The morning after a heavy night in the smoke…
I may live down in the slums with the poorest residents of Shamian Alley, but don’t let that fool you that we are too poor for good food. From small pots of earth growing all manner of vegetables on every rotting window sill and ricketty balcony to the bounty of the sea that surrounds us, we eat as well, as if not better, than some in the city’s capital.
The old man pushed Meili roughly out of the way and turned his sightless face to the window and stared out into the stormy night. It was true, he could ‘see’ the three groups of Tong soldiers were being routed, their lamps scattering like fireflies caught in a sudden gust. Over the wind he could ‘hear’ the cries of harrying forces, the sharp angular voices of the green skins. His keen mind raced, desperately trying to plan and plot his next move but every path and branch he explored was a dead end. Across the water, atop the hotel in the rooms where the object of his bitter hatred lived, he knew she was watching. Watching and smiling, enjoying his defeat, enjoying the end of his Tong. He span around to the girl and felt the elation welling up inside her and it ignited his fury as though a match to oil.
He grabbed her by the throat and lifted her clear of the ground “I may not have the pleasure of killing your bitch mistress tonight,” his voice was wild and full of murder, “but I swear I’ll make you sorry she thwarted me!” He turned to the men in the room and growled “Fan, get over her and tie her down until I’m ready for her,” Fan grabbed the terrified girl’s arms and began lashing the woman to the chair with his own dirty silk belt, as he did so he glanced up at the boss, was it is his imagination or was he taller than before, less decrepit looking, less… less human? He threw prayer to his ancestors that he’d get out of this alive.
“You two,” the boss thundered to his general, “get out there and stop this! I want that bitch’s head here tonight, do I make myself clear?HERE! ” Both men nodded and leapt to their feet, Fan’s own trepidation rising as he noticed the traces of alarm in both the general’s faces as they headed out of the door.
“Now you,” the boss glared down at Meili “you are going to wish your ancestors had drowned your filthy, stinking line at birth!” Her face was a mask of terror whilst behind her Fan was nervously glancing towards the door. “When I’ve finished with you, the fates of your family will seem like a blessing you’ll beg me for!” Fan tried to catch the boss’ attention “You’ll curse your own parents,” Fan reached out a shaking hand towards the boss, “You’ll plead with me… WHAT?” shrieked the old man, no longer able to ignore him. Fan nodded slightly towards the door and all three turned to face it and the increasingly loud and thoroughly unmistakable sounds of a fight taking place outside.
Meili, Fan and the boss all had very different ideas about what the nearing struggle meant. Fan, fearing the authorities, vigilantes or Dragon Tong were about to storm the room, bolted for the window and with a desperate leap smashed his way through. On the other side he hit the icy wharf hard and skittered along the slippery stone and off the edge, plunging into the freezing waters below with a stifled cry.
Meili, hoping the authorities, vigilantes or Dragon Tong were about to storm the room, began to scream for help, her lungs bellowing out for all to hear, her voice carrying far over the wharf and through the storm and up to the highest reaches of her Lady’s hotel.
The boss, convinced the authorities, vigilantes or Dragon Tong were about to storm the room, turned to face the door. He reared up, his skin and bones stretching as he grew taller and broader. Let the Jager come, he thought, let the foxes and the nuns and the dragons come and I will slay them all.
There was a strangled cry from the corridor outside and all fell silent. Even Meili stopped her shouts for help and stared at the door. Suddenly it swung in and the diminutive figure of The Voice fell shot through it, his hands clasped across his throat. The door hit the wall and bounced back to close itself. The small man staggered backwards towards the boss and Meili, emitting a strange wet gasping sound all the way. “Voice?” enquired the boss, his voice, now more animal than human, thick with confusion. The small man turned on his heel and Meili cried out as she saw why he gasped and gurgled. His hands were clasped across the ruin of his throat, fingers clawing desperately at ripped skin and flesh, digging into bleeding, oozing void. His entire throat, including the weapon of his deadly voice box, had been torn out down to his spine. The Voice’s eyes were wide with a mixture of fear, shock and desperation as he stared at the boss and his legs began to buckle under him. He fell to his knees, great gouts of blood pumping from his terrible wound and pooling about him. His lips were still trying to form words as he folded to the floor and, with one last great sigh wetly rasped from his torn throat, and he died where he lay.
The boss looked at the small body in front of him, stunned that anyone could have best The Voice like this. And what of Han Hong, the giant with hands like steel bear traps? Whoever did this to The Voice, the Korean would snap him in two!
From outside there was a sudden, terrible scream that ended with a sickening crack. The boss smiled and shouted “Han, bring me what is left of him! I want to make his final journey an eternal nightma…”
The door swung open again and the old man’s jubilant voice died in his throat as the ruined form of Han Hang, his body bent backwards at the waist until the back of his head touched the floor by his own feet and broken ribs and spine jutted from his burst abdomen, was pushed into the room by a slight Chinese man with long black hair and a face half covered by a glowing red dragon tattoo.
Meili, still tied to a chair, gasped at his apperance.. He was caked in blood, it splattered his whole body and dripped like rain from his bare hands. He looked as though he’d walked through an abattoir!
He shot her a wolfish smile and said, “Hello again pretty one. The Doc sent me.”
“Well my dear, when they said you were beautiful I had no idea just how beautiful,” Meili watched the corrupt old man leer at her with sightless eyes from across the room and her skin crawled. Behind her the only door out of the room was blocked by the man who had grabbed her as she went to see Rynhold. Between her and the old man stood a large table with several chairs around two of which were occupied, one by a small evil looking man and the another by a tall, stoney faced giant.
“My my, such fear. I can smell it from here, my dear but please, you have nothing to fear here,” the old man said his croaking voice dripping with false charm. The small man snorted a cruel laugh and shot a look across the table to his tall companion. She had heard of The Voice and Han Hong, who in the slums hadn’t. These men, these… monsters were responsible for nearly all the misery and squalor in her life, all the lost friends and family, all the fear and despair, all could be traced back in lines of tears and blood to the hands of these animals. They were evil spirits, ever hungry, ever greedy, remorselessly swallowing up everyone and everything and their desire to own and control and kill and hurt was without limit. She thought of the people she had grown up with, the good, decent families who had worked and lived and died in this rancid part of a hateful town in a country that barley tolerated their Chinese feet upon its soil, and she saw they were trapped with these devils forever. Just by being born, an act she had no say in or control over, her life had been forfeit, gifted to the Tong, wrapped up and presented to this disgusting old man and there was nothing she or anyone could do. With sudden clarity she marvelled at the sheer godless nature of her life, of all life. She hardly mattered to the people in this room, beyond a desire for the sort of pleasure a cat would extract from toying with a wounded mouse, so it hardly seemed likely she would rank highly in a Divine Being’s thoughts and actions. She was a speck of nothing in an eternity of nothing and she would die here, tonight, and her whole life would have amounted to nothing. Yet… yet she accepted that. She opened her heart and let it in. She meant nothing, so what.
But not Li Fe, not little Li Fe her beautiful nephew. His life meant something.It meant something to her and it had been stolen from her. He had been taken and murdered alone and in the dark by a monster. And for what reason? For nothing? That was something she couldn’t accept, something she wouldn’t accept. She turned to look at the man who had kidnapped her and then back round at the two generals sat at the table. Their faces were hard and their eyes cruel and she hated them with every drop of her soul. She looked up and glared into the blind eyes of the wizened old man who ran the Tong “Yes,” she said in but strong voice, “I am scared of you, but I also pity you.”
The nasty smile on Voice’s face fell like a collapsing building “Pity?” he hissed, “Pity? You stupid… “ The boss silenced him raised hand, “Your pity is as misplaced as your courage my dear. There is only one you should feel any pity for tonight. Come here and I will show you who. Come.”
Meili looked him unable to move, silently suspecting he would kill her here and now “No, I do not mean you, silly girl,” he laughed “Come here and will show you the only soul in Shanghai in need of your pity.” He smiled a thin, empty smile and moved to the window that overlooked the wharves outside. Slowly, glancing at the men sat at the table, she moved towards the old man. He held out his hands and took her by the wrists, his grip firm and as cold as ice as he pulled her to the window. “Here,” his voice dripped with vile false charm ”look across the water and tell me what you see.”
For a second or two she was unsure of what she was supposed to be looking for, the night was dark and the snow storm obscured all but the far lights of the round houses and hotel. The hotel! She span round to look at the old man, her eyes wide with fear and he took hold of her chin and forced her face back to the window, “Keep looking my dear, I wouldn’t want you to miss the fate of the more worthy recipient of your pity. Look closely, can you see my men?” Indeed she could see small groups of bobbing lights, lanterns carried in the darkness by Tong and they were slowly converging upon the hotel. She had to get free, she had to warn her Lady, she had to…
“You can do nothing my dear,” the boss purred, “Nothing but watch as the I finally rid myself of your precious Lady.” He turned her face back to his, “Once she has been dealt with, we will be free to discuss your feelings toward me further. And if you should find you still harbour even the smallest hint of pity then I’m sure The Voice would help with a quiet word in your ear after which I can assure you that you will feel whatever I want you to feel for as long as I want you to feel it.”
Her blood ran cold, she had imagined they were going to kill her but now the full horror of her fate revealed itself to her. She was to become the willing plaything of this corrupt old monster! “Nothing to say now, my dear?” the boss let go of her face and whispered in her ear, “No brave insults? No clever observations?”
She turned to look out at the bobbing lights in the darkness of the storm, each one a stone tied to her ankles dragging her down to the bottom of an ocean whose depths she dare not contemplate. And suddenly the ropes were cut “No,” she said quietly, “Nothing… nothing except…”
His eyes burned into her, “Except?” his voice was diamond hard.
“Why are your men running away from the hotel?” she smiled.
Beck came round slumped on the floor. He was cold, it was dark and someone was talking nearby “… must have watched her come up the stairs…followed her…” he pulled his eyes open only to find he couldn’t see “…the retinas may be detached… could be temporary, could be permanent…” the voice said “…no idea how many… or where they took her…” Beck managed to sit up but decided not to try and stand until the world stopped spinning. He felt stone beneath his hands and wood behind his back, the strong odour of fish was all around him “…must have be in a room somewhere near the docks…most likely the cannery…that means the Tong took us…” It began to dawn on him that it was his voice, slurring and mumbling to himself, trying to work out what had happened, trying to talk himself round.
His head ached and his face felt swollen and tender to the touch. Whoever had hit him had done a good job. He opened his eyes again and this time found the darkness speckled and shot through with grey patches, light crept in to his inky prison from all around and his eyes, far from being blind, were merely taking their time adjusting until he could eventually make out his surroundings. He was in a small, dark room filled with crates and shelving, the air was frigid and the only light came from under what he guessed was the door and from between ill-fitting wooden planks in the walls. He was in a cannery cold store, he fancied, and alone at that for there was no sign of Meili being in the small room with him. Fear and anger rose in his belly as his mind raced with terrible visions of her fate at the hands of these animals. He struggled to his feet and staggered over to the door. Locked! He banged his fists as against it and and shouted as loud as he could muster until there was a sudden hard thump from the other side.
“You shut up!” a Chinese man shouted.
“Where is Meili? Tell me where the girl is!” Beck bellowed back.
The voice on the other side laughed cruelly “She with boss. She have good time. Pretty girl, eh? Boss like pretty girls.”
Beck threw himself at the door, battering it with his shoulder, hurling insults and curses through it until he used up what meager energy he had left and felt himself slide slowly to the floor. Outside his tormentor shouted back “You no worry. You next, OK? Boys see you good, OK?” he cackled and banged on the door. “You go in cans, doctor, understand? You go in cans.” The laughter moved aways from the door and footsteps tramped off away into the cannery leaving Beck alone in the darkness once more.
“Hi Doc,” came a voice from the shadows.
Beck’s froze as he felt hot breath on his neck, skin almost touching his own, “Who’s there?” he whispered quietly into the dark.
“They’ve got her, Doc, they’ve got our girl. You let them walk in and you let them take her and now I’m going to have to get her back, aren’t I?”
Beck was holding his breath, afraid to move or make a sound.
“Well? Aren’t I?”
Beck nodded, a small, jerky movement laced with fear.
“Then I best get started, eh?”
The shadows rippled as Jonny O stepped out from the darkness and smiled a smile full of venom and murder.
The knock roused Beck away from the cold meal he’d been pushing around the plate for the last fifteen minutes. For a moment he wondered who it could be, the snow storm blowing in over the hills from from St Helens had driven everyone inside seeking warmth, but he supposed it was a patient looking for him to make a house call. With a sigh he dropped his fork into the congealed gravy and went to open the door.
Meili stood, her jet black hair speckled with fat snowflakes, staring at him mutely with wide, tear-streaked eyes. He barely knew what to think, what to say. After everything they had said to each other, after everything he had done, he thought he had lost her forever. “Meili,” his voice sounded small and breathless, “you came…”
The fist came from behind her and caught him full in the face. His world went black and he fell backwards into an abyss that had no bottom.
Fan had to work hard not to grin from ear to ear as he pulled the burlap-covered handcart through the open cannery doors. Workers looked up nervously as startled the Tong guards, young arrogant men left behind as the older gang members prepared for evening’s attack on the Dragon Lady, sprang to attention and ran to grab him, He shrugged them off angrily “Get your hands off me,” he hissed. To a man they backed away half a step, unsure of what to do – being told to take down Fan was one thing, actually taking down one of the most dangerous soldiers in the Tong was another. Fan sniffed haughtily, smoothing his clothes for effect, “It would be wise for you all to treat me with more respect that that,” he said to them.
One spat on the floor at his feet, “Huh, why? The boss has put the word out on you Fan. He has a message waiting for you, I hear,” a ripple of laughter ran through the men.
Fan stared back at the youth who had dared speak to him is such a manner, committing his face to memory; if his plan went well he’d need someone to make an example of to re-establish his authority and he would do nicely. “I think the boss will change his mind once he sees what I’ve brought him,” Fan said calmly. All eyes turned to the cart as, with a cruel smile, Fan pulled back the burlap to reveal a terrified Chinese woman laying bound and gagged next to an unconscious white man, “Tell the boss I’ve brought him a gift…”