By day Danan Street was a sleepy strip of road, home only to shophouses offering bargain-bin wares. But when night fell, as youths and families flocked to Danan Street, the city block transformed into the Danan Night Market.
Brightly-lit carts packed the streets, selling dumplings, omelets, sausages, rice cakes, spring rolls, and other snacks. The shophouses locked up their daytime inventory, exchanging them for cold soups, jellies, sit-down meals, clothing, gray market electronics, more. Anything and everything a man could ever want, he could find it in Danan Night Market.
The odor of fried oil assaulted Sun’s nose. After the sewers it was a heavenly fragrance. Merchants shouted the night’s promotions at the top of their voices, while customers yelled back their orders and counteroffers. A thousand lanterns and signs glared all around.
Bracing himself, Sun swam through the ocean of people before him, exploiting the tiniest gaps he could find. The Night Market was infamous for its pickpockets, but everything he needed he stored in his interspatial storage, and in the unlikely event a thief stole his utility band he would discover only Sun could activate it.
Sun was more concerned about an assassin. A hatchet man could sneak up on him and cut his throat before he could react. But he had no choice: Du Yang was present only at night.
Sun jostled and weaved and snaked his way through the crowd, sometimes stopping at a stall to inspect its wares, taking every chance he could to check his back.
Finally, he arrived at his destination: the Red Phoenix Total Health Club.
Signs outside shouted the club’s services. Meridian massages and acupuncture to revitalize yourself and clear qi blockages. Chiropractic services to realign your joints. Customized herbal supplement therapy to suit your health goals. And for cultivators, a tailored regimen of elixirs, potions, and treatments to maximize your potential.
Before Sun left the station, Luo had delivered a half-hour lecture on Du Yang. As far as the police knew, the Red Phoenix was completely legitimate. The owner even paid taxes. Which meant it was a front.
A pair of goons in cheap suits guarded the door. Both of them wore utility bands. They bowed as he approached, and as Sun passed through the door one of them whispered into his band.
Activating his spirit sense, Sun scanned the reception room. It was an oasis of calm. Patrons dressed in soft robes lounged in plush sofas, drinking herbal teas and reading magazines. Soft music piped in from overhead speakers. A pretty young woman circulated throughout the room, tending to the customer’s needs.
There was a reception desk to his left. At the far left corner, a staircase of fine black wood spiraled to the upper floor. Opposite the stairs, a middle-aged man stood behind a counter stocked with herbs and incense and tonics.
Everyone here looked like regular people, but their qi told a different story. Their auras glowed in vivid hues. An abundance of life energy washed over Sun. He sensed many similar auras in the upper floors. Many of these people weren’t cultivators, but they were all in the pink of health.
The woman manning the reception desk smiled at him.
“Welcome! Do you have an appointment?”
Sun produced his badge. “I wish to see Mr Du Yang. The owner of this fine establishment… and Red Pole of the Danan Street branch of the Yong Hai Clan.”
Her face grew pale.
“I… I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
The air shifted subtly. Someone had just stepped in behind Sun.
“Who’s that in the office on the fifth floor?”
“How did you—”
“I’m a Defender. And I need to see him. Now.”
“That’s enough,” a voice boomed to his right.
A heavy hand reached for Sun. He pivoted away, neatly dodging the grab.
The two guards from outside had stepped in. Both of them looked at Sun in surprise.
“Please don’t touch me,” Sun said mildly.
Heavy footsteps pounded down the stairs. Two more goons rushed towards Sun.
“Honored guest, I must ask you to leave,” the beefiest of the four said.
“I will, after I speak to your boss.”
“Come with us. You are leaving now.”
The four men closed on him.
“All of you are four-nines, yes?” Sun said. “If you touch me, I will personally haul you before the judge. Or the Ten Judges of the Underworld.”
“Do you know who you’re talking to?” the youngest of the Clan foot soldiers blustered.
“Small vegetables. If you don’t wish to be fried vegetables, take me to your Red Pole.”
“Da ge,” the receptionist interrupted. “Mr Du said he wants to see our guest.”
The heavyset one pursed his lips. “Defender, come with us. But don’t do anything stupid.”
Sun put his badge away. The gangsters boxed him in and escorted him upstairs.
The top floor was Du’s personal office. The floor was made of gleaming marble. Wall-length cabinets boasted trophies, medals, certificates, ceramic pottery, and books. Sofas and chairs surrounded a conference table in the middle of the room. A potted plant stood next to the window. Behind an imposing wooden work desk, dressed in a sharp gray suit and red tie, Du Yang awaited.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” Du said. “Please wait outside.”
“Don’t do anything stupid,” the beefy gangster growled.
The foot soldiers left the room, leaving the two men alone.
“Defender,” Du said. “We don’t normally entertain your kind here.”
“Even within the jianghu, there exist separate worlds.”
“Indeed.” Du gestured at a chair in front of him. “Please, sit. Would you like something to drink? We have an excellent selection of teas.”
Sun sat. “No thanks. I won’t take long.”
Du poured himself a cup of steaming tea from an expensive-looking pot and eased into his chair.
“What brings you here, Mr Sun?” Du asked.
“I don’t recall giving my name.”
Du smiled. “You didn’t.”
It was a power play. Sun ignored it.
“Mr Du, I heard three of your men were hospitalized. You have my sympathies.”
“It’s a rough business.”
“Indeed. But if you kidnap a Barrier Technician, many unpleasant things will happen.”
“Last night, a pair of cultivators kidnapped a Barrier Technician. I was in hot pursuit. Your men tried to stop me. Explain their actions.”
Du’s nostrils flared.
“You can’t just walk in here and accuse me of a crime I didn’t commit. Leave.”
“I didn’t accuse you of anything. I merely asked you to explain your men’s actions.”
“The sooner you tell me what you know, the sooner I’ll leave.”
“Come back with a warrant.”
“This is not an arrest. Just an interview.”
“This interview is over.”
“It’s over when I say it’s over.”
“I can have you removed.”
Sun laughed. “You don’t enough have men to touch me.”
“I could call the police.”
“Mr Du, I’m a Defender. Who do you think they’ll side with?”
“Weren’t you suspended?”
“I didn’t stop being a Defender.”
Du glared at Sun. “Your arrogance is unbelievable.”
He was losing his cool. Excellent.
“Thank you,” Sun said. “We don’t have to like each other, but we do have to coexist. As it happens, I’m not interested in your business. Only in the kidnappers.”
“I know nothing about the kidnappers.”
“Then why were your men watching the sewer tunnel?”
“I do not involve myself with the daily affairs of my employees.”
“Are your men idiots?”
“They were guarding a cache. In your line of work, you’d know that the best way to protect a cache is to not draw attention to it. But they stepped out and challenged me anyway. That meant they’re idiots, or someone ordered them to. And you don’t become this successful by hiring fools.”
“I have no knowledge of—”
“What are you afraid of?”
“Me? Afraid?” His face hardened. “You are treading on dangerous ground.”
“No. The Yong Hai Clan is on dangerous ground because of you.”
“Rogue cultivators kidnapped a Barrier Technician. That makes it the business of the Defenders’ Guild. Your men obstructed me while I was chasing the criminals, in a manner that suggested you ordered them to.”
“Listen. You may have plenty of experience dealing with the police, but the Defenders are not the police. We are not bound by their regulations. You are our only lead. If you won’t tell me what I want to know, I will personally burn down your domain.”
“Is that a threat?”
“No. Just a fact. I’m here as a courtesy. If we can’t reach an agreement, there will be bloodshed.”
“Not if I remove you first.”
“You are speaking to a Defender, Mr Du. Even if you succeed, you’d make an enemy of the entire Guild. Is it worth waging a war you can’t win for the sake of one girl?”
Sun cut him off.
“You’re obviously protecting someone. We both know you specialize in selling contraband through the Night Market. Not kidnapping. You’re not protecting the Yong Hai Clan. No secret society under heaven would be stupid enough to mess with the Defenders. That means you’re protecting someone outside your clan. Someone you’re deathly afraid of. Am I right?”
Du said nothing.
“That’s a yes, isn’t it?” Sun leaned forward. “I’m not interested in the business of your clan. Only in rescuing the girl. But if you stand in my way I will destroy you. Once again: is it worth going to war with us over an outsider who scares you?”
Du stayed silent for a while. Sun waited. Du sipped his tea. Sun waited. Du tapped his fingers against the desk. Sun waited.
“The Beast King Sect,” Du said, finally.
“Who are they?”
“The most fearsome killers you’ve never heard of.”
“Tell me more.”
“They are contract killers. High-level cultivators as powerful as Defenders. They can make deaths look like beast attacks. My men personally witnessed them taming and controlling beasts with special qi techniques.”
That explained the jiaolong in the sewer.
“What do they want with Barrier Technicians?”
“I don’t know. Last month, their representative approached our Dragon Head. They wanted to hire guides familiar with the sewer system, and guards who could run interference for them. The Dragon Head referred them to me.”
“What did they offer?”
“High-grade beast parts and rare medicinal ingredients.”
“Like the ones in the cache I found.”
“Did they tell you why they needed guides?”
“No. They made it clear I was not to probe into their affairs.”
“Why did you accept the deal?”
“Our Dragon Head wanted to be on their good side. We don’t need them giving preferential treatment to our rivals.”
“Where can I find the Beast Kings?”
“My contacts told me an unknown group bought and renovated the derelict Xin Hong Industrial Building in the Old District two months ago. My men said they picked up and dropped off the Beast Kings within three blocks of Xin Hong.”
Three blocks. If he had just left his post…
“How many Beast Kings are there?” Sun asked.
“I don’t know. But my men reported dealing with at least six separate individuals. And we have no knowledge of any beasts they may or may not have.”
“Do they have weapons?”
“They didn’t show any to us.”
Sun stood. “Thank you for the information.”
“This conversation never happened.”
Sun turned to go.
“Wait,” Du asked.
“What are you planning to do with the Beast Kings?”
“What happens within the jianghu stays in the jianghu.”
If you enjoy science fiction, fantasy or both, check out my supernatural military science fiction thriller HAMMER OF THE WITCHES, featuring magic, mayhem, martial arts, and a sinister conspiracy to enslave the world.