© 2011 by Walter D. Reimer
(Rosie Baumgartner courtesy of Mitch Marmel. Thanks!)
As everyone native to the islands knew, late autumn in the Spontoons was a time for the various hotels and restaurants to do minor repairs and restock things in anticipation of when the weather would once again be warm and inviting. Tourism was the biggest industry on the atoll.
Some, though, thought the biggest industry might actually be espionage. Spontoon was centrally located, and thus hosted enough foreign provocateurs and intelligence officers to make a film noir director happy for years.
Apart from members of the government bureaucracy and a few expatriates staying over the fall and winter, Luchow’s was in much the same situation as the other eateries. The owner had renovated and reopened the place over the previous summer, and the tourist season had almost put her into the black.
Almost; she figured it’d take another year to get completely out of the red.
Rosie Baumgartner looked up from her copy of the Spontoon Mirror as a figure stepped into the restaurant. It was raining, so very few people were out and about, and those who wanted to drop in for a bite to eat came inside to get a table.
The man (it was a man, and all male, at that) was wearing a voluminous overcoat with a sort of half-cape over the shoulders, and a floppy hat that might have been an American cowboy’s had it not been beaten out of any classic Stetson shape. He took off his hat and coat and hung them up, and she sat up, ears flicking back against her skull.
The man was a Manchurian tiger, and she’d seen him before. He stood over six feet tall and looked like he was maybe a dozen years younger than she was. As the cheetah femme watched he sat down and accepted a menu from her waitress.
He had ordered and was sipping a cup of hot coffee when she stood up and walked over to him.
She had to find out what he was up to.
“You’re Wo Fang, aren’t you?” she accused as she paused a safe distance away. “You have to be. I’d know the stink of the Ni Family anywhere.”
He looked up at her and smiled. “Yes, I’m Wo Fang,” he said, his English accented. “You are Rosie Baumgartner.”
“That’s right. What the hell are you doing here?”
“Having lunch. I had to take care of some business here on Meeting.”
“Oh?” The cheetah femme arched a brow. “Couldn’t wait, or afraid your own cook will poison you?”
Fang laughed. “Couldn’t wait. And my cook knows better.”
“I’ll bet.” Her lips curled back from her teeth. “You’re still a waste of good stripes.”
His gaze up at her changed to an appreciative look. “And I see not a single wasted spot on you.”
“Flattery won’t get you anywhere, boychik.” There was a pause as his lunch – a thick hamburger sandwich – was placed before him. The vixen waitress took one look at Rosie and withdrew to a point where she had enough range to throw a knife if necessary.
Fang nonchalantly added some catsup to his sandwich and started to eat. After two bites he nodded approvingly and smiled. “Great food,” he said with his mouth full.
Curiosity finally got the better of her after about fifteen minutes. “Tell me,” Rosie asked, “what the hell do you see in that little shikseh of yours?”
“Oh.” He grinned. “She’s quite a pawful.”
“Surely that can’t be it,” she scoffed. “C’mon, you can tell me – you married her for her money, right?”
His grin grew a bit chilly. He ate some more and accepted a refill of his coffee before saying, “Let’s put it this way. You can’t hold a candle to her. Despite your reputation.”
The cheetah popped a double pawful of claws.
The vixen slipped a paw up the sleeve of her blouse.
The tiger shrugged and went back to his meal.
Time passed silently before Fang touched a napkin to his muzzle, belched softly and paid his bill, leaving a generous tip. Without another word to the two women he put his coat and hat back on and started to leave.
“Don’t come back here again,” Rosie said.
Fang stopped, one paw on the doorknob, and smiled at her. “I don’t need to. Have a good day,” and he stepped out into the rain.
He let himself out the front gate of the establishment and headed for the water taxi rank, intent on getting back to the Maha Kahuna Hotel on South Island before the storm got worse. As he waited for one of the motorboats to come to the dock, rain drops collected and ran off the ends of his whiskers.
The food had been good, a bit better than what his own place offered, and he made a note to himself to see about hiring a different cook. Thinking over Rosie’s comments about Shin, he smiled as he wondered what his wife was doing at the moment.
Probably freezing her tailfur off.
Well, there was a chance she’d be home for the winter holidays and he looked forward to being with her for his birthday (he had chosen Christmas Day, not knowing his actual birth date).
He’d certainly come a long way . . .
The music and the static were only low grace notes to the soft chatter in Chinese of the people in the room as mah-jongg tiles clacked and beer bottles clinked. The air in the room was hot and close, filled with a thick haze of tobacco smoke and the musks of unwashed furry bodies.
There were five men in the room; two felines, a canine, a rodent and a short burly sun bear who sat by the door as a guard. Western-style suit jackets were draped over the backs of chairs, and the player's undershirts and dress shirts were stained at the chests and armpits. A single shaded bulb over the table illuminated the room, and a pile of bills in three currencies constituted the pot for the game.
The bear's ears flicked at a sound in the outer room, and he stood up to investigate, scratching himself absently.
He reeled back in surprise as the door burst open in his face and two furs entered. One, a thickset canine, covered the players with a shotgun while his partner dealt with the bodyguard. The partner, a tall and well-muscled Manchurian tiger in his late twenties, slammed the muzzle of his shotgun into the bear's gut before following it up with a hard uppercut that sent the ursine sprawling.
"Nobody move," the canine said. "Lin tse-jing, we're here for our money."
The mah-jongg players had all half-rose from their chairs as the two gunmen burst in. The rodent completed his move while motioning for the others to sit back down. He grinned, showing stained chisel teeth. "Your money, eh, Chang? You and your partner botched the job. Now the Westerners are after you, and you want to get paid for your stupidity?"
"You told us it'd be a simple job, in and out," Chang shot back. "'As easy and smooth as ten-shilling whore,' you said." He raised the pump-action shotgun. "I want our money - and what's on the table looks like it'd just cover it."
Lin scowled, glancing at his guard, who was wiping blood from his nose, then at his compatriots, who looked angry. "Take it."
One of the felines
reached for the gun at his waistband.
The tiger fired twice, his double-barreled weapon almost deafening as one round blew the sun bear's head into a bloody mess before he shot the feline. The others moved, forcing Chang to fire his pump-action Lemmington. The canine at the table and the other feline went down with mortal wounds, and the last shot caught Lin in the small of his back as the rat turned to flee. He fell screaming to the floor, paralyzed from the waist down and bleeding profusely.
"Damn it, Fang!" Chang yelled angrily as the smell of gunpowder filled the already-stuffy room.
"What did you want me to
do?" Wo Fang asked as he hastily reloaded his gun. "Let
him shoot us?"
"Well?" Fang asked as Chang stepped out of the back alley.
"They're brassed off at you, what else?" the canine told the tiger. "But they do realize that you didn't have a choice.”
“Let me go in and talk to them,” Fang said as he moved past the man and stepped into the alley. He paused as an unkempt, oily-furred weasel stepped out of a dark corner, hefting a cleaver. The tiger recognized him – the weasel’s name was Wu, and he was a murderer usually used as a door-guard by high-ranking Tong members.
aren’t listening, Fang. They’re brassed off, which means they
don’t want to even smell you,” Chang said in a brittle tone.
"So you need a quiet place to lie low. Lin had friends, and now the Western cops are looking for you."
The tiger nodded, then
couldn't recall a time when he wasn't running, whether it was from
other children as he grew up in the streets to older furs with
Life was a gamble, and he was winning so far.
Chang glanced left and right, then whispered, "Paradise," using the standard euphemism for Krupmark Island.
Fang snorted and uttered a curse. “Paradise? What the hell for? Those idiot Westerners couldn’t find their tails with both paws and a torch – “
“That’s beside the point,” Chang growled. “It’s not just the Western cops after you. That’s the problem. The Boss is mad at you too for botching the job.”
The tiger frowned at the canine. “Did you tell him what happened?”
“He still says it was our failure – well, yours, for shooting. I have to go to Kuo Han until things cool off.”
Fang thought it over. Kuo Han was at least Chinese; Paradise was a mixture of all types of furs and was reputed to be the last possible place on Earth a hunted fur could go without fear of arrest. “I guess they’re really that after me, hey? Otherwise I’d be going to Kuo Han with you.”
“Right.” Chang lit a cigarette and offered the pack to Fang. The tiger shook his head and the two headed down the street to a small noodle shop on the boundary between Shanghai’s International Settlement and the rest of the city.
Over fragrant bowls of noodles and stir-fried beef Fang asked, “So how do I get there? Flap my arms?”
“Same way every one else does,” Chang replied, noisily slurping at his noodles. “You’ll get on a fishing boat.” He used a rather clever pun in his native dialect that implied that fish weren’t the boat’s quarry. “The boat takes you straight there.”
Fang nodded, his ears twitching as a small truck slowly picked its way through the crowd, honking its horn at times to move people from its path. He started to turn back to his bowl and paused.
The driver had been looking straight at him, not at the crowd.
“Down!” he roared as two furs in the back of the truck opened fire with shotguns, spraying lead pellets with no regard for the bystanders. People screamed and scattered as the truck sped up, rounded a corner and was gone.
Fang picked himself up and checked himself for wounds. He was unharmed and he asked, “You all right, Chang? Chang?” He looked around the cart and shook his head.
Chang was dead, a bloody hole where the canine’s face should have been.
Maybe Krupmark won’t be so bad after all, the tiger mused as he started running.
Bob, Krupmark Island
“You’re Wo Fang.”
The two tigers, one young and one old, looked each other over as Fang nodded curtly. The older man was a Siberian tiger, barely distinguishable from the Chinese feline, and his Mandarin had a thick Russian accent. One eye was milky, with a long scar marring his face. The two of them stood on a dock that extended out almost to the island’s barrier reef. Two fishing junks rode tied to the pilings, with various furs unloading boxes and sacks. Fang had been lending a paw when the older tiger had walked up to him.
The older one smirked. “Good. We got word from Shanghai you were coming. Good to see another tiger here, too. You got guns?”
Fang wore an old seaman’s pea jacket, the sleeves torn away; he flicked it aside to show a battered revolver in his belt. He flicked his gaze from side to side as he noticed that everyone kept working, but were watching him from the corners of their eyes.
“Good. Name’s Boris. Remember, you’re on Krupmark now. Furs’ll kill you soon as look at you.”
“Got it.” Rainwater and salt spray from the storm dripped from his whiskers and cheekruffs.
“Everything here has a price.”
“Everything usually does. What’s yours?”
The older tiger smirked again. “I’m paid already. And you’re not my type, kitten.” He crested as Fang growled. “Enough of that. If you live, this ain’t too bad a place – booze, drugs – “
“Any kind you like. Some of them are even good-looking, if you don’t look too close.” Fang joined Boris in laughing at that. “You ain’t a boy or cub-lover, are you?”
“Just saying,” the Siberian said with a shrug. “You can get anything here if you pay enough – “
“Or take it?”
“If you can. Now, I got sent down here from the Hill to see if any of the new guys look right for a job – “
“Who do I have to kill?”
The Siberian smiled. “I said a job, not fun. One of the bosses needs a strong set of paws,” and the Siberian gave a jerk of his tail in the direction of the hill a short distance away.
“What’s the job?”
“You’ll know when you get there. Finish up here and head up to Fort Bob. Look for Shen Jintao’s place,” he added, his voice suddenly guarded. He turned and walked away.
Fang watched him go and went back to work.
Fort Bob was called “Eden in Paradise” by the criminal element in a dozen nations.
In reality it was a scrubby little town of frame and brick buildings with shanties clustered around the edges that were little more than clapboards and tarp. The center of settlement was a sprawling collection of shops, stalls and dens called the Thieves’ Bazaar. The roads were rutted dirt tracks, potholed and slick with mud.
Before Fang had gotten partway through the place he’d been propositioned three times and almost robbed twice. He ignored them, a paw on the butt of his revolver and his other paw showing extended claws.
One ear flicked and he whirled, pivoting in the slippery muck and dodging the weighted sap that swung through empty space where his head had been. He lashed out with his claws, raking the equine attacker’s arm, and the man yelped and fell back. “Nice try, chun zi,” the tiger growled.
The man growled a curse in English and reached for a pocket.
Fang was faster.
The gunshot briefly eclipsed the crowd noises in the Bazaar and the horse fell back. Far from helping him, bystanders immediately started looting his pockets.
Fang stuck the gun back in his belt and continued on up the hill.
Shen Jintao’s name seemed to make a few people flinch, and only one fur pointed in the direction of the hill above the settlement. “He lives up there,” the wolf said, pulling his tattered coat up a bit closer to his body and coughing like a consumptive. “Mind you stay away from the church.”
“Church?” Fang asked warily. He’d been to a couple of the Western-style places of worship, usually to rob the collection plates or steal valuable items. Silly foreigners – they would leave silver and gold just laying out on those tables. “What’s so special about the church?”
“Not a good place,” the lupine coughed. He refused to say anything else, so Fang shrugged and headed in the direction the man had given him.
Shen and a few others seemed to be furs of some means, he realized. At least they lived better, behind stone or brick walls with heavily-armed guards at the gates. The church the wolf spoke of, a small affair of dilapidated stonework, sat on a spur a distance away.
“Whaddya want, kitty?” the bovine at the gate sneered. The bull hefted the old Lemmington shotgun in his paws as if it were a toy.
Fang smiled, then yawned. “I was down at the docks, and the guy there told me – “
“What’s he look like?”
“Tiger, scar, one eye blind.”
The bull’s demeanor barely changed. “That’s old Boris. What’d he tell you?”
“That Shen was looking for strong paws.”
“That’s Lord Shen to you, if you get hired here. Wait here,” and the guard took a step back. Fang resisted going to see where the man had gone, because he had already spotted a rifle pointing at him from a vantage point along the wall.
He kept his paws out in plain view.
“Well, the Colonel says you can come in,” the bull said as he walked up to the gate and opened it. “If you got a gun or knife, you keep it close.”
“Good advice,” and Fang stepped through.
“Don’t be showing it off to anyone, though. The Colonel’ll kill you on the spot if you cause any trouble.”
“I’m looking for work, not trouble.”
The tiger submitted to a brief but thorough search before a tall Western ferret named Marco escorted him to a small building beside the main house. The latter edifice had thick walls, small windows and an Oriental tiled roof. Armed guards of both sexes patrolled the grounds.
“Here’s what Boris sent us, Colonel,” Marco said, standing aside as Fang stepped in.
A feline with a military bearing sat behind the desk in the room, a paw idly fondling the headfur of the slim canine kneeling beside his chair. His other paw took the cigarette from his lips and put it in an ashtray before he said, “So. Your name?”
“Where are you from?”
A series of questions about the city and the various criminal organizations there followed. Then: “Why are you here?”
“I killed two people.”
“Did they deserve it?”
“Yeah. My boss didn’t see it that way, though.”
“So you come here for refuge.” Wen nodded, and Marco walked out. The feline leaned over and whispered to the canine, and the boy stood up.
Fang twitched his whiskers, but said nothing. The boy looked to be maybe ten years old, unclothed except for a collar. The canine slipped past the tiger and out the door.
“We must talk business,” Wen said, “and while Jin cannot read or write – and has no tongue to speak – there are things I do not discuss around him.” He brushed at a lapel of his impeccably clean Western-style suit.
“Sensible,” the tiger said quietly.
“How old are you?”
A shrug. “Twenty, maybe.”
“Hmm. Good with your paws?”
Another shrug. “Good enough.”
A long pause as Wen gazed at the tiger. “I think you shall do,” he said, picking up his cigarette. “Of course, you will be watched. If you are a spy sent by the police - any police, you will die.” He smiled briefly. “Slowly.”
“So what’s the job?”
“Of all the – “ Fang growled as he and Marco made their way through the settlement six months later. The tiger looked a bit leaner than he had when he had arrived on Krupmark.
Living there usually did that to a fur, provided it didn’t kill him first.
Or drive him mad – Fang had been detailed to guard Shen Jintao when the wolf had gone to the church a few months earlier, and it still gave the Manchurian feline occasional bad dreams. He had been sworn to secrecy about some of the things he’d seen.
No one would have ever believed him anyway.
He wasn’t so sure he believed his own memory.
Marco shrugged. “Just another job, Fang.” The ferret’s tail swished out of a passing pilot’s way. “Remember that warehouse job last month? Same thing, only we’re guarding people.”
Fang growled. “Babysitting, Boris called it.”
“Ah, Boris calls everything babysitting if it don’t mean killing anyone,” the man said, his musteline teeth showing as he grinned. “You’re getting paid the same, so why complain, hah?”
“Shen ought to pay us a bonus for this,” the tiger said, winking at the other fur. “Here we are, I guess.”
The building was one of a pair of warehouses flanking the dirt road that led from the settlement to the collection of whorehouses known as The Beach. One sat closer to the shoreline, and there was a dock behind it. Fang had come this way before on trips to the brothels (a few times in fact) but hadn’t given the buildings much thought.
Interestingly, there was an airplane with a boat-like hull moored at the dock.
Shen’s symbol was on the door jambs, indicating that the feline wouldn’t get shot at – well, much, anyway.
A sign in Mandarin and English beside the door on the seaward building announced that it housed Ni and Sons, Investments. The opposite building had a freshly-painted sign.
Lucky Dragon Casino.
“Hmm. This is our job?” Fang asked. “This guy work for Shen?”
“Yeah, looks like it,” Marco replied, pointing at Shen’s clan chop in one corner of the sign. He knocked on the door, slinging his shotgun as he and Fang waited.
A slit beside the door slid open. “Yeah?” a voice asked in English.
“Marco Benetti, Wo Fang,” the ferret said, indicating who was who with a finger. “Here to see Ni Hei.”
The slit closed, and Fang’s ears twitched. After a few seconds the door opened to reveal a fox in worn jeans and a flannel shirt. “C’mon in,” the vulpine said. “Name’s Hank Carter.”
Fang stepped in warily as the fox holstered the big Webley revolver he had in his free paw. “Can’t be too careful,” the fox said.
“No. You can’t.”
The interior of the warehouse had been subdivided into two floors, with a number of rooms. A few furs worked at desks, and the tiger and the ferret waited as the fox went upstairs. After a moment Carter called out, “Come on up.”
Upstairs they were shown into another office. A single red panda sat at a dilapidated desk, poring over ledgers. He looked up, then stood. “I am Ni Hei,” he said.
Fang looked the older man over. Ni Hei looked a bit scared, understandable since he didn’t look as if he was armed and he was shorter than the tiger. His suit was threadbare, with worn patches at the elbows.
“We’re here from Shen,” Marco said.
“Good, good,” the red panda said, his banded tail waving as he closed one of his ledgers. “I told Honored Shen that I had need of two more employees.”
“What kind of work?” Fang asked.
“Bodyguard – “
Babysitter the tiger grumbled to himself.
“ – and we need bouncers over at the Casino,” Ni explained. “The Casino and the house are starting to make money, you see. Enough money to make the business and my family targets. You know how it is.”
“’The house?’” Marco asked.
“Yes. The Lucky Dragon is a brothel, in addition to a gambling casino. I thought you knew.”
“We know it now,” Fang said. “So, what are you paying us?”
The red panda put on a pair of pince-nez glasses and glanced down at a sheet of paper. “What Honored Shen was paying you, plus an extra ten dollars American a month.”
The tiger and the ferret exchanged glances. That was nearly half again what the wolf had been giving them.
The fact that bouncers could cadge free drinks and maybe a five-finger discount on one of the girls was a bonus.
The red panda nodded jerkily. “Good. Er, let me show you around – “
“First,” Fang said, “why do you rate protection from Shen? You owe him or something?”
“Of course,” Ni said in surprise. In that unguarded moment, the tiger saw a flash of loathing cross the older fur’s muzzle. “I invest his money for him, and I have a little business on the side as well. Now come, and I’ll show you around.”
The two followed Ni across the road to the other building. Inside the air was a bit thick with smoke – tobacco, hemp and kat, with an astringent sting of catnip – and there was a fug of musks that made Fang’s tail fluff out a bit. Ramshackle tables and chairs were scattered around, with a paw-painted roulette table and a makeshift bar running along two walls.
There were a few customers, idly paying cards or cuddling a few of the women.
The women . . . Fang felt his gorge rise at the sight of one of them as the gaunt, hare-lipped bloodhound sashayed around the floor. “Not much of a selection in here,” he muttered.
Again, a flash of loathing in Ni Hei’s expression. “Best we could get. We have a new shipment coming in from Kuo Han. I am told by my factor they’re mostly feline.”
Fang nodded. He’d realized that the look he’d been getting was meant for him. Inwardly he shrugged. So, the little guy doesn’t like Manchurians, huh? Too bad.
“Peng!” Hei called out, and a red panda femme stepped out of a room. Judging from the smells of cooked food, the room served as the kitchen. “My wife, Ni Peng. Peng, these two are from Shen,” Hei said.
“Pleased,” she said, bobbing her head briefly before ducking back into the kitchen.
“She’s busy. My children are around here somewhere.”
“Children?” Marco asked.
“Yes, three of them.” The red panda’s expression became guarded, unreadable. “They are usually at school over on Spontoon – at great expense – but they are here on holiday now.”
A furtive face peeked over a railing, then rose to reveal a girl of maybe fifteen who bore a resemblance to Ni Hei. “Hello, Father! Who are these guys?”
“My daughter Shin,” Ni explained. “Bodyguards, Shin, or maybe bouncers for the Casino.”
“Great!” Shin waved at the ferret and the tiger. “I can use some help down there on Saturday nights.”
“Saturday nights?” Marco asked.
“We’re very busy that night, and Shin is one of the dealers. She has gotten quite skilled with a blackjack.”
“Don’t you mean ‘at blackjack?’”
“That, too.” Hei started to head back to the other warehouse and as Fang moved to follow him he paused.
He looked back to see Shin looking intently at him.
“I said no,” Shin told the rabbit, her voice carrying over the sounds of customers enjoying themselves. “You lost. I’m not giving you back your money.”
The lepine grimaced and shoved his chair back, then stood. He towered over the shorter girl. “Suppose I take it, then?” he growled as he raised a fist.
And kept on raising it, as he was yanked off his feet and thrown a short distance away by Fang. The tiger dusted off his paws and asked, “You okay, Shin?”
“Sure, Fang. Guy’s just a sore loser.” She giggled. “Watch out – he’s getting back up again.”
“That so?” She had been throwing admiring glances his way most of the night, and he flexed a bit for her before aiming a roundhouse kick at the rabbit as the man was starting to sit up. The tiger’s boot crashed into the lepine’s buck teeth.
The man went down and stayed there, blood drooling from his mouth as another bouncer grabbed him by the heels and dragged him out of the casino. He would be dumped out in the street to fend for himself.
If he regained consciousness to find his pockets empty, he could consider himself very lucky.
Fang stepped over to the bar and got a drink of water. Bouncing was thirsty work, and the smoking was making his fur stink. Still, the pay was good, as were the perks. He winked at the barmaid, a plump and slatternly mouse with a cruelly shortened tail. “You better watch that, Wo Fang,” she said as she wiped down the bar.
“Watch what, Doris?” he asked. “That rabbit didn’t look like he had any friends.”
“Him? Nah, I wasn’t talking about him,” the rodent said. “Shin.”
“What about her?”
“Well, she’s the boss’ daughter, you know.”
“I know. She’s the one making eyes at me, not the other way around.”
“Hmm. Well, you’d better watch out anyway. Her little brother’s bad news.”
“Oh?” Fang hadn’t met him yet.
“Yeah. Hao’s his name. About a year or so younger than her, but already killed a guy.”
“Another kid?” Many of the children who lived in Fort Bob were more feral than the adults.
Doris shook her head. “Big fellow, bear, about your size. He killed him with a knife.” The mouse shivered, her jowls quivering. “Just you be careful.” She refilled his water glass.
“Thanks,” the tiger said nonchalantly. He went back to scanning the room for signs of trouble. Fortunately, since he and Marco had arrived (along with a few other new employees) the Ni’s business hadn’t had so many disturbances. By offering food, drink and gambling as well as women, the Lucky Dragon was becoming profitable.
Marco had become a bodyguard for the family, specifically for the father. The ferret laughed at that. “Safest job I’ve had since Macao,” he said. “I just stand there and look mean.”
Fang had laughed with him. Marco usually went armed with two pistols, a Bowie knife and a break-open shotgun with both barrels sawn off short. The ferret called the weapon a lupara, explaining to the Manchurian tiger that it was “an Italian thing.”
Westerners always did seem a bit odd.
A trio of Chinese men sat at a table by themselves, drinking and talking to each other. They didn’t seem interested in the girls, or in the games. “Hey, Doris.”
“Who are those guys?”
The mouse squinted at the trio in the corner. “I heard Fatima saying that they were tutors for the kids,” she said, mentioning the Afghan ‘head girl.’ “Keep to themselves a lot. Cheap to feed too, so I hear.”
“Uh huh.” They didn’t look like much – two felines and a canine, almost middle-aged. One feline wore glasses with heavy black Bakelite frames and thick lenses, and the canine looked maybe a meal away from starvation.
As the night wound down, Fang strolled past Shin’s table. She had just seen off the last of her customers, grinning as she stuffed a wad of banknotes into a small box. “Hi, Fang,” she said.
“Hi. Could you tell me something?”
“Who are those guys?” The guys in question were getting up from their table and walking out, still chatting quietly.
“Father hired them to teach me and my brothers,” she said.
“Yeah. They say they’re from the Shaolin Temple.”
Fang nodded at that. A lot of people claimed that they had survived the destruction of the monastery complex and school in 1928. “They any good?”
The red panda girl gave him a cheeky grin. “Take a swing at me and find out.”
Fang quirked a brow at her. Shin was a little slip of a fifteen year old; puberty had yet to strike.
He reached –
And shook his head, surprised to find himself some ten feet away and flat on his back as the women laughed at him.
Shin was kneeling by his side in an instant, running her paws over his head. “I’m sorry!” she exclaimed. “Master Wu keeps telling me I need to be more careful. Are you all right?”
He blinked up at her as she stroked his headfur, searching for any bumps. He grinned. “I’ll be fine – so long as you keep doing that.”
It was the girl’s turn to blink, then she blushed, her banded tail flicking around to cover her face like a fan. His head hit the floor again as she snatched her paws away, and she jumped to her feet and ran for the stairs. Fang sat up as the younger red panda pelted up the steps and vanished.
He rubbed the back of his head, a thoughtful look on his face as he chuckled quietly.
A few weeks later the casino was quiet except for the clink of bottles, the clack of mah-jongg tiles and the occasional deep chuckle. The place was largely deserted until later that night, as the various denizens of Krupmark Island went about their daily business.
A lot of furs would drop by the Lucky Dragon later on their way to and from The Beach. It was bath day, so the girls would at least be hygienically clean.
Fang took a sip of his whiskey and put down another tile. The drink probably was the real article, although it was hard to tell at times. Quite a few furs had mastered the art of masking the effects and vile taste of wood alcohol, and putting new wine in old bottles was an old and accomplished art form on the island.
The burly Akita gave a jerk of his head. “Company.” The other bouncers exchanged grins as Shin walked up.
Fang rolled his eyes. Word of him getting thrown across the casino by a girl half his size had gotten around.
“Hi, Fang.” She had a shy tone in her voice.
“Shin.” He paid attention to the game. No telling when someone would cheat, and he really didn’t feel like breaking a coworker’s head before work started.
The game went on, and he could see from the corner of one eye that the red panda girl was standing beside him. She was watching the game as well. Fang drank some more whiskey, and refilled the glass from a nearby bottle.
The others were playing, but he saw a small motion out of the corner of his eye.
A slim black-furred paw, reaching slowly for his glass.
He ignored it, and added another bet to the pot.
A few of the other players saw it too, grinned and kept on playing. They obviously figured that if Fang had no objections, neither should they.
The game went on.
The slim paw grasped the glass. It was lifted slowly out of his view.
There was a heavy liquid cough that sprayed whiskey everywhere, followed by gagging and gasping as the glass fell to the floor.
Fang wiped the whiskey from the back of his head as everyone at the table started laughing. He turned to see Shin gagging, coughing and trying to breathe. “What’s the matter, little girl? Too much for you?”
Shin glared at him, still coughing but managing to get her breath back. “Want to go flying again, little kitty?” she gasped out.
The tiger crested.
The red panda coughed again. “You feel like a frog, jump.”
Fang’s eyes met her, noting that her eyes were dark, but there was a gleam to them. He laughed.
“Maybe later, Clown Face. I want to finish this game.” He turned away from her and tossed another Rain Island dollar onto the table.
Shin gaped at him, then stamped her feet and left, growling in frustration.
The water taxi slowed, then drifted up to the dock.
Fang stirred as the driver stepped out onto the wharf and moored the taxi. “Two shells, creature-with-stripes outlander.”
The tiger gave him a five-shell note. “Keep it. Prosperity to hearth and kin,” he added in Spontoonie. He stepped out of the boat and headed for the hotel’s grounds. Behind him he could hear the boat’s motor idling, and the driver getting the craft turned around.
Yeah, he had come a long way from the hunted days of his cubhood.
Shin had grown up, and they were married.
He was looking forward to seeing her again.
The tiger flexed his paws.
Best two falls out of three.