Mildendo with the newspapers. Fighting was still going on in Spain, but any details would have to wait. The Japanese were making the usual bellicose noises in the portion of northern China they called Manchukuo. That concerned him somewhat, and he jotted a note.
A message from one of the intermediaries between Hei and an associate came next, and at the news that the arms shipment he had arranged had successfully arrived at a port called Isfahan the red panda smiled broadly. The profit from the venture would be welcome, and could be spread out to the various legitimate investments that Ni and Sons held.
“All in all, some good news, Clarence,” Hei said, and swiftly gave his accountant a summary of the messages.
The lion nodded as he reached for the ledger and perused a few entries. “If you were in London, sir, I daresay you wouldn’t find yourself shut out of any of the clubs, apart – “
“Apart from the fact that I am Chinese, Clarence?”
“Quite true, sir,” Clarence said smoothly. His abilities allowed him to say things that might be taken as insults. Very few non-Chinese could say things like that to Ni Hei’s face without some form of retaliation.
Hei gave a thin, mirthless smile. “Well, there may come a time when that will change,” he said. One of the missionaries who had financed his education in America had held the opinion that civilization was shifting from West to East, and he regarded it as his mission to convert as many Orientals as possible before that shift gathered momentum.
Hei agreed with his ideas, but only partway.
“I have no doubts, sir,” and the two of them glanced up as the office door opened and the courier from Mildendo arrived with the newspapers. These were seized and both superior and subordinate started reading them avidly, paying close attention to the business pages.
Notes detailing buy and sell orders began to increase on the desk; the notes would be sent back to Spontoon, and telegraphed out or slipped into outgoing mail. None of the messages would mean anything to anyone aside from the people they were intended for. Until Krupmark could buy or obtain a new coding system, it was the best that could be done.
The structure that had been built on the charred ruins of Fat Leon’s looked very much like the original; a two-story frame building with quite a few rooms in it. The sign over the door read Ahmad’s Kasbah in still-damp paint, and a squat feline wearing a fez sat by the door. “Heya,” he said in a high, nasal Australian voice, “ya comin’ on in, or gonna gawp all day?”
Hao leaned against the porch railing in studied indolence as Manny bristled and Peng-wum looked amused. “I’ll make you a deal,” Hao said suddenly. “You run along and get Ahmad out here, and I won’t stake your sorry hide to the wall.” He grinned almost boyishly as he spoke.
The feline opened his mouth, stared and roused himself out of the chair. He went into the house, and after a moment the Algerian fennec who used to be Hei’s accountant and aide stepped out of the house. He was dressed in a pair of dark slacks, a freshly-laundered white shirt and a dark green vest of silk brocade. His impressive ears stood straight up as he exclaimed, “Peng-wum! Hao! It is good to see both of you. Please come in, come in!” and he ushered them into the building.
Inside, the house seemed almost upholstered in a welter of fabrics of different colors. The house’s stock in trade lounged in their seats, dressed in gauzy silks that left very little to the imagination. The air was lightly scented with sandalwood incense. “I like what you’ve done with the place, Ahmad,” Peng-wum laughed.
“Your father gave me and Fatima a great deal of discretion, Peng-wum,” the fennec replied, adjusting his fez, “and silk is quite inexpensive lately. You should see the Lavender Harem,” he added with a broad grin as he mentioned Fatima’s effort in what was once the house operated by Leon’s sister. “Although she has had a time trying to train the women there to belly dance.”
“How are things going?” Hao asked.
At the question Ahmad waggled a paw. “Things are not too bad. Perhaps by the end of the year we shall break even, insh’allah.”
“That’s fast work,” Manny said. “You get that amount of business in these bordellos, way out here on Krupmark?”
Hao nodded. “A lot of traffic comes through here from time to time. Most of it by air – we even get some of the airlines’ pilots dropping by. Not with their passengers, of course,” he added hastily, reminding himself that there had been that one time, a few years earlier. He idly wondered what might have become of the plane’s eight passengers, then dismissed the thought almost as quickly.
It wasn’t his business.
Manny was looking around at the women, and Peng-wum asked, “See anyone you like?”
“Hmm? Oh, no, Peng-wum, those two vixens up at the Dragon are enough for me.” He grinned. “But thanks for the offer.” At the mention of the two vixens Hao’s ears twitched and he glanced at his older brother. Peng-wum glanced sideways, and flicked his tail.
Tell you later.
Hao brushed a paw across his nose, acknowledging the message as he asked, “So, what are the brothels like in LA, Manny?”
The otter snorted. “Dingy holes, compared to these places, Hao,” he replied. “Half the girls have the clap, and the rest are old.” All three of them started laughing, while Ahmad merely chuckled.
“Well, selling sex is against the law over in America, isn’t it?” Hao asked rhetorically. “I’ve heard it’s that way – too many cops.”
“You’re right about that,” Manny said. “Tell ya what – the two of ya come to LA sometime, and I’ll show ya both around.”
Peng-wum glanced at his younger brother. Hao usually followed his father’s lead in disdaining America as a land of barbarians and obnoxious tourists.
“Here’s to becoming pilots!” Shin said joyfully that weekend. Glasses clinked as the other three girls chorused the toast and drank to their mutual success. Other patrons of the Grand Hotel’s restaurant glanced at the four Songmark students curiously, and one or two smiled as the girls drank.
It had taken a lot of persuading on Shin’s part to get the other three members of Red Dorm to agree to this little party. It had taken even more to convince Liberty and Tatiana to come to the hotel, but they had eventually agreed.
And since she was buying, it proved difficult for Liberty to refuse.
Tatiana sipped at her vodka and grinned. Somehow (perhaps not surprisingly), Shin had been able to obtain a fine bottle of genuine Russian vodka, not the swill the Tsarists made out of old socks, benzene and potato skins on Vostok Island. “Palnoy zheezni!” she said, looking at her three dorm-mates in turn. “To a full life,” she translated, and beamed as the others drank.
Brigit made similar sentiments in Gaelic, and they looked at Liberty as she regarded her glass of whisky.
The half-coyote surprised them all by breaking into a broad smile. “Here’s to all of us,” she said. “Long and productive lives,” and she drank.
The others got over their surprise and drank, then started to recount each others’ adventures as the waiters moved in to give them their meals. “Faith,” Brigit said, “’tis amazin’ we’ve come this far.”
“And done so well,” Tatiana added.
Liberty refilled her whisky glass before saying, “Without killing each other.” The others all nodded. “You’ve done pretty good, Shin,” the New Havenite added.
Shin looked astounded, freezing as she started to eat. “Me?”
“Sure. You started a half-year behind us, and here you are, all caught up,” Liberty said, raising her glass in a salute to the red panda before taking a healthy swallow of the liquor. “I guess you can work hard when you want to.”
“An’ without cheatin’, neither,” Brigit added.
“Thanks, Liberty,” Shin said without a trace of irony, downing her own whisky before refilling the glass. Everyone had expected Shin to lie and cheat her way through Songmark. She was equally determined to surprise them all by telling the truth and taking the tests honestly.
It was an effort, but she was managing it.
The quartet settled down to eat with only minor jibes back and forth about the non-proletarian surroundings and the fine food. Finally dessert was offered, with the waiter bringing forth a cart laden with pastries.
“Those look so good,” Shin enthused. “Do you really think we should indulge?”
“Sure an’ we’ll work it off come Monday,” Brigit said as she snatched at a cream-filled bun.
Liberty had been reaching for the pastry, and she looked indignantly at the Irish setter. “I wanted that,” she said.
“Oh, did ye now?” Brigit said sweetly. “Well, ye can have it, then,” and gave the pastry in her paw a convulsive squeeze, sending a blob of cream flying to impact on Liberty’s nose.
Shin and Tatiana sat still as Brigit giggled and Liberty just sat frozen in place. The half-coyote fastidiously licked her nose clean and remarked, “Not bad. Try this,” and she picked up a cream tart in a small tinfoil plate and rubbed it in the Irish girl’s face.
Brigit gasped, threw the pastry aside with a toss of her head and struck Tatiana in the eye with the clotted cream and fruit topping. The sable hissed, picked up a pastry and threw it at Liberty, who had started laughing at the Starlingist’s face. Her throw went wide and she ended up smearing sticky fruit jelly filling across Shin’s fur.
Customers cleared out of the room as pastries and cakes started flying. All four girls, laughing gaily, took up positions and began heaving desserts at each other. Shin laughed as she struck Tatiana with a custard pie, then yelped as Liberty pounced on her and rubbed cake frosting across her face.
Whistles started to sound as the Constabulary were called, but by the time anyone made a serious effort to stop them all four were covered in varying layers of confectionery.
Liberty cocked her arm back, a pie held aloft in one paw, and suddenly sensed someone behind her. Not by sight or scent, since her nose was full of whipped cream and she was half-blinded from the earlier hits she had taken. She whirled and smashed the pie into her supposed attacker’s face.
A sudden hush seemed to fall over the room, and she rubbed her eyes and blinked. The other girls weren’t moving, just standing there and looking fixedly at her.
Or rather, past her.
She turned and looked at the person she had thrown the pie at.
“Mierda,” she said. If the Inspector was here, then his vulpine shadow . . .
“Constab’l’ry! Yer all unner arrest!” Sergeant Brush barked.
Red Dorm looked at each other, then immediately began pelting Brush with pies and cakes before making a mad dash out of the room.
Shin paused long enough to hiss a few whispered words to the maitre’d, and followed her dorm-mates out. The maitre’d nodded and had a few discreet words with the hotel’s manager.
Sergeant Brush spit and wiped his paws across his muzzle. He’d been blinded when a lemon pie had struck him, but that hadn’t prevented him from seeing the Chinese girl’s long and luxuriantly furred tail whisking around a corner.
He caught himself admiring the tailfur, even though he loathed the girl it was attached to.
He spat out another bit of pie crust. “You all right, sir?” he asked Stagg, who was fastidiously wiping his own muzzle. “Should we go after ‘em?”
“I think not, Sergeant,” Stagg replied, resisting the urge to give his subordinate a wry smile. The reason for smiling would only have been apparent to Brush if the fox had been standing in front of a mirror.
Brush’s hat had been knocked off, and a cherry was perched between the vulpine’s alertly pointed ears.
“Let’s just call this a case of youthful high spirits, as nothing appears to be broken,” Stagg said. “I suppose we can bill the Nis for the laundry.”