© 2008 by Walter D. Reimer
(Rosie Baumgartner and Chauncey Fleetik courtesy of M. Mitch Marmel. Thanks!)
(Inspector Stagg courtesy of Eric O. Costello. Thanks!)
(Keith Lawton and the Chang Brothers courtesy of John Urie. Thanks!)
“I think . . . I think today’s the day.”
A hard look from Qing. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. That is, I think so.”
“Be careful, my darling.”
The next day featured a water taxi trip to Pangai to visit Peng-wum and Nailani in their home, followed by another trip to South Island. This time, however, the boat docked at the main taxi stand and Hao helped her onto the dock.
“No dueling today,” he remarked with a wink.
“Sure,” she agreed. “No sense in giving the tourists another show.”
“Not until we can find a way to charge admission,” and they both laughed.
A small food basket had been packed by the hotel staff and they brought along an umbrella for the unpredictable afternoon rain showers. Xiu and Hao spent the day on the beach near the Maha Kahuna, enjoying the sun and talking while tourist children frolicked in the warm water of the lagoon. Hao resisted smoking as long as he could, but gave up and contented himself with only one cigarette, keeping downwind so the smell wouldn’t disturb Xiu.
Rhythmic rolling thunder boomed across the beach, and Xiu and several others at first looked at the sky before realizing that the sound was not caused by the weather, which remained obstinately sunny. Hao just smiled and said, “That’s a k’roopa band warming up. Want to go see?”
“’K’roopa?’ What’s that?”
“Come on, and I’ll show you.” He flicked his cigarette into the water, stood up and helped her to her feet, and the pair walked over to another stretch of beach separated from the bathing area by a high hedge. A crowd was starting to gather and many were making appreciative noises.
Two large hollow-log drums had been set up facing each other and the drummers, a pair of large bears stripped to the waist and wearing grass skirts, started slapping at the drums with their paws. A quartet of similarly-dressed males, all well-built examples of their respective species, danced in time to the music on the hard-packed sand while making aggressive gestures, thumping their chests with their clenched fists. Their eyes would bulge and their tongues lolled in the bright sunlight.
More tourists gathered to watch and Hao explained, “The drummers compete against each other while the dancers do hakas – war dances, sort of; they’re supposed to scare enemies and whip up fighting spirit.”
“How do they know who wins?”
He grinned at her. “When one can’t match the other’s drum tune.” A shouted war chant directed their attention to the act, and they both settled to the sand to watch.
Hao kept his gaze moving away from the act, watching for any trouble from the tourists. Most of Spontoon’s petty thieves and pickpockets operated at such venues, but knowing who ran the Maha Kahuna was enough to keep most of the smarter ones away. Still, he was wary.
But his gaze continually wandered back to the younger woman seated to his left.
About mid-afternoon the two red pandas returned to the Grand just as the skies decided to open up. Rain cascaded down in sheets for several minutes before stopping as abruptly as it began. “Would you like to rest a while before dinner, Xiu?” Hao asked politely while he shook the umbrella dry and folded it.
Her mischievous look came back and she swished her tail. “How about in your room?”
Hao blinked. “Oh, um, ah – “
“You didn’t seem so shy on the beach,” she teased, taking his paw in hers. The contact made the fur in his ears stir.
“Sure,” he managed to say.
Good, she thought to herself, and try not to drool so much, girl.
When they walked into his room, Hao set the nearly empty (save for the presence of a half-empty bottle of Nootnops Red and his pistol) food basket on a chair and put the umbrella aside. Xiu closed the door behind them.
He turned and almost ran into her.
She placed her paws on his chest, running her fingers over the thin white cotton fabric of his shirt. “Do you know what I want now?” she asked softly, looking up into his eyes.
“It’s pretty obvious,” he said. Her scent was quite enticing.
Her musk was even more so.
She chuckled and said, “Take your shirt off.”
That he hadn’t expected.
He stepped back and unbuttoned the shirt, resisting the urge to do a slow striptease with it before tossing it aside. She gasped at the sight of him.
Hao’s fur was fairly typical for a red panda’s, a russet color on the back, shading into a very dark brown – almost black - on his sides, chest and arms. What was unusual was the number of scars showing palely through the dark fur.
This was the first time she’d had the occasion to see them up close.
He caught her gaze and said, “What? Oh, these. Well, things can get a bit violent on Krupmark, as you know – I don’t have a nice soft job – “
“Shhh. I want to look at you.” She stepped closer, looking at the various bullet grazes and knife slashes. She reached out, looked up at him, then started to trace some of the lines with gentle fingertips. “It’s – it’s like a road map,” she whispered.
Hao shivered at the light, almost tickling touches.
“Take your trunks off,” she said, and he blinked again.
“Well, I want to see if you have any more scars.”
“There’re some on my back. I think.”
“Don’t be so shy, Hao. Please?”
“Okay. You know, for a girl who went to Catholic school you’re certainly not what I expected.” His paws hooked into the waistband of his swim trunks, then he stopped and grinned. “You first.”
She grinned back. “I’m not wearing trousers.”
“You know what I mean.”
Two hours later Shin knocked on Hao’s door again. The two families were gathering downstairs in the lobby before going to the Great Pagoda for dinner.
So far, though, there had been no response to her knocking. She was about to turn away when her ears caught a sound coming from inside the room.
It sounded like a giggle.
Or the squeak of a bedspring.
She considered trying to jump and peer over the transom, but the noise would definitely attract attention. She pressed an ear against the door.
“Again,” Xiu’s voice came faintly. “Please?”
Her brother’s voice in reply: “Xiu . . . baby, please . . . I am not from Havana . . .”
Shin smothered her laughter and stepped away from the door. She decided to give them a few more minutes before making a serious attempt to knock.