Since he’d last been in the city, reconstruction and urban development had overridden his memories. Now a citywide steam tram service plied the streets, alongside rickshaws and steam cars, all of them imported, all of them driven by locals. When he was a child, most road traffic was velocipedes and sedan chairs and bullock carts. Only foreigners ran anything with steam engines. Progress, he supposed.
He flipped up his jacket’s collar and dug his hands into his pockets. It was a cold day, but that was not the only reason. The bakgwai might be returning to the city, but he was neither white man nor yellow, and there were still people who thought people of his color were the younger brothers of the white devils. He wasn’t bored enough to start fights with such people over something so trivial.
Nobody at the tram stop paid him any more mind than they would a scampering rat. Tilting his head, he tried to make sense of the tiny squiggly lines on the board that displayed the tram route. The stops were written solely in Kuowen, the new national script, and it took him a moment to comprehend the ideograms.
When the tram arrived, he stood well back and watched. He watched the civilians line up, board the bus, drop coins into the ticket box. Following them aboard, he was greeted by a large board that told passengers the price of a ticket in all of the currencies in use in Sum Kong. He plunked in a one-yuan coin into the box. With a whir, it spat out nine one-chiao coins and a tiny slip of paper. A small part of him wondered at the machinery within. The rest of him gathered up his treasure and headed to the rear of the tram.
There were no seats left. He grabbed a metal pole in the middle of the tram. He shared the pole with a man who stared at him in distaste. His cold grey eyes met the man’s hot brown ones and whispered without words a promise of sharpened steel. The pure-blood immediately looked down with a frown.
He got off two blocks from his destination and walked the rest of the way. Upright, head up and hands out. Here, within spitting distance of the International Quarter, people cared less about the colour of a man’s skin than the colour of his cash. Two streets later, people looked instead at a man’s reputation and the kit he carried on his person.
He stopped outside a plain three-storey building that dominated a crossroads. The sign above in old-style script read ‘Risk Takers’ Guild’. Next to the door, a middle-aged man leaned against the wall next to a long handcrafted pole. The guard grinned and straightened.
“Ah Lee!” he greeted. “It’s been too long.”
Lee smiled back. “Mr Wong. How’s your mokwoon?”
In the day, Wong manned the door of the Guild. In the evenings, he ran a martial arts school on a nearby rooftop.
“Doing very well, thank you. And you? You’ve been away for three months. Been busy?”
“Yes. Going to get busier again.”
Lee made for the door. Wong held up a hand. “I need your membership card.”
“I never needed it to go in before.”
“We installed an automatic door while you were away. It won’t open without your card. Management is trying to keep out unwanted guests.”
Lee couldn’t argue with that. He’s heard too many stories of frauds or small fry stealing contracts from legitimate risk takers. Those jobs usually ended in disaster. He retrieved his card from an inner jacket pocket. Wong fed it into an unobtrusive box next to the door. The machine read the punched card and spat it out. The door opened gently with a soft click.
People flowed around the lobby, talking in hushed whispers, heading to the upstairs offices, or going to the Jobs Hall on the right. Lee instead turned left, following the sound of frying food to the cha teng.
Business was good. Most of the tables were occupied. A radio in a corner played popular tunes mixed with the news. Wending his way around the tables, Lee saw a quartet of young men at a corner table. The tallest of the four nudged his fellows and jerked his head in Lee’s direction. They stood, leaving behind half-empty cups of tea, and approached him. The man in the lead balled his fists, while the others dug into pockets.
Lee breathed deep, sucking in the chi in the air, drawing it into his navel, his lower tant’ien. It wasn’t much, but combined with what he already had, it was more than enough.
“Hey, who do we have here?” the tall one called in Liangkuanghua,the unofficial lingua franca of Sum Kong.
They were dressed in the working class fashions of the day. Light jacket, cotton shirt, heavy-duty pants and chunky shoes. Bulges emerged from hips and pockets, resembling knuckledusters and daggers. The leader had a tiny revolver shoved in his waistband pointed at his crotch. They had maybe one weapon each. By the Guild’s standards, they were embarrassingly underarmed.
“I’m just here for breakfast,” Lee replied in the same language, shifting his accent to match their abbreviated street tones. His right hand rested lightly on his hip, close to the butt of his Webster Mk IV revolver.
He sneered. “You sure you’re in the right place, jaapjung?”
‘Mongrel’, he had called him. Mixed blood. If Ethan Lee had but a peso for every time he’d heard that word, he’d have retired long ago.
Blading the right side of his body to them, he glanced around the room. Bystanders were headed out the door. Those sitting down eased away. Others averted their eyes but not their ears, their hands dropping to weapons. The people who knew him either backed up against the walls or made themselves scarce. No sense catching a stray bullet, or more.
Crackling, bristling chi filled the room, full of potential. His own chi swelled in his body, in his legs and fists. He retracted his chi, coiling it like a spring, compacting it so no one could steal it, yet keeping it loose enough to respond.
“No sign outside that says I can’t eat here,” Lee said calmly. “The owner doesn’t object to my presence either.”
Their chi was flaring red-hot, aggressive but unfocused. They liked to think of themselves as tough guys. That was the point of this confrontation, impressing onlookers and building a reputation.
Lee had killed harder men than these.
The lead troublemaker palmed a balled fist with a grin. “We say you can’t eat here, jaapjung. The Guild is only for hayen.”
“Eh, boy! You know who you’re talking to? He fought against the bakgwai in the I Chuan Uprising. What have you done? He’s more of a hayen than you!”
The crowd parted, revealing a grandfather, his back straight and voice clear, wiping his hands on his greasy apron.
Lee bowed to him. “Lam-gong, jousahn.”
Mr Lam chuckled. “See? He has more manners than you. And while his father might be a bakgwai, Detective Sergeant Thomas was a good man. He treated everyone fairly, hayen or bakgwai. And Lee does the same. He’s always welcome in my Guild, in my tea hall. What can you say for yourself, boy?”
Ethan Thomas Lee allowed his jacket to part, revealing a wink of his revolver’s grip. The quartet’s chi fled, leaving a thin, ghostly white pallor floating around them. Especially the leader. “I, uh, I—”
“I think you can find a cha teng more to your liking down on 18th Street,” Lee said quietly. “That’s where all the hayen go, right?”
The four men exchanged glances. The boss jerked his head at the door, and they marched out. The crackling chi went with them, and the air lightened. Bystanders returned to their business. Hands drifted away from weapons, and he followed. Lee relaxed his chi, letting it flow freely again.
“Thank you, Lam-gung.”
He waved his words away, looking down slightly. “Kids these days. When I was their age I knew my manners. Someone has to set them straight before they do something stupid. Come, let me take you to your seat.”
They occupied the table where the four once sat. “Standards must be slipping,” Lee said. “We never had trouble like that before.”
Lam sighed. “The Guild is expanding, and it needs money. These days, they’re accepting anyone who can afford the membership fees and isn’t a member of a secret society. Idiots like them are becoming more commonplace.”
“That’s gonna bite Management in the arse someday.”
“Indeed. But come. You didn’t come all the way here just to talk about our internal politics, did you?” Lam grabbed the menu from its holder, pushing it towards Lee. “Come, tell me what you want. We’ve expanded the menu since you were here last.”
The menu was indeed thicker and larger than before. It even had clear photographs of some of the more popular meals. Including…
“You’re serving Western food now?”
This close to the kitchen, he could smell the grease and the sizzling pork.
“Times change. Tastes change. Nowadays, with the bakgwai coming back, every cha teng must have bakgwai food. Even in the Risk taker’s Guild.”
“In that case, I must try your Western breakfast.”
At a full liang, it was twice as expensive as the dearest local breakfast and out of the reach of most workingmen. But a man only lives so long, and risk takers weren’t ordinary workers.
“Coffee or tea?”
“Green tea.” He couldn’t stand coffee.
Lam nodded. “Excellent. By the way…there’s a job available. Just for you.”
Trust Lam to kill several birds with one stone. In theory, the Jobs Hall was the heart of the Guild. The walls were lined with boards where posters advertised positions and skills. There was always work for people who knew how to handle themselves. But there were jobs, and there were jobs. Some jobs were available only if you know the right people. Like Lam.
“What kind of job is it?”
Lam tapped his fingers against the table in a ragged rhythm. “A merchant is looking for caravan guards. He’s going to the interior of the Northeast Province. Bandit territory. Some action is expected.”
Lee raised an eyebrow. “Sounds like an ordinary job.”
“He’s looking for special talent. Someone who speaks Kuoyü or the northern dialects. Someone with experience guarding convoys and can be counted on to be discreet.” A long pause. Lam looked into Lee’s eyes. “Someone who knows wuchishu.”
The last phrase was in Kuoyü, the national language. It was a modern term, referring to the martial use of chi. Lee’s lips twitched. “Interesting. Did he explain why?”
“He told me he’s carrying valuable cargo—no, he didn’t say what it was—and needs an edge against the bandits.” Lam leaned forward. “And another thing. There are rumours Yematai is sending spies across the border from Chüsenkuo to stir up the local bandits and make life difficult.”
“Je do saat yan?” Meaning: borrowing a knife to kill someone. Or in this case, proxy war.
“Maybe. Yematai has always maintained that the Northeast Province belongs to them. I’ve also heard that Yemai troops have been seen in the area, on the wrong side of the border. If an risk taker encountered a Yemai spy, and something unfortunate happened to the Yemai, I don’t think the police or Imperial Guard will look too deeply into the matter.”
“Is that right?” Lee shrugged. “Well, I’ve never been to the Northeast before. Tell me about the client.” Lam stood, clapping Lee’s shoulder. “Come, I’ll get your food first. We talk later.”