Meili closed the door of the empty house behind her for what she knew would be the last time. Her entire family were gone now, first Li Fe then Chi Yun, Xao and now dear Xan. Only she remained, alone after even the doctor had spurned her, turned her away, thrown her out. She found herself with nothing and no one. no one except her employer. She had feared her plea for help would go unheeded, maybe even drawing punishment down upon her , after all had it not been her brother Xao who had tried to kill the Lady (and if Meile hadn’t have been in the retinue that morning, he probably would have succeeded)? But in the end her fears were unfounded; the Dragon Lady had been kind, had held her hand and spoken softly as Meili wept for her lost family, had granted her a small room in the hotel. As Meili left to gather the last of her things from her old house in Shamian’s slums, the Lady had looked strangely at her and said “Do not weep too deeply my child. Time, though ever hungry, is not as powerful as it thinks.” When Meili had begged forgiveness for not understanding these words, the Lady merely smiled sweetly and said “Hurry back, my dear there’s a storm coming and I would hate to see you caught up in it.”
And so Meili, the few possessions she owned packed into two cotton bags, closed the door on her old life once and for all and set off to cross the squalor of Shanghai’s slums for what she hoped would be the last time. She looked up at the only shard of sky she could make out between the crowded roof-lines that ran through the slums like a jagged tear; twilight was creeping in (night always seem to come to the slums faster than the rest of Shanghai and it never seemed too quick to leave come morning) but there was no sign of a storm, the Lady must have been mista…
“Hello pretty one,” the man’s voice stopped her thoughts dead and she looked sharply around to see who it belonged to. In the gloom of a doorway a cigarette crackled and its glowing tip lit up the face of a young Chinese man, handsome she thought, but dangerous. The cigarette dimmed and his face vanished back into the shadows, only the red tattoo of a dragon that crawled across he cheek seemed to remain glowing in the darkness.
“I… You… you startled me, sir,” Meili said trying to sound braver than she felt. Her eyes never left the shadows he inhabited, but her mind raced as she calculated all the possible exits and escape points from the alleyway.
The man smiled, his teeth a white flash in the approaching night, “Who? Little old me?” his Mandarin was strange she noted, perfect in some ways but she found it hard to place, as though he belonged to no where in particular. He stepped out of the shadows into the sliver of light. He was dressed like an American, she noticed, like one of the gamblers who drank in the bar above her Lady’s den. The tattoo on his cheek was exquisite but largely hidden by the long hair that hung loose, rather than in a braid she thought, from under a strange hat. He took another draw on his cigarette as he walked in a slow arc in front of her, his movements as graceful as a dancer, before tossing it into the mud and flashing her another wide smile, his eyes (blue she fancied but couldn’t be sure) twinkling mischievously.
“What… what do you want?” she asked, backing away slowly.
“Me? I only want the best things in life. Smiling children, peace between brothers, wonderful food,” he turned, taking his arc back the way he’d come rather than carrying on to circle her, all the while staying in her field of view, “and, of course, a beautiful woman to share it all with. Isn’t that what all men want, princess?”
Her mind flashed back to the previous morning, how he had all but thrown her out of his home, his life. “No,” she said, “not all men. Now if you excuse me sir…”
“Oh don’t leave!” he span on his heel, turning round and round on the spot three times before he stopped with a flourish and held out a single red rose. Meili looked at the dead flower with horror and the stranger’s smile faltered a little before suddenly snapping back, “Ahh, how foolish of me,” he threw the rose up into the air and grabbed at it and held out not a rose but a beautiful silk belt embroidered with red roses, “I’m sure these blooms are more to your taste, no?”
“Who are you to offer me such an impudent gift!” Meili demanded, her cheeks flushing hot.
“Just a passing fool captivated by the beauty of a goddess amongst mortals,” the stranger replied with a wolfish grin as he bowed low in the manner of a European. Meili took her chance and bolted down a narrow gap between ramshackle houses. “Beautiful lady!” laughed the stranger mockingly, “was it something I said?” She turned this way and that, between houses and down alleys, always heading towards the bridge that crossed to her Lady’s territory, but always sticking to the most indirect route she could think of until, with a start, she tumbled out into a wide alley near the warehouses at the water’s edge. From here she would be able to walk the around the edge of Shamian and to the bridge without having to pass the Bing Kong cannery. Of the stranger there was no sign, indeed there was no sound save that of her own laboured breathing. She took a moment to gather herself and check her two bags before setting off around the rear of the nearest warehouse.
The hands that grabbed her were large and strong. She tried to scream but a rough paw covered her mouth and she was pulled into the darkness of the warehouse. Inside she saw two shocked workers staring at her, “You two,” the voice behind her was cruel and, she recognised, belonged to Chang the ruthless Bing Kong enforcer, “get out and stay out if you want to live. My business is with this whore.” Her eyes were wide, imploring them to help but they lowered their gazes and ran away leaving her alone with the monster. He span her around, his hands gripping her shoulders, fingers digging into her slender arms as though he were trying to crush them, “You made a bad choice working for that bitch across the water. The boss don’t like his people working for his enemies. He don’t like traitors. Traitors like that stupid peasant brother of yours. Traitors like you.”
Meili was too scared to reply, to fight back. She looked up at the big, cruel face of Chang and felt tears of despair welling up. Chang smiled a broad, nasty smile and let his eyes play over his captive. “Boss wants you dead alright, but he never said I couldn’t have some fun first… this is my lucky day,” he sneered.
“I can see what you’d think that,” a man’s voice, playful and mocking, echoed from somewhere inside the dark warehouse. Meili’s eyes widened as Chang spun to look for its owner, “Who’s there?” he shouted “I told you two to piss off. This is Tong business. You better leave now, eh. Before you get hurt, eh.”
“No, no, really. Honestly I can see how you’d think that,” the mocking voice continued, dancing around and impossible for Meili to locate, “I can see how you would look back at the dishonourable stain you call your life and, finding yourself faced with this beautiful princess here, think ‘This is my lucky day’ but do you know what Chang?”
Chang, scanning the room for any movement, had released his grip on Meili to reach into his belt and with a sudden thrust flung Meili backwards and swung a huge curved knife around, stabbing at shadows. Meili hit a stack of crates and fell to the ground where boxes of folded cloth and canvas toppled on top of her. From beneath the pile she pulled at the material until she could see what was happening and saw Chang slicing wildly around. A subtle movement caught her eyes and she watched with mute fear as the owner of the mysterious voice silently appeared out of the shadows behind Chang, it was the stranger from the alleyway! With the stealth and grace of a cat, he moved up behind the Tong killer and hissed in his ear “The truth is Chang, it’s mine.”
Chang span round but the stranger moved and swerved, ducking under his high swipe, spinning on his heel and dancing around. Chang swung again but this time the stranger did not move and instead caught his arm and stopped it dead. There was a brief moment when both men were still and Meili, holding her breath in the quiet of the struggle, found herself willing on the stranger with all her might. Chang grunted once then screamed briefly as, with a sickening crunch the stranger bent his arm backwards and snapped the bones as if they were twigs. Chang staggered back but the stranger stayed with him and, with a deft twist, brought the ruined arm around with the speed of a mountain lion and buried the long knife hilt deep into the big man’s chest.
For a second or two Chang hung motionless as the stranger smiled his wide, white smile, his dragon tattoo almost burning like fire etched into his cheek. Meili didn’t dare move, didn’t dare make a sound. As the tong killer slipped to the floor, the stranger checked the fall, slowing it so he could more easily bend down close to the dying man’s face where he growled “Look at me Chang, you bastard. Look at my face. I know that tall freak will see this so look at me. I want him see me. I want him to tell your boss. Tell him freak. Tell him Jonny O’s in town. Tell him Jonny O’s coming for him. Jonny O’s coming for you all.”
And then he let go and, as though melting back into the darkness, he was gone. Long seconds stretched out before Meili dared move again and began to dig herself from under the pile of cloth and wood. When she was free she circled around the body of Chang, a dark pool of blood slowly seeping and spreading around him, the knife jammed into his ribcage like some strange growth, until he was no longer between her and the door. When she was clear she bolted, running outside into the dark alleyway, her heart pounding, her mind racing.
“Your bags, princess,” the stranger stood against the far wall holding her two bags out and smiling his wide, wicked smile.
She stood still, fear in her eyes, “Who… who are you? What do you want with me?”
The stranger didn’t move, just stood there holding her bags, “You asked me that before princess; children, peace, food and a beautiful woman to share it all with, remember?” he grinned, “As for who I am? Well you know that too now, but allow me to introduce myself. Jonny O at your service.” Again he bowed as though mocking the formal style of a European.
“Chang…” she said, glancing back at the door.
“Dead. And the world will sleep safer and happier tonight, don’t you agree?” He walked towards her slowly, confident but not, she thought, threateningly, and held out her bags. She took them mutely as he smiled and walked on by, back into the slums whistling a silly tune as he went. She stood, waiting for her breathing and heart to slow before she set off once more for the safety of her Lady’s domain.
“By the way,” she froze on the spot, he was as close to her as he had been to Chang when he killed him and she could feel his hot breath of her neck, “you have a nasty cut on your head. I’d say you should see a doctor, but given the fool we have maybe not, mmm?”
And then he was gone, his whistling echoing through the alleyways as she ran all the way to the hotel as though all the demons of the mountains were pursuing at her heels. A peel of thunder cracked through the night as dark clouds rolled in and started to pour big, heavy rain drops on the city below…
To be continued…
All the “Gang War” posts can be read on my blog here and over on the Steelhead Ning here.
Links to other blogs and stories:
1) Chang was first encountered in Dr Beck’s surgery here.