Luck of the Dragon: Upping the Ante© 2006 by Walter Reimer
To any casual observer from the air, the small island in the Konigi Chain would appear completely unremarkable. It was barely a hundred yards across, formed of coral and heavily forested with mangrove trees and palms. Only a close survey of the island would reveal the mound of slowly wilting vegetation that obscured a small fishing boat.
“Why are we hiding under this mess?” Manny asked, a paw slapping at a spider that had descended from the mass of palm fronds and tree branches that had been cut and arranged over the boat. “I thought there weren’t no cops out here.”
“Not cops,” Hao explained patiently. “The Naval Syndicate comes out here, looking for smugglers and pirates. They don’t have many patrol boats, but they can spot us from the air pretty quickly if we’re not careful.” He paused and lit a cigarette, blowing smoke from his first drag up at the overarching greenery. “Luckily things grow fast around here, or we’d have to find a new set of islands to hide in.”
The young American nodded, impatiently drumming a paw against the rail. The slap of flesh against wood irritated Hao, and he was about to say so when one of the crew said in heavily accented English, “Hao? Boat coming in.”
“Looks like our guys?”
“Could be. They’re making the right signal,” came the reply from the canine, who switched to Spontoonie. Several other crewfurs looked, and Manny craned his neck to see a fishing boat with some laundry festooning its rigging approaching the island.
“What’s the signal?” Manny asked.
Hao pointed. “That red flannel shirt. Lo-sung likes people to think he’s Communist, but he just likes red.” He grinned. “It’s good luck.”
“So you’re just full of good luck then – with your red fur and all?” Manny asked in a joking tone, and Hao laughed.
“May be,” he said. “I’ve gotten out of a few scrapes.” He gestured to one of the crew, who waved a swatch of cloth. A fur on the approaching ship waved back, and Hao pulled on his trademark faded blue-and-white ball cap.
The boat, slightly larger than Hao’s, drew alongside and was made fast as crewmembers started to pass small boxes and one squarish metal can over the rails. Manny pitched in and helped, the otter seemingly enjoying his task, while Hao went to talk to the other boat’s captain.
Lee Lo-sung was a Manchurian tiger like Fang, but where Fang was tall and muscular, Lee was shorter and looked as if he had suffered some childhood disease that left him permanently emaciated. He wore a sleeveless red shirt and ragged trousers, with a coolie’s conical straw hat to keep off the sun.
“Hao! It is good to see you,” the tiger said in a quiet voice as he and the red panda shook paws. Each eyed the other warily, Lee’s tail swaying back and forth.
“Lo-sung,” Hao said, keeping his own thickly-furred tail quite still. “Good to see you too. How are your wives?”
“Eeeh,” Lee hissed slightly through his teeth, “they are a constant trouble to me, Hao. Always nagging. I would sell them all back to Shen in an instant,” he said with a theatrical flourish of his paw, then winked at the younger man. “But the nights here can be so chilly, and I like to sleep warmly.” The two of them laughed.
“How many wives does he have?” and Hao turned as Manny spoke.
“Five, last time I heard,” Hao said, trying to ignore Lee’s curious glance. He gave the otter a glare.
Manny, however, missed the look. “Five!” he exclaimed as he finished stowing his box away and walked over to them. He wiped his paws on his shorts and said to the tiger, “Name’s Manny Carpanini.” He stuck out the paw he’d just wiped off.
Hao somehow managed to keep a straight face as Lee studied the otter’s paw, then looked searchingly at his features. “So,” he said quietly, and barked a few orders. His crew, a mixed group of Malays and other islanders, crowded back aboard his ship and cast off. Lee waved to Hao as his boat pulled away.
Hao waved back, then turned to the crew. They saw the look in ‘Ni Kap’s’ eyes and started pulling weapons out from under a tarp. The red panda pulled his own .45 from its holster as Manny asked, “What’s wrong?”
“You told them your name – your right name, you – “ Hao bit off what he was about to say and explained, “One of the small side businesses some furs do out here is kidnapping for ransom. Lee might not know your first name, but some furs out here know your family name.” He paused and started yelling in Chinese as Lee’s boat started to come back.
He turned back to Manny, whose eyes had gone wide in shock. “Better get ready,” he warned, “because if I know Lee he’ll try to take you alive while leaving the rest of us dead.”
“But – but you and he are friends!”
The red panda laughed. “Out here you don’t have friends, Manny,” he snarled, ears laying back as his banded tail twitched. “Your friends will skin you just as thoroughly as your enemies.”
Rifles of varying calibers and vintages started to fire, bullets splashing short and tearing through vegetation. Hao and his crew took positions and fired back as two crewfurs cut the boat’s mooring lines and started the engine. A third rummaged around under a tarp and pulled out the boat’s vintage Lewis gun and several full drums of ammunition.
The canine in the wheelhouse started to steer away from the island as the Lewis started its deep-throated stutter and two furs toppled from Lee’s boat, dyeing the ocean red. “Aim that thing lower!” Hao said, steadying his arm on the railing so that he could make his shots count. A movement to his right caught his eye, and he turned to stare.
“What the hell are you doing there?” he barked at Manny. The otter was curled into a tight seated ball, wedged into a gap between the wheelhouse and a few crates of cargo. The red panda’s nose twitched and he saw a dark stain spreading across the front of the otter’s shorts.
“Hum ji,” Hao snarled in Hokkien, “Get your sorry tail up here and help us.” He turned his back on the otter and fired a few shots, barely aware that Manny, his ears back and his tail quivering, moved to kneel beside him. The revolver in the shaking paw would probably see better use if Manny threw it at one of their opponents.
The raccoon manning the Lewis gun finally settled his point of aim on one spot, and the stream of lead from the machine gun chewed into the boat’s hull at the waterline. Lee started shouting orders in shrill Malay, exhorting his crew to stop shooting and start bailing.
Hao stood up and waved his ball cap over his head.
It was a signal; the boat started forward, a steady volley of fire coming from his crew until they were close enough to Lee’s boat to board it. A trio of furs swarmed over the rail armed with guns and knives, dispatching those wounded furs who were not yet dead.
Hao stepped aboard the boat and confronted Lee, who was bleeding from several wounds and propped up by two of the younger Ni son’s crewfurs. “Please, Hao,” the tiger pleaded. “it was only business.”
“That’s right, Lo-sung,” the younger fur said quietly. “And so’s this,” and his .45 barked twice.
Blood gushed from the tiger’s knees and he howled in agony as the two furs holding him carried him to the rail and threw him overboard. Hao spat after him and holstered his weapon. “Strip this boat of whatever we can use,” he ordered, “and leave the rest for the sharks. Let’s get to our next stop.”
He crossed back onto his boat and stopped in front of Manny, who stood openmouthed. He gave the otter a withering look, spat “Ah kua,” and went to check on the fishing boat’s seaworthiness.
The boat wasn’t very badly damaged; Lee’s crew had always been better with knives and short swords than with firearms. And only one member of the crew was injured, with a long graze across his chest. He tended the wound with a brisk scrubbing in salt water, followed by pouring whisky over it. The rest of the crew thought it was hilarious watching the feline hiss and practically dance from the fleeting pain.
Later that night as the boat made its way around the Konigis to more open water, Manny sought out Hao. He had conquered his modesty and washed his shorts in the ocean before facing the red panda.
There was no sense in stinking for the rest of the trip.
And the crew already knew what he smelled like. His ears still burned with shame every time he walked past one of them. He couldn’t understand what was being said, but the smirks and laughter were still embarrassing.
Hao was at the wheel of the boat, his tail swinging in counterpoint to the boat as it rolled with the ocean swells. The radium dial of the small compass glowed greenly in the darkness as the red panda kept it on course for a rendezvous at sea.
The shadowy figure of the red panda stiffened. “Yeah.”
“Look, I’m sorry, okay? About freezing up like that,” Manny said, rubbing the back of his head with a paw. “It’s just I’ve never been shot at before.”
“No?” Hao asked, and muttered something under his breath. He asked, “You’re the son of a big shot in America, and you’ve never had anyone shoot at you?”
The otter sighed. “No, I haven’t,” he admitted. “Never shot anyone, either.”
“Life in America’s a lot different than it is in the movies, then.”
“If you come, you’ll see.” Manny peered at the compass. “We heading south?”
“Yeah. Going to get rid of our cargo.” There was a spark, and a lit match briefly illuminated Hao’s face as he lit a cigarette. He took a few drags from it before saying, “Please don’t say anything while we’re with them, please. Okay?”
“Okay,” the otter said. “I’ve learned my lesson.”
“Good,” the red panda said, resuming his silence as he smoked and watched his course
Several hours later a much larger boat, looking like a Chinese junk with its sails furled, came into view. Coded phrases were exchanged, and after everything was settled the crew set to work. Manny lent a helping paw to passing the cargo up to the other boat, and accepting a satchel of money and a drum of fuel in payment. The fuel was quickly transferred to the boat’s tank, and the empty barrel passed back.
Hao and the captain of the boat exchanged greetings and made conversation while the cargo transfer was progressing. Compared to their encounter with Lee earlier in the day, Hao and the other captain were seemingly on friendly terms. The two boats separated then, the larger headed east while Hao’s boat headed north.
Manny noted that, now that the business had been transacted, Hao seemed to relax. The crew picked up on their boss’s change of mood, and two started to sing as they worked while the others bedded down for the night. The otter fell asleep as well, lulled by the soft chanting in Spontoonie and the motion of the boat on the water.
It was an indication that summer was on the way that the sun came up a bit earlier. The wind had picked up, so Hao had shut off the engine and the crew had awakened and raised the sails.
The otter yawned and stretched as he sat up on the deck. “We going to do any fishing, Hao?” he asked.
Yeah, and we’ll use you as bait, Hao thought to himself. He smiled and said, “We’re a ways away from our usual fishing ground, but once we get closer to Kaykay Island we’ll see what we can catch. After we get a full hold of fish we’ll head back home.”
Manny asked, “Is this how you usually do business? Using the ocean to swap out or pass on goods?”
“Pretty much. The ocean’s a big place, with a lot of room to hide in and take care of things you don’t want the Naval Syndicate or the police to see. The family does a lot of legitimate business too, but you’ll learn that from Peng-wum and Father.” Hao grinned, showing his teeth. “My line of work is a bit more exercise, and a bit more exciting.”
The otter nodded, grinning back. “So I see.”