The Shanghai Songbird Part 5

A volley of shots rang out. A fiery hammer slammed into Lee’s abdomen. He coughed, going straight down. His vision blurred, his chest burned, wet heat squirted out of the wound. He saw the Songbird turn and run. He raised the Nambu and fired.

Missed.

She pointed her weapon over her shoulder and squeezed off a couple of rounds. A bullet slapped the sidewalk next to Lee’s face. Flinching, Lee pointed at her and pressed the trigger.

Nothing.

No more ammo.

The woman tottered over to her car. Swearing, Lee released the empty gun and tried to get up. But his torso ignited in firestorm of pain and forced him down.

“Hey…”

Lee looked to his right. Wong was on his back, trying to plug a hole in his throat with his left hand. With his right, he held out his Colt.

“Take…” Wong whispered.

Lee reached out. Grabbed the weapon. Propped himself up.

Ouyang was rounding the bonnet of her car, going for the driver’s seat. In the dim glow of the streetlight he could just about see her face framed in the car window.

He aimed. Almost shouted a warning. Then he remembered that he wasn’t a cop anymore, and this was Shanghai.

He fired. Again and again and again, the muzzle flash stealing his sight and the sharp flat report robbing his hearing. He fired and fired and fired until the Colt went dry.

He squinted, trying see past the purple spots in his sight. The window glass had been shattered. No sign of the Songbird. Grunting, he pushed himself up, pushing past the pain in his torso, and shuffled to the car.

She lay spread-eagle on the road, a dark pool blooming from her head. She was beautiful, once, before glass shrapnel shredded her face. She was still breathing, barely, and in the darkness he couldn’t see her wound. If any. He kicked the pistol out of her hand. A wet gurgle escaped her mouth, overcome by a torrent of blood. She looked at him, parted her lips, exhaled, and died.

The last of Lee’s strength bled dry. The Colt slipped from his hand and bounced off the road. He dropped to his ass, dimly aware of his hands and feet rapidly going cold. Every breath filled him with pain. He held his hand to his wound, trying and failing to hold back the surge of blood.

In the distance, police whistles blew. The police was finally, finally, coming, certain now that they wouldn’t be wandering into the middle of a gangland gunfight. In his blurring vision, he thought he saw a squad of uniformed policemen running down the road.

Who were they? Japanese? Chinese? Or—

“Shanghai Municipal Police!” a cop yelled.

In English.

Lee smiled.

****
The next few hours passed in a blurry haze. He remembered the searing pain as the British policemen hauled him to safety, the ambulance ride at breakneck speeds, the muttering of nurses and doctors as they prepared him for surgery.

When Lee was capable of conscious thought, it was daylight. He squinted against the morning sun streaming in through the window. He was lying on a stiff mattress, covered in a plain white sheet. His abs ached, but not as much as when he’d been shot.

He hazarded a look around. He was in a twelve-man ward. A quarter of the beds were empty. The other bed was filled with hard men with harder eyes. Tattoos of dragons, gods and Buddhas covered their arms and necks and faces. Some of them chatted with each other amicably, while the others studiously ignored everyone else.

A nurse looked up from her desk. Smiling, she strode over to Lee.

“You’re awake,” she said.

Lee nodded. “Where am I?”

“Shanghai General Hospital.” She consulted her clipboard. “You were admitted about six hours ago, and underwent emergency surgery for a gunshot wound to the abdomen. You seem to be doing well. The doctor will give you a more detailed diagnosis when he makes his rounds.”

As the nurse examined him, Lee spotted a quintet of men strolling into the room. Four men protecting a fifth. The other patients straightened and called out greetings to the last man, or pointedly looked away and said nothing. The nurse glanced at him and continued working in silence, taking a couple of minutes longer than necessary.

Finally, the nurse retreated to her desk. The newcomers approached Lee’s bed.

“Mr Lee,” Tang said. “Not dead yet, I see.”

“Mr Tang,” Lee said. “I’d shake your hand, but I’ve been advised to remain lying on my back.”

Tang smiled mirthlessly. “I heard what happened last night. It wasn’t an ideal outcome, but the situation was resolved. Thank you for your hard work.”

“Don’t mention it. Have you seen Sergeant Wong?”

“I heard he’s three doors down. With the rest of his police friends.”

Shanghai was a dangerous place for police. Hospitals were supposed to be neutral ground, but there was too much blood spilt on too many streets for the police to rely on the honour of thieves.

“I appreciate you coming to visit me,” Lee said.

Tang shrugged. “I had business here.”

“Ah. So, what happens next?”

“Mr Lee, you did us a great service. You need not worry about your medical fees. And, we will double the fee Ms Ouyang promised you.”

“It is generous of you.”

“It is nothing. Incidentally, my group is always looking for good men…”

Lee laughed. Once. Then the pain in his belly forced him to stop.

Tang chuckled. “You’re not a policeman any more, Mr Lee. If the Japanese dogs learn what you did, you’ll need protection.”

“I’ll consider your offer.”

“I’m sure you will.”

The gangsters left as suddenly as they had come. Lee shifted around on his bed, making himself comfortable.

The Dragon Head was right. Someday there might be a reckoning with the Japanese. Someday the police or the triads might turn on him. Someday, he might find that there was no room in Shanghai for a mixed-blood man mixed up in crime and espionage.

But for now, he could rest.

The End


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Previous parts: 1234

Thanks for reading The Shanghai Songbird. If you’d like more long form fiction, look out for my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

The Shanghai Songbird Part 4

“I’m still not giving you a gun,” Wong said.

Lee blew on his cold hands. “I didn’t ask for one.”

“I can hear the thought in your head.”

“Hey, we’re just seeing who shows up tonight. No need for shooting, right?”

Wong grunted sullenly.

Recruiting Wong had been simple enough. Lee simply waited outside his tiny apartment until Wong came home. A heated discussion followed indoors, but both men knew of Tang’s reputation. It was technically a matter for Special Branch, but by the time they were done arguing it was too late to contact Special Branch.

Besides, it was a surveillance job, plain and simple. They could do it just as well as the spycatchers.

They stayed in the dark inside Wong’s cramped car for the next two hours, unblinking and unmoving in the shadows, shifting only to duck under headlights of the occasional passing car.

At three minutes to four a dark saloon car circled around the block once, then parked opposite the club. Two men jumped out and headed to the door. The one in the lead rapped the door twice, then twice more. The door opened and both entered.

“They look Japanese to you?” Wong whispered.

“Can’t tell. It’s too dark,” Lee replied.

“We need to get the license plate number.”

“I’ll go. You keep an eye out.”

Lee scanned the shadow-shrouded streets and, satisfied there were no watchers, exited the car. Sauntering up to the Fiat, he slipped out his matchbook and struck a match, cupping the naked flame with his other hand.

And swore softly to himself.

Japanese diplomatic plates.

He read the numbers thrice, burning them into his brain. Extinguishing the match, he dropped the stub into a pocket and turned around.

Right into the muzzle of a gun.

“Hands up,” the gunman said in Japanese-accented Chinese.

Lee complied, leaning ever so slightly forward, taking a very small step towards the man.

“Who are you?” the Japanese asked.

Lee flicked his eyes from left to right. Behind the gunman was a deeper shadow near the car.

“Nobody, Lee said. “I just –”

BANG! BANG BANG BANG!

Glass shattered. The Japanese startled. Lee leapt in, circling his left arm to lock up the gun arm in his armpit, and blasted his right palm up into the man’s face. The blow almost bowled the man over. The Japanese jerked convulsively. The gun fired. Lee slammed another palm into the gunman’s face and simultaneously kneed him in the groin.

The Japanese fell over, slamming into the bonnet of a nearby car. Lee clenched his fist and hammered the man’s chest. The Japanese replied with a hard knife-hand block, just enough power to swipe his arm out of the way. The gunman flowed into a punch, just as Lee stomped hard on the man’s exposed foot. The punch, powered only by the shoulder, bounced off Lee’s forehead. The stomp crunched something. The Japanese screamed, sliding down the car. Lee grabbed the man’s skull and pounded it against the bonnet and bumper.

The Japanese went still. Lee stepped aside, stripped the gun and aimed it at the former threat. The Japanese remained still. Lee looked around and heard footsteps pounding up to him.

“Lee!” Wong shouted. “Are you okay?”

Lee looked over his shoulder and patted himself down.

“I’m good. What the hell happened?” Lee demanded.

“Bodyguards. Two of them. They were parked down the street behind us. When you went up to read the plate they came up to the car. One talked to me while the other went to you.”

“You shot your guy?”

He held up his smoking handgun, reloading with a fresh magazine. “Yeah. He won’t be a problem now. We need to go in and arrest the suspects before they can escape.”

“You get the front door. I’ll go around the back.”

Lee scurried down a nearby alley, which wrapped around to the rear of the club. Along the way he inspected the unfamiliar gun in his hand. It was a Japanese Nambu, a long, exposed snout of a barrel, a trigger, a handle and that was all he recognised. Lee remembered the weapon had an eight-round magazine, and since it fired earlier the safety was probably off. He wished for the Colt 1908 he’d trained on, but this was the gun he had.

Down the alley, he turned left, and in the pale moonlight saw four people scurry out the back of the club.

“Police! Stop!” Lee yelled.

“RUN!” a man shouted.

Two of them peeled away and raised gleaming objects in their hands. Lee ducked back just as a volley of shots rang out. The shooters were panicking, burning through their magazines as fast as they could fire. Lee flinched as clouds of brick dust peppered his face. When the shooting stopped he popped back out.

The two shooters were running down the alley, hurrying for cover. Lee pointed the Nambu at the nearer one’s centre of mass and pressed the trigger.

The muzzle blast stole his sight and flooded his ears. Wincing, Lee pointed at the other one but saw only a purple splotch. He fired anyway, and the brief sun illuminated two men stillon their feet. He blasted away, burning through half his magazine, before the men decided to drop.

“Run!” a woman shouted. “They’re coming! RUN!”

Two figures popped out of a nearby doorway, rushing for the mouth of the alley. One was smaller and slower, high heels clicking against the road. Lee sprinted in pursuit. As the leading figure turned a corner, the woman tripped, falling heavily to the road.

She cursed loudly in Japanese. A man replied in the same language. Lee readied his Nambu and turned the corner, coming face-to-face with the man.

“STOP! DON’T MOVE!” Lee yelled in Mandarin.

“Damn you!” the man cursed, in Shanghainese.

The figure leapt at Lee. Lee fired. The body slammed into him. The attacker screamed like a wildcat, flailing and clawing. Scrabbling with fingers and feet, Lee found the man’s shoulder and foot. Seizing it, he pulled the man down and swept out his leg, driving him into the sidewalk. Lee stomped the man in the head, and he went still.

Lee turned his attention to the woman. She was picking herself up, backing away from him.

“Ms. Ouyang?” Lee wheezed. He held his pistol low by his hip, unwilling to let her see his trembling arm. How many shots had he fired? Six? Seven? Was his gun empty?

“Mr. Lee,” she replied. She stood to her full height, bringing her handbag in front of her.

“Those men in the alleyway were Japanese.”

She stared at him in the eye. “Yes.”

Lee jerked his head at the man he’d thrown.

“That guy’s a collaborator?”

“He was my lover.”

Lee shrugged. Who knew what was in a woman’s heart? “Answer the question. Was he a collaborator?”

“Yes.”

“Your handler? Your local contact?”

She shrugged sullenly. “He was more than that…but yes. He was.”

“So, the rumours of you working with the Japanese are true.”

“Yes. What are you going to do about it?”

She clutched her handbag protectively.

“I’m just trying to learn the truth. You sent me to Tang to die, didn’t you? I mean, what kind of idiot in this city would just walk up to a triad and demand answers?”

“How did you survive?” She chuckled, shook his head. “How did he survive?”

“He gave me a way to find the truth. Too bad nobody told you about our history.”

She sighed, cursing. “I forgot. You had a reputation for fairness. Even towards the triads.” She shrugged and added, “What’s next? Are you’re going to hand me to Special Branch?”

Lee shrugged too. “Tell me, why did you collaborate with the Japanese?”

“I didn’t. I am Japanese.”

Lee blinked. “What?”

“I was born on the streets of Tsingtao. During the Great War, when the Japanese defeated the Germans, a Japanese soldier found me and brought me home to Tokyo. He raised me as his own daughter. The Genyosha recruited me at eighteen and sent me here, to Shanghai.”

“To make friends and influence people?”

“Yes.”

“You would betray your homeland? Betray your people?”

Her voice turned cold and flinty. “I am Japanese. And, there are more Japanese in Shanghai than any other foreign power. In a few more years, Shanghai might as well be Japanese too. I’m just speeding things along.”

“Lee!” Wong shouted, well behind him.

“I’m here!” Lee yelled back, keeping his gun on her.

Wong ran up, halting next to Lee.

“Caged the Songbird, eh, Lee?” Wong remarked.

“I guess I can’t persuade you to let me go,” Ouyang said. “I know your type too well.”

“If you come in quietly,” Wong said, “we can work out a deal.”

She sighed. “Well, boys, you caught me.”

“Put the bag down,” Wong said.

Crouching, she slowly placed the bag on the ground. Lee blinked hard, trying to peer through the spots dancing in his vision, but did her hand just reach inside…?

Lee extended his pistol. “Drop the bag!”

She dropped the bag.

Stood.

Fired.

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Previous parts: 123

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check our my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

The Shanghai Songbird Part 3

Picking Tang out was easy. He was the only customer in the teahouse with a contingent of heavily-muscled goons. They strolled in with the self-assurance of tigers, and the other customers either greeted them or looked down into their cups.

Tang and three men entered the sole private room in the teahouse. The remaining four gangsters stood watch outside.
Lee took a final sip of tea. He’d been sitting here since the teahouse opened this morning. It had only been two days after the shooting, but if the gangsters had wanted him dead they’d have done something about him. That meant they weren’t opposed to talking.

Probably.

Slowly, he stood up and approached Tang’s room. Five steps later the four bodyguards barred his way.

“I wish to see your Dragon Head,” Lee said.

The gangster sneered, exposing a mouthful of rotted teeth. “He’s busy. Get lost.”

“I have business with him.”

“I don’t recognize you, and you’re disturbing us. Get out. Now.” The four gangsters crowded around Lee, placing hands on hips or hidden weapons.

“Tell him I’m—”

“I want to see him,” Tang interrupted.

The gangster looked into the room. “Boss? I—”

“I want to see him.” Tang’s tone was cold and flat.

The gangsters parted as quickly as they came. Tang, stroking his long thick beard, gestured at an empty chair on his left.

“Detective Lee,” Tang said. “It’s been too long. Come, sit. Would you like some tea?”

Lee obeyed. They must have been expecting him. The three other senior triad members around the table fixed burning gazes on him.

“Thank you for seeing me. I’m not a detective any more, and I won’t take up much of your time,” Lee said.

Tang poured Lee a glass of steaming amber tea. “You never came to me without good reason. Why are you here?”

Lee accepted the tea. “I want to apologize. What happened to your man, to Lin Da Hai, was an accident. I’m sorry for killing him.”

A sigh poured from Tang’s heart. “Ah, Lin Da Hai. He was always…brash. Overly eager.”

“I understand his funeral will be held soon.”

“Yes. Next Tuesday, in fact.”

“I have prepared baijin for him. It’s in my left pants pocket.”

Baijin was a cash contribution meant to help the family of the bereaved. Lee had filled his envelope with more than enough money to communicate his real intent.

“I will pass it to his family,” Tang said.

“You are truly a generous man,” Lee replied.

Lee slowly and carefully reached into his pants pocket, removing a white envelope, letting the triad men know he wasn’t pulling a weapon. He handed the envelope to Tang with two hands, who in turn handed it to another gangster. The blood money disappeared under a jacket.

“Mr. Tang, I have a question for you,” Lee said.

“Speak.”

“Was Mr. Lin working for you at the time of his death?”

Tang laughed, and the other gangsters joined in. Lee said nothing.

Finally, the Dragon Head said, “I heard the Shanghai Songbird hired you.”

“I was hired to find the truth.”

“Mr. Lee, this is Shanghai. Everybody lies.”

“Yes. And what you don’t know will kill you.”

Tang nodded slowly. He stared into space for a moment, as though in deep contemplation. Eventually, he said, “A man like you would have heard the rumors about Ms. Ouyang.”

“I heard she’s working for the Japanese.”

“That’s correct.”

“How do you know?”

Tang laughed.

“Never mind,” Lee said.

“My friend, let me ask you something. Why do the foreigners want to hold on to the Shanghai International Settlement?”

“Money. National prestige. Because the Chinese can’t take it back.”

“Exactly. But are they willing to go to war over it?”

“Only with the Chinese.”

A waitress arrived, setting plates of dim sum around the table. Tang deftly snatched up a small xiaolongbao with his chopsticks, brought it to his mouth and bit it in half. Tilting his head back, he gulped down the broth within the bun, and took his time masticating the rest of the bao.

Finally, Tang looked back at Lee and spoke.

“Everybody knows that China is the sick man of Asia, and recognizes Japan as an equal of the European powers. Everybody wants to bully China, but nobody dares to provoke the Japanese.”

Lee sipped his tea. He knew how the old man’s mind worked. He’d get to the point. Eventually.

“The Japanese dogs conquered Manchuria, and after the January 28 Incident, they forced our Army out of Shanghai. They want to be the lord of all China, and the Westerners don’t want to fight a war with an equal power. But some of them are wary of Japanese ambitions. Including Special Branch.”

Lee set his tea down. “Special Branch approached you for assistance?”

“Special Branch is busy chasing communist spies. Communists are an easy target; only the Russians complain when their spies are arrested. But Japanese? The British don’t want to make noise, not yet, and it’s becoming dangerous for Westerners to wander outside the International Settlement. But if a high-profile nightclub singer were shot by an obsessed fan…”

“Everybody knows Shanghai is the whore of the Orient. People expect the police to close both eyes when the triads are involved.”

“You said it. Not me.”

“I need proof that she’s working for the Japanese.”

“Mr Lee, we can resolve the matter ourselves.”

“Mr. Tang, when I quit the Municipal Police, I only gave up my badge.”

Both men exchanged a long moment of silence.

Finally, Tang said, “Go to the Night Orchard at four a.m. See who shows up.”

Finishing his tea, Lee bowed and stood. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. If you find yourself in a situation to handle this incident…we will be thankful.”

There it was, the payment the triads demanded for this information.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Lee said.


Cheah Git San Red.jpg

For more long form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

The Shanghai Songbird Part 2

There was just enough light inside the nightclub to see the stage and nowhere enough to peer into the hearts of men. Lee placed a tiny mirror on the table, no larger than a compact makeup case, trying to make the best of the dim candlelight behind him.

Wong didn’t mind. But in their corner booth, the policeman had a good view of the door. Lee was facing the wrong way, by choice. Shanghai might be an international city but mixed bloods always drew attention. Better if people didn’t see his face.

At exactly nine in the evening Ouyang Li Yan took to the stage. Her sheer golden cheongsam glittered under the spotlights, its long slits showing off longer legs. She held her head high, regally poised on delicate high heels. Her eyes swept the crowd and landed on Lee’s. She smiled, a blazing sun just for him, and caressed her microphone with a gloved hand.

On an unseen signal, the band played. Matching her voice with the deep saxophone, she sang in English.

I knew a boy who loved to play hero / Of his flaws I knew exactly zero / But there’s one thing about him I know / To a beautiful face he’d never say no

Wong nudged Lee’s foot under the table. “I think I see the stalker.”

Lee looked at the mirror. “Who?”

“At the door. Huge Chinese guy in the cheap brown suit and tattoo on his neck.”

Lee adjusted his mirror just so, tracking the suspect. The guy was alone, staring on the singer. He loomed tall over the other patrons, taller than even the Westerners. His eyebrows were a thick dark line of hair. There was a black splotch covering his neck—it was too dark to make out what it was. He plopped down in a corner and ordered a bottle of baijiu, potent grain liquor.

Just before Ouyang had left his office, she had told him what the stalker looked like. This man seemed to fit the bill. Lee kept an eye on the mirror and an ear on the singer. She switched to Japanese for her next song, then Shanghainese. The suspect poured a cup of baijiu and carefully sipped at it. That or he was just pretending to drink it.

Ouyang worked the stage, fluidly switching languages and pitches. The man stayed rock-still, drinking mechanically. Lee cast his eye over the audience every now and then, but he didn’t see anyone else who matched the description she gave him.

When Ouyang finished her last song and went backstage, the man in the cheap suit sprang to life. He downed what was left in his cup and paid the bill. He tapped his foot repeatedly.

Ouyang reappeared, dressed in a green shawl and matching cheongsam. Audience members surged forward to greet her. The man in the suit got up, digging his hands into his pockets. Lee got up and followed.

“He’s trying something,” Lee said. “Let’s go.”

The man in the suit made his way through the crowd, shoving people out of the way. Lee worked a different tack, slipping through holes that formed in front of him, firmly pushing only when he had to, while keeping an eye on the back of the man’s head. The man jostled his way to the front, ignoring Lee as he slid in just behind him, stopping right in front of Ouyang.

The man whispered something. A woman shouted at Lee, drowning out what he said.

Ouyang’s face paled, her mouth opening ever so slightly.

The man’s right hand rose from his pocket, revealing a handgun.

Lee slipped in, seized the weapon in both hands, and wrested it up. The man pulled the trigger, and the pistol discharged harmlessly into the ceiling.

Lee startled. The crowd dissolved into shrieks and screams. The man resisted, trying to force his arm back down. Lee wrestled with him, keeping the gun pointed high, and the stalker fired once more. Out the corner of his eye, Lee saw the civilians ducking and running. Lee lashed out with his knee, connecting with the man’s thigh. The gunman’s stance crumbled. Grabbing the shooter’s wrist with his right hand, Lee twisted into him, taking him off balance—

BANG

—the body slammed to the ground. Lee pried the pistol out of unresisting hands and pointed it at the man’s chest.

Blood oozed out of the entry wound. Claret mixed with gray and white matter on the floor. The man’s eyes bulged out of his head. The world smelled of death and gunpowder and fresh soap. The body twitched and jerked erratically. Lee scanned the crowd and saw them retreat before him.

Wong caught up, badge in one hand and handgun in the other.

“He’s dead,” Lee pronounced.

The detective leaned over and felt for a pulse.

“He’s dead,” Wong confirmed.

Ouyang tottered over to Lee, clinging to his left arm.

“Oh my God,” she said. “He was…I was…are you…”

“I’m okay. Are you hurt?”

“No, no.” She sniffled. “I’m okay. I’m…I thought, I thought you were…”

Lowering the pistol, Lee held her close. “I’m fine.”

“Thank you. I’m so… thankful.”

She sobbed softly into his neck. Her breath warmed his neck, his ear, his cheek.

“Ahem,” Wong said.

Lee let her go.

Wong held out his hand. “I need the weapon.”

Lee inspected the gun. A Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless. Pointing it to at the ground, he ejected the magazine with and racked the slide. A shiny bullet spun out of the ejection port, bouncing off against the floor. Lee reversed his grip and handed the pistol to the cop butt-first.

“I’m going to call for backup,” Wong said. “Do you need a doctor?”

Ouyang shook her head. “I’m fine. We’re fine.”

“Lee, I’m going to need your statement.”

Lee sighed. “Let’s wait until we get to the station.”

Wong nodded. “You two stay here and don’t touch anything.”

“Understood,” Lee said.

She held him again. They stayed that way until uniformed patrolmen flooded the club.

***
“Good news is, we’re ruling it self-defence,” Wong said. “Clearly a tragic accident by someone who had it coming. You’re free to go.”

Lee rapped his fingers against the heavy wooden table. In the interview room, it was just him and Wong and four silent walls.

“That means there’s bad news.”

“The dead man is Lin Da Hai. Triad. Hatchet man for Tang Zhong Sheng. You remember him, he’s the Dragon Head who owns a fifth of the city.”

Lee remembered. During his time in the Reserve Unit he’d clashed with Tang’s triad more than a few times.

“Did Tang send Lin after the girl?”

Another, more pronounced shrug.

“You don’t know, or you don’t want to know?”

“It doesn’t matter. Your work is done. The stalker is dead. Case closed.”

“Really? Work with me here. That guy looked like a crazy fan to you? What kind of obsessed idiot follows a woman around, does his damnedest to avoid being noticed, doesn’t even try to contact her, just tries to shoot her?” He leaned forward. “That’s not a stalker. That’s a killer.”

Wong’s face hardened to stone. “Leave this alone. This is police business now.”

“I never thought you’d leave a case alone.”

“You were a great detective, Lee. One of the best. But you’re out now. And we’re dealing with triads. Tang may hesitate to send a hatchet man after me. But you don’t have a badge or uniform anymore. It’s done. Get on with your life.”

The man exchanged icy glares over a rocky abyss. A lifetime later, Lee slapped his palms on the table and stood.

“I’m leaving,” Lee said.

“An excellent decision,” Wong replied.

Wong escorted Lee out. The detective saw the civilian all the way to the evidence room, lingering long enough for Lee to gather his things, and disappeared, leaving Lee to head out by his lonesome.

She was waiting in the lobby, a hat pulled low over her head. Looking up, she smiled at his arrival.

“Hey,” she said. “Are you okay?”

“Been better. You were waiting for me?”

“I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

They left the polite fiction at that. Walking her to the door, the wet heat of a Shanghai summer slammed into his face.
“What are you going to do now?” she asked.

He exhaled sharply, briefly forgetting he wasn’t expelling a lungful of hot smoke. And abruptly grinned at her. “Where should I send the invoice to?”

She laughed. “You’ve prepared one?”

“It’s at my office.”

She brushed her arm lightly against his side. “Let’s go. You can hand it to me there.”

Neither of them owned a car. They settled for walking to the nearest tram station. With the hat she wore, no makeup, flat shoes, she was no longer the Shanghai Songbird, just another pretty face in the crowd. People paid more attention to Lee, if only to decide where he fit on the East-West spectrum. He kept his head down, watching for passers-by and stray garbage, until a thought hammered his brain.

“What did he say?” Lee asked.

“Who?” Ouyang answered.

“The shooter. He said something to you. What was it?”

“I…the police didn’t tell you?”

“They said it was none of my business. What did he say to you?”

“He said…he said, ‘Mr. Tang sends his regards.’”

“You know this Tang guy?”

She bit her lip. “Tang Zhong Sheng.”

“The triad Dragon Head.”

“Yes. The Commissioner was…very interested in going after him.”

“And now Tang is very interested in going after you.”

“Yes.” She shuddered. “I don’t…I don’t think this is over. I don’t feel safe. The Commissioner doesn’t want to protect me, but Tang…”

“Do you know where I can find him?”

It was meant to be a rhetorical question, but Lee caught Ouyang’s eyes narrow ever so slightly.

“What are you going to do?”

“Talk to him.”

“Talk to him? Really, Mr. Lee? That’s all you’re going to do?”

He laughed. “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but many problems can be solved simply by talking to the right people the right way.”

She looked skeptically at him. “Well, the Commissioner used to talk a lot about Tang. He told me once Tang liked to have breakfast at the teahouse on Fangbang Road.”

“Thanks.” He chuckled. “Guess I have to hold on to that invoice.”

She pouted. “Going to charge me extra, huh?”

“Just seeing this case through to the end.”

Cheah Git San Red.jpg

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

The Shanghai Songbird Part 1

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Thomas Lee had read too many Western pulps to know how this would end.

“Miss Ouyang,” he said, “I sympathise with your situation. I really do. But this looks like a job for the police.”

Ouyang Li Yan didn’t frown. She was too glamorous for that. Her face melted under her thin mask of mascara and rouge, her eyes widened, and her full, luscious lips opened just so. She bit her lower lip, and shook her head.

“I tried. They just laughed at me. You know what they said? ‘A pretty woman like you will always have dashing young men throwing themselves at you.’”

He snorted, tapping his burned-out cigarette into a cheap glass ashtray. “I heard you’re…close…to the Commissioner.”

She smiled at his almost-feigned delicateness. “We used to be.”

Amazing. The gossip rags were on the money this time. “That’s a shame. But you’re a well-known woman in this city, Miss Ouyang. Someone in the force would want to help—”

Another, firmer, shake of the head. A sad, bitter chuckle. “Mr. Lee, this is Shanghai. There’s no police here. Just crooks or killers in khaki.”

“I know a few honest cops.”

She leaned forward. Lee studiously kept his eyes on hers and not the front of her low-cut Western dress.

“You’re…different, Mr. Lee. You have a reputation.”

“For what?”

“Fairness. When you were still a cop, you treated everybody fairly.”

He laughed. With a face like his, parents like his, being fair to everyone was the only choice he had. But he didn’t feel inclined to tell her that. “That’s it?”

“It’s more than enough for me.”

Lee spread his hands out, engulfing his sad little empire. A worn-down, eighth-hand desk bought cheap and held together by sheer stubbornness. A grimy telephone that worked if the Buddha willed it. A ratty couch older than Lee and Ouyang combined. A small bin overflowing with trash, and filing cabinets filled only with air.

“A reputation is fine, but see how well that worked out for me. I don’t need any trouble. For the kind of work you need, you should hire someone more well-established.”

“Someone more well-established?”

“Someone who can afford the necessary bribes.”

She folded her arms, pouting. “I don’t see a need for bribes. Just warn off the stalker and make sure he doesn’t do anything.”

“Assuming he’s a stalker,” Lee said.

“What else do you call a man who keeps following me around?”

“As you said, he hasn’t actually contacted you. No letters, no face-to-face conversation, all he’s done is show up at your gigs. Maybe he’s just a dedicated fan.”

“He’s not!” she protested hotly. “I saw him trying to follow me home after I left the club! Once I had to lead him all the way to the police station before he left me alone! You’re telling me he’s not a stalker?”

You should have told me that earlier, Lee thought. Out loud, he said, “Fine. But what if he won’t be warned off? Only other thing I can do is to inform the police, and if you know my rep, you know why I’m not a cop any more.”

Ouyang calmed in an instant. The fire died, replaced by an icy mien.

“You don’t have to get the police involved.”

“You want me to do something else.”

“Exactly.” She dropped her voice an octave. “You have a reputation for doing the right thing. The hard thing.”

“You want me to kill him?”

Her eyes were soft chocolate floating in milk. “I didn’t say that. I just want you to do what you have to do. I’ll be very grateful.”

Lee sighed. People like her, the Beautiful People, never needed to get their hands dirty. They could always hire someone like him to do it. Without hands-on experience, they’d never know the real cost of what they were really asking.

But if a man wants to climb out of the gutter, he has to work.

How grateful?”

She looked him up and down, leaned back a bit. “One month’s pay, for one night’s work. Sounds fair, doesn’t it?”

“Very fair.”

She flashed a mouthful of perfect white teeth. “Thank you. And when this is over…maybe we could have a drink someday.”

“Maybe,” he allowed.

**

“She’s dynamite,” the detective said.

“She’s a paycheck I can’t turn down,” the private detective said.

Sergeant Wong Jie sighed, mopping at his brow. The slow rotating fan overhead did nothing to dispel the wet heat of the summer day. “You’ve never met a damsel you could ignore.”

Lee shrugged broadly. “You draw a salary. I don’t.”

“You’re a mercenary now? Don’t make me look too deeply into your bank account. Your otherone at the Bank of Yokohama.”

Lee reached into his breast pocket and tapped out a cigarette. From his pants pocket he drew a book of matches. Slowly, almost casually, he lit a match and touched it to the coffin nail. He inhaled deep, let the fire touch his lungs, and breathed out an ephemeral gray cloud.

“Good luck asking the Japanese to open up,” he said finally. “But we’re not here to talk about them.”

Three rapid bangs filtered in through the office window. Both men looked out. Only the tourists were running on the streets. The locals and long-time foreigners were walking nonchalantly. Wong sighed, returning to his chair.

“We are talking about the Japanese,” Wong said. “Miss Ouyang works at the Night Orchard nightclub. The Japanese run the joint.”

“That doesn’t mean anything. After the Chinese, the Japanese make up the largest percentage of the population.”

“Miss Ouyang is a high society girl. She’s been seen with businessmen, military officers, politicians, and lately the Commissioner. And a lot of Japanese.”

“Is she a spy?”

Wong sighed. “Won’t be the first time the Japanese used a pretty woman as a spy.”

Is she a spy?”

“I chase triads. Not spies.” He opened his desk drawer and brought a cigarette of his own to his lips. He lit it with a cheap metal lighter and took a couple of exploratory puffs. “Espionage is the business of Special Branch.”

“In other words, the British.”

“Yes.”

“What do they say about her?”

“They don’t talk to us. They are spycatchers. They see themselves a higher class of cop. Damn foreigners. Well. Not including you.”

Lee tapped out the cigarette butt into the mountain of ash that threatened to spill out of the detective’s ash tray. “Hey, I’m not my father, and he was all right.”

“But you took your mother’s name anyway.”

“Sergeant, this is Shanghai.”

“True enough.”

Both men smoked in companionable silence. Eventually, Lee said, “I’m going to go to her club tonight, see if her suitor will be there.”

“You’re playing with fire.” He chuckled. “But then, when has that ever stopped you?”

“Maybe it’s nothing. Just some crazy boy with half a brain. But if the Japanese are involved here…”

“It’s your problem. I’m just a humble policeman.”

Wong chuckled. So did Lee.

“I would be grateful if I had backup,” Lee said.

Wong chewed on the cigarette, scowling. He rolled the cigarette from the left side of his mouth to the right and back again. Lee just watched.

Finally, Wong sighed. “Aiyah. I don’t have anything better to do tonight anyway.”

“I need a gun, too.”

Now you’re pushing things.”

“Please? For old time’s sake?”

Wong guffawed, almost spitting out the cigarette.

“You’re a civilian. I can’t go handing out guns willy-nilly,” Wong said.

Lee revealed a smile of yellowed teeth. “Hey, I’m not a triad. You can trust me, right?”

Wong shook his head. “It’s not that I don’t trust you. I have to account for all the weapons here, and you don’t have a lot of friends in the police.”

“The stalker might have friends.”

“You don’t know that.” Wong extinguished his cigarette. “Look, what you did to Inspector Han—”

Former Inspector.”

“Former Inspector Han. Fine. That Japanese lapdog got what was coming to him. But the Japanese still have friends inside the Shanghai Municipal Police, and you didn’t give them any face. Just getting you into my office is difficult enough. Giving you a gun, now that’simpossible.”

Lee sighed. “Well, looks like I have to make do.”

“Hey, you were one of Assistant Commissioner Fairbairn’s best students.”

“He also didn’t like fighting with his bare hands.”

“Improvise. You always do.”

****

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For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

SteemPulp Open Call: SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE

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Saint Valentinus of Terni was a priest, a healer, and a hieromartyr. As a priest, Saint Valentine offered aid and succor to Christians in a time when persecution of Christians was a long-standing policy of the Roman Empire. As a healer, he restored vision to the blind daughter of Judge Asterius, who had held him under house arrest. When taken before the Prefect of Rome and Emperor Claudius II, he refused to recant his faith. He was tortured, beaten with clubs, and on 14 February 269, executed by decapitation. That day became the Feast of Saint Valentine.

Today, we call it Valentine’s Day.

In honour of Saint Valentine, the SteemPulp community cordially invites all Steemit fiction writers to participate in our first open call: SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE.

Give us pulpy tales of love or chivalry. Preferably love and chivalry. Give us romantic love and chivalric romance. Gallant knights and fair princesses, fantastic magic and strange technologies, gentle healers and steadfast clerics, cruel emperors and fearsome beasts, unwavering faith and unbreakable honour. No genre restrictions but one: the story must fit the pulp aesthetic.

SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE is a Steemit-exclusive event. It begins on 14 February at midnight in your local time zone. To participate, publish your story on 14 February and use the tags ‘swordsofstvalentine’ and ‘steempulp’. Your story may be written as a single post or as a serial. If you choose to write a serial, post each part regularly, and complete your story by 2359 hours on 28 February in your local time zone. We have no minimum word count requirement, but a hard limit of 15,000 words. At the end of the event, we will compile the best stories for an anthology, to be published under the auspices of the PulpRev movement.

There is no submissions process. We will have an invitation process. During the first fortnight of March, the SteemPulp Council will review all Steemit stories tagged ‘swordsofstvalentine’ and invite the authors of the best stories to participate in the anthology. We will use a two-part selection criteria: fit to theme and aesthetic, and number of upvotes.

Writers who use sock puppet accounts to upvote their own stories will be automatically disqualified. Writers who pay bots for resteems and upvotes will also be disqualified. We have a zero tolerance policy against anyone trying to game the system. However, writers may use Steemit’s native paid promotion function without penalty. In addition, writers who are discovered by content curators will receive extra credit. Total payouts are not part of the selection criteria: an upvote from a whale shall have the same weight as an upvote from a minnow.

The current SteemPulp Council is composed of individuals committed to participating in SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE. They are @everhart@noughtshayde@t2tang@jimfear138@notjohndaker and @jd-alden, all of whom have pledged to publish and complete a story each during the event. Naturally, as Herald of the Pulp Revolution and Revival, and Warboss of SteemPulp, I am also part of the Council. The Chief Editor of the anthology will be Jesse Abraham Lucas, the driving force behind the PulpRev Sampler.

Being part of the Council does not guarantee publication in the anthology. Even myself. The number of upvotes are permanently visible on the blockchain. While the Council will handle slush reading and selections, the Chief Editor shall make the final decision on the total number of stories to appear in the anthology, which stories to publish, and which to pass on.

Anthology publication terms will be discussed with invited authors separately. But if you choose to participate in this event, you shall receive compensation primarily through payouts on Steemit.

To recap, here are the official requirements for SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE:

Theme: Love or chivalry, preferably both. Must fit the pulp aesthetic.
Word count: Hard limit of 15,000 words.
Event opening date: 14 February 2018. Publish your story, or the first part of a serialised story, on this date.
Event completion date: 28 February 2018. Serialised stories must be completed by then.
Selection criteria: Fit to theme and aesthetic; and number of upvotes.
Disqualification criteria: Use of paid upvoting and resteem bot services, and use of sock puppets. Use of Steemit’s native promotion service is allowed.
Extra credit: Discovery by content creators.
Compensation: Payouts on Steemit

Good luck and PULP SPEED!

Cheah Git San Red

Cover image credit: Saint Valentine on stained glass, royalty-free stock photo on Dreamstime.

To get a taste of the kind of stories we’re looking for, check out our PulpRev Sampler here.

What Do Otaku Readers Really Want?

The Japanese publishing industry is getting predictable. Every other week, there’s a brand new series starring a Japanese high schooler who is mysteriously transported to a fantasy world. There he promptly gains overwhelming powers, the antagonism of the local Demon King, and the affections of a harem of cute, buxom, mature, demihuman and underage girls. Harem hijinks, massive explosions, and indecisive fumbling and awkward stuttering follows. And along with these come the inevitable light novel/manga/anime/movie/game/mobile adaptations.

Exaggeration? Probably, but not by much. As JD Cowan notes in two separate blog posts, pandering to otaku makes easy money. While he was writing about the context of anime, the Japanese publishing and anime industries tend to be tightly integrated. If a manga or light novel becomes a bestseller, an anime adapation will follow, and vice versa.

In July 2016 I saw this phenomenon first hand in Sapporo. Strolling into a Kinokuniya, I took this photograph:

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A glance at the covers will tell you what the contents of many of these stories are about. Having read several of these manga, I can confirm that the covers are faithful representations of the contents. The deliberate positioning of these books at eye height, where customers can easily spot them, likewise indicate what the bookstore thinks will sell best.

That said, while it’s easy to dismiss all modern manga, anime and light novels as fanservice, a closer inspection will reveal more interesting tidbits. Among the titles I found were Nejimaki Seirei Senki – Tenkyou no Alderamin (Alderamin in the Sky), a military fantasy series; Fate/Strange Fake, a spin-off of a popular urban fantasy franchise; Ri:Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu (Re:Zero − Starting Life in Another World), a isekai fantasy story with death-triggered time travel as its main gimmick; All You Need is Kill, a military science fiction time travel story; and Golden Kamuy, a historical action thriller. None of these titles are fanservice titles, and yet they take pride of place in bookshelves.

These are also the kind of stories that will be exported overseas.

Three Markets, Three Tastes?

Otaku pandering may be a surefire formula for financial success in Japan. But in places without a significant otaku population (i.e. the rest of the world), works that rely on fanservice and otaku in-jokes aren’t going to survive. The more risque ones might even be banned outright, formally or otherwise.

Companies that specialise in importing, translating and distributing Japanese media need to select works that they believe will appeal to their audiences. Bookstores, in turn, have to make careful stocking selections to ensure maximum returns. As bookstores shutter their doors and online marketplaces expand, stocking the right kind of books spell the difference between profit and closure for brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Looking at translated media gives a good gauge of what distributors and bookstores believe to be the tastes of the local audience. It may not necessarily be totally representative of what the audience is looking for, but it provides insights into the state of the industry and the tastes of the market. With this in mind, I visited the Kinokuniya bookstore at Orchard Road on the 29th of December.

My first stop was the manga section, with some of its offerings photographed below.

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These manga are shounen titles, aimed at males between the ages of 12 to 18. These are wildly-popular series: Attack on TitanYour Lie in AprilOne-Punch Man. Other titles on offer include Blue ExorcistFairy Tale and Servant x Service. You might also find the odd seinen manga, which are works for males between 18 to 35, such as Ghost in the ShellVagabond and, if you are incredibly lucky, Berserk.

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Fanservice is not in demand in Singapore’s bookstores. And the titles I’ve discovered are all hits in Japan–and in the West. This indicates that there is an aesthetic that transcends geographical and cultural borders. Not to mention media genres.

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For a most mysterious reason, English-language light novels are shelved under ‘Comics Literature’. Even franchises that began as light novels (Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in A Dungeon?) or web novels (The Rising of the Shield Hero). Naming peculiarities aside, a quick glance at the shelves speaks volumes about local tastes.

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Once again, these titles are hits in Japan and the West, and most are not fanservice-heavy titles. The majority of them are shounen titles too. Indeed, I counted only three explicit seinen titles tucked away: OverlordRe:Zero and the infamous Goblin Slayer.

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As you can see, the books are practically skeletal by Western standards. For instance, every chapter in Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in A Dungeon? tends to run to about 20-25 pages, with plenty of white space, one-liners or three to four-line paragraphs, and minimal descriptions. This allows the bookstore to stock multiple copies of the same book, and indeed keep the entire series in inventory, without sacrificing much shelf space. It also allows the reader to quickly breeze through the book — and drives demand for the sequel.

The English-speaking demographic of Singapore seems to favour shounen titles filled with action, fantasy, adventure and a dash of harem hijinks. Seinen stories are a tough sell.

Wandering over to the Chinese section, I noticed straightaway that the Chinese naming conventions tend to be in line with Japanese ones. Light novels are indeed called light novels, and manga is translated as manhua. Unlike the English section, there is also a shelf reserved exclusively to web novels.

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The Chinese manhua shelf shows a surprising diversity of works — not the least because the Chinese language section has more shelf space for Japanese imports. There are oldies but goodies like Slam Dunk and Ranma 1/2, contemporary sci fi like Space Brothers, and the odd seinen title like Billy Bat. There are likely a number of original Chinese manhua mixed in the shelves too, but I’m not familiar enough with manhua to make a definitive pronouncement. And smack-dab in the middle is Cardcaptor Sakura. There doesn’t seem to be a preference for genre, demographic or publishing date — just a preference for proven bestsellers. The one thing we can say that the Chinese market probably loves is Gundam.

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The light novels section likewise follow a similar trend. With more shelving space comes an increased variety of selections. We have Chinese-translated versions of Japanese favourites like Your NameFireworks, Should We See it From the Side or Bottom?, and The Irregular at Magic High School. There are seinen titles like OverlordUntil Death Do Them Part and Re:Zero, and fanservice books like Ero-Manga Sensei and Only Sense Online. I also found classics like The Kindaichi Case Files and more obscure titles such as Alice Mare.

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There’s at least four times the shelf space dedicated to Chinese light novels than their English counterparts. This is possibly indicative of increased demand for light novels among Chinese readers than English readers. Further, many Chinese language novels are published in the same short and thin style as Japanese light novels. The familiar formatting might make it easier for Japanese light novels to break into the Chinese market.

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The web novels section stands apart from the others. Virtually all the titles on sale are Chinese-language original works. With the odd doorstopper, many print web novels tend to either be as long as their light novel counterparts or perhaps a fraction longer. Chinese language web novels are also markedly similar to their Japanese counterparts, with brief, breezy writing, volume-spanning story arcs, and hundreds, if not thousands, of chapters.

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Lessons for SteemPulp

While the PulpRev community aspires to study from the old pulp grandmasters, I think there is much to be learned from modern writing as well. Steemit is a superb platform for publishing light novels and web novels in the style of the Japanese and Chinese traditions. For aspiring web novellists, I have the following observations:

Shounen is King

The number of shounen works vastly outnumber those of seinen stories. This shouldn’t be surprising, since there are far more shounen stories out there. But there is also a distinct lackof shoujo and josei stories too — stories targeted at girls and women. You’ll have to work to find the latter two genres.

Before the inevitable cries of sexism, I should point out that the shelves I’ve photographed comprised a tiny fraction of the total shelf space available in Kinokuniya. With so little space to work with, the bookstore needs to prioritise titles that will turn a profit. They will select for titles with universal appeal, which seems to be shounen works. For non-shounen stories to break out into the market, they’ll have to find a way to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Different Demographics, Universal Tastes

The English-speaking market seems to prefer modern works, while the Chinese market has a mix of modern and classic works. This could simply be due to the limited shelf space available for English-language books — and perhaps an indication that Chinese translation may not be a commercial priority beyond well-known bestsellers.

With that said, the length and size of the print stories are telling. Light novels and web novels all tend to be just the right size to hold in one hand. The same size as old pulp novels. However, the presence of thicker Chinese-language web novels suggests that a Chinese audience is also receptive to longer works.

It appears that there is a universal preference for short novels, short chapters, and tight stories. In other word: pulp stories.

Seek the Universals

There are themes, aesthetics and archetypes that transcend geographical, cultural and linguistic borders. Stories of high action and adventure, cool magic and advanced technology, compelling characters and intense drama will always gain traction no matter which language they are presented in. Tight, trim novels are appreciated no matter where you go. Stories that stand the test of time will always have willing readers.

If SteemPulp is to take off, they must write their stories to fit market preferances. If PulpRev, Superversive, Noblebright and other affiliated movements are to make fiction great again, they must tap into the power of the universals.

And fanservice is, most assuredly, not among them.

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My Dragon-nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons is assuredly light on fanservice and heavy on action, tradecraft, and character drama. Check it out here.

Front Sight

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There are three of them. Brown cardboard targets, man size. There’s a fourth figure, slightly shorter, in front of and between the second and the third targets.

His mind tells him a different story. The targets are Thugs One, Two and Three, black-masked and leather jacketed, screaming obscenities and waving guns. The last one is Jane. Sweet Jane with straight dark hair and heartbreak blue eyes.

“Stand by, stand by!”

His heart jacks up, pumping adrenaline through his veins. He’s done this before. He can do it again. When the buzzer sounds he’s springs into a run.

He’s got the art of the draw down pat. Left hand clears his shirt. Right hand grasps the pistol butt. He draws the weapon and brings both hands together, thumbs high and tight against the slide, just as he arrives at the barricade. The first target.

He leans out left and punches out the pistol. His vision narrows down into the crisp green circle that is his front sight, superimposed over center mass. He presses the trigger, feels it break. The Glock bucks in his hand and he releases the trigger, just enough to feel it reset. He fires again. Raises the weapon, sees Thug One screaming, charging at him and he puts a bullet through the yawning mouth.

He runs to the other side of the wooden wall. Brings his gun up again. His eyes find the front sight, and he sends two 115-grainers into the target’s chest. But handguns are anemic killers and Thug Two is still standing. He drives the gun up and hallelujah the front sight is right between his eyes and he presses the trigger.

He confronts Thug Three. Jane, too innocent for her own good, is right in front of Thug Three. No center mass shot. But he’s in pure predator mode and like the big cats of the savannah of his distant ancestors he goes for the throat and fires a double tap. Just in case, he aims a little finer and puts another nine mil into the brain housing group.

He lowers the smoking gun, scanning for more threats. It’s strictly pro forma. They are all dead. And Jane, she’s still standing and the bullets haven’t touched her.

Thank God.

The buzzer sounds. His partner calls the time. But it’s too slow.

He runs the drill again. Again. Again. Shaves off a quarter of a second here, a tenth there, once he takes off a whole second. But it’s still too slow.

Later that night he dreams again. Thugs One, Two and Three are bleeding out on the floor. But Jane, oh God Jane, she’s cradled in his arms, baptizing him in her blood, her liver weeping from the bullet Thug Two put in her back, her neck gushing from the one he’d fired, whispering, It’s okay Daddy, it’s okay.

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For more long form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

Unreview: The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang

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When I first heard of The Tensorate Series, alarm bells rang in my head. The core concepts sound cool: A crypto-Asian continent-spanning nation fracturing at the seams, exotic monsters roaming the wilds of a strange world, Tensors who use magic based on the classic Chinese elements and the Force, a pair of children who will shape the destiny of the nation. And the writer is Singaporean. Then I saw the publisher.

Tor.

For the uninitiated, Tor allegedly publishes science fiction and fantasy, but its offerings are mired in social justice messaging. At best, its works are merely uninspired hack jobs — think everything by John Scalzi, which is essentially rehashed fan fiction of more popular franchises. At its worst, we have The Tensorate Series.

The Tensorate Series is composed of two novellas, The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune. Having picked up the latter first, I’ll break it down in this post — and if I find a copy of the former, I’ll post another unreview. The Red Threads of Fortune can be summed up in one word.

Unreadable.

Two Broken Women and a Monster

The first chapter opens with protagonist Sanao Mokoya staring at the remains of her voice transmitter (not-radio), trying and failing to repair the damage with magic. The remains of the voice transmitter she just broke.

When she is alone.

In a desert.

Hunting a naga.

Mokoya is too dumb to live. She destroyed a vital piece of equipment in the middle of a mission to locate the nest of an allegedly dangerous monster. She even acknowledges that it was a mistake. And why did she break the transmitter? In her words:

Could she admit she had been startled by Adi’s voice coming out of nowhere and had lashed out like a frightened animal?

Here I see an impetuous, self-destructive idiot on a hair trigger without the emotional self-control to reign in her temper and exercise the discipline necessary for a solo mission. This isn’t the kind of character who will survive an action-heavy story, much less a character with whom I can identify.

But that’s not all: Adi, her boss, is also an idiot.

Why was Mokoya alone? She even acknowledges that ‘scouting alone was a mistake’. Yet she went and convinced Adi, the leader of her crew, to let her go alone, because…reasons.

Mokoya justified her decision to go alone by saying, ‘I trained as a pugilist in the Grand Monastery. I can handle a naga, no matter how big. I’m the only one on this crew who can.’

Later on, it is revealed that ‘Naga hunting was a specialty of Adi’s crew’.

Mokoya is the only person on the crew who can handle a naga, but the crew specialises in hunting naga? That makes no sense. A crew that specialises in hunting naga will have every combatant skilled in the art of handling naga. A naga-hunting crew reliant on a sole naga wrangler will be forced to close down when the specialist goes down. Or perhaps Mokoya simply meant that she was the only one in the crew who can handle a naga of any size.

Either Adi is an idiot who placed the livelihoods of the crew in Mokoya’s hands, or Mokoya can’t communicate properly. I’m betting the former, because Adi allowed Mokoya to go gallivanting in the desert to hunt a monster with nothing but a voice transmitter and a pack of raptors.

It’s implied that Adi sees this as a favor, to be collected upon later, but if you’re hunting a super-predator (or any kind of hostile creature), a solo mission is the height of lunacy. The buddy rule exists to ensure complete situational awareness (a point unknowingly reinforced later). Further, Mokoya is a Tensor, the equivalent of a magician, and a skilled martial artist; if she dies in the desert, the crew would lose a valuable asset, and a competent boss would do everything to prevent that.

Only, it doesn’t matter in this case, for the naga is a veritable idiot.

Mokoya spends most of the chapter woolgathering, spending the time dumping information on the reader. Then the naga appears, swooping down from behind her, so close the wind of its passage startled her raptor and threw her off her mount–

–and flies down into a nearby canyon to roost in its nest.

Up to this point, a naga is treated in-universe as an terrible monster, so dangerous that a single naga can destroy villages and rip up the countryside. Mokoya suspects that this particular naga was unnaturally modified. And Mokoya and her raptors was in the middle of open desert, with neither cover nor concealment, easily visible to anyone from the air.

So why did the naga ignore her?

Yang chose to allow Mokoya to survive the encounter by having the naga ignore her. This defangs the naga and undercuts the reader’s expectation of a deadly predator. There is no sense of threat from the creature, and with it Mokoya’s mission lacks urgency and peril.

Thus, the first chapter is about an idiot working for an idiot to hunt an idiot.

Language and Its Discontents

After breaking her not-radio, Mokoya shouts the word ‘Cheebye‘ over and over again. It is a derogatory term for the female sexual organ, usually appended by ‘chao‘ (‘smelly’), and highly favored by Singaporean men.

It is also a Hokkien word. A dialect hitherto unseen up to this point.

Adi also uses the same profanity a lot. In fact, she doesn’t even speak the same language as Mokoya. Here are some quotes:

“Ha nah ha nah, you go lah, not my pasal whether you die or not.”
“Mokoya! Kanina–is that you or a ghost?”
“Eh, hello, I let you go by yourself doesn’t mean you can ignore me, okay?”

Adi speaks Singlish. A language that shouldn’t exist in this world.

Singlish is a modern tongue that arose from peculiar and specific circumstances. When the British arrived in Singapore in 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles found an island dominated by Malays with a small Chinese minority. After establishing a colony here, the British used English as the language of administration, and imported huge numbers of labourers from China and India. So many Chinese settled in Singapore that they outnumbered the indigenous Malays and became the new majority. English bridged the four peoples, but these cultures quickly left their mark.

Singlish is built on British English but obeys Chinese grammatical rules, and indeed it reads as a near-literal translation of spoken Chinese. Its pronunciation is based on Chinese, Hokkien and Malay. Singlish also borrows heavily from Singapore’s four major languages, including Hokkien (hence cheebye and kanina) and Malay (pasal, which might also be a Tagalog or Indonesian word).

Singlish is a creole that could only be born under unique circumstances. Circumstances like a major trade city in a Malay-majority region with an English-speaking coloniser so powerful that it could bring in subjects from faraway lands.

As far as I can tell, there is no equivalent city in the world of the Tensorate. The main characters of the Tensorate series sport quasi-East Asian names. Not Chinese, closer to Japanese. During a mental soliloquy (read: infodump) in the middle of the chapter, there are allusions to a Chinese-speaking society, a Mongolian-esque nation and an Indian analog. All of them are widely separated by thousands of li, and there is no mention of any special place where peoples of all nations live and congregate.

In other words, the worldbuilding doesn’t support the existence of Singlish.

But even if it does, the jarring use of Hokkien and Singlish points to a deeper issue with the story: its refusal of the mythic.

The planet of the Tensorate series is a strange world. It has low-gravity areas where monsters breed and roam. Suns cross the sky six times a day. The Slack underpins all creation, granting untold power to the gifted few who can touch it. It is a world that exists only in fantasies.

Mythic language reinforces the element of the fantastic. Unusual vocabulary and measured cadence draws in the reader, sucking him into the world and keeping him there, reminding him always that this is not our world. Mythic language paints the fictitious world in vivid colours, prickles the senses, and teases the reader with possibilities of what could be and what might have been.

When Aragon addresses the men of the West, he addresses their fears and encourages them to push on, he acknowledges great evil and ignites the spark of defiance, he speaks to their shared identity and history as Men of the West and inspires them to victory and glory. When Palpatine lies to the Galactic Senate, he presents the image of the eternal tyrant taking the reigns of power. These speeches point to mythic archetypes long buried in the human consciousness, roused to roaring life, transporting the audience deeper into the world of the story.

When Adi speaks, I am transported to my living room.

The world of the Tensorate is not Singapore. There is no reason characters should speak Singlish or any kind of mundane English. The use of everyday English in a fantastic setting tears the reader away from the book and the characters. It makes the characters feel as though they were abducted from our world instead of fully-fleshed inhabitants of theirs.

Consider Mokoya. She was raised and trained by warrior monks as a pugilist, she has the power of prophecy, and she can manipulate the elements. But, as the quotes above show, she speaks exactly like a Singaporean Chinese woman lifted from the streets of modern-day Singapore. Her cadence is Singaporean, her word choices are Singaporean, even her profanity is Singaporean. In her voice I hear an echo of modern Singapore, not the echo of a religious, martial and magical upbringing in an exotic land.

The few concessions to the exotic are laughable. A radio is called a ‘voice transmitter’ — never mind that it can receive voices as well. The naga of this universe seem like Western dragons with wings that don’t breathe fire — not the half-human half-snake water-dwelling creatures from Asian myth. The one unusual word that stood out was the word ‘gravesent’, used as a pejorative. That it stands out at all points to the distinct lack of the mythic.

The language of a fantasy story should ground the reader in a sense of place. The language of this story tears me out of it.

Place Without A Place

I’ve read the first chapter a half-dozen times. I can’t tell if Mokoya were traversing a desert, flying through a fogbank, or wading through a wasteland of pink slime.

There is no sense of place here. Words like ‘desert’ and ‘bluff’ and ‘cliff’ and ‘mountain’ appear, but there is no veracity to these words, no sense of scale or context. They are just there, as though they came into being only when Mokoya observed them.

The closest the reader has to a sense of place is an infodump in the middle of the chapter as Mokoya works out a puzzle. Mokoya thinks of nearby nations and peoples and cultures as she ponders the naga’s behaviour. That infodump is both boring and irrelevant at that point in the story. But it does show Mokoya woolgathering in the middle of a solo hunt for a dangerous monster — but that’s all right, because the naga ignored her, because reasons.

I don’t see a sense of place here. Only a sense that the writer’s craft is sorely lacking.

Everything Has Consequences

The chapter began with a Strong Female Character who places herself in mortal peril twice. It ends with the naga ignoring her, and with her using a different gadget to talk to Adi.

This chapter has no sense of consequences. Mokoya breaks her not-radio when she is hunting solo in the desert, but that’s okay because she can use another kind of not-radio with her magic, which she had conveniently brought with her and forgotten about until the end of the chapter. Mokoya goes on a dangerous quest solo, but that’s okay because she knows what she is doing. Only, she shows that she doesn’t know what she is doing by daydreaming in the middle of a hunt, but that’s okay because the naga pays even less attention to its surroundings than she does.

If the effects of Mokoya’s actions can be undone by the end of the chapter, if nothing she does has any grave consequences, then why does the chapter even exist? Far better to have Mokoya regret her stupidity by being forced to flee from a raging naga that she failed to detect, or better yet, open the story with Mokoya and the rest of the crew taking down the naga and discovering something unusual about it.

The chapter is just barely-disguised exposition. It exists to introduce the obligatory Strong But Flawed Female Character, the Overbearing Boss who is differentiated through her unique speech patterns, how the magic works, hint at the Machinists and some ominous enemy faction, some nearby nations, a dangerous monster and Mokoya’s mission. It doesn’t advance the story one bit. If this chapter were cut, the story loses nothing.

I couldn’t get past the first chapter of the story. It demonstrates poor writing craft and even poorer publishing strategy. I have no doubt that Tor chose to publish this story primarily because it features a Strong Female Character written by a genderqueer Person of Color from an exotic but modern country. Not because it tells a compelling story.

Social justice and bad writing has consequences. I refuse to read the rest of the story, and urge you to ignore it.

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Unlike The Red Threads of Fortune, my novel No Gods, Only Daimons features a female main character who overcomes her enemies through skill, cunning, wits and sheer ruthlessness. You can pick up the book on Amazon.

The Year of PulpRev

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In the dankest corners of the Internet, on message boards and Discord servers, on digital and legacy media platforms, in books and films and television and games, there is a war. A war not against flesh and blood, but against the gatekeepers, against the degenerates, against the secret kings of the cultural spheres, against corruption in the souls of every man, woman and child. It is a war for the future of our culture.

The entertainment industry is no longerin the business of entertainment. Marvel marvels in transforming marvelous superheros with decades-long careers of heroism into hollow husks spewing social justice diatribes at the expense of fiction. Hollywood reboots and remakes beloved franchises into thinly-veiled propaganda pieces: Star Wars, Iron Fist, Beauty and the Beast, Ghostbusters, and there is no sign of stopping. In the field of science fiction and fantasy, publishers and writers crow about #Resistance, #MeToo, feminism, social justice, gender equality and LGBTQ advocacy; and create ‘fiction’ for the sole purpose of ramming social justice messages down the readers’ throats. Cultural expression is reduced to a race to see how many -isms can be crammed into a single work.

And when faced with true monsters like Marion Zimmer Bradley, Walter Breen, Ed Kramer, Victor Salva and others, the gatekeepers remain silent.

Enough is enough.

For decades the Far Left has dominated the SFF field. In that time they built an empire of filth. Subversiveness, deconstruction, transgressiveness, antitheism, moral ambiguity, antiheroism, gratuitous violence and sex, social justice, diversity and progressivism aren’t simply themes to be explored, but ideas to be propagated to readers. After so many years of subversion, there is precious little left to subvert.

Thus, Samuel R Delaney, the man who wrote a book dripping with fictitious child rape, is celebrated as a science fiction grandmaster, while investigative reporting into actual child rape is derided and glossed over. Thus, the Hugo Awards, once a mark of the best SFF of the year, is now a marker of the most far-left SFF of the year among increasingly insular circles, and soon it will be replaced by the Dragon Awards and other awards. Thus, the hounding of YA authors for wrongthink, the censorship of SFF authors for offending sensibilities, the whisper campaign against minority authors who refuse to toe the party line, the naked discrimination against writers who do not adhere to the Narrative.

Consumers are voting with their wallets. Viewers roundly criticised the Ghostbusters reboot. Earnings for The Last Jedi saw an unprecedented decline of 69% from its opening weekend. Marvel and DC have seen massive drops in sales, and Marvel has been forced to cut its non-performing comics issues. Not coincidentally, those dropped comics are all about social justice, diversity and the usual buzzwords.

Customers do not want diversity, social justice and other -ists and -isms shoved down their throats. They want to be entertained. They don’t want stories about cat pictures, fat acceptance, the supremacy of the matriarchy, or the inevitable triumph of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They want good stories, stories with exciting action, masterful descriptions, and larger-than-life characters. They want stories that resonate with their souls.

The SJWs have built an empire of nothing, and it is crumbling to ashes. With each passing day they lie, they double down and they project. They refuse to accept that the market doesn’t want their drek, and instead insist on producing even more drek to edify the Unholy Trinity of diversity, feminism and social justice. In so doing, they are hastening their demise–and paving the way for we who would replace them.

It is time for a revolution. A Pulp Revolution.

The souls of readers cry out for goodness, and we deliver. Tales of action and adventure and awe and wonder. Fantastic worlds, amazing technology, stupendous magic, eldritch horrors, dastardly villains, heroes, knights, kings and queens. Masculine men in perfect synergy with feminine women. Transcendent gods and malicious devils. Virtue, courage, heroism, sacrifice, duty, nobility, honour. These are the stories we have spent our professional lives studying, advocating, and writing. We are ready to meet the call of the market.

As Herald of the PulpRev and Warboss of Steempulp, I declare 2018 to be the Year of PulpRev. The goal is absolute domination of Steemit’s fiction community. Steemit is virgin ground, filled with potential, and ripe for the taking. Through Steemit, we shall show the world the grandeur that is the Revolution and the Revival. We shall establish the golden standard for online fiction.

Our methods are simple. We shall study the craft of the pulp grandmasters and contemporary bestsellers to sharpen our own. We shall study the business models of indie writers, small publishers, Japanese light novels and Chinese web novels to lay the foundations for our success. Most of all, we shall employ our secret weapon: PULP SPEED.

We stand at a turning point in history. Markets demand what we offer. Technology gives us a means of censorship-proof publishing and an easy way to get paid. All that is left is for us to seize the opportunity and build the culture of tomorrow.

High energy. Regress harder. Pulp speed. These shall be our watchwords and our arsenal. Through 2018 and beyond, we shall sweep away the Empire of Nothing and build upon its ashes our Dominion of Pulp.

In 2018, we shall make fiction great again.

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Cover image: ‘David slaying Goliath. Line engraving by M. Vandercuicat after G. Freman’ by G. Freman. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0.

If you want a taste of the kind of stories we offer, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS and my novella INVINCIBLE.