Luck of the Dragon:© 2012 by Walter Reimer
(Sgt. Brush courtesy of E.O. Costello. Thanks!)
That it was more than one engine.
And that it was landing.
He managed to wake up before the nightmares hit him (thesoundofplanesthewhistleandcrumpofbombsthesmellofhisownfear). His eyes opened and he lay there for a few moments, listening for any intruder while his heart rate slowed.
Listening for an intruder was simple force of habit.
Another was the urge to scratch self-consciously at the scar on the back of his head. The unwanted souvenir of his trip to China seemed to itch at the oddest times.
Fairly certain that there was no one else in the apartment, he carefully disentangled himself from Xiu. Scratching under his ribs, he smiled as she murmured something indistinct and curled up a bit more. Hao yawned and headed for the bathroom.
He checked the clock after freshening up. Not quite dawn yet. At least he’d had a full night’s sleep.
His ears flicked at a sound.
A short while later, Ni Xiu’s nostrils flared at the smell of coffee and frying bacon. The scents enticed her to roll over.
Her mate was no longer in bed.
How nice. He was making breakfast for her.
An ear twitched as she heard voices – her husband’s, and one other.
A visitor? She blinked at the bedside clock.
At this hour?
She decided to get up and join him, whatever he was doing. She put on a light flannel robe – purchased in San Francisco – and went to investigate.
“Hao?” She paused in the doorway, her banded tail swishing.
A feline femme wearing denim pants and a jacket over her shirt sat at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette. She looked up and smiled at the red panda as Hao turned away from the stove. “Oh. Good morning, Xiu. Coffee’ll be ready soon.”
“I think I’ll need a cup.” She smiled back at the woman, a politely neutral expression. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” the stranger said in Spontoonie-accented English.
“Are you a friend of Hao’s?”
“Oh! Almost forgot,” Hao blurted suddenly as he busied himself with frying eggs. “This is Mikala, Xiu. Mikala, this is my wife, Xiu.”
The feline grinned and extended a paw. “Good to see you. We met at your wedding reception.”
“Oh yes! I remember now - you wore that very nice dark blue dress.” Xiu sat down opposite the feline. “So, you’re a friend of Hao’s?”
“Sort of. More like an employee,” the Spontoonie replied with a lazy grin.
Hao plunked down two steaming cups of coffee onto the table. “Mikala’s very good at what she does.”
“I see. And what do you have her doing at this hour?”
Mikala spooned some sugar into her coffee, added a dollop of milk and stirred before replying, “Hao says that he has a bit of business lined up.” She gave her an intense look. “Says you want to come with him.”
“That’s right. He took some persuading.” She gave Hao a sidelong glance that made him blush as he recalled just how she managed to ‘persuade’ him.
Hao cleared his throat, then took a swallow of coffee as the two women exchanged glances and suppressed grins. “Yeah, well. The big problem, the way I see it, is getting both of us out from under the eyes of those pinheads in the Constabulary.”
“You mean Inspector Stagg?” Xiu had met him at the reception.
To hear Hao talk about him, he was part devil.
“Partly. The biggest problem is Brush,” Hao grumbled.
“Sergeant Brush,” Mikala explained. “Stagg’s right-paw man.”
Xiu nodded, and smiled. “I’m sure you two can work something out.” Hao put a plate of eggs and bacon on the table in front of her, and she kissed him before tucking in.
He doled out a similar plate to Mikala and the feline teased, “What? Don’t I get a kiss too?”
Both women laughed as Hao blushed.
The weather had cleared up as the sun had risen higher, and about ten o’clock Xiu wanted to go shopping. The apartment’s larder needed to be stocked, and since Hao had made breakfast, Xiu insisted on cooking dinner.
“Look at it this way,” she’d said, “with me cooking, you won’t have to worry about anyone poisoning you.”
From the look on his face, it had been a concern of his in the past. He slipped a paw around her waist as they walked along.
“Are we being watched?” she asked suddenly.
He nodded as she looked up at him. “At least two. At all times.”
“Watching me, or you?”
He took his cigarette from his muzzle with his free paw and dropped it in the gutter that ran alongside the sidewalk. “At this point, you. Most of the bodyguards know I can look after myself.”
“Oh,” she said quietly, recalling what had happened to him recently – when he hadn’t had guards to watch his back.
“Are you still wanting to go with me on this trip?” he asked.
“Yes.” She smiled. “That way I can watch your back.”
He chuckled and held her closer.
Xiu suddenly heard his breathing change, and the paw moved away from her. “Cao,” he breathed, almost a hiss.
“What?” she asked, disregarding the curse word for the moment.
“Watch,” he growled in Mandarin.
A stocky fox wearing a cheap suit and a loud tie was walking toward them. “Heya, Ni,” he said, stopping about six feet away. “Long time no smell.”
“Brush.” Hao seemed to be restraining himself.
The vulpine tipped his flat cap in Xiu’s direction. “This here’s the missus? Pleased ta meetcha.”
“Thank you,” Xiu said.
“Yez picked out yer black dress yet?”
“I beg your pardon?” Xiu asked, with all the dignity of an eighteen-year-old who had attended Hong Kong’s poshest English girl’s school.
“Yer widow’s dress, kid. Yer gonna need it, married t’the likes o’ him.”
Brush grinned unpleasantly. “His type don’t last too long.”
Hao, aware of his father’s opinion on the subject of killing police officers, merely glowered.
Xiu showed her teeth as she smiled and said, “I wouldn’t like that, Constable – “
“That’s Sergeant to yez.”
“Constable,” she stressed the word, almost hissing it. “Now, if you have nothing more pleasant to say, we’ll be going.” She gave her husband’s arm a slight tug, and they started to walk away. A short distance away she paused, looked back at the fox and said, “Oaf.”
Orrin Brush chuckled to himself as he went about his business. The little tail-cutter had hitched himself to a live one, that was for sure.
Back in their apartment, Xiu was still fuming. Her tail thrashed as she put the groceries away, stifling her anger as she delicately stored the fresh eggs they’d purchased. “The nerve of him! I’ll complain to his chief about this!”
Hao discovered something at that point.
He’d never really hated Brush – until the moment the vulpine had gotten Xiu upset.
Now, he found that he wanted to do things to him.
He wanted to do things to the fox that Shin had only whispered about seeing at the church on Krupmark the second time she had peeked in on a ‘service.’
It was a new feeling for him, a kind of cold fury that wrapped around him like an icy wind.
It made him love her more.
He walked over to her as she paused to draw breath, took her in his arms and kissed her. She stopped fussing immediately, and when they broke the kiss she asked, “What was that for?”
“No one’s ever stood up for me like that,” he said softly. “Thank you.”
“It was wrong of him.”
“He was telling the truth, you know.”
That brought her up short. She gazed up into his eyes for a long moment before saying, “I know. But until – God forbid – that day comes, he’s wrong for saying it, and I’ll be right with you.” She kissed him. “No matter what.”
He felt better.
“So, have you thought about how to get past that fox?” she asked two days later.
“Mikala and I have something worked out, yes,” and her mate grinned at her. He had gone out the previous night, dressed in nondescript clothes and his battered Phillies ball cap.
When she asked, he had told her that he’d made the rounds of a bar or two, talking with a few people he knew.
He hadn’t smelled of alcohol when he’d come home.
Hao stubbed out his cigarette and asked, “Doing anything tomorrow night?”
“Tomorrow night?” she echoed. “Nothing I can think of – but it might be a nice night for a walk.”
They both chuckled.
The next night was a new moon.
“Bit chilly,” Xiu said softly.
Hao nodded as they walked along, headed for the Chinese quarter of Casino Island. They had dressed warmly in dark clothing, and had walked out the front door of the hotel. Hao was fairly certain that at least one person was watching them.
First item, shake off the fur tailing them.
The couple idled around a few shops that were still open, then stepped into a small restaurant. Once inside, they made a point of sitting where they could be seen from outside, and enjoyed a light meal.
They were drinking a final cup of tea when the owner of the eatery, a red panda named Lo Ming, walked over to their table. “I take it that everything has been satisfactory?” he asked.
“Yes, everything was splendid,” Xiu said with a smile.
“We’d like to step back and thank the cook personally for such a good meal,” Hao said as he wiped his muzzle with a napkin.
“Oh course,” Lo said, and ushered the pair back to the kitchen area. The heat from the open fires, coupled with steam from the series of woks set over the flames, almost took their breath away. The head cook and his two assistants were working diligently. “This way, please.”
Xiu looked a bit mystified. “The cook’s over there, isn’t he?”
“Oh yes.” Lo reached up and touched something on a high shelf behind stacked cans of vegetables. A section of the wall shifted, and Hao shoved it open. As it opened, a part of the floor lowered for a step. “He really appreciates your compliments, but I’m afraid you must be going.” He nodded at Hao.
“But – “ There was the sound of footsteps, and to her surprise two more red pandas emerged from the hidden doorway. They were dressed almost exactly like her and her mate, but she guessed the femme was wearing a wig to match her own long hair. “Ah. I see now.”
“Good.” Lo waved the two closer to him.
Hao took Xiu’s paw. “Let’s go.” He winked at the two substitutes, and the woman giggled. They headed down the steps, and the door swung shut behind them.
“Hang on a minute.” Hao switched on a small flashlight and directed Xiu downward. The steps eventually ended at another door, and Hao shouldered it open. “Mind your step here.”
The air was foul, and Xiu felt a bit nauseous. “Where are we?”
Hao chuckled quietly. “Hey, I never said my job was glamorous.” There were sloshing sounds in the gloom. “Careful here. The bricks are a bit loose.”
Xiu crept her way forward, mindful of Hao’s warning and concentrating on her footing and the small pool of light from her mate’s torch.
Something squealed, bounced off her leg and skittered off into the darkness.
Hao almost dropped his flashlight as Xiu’s scream echoed down the length of the tunnel. He came splashing back to her. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“S-Something – “ She flinched as he hugged her.
“Calm down. It was probably a rat. The sewers are full of ‘em.” He held her for a moment until she stopped shaking, and they continued.
“How much farther?”
“Not too far.” He tapped the flashlight against the wall, and his ears canted as there was an answering knock. “We’re here.” A section of the wall opened, revealing a deep red glow. “Hi, Mikala.”
“Hello, Hao, Xiu,” the Spontoonie said, waving them into the small room. She closed the door, which was wood with a brick-patterned stucco veneer, and said to Xiu, “The red light’s so you don’t ruin your night vision.”
“Thank you. I had no idea why,” and she chuckled, “unless we were in the red-light district.”
“She’s got a good sense of humor, Hao. Tide turns in about two hours. Better get ready.”
“Yeah. Get your clothes off,” and Hao stripped off his shoes. He noticed her hesitation and said, “We need suitable clothes, and disguise ourselves, and we don’t have much time.”
“Right,” and she started to disrobe as well. Now stripped to his fur, she saw him open a jar and dip something out with a paw. It had a slight odor to it, and she sniffed. “Fur dye?”
She saw him nod in the red gloom. “It’s mixed with oil paste, so our fur will lay flatter.” She saw him bare his teeth in a grin. “Hope you like looking like a tanuki.“
“I don’t know any Japanese.”
“I know enough,” he replied with a shrug. He finished rubbing some of the compound onto his chest and one arm, and didn’t object when she took the jar from him and started dyeing the rest of him.
“Um, tell me something . . . “
She giggled. “Do you want me to put this stuff everywhere?
Mikala sat and smoked, turning as a piece of the floor lifted and a dark-furred, masked face looked up at her. “You’re on time,” the feline said. “We need to get aboard.”
“When does the tide turn?” Hao asked, helping Xiu out of the room and closing the trapdoor.
“About another half hour or so. Good fishing,” and the Spontoonie slipped out of the building.
The building was one of several structures arrayed along a dock that had five fishing boats tied up alongside it. Crewfurs talked and a light drizzle was falling as they loaded their vessels and prepared to cast off. “Which one is ours?”
“Third one along,” Hao said quietly in Cantonese. “Walk like you belong here and head for the boat.”
“Got it,” she replied the same language. She walked along the dock, keeping her gaze fixed on the boat and determined to follow her mate’s instructions. She could hear Hao walking along behind her and stifled a giggle.
His disguise included extra padding in a certain area where the gods had shown special favor to tanukis.
The boat was a battered-looking affair, sporting both a sailing rig and an engine. A limp tri-colored swatch of fabric drooped from the masthead, the Spontoon flag. Xiu thought about it as she stepped aboard, guessing that the boat really didn’t have any nationality save that of convenience.
Hao was talking to a few crewfurs in Spontoonie as she brushed drops of rain from her face fur. There were eight of them, of a mix of species including two femmes and one rather obvious rodent. The rat was short and occasionally ran his naked tail through his paws to keep it warm. Hao gestured at her as he talked, obviously introducing her to the crew.
Two of them smiled.
She thought their smiles were a bit – disturbing.
“And this is Olaf,” Hao said, and the rat doffed his cap and grinned. “He’s from Vanirge.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Xiu said.
“Yah, sure, pleased t’meet ya, Missy,” the rodent said in his accented English, and started to cast off as Hao directed the crew.
Xiu asked, “What can I do?”
Hao looked at her for a moment, and she realized that he hadn’t thought of her actually lending a paw. “For now, stay in the wheelhouse and watch the helmsfur. We’ll make a sailor out of you,” and he winked.
She laughed and saluted. “Aye aye, Cap’n,” and she headed for the wheelhouse as the boat’s engine spluttered to life and several furs shoved the vessel away from the wharf with boathooks.
“Are you okay now?”
“Ullpp . . . I think so,” Xiu gasped as she leaned back from the rail after sending her lunch over the side. She accepted a metal cup of water from Hao and sipped at it, feeling the deck pitch beneath her feet. “I don’t get seasick.”
“You’re doing a good impression.”
“Ha ha. I’ve ridden the ferries back in Hong Kong, for goodness’ sake!”
“Maybe it’s because this is smaller than a ferry, and you’re out in the open ocean now,” her husband said helpfully.
He was probably right. The fishing boat was well out to sea, having headed west out of the atoll’s lagoon and into the northern Pacific south of the Kanims. Hao planned on steering northwesterly before putting the boat’s nets in the water.
Xiu had asked why they were actually going to fish, and Olaf summed it up: “In case we get caught, Missy.”
“That’s a good idea.”
Hao clapped a paw on the rat’s shoulder. “Olaf has a lot of good ideas. He’s my accountant.”
“Yah, sure,” Olaf said laconically, and stepped below. The smell of coffee was mingling with the exhaust fumes from the small galley and the boat’s engine. Xiu’s nostrils flared as she took in the combination of scents, and she felt her stomach lurch.
But not as badly.
Maybe, just maybe, she was starting to get used to being out on the open water.
She paused, and made her way back to the boat’s rail.
Maybe not just yet.
Fortunately, her stomach was empty, so after dry heaving she dipped a paw into the chill seawater and rinsed her mouth out, then stood looking out at the expanse of gray ocean, one paw holding onto one of the mast’s guy wires.
She’d learned a few things over the past few days, all of which had helped dispel any lingering illusions she’d harbored about Hao’s line of work. It was tedious, for a start.
Filthy, for a second. Water – well, fresh water – was at a premium, so no bathing. Using the bathroom entailed hanging your rear over the aft rail. Even the two femmes on the crew did this, and they were able to give her pointers.
She was paying attention to the lessons she was learning, aware that they meant life or death.
Her tail suddenly fluffed as a paw rested on her rump. She whirled to see a feline leering at her, a jagged scar running across his muzzle and causing his fur to lay in an odd crosswise manner on his face. “Hello, Missus,” he grated in Cantonese.
She took a half-step back. “Hello.”
“Heh. You’re a pretty one.” There was a dangerous look in his eyes.
“Yeah, and she’s mine,” Hao said from behind him. The crewfur’s tail bottled out as the red panda hissed over the sound of the waves, “I castrated and killed three soldiers who tried to r-rape my cousin, Chen. What do you think I’ll do to someone who lays paws on my wife, hmm?”
“Didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“Good. Keep meaning nothing.” The man hastily made his way forward, and Xiu breathed out. She’d heard about Hao’s actions in Nanking, of course. “You okay?”
“Sure. I would’ve broken his arm if he’d tried anything.” She’d heard his stutter, but tabled it for later.
Hao glanced out at the sea, his expression set and unreadable. “Maybe. But if he touches you again, kill him.”
“Yeah.” He cupped her chin, then kissed her. “Chen’s not a good sort.”
The vessel had its nets in the water, despite not having a single fish in its hold.
It was part of the masquerade, nothing more, and it only drew the nets in after the sun went down.
“Ship coming in, Boss,” one crewfur said, and reached for a flashlight. The crew tensed, paws on their random assortment of firearms as a recognition signal flashed.
A voice sang out over the water: “Wah!”
Hao chuckled and shouted, “Poon-yah!”
A raucous laugh. “That you, Hao, you little pirate?”
“Hiroshi! How’s your wife and my kids?”
“Very funny,” Hiroshi said as both crews laughed. Hiroshi had three wives, and over fifteen children. His three eldest served him as crewfurs. “Checking your back, have you?”
“Yeah. I don’t want a knife in it. You?”
“Saw a patrol boat this morning.” The sound of Hiroshi spitting sounded like a retch. “Headed toward Dioon.”
“Hope you’re right.” Hao lowered his voice. “Bring us close. Guns ready.” Several members of the crew kept to the shadows.
The two vessels closed in until their sides bumped against the rolled nets used as bumpers, and lines were tossed across to secure them. A few small lanterns were lit as Hiroshi swung over the rail and sat, the canine’s tail wagging in a friendly fashion as Hao offered him a cigarette.
“Thanks,” and he lit the cigarette from a paraffin lamp held by his oldest son. “So,” he said, puffing smoke, “business.”
“You got what we agreed on?”
“Sure. You got money?”
Hao grinned. “Yes – if the goods are good enough.”
Hiroshi laughed. “Married, I hear.”
“Yes.” His tail flicked toward Xiu, who stood half outside the lamplight, paws gripping a shotgun.
The canine laughed again. “Shotgun wedding, huh?” Both crews laughed at that. “Gods grant you good fortune, Ma’am.”
“Thank you,” Xiu replied in what she hoped was an appropriately gruff and businesslike tone. Despite the apparent friendliness, there was an undercurrent of tension thick enough to make her throat feel tight.
Hao and Hiroshi haggled, making offers and counteroffers before several bales, boxes and squat barrels were transferred over the rails in exchange for pawfuls of money. Xiu lent a paw in moving the cargo into the hold, her nostrils flaring at some of the smells.
When she came back out on deck the other boat was moving away and Hao was lighting a cigarette. “Where to now, Boss?” Xiu asked.
Hao chuckled at her, and she grinned. “Home.”
“Back to Spontoon? With what we’ve got below?”
“No, no, home. Fort Bob.”
“Oh. Store it, or sell it?”
She glanced back at the hold. Olaf was sitting perched on the coaming, making a note in a small ledger. “What have we got?” she asked in a lower tone.
“Usual stuff,” her husband replied in the same low voice. “Catnip leaf and oil, opium, bits of this and that.” He smiled. “Stuff like that usually goes either home or to Mildendo. Spontoonies have funny ideas about drugs. They usually don’t allow them.”
He nodded. “You’ll have to try a Nootnops Blue when we get back to Casino.” Hao yawned. “I’m going to get some sleep. Come with me?”
“Sure.” She leaned close to his ear. “I have to confess I’ve heard a few whispers when people don’t think I’m listening.”
He stiffened imperceptibly. “What about?”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted.
“They might be thinking of how to get rid of me so they can get their paws on you.”
She giggled a bit. “Are you sure it’s not the other way around?”
“It was the two women talking.”
“Is that Krupmark?” Xiu asked, pointing ahead to a broad shield of land on the horizon with two peaks at either end.
“Yah,” Olaf replied, and muttered something in Vanirgean. “Vansaell sengsara. Eg hata adh thurfa adh pergi ke sana, tetapi hef ekkert pilihan.”
The rat looked a bit pensive, then shrugged and went about his business. Xiu watched him go, then shifted the weight of the weapons concealed around her as she looked out at the island.
Hao had insisted that she carry them, although it was pretty much an embarrassment of riches: a shotgun, two knives, and a snub-barreled revolver. All were old, but very serviceable, and all had seen a lot of very obvious use.
She wasn’t quite sure what to do with them all, but she knew her husband was similarly armed and he expected her to be able to defend herself.
The fishing boat lingered just offshore until high tide, then ran at its top speed for the dock. A few crew members winced as the keel scraped the coral reef, then relaxed when no leaks developed. A brief exchange of recognition signals, and the boat was allowed to dock behind the Ni and Sons building.
Clarence stepped out onto the dock as guards took up positions and the crew started to offload the cargo. “Hao! Welcome back!”
“Thanks, Clarence. This is my wife, Xiu,” and the lion nodded.
“Charmed, ma’am. We need to get this stuff into the warehouse.”
“Sure. How’ve things been?”
“Not too bad.” There were several volleys of gunfire that made Xiu duck while the others went about their business unconcerned. “They’re just clearing the street,” Clarence explained.
“Win any money on the bus lately?” Hao asked.
“There’s two of them now.”
“No kidding. Competition?”
Clarence grinned, his crossed eyes making him look comical. “Absolutely. Fortunately they haven’t started shooting at each other yet, although a few people have gotten run over. Road’s only wide enough for one, you know.” He stepped out of the way as two furs shouldered past with a crate and said, “But that isn’t the big news.”
“News from up the hill – they say the same idiot who started the bus running is planning on starting a trolley line.”
“A trolley line?” Xiu echoed. “Here?”
“Well, not at first. From what I hear, the first tracks are being laid at the airfield, and will end in the middle of Fort Bob, just south of the Thieves’ Bazaar.”
Xiu blinked up at him. “You’re an Englishman.”
“How’d you end up here – if you don’t mind my asking?”
Clarence smiled. “Don’t mind at all. Killed a fellow on New Penzance – well, three of them, actually.”
The young red panda femme’s blood chilled a bit, and when a crewfur passed her a small but heavy crate she excused herself and followed the line to the warehouse.
She kept her head down a bit, looking left and right as much as possible as she stumbled across the road with her load. The box bore a stenciled label, but she couldn’t read what it was. It wasn’t English, and was definitely not Chinese; she guessed it was Russian or something similar.
The other crewfurs made their way through a cordon of armed guards to the relative safety of the warehouse, and Xiu placed her crate next to the small barrels of catnip oil. She eased a cramp in one bicep as Chen called out, “Hey, Hao!”
Her husband turned in time to see the feline rush at him with a drawn knife.
Xiu gasped and fumbled for her shotgun as Hao blocked the first roundhouse swipe aimed at his eyes and closed in with Chen. He grabbed at the paw holding the knife, earning a cut for his trouble as the bigger fur slashed downward.
Chen took a few more swipes and lunged, trying to impale Hao as the red panda ducked and grabbed the feline by his wrists. The attack became a battle of strength.
And Chen was bigger.
Xiu had her shotgun out and the rest of the crew scattered. The barrels of the weapon wavered back and forth.
She gritted her teeth, and jerked both triggers back.
Hao practically danced backward a few steps as his attacker crumpled to the deck, bleeding from more than a dozen wounds. He snatched up Chen’s fallen knife and drove it into the feline’s chest, blood matting his fur at his arms and paws. The red panda stared down at Chen until he stopped breathing, then turned toward his wife.
The barrels of the shotgun never wavered as she stared at his eyes.
The look in his eyes scared her.
“Um . . . Xiu?”
“Are you all right, Hao?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine . . .”
Slowly, the red panda femme looked past the weapon at the man, who lay limply in a spreading pool of blood. A few others were already checking his pockets for valuables.
“Did you just shoot him?”
“Uh huh.” Her eyes were as wide as saucers and her chest was heaving. Obviously she’d thought about being forced to kill, but the stark reality of it was far different.
“While your eyes were closed?”
“Um . . . I guess so.”
He walked over to her, stepping carefully so that he didn’t cross her line of fire – after all, he wasn’t certain if she’d emptied both barrels or not. Chen was dead, so he could be ignored now. He gently took the shotgun from her paws.
And kissed her.
“Didn’t I tell you not to close your eyes when you shoot?”
She looked up at him, and swallowed hard. “Uh huh.”
Hao looked to one side. “Emilia?”
“Si, Hao?” one of the two Sicilian wolves asked.
“I think Xiu needs to step outside.”
The lupine nodded, grinning. “Si. C’mon, Xiu.”
“What? But – but – “
The realization of what she’d done finally hit her.
She clapped a paw over her muzzle and raced for the door, crewfurs stepping out of her way as they laughed. Emilia followed her, and everyone inside could hear her throwing up.
Hao sighed. Pointing at Chen’s body he said, “Pitch that out past the reef. The sharks are probably hungry.” He flexed his paws and arms, looking down at the scars he’d be adding to his collection.
Clarence asked, “Divide Chen’s share up among the crew?”
“Of course,” and the rest of the furs grinned in appreciation.
Xiu nodded, paws curled around the mug of hot green tea. “I-I think so. Did I really k- “
“You got him off me,” Hao said with a shrug. “I made sure of him.”
His wife shivered as she gulped at her tea. “I – I – “
“Shh,” and he held her close as she trembled a bit. He stroked her hair, idly supposing that she needed to wash it sometime soon. “You did good, and I’m proud of you.”
She blinked and stared at him. “I killed someone! How can you be proud of that?”
“Because that’s what this place is all about,” he said bluntly. “You either kill or be killed.” He met her gaze, matched it, and asked, “Do you still want to see what I do for a living?”
Her expression grew a bit haunted, and Hao knew she was seeing Chen sprawled on the floor, his blood seeping into the floor of the warehouse. “Yes,” she whispered.
“You know what I do, and you still want to see?”
She nodded, taking another gulp of her tea. “On one condition,” she whispered.
He leaned close to her. “Yes?”
“You tell me what happened in Nanking.”
“I’ve told you.”
“Not all of it – and I’m certain there’s more, my love.”
She watched as he made his mind up. Finally he looked around the Lucky Dragon’s casino room before saying, “Not here. Too many ears – and I don’t feel like slicing any off today.”
His room was on the second floor of the Ni and Sons building, far away from the rest of the family quarters. Shin’s room had been vacant for years, and Peng-wum only used his when he had to come back to Krupmark.
The room was one of the best fortified, facing the road as it did, and was also soundproofed. Hao ushered his wife inside and locked the door. “Like I told you – “
“You said you’d been – well, attacked – “
“And that you’d killed the soldier who did it,” Xiu said, clearly uncomfortable about the entire conversation, but equally determined to discuss it.
“Why bring this up?”
“I heard you stutter when you talked to Chen, back on the boat.”
Hao frowned. “Stuttered?”
“Yes. And you reacted very badly when we saw Stephanie’s gift to me.”
He nodded, and sat down on the bed.
“There’s a reason for that.”
She sat down beside him, and slipped an arm around his waist. “I thought there might be.”
He started haltingly, “See, I used to go down to the Black Sheep House – a lot – and Madam Baader, she’s a friend of my mother’s. I met Steph . . . Stephanie there, of course. And, well . . . “
The red panda drew a breath. “You have to know that sometimes a guy will go down to one of the houses on the Beach, or up in the town, and not come out.”
“If he’s lucky,” and she felt her blood go chill. He saw her expression and nodded. “Yeah. Happened to a wolf I knew – dropped by Susie’s one night and ended up gods-know-where. It’s why you have to be stupid to go to one of the houses by yourself.”
“But you said – “
“Yeah, because I had an arrangement, with Baader and S-Stephanie. We’d play a sort of game, all nice and safe. She’d threaten me – “
“She did?” Anger started to tint Xiu’s voice, and he shushed her with a smile and a finger to her lips.
“Yeah, but it was part of the game, you know? And, well, it was kind of scary, too – she once played the game in front of the other girls.”
“How was that scary?”
“It might have been a loss of face. I need my reputation, Xiu – you know, big bad Hao who scares people into wetting themselves – and if anyone’d said anything about it, I would have had to leave Krupmark.”
“Or kill everyone on the island.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, probably that, too.”
“So, when I met Stephanie – “
“I was afraid she had told you about it . . . and you’d refuse to get married.”
Xiu smiled. “Since we’re already married, and I do love you, Hao – “
“Yeah,” and she pecked him lightly on the cheek. “She told me that you liked being spanked. Not about the other thing, though,” she added hastily as his jaw fell open, and she suppressed a giggle as he breathed a sigh of relief. “But something happened, didn’t it?”
He nodded. “Yeah, in China. I think it started when I found those guys trying to – “
Again the nod, but a little fast, almost jerky. “Yeah. I mean, I’ve seen girls get raped before, but Fei-cui was family. So I killed all three of them.” His matter-of-fact tone brought the chill back to her.
“And – later, when that soldier . . . well,” and he gazed down at a spot on the floor a few inches from his feet, “it was, like, you know, the game . . . only it wasn’t.”
A tear hit the floor between his feet.
“Only it wasn’t,” and his voice broke on the last word.
She held him close, as she felt his arms go around her.
“It – I – “
“No . . . no, you wanted to hear this, Xiu. It – It was like the game, only it wasn’t . . . but before I could figure it out . . . “
He looked at her, eyes wet.
“I was almost enjoying it.”
Xiu woke up, her mate in her arms where he’d fallen asleep after making his admission. He’d wept then.
And she couldn’t think of anything to do other than hold him.
Of course, the knowledge that she’d started all this made her feel like the worst person in the world. She even hated herself a little, and thought that she’d understand if Hao hated her as well.
She felt him stirring. “Xiu?”
They spoke in whispers.
“What for?” She was the one who tore the scab off his wounds.
“If you want a divorce – “
She planted a finger on his muzzle. “Hush. None of that. I’m married to you, and that’s that. Besides,” she asked, “what do you think would happen if we separated?”
He considered. “Probably one hell of a Tong war.”
“Not to mention you’d make me very sad.”
She felt him smile against her finger. “We can’t have that, I suppose. But, now that you know – “
“I’m not leaving,” she whispered firmly. “I’ll admit it, I don’t know how to help you with all your problems, but I know that I’ll always be here to help you.
“And I swear to all the gods your secrets are safe with me.”
Two days later, they were back out on the open sea, headed to Mildendo Island with a cargo of various items to be sold.
Fenced, in some cases; several crates of goods stolen from the Japanese Embassy in Wangchung were in the little fishing boat’s hold.
One small box had been taken from two dead couriers. It was largely a mess of small gears and wires, but perhaps it had some value.
Xiu discovered that the crew treated her with more respect once they’d seen that her weapons were not merely for display. She sensed that her mate approved of that, as it likely prevented him from feeding more furs to the sharks.
“So, who are we going to see about this stuff?” Xiu asked. She braced herself against the boat’s rolling movement, one paw grasping a piece of the rigging.
“I think we’ll spread it around a bit,” Hao said. “Yakimoto, maybe . . . definitely Vinnie the Leper – but not Loose Mary.”
“Yeah. She’s off my list for a while,” and he explained why.
“She wasn’t shooting at you, was she?” she asked.
“No. She might’ve, though, if she could turn a profit at it.”
“Well, that would be anyone, wouldn’t it?”
He laughed. “You’re catching on.”
After docking (and paying the correct amount of squeeze to what passed for the harbor patrol and Customs), the cargo was offloaded and carried, under guard, to the warehouse owned by Vinnie the Leper.
Vinnie turned out to be a goat, missing three of the fingers on his right paw. They’d been cut off in a bar fight, but he’d always told people that he had leprosy. It was a fairly good scare tactic. He gladly paid a reasonable amount for the catnip and some of the opium.
The box of wires and gears received only passing interest.
Eventually everything had been sold, and the boat left the island before anyone could think to steal it.
Xiu watched the island recede behind them as their boat sailed east. “Back to Spontoon now?”
Hao nodded. “You’re doing well.”
“What do you mean?”
“You haven’t thrown up since we left Krupmark.”
She stuck her tongue out at him, then took his paw. He was still on the mend, she guessed, and the only thing she could think to do was be at his side when he needed her.
Hao blushed as a few crewfurs said “Aww” and started teasing him.
Getting back on Spontoon was essentially the same way they’d gotten off the atoll. Two nondescript tanukis made their way to a disused dockyard office, and after a few hours re-emerged and went about their business.
At the same time, a pair of young red pandas stepped into a small restaurant on Casino Island, had a fine dinner, and left after having a convivial evening.
“My fur itches,” Xiu muttered.
“We’ll take a longer bath as soon as we get back to the room,” Hao promised. He grinned. “You look better as a red panda than – “
“Hey, yez little troublemaker!”
He stopped and sighed.
“What now, Brush?” he asked, turning as the burly fox stamped up to him. He took care to keep his paws in view; no sense in provoking the vulpine.
“I heard a few t’ings ‘bout yez, Ni.”
“Honestly, Brush, I haven’t cut any tails off lately.” The younger man smiled as the fox’s eyes widened a bit. “Have any gone missing?”
“None o’ that, ya little squirt.”
The weighted leather sap Brush affectionately called Headache Maker dropped into his paw.
“Stop that, both of you!” and the two men turned to see Xiu standing there, fists planted on her hips and a stern expression on her face. “Hao, we are not going to have dinner ruined by this ruffian.” She pointed at the blackjack. "I'd put that away, Sergeant, if I were you."
"Well, yez ain't me, Missy."
"You have no idea how relieved I am. Now, we're not doing anything wrong, so please put that away - before I ram it up under your tail."
Xiu smiled sweetly as Hao looked a bit startled.
Brush mirrored Hao's expression.
“Well, er,” the fox faltered as he slipped the sap back into his sleeve, “don’t t’ink th’ two o’ yez can get away with anything. I got both my eyes on yez.”
“Be careful,” and Xiu tucked her arm in Hao’s and led him away.
Orrin Brush tipped his flat cap back a bit. “Yeah, a real live wire there . . . “
“I can’t believe you did that,” Hao said disbelievingly as they walked into their apartment at the Grand. The place was just as they’d left it, and with a full larder.
“Faced Brush down like that. You realize he’s going to be watching you closely.”
She winked and whisked her banded tail as she shed her coat. “Let him. You’ll be able to get things done.”
He laughed at that as he took off his own coat. He took hers and put them in the closet, pausing as he looked down at a small, flat box.
He fished the leather paddle out of the box and held it up, a certain look on his face.
She raised one eyebrow. “You owe me. Three.”
He nodded. “And you owe me one.”
They both grinned.
(Continues in the serial story section: "Luck of the Dragon: Jacks Over Kings" Chapter 192)