Shin lowered her knife slightly and straightened from her crouch.
Luck of the Dragon: Cold Comfort
© 2010 by Walter D. Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
“Who the Hell are you?” she demanded.
The man was a sheep, swaddled in a parka that made him look as wide as he was tall. Which made him look a bit square, as he only came up to Liberty’s collarbone. He had a staff in his paw and he grinned as he replied, “Alors, mademoiselles, j’appelle Conica.” When he was confronted by four rather mystified looks, he nodded and said, “Me llamo Conica, senoritas.”
Liberty cocked an ear at the ovine.
“Speak English,” Tatiana growled.
The sheep’s expression brightened still further. “Certainement. I am named Conica,” he said in accented English, flourishing his staff.
“An’ what might ye be doin’ here?” Brigit asked.
“For zat, you should zee my employer. Come! Follow me!” Without another word the sheep started walking away.
Behind him, Red Dorm went into a huddle. “I say follow him,” Shin said. “Could you make out what he said, Lib?”
The half-coyote nodded. “He just said that his name was Conica.”
“I agree with Shin,” Tatiana said. “We follow him.”
“An’ if he’s trouble – “ Brigit broke off and instead ran a thumb along the blade of her trench knife.
The sheep had turned in time to catch the Irish setter’s significant glance at him. “Eep!” he squeaked. “No need for the sharp things, senoritas, no need at all, certainement!” He waved his paws around as he said, “I am but humble servant to my master! I only carry ze keys and ze cash!”
“The keys?” Tatiana asked curiously.
“The cash?” Shin asked, a gleam in her eyes.
Liberty rolled her eyes and growled something in her Mixtecan Spanish at the ovine, who replied to her, waved, and started to lead them away. The four women followed at a discreet distance, knives at the ready.
At the south end of the island they stopped and Conica gestured. “Ole! Ze dwelling of me and mon maitre.”
Only a few feet above the high-tide line squatted a wooden shack with a tarpaper roof, big enough for about two people. Smoke seeped from a metal tube topped with conical cap. A pile of cans and boxes stood off to one side, along with a few cans of fuel oil.
“Arctic expedition, maybe?” Brigit asked.
Shin shrugged. “We were here first.”
“Wait here,” Conica said, “and I shall get my master.” The sheep bustled off, and the four women walked over to the stack of supplies.
“’International Hydrographic Society,’” Tatiana read from one of the stenciled cases. “’Aleutians Expedition.’ Nu, that explains a few things.” The sable’s ears perked at a strangled gasp. “Liberty?”
The New Havenite was standing rooted to the ground and staring at a stack of cans. The others had never seen the half-coyote horror-stricken, but Liberty was doing a fair imitation of stark terror.
“What, Lib?” Shin asked. “What is it?” She stooped and looked at the cans, and promptly recoiled.
“What’s got her in a lather?” Tatiana asked.
“It . . . it’s . . M – “ Liberty shook all over and closed her eyes tightly as she turned away.
Shin looked at a label. “It’s . . . Maconochie.”
Now it was the Russian girl’s turn to look shocked. “Pravilno?”
“Da,” Brigit replied. The four had been trading bits of their native languages over the past two years, to such an extent that they were all fairly fluent with each other. “An’ what’s worse – “
“It’s all vegetarian,” Shin whispered, gulping hard. Although she liked bamboo, she was nowhere near a fanatic about an herbivore diet.
All four shuddered at the sight of the date on the cans. Nineteen-eighteen had not been a good year.
“Mais oui,” said a voice behind them, and they turned to see a tall, portly goat dressed in a parka similar to the sheep’s. “You have happened upon our food cache. Tell me, have you not seen ze bears polar here?”
“As if any self-respectin’ bears’ld touch this, feral or not,” Brigit said with another shudder.
“Who are you?” Liberty asked, having recovered from the shock of seeing nearly fifty pounds of Great War-era Maconochie in one-pound tins.
She still had a vendetta against it after her experience the previous year.
“You have, my dear ladies, ze honor of encountering Professor Louis LeGrand Arriflex, and his companion Conica,” and the goat bowed in a grand display of Old World manners. Manners, however, that were quite thrown away on the quartet facing him. He straightened and said, “Here you see but a small part of our expedition to discover ze Northeast Passage!”
“Ye mean th’ Northwest Passage?” Brigit asked skeptically.
Arriflex dismissed this with a contemptuous wave of a paw. “We know where zat is, already,” he said. “But ze Northeast Passage . . . ah, zat is one of ze great mysteries here in ze Arctic! Our boat has dropped us here, ze brave and trusty Conica et moi, so zat we may survey zis island for clues!”
Shin said, “Well, we were here first. This place isn’t very big – “
“Zut! You are perhaps Chinese?” Arriflex seemed unperturbed by Shin’s assertion.
“Yes.” This said in a wary tone.
Arriflex launched into a voluble torrent of Mandarin as Shin stood there, an odd look on her face. He stopped and smiled at her with an expectant expression.
So, the blue pen of your aunt is in the cheese? Shin thought to herself. She shook her head and winked at Tatiana. “That explains a lot,” and she replied in the same dialect, although what she said involved an inopportune encounter between the caprine’s mother and a farm implement.
For her part, the sable favored Arriflex with a broad grin. “Strasvuitchye, yobaniye dyebil.”
The goat looked delighted and bowed. “I am very glad to make your acquaintance as well, my dear.” Liberty turned away so he couldn’t see the grin on her face as she realized what it was the Russian girl had said. Brigit hadn’t caught all of it, but had understood what Shin had said and was managing to hide her own expression fairly well. “Are you here on ze fishing expedition?” he asked.
“You might say that,” Shin said quietly.
“You might very well say that,” Liberty supplied laconically.
“We couldn’t possibly comment,” Brigit remarked, carefully deadpan.
The French goat nodded sagely. “A wise precaution, to be ze so guarded in ze presence of ze strangers. It is my great honneur to meet such a collection of fine young ladies as yourselves. Have you been here on zis island long?”
“About a week,” Shin said in a guarded tone. “Long enough to know there’s nothing like a passage to anywhere around here. What makes you think there is?”
Arriflex waved a paw to the southwest. “Ze island two miles distant,” he said, as if that were explanation enough. “I suppose zat, you being young ladies, you will of course have not ze knowledge geologique, so – “
“This island’s made mainly of volcanic basalt,” Liberty said, the canine crossing her arms across her chest. She turned and looked at the rising terrain to the north, and turned back to face the goat. “The strata shows a southward tilt.”
“There’s also a layer of sedimentary rocks, with evidence o’ weathering an’ erosion into soil,” Brigit added. “Most o’ th’ vegetation’s typical arctic species, nothin’ over two inches high.”
“Permafrost layer is between two and four inches under topsoil,” Tatiana said, “and extends down an average six inches.”
Arriflex had looked increasingly surprised as each of the women spoke. Finally Shin said, “Although the area’s suitable for some animals, we haven’t seen anything other than seagulls and the various species in the sea around the island. Now, you were saying?”
“Perhaps I shall employ you as ze guides,” the goat said.
The red panda cocked an eyebrow. “What’s in it for us?” she asked.
“I have nothing to pay you with, except of course the offer of hot food.” He gestured toward the stack of tins. “Voila, le Maconochie! I can pay you . . . a tin per day for your assistance.”
Shin glanced back at the others, and realized that if she accepted the deal she might end up dying in her sleep.
Of course, it would be contrived to be ‘accidental.’
She didn’t blame them.
“No deal,” the Chinese girl said, and the other members of Red Dorm visibly relaxed. “But I think we can help you anyway, since it’ll give us something to do.” She looked behind her, and the others nodded.
The goat grinned and clapped his paws. “Magnifique! I and Conica shall give you the requisite equipment, and you can assist us with ze measurements, hein? Conica!” and Arriflex started barking orders at the sheep in a mixture of French and Spanish. The shorter ovine scurried to obey his employer’s orders, and Shin took Liberty aside.
“Listen in and see if he says anything suspicious,” the red panda advised. “None of us understands Spanish as well as you.”
The half-coyote didn’t act surprised by Shin’s assertion. By now they all knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. She nodded. “Right.” The four women started to listen as the French professor laid out his plans for a survey of the island.
“I still say we keep ourselves roped together,” Shin said after listening to Arriflex’s plans. “In case you haven’t noticed, the weather changes fast here.”
The goat dismissed this with a shake of his ears. “Nonsense,” he said. “Ze weatherman aboard my boat assures us zat ze weather shall be clear for ze next two days. Plenty of time to make with ze measurements.”
“Nu?” Tatiana remarked, raising her muzzle and sniffing as she looked up at the gray sky overhead.
Notebook, Tatiana Bryzov (translation)
8 December 1937 y.
Storm has gone on three days now; temp. estimated ten below F. Snowing, with periods of fog, light rain. No sign of Prof. Arriflex or Conica. Shin thinks they may have died. Shin smiles when she says this. Fortunately, food/water stocks still holding out.
I miss Millicent.
We know what smells now.
“Honestly, I thought it would work,” Shin protested for the third time as she faced the accusing glares of her dorm-mates. “After all, all of us use fur to keep warm – “
“And it didn’t occur to you that it might rot if it gets damp,” Liberty said. “You laughed at me for using newspapers.”
“I apologize for that,” Shin said in a grumpy tone. Water from the thawing permafrost had succeeded in seeping into her sleeping bag and soaking the stuffing, with predictable results. “If the ground weren’t full of ice, it might have held up.”
“Well, it isn’t, and it didn’t,” Liberty said.
“An’ whose fur was it ye used?” Brigit demanded. “That skunk in th’ lower forms?”
“Like I said, I collected it from the salons over on Casino.” The red panda scowled, then tipped her head to one side as she considered. “I think I know how to improve it for next time.”
“’Next time?’” Tatiana echoed with a snort. “You plan on doing this again, Shin, you go alone.”
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Shin replied in a mix of Russian, Cantonese and Spontoonie. The jargon was occasionally used as a code by all four. Switching to English she said, “When I write my report, I’ll point out the flaws and describe improvements.” She gave the others a challenging look. “And you’ll all do the same with yours.”
“True,” Liberty said. “There is always room to improve.”
“No one is above criticism,” Tatiana agreed, and the sable and the canine nodded at each other.
Brigit cocked an ear, and eased aside a corner of the tarp covering the entrance to their shelter. “Storm’s slackin’ off, an’ here comes that little Conica.”
The sheep had apparently set out during the storm.
Equipped with an umbrella.
The wisdom of taking an umbrella out in Aleutian weather was illustrated by the fact that the canopy had been blown inside-out, then torn to ribbons.
“Bonjour, mes mademoiselles!” Conica called out cheerfully.
Shin growled quietly to Tatiana, “I owe you two shells.”
“Mon maitre, ze renowned Professor Arriflex, has sent Conica to see how you have all fared during the storm,” the short ovine announced. “Zut! It is fading, ze storm is, and mon maitre wishes to start again ze work!”
Liberty was the dorm leader for the day. “We’ve been cooped up in here for three days. I think that we could use something to do. What do you say?”
The other three nodded and, after a few minutes, they emerged from their makeshift cave. While it was still windy, small patches of blue sky could be glimpsed through the overcast and occasional wisps of fog. The ground was largely covered in snow.
Roped together in case the storm returned, the quartet headed for the other encampment and collected their surveying equipment. Professor Arriflex urged them on, saying, “Vite! Vite! And remembair, mes amies, to record everything!”
Brigit, trudging along with Shin towards the west side of the island, grumbled something in Gaelic that had the Chinese girl snickering. “What?” the Irish setter asked.
“I agree with you,” Shin said.
The two started laughing as they set up and started taking measurements.
“A bit more ta th’ left,” Brigit called out, squinting through a theodolite, and Shin moved the marked pole in the requested direction. The Irish girl made a quick calculation and jotted a note. She gestured, and the red panda moved the pole further up the slope.
They were measuring the elevation of the rise that overlooked the tidal pool on the western side of the island. Because of the distance required to get accurate measurements, the pair had agreed to untie the rope connecting them, at least until the weather stopped cooperating.
It was still bitterly cold and windy.
“More to your right, Shin – ye’re not at th’ top,” the canine girl said, raising her voice to carry over the wind.
Shin obliged, taking a half-step backward to steady herself against the stiff breeze.
The ice cornice under her right foot cracked.