Liberty sat on the bench she had fallen asleep on, legs pulled up to her chest and her knees touching her muzzle as she fought to get herself under control. She wasn’t prone to nightmares.
Luck of the Dragon: Pilgrimage
© 2008 by Walter D. Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
(Inspector Stagg and Sergeant Brush courtesy of E.O. Costello. Thanks!)
But she knew she had to save him, or this nightmare would come true.
“Liberty! Long time no see,” Brigit Mulvaney said the next morning as she waited outside the Pilot’s Union Hall. Between working at one of the hotels on Casino Island, she’d started frequenting the airport and the Union Hall in hopes of landing a job connected with aviation. “Come here fer a rematch, have ye?”
“No, the bite marks finally faded, Brigit. By the way, how’s your arm?”
“Just a muscle pull. Hardly feel it anymore. Something on yer mind, then?”
To the Irish setter’s surprise, the half-coyote looked suddenly uncomfortable and nervous. “Is there somewhere quiet we can talk?” Liberty asked.
Brigit looked at her for a moment before jerking her head in the direction of a nearby alleyway. The two walked into the narrow passage and Brigit murmured, “Right. Out wi’ it, m’girl.”
“I need to know who you might have out here that can help me find someone.”
“No one,” came the prompt reply. “’Twas only th’ Lord’s Grace an’ my auntie kept me out o’ th’ Magdalen. ‘Twas herself sent me out here.” The setter’s eyes narrowed. “Are ye in trouble, Lib?”
“Not yet,” the half-coyote said evasively. She abruptly turned and walked out of the alley, leaving Brigit scratching her head.
What do I do now?
Who do I talk to?
Liberty sat on a bench in the park on Casino Island, oblivious to the occasional tourist, reviewing and discarding options.
Brigit had been no help, and it wasn’t likely that Tatiana would help her either.
Shin and her husband were back on Krupmark for the week, expected to return on Saturday. Liberty realized that she’d have to swallow a great deal of pride in order to approach the red panda about a favor.
But the cause was just, and her orders were explicit.
She was certain she’d be forgiven – no matter what she did.
She was so preoccupied that she barely noticed the tall canine wearing a constable’s uniform walking past her. Her mind caught the image from her peripheral vision, made two associational links and gave her an idea.
An idea, however, from which she instinctively recoiled.
After a few minutes, though, her shoulders slumped in defeat as she lost her internal debate.
Surprisingly it had been a very quiet day so far, with only one case of a tourist having his wallet stolen and one over-enthusiastic drunk.
Can’t last, Franklin Stagg said to himself. Something always comes along.
His cane ticked quietly on the pavement as he limped from Luchow’s to the Constabulary headquarters, his vulpine sergeant as usual walking along beside him. Sergeant Brush didn’t seem affected by the slow day, except to lighten his usual workday mood.
A sound erupted from a tree-shaded side street, causing vulpine and cervine ears to flick.
A low, almost feral snarl, one word: "You."
Brush and Stagg turned to see Liberty advancing on them, her steps deliberate and fast.
With a practiced flick of his wrist Brush's Headache Maker seated itself in his paw. “That’s far ‘nuff,” Brush said, dandling the weighted leather sap in his fingers.
The half-coyote stopped, her gaze taking Brush in and assessing him as she obviously considered getting to Stagg over the fox’s corpse. She faced Stagg then, closing her eyes as if nerving herself to do something distasteful, and rasped, “I ... want to talk ... to you." She opened her eyes to glare at Stagg.
The whitetail buck’s face was an impenetrable mask, with only his fluffed-out flag giving any indication of his feelings. After studying the canine girl for several moments he said quietly, "Sergeant. The young woman wants to talk."
"Izzat so? Well, I'll keep an eye on her, Sir," and the fox backed away one step to the side, keeping his sap in his paw.
"If you've come to impale me with words or your eyes, Miss Morgenstern, that's been done. Since you are so obviously agitated about being in my presence, I suggest you start talking so that you can leave. After all, I'm sure the Nine would not like to see us chatting amiably."
If anything, that seemed to make her angrier. She took another step forward, her peripheral vision keeping Brush in view. Controlling herself with a visible effort she said, "I have heard about your ... dealings ... with Wo Shin."
"I’m sure you heard quite a bit, from her point of view. Yes?"
"I ... have a problem, and the Nine have asked me to 'Do what I must.'" Her tail thrashed. "So here I am."
A cervine ear flicked. "The Nine have asked you. I’m certain it was more than a mere request, to put you in such obvious turmoil. Am I your problem?"
"Not today." That caused Stagg to cock an eyebrow, and Brush tensed.
This girl was being very forthright.
"Well, since I am not the focus of your anger or your orders, suppose you tell me what is." He leaned on his cane and waited, ears canted forward courteously.
The half-coyote's eyes widened and she swallowed before saying quietly, "The Nine have learned that there is a plot to kill Comrade Trotsky. I have been ordered to find and protect him."
Slowly, Stagg’s other eyebrow raised.
There was a pause, and the buck murmured, "Interesting. Why come to me, then?"
"You're the policeman,” and she slurred the word into an insult. “You'd know how to go about it."
“Yer bosses know yer talkin’ ta th’ Inspector, hanh?” Brush interjected.
She barely spared him a glance. “No. But they will.”
“Sergeant, please. So, the Nine are out of contact with Mr. Bronstein?”
She hesitated. How much should she tell this Enemy of the People? “He’s been . . . visiting revolutionary comrades and sympathizers, here in the Pacific,” she said, carefully calculating the need to learn all she could from the buck against the security of New Haven.
“I see. Do you know his itinerary?”
He watched her as her hackles rose. “By this time, he should be leaving Vanirge,” she replied. She suddenly growled, “Look, this is pointless. You have no intention of helping me, which is about what I'd expect. But my instructions were 'Do what I - "
"What gave you the idea I had no intention of helping you?"
The question brought her up short and she blinked at him. “What?”
Stagg shifted his stance, favoring his right hoof. His face was still set as he said, “Young woman, regardless of the history between me and your family, between me and the Red Fist, or even between me and you, I will not lightly turn away a fur who needs my help. The law is the law, and murder is murder." He managed to assay a wintry ghost of a smile. "My oath does not allow me to pick and choose whom I protect."
The half-coyote nodded warily, her fists still clenched.
“That is settled, then. Now, assassins tend to depend on a victim’s own predictability. A regular pattern can leave a person vulnerable. Tell me, do you recall the death of Governor Nutella?”
“He was a fur of very regular habits, and it was his habit of taking coffee at a certain restaurant at a certain time of day.” He looked down at his paws for a moment. “I expect the Nine have placed a memorial plaque there by now.”
Liberty’s ears went straight back. “Are your patterns random, then? You’ve deliberately made yourself a target – one might wonder why you aren’t dead yet.”
Stagg’s ears drooped and his face drew again into a stony mask as Brush took a step forward, the anger quite plain on his face. “Why yez little – “
“She’s quite right, Sergeant. And I applaud your dedication in watching my movements, Miss Morgenstern. I will endeavor to correct my failings. Is Mr. Bronstein traveling alone?”
“Yes.” She wasn’t flustered by the shift in the conversation.
He had to remind himself that he was dealing with the daughter, not the father.
But she was her father's daughter, straight through.
“No aides or secretaries?”
“Comrade Trotsky always preferred to move alone,” Liberty explained. “Most revolutionaries do, for security reasons.”
“So, here we have a prominent revolutionary, traveling alone – I will assume for the moment that he is traveling under several aliases.” He paused and squinted up at the sun. “May we move a bit further into the shade? That bench – “
“Yes,” she said in an impatient tone.
Stagg hobbled over to the bench and sat with a sigh. He looked up at the half-coyote and suddenly said in a pedantic tone, “As an exercise for the student, Miss Morgenstern, you will now tell me where Trotsky’s been and where he can be expected to go next.” Seeing her hesitate he added, “Remember, we are looking for any pattern that may give an assassin an opportunity to kill him.”
Mierda, he sounds a lot like Father Liberty thought to herself as she started to think. She rolled the mnemonic over in her head, pulling places out of the key words. “He started in Mixteca, then Piccucapac, then by sea to Australia. As I said, he’s in Vanirge now, if he kept to his original itinerary.”
“And if he has not?”
Liberty’s tail drooped and her eyes closed. “It’s likely he’d visit the same places, just not in order.”
“I see. Tell me, Miss Morgenstern, do you play chess?”
Her eyes opened. “No.”
“No? Your father was quite a devotee of the game. Acquitted himself very well against that grand master when he passed through New Haven in ’21.”
“Father still plays.”
“Good. Now, you may be wondering why I bring up the chess game. Chess teaches basic strategy. You have to think, not just of your next move, but several moves further along in time. You also have to anticipate your opponent’s actions and be ready to exploit weaknesses.”
She nodded. “Good, I see you’re familiar with the concepts. What you must remember is that you play against a ticking clock, and your opponent is an unknown quantity who is trying to anticipate your moves as well. Patience in developing a strategy is useful, and I am told that Mr. Starling is a very patient fur.”
Brush tensed slightly as the girl growled. “But I see I’m keeping you probably beyond your limit of endurance. Trust me when I say that this has been a far from pleasant experience for me as well. Have I answered your questions?”
A brief nod.
“Then I’ll not detain you further,” Stagg said.
But he said it to her back as she turned and headed off in the opposite direction.
For a few minutes, Stagg looked at his hooves, deep in thought while Sergeant Brush relaxed and slipped his blackjack back into its hiding place. The whitetail buck sat so still that at first the fox thought he had fallen asleep.
A seaward breeze shoved a small dead leaf across the pavement and Stagg’s cane flicked to the left, deflecting the leaf in its trajectory while he murmured, “Oh pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers.”
Stagg glanced up at Brush and got to his hooves. “Nothing, Sergeant. I should think that young Miss Morgenstern will not sleep well tonight.”
“Looked like she didn’t sleep all last night, neither,” the Spontoonie fox said. “Ah, Sir? I'd steer well clear o' that one. I hates ta admit it, but I think I mighta had trouble stoppin' her if she wanted to try fer yez. Ain’t never fought onea dem Songmark dames b’fore."
“Ah. Well. If you look off to your right, about ten yards, you will see a fur busily scribbling in his book. I believe that is the young fur the Mirror hired recently from Los Angeles. Rather aggressive fellow." He started walking back to Constabulary headquarters. "I, for one, have no objections as to this meeting being on the record. I do not believe others would be so sanguine."
"Yeah? Look like he'd fight his way outta paper sack - iffen it was wet enough."
“The pen is mightier than the sword, Sergeant. I am reasonably certain that my former countryfurs have ways of obtaining items from the foreign press – particularly if the item features one so highly regarded.”
A sly vulpine grin crossed Brush’s face. “Okeh. So, you knew her father, Sir?”
“I met him only once socially, Sergeant, and twice professionally. Quite an interesting person, apart from his politics. Graduated second in his class at Collegiate, and I’m sure it was hoped by his parents that he’d go into the rabbinate.”
“Second? Smart guy. Dumb at th’ same time, too.”
"Ah. Well. Rest assured that is a failing common among those of his type. Or mine." They walked the rest of the way in silence, and attended to the afternoon’s work.
As they were finishing up for the evening Stagg suddenly asked, “Sergeant, does the SIC have any contacts with the police in Vanirge?”
Brush thought for a moment. “That’d go through th’ Foreign Min’stry, Sir – usually ta find smugglers an’ th’ like. Yez ain’t gonna help her, are ya?”
The whitetail buck grasped his cane and stood. “I’ve given her all the help I can, at this juncture. What’s important now is what she does with the information, but I must say that the problem she has is intriguing.” A thin smile touched his lips. “Besides, a little intellectual exercise might do me some good.”
The next stop on his trip was supposed to be Java, where a cell of the Fourth International was working paw in paw with nationalist rebels determined to drive the Dutch out of the archipelago.
Liberty applauded the sentiments, so long as it ushered in a better and more enlightened way of living for the oppressed furs.
An urgent message had been sent on to New Haven, requesting information about any changes in ‘Stallion’s’ trip. It would take at minimum several days to get there and get back, time that Liberty felt she couldn’t spare.
She went over the rest of his itinerary.
Hawai’i, and then back to Mixteca.
Much as it rankled her, she took Stagg’s advice and started trying to think ahead of Trotsky in order to guess where he’d go next. She still felt a bit nauseated at the memory of actually speaking with him.
“I need a map,” she murmured suddenly, and walked out of her room in the Embassy.
Later, a map of the world sat unfolded on her desk with a ruler and pencils nearby. Perhaps, she reasoned, the various legs of his trip might offer some clue.
It took nearly three hours before it hit her, and when it dawned on her she almost started to laugh in relief.
Trotsky’s trip was a series of zigzags, the legs either approximately southwest or northwest depending on the destination. Up until Australia, it had been perfectly predictable.
However . . .
The leg from Australia to Vanirge was northeast, not northwest. It didn’t fit the pattern, almost as if it had been stuck on as an afterthought. Liberty sat back and studied the map, thinking furiously – if his next stop wasn’t Java, where would he go?
Southwest again, back to Australia?
Or northwest, to Hawai’i?
As soon as the public library opened the next morning she was inside, prowling the stacks.