© 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!)
“Speed Week starts Monday,” Hei said at lunch Saturday morning. “What are you young people planning on doing this weekend?”
The three Ni children, Nailani and Fang all looked at each other, then at Xiu. “Suggestions, Xiu?” Shin asked. Outwardly she seemed unaffected by the confrontation the previous night.
“Well . . . “ She glanced at Hao and smiled. She had taken her mother aside and told her about the previous day, and Qing was supportive – although she had laughed. “How about a trip out to Krupmark?”
“Krupmark?” Renmin echoed.
“Please, Father? I’m sure Hao can protect me, and we might end up living there. I at least want to take a look at the place,” his daughter said reasonably.
“She’ll be well protected, Renmin,” Hei said.
Xiu’s father considered, then looked at Qing, who nodded. “All right then. Take good care of my daughter, young Hao.”
“I will, Sir.”
The family’s Keystone-Loening had been fitted with seats for six people for the trip to Spontoon. Ordinarily most of its amenities were removed to increase its freight-carrying capabilities. It was still a serviceable aircraft, and would make the short flight to Krupmark easily.
Hao was at the controls, with Xiu watching interestedly from the co-pilot’s seat as the seaplane lifted off the water and started to climb in a lazy spiral. Below them three cruise liners swung at anchor along with several yachts, while pleasure craft and water taxis cut neat wakes in the placid lagoon. Rain squalls could be seen on the north slope of Mount Kiribatori, veiling the mountain in mist.
Anchored just outside the shipping lane near the eastern approaches to the atoll were four warships, representing Rain Island, Germany, Britain and Japan. The RINSS Orca, one of the Naval Syndicate’s two flagships, was given pride of place, with the cruisers KMS Leipzig, HMS Leander and IJN Nagara arranged in a triangular formation trailing her. Small boats could be seen ferrying sailors back and forth between the ships and the islands.
Fang gazed down at the four cruisers and asked, “What? No Yankees?”
Peng-wum shrugged. “They might be along later. What interests me is that there’re no aircraft carriers or battleships. You know how the Euros love to show off.”
Hao finished another banking turn to avoid some clouds and straightened out the course. “Next stop, Krupmark,” he said, giving Xiu a cheerful wink. “Do you know how to shoot?”
“Afraid not.” A grin. “But I think I need to learn.”
“He’s not a bad shot,” Shin said. She herself was wearing a gun belt. Chances were good she had several more weapons hidden.
Nailani snickered. “But you’re safest if you stand in front of him.”
They all laughed as Hao made an obscene gesture.
Krupmark lay in the sunshine and it looked like it was going to be a hot day at the pirate haven. From a distance, of course, the island looked almost idyllic with grasslands and dense forests taking up most of the landmass to the volcanic peak of Mount Krupp. Almost idyllic, until one got close enough to notice the guns pointed warily up any approaching aircraft.
The plane dipped and described the proper spiral descent that told the machine gun crews on scattered rooftops that the plane was, if not friendly, at least not actively inimical.
In other words, the family that owned the plane had paid their ‘taxes’ to the furs who owned and operated the guns.
The brightly-painted Keystone touched down outside the barrier reef and made its way in to the Ni & Sons dock. “Welcome to Krupmark!” Hao said as he helped Xiu out of the plane. As if to punctuate his words, a shot echoed down the hill from Fort Bob. It was answered by a few others.
Just another random fusillade.
She looked around as she walked down the dock to the office and living quarters, Hao arm in arm with her while the others trailed behind. “It looks like a pretty place, apart from the shooting,” Xiu remarked.
“It grows on you,” Peng-wum said.
Nailani snickered. “Yeah, like claw fungus.” The others laughed.
As they entered the offices a lion looked up from his desk, smiled and stood up. “Peng-wum! Good to see you again!”
“Clarence!” and the two furs shook paws. “Wonderful to see you again. How have things been going?”
“Quite well,” the former British Army sergeant replied. “Ever since Zuniga was liquidated, things have been surprisingly quiet.” He grinned. “Too busy making money to start shooting.”
“Making money?” Fang asked.
The lion nodded, looking slightly cross-eyed at the tiger. Clarence could be counted on keep things running smoothly and not start getting funny ideas about taking over for himself. Adequate safeguards were always in place. “Various investments are starting to show dividends, and some of the economies in the region are improving.”
“If things are quiet,” Hao observed, “that just means that people are only reloading. C’mon, Xiu, I want you to see the Casino.”
“Sure.” The two walked out, a taller fur trailing them as a bodyguard.
Xiu stood in the middle of the rutted street and stared up at the Lucky Dragon’s sign.
The painted dragon smiled contentedly down at her. The chief reason for the dragon’s contentment gleamed red in the sunlight.
“Umm . . . “
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Hao asked.
She leaned close to him and whispered in his ear, “You didn’t model for it, did you?”
Hao’s ears went back. “No,” he replied, but blushed anyway at the implied compliment. “Let’s get inside and I’ll show the place off for you.”
“Film sales have started to take off, but slowly,” Clarence said. “To be frank, it was hard to get into that market in the first place as there are quite a few concerns that have already locked up most of the demand.”
“So what have we been making to compete?”
“A few titles to appeal to, um, people with certain other tastes,” the English lion said quietly.
Nailani grinned. “Sounds like it could be fun. Can we see them?” Her question caused her husband’s tail to fluff out, and Fang and Shin started laughing.
“And here’s the kitchen,” Hao said as he pointed to the door leading out of the Casino’s main room. “That’s basically the whole place.”
“It’s like one of those saloons from the American Wild West movies,” Xiu said. “The kind where anything can happen.”
“Anything has happened around here, from gunfights to – well, take my word for it,” he laughed. “I’m afraid there’s not much else to see, other than the warehouse.” He refrained from telling her about the makeshift studio in the warehouse, or the films being made there.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“Me? I have a room across the road.”
She smiled at him, and he felt his own smile making his muzzle crest slightly. “I’d like to see it.”
“Okay. Follow me.”
They went back across the road and up the stairs to the building’s second floor. Hao fished a key out of a pocket and warned, “I’m afraid there’s not much to see . . . “ and opened the door.
There truthfully wasn’t much to see. The room was dominated by a single bed, a bureau, and a chair sitting in front of a desk with a large mirror on the wall. The single window faced the ocean. The furniture was old, and there was no curtain or shade on the window.
There were also signs that the living quarters had a few extra defenses built into the structure; double-glazed windows and heavier wood paneling attached crosswise to the walls to absorb or deflect bullets.
Xiu walked around while Hao leaned against the doorjamb, fidgeting a bit.
A small shelf held a few books and a small sheaf of signed photographs. One in particular caught her eye. “You know Buster Labbe?”
“Those are a gift from a friend in America.”
“I see.” She eyed the bed, then looked back at him. The only scent she could detect was his. “Seems a bit cramped.”
He smiled. “I don’t usually sleep here.”
“Oh? And where do you usually sleep?”
“Here and there. When I’m working, anywhere useful – fishing boat, beach – “
“Over at the Casino?” she asked, the mischievous gleam coming back to her eyes.
He rolled his eyes. “Well, yeah. Getting jealous?”
Xiu gave him an arch look. “Not yet. I like the fact you’re, ah, experienced.” She chuckled at his blush and kissed him lightly. “And I also like the fact that you were my first. Is the Lucky Dragon the only house on the island?”
Her blunt admission surprised him so much he almost didn’t hear her question. I was her first? “No,” he replied, recovering as fast as he could, “we run two more down at the Beach, and there are a few others.”
“Let’s go see them. Please?” she asked, seeing him hesitate.
“Sure, okay,” he replied.
“Gods!” Shin exclaimed as the small roll of 8mm film ended and the trailer slapped against the projector. Clarence drew aside the curtain in Hei’s office, leaving everyone blinking for a moment before she added, “That was fun. Where the hell did you get the girls for it?”
“Here and there,” Clarence said. “Kuo Han, mostly.”
“Kuo Han?” Fang asked. “One of them looked – actually quite a bit like one of your schoolmates, my love,” and he looked pointedly at Shin as his wife’s exposed skin promptly colored.
“Oh. Ha, ha. It was an idea I mentioned to Peng-wum – isn’t that right, Brother? – and I guess it worked out.”
“It should sell well,” Peng-wum said. “We keep the number of releases low and that’ll boost demand and the price. Plus the subject matter’s sure to appeal to certain people.”
Ahmad and Fatima both welcomed Hao and Xiu when the pair dropped by their respective establishments for a visit. Both the Algerian fennec and the Afghan hound had ample reason to be pleased with their employer and patron, since the amount of money they had to pay the Nis in exchange for operating their houses independently was low and hadn’t changed much. Both were turning a profit as well.
Xiu had blushed furiously but looked curious when told that Fatima’s house (and another one down the Beach) catered to women as well as men, and as she and Hao rounded a bend in the beach road she pointed at the far end of the track. “What’s that house for?”
The house was fairly well-built and the front porch was decorated with twists of black cloth.
“Oh, ah, um, that’stheBlackSheepHouse,” Hao muttered.
She looked at him crossly. He thought it very attractive. “Hao . . . “
“The. Black. Sheep. House.”
“Okay. What do they do there?”
Hao glanced back at their bodyguard, who gave a “You’re on your own, pal” shrug. “Well, it’s the same type of place as the others, but, um, the girls there . . . “
He couldn’t fathom why he was suddenly so shy when talking to this girl. He’d never had this trouble before.
“I’ll go see for myself,” Xiu suddenly said, and started off down the road. Hao gaped at her, and then had to trot to catch up with her.