"You know," Ruxpin said conversationally "they still burn you in effigy in Taipei." Across from him, sitting at a desk, was a wizened Pekingese. His fur, white to begin with, had simply faded into an unhealthy translucent yellow, not unlike a wall that has been covered with nicotine. In some places it was patchy, especially on the heart shaped ears, and the flesh bellow was dry and flaky. Behind glasses, small, highly ulcered black eyes had sunk deeper into the head over the years, and one was covered with the milky film of blindness. The teeth were seriously yellowed, and the gums cut and black. The creature did not look up from his writing. He remained bent towards his paper, his handwriting highly ornate and calligraphic. When he finally spoke, it was in an almost comically accented English.
"Is that so?" the dog said, in a tone suggesting absent curiosity. He continued to write.
"They mock your name, and the argument rages over all your betrayals."
"How quaint local customs are."
"The Manchu Mutt is popular. But they mostly call you Cixi's Last Eunuch." This actually got a rise out of the dog. His head rose slowly, and his eye burned with anger for a moment, before he returned to his placid state.
"Xiao Qin Xian was a great woman, Colonel. She only ever had the best interests of China at heart. As do I."
"Oh I'm sure you do. After Cixi dies, you betrayed her legacy to Chiang. And then Chiang to the Communists. Then the Communists to the Japanese, you played your games for poor Puyi and then you sold everything back to Mao. China's best interests, I'm sure."
"You inflate my importance greatly, Colonel. I am merely a humble comrade of this nation."
"How is it that you're still alive, Pong Ping? You must be, what, ninety? A hundred?"
"I have been gifted with long life so that I may serve, Colonel. That is all."
"What was it that she said, Ping? 'Thus shall it preserve its integrity and self-respect - but if it dies, remember thou too art mortal.'"
"A bastardization, Colonel. You should read such things more closely." Pong Ping carefully removed his glasses, setting them to one side. His frail frame leaned back in his chair. He regarded Ruxpin from behind his steepled fingers. "What is it that you want of me, N'Ruxpin?"
"You know, Ping, I remember the first time we met. Me, strapped to a table, you sorting lengths of bamboo in a rubber apron...."
"I can have you removed in seconds, Colonel, is there a point to all this?"
"von Possenreißer. Where is she?"
"The Living Doll? Whatever makes you think I know where to find her?"
"You kept tabs on every last member of the Fallen Angels. You couldn't stand not knowing where she is." At this, Ping chuckled to himself, a dry, husky relic of a laugh that came out from some where within the narrow frame.
"You know, N'Ruxpin, I once knew someone much like you. I met him in England when the Red Guard went wild and Mao went mad. I spent three years in exile, you know. Dreadful business. Rupert was quite young, and an Illiopian in exile, again like you- well, like all of you, really. Full of passion and ability, with a desire for adventure. Unlike you, though, he didn't ruin his life with drink and petty scandal. He's a mercenary leader in Magadan, trying to carve out a new Illiop. Now, you and I both know he is going to fail, but you know what? He's not breaking into buildings to exchange meaningless pleasantries with old men. Good-day to you, Colonel." Pong Ping returned to his writing. Ruxpin leaned up against a wall, lit up, and exhaled in a long breath.
"You know why you're going to tell me, you old mongrel? It's cause deep, deep down in that blackened little heart, you're a romantic. You like epics. And you've got your grubby paws on the pulse of the world. You know it's getting quicker. And every side in a epic needs it's champion, doesn't it. To make it watchable. To make it... fun. What does my side have right now? International Rescue, Rescue Heroes and the like... bureaucrats and organisations. You can't committee a hero. You got to have one take command." Pong Ping did not look up, but he stopped writing, and his ears twitched. "But your an old man, Ping. You're not out for some bildungsroman. You want a proven hero, like the ones of our youth. You want someone proven. So you're going to give me that location. Because even in the height of spring, you feel cold. Your a dying, evil old man, with so much on his conscience that ya gave up on sleep years ago. So here's an old enemy offering redemption. And you're too well read to pass up on it." There was a long silence. Then a drawer opened, and a slip of paper was removed. Pong Ping just sat there, face down and shaking, though whether with silent laughter or silent tears it was impossible to determine. Finally, he crumpled the paper into a ball and tossed it Ruxpin. With a silent nod, Ruxpin left, leaving Pong Ping alone.
He walked briskly down the hallway, his mind filled with calculations. How much fuel was needed, what supplies he should stock up on... he was suddenly aware of someone humming off tune and close by. He looked around. Leaning up against a pillar, humming to himself, was a baby blue dog, who looked at Ruxpin with a laconic smile.
"Good afternoon, there" the dog said in a languid Southern drawl. "The name's Hound. H. Hound. And I'll bet that you'd be Mr. Ruk Slim."
"Ruxpin" Ruxpin said irritably. "Can I help you?"
"Well, now that's a matter of opinion, MR. Slim."
"It's Ru- oh never mind."
"Ya see, I rep-er-a-sent a group of fine ladies and gents who, t' be frank, aren't all that pleased with what you're trying to do. I mean, I've been sending you mess-ages to that effect, but I don't think you've been listening. So I thought that perhaps something a little closer to home might get yer attention." Ruxpin began to reach into his vest. "Oh don't be alarmed, Colonel. I wouldn't want to insult out China-ese hosts by doing anything un-t-ward in one of their governmental buildings." The Hound's smile didn't change, but it suddenly looked harsh and vicious. "Say, Mr. Slim, didn't you come here with a friend or something? Beijing's a dangerous place. I'd hate fer something to happen to the poor fellow." Under his fur, Ruxpin went white. With a muffled yell, he tore off down he hallway, leaving a smiling dog in his wake.
**************************It was later. Much later. It had been brutal, efficient work. Nothing in the cabin had been disturbed but the... body. Ruxpin had done what he could. He had cleaned it as best he could, but he was no mortician. He tried to sing a requiem, but only succeeded in half humming, half muttering the Dies Iræ and the Kyrie. He tried to remember the rituals of his youth, and chanted the Pyre Cant in Illopian, but he hadn't done it since his father's death, and he could not remember the words. The flight back across the ocean was uneventful. US air command tried to shoot him down, but he dropped Sam the Eagles name enough that the left him alone. Miraculously he had a machete on board from god knows where, and he trudged his way through a thick bayou biomass. Ruxpin was from a cold climate, and he found this sweltering Louisiana heat no more pleasant than he had found the sweltering heat of Vietnam, Laos or the Mushroom Kingdom or Rio. Ruxpin believed that he was simply fated to be in horrible heat. He grunted as something punched him in the stomach, through him to the ground and cocked a pistol at him. An annoyed, clipped voice snapped at him.
"Hände hoch oder ich schieße!"