September 11, 1937:
Odyssey: The Journey There
© 2010 by Walter D. Reimer
The capital of the Republic of China, the ancient city of Nanking, was located between mountains and a curve of the broad Yangtze River. With summer waning into autumn, conversation had turned from the milder weather to the slowly spreading darkness on the eastern horizon.
The Kuomintang and Generalissimo Chiang were repeating their assertions that the Chinese forces were holding off the Imperial Japanese Army, preventing their invasion of the city of Shanghai. Trucks loaded with equipment, ammunition and raw conscripts had passed through the city en route to the battlefields.
Rumor, however, told a different story – that the Chinese Army was giving ground, stubbornly but slowly, and the Japanese were advancing. Street fighting was said to be savage.
The air raids had started shortly thereafter, as the Japanese demonstrated their reach.
The red panda in his stifling little office in the Finance Ministry looked up as the rabbit was shown in. The man in the light gray suit had earlier identified himself as a member of the Kuo Han Ministry of Trade, and had requested an appointment.
Ministry of Trade? Ministry of Bribes was more like it, the red panda thought. He smiled and shook paws with the lepine, then gestured at a chair. “Please, Mr. Chou, have a seat. What can I do for you? I’m afraid I have little influence – “
“Please, Mr. Kung,” the rabbit, a stocky black-furred man with startling white patches around his eyes (it made him look a bit like a giant panda, just a bit) interrupted him with a smile. “I’m not here on behalf of my government, but for a private client. Did you get a telegram from my office recently?”
“Telegram? Why, yes, I did,” and the red panda lifted it from his IN box. “I’m intrigued, I must confess. Why does your client wish to know about my grandparents?”
“He has his reasons. Have you an answer for me?”
“Answer my question, first.”
Chou thought a moment, then nodded to himself. “My client’s family was massacred by a local warlord in the Tientsin area in 1929. Now that he has the means to do so, he has begun a – discreet – search for any distant relatives.” The rabbit‘s eyes bored into the red panda’s. “Now, have you an answer for me?”
Kung Tse-tao replied, “Yes. My grandmother was a member of the Ni Clan. What of it?”
The Chinese had started withdrawing from the center of Shanghai as October waned, worn down by incessant Japanese air and artillery attacks. With their depleted forces falling back to a defensive line near Suzhou, the Chinese tried to make a stand, while the Japanese regrouped.
The Japanese objective was to take Nanking.
November 17, 1937:
MESSAGE STARTS BREAK KUNG TSE-TAO C/O ROC MINISTRY FINANCE TO NI HEI C/O NI AND SONS WANGCHUNG KUO HAN STOP INTERESTED IN YOUR OFFER STOP WILL AWAIT MESSENGER STOP MESSAGE ENDS
November 20, 1937:
MESSAGE STARTS BREAK NI HEI TO KUNG TSE-TAO STOP MESSENGER WILL BE ON HIS WAY TO YOU STOP LOOK FORWARD TO MEETING YOU STOP MESSAGE ENDS
November 23, 1937:
“What’s that you’re reading?”
Hu Xiu looked up from the newspaper she’d been poring over, a paw lifting to brush back an errant strand of her long, curly headfur. He had found he liked watching her do that, and the brief toss of her head to settle the lock into place. “The finance pages,” she told her fiancé. “The latest action in the stock market.”
Ni Hao quirked a smile at her as the red panda lit a cigarette. It was fourteen days after her birthday, and their arranged marriage had been given an actual date for the ceremony. Judging from the telegraphed reaction he’d gotten from his parents, it was going to be quite the event. “You play the market?” he asked. “Isn’t that a sucker’s game?”
“Not if you know how,” Xiu explained, wrinkling her nose at him. “Father taught me.”
“How’d he do that?”
“Well,” she said, “three years ago he told me to take a thousand dollars – “
“A thousand?” Three years ago . . . “You were sixteen?”
She blinked at him, then smiled. “It was just on paper, silly. Anyway, he had me take that thousand and pick stocks with it, then track the investments for a year.”
Hao thought it over and asked, “How’d you do?”
She grinned ruefully, her banded tail twitching. “I ended up two hundred in debt,” she admitted, and threw the paper at him when he laughed. “So we went over what I’d done wrong, and the next year he had me do it again.” She smiled. “I broke even.”
“And last year?”
Xiu grinned, muzzle cresting to show her teeth. “I turned a profit.”
Hao gave the paper back to her and applauded. “Good job. How much did you lose in taxes?”
“I didn’t figure that out.”
He snorted. “See? A sucker’s game.” He laughed as she threw the paper at him again.
“All I’m risking is money,” she said. “You risk your hide – and I’d hate for someone to poke a hole in your hide.”
“Shall we take this outside?” he asked. Occasional trips to the back yard were their favorite venue for dealing with the odd argument or dispute.
Less danger of breaking the furniture.
Xiu glanced outside, where rain drops were striking the glass. “I’ll let it pass this time,” she said. “Don’t want to get my fur wet.”
The front doorbell chimed.
Before he could stop himself, Hao was sitting up in his chair from his usual slouch, paw reaching behind him for his pistol. He stopped himself and forced himself to relax as Xiu glanced at him curiously.
“You’re way too nervous.”
“It’s kept me alive,” Hao reminded her, glancing toward the open doorway to the dining room in time to see the housemaid heading for the front door. He withdrew his paw from behind his back, tail quivering slightly, and poured himself a cup of coffee.
His fiancée eyed him as she recovered the paper and glanced at the remaining market news.
“Hao?” It was Xiu’s mother, Hu Qing.
“The maid says that there’s someone at the door for you,” the red panda femme said. “From Mr. Won’s office.”
“Oh. Okay,” and Hao got out of his chair and headed for the foyer.
Qing watched him go and looked down at her daughter. “Having second thoughts?”
“No, Mother. Why?”
“Your father and I are noticing that the two of you seem to be getting a little short with each other. You’re arguing more often.”
Xiu smiled a bit lopsidedly. “I think we’re starting to really see the differences between us, Mother,” she said, glancing down at the ring on her finger. “Please don’t mistake me – I love him, and he loves me. But we tend to get on each other’s nerves.”
Her mother nodded. Hao was from a good family, but spending part of one’s life on Krupmark Island, surrounded by some of the harshest lessons life had to offer, were sure to mark a fur indelibly. While she and her mate were certain that Xiu could adjust to married life in such a place, they still admitted to themselves that they feared for her safety.
Hao kept his right paw on his hip as he walked to the front door, ready to draw his pistol if the man turned out to be an assassin from a rival Tong or from a competitor.
The Shar Pei at the door didn’t look very threatening, but the best assassins were usually nondescript. He was dressed in a dark suit and held a brown leather briefcase in one paw. An umbrella sat against the wall. “Excuse me, are you Mr. Ni Hao?”
“I am,” he replied in a wary tone.
“I am Mr. Chan, from Mr. Won’s office,” the canine explained. “Mr. Won’s been in communication with your parents, and he has been asked to give you this,” and he reached to open the briefcase. He froze as Hao tensed. “I assure you, sir, I have no weapons.”
“Okay. So open it very carefully so I can see inside.”
“Yes, sir.” Chan obliged, opening the case so that Hao could clearly see that the satchel contained nothing but a thick manila envelope. The Shar Pei extracted the envelope and held it out to Hao.
The red panda shook his head. “You open it, please.” He stuck his left paw into his pocket and withdrew a penknife. He flipped it open and held it out to the canine.
Chan took it and slipped the blade under the top flap, then slit it open with only the slightest flinch. It had occurred to him what Hao might have been worried about – that the envelope contained a bomb. With the envelope opened, the lawyer looked inside.
He gave a soft, relieved laugh and looked up at the younger man. “Just papers.”
Hao smiled. “Okay, give it to me,” and he took the packet, slipped it under one arm and gave the lawyer a five-dollar note. “For your trouble.”
“Thank you, sir,” and Hao closed the door as the lawyer closed the briefcase.
“What’s that, Hao?” Xiu asked as he walked back into the dining room.
“Papers, from Father I guess. One of Mr. Won’s lawyers gave it to me.” The outside of the envelope was blank, but he promised himself that he’d try heating it in the kitchen a while later, in order to see if anything had been concealed on the paper. He slid the contents out onto the table and blinked.
There was a cover letter, in fact two, totaling three pages. There were also several small passport booklets and other documents bearing the coat of arms of the Viceroyalty of Kuo Han.
Hao cocked a brow at the paperwork, then glanced at Xiu as she reached over and picked up one of the passports. She rubbed the pad of her thumb across the embossed seal on the cover, a representation of the five-barred flag of the nation with the Kuomintang sunburst in the center. “What’s this all about?” she asked.
“Don’t know,” he admitted. “Let’s see what Father has to say.” He picked up the cover letter and started to read.
His father’s paw-writing could be difficult to follow at times: Dear Hao, I need you to do something for the family . . . Hao kept reading, noting blank spaces that might contain hidden messages and minor spelling errors that could indicate a code. He read the letter carefully, then put the sheets down and gazed at the polished table for a long moment.
“Hao? Hao?” He looked up to see Xiu staring at him. “What’s wrong?”
He looked back at the letter and thought before replying, “Father . . . wants me to go to China.”
“Well, you know,” and he swallowed, “that we . . . that my family – “
She reached over, slowly, and covered his paw with hers. “Your family was killed.”
He gave a little smile. “Yes, back in Tientsin. General Won Lung Ho – Shin and Fang killed him, about a year or so ago.”
Xiu nodded. “Go on. Something’s got you upset.”
“Well, Father never really gave up, you know? He always thought there might have been someone Won missed – like us, you know? Someone who wasn’t in the city at the time, or in Won’s reach.” He shook his head and breathed a soft laugh. “You’d go crazy listening to him go on and on about it.
“So, when we started having enough money, and knew enough people – and especially after Won and Wu Tang were dead – he started asking around. Really quiet. Even tried to keep it from us.”
“Us, as in – “
“Me, Shin and Peng-wum,” he said. “Peng-wum found out about it almost from the start – he’s hard to keep things from. Shin, well, I don’t think she really cares.”
“Me?” Hao shrugged. “I used to think it might be nice to have a cousin or two around, like when I was a kid.”
“So what is your father writing about?”
Hao looked at her, his smile looking a bit odd. “He says that he found some cousins.”
Xiu sat back, blinking at him, then she smiled. “Hao, that’s wonderful! Where are they? How are they related?” She picked up one of the passports and glanced inside, looking up at him as she read through it. “Are these forged?”
“Probably. Remind me to show you mine later.” His fingertips eased one page of the letter aside. “Father writes that a great-aunt or something married into the Kung Family, and they moved away from Tientsin. Took a while to track them down.”
“The Kung Family? Not – “
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Hao said with a chuckle. “Kung Fu-tzu wasn’t a red panda, you know – he was canine.” He flicked his banded tail at her and she batted the tip away. “Besides, the Master was reputed to have ‘forty-nine remarkable peculiarities.’” He sat back and spread his arms. “Do I look like I have forty-nine peculiarities?”
Xiu giggled. “You only have one that I know of,” and they both laughed. “So, the Kung Family? Where are they? Where do they live?”
Hao’s smile left him. “Father says that they live up north, up in Nanking.”
“Yeah. One of them’s supposed to be part of the government up there.” He caught her look. “What?”
“Haven’t you been reading the news?” She folded the newspaper over and showed him the front page. “The Japanese have been bombing the place, and they say they’ve broken out of Shanghai.”
“Yeah, I read that.” He poked at another part of the letter. “The rest of the papers are for the Kungs – their passports make them members of the Kuo Han government, with diplomatic immunity, so it says here.”
“But, Hao – “
“You’d be headed straight into a war zone.”
Hao shrugged. “I know. We haven’t been able to get much out of Shanghai since July. And the costs – forget it.” His paw reached out for his Fortunas. “One gallon – a gallon! – of catnip oil shipped from there went for a hundred dollars last month, so I heard. And that’s if you could find it.”
“Hao – “
He had a cigarette halfway to his lips. “Hmm?”
Her look was intent. “It’s a war zone, or will be soon.”
“You know? You know, and you’re still going to Nanking?” She shook her head. “You’re crazy.”
Hao lit his cigarette and shrugged again. “Maybe,” he said, shaking out the match and placing it in an ashtray. “But Father wants me to do this, so I’m going.”
“Can’t he send someone else? Maybe you could hire – “
“No,” he said, looking away from the letter to look at her. “This is family, Xiu. And there’s no one I can trust to do this.” He flicked an ear. “I’ll be careful, that’s all. This will be just like I’m smuggling something. I’ll treat it like business.”
“You’re not smuggling things, you’ll be smuggling people.”
She ran a paw over her headfur. “Do you – did you – ever do that?”
Hao looked surprised, then shook his head. “No. Father doesn’t like the idea of trading in slaves. It’s too much of a risk.” He dropped some ashes into the ashtray. “See, if I get caught with drugs, or guns, that’s actually not so bad. In most places a bribe is enough, and the cops look the other way. Slaves, though – I knew a guy who got caught trying it.”
“The Naval Syndicate tied a weight to his ankles and threw him into the ocean,” he said matter-of-factly. “That’s why Father doesn’t allow it – too great a risk to make it profitable.” Of course, the Lucky Dragon did acquire new girls from Kuo Han’s best farms, but middlemen were relied upon to get the women to Krupmark.
The Nis’ paws were clean.
Well, as clean as could be expected.
“Oh.” Xiu ran a finger over the back of his paw. “Will you be going immediately?”
He smiled, set his cigarette aside and lifted her paw to his lips. She blushed as he kissed her paw and said, “It’ll be a couple days. I have to get a few things set up; after all, Nanking’s over a thousand miles away.”
Later that day, Hao closed and locked the door to his room, then carefully studied each page of the letter Hei had sent him. The envelope, too, had to be carefully inspected.
The first page had several minor spelling errors, errors that could be easily missed on a cursory reading. Chinese ideographs were like that, and the coded message gave him a piece of the puzzle.
So did the second page, and the third. A coded phrase on the third page indicated that he had to look further, and he lit a candle that he had taken from the mantelpiece.
A few passes of the first page over the candle flame didn’t reveal anything, nor did the second page.
The third page, however . . .
The candle flame slowly discolored the page, and characters started to appear.
Hao read the message, and reread it, committing it to memory before doing the same procedure with the envelope. There was nothing on that, so he took the entire letter to the bathroom and burned it in the sink. Once he was done and the windows opened to clear away the smell, he sat down on his bed, thinking.
The sky was overcast and threatening rain as a young red panda walked into a certain noodle shop in Kowloon City and took a seat, glancing at the menu items written on a sign over the kitchen area. The waiter twitched his long lepine ears at the request for a glass of water, but brought it anyway.
Hao ordered noodles with dried fish, then took a sip of water, accidentally spilling a bit onto the table. While he waited, he idly dipped a fingertip in the spillage and traced a seemingly random design.
The waiter brought him a steaming bowl of noodles, and his flag gave the barest movement as he saw the design on the table. “Would you like anything else?” the waiter asked.
“Where may one get almond jelly?” Hao asked politely. “I will need something sweet after these delicious noodles.” He hadn’t yet touched his food.
The waiter leaned close and said, “The very best almond jelly is sold around the back.”
“Thank you,” and Hao started eating, taking care to slurp his noodles. After eating and paying his bill, he stepped back out into the street and lit a cigarette.
He traveled a short way up the street, looking in shop windows, until he was certain he wasn’t being followed. The red panda then retraced his steps and ducked into the alley that ran behind the shop. He picked his way around a mound of fetid garbage and gave a soft knock on the rear door.
The waiter he had spoken with opened it a bare crack, then a bit wider. “Were you followed?”
“Here,” and a small packet, about two inches thick and less than a foot long, was thrust into Hao’s paws. He tucked it into his coat and headed back to the street, turning up his collar and putting on his ball cap as it started to rain.
“Where were you?” Xiu asked later that afternoon as she held the door open for Hao. He stepped in and turned down his collar, then took his cap off and kissed her. As she closed the door, she could see a taxi pulling away. “I thought we were going to go see a movie.”
“We will,” her fiancé said with a smile, “but I had to go somewhere.”
He wagged a finger at her. “You shouldn’t ask.”
She wagged a finger right back at him and grinned. “If we’re going to get married, we mustn’t keep secrets from each other.”
Hao looked at her, visibly made his mind up, then hooked her finger with his and said, “Come to my room.” She giggled and he added, “No, not for that. Maybe tonight – after the movie,” and he leered at her as they both laughed.
They went into his room, and he closed the door. A pause, and he turned the key, locking it before turning back to her.
She blinked at the sudden change that came over him. He looked tense and his dark eyes seemed to get darker.
He took her paws in his, moved closer until their noses were almost touching, and said softly, “I want to know something – can you keep a secret, Xiu?”
His voice got a bit lower. “Can you keep a secret?”
“From everyone? Even from your parents?”
She blinked again, realizing now that he was deadly serious. “Yes,” she replied after a moment’s hesitation.
Hao took a breath and whispered in her ear, “I love you.”
He started laughing as she hit him.
“Seriously,” Xiu said. “What’s going on?”
“I’m afraid that I have to leave – “
“I knew that.” She winked. “On business.”
“Tomorrow?” she asked in a shocked tone. “What happened?”
Hao explained where he had gone and added, “I opened the packet and read it while I was in the taxi. I have to leave as soon as possible, based on what Father’s sources have told me.”
“Is it about the Japanese?”
He nodded. “Based on what I’ve been given, it’s best I get there and get the hell out, and fast.”
Xiu nodded. “Tomorrow morning?”
“Good. That means I have you here for one more night.” She walked past him to the door, took the key from the lock and slipped it down the front of her blouse. “Now you’re trapped, Ni Hao.”
After dinner, Hao drove Xiu into the city to a theater, where Kwan Man Ching’s The Modern Wu Dalang was playing. The comedy was well-received by the audience, and both red pandas found themselves laughing at the antics of the hapless hero.
At dinner after the movie, Xiu reached over and touched Hao’s paw.
“You look a bit preoccupied, Hao.”
He smiled and gave her paw a squeeze. “Just going over a few things in my head. I do think, you know – “
“I never doubted it.”
“ – and I try to plan for everything.” He winked. “Saves a lot of embarrassment later.”
“Yes, you told me. You also told me about the, um, last time,” she said, lowering her tone and leaning close to him as if to murmur an endearment.
She learned fast, Hao noted. “Yeah, that was a mistake,” he admitted. “But I do better, most times.”
She drew him closer, and brushed her lips against the white fur in his left ear as she whispered. She sat back and he nodded.
He left early that morning, before the sun came up. He remembered to stop by Xiu’s room and gave her a goodbye kiss before going out to the waiting taxi.
Hu Renmin, her father, was waiting for him at the door. “Business?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. I can’t talk about it.”
“You shouldn’t, then.” He extended a paw, and Hao took it. “Take care.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The taxi took him to the border crossing with China, and after passing through the Customs checkpoint the red panda, dressed in his suit and carrying a small satchel, boarded the train for Canton.
As the scenery blurred past he sat and smoked, looking out the window as the train chugged its way north and west to his destination. There was little Western influence here, even so close to the Crown Colony. There were fewer motorized vehicles, for starters, and more traffic carried on feet, bicycles or animal-drawn carts.
The train deposited him in the center of the city, and he stopped at a shop to get a bite to eat. After settling his bill he asked for directions to a tailor’s shop, thanked the elderly canine and headed in the direction she had indicated.
The tailor had been arranged by his father, through his Tong connections. Hao entered and the proprietor said, “Good morning. What can I do for you?”
The fingers of Hao’s right paw flicked. “I was wondering if you can measure me for a set of trousers,” he said aloud. “These are getting a bit threadbare.”
“Oh my yes,” the raccoon dog replied, his own paws moving as he acknowledged the recognition signal. “Come with me, young sir, and let’s just see, shall we?” He stubbed out his cigar and led Hao into the rear of the shop.
As soon as they were out of view and earshot of the street the tailor said, “You’re right on time.”
“I got here as soon as I could.”
The raccoon dog nodded. “Your clothes are waiting for you in that room there,” and he pointed.
“After you, kind sir,” Hao said politely. He was smiling, but his paw was already on his pistol. The man nodded and opened the door to the small closet, switching on the light and stepping back to show that the room was unoccupied.
“Thank you, sir. Please forgive my presumption.” The man might, after all, try to sell what he knew in retaliation for any slight.
“It is no matter,” the older man said. “You are right to be wary. These are dangerous times.” Hao stepped in and closed the door.
What the hell? he thought as he saw what was waiting for him on a small table. The clothing consisted of a pair of knee-high polished leather boots, with trousers and a matching high-collared tunic in a muddy greenish-brown color.
He poked his head out of the closet. “A uniform?”
“The best cover, eh?”
“I suppose so. Thank you again.” He closed the door and inspected the rest of the pile of clothing. The tunic bore metal rank insignia on the left cuff, two joined horizontal bars surmounted by an eagle bearing a twin-bladed propeller in its talons. The pile concealed a small bag that contained a Sam Bruin belt, identity disc and a billed uniform cap with an officer’s insignia of gold embroidered wings surrounding the Kuomintang seal on the front. Inside the hat were identity papers and orders.
“First Lieutenant Won Tse-ming, Air Force,” Hao murmured, impressed.
He even resembled the photograph on the identity card.
Well enough, that is. The photograph was grainy black and white.
Hao started to change his clothes. Everything fit well, although he did have some trouble with the boots (even putting them on the wrong feet at one point). After struggling to get the stock collar of the tunic closed he slicked his headfur back, combed it carefully and put his hat on. He packed his satchel with his civilian clothes and stepped out of the room.
There was a mirror nearby, and he paused to look at himself. The holster on the Sam Bruin belt had been empty, but fitted his Colt well enough. At least he could carry it openly. He studied his reflection, and smiled.
Not even his mother would recognize him in this.
He walked up to the tailor, who set aside his newspaper and said, “So, Lieutenant, does everything meet with your approval?”
“Yes, indeed,” Hao replied, bowing slightly. “It is excellent work.” He insisted on paying the man, who demurred, but took it anyway.
Hao stepped back out into the street and hailed a taxi. “Do you know the way to the airfield?” he asked. “I just got into town, you see.”
“Of course,” the driver said, and started picking his way through the crowd as Hao sat back.
The red panda brushed at his banded tail while flexing his feet in the boots.
They were unfamiliar, and were slowly getting uncomfortable.
The taxi driver stopped at the closed gate and Hao paid him, then climbed out of the cab and looked around as the car drove off. The gate was closed and the two enlisted sentries eyed him with mild disinterest. A few biplanes were lined up wingtip-to-wingtip near a hangar.
Hao took a deep breath. The best tactic was to act like you owned the place; if you did, people would react as if you were supposed to be there.
He walked up to one of the sentries, a corporal, and offered his identity papers and orders. “Lieuenant Won, Corporal.”
The corporal reached through a gap in the fence for the papers, glanced at them and opened the gate. “Sir,” he said as he and the private came to attention and saluted.
Hao took back his paperwork and returned the salute, then started walking toward the flight line.
“Hey! You there! Halt!”
Hao turned, saw who was headed for him, and stiffened to a passable posture of attention. He’d seen soldiers before, so he figured if he acted like one, he’d manage to maintain his cover reasonably well.
He tried to avoid laughing, though.
The man stalking toward him wore a uniform with the insignia of a major, but the canine’s eartips barely reached Hao’s chin. He marched right up to Hao and glared. “Papers, Lieutenant.”
Hao gave him his paperwork and remained rigid as the canine read them, then gave them back. “Your orders say you are a pilot, Lt. Won.”
The major slapped him across the muzzle. “Can’t stand pilots,” the dog growled irritably. “They act like they own the air I breathe,” and with that he slapped Hao again, hard enough to knock his hat off his head. “What do you have to say about that, pup?”
Hao kept still, not even his tail betraying his sudden desire to kill the man.
Maybe later, he swore to himself.
“Sir, I wish to kill Japanese.” It sounded rehearsed, but the officer nodded approvingly, punctuating the gesture with a caustic sniff.
“More like they’ll kill you first. All right then, report to Captain Fong, you little wet-behind-the-ears puppy,” the major growled, clearly dissatisfied that he hadn’t gotten any reaction. “He’s your squadron leader.”
“Sir.” Hao saluted, waited until the major had returned it, then retrieved his uniform cap and walked away. He had never had any exposure to the sometimes brutal discipline prevalent in the Chinese armed forces.
As soon as he was safely behind the corner of one of the buildings he clenched his free paw until he felt the claws start to dig into his palm. It had taken everything in him to hold off his temper.
He took a deep breath, eyes closed.
He opened them.
He headed for the squadron office and found out from an orderly where he could find a flight suit, and was escorted to a locker room.
Hao hurriedly changed out of his uniform and into the suit, pulling on a fur-lined flying helmet and heading for the flight line.
Two of the planes reminded him of his Nin Hai floatplane, but were quite a bit sturdier. He checked one, a German Focke-Wulf Fw44 biplane, very carefully and noted that the fuel tank was full. Two noncoms walked over, saluted when they discovered it was an officer who was prowling about their planes, and helped him get the craft ready for flight.
“I’m just going to take it up for a check flight,” Hao said.
“Right you are, Lieutenant,” a sergeant said. “Watch out, though – we’ve had reports of Japanese planes north of here.”
“I’ll be careful,” Hao said, accepting a folder of maps from a private. He climbed up into the aircraft, stowing his satchel behind the seat before strapping in and testing the controls. He set the choke and signaled for the ground crew to start the engine. The sergeant waved to two others, who started cranking until the engine sputtered, then caught. Hao tested the throttle and waved the chocks away, moving out onto the rammed-earth strip.
By the time the captain came running out of his quarters to see what the commotion was about, Hao was already gaining altitude.
The biplane was a trainer and had been designed to be easy to fly, and Hao enjoyed feeling the air whipping against his face again. It had been far too long since he’d been in the air by himself. Out of sheer exuberance he snap-rolled the plane twice, laughing as he did so.
Unfortunately, the plane had a range of only a bit over three hundred miles, requiring him to check his maps for airfields where he could put down for refueling.
At his first stop he lied outrageously, telling the ground crew that he was on his way to Hefei with important dispatches. When he landed at the second stop the sun was starting to set, and the captain who ran the place invited him to stay the night.
Hao made a show of being reluctant about accepting, saying that he really needed to fly on to Hefei. “Nonsense,” the Army captain, a red panda named Chin, said flatly. “We have some beer, and it’s good to see another red panda again,” he added with a chuckle. Most of his crew was composed of felines, with one yak sporting sergeant’s chevrons.
The younger fur grinned. “How can I refuse your generous offer, Captain?” He saluted, and both officers burst out laughing.
The food was largely rice and vegetables, bought from local villages and farms, but the beer was German, brought from Shanghai. “Last case of it we’ll have for a while, I think,” Chin said. The others muttered as he added, “News from Shanghai isn’t good.”
Hao waved a paw dismissively. “I’m sure we’ll stop them before they get any farther. Japanese bleed red, same as anyone else.”
The yak squinted at him. “May be,” he grumbled, “but they gots better guns.”
One of the privates asked, “What about the Iron Phoenix?”
In spite of himself, Hao pricked up his ears. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that name. “Who are they?” he asked.
Captain Chin shrugged. “Some squadron up north, that are making a big noise,” he said. “They fly better planes and it’s said they’re led by some Westerner.” His voice became harsh and derisive. “A mare, so they say – has one blue eye and one brown,” and he winked. “Don’t believe a word of it, myself. As if any female pilot could even hold her own against a male. Never see a femme in our squadron, I can tell you.” He took another sip of his beer. “In any event, the Iron Phoenix isn’t long for it; the Generalissimo won’t have anyone around more popular than he is.”
Hao nodded, then hawked and spat. It was fortunate for the guy that his sister Shin wasn’t here. His derogatory comments about female pilots would presently be making their way back down his throat.
At the end of a ramrod.
“There is no god but Chiang, eh?” He winked and the others laughed.
“That’s about right.” Chin accepted a cigarette from Hao and lit up. “So, you’re on your way to Hefei.”
“Yes, sir. Actually, Hefei’s just a stop. I’m on my way to Nanking, actually,” Hao said, “but Hefei’s far enough west that flying there should be safe.”
“Sensible.” Chin looked around at his men. “They’ll never get this far south, but if they do, we know where we’re going, right men?”
“Yeah,” the yak said. “Straight to Canton.”
“Although I hear Sichuan’s nice this time of year,” another fur chuckled, and the others all snickered.
The Japanese had their objective in sight, and directives that amounted to orders for forced marches were given to the Imperial Army, now advancing from several directions up either bank of the Yangtze.
Chinese troops falling back from Shanghai, demoralized, hungry and short of ammunition and other equipment, had been ordered to regroup along the Xicheng fortification line in an attempt to stop the Japanese advance.
However, the defensive line was already compromised.
“Sure you have to get going so early?” Captain Chin asked as Hao finished closing up his flight suit. “Weather’s pretty poor right now.”
He was right. Fog lay low on the ground, and the sky had turned overcast. Still, he had to finish what he set out to do.
“I’ll be all right,” he assured the Army officer, exchanged salutes with him and climbed aboard the biplane. As he took off Hao circled the airfield, waggling his wings as he saw Chin and the others waving at him. He then consulted his compass and maps, and headed further north toward his destination.
The aviation gas in the Fw44 must have been tainted or diluted; the Siemens radial engine started coughing as his fuel level dropped to one-quarter. Hao descended to about five hundred feet and slowed down a bit, determined to reach the next airfield before the engine seized up or ran out of fuel.
The engine was sputtering and smoking by the time he set it down at a small airfield near Anqing.
Getting some maintenance and fuel for the plane proved to be a problem. The fur who ran the base, a first lieutenant like himself, at first refused to part with anything. Hao was forced to part with some of his money and all of his cigarettes before the officer grudgingly allowed him the use of some tools and a full tank of aviation gas.
“So you’re headed on to Hefei?” the man asked.
The muntjac spat. “I’ll bet you ten to one you don’t get across Lake Chao.”
Hao cocked a brow at him. “That so? I’ll take ten dollars American on that.”
Hao got the Focke-Wulf’s engine started and flew off.
Most of the fog had already burned off, but the skies were still overcast as he flew on. Hao was checking his compass heading when he saw a tiny glint in the sky above and in front of him.
That drew his attention, and he squinted against the gray overcast to see two small shapes paralleling his course. Part of his flying kit had included a pair of binoculars, so he put them to his eyes (after first making sure he wasn’t going to fly into anything).
What he saw made his mouth go dry and he felt his tail quiver.
Biplanes, like the one he was flying.
But they sported a big red spot on their wings and fuselages.
Hao breathed a curse.
He had no idea that Japanese planes had made it this far west already. And his plane was unarmed.
He flew lower, hoping to stay inconspicuous.
Another glance upward and he felt a dead weight lurch into the pit of his stomach.
The Japanese planes were diving for him. As he watched, small bright lights started to sparkle along their wings.
Small puffballs of smoke with fiery cores flew past Hao as he threw the Fw-44 into a barrel roll, followed by a steep dive. The Japanese Kawasaki Ki-10 fighters followed as the red panda tried to evade them.
Hao didn’t have time to be scared. He was aware of a chill feeling that ran down his spine to his balls, an unpleasant contrast to the moist heat that was soaking the crotch of his flying suit. The root of his tail was quivering and his paws shook as he flung his plane back and forth, trying to outmaneuver the people intent on killing him.
He’d been shot at before – more times than he could recall offpaw.
But being shot at while in the air, while not exactly new, was something that he didn’t like.
Didn’t like it at all.
He was outclassed, and he knew it. He dove at the ground in an almost suicidal dive in an effort to shake off one fighter, who had slipped in behind him.
The small orange-red puffballs zipped past him as he rolled and sideslipped. He righted the plane and heard a sound that chilled him straight to the bone.
It was a vip . . . vip . . . vip sound, accompanied by the racket of something like a ball-peen hammer striking the metal skin of the Fw-44. Holes appeared in the fuselage alongside him, and he yelped and ducked instinctively as the windscreen shattered.
The plane shuddered as the engine coughed, smoke starting to trail from it as the Japanese plane’s machine gun fire struck something vital. He almost retched as his nose filled with the stink of burning oil and his goggles misted over with dark sludge.
He squinted at his altimeter and noted he was below five hundred feet. The controls were starting to get mushy, and the fighter chasing him broke off, apparently content that his quarry was already doomed. There was also the possibility that the fighters had been at the limit of their range. His compass was shot up, as was the airspeed indicator.
Hao glanced up and saw the huge broad ribbon of the Yangtze River in the distance. Maybe a few miles, surely not more than that.
The engine died then.
It suddenly grew very quiet apart from the rush of wind past his ears.
He fought the plane all the way down; he wanted to try gliding down to a safe landing (or, at least, a controlled crash), while the plane seemed to want to plummet out of the sky like a brick.
A compromise seemed to be reached at about a hundred feet, and the plane flared out to level flight. Farmers were looking up at him, pointing openmouthed as he soared past, the engine still trailing smoke. Small wisps of flame started to seep from the abused manifolds.
He aimed for what he thought was a road and leveled off, biceps straining as he hauled hard on the controls. He ran a gloved paw over his soiled goggles and cursed in virulent Cantonese.
What he thought was a road was actually an embankment, too narrow for a good landing.
He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as the wheels touched.
The biplane shuddered as its right wheel slipped off the bank and crumpled, the plane landing hard on its belly and skidding to the right before coming to rest nose-down in a ditch full of muddy water.
For a long moment there was no sound except for the hiss of steam as the hot engine sizzled in the colder water and assorted creaking sounds as the plane’s airframe settled.
Hao was sitting in his seat, strapped in and arms crossed over his chest, paws gripping his shoulders as he shivered violently. The transition between frenzied motion and utter stillness was a shocking one, and he finally started moving only after two smells hit his nose.
The smell of smoke.
The smell of leaking aviation gas.
The red panda hurriedly undid the straps holding him into his seat, grabbed his satchel and clambered out of the Focke-Wulf, slipping and sliding down the bank and into the water. He felt his flight suit soaking and his banded tail growing sodden, and he crawfished up the bank and away from the plane as it continued to smoke.
He managed to get across the crest of the embankment as the vapors in the plane’s gas tank finally ignited.
The plane burst apart at the seams with a loud WHUMPF!, throwing bits of itself all over the place as a greasy red and black fireball lofted skyward. The tail fell backward onto the ground and flames billowed out of the makeshift chimney.
Hao laid there, panting as he watched the flames and smoke mark the end of his attempt to reach Hefei. Moving slowly, he started checking himself for any injuries.
His muscles ached, but that was nothing. A swift inspection revealed that though the left shoulder of his flight suit had a tear in it he was uninjured. He was wet and muddy though, with his tailfur a mess.
At least, he chuckled to himself, the water covered up the fact that he’d wet himself.
In fact, the thought seemed almost hysterically funny to him, and he started laughing, laughing until his sides hurt and he started coughing as he ran short of breath.
Panting again, he laid back, watching the smoke and still amazed that he was still alive.
Hao opened his eyes, then shoved his goggles up on his head and blinked. Had he actually fallen asleep?
The porcine face of a farmer, wearing a peasant’s quilted jacket and carrying a pitchfork in his paws, met his gaze. “You all right, young fellow?” he asked. “Can you hear me?” He relaxed when he realized that Hao was Chinese.
“Yeah, I can hear you,” Hao replied as he slowly sat up. The fire was almost out. “I guess I got shot down.”
“Looks that way. I watched the whole thing.”
“I’m not going to ask how I did,” Hao said, slapping at the mud on his knees, and chuckling. The farmer joined him, taking a seat beside him as they both laughed. “I’m N – Lieutenant Won,” Hao said, almost forgetting the masquerade he was perpetrating.
“Chou Lo,” the boar said, and the two shook paws.
Hao stood up, brushing at himself and picking up his satchel. “I was on my way to Hefei when those barbarian devils jumped me,” he said slowly, shaking his head to see if anything rattled. “But as it is, I may as well head on to Nanking. If I may ask, where is the Yangtze from here? I can get a boat downriver.”
“The river? That way,” and the farmer pointed. “But tell me – who’s going to get that plane out of the ditch?”
Hao took a breath and shook his head as he looked at the wreckage of his plane. “You should be able to break it up pretty easily – it’s already broken up anyway,” he laughed. “The engine might be salvageable, and it can be useful. Send the bill for any damage to – to Major Fong, down at the airfield in Canton.” He gave the man a puckish smile. “I’m sure he can afford it.”
Chou grinned. “I’ll do that.” He joined Hao in surveying what was left of the Fw-44. “That amount of metal might be worth a bit,” he mused. “Come to my house, and have something to eat.”
“You are very kind, but I really have to get going.”
Chou wouldn’t hear of it, so Hao accepted.
He bathed behind the farmhouse, blushing as the farmer’s two daughters tittered behind their paws at the sight of him, and changed into his uniform. The soiled and torn flight suit was tossed into a rubbish tip, since he felt he wouldn’t need it any longer.
Hao tried not to think about how pretty the two girls were. Thinking about Xiu didn’t help, so he contented himself with pouring a bucket of cold water over himself.
Despite the unfamiliarity of it, the uniform was both more comfortable and an effective way of intimidating people. As he did up his collar, Hao toyed with trying to impersonate a member of the Spontoon Constabulary when he got back home.
He dismissed the thought just as rapidly.
Chou’s mate fed him soup, a hearty mixture of vegetables with a bit of pork in it as Chou bossed his daughters and his four sons around. The sons were organized into a salvage crew to strip the carcass of the Focke-Wulf down to more portable bits so it could be either recast into useful pots and tools or sold as scrap.
Hao accepted a small cup of the farmer’s homemade moonshine, and savored the heat that poured through him from the harsh-tasting brew. The rice liquor would have made better fuel than the av-gas his plane had been using.
After thanking the farmer and his family for their hospitality (for which his wrecked plane was ample compensation), Hao headed in the direction of the Yangtze.
As expected, the uniform did its job well.
Of course, a little squeeze was involved, and Hao was soon aboard a small vessel headed down the broad brown Yangtze toward the Chinese capital. The boat was carrying a variety of produce from farms further upriver, and all the feline boatman had to do was steer the craft. The river’s current was fast, and Hao reckoned that he’d reach Nanking by nightfall.
Then, he assured himself, he could get in touch with the Kungs and get out. This whole errand was starting to be a lot more than he bargained for.
The river was hemmed in by hills and mountains, and at one point perhaps a dozen miles above the city it opened out into almost a huge lake, where several oil tankers sat at anchor. River traffic – sampans, junks, steamers and larger vessels - got denser the closer he got to Nanking.