In the cannery the rhythmic clattering of cans rushing along to the hissing, breathing steam-cooker drowned out any hope of conversation between the gutters and packers who toiled away day and night to feed the world’s seemingly insatiable desire for Steelhead’s finest tinned salmon, yet even had the machines stood silent there would be no chatter between the workers less the three Tong thugs who were striding through the factory heard and meted out one of their feared beatings.
Normally the three brutes would have taken great pleasure in watching the workers shrink back from their approach in evident fear, but today they had other things on their mind. Today they had been called to see the boss and if the boss was here so were They; his generals.. As they approached the door to the meeting room Chang looked at Shayu and they booth looked at Fan, their unspoken leader. He looked nervous and that made them doubly so. Fan raised his hand to the door but the unmistakable voice of the boss said “Enter” before he had chance to knock, an unnerving trick at the best of times but even more so considering the boss was said to be stone deaf. Fan swallowed hard, beads of sweat forming down his spine as he pushed open the door and walked in.
The dark, smoky room wasn’t large, not really. Nor was it grand. The boss hated the small of fish so didn’t spend much time here, leaving the running of the crews to his two most trusted men, his generals; The Voice and Han Hong, the Korean Swan. These two most feared men stood either side of the boss who remained seated behind the simple table reading a slip of paper. Moments stretched out into forever as the three summoned enforcers nervously tried not to shift uncomfortably or in any way draw attention to themselves. Eventually the boss looked up and gazed at them with a look so inscrutable all three men felt their skin grow cold. “Report,” he said simply “What is happening outside in the harbour?”
Chang and Shayu glanced quickly at one another as Fan swallowed and started, “The demon seems to be dead, boss. The airship piloted by the robot sent troops into its lair, into the Dragon’s old railway car we blew up. The fight took the car into the harbour but the demon seems dead. I think the patrols will stop soon.”
“Hmmm, yes… the patrols. Despite their presence everywhere of late, the Dragon still manages to strike at our operations whilst our attacks go awry, is that not so?”
Fan’s eyes darted between the two generals behind the boss before returning to the old man himself, “Boss?”
The boss put the papers down and looked Fan directly in the face, “Let me put it this way. We have lost two warehouses, the ships no longer dock here and the merchants are beginning to think we are a toothless snake. Meanwhile the Dragon Lady suffers no such losses. Her dens are full, her clients many, her purse rattling. You were charged with killing her and look what that brought us, a head stealing-demon and so many Jager patrols we can’t even piss in the gutter without three green-skinned dogs watching us.”
Fan could feel the blood draining from his face.
“Now, before I ask The Voice to give you a very special message, I would like to hear what exactly went wrong with the bomb and what has been going wrong since. You have two minutes exactly and if I do not like what I hear by minute three you will be laying on the gutting tables happily ordering those peasants out there to skin you alive, do I make myself clear?”
Had the man stood in front of the boss been Chang there would be no doubt that the cannery boning knives would have been busy before the two minutes were up. Even Shayu, who was many times smarter than Chang, would have struggled to keep his composure. But the man in front of the boss was not Chang or Shayu but Fan and Fan may have been many things but one thing he was not was stupid, “I don’t think it’s a spy, boss. I’ve thought a lot about it but it doesn’t fit. The Dragon didn’t know about the bomb, she wasn’t warned. Shayu was watching and it was Xan himself who warned her. He shouted out at the last minute and tried to disarm the bomb. It seems he had a family member with the Dragon, working for her, and he moved to save her.”
“And the warehouses? The shipping?”
“That’s different boss. There’s someone new in town. No one knows who, but I think the Dragon has hired someone. She is keeping her distance yet attacking at the same time. I’ve been asking boss, Chang’s been banging heads, we’ve tried everyone but no one knows anything. And it’s not that they are scared boss, they just don’t know.”
“What about the steamer and the log? An accident?”
“No boss. No accident that’s for sure. I went up river to the burnt cowboy’s lumber yard and saw the chains for myself. They were cut with bolt cutters.”
“Does he have anything to do with it? Was he involved? Paid to look the other way maybe?”
“It’s possible but I’ll need to speak to him to be sure.”
The boss looked at him through the smoke, narrow eyes and unreadable face glowering out of the gloom. Fan’s heart was pumping like piston. Everything came down to this moment. If the boss believed him he’d live, if not… well not even running would help, not now, not with Han and The Voice here.
“Well done Fan,” the boss said. Fan felt the relief swell inside him but daren’t for one second let it show. “You’ve confirmed what we know and suspect. The Dragon bitch has hired some foreign scum to do her dirty work. I want you to go and find out who they are and I want you to introduce them to my generals, do I make myself clear?”
“Yes boss,” Fan had no idea the hell how he’d achieve this. They’d lent on everyone, broken bones, cut off fingers. No one knew anything.
“Someone knows, mark my words. You just haven’t found them yet,” the boss said. Fan’s eyes widened in fear – could the old bas… the boss read his thoughts?
“Have Chang here find that peasant’s relative, the one who works for the Dragon. Have Chang show these people what happens when they side with the Dragon. And Shayu, have him visit the logger and find out what he knows.”
“And if he knows nothing, boss?”
The old man smiled, a thin cruel smile like a razor slicing through old leather, “Logging is a dangerous business don’t you think, accidents happen all the time. You have your orders. Report back in two days. Go.”
Fan nodded, quickly eyed the generals and spun on his heel to leave, “And Fan,” the boss said behind him, “If you disappoint me I shall have you climb into the steam cooker and boil yourself alive, do you understand?”
Fan, Chang ans Shayu made their way out of the cannery as quickly as they could and with only a knowing look shared between them they set off on their errands aware of just how much was at stake should they fail.