Scamps

Gang Wars: Tipping Points

“You are sure?” the boss asked in a quiet voice. The sun had only begun to rise on this miserable day and already his generals brought him more bad news.

“Yes, positive,” replied The Voice, fury burning in every syllable.

“And you are sure about our source?”

“Yes. He’s one of the runners, young and stupid but no fool. He says the man, this Jonny O,” he virtually spat the name out, “walked right up to him and told him where to find Shayu.”

“Walked right up to him…” the old man stood by the window and gazed with sightless eyes across the canal to where the Dragon Lady’s hotel sat amid the swirling snow and wind and looked down on Shanghai Boardwalk and the Shamian slums as if mocking the Bing Kong’s lowly status and peasant roots. “Walked right up to him and told him what he’d done…”

It wasn’t a question, but The Voice answered anyway “Yes. And then he laughed. He laughed and swaggered off into the slums.”

The room was silent except for the boss’ quiet, rhythmic breathing and the sound of The Voice squeezing and releasing his small hands into tight fists. Eventually the boss broke the silence, “And Shayu?”

“Han went as soon as the runner told him but the Jager patrol were already there. He’s dead though, Han saw him hanging in front of the tunnel that leads to the forests where that logger lives.”

The boss turned and fixed his milky, un-seeing eyes on pint-sized his right-hand man, “And do we thing he had anything to do with it? I ask as I’d like to know before I have Han burn him alive anyway?”

The Voice sneered cruelly, “I doubt it, that whole area is cut off by this damn storm.”

“So, just this Jonny O then. And what has Fan discovered about him?”

Han looked across at his small colleague and raised an inscrutable eyebrow at him. “Nothing,” The Voice said coolly.

“Nothing?” the boss roared, smashing both fists down onto the table which all but exploded into matchwood at his touch. He flung a chair against the wall and threw a chest of drawers after it. He stood for a while, his chest rising and falling in ragged, angry breaths until he regained his composure, “Are you telling me that still all we know comes from this one man this morning, am I right? No one else has seen this bastard and no one has been able to make the pigs here squeal?”

The Voice nodded.

“And the runner says this Jonny O has a red dragon tattooed on his face?”

Another nod, “Yes.”

The old man, once more calm, turned back to the window and looked up at the hotel, the home of his enemy, the symbol of all that he hated, all that he wanted, and said, “Then if she sends out assassins to kill us one by one, we will send out an army and kill her once and for all.” He turned back to look at his generals, “Tonight. I don’t care how. Do you understand?”

The two generals nodded and turned to leave.

“Voice?” the boss called quietly. The Voice turned round, the boss was staring out of the window again, “Bring me Fan. I wish to discuss his failure in this matter.”

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Only a stupid man would think everything was going well. Only a stupid man would imagine loyalty counted for more than failure to the Tong. Only a stupid man would say that after Chang and Shayu he would not be next. Fan was many things, but stupid was not amongst them. He had heard that the Tong had set their dogs running for him and he’d spent the whole day scuttling from one hiding place to another. Someone would sell him out, someone would give him up. This was his last safe place, beneath the wharves of Shanghai, in the filth and stench. No one would find him here and that gave him time to think.

What he needed was a sign, a gesture that not only demonstrated that his loyalty was beyond question, but that he had not failed the Tong. Jonny O’s head would be good, but Fan had a decidedly realistic view on success of such a venture. No, what Fan needed was something that struck at the heart of the boss, something that would stop the old bastard feeding him to his generals. His life depended on his next move, but what that move was he had no idea. That is, until fate brought him a small water taxi.

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Meili had tried to concentrate all day, but her heart and mind had not been on her work and she made too many mistakes. Yet instead of the Yan, the den’s doorman, shouting at her, she received a visit from her Lady. “Go child,” her Lady had said, “go and see him. But do not hurry back, the storm breaks tonight after all.” She had given Meili some money and even walked her out to a waiting water taxi, “Take her to Shamian Alley,” she had said and smiled the strangest smile as the boat rowed Meili out into the approaching twilight.

To be continued…
All the “Gang War” posts can be read on my blog here and over on the Steelhead Ning here.

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1) This post follows on from Aoi’s here.

Gang Wars: The Doctor Belongs To Me!

Inside the seedy den Beck sat in a filthy, flea-ridden cot and drew deeply on the pipe until he fell backwards through the smoke and into the swirling winds of frozen memory. The winds were white (they were always white, they would always be white) but this time there seemed to be a strange, unsettling green tinge to them, an odd note of venom in the air that whipped around him and stung his nose with its queer and acrid odour. Through the blinding snow and above the howling winds he thought he saw and heard someone, someone watching him, moving around him, circling him. Beck turned, trying to see who, or what, was out there. He began backing away but something brushed his shoulder and he spun round, swinging a fist into the storm. Another touch and he span again with a punch. Again and again until he was turning and whirling like a dervish, shadow-boxing nothing but snow and wind, until the very storm seem to be full of ghosts and monsters mocking and laughing at his terror.

Back in the den rough hands pulled him from the cot and dragged his wildly twitching, shouting body to the door, “Get the crazy lofan out of here,” a woman said in Mandarin, “dump him well away, we don’t want any trouble from those damn jade dogs!”. Two male voices, complaining as they man-handled him, dragged his drugged and struggling body out into the squalid alleyways of the slums and towards a dark, shadowy yard behind a butcher’s shop. As the first flakes of snow fell from the storm-laden skies above, they threw his body into a pile of roting offal and off-cuts causing a small army of mice to squeal angrily and skitter away as he continued to twitch and rant in his opium-fulled delirium.

Unseen by all but the rats and mice who stopped their squeals and quickly vanished into the night, blue eyes glinted in the shadows, watching the proceedings with naked hunger and anticipation.

One of the men turned to leave but the other stopped him. “What?” said the first, the second smirked and nodded at the prone shape in the gloom, “Oh man,” moaned the first “you really want to roll him? Look at him, he’s a bum, he’s got nothing.”

“Let’s see,” grinned the second.

The second gave him a dismissive wave, “Go ahead, It’s too damn cold to be out here. I’m going to get back before the old hag docks my wages again,” he said and walked off into the snowy night.

The remaining man, looking down at the crumpled shape led on the shadowed floor, licked his lips and bent towards it, “At least the stupid smoke-head has stopped twitching,” he thought, “this will be an easy few dolla….” A hand shot from the inky black and grabbed his wrist with a grip of steel that shot pain deep into his shoulder as he felt the bones in his hand crack and snap, “You should have left with your friend, friend.” hissed a voice.

The first man was only two alleys away when he heard the screams and he pounded back through the piling snow & ice-cold mire to the butcher’s yard with all the speed he could manage. He found his companion sprawled face down in the filth sobbing and clasping his arm to his chest to protect a broken wrist whose hand jutted out at a sickening angle. Standing over him a young Chinese man dressed like a riverboat gambler and with a scarlet dragon tattooed across his face snarled at them both, “Get your filthy hands off him, do you hear me? He’s mine! You!” he addressed the the first, “take your stupid, thieving friend here and get back to the cesspit you crawled out of before I really loose my temper.” The men, too terrified to react, didn’t move at first “NOW!” the stranger bellowed and they jumped into life, pulling and scrabbling backwards away from him as fast as the snowy ground would let them. “Tell everyone,” the stranger shouted after them, “Tell them all. The Doctor is off limits! The Doctor is mine! The Doctor belongs to Jonny O! TELL THEM ALL!”

As their panicked footfalls vanished into the night, Jonny O smiled cruelly to himself. The Doc was safe, he’d hidden him away from prying eyes somewhere he could sleep the opium off. Well, almost all prying eyes… He pounced into the alleyway that cut away from the butcher’s yard and pulled a bundle of squealing rags from behind a rain barrel. The bundle wriggled and kicked and punched and spat and bit but he didn’t let go, instead he waited until the struggling stopped and two eyes, wide with fear, stared at him from the rags and muck. Jonny turned the scamp this way and that, it was dirty, smelly and crawling with fleas, “What does the fool see in you?” he asked out loud in perfect English.

“Wot?” the child asked back, defiance even in the face of fear.

“Hmm? Nothing you grubby little creature, merely thinking out loud,” Jonny replied.

“Ere? ‘Ow come youse is talkin American now but Chinesey befor’?” the child asked.

“None of your beeswax, boy. Or girl. Lord it’s hard to tell, you could be half-polecat for all I can tell, doesn’t your mistress ever give you lot baths?”

“I ‘aint ‘aving no bloody baff, mister! Not from ‘er or you or any bugger! I ‘ATES baffs!” the scamp was incensed and even raised its fists like a boxer in a sideshow poster.

Jonny laughed, maybe the Doc had a point about these brats after all, “Well, when you see your mistress shortly, tell her I think she should put you all through the flea dip once in a while.”

“Not that I’m sayin’ there is a mistress, right,” the scamp’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “but ‘ow do youse know about the mistress? An’ wot ifen I’m nots seein’ ‘er, eh? ‘Av you fought abouts that?”

Jonny lowered the scamp to the floor, “Oh you’ll see her alright. You’ll want to tell her about me like a good little messenger boy. Girl. Polecat. You’ll want your shiny coin and your sweet treats. And when you see her, make sure you tell her that Jonny O has a date. Remember this. Remember these words. Jonny O has a date with a shark in a tunnel.”

“A shark? I fink you must be tapped in the ‘ead, mister cos that don’t make no sense.” the scamp said.

Jonny laughed, “Oh it will to your mistress, but you make sure to tell her exactly that.”

“O I will, mister, I will,” the scamp stood there for a second as the snow fell silently around them..

“Well child, what are you waiting for?” Jonny asked.

“Well, uh, this!” the scamp aimed a good solid kick at Jonny and caught him on the shin before running off into the night. Jonny hopped up and down swearing loudly in Mandarin and English until he could stand on the throbbing leg again. “So that’s what he sees in the little animals,” he thought to himself as he hobbled off through the alleys of Shamian towards the bridge that would lead him to the St Helen’s tunnel and his date with Shayu…

To be continued…
All the “Gang War” posts can be read on my blog here and over on the Steelhead Ning here.

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Links to other blogs and stories:
1) Aoi hears about Shayu and draws up her plans for the Dragon Landshere.

Gang Wars: Visiting Meili

The bike ride through the dark, quiet city was a sobering affair. After the storm of the previous night, the air had turned cold and the edge of a bitter wind knifed through the streets and alleys. Even the old statues look perished, thought Beck as he left the Town Hall and headed back to Shanghai. He had the curious feeling of being watched and turned back to see the young novice who had called upon him that morning staring back from one of the cells. She was a strange one, he thought, so quiet and shy it hardly seemed possible she was being trained as one of the Perpetual Vigilance’s most deadly weapons. Still, young women in these parts were hardy and knew their own minds and he was sure that under the stewardship of that old battle-axe, the Mother Superior, she’d flourish. As he passed out of sight of the Town Hall and headed east across the city gardens and towards Shanghai’s western-most windmill gate, his attention shifted to another young woman, one he’d said some harsh things to, things he didn’t mean, things he had to try and make right. He had to see Meili at the hotel.

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“Ahh, Dr Beck,” the usual oily welcome from the host set Beck’s teeth on edge but he just grunted and pushed on past both him and the hired muscle behind him. Straining his eyes through the thick smoke until he saw her bending by the cots, tending to the pipes of the dreaming customers. He wove his way through the room and reached out through the opium haze to touch her shoulder gently. She turned with a smile that fell from her face as she saw him, “Doctor…” she started.

“Meili,” he replied, searching her face for some sign of welcome and finding none “I… That is…”

“Why have you come here?” her voice was low and she busied around him as if her were her customer.

“Meili. What I said… I want to explain,” he was whispering too, the bruiser by the door was watching them, looking for the first sign of trouble, “Please, can we go somewhere? I need to talk to you, I need to explain.”

Meili glanced at the doorman and gave him a barely perceptible shake of her head. He instantly relaxed and stepped back slightly, although his eyes remained on Beck, “You made it clear what you thought,” she replied, a cold, hurt edge to her voice, “What is there to explain?”

“Please… I wasn’t myself… if you would just grant me a few moments to explain,” he tried hard not to plead, “Is… is there somewhere we could talk?”

She looked up at him, her brilliant emerald eyes searching his face, “Follow me,” she sighed and led him through the deep red silk curtains behind the cots to the deeper, more private places hidden below the hotel. The sickly odour of opium smoke mingled with other less exotic yet infinitely more illicit scents – rich perfumes curled around him, sweet flowers of sweat bloomed from doorways full of shadows and sighs. This was the arena of angels, the temple in which they visited their gifts upon mortal men. Despite himself, he found his heart racing as she led him to a small, private room and shut the door behind him. Again she fixed him with her green eyes, “I can not be long,” she said cooly.

“Meili, please,” he said, “when you came to me, when we met, I mean to say after I was… rescued I wasn’t in my right mind and I said things I shouldn’t have…”

“You threw me out!” she hissed, “you told me you never wanted to see me again, you told me I was cursed!”

Tears welled in her eyes and the shame of his words stung him. “But what I said, I meant to protect you…”

“Protect me?” she repeated, her voice dripping with incredulity, “Protect me from what?”

He looked her, memories of his wife’s snarling face burned brightly in his mind, an arctic wind bit at his skin and images of lost children, his own and poor little Li Fe, danced behind his eyes. He didn’t want to give voice to the truth of his failings, his sins, but he needed her to understand, “Please… I have no excuses…”

“Protect me from what,” she asked again, her anger raw and brittle.

“I was out of my mind. The creature, it did something…”

“Protect me from what!” she snapped.

He looked into her perfect green eyes, tears rolling from them down her cheeks, and knew he was lost. He’d said both too much and not enough. How could he tell her now? How could he tell her what he’d done to his family, how he’d let down every member of hers? He was right, she was cursed, cursed to have ever met him. He turned and opened the door before looking back at Meili, “From me,” he said simply and walked out.

The night was cold but he didn’t feel it, after all he’d been to far colder places than this. His lungs itched and gnawed away inside him, his mind twisted and turned, nagging and pleading with him.. He needed to loose himself in the smoke and as the hotel was no longer an option he headed into the slums.

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Even at this late hour eyes watched him from the darkness. Not just him of course, these eyes, small eager eyes, watched all that happened in Shanghai day and night, but because these eyes were set in the grubby little faces of the street children, no one paid them any attention. Scamps were invisible to all but a few and although on any other day Beck would have noticed them, his opium-hunger blinded him to all but his path through the filthy back streets of Shamian and towards the seedy dens hidden in the deepest, darkest parts of the slums.

The eyes also saw another figure walking through the dark streets, this time heading out of Shanghai and towards the tunnel to St Helens. The eyes had much to report back to their mistress, the pretty lady who paid them and fed them, the doctor was up to his old tricks and a nasty Tong bully was heading into the forests…

To be continued…
All the “Gang War” posts can be read on my blog here and over on the Steelhead Ning here.

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Links to other blogs and stories:
1) Dr Beck hurt Meili in the epilogue to “Steal Head” here.

The kindness of neighbours…

When I moved to the wilderness of St Helens I knew that food would be a problem. Of course I could go to town to buy provisions but that would defeat the object of coming out here. I toyed with asking Beck to bring what I needed on his visits, but in truth I don’t want him to visit. He’s nice enough and means well, but he is… a complication. No, I needed to be as self-sufficient as possible as possible, but even so I still needed to get food from somewhere until the land thawed out enough to plant, let alone grow, my food. So thank the gods for Mara Razor and her mill!

Situated across the mighty Spirit river from my own land, I first saw Mara’s mill in operation when I had toured the region looking for somewhere to live…
Steelhead St Helens Tour

Mara had brought in farm animals and begun to grow her own food in order to to feed the ever hungry mouths of her charges, the Scamps and urchins that had made my life in the city so difficult. Without her bravery, I have no doubt that many of these wee tormentors may have fallen to the monster Creaky Gloom!

I had Beck approach Mara with a proposal – for a modest, regular payment she would provide me with enough food to see me through winter. To my delight she agreed and ever since she has left a packed basket on her pier and all I have to do is row across and pick it up. It was just this I was doing when I noticed something rather nice – she has found a replacement for poor Horace, her donkey so cruelly killed by Gloom.
Steelhead St Helens

It fair made my day and as I paddled back to my campsite I found myself looking forward to the day ahead cutting and shaping logs for my planned cabin…
Steelhead St Helens

Steelhead Stories: The Hunt for Creaky Gloom – The Cost of His Crimes

The scamps had found Li Fe. Or what was left of him. I’d seen cannibalism before, back in Manchester, back in the dark days, back when I still had children. How in God’s Name was I going to tell a mother that her only child had been eaten by some monster from our collective nightmares?
Steelhead Stories: Creaky Gloom

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For all my Creaky Gloom posts, click here.

For more about the Hunt for Creaky Gloom read these posts:

Steelhead Stories: The Hunt for Creaky Gloom – Trouble at t’mill!

It was barely my first night in my new home and already my isolation was being disturbed. It had started during the day when I noticed some kind of kerfuffle across the water at the mill. Mara Razor’s place was being over run by children, the scamps of Steelhead and urchins from Babbage all seemed to be converging on the farm in what looked like some kind of mass exodus!

Then came the terrible sounds in the night! I rushed out of my tent and across the river I heard an animal screaming in terror and pain! I was about row over when torches emerged from the mill. I don’t know what happened, but someone, or something, had attacked Mara’s animals.

And now… now I can just make out the children all building rafts and getting ready to sail across towards me. I know I’m being foolish, I know I’m being a coward, but I can not face them! If they come this was that I am going to hide in the forest until they have gone – I know where there is an empty cave…

St Helens Stories: Strange Sounds at the Mill

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For all my Creaky Gloom posts, click here.

For more about the Hunt for Creaky Gloom read these posts:

Steelhead Stories: Something Creaky This Way Comes…

A gloom has fallen across Steelhead! A foul creature by the name of Creaky Gloom (a supposedly indestructable spirit called a Slaugh*) has followed the Scamps into the city and is preying on our children. It would seem that he – it! – has already stolen away little Li Fe from the slums and if the tales of this swine are true then the poor boy may well have been eaten!

No one is entirely sure what this Creaky Gloom wants, but there are reports from New Babbage (where the monster was first seen) that he is on the hunt for a scamp named Quill, but for what nefarious reason no one knows.

I’ve had some posters printed and hopefully we can get enough of them around town to warn the children. Get a copy here and spread the word!
Steelhead: Creaky Gloom

The sheriff has asked for people to remain calm and not take the law into their own hands, but I seriously doubt he can stop parents desperate to protect their off-spring from taking drastic steps. I have a horrible feeling that things are going to get much worse…

* He’s unlike any Slaugh I’ve encountered before – back in Manchester, the Slaughs came across the water from Ireland at Feg’s call as massed clouds of screaming, hungry ravens that stripped people of their flesh (and more) leaving terror in their wake.

Far From Home: Chapter 10 – Coming Home

The water here is cold. Memories of a childhood I knew could not be mine flowered in my mind; giggles and splashes with fingers trailing in a steam and cold water flicked at friends. If I tried that now I wouldn’t even know if the few fingers I had left froze solid and snapped off. Now only the custom-made fleece-lined leather gloves kept what was left of my hands safe from injury and the elements. The childhood squeals of joy faded until only the quiet lapping of my oar in the river and the occasional bird cry from the bank remained. I liked it that way. Memories were useless out here, they would only slow me, make me careless, drag me down with them. What was gone was just that, gone.

I looked ahead, my landing point approached, a stream flowing into the river where the forest at the base of the mountain dipped to meet the lake. The trees in the forest were snow-draped as if a funeral shroud had been cast over them, white and smothering…

“You’ll have to wear this under your clothes,” the doctor from the slums stood in my room and held up long white underwear. He’d been coming every day since my return. The hospital in Caledon offered me accommodation in the local sanatorium, promised me a job, promised me rooms, promised me a prison with lunatics for cellmates. I declined. I had a home. I had a jungle. I left and I went home only to find it had gone, burnt to the ground, not a trace left. I sat on the sand and didn’t move for three days.

I saw things. They spoke to me. They pointed and they laughed and they danced.

On the fourth day the rain came. I sat on the sand and made believe the rain streaming down my face were the tears I could no longer weep. It rained for a day and a night.

On the fifth day I left the island. I didn’t know where else to go so I travelled back to where it all began. Back to the epicentre. Back to Steelhead.

People stared. They whispered and pitied and taunted and joked. In Steelhead my misery was compounded by the unruly children that inhabit an underworld no adult can hope to enter without their permission. Oh yes, the Steelhead Scamps thought me great sport.

I wasn’t sure where to go, so I went to the slums to find the doctor. He stared. They all stare. Still, he helped. I don’t know what he said and to whom but by nightfall I was in a comfortable room in a nearby hotel. From my window I could see Spirit Lake flowing out into the river as it passed through the wilderness of St Helens.

“You’ll have to wear this under your clothes,” I turned from the window (how many days had I stood there staring out into the isolation beyond?), “and these gloves I’ve had made for you. Likewise your boots and socks. You are going to have to protect yourself if you are insistent about going through with this.”

I stared at the while underwear in his hands and the other garments on my bed. “Thank you. Is everything else ready?”

He sighed, “Yes. There’s a canoe and supplies ready and Lunar has stamped your purchase order. You’re the proud owner of very remote, very isolated forest by the mountain. I’m guessing that will make you happy, eh?”

I looked at the man with concern etched across his brow and said nothing. He shook his head and placed the long thermals on the bed, “Well at least promise me you’ll make our agreed meetings. Every two weeks. If you miss one, I’ll only come looking for you and neither of us wants that; I hate the great outdoors with a passion, you know.” I tried a smile but my skin wouldn’t move like that any more so I just nodded and told him he had my word.

The next morning I set a hat on my head, wrapped a scarf around my face and walked away from the hotel, away from the city, away from the scamps and everyone and everything. I checked the canoe and set off rowing, I let the river take me for a while but I liked to row, the exertion warming me in the frigid morning air. Since the fire, since Shade, The Erase, the would-be killer, since my recovery, winter had come to these parts and it held the land fast in its white silence. There was no one around, not a living soul for miles, and it was perfect. I looked down at the river, clear and blue beneath me.

Steelhead St Helens

The water here is cold, I thought to myself…

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The End.
All the “Far From Home” posts can be read here.

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