“Hello, Mr Lee,” Tang said.
“Hello, Mr Tang,” Lee said. “I see you’ve made yourself comfortable.”
“I make my home everywhere I go.”
“Of course. I’d offer you a drink, but I’m fresh out.”
“That’s fine. I helped myself to your tea earlier.”
Lee closed and locked the door behind him, keeping his back to a wall and an eye on Tang.
“There’s no need to be so cautious,” Tang said. “There’s no one else here with us.”
“I’m sure you won’t mind if I look around.”
“Be my guest.”
Tang ostentatiously removed a folding fan from a pocket, popped it open, and fanned himself. Lee slipped off his shoes and scoured his apartment, checking every closet, every room, every drawer, looking for signs of intrusion, theft, or explosives.
There were none. It was just Lee and Tang in this dingy, sweltering apartment.
Returning to the living room, Lee fished out a fresh pack of Double Happiness cigarettes, tapped out one out, calmly brought it to his lips, and lit it with a matchstick.
“May I have one?” Tang asked.
“That was my last one,” Lee said.
“That’s all right. I have my own.”
With slow, deliberate movements, Tang put his fan away, produced a packet of Pall Malls and an engraved silver lighter.
“Fancy,” Lee remarked.
“Thank you,” Tang said. “These are imported from Britain.”
The men smoked in silence for a minute, Tang elegantly holding his coffin nail between the index and middle fingers of his left hand, Lee pinching his between his thumb and index finger.
“It’s been a while since we last met,” Lee said, finally.
“Yes,” Tang replied. “I must admit, I can’t recall the last time someone visited me in the middle of a breakfast meeting.”
“Nor can I recall the last time a visitor let himself in when I wasn’t around.”
Tang smiled. “This is the one place I was sure to find you.”
“It sounds like you have business with me.”
“Indeed.” Tang took a short puff. “This morning, your name came across my desk.”
Tang nodded slowly. “There was a shooting in the Bund last night.”
“A completely unremarkable affair in Shanghai.”
“Indeed, but this one was different. Four criminals attempted to ambush a pair of police detectives, but the detectives killed them all. Of course, the policemen had assistance from a certain Tomas Lee Yong Ji.”
Lee shrugged. “I was nearby.”
Tang smirked. “I’m sure you were. But what interests me most is what the police detectives were doing before the gunfight.”
Lee took a long drag on his cigarette, tilted his head back and extravagantly blew a thick stream of smoke.
“I heard the detectives were attempting to arrest someone named Mr Shen Jianhao,” Tang continued. “Your presence was not coincidental.”
“I was enjoying a drink with a new friend,” Lee said, grinning.
“Of course you were,” Tang said, matching Lee’s smile. “Your new friend just happened to be a police detective on a stakeout.”
“Stranger things have happened.”
Once more, the men smoked in silence. The summer heat stole the moisture from Lee’s mouth, but he didn’t dare get up and get a drink. All he could do was sit and smoke and stare down the triad boss. Tang savoured a puff in complete silence, a second puff, and spoke again.
“I heard the police have requested your assistance.”
“That’s what they always say during a criminal investigation,” Lee replied.
“Indeed, but I don’t mean the shooting. I mean the operation to arrest Mr Shen.”
“I don’t know anything about this Shen fellow.”
“No? Well, of course not, you’re not a part of our world.”
“I take it this Shen person is important to you?”
“Last week, the Japanese dogs began large-scale ‘military exercises’ in Manchuria. Rapid manoeuvres, urban warfare, things like that.”
“They seem to be holding exercises often, don’t they?” Lee asked.
“Indeed. Coincidentally, a few ‘wealthy businessmen’ are quietly putting out requests for information on key officials. Officials like the mayor, the Commissioner of Police, the ones who run the Shanghai International Settlement.”
“Those businessmen happen to be Japanese.”
“Not just Japanese. German and Russian too.”
“These businessmen are willing to pay handsomely for this information, I presume?”
“Many nations are interested in Shanghai, aren’t they?”
“Not just Shanghai. The European powers are agitated. Two years ago the Italians invaded Ethiopia, and despite their claims they’re still fighting there. Spain is in the grip of civil war, and the Soviets, Germans, Italians and Portuguese are getting involved. On this side of the world, the Japanese and the Soviets have clashed at least four times at the Soviet-Manchukuo border.”
“Nothing to do with Shanghai.”
Tang shook his head. “The scent of blood is in the air, and the Japanese dogs have never disguised their designs on China. I have no doubt that the Japanese will invade China within our lifetimes. It may even come sooner than expected.”
“I’m sure a businessman like you has made preparations for that possibility.”
“Correct. As part of my preparations, I require many special materials. Mr Shen is one of my principal suppliers.”
“The increased police attention on Mr Shen must be troubling.”
“Absolutely. I don’t care to have foreigners dictating our way of life and trampling all over our home, especially not the Japanese. Mr Shen is one of the few men willing to help me with this problem.”
“Your patriotism is admirable.”
“I am, above all, a son of China.” Tang tapped out his cigarette on Lee’s overflowing ashtray. “I am also in a position to assist other sons of China should they assist me.”
“Is that so? What kind of assistance do you have in mind?”
Tang fixed Lee with a cold stare.
“I would be grateful if you could keep me abreast of Detective Wong’s investigations, and ensure Mr Shen remains free to continue his work.”
“And what if I don’t?”
Tang sucked in a deep hit of tobacco and slowly exhaled it.
“We have known each other for years, haven’t we?”
“Life is fleeting and ever-changing, and in uncertain times like this a man needs many friends. Yet, as you can imagine, I have a thousand things to concern myself with every day, and I must prioritise my time and energies. Should Mr Shen find himself on the wrong side of the law, I fear I may no longer be in a position to assist you.”
Tang was being unusually indirect today. Lee knew that if he were someone else, someone without connections to the last honest cops in Shanghai, this conversation would take on a completely different tone, and occur somewhere far less pleasant than a hot, stuffy apartment.
“That would certainly be a pity,” Lee said.
“On that, we are in agreement.” Tang stubbed out his cigarette. “I’m sure you’ll see things our way.”
“You sound confident.”
“You remember, of course, that we covered your medical expenses when you were shot, kept your involvement with the Shanghai Songbird secret, and delivered payment for services rendered. Aid us in this affair, and we will be equally generous, now and in the future.”
It wasn’t just a promise of reward. It was a reminder of unpaid debts. Without the triad’s help, Lee was certain the Japanese would have retaliated against him for slaying one of their deep-cover spies.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Lee said.
Tang extracted a business card from his pocket. “If you have news for me, you can leave a message at this number.”
Lee accepted it. “Thank you.”
Tang stood, making his way to the door. Lee opened it for him.
“It’s been a pleasure speaking with you,” Tang said, slipping on his shoes.
“Same here,” Lee replied.
“I would like to have tea with you again under more auspicious circumstances.”
“I look forward to that.”
Tang left the apartment, his shoes silent against the old wood. Lee shut the door, locked it, threw on the deadbolt, returned to the sofa and examined the business card.
It was a plain white card, bearing a Shanghai phone number written in black ink. That was all.
He lit another cigarette, watching the smoke drift lazily to the ceiling, and stayed that way for a long time.
If you’d like to support my long-form fiction, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.