When someone fires a gun in Singyeung, the police send everyone.
Patrol officers sealed off the scene. Rapid Deployment Force cruisers swooped down from the skies, forming the inner cordon. Right behind them, a Hung Syun descended in stately majesty. Equipped with long guns and tactical gear, a squad of SOC operators poured out the armored transport, forming up for immediate action. Flying ambulances followed to tend to the unconscious gangsters. Vans carried a crew of crime scene technicians.
Last of all was the Criminal Investigation Department.
A green flying car set itself down next to the gangsters’ vehicle. A middle-aged man in a blue polo shirt and dark pants stepped out. His warrant card hung on a lanyard around his neck.
“Assistant Superintendent James Tang, CID,” the newcomer said.
“Mark Woo and Jackie Lee,” Jackie replied. “Hap haak.”
Tang furrowed his eyebrows. “What happened here?”
As we explained the situation, the paramedics loaded the unconscious men aboard their ambulances. They tried to take Murali too, but Jackie stopped them.
“We still need him,” Jackie said. “He can lead us to the crime scene.”
“You’ve worked hard today,” Tang said. “Well done. We’ll take things from here.”
“The park isn’t secure,” Jackie said.
“Don’t worry. SOC will sweep the park.”
I held up a hand. “Hold off on that.”
“Why not? It’s not safe.”
“The primary suspect is a powerful cultivator. I can track the murderer’s qi trail. But if SOC goes in now, they’ll mess up the trail.”
Tang crossed his arms. “This is police business now.”
“I can tell you’re not a cultivator. What about everyone else? Is there a cultivator among them?”
“We received reports of multiple gunshots. We didn’t hear anything about cultivators. SIS wasn’t activated.”
If the cops had known or suspected a cultivator was involved, they wouldn’t have sent CID. They’d send the Special Investigations Section, and their cadre of martial cultivators. Since there weren’t any other cultivators around us…
“There are two hap haak in front of you,” Jackie said.
“Guns beat magic most of the time. We don’t know if there are any more suspects hiding in the area,” Tang said.
“SOC can escort us. We just need to make sure they don’t disturb the crime scene,” I said.
“You know we’re not paying you to do extra work, right?”
“This is our work,” I replied.
Tang threw his hands up. “Alright. But just so you know, the police are in charge now. Understand?”
“Yes sir!” Jackie and I responded.
Surrounded by the SOC operators, Murali showed us the way to the scene of the crime. This time of night, the park was utterly deserted. The only signs of life came from the insects flitting around light bulbs. As we followed the winding footpath, the operators lit up the darkness with their weapon lights, hunting for hidden threats.
The trek ended at a pavilion, just off the main trail. Grey pillars rose from a patch of stark concrete to hold up a gently arched roof of sun-hardened tiles. Beside the pillars were rows of benches and tables. Spotlights in the rafters cast the scene in a soft glow, drawing the eye to the dead.
The body lay sprawled in a sticky lake of blood. The scent of blood and iron hung in the air, mixed with body waste. His T-shirt and jeans, completely soaked through, had been shredded to pieces. Long, ugly gashes ran down his arms and inner thighs, suggesting sharp claws and powerful paws. White bone peeked through the deep wounds.
His head was gone.
Murali blanched. I sucked down a breath, calming myself. Jackie looked away. Tang pursed his lips, but stared unflinchingly at the scene.
“Where’s the head?” I asked.
Tang pointed with his thumb.
“Under the table at the far end.”
A spray of blood tracked towards a column. Partially hidden by the table, the head of the deceased lay face down, the vertebra exposed.
The tiger, I decided. It had pounced on the victim, bit on his throat, and decapitated him. Then it tossed the severed head into the corner.
There were all kinds of aggressive spirits out there. Some were precise and professional, inflicting no more than the minimum amount of damage needed to get the job done. At the other extreme, there were savages that delighted in brutality. Between the grievous wounds and the head toss, I suspected the spirit occupied the latter end of the spectrum.
“Murali, is this the body?” Tang asked formally.
Murali nodded. “Yes.”
“Can you identify him?”
“What is your relationship to him?”
“He’s my… friend.”
“Not your headman?” Jackie probed.
Murali shook his head. “No. The headman couldn’t come today. That’s why he asked Johnny to settle on his behalf.”
For a half-second I’d been tempted to assume the victim was the headman of the crew. This was why you never made any assumptions during an investigation.
“What rank does Johnny hold?” Tang asked.
Murali blinked. “No rank.”
Tang shook his head.
“Please, lah. If he has no rank, why your headman ask him to settle for him? You wanna lie, be more believable, can?”
As he spoke, Tang changed his cadence, matching Murali’s Singyenglish accent, adding a touch of humour to soften the accusation.
“He’s the assistant headman,” Murali admitted.
“Why couldn’t your headman come?”
“Because he’s busy. But he never say why.”
“Where were you standing when the settlement talks started?”
Murali nodded at the floor. “There. On Johnny’s left.”
“And your two friends?”
“They were on his other side.”
“What about the Shiba crew?”
“Where was their headman?”
“Right in front of Johnny.”
“What happened during the settlement talks?”
“When we met, their headman asked if Johnny was our headman. Johnny said no. He said our headman couldn’t make it. Their headman got angry and said that we didn’t respect him. Johnny said he could negotiate for us. Their headman said if he could take a message to our boss. Johnny said yes. Their headman reached under his shirt, pulled out his pendant, and… that tiger jumped out and…”
“The tiger killed Johnny,” Tang said.
“What happened after that?”
“We ran. We had to. We couldn’t fight that thing.”
“Then Tom drew his gun and started shooting.”
“You ran back to your car, and ran into the hap haak.”
Murali sighed. “Ya…”
Tang looked at me. “You got everything you need to get started?”
I nodded. “Stay clear.”
My body was coming down from the fight. Adrenaline pulsed through me. My qi redistributed throughout my body, returning to my lower dantian. The fight-or-flight reflex delivered strength and speed when it was needed, but it also degraded cognitive skills and higher cultivation abilities. It took me a long time to learn how to remain steady enough to conduct a field interview after a violent encounter, and even then I wasn’t performing anywhere near my peak.
With slow, gentle breaths, I gathered my qi. On the inhale, I drew energy from the cosmos, absorbing through my skin, bringing it to my lower dantian. As I exhaled, I sent the energy up my spin, around the curve of my head, and into my upper dantian, the energy centre located in the forehead. It was a slow trickle of qi, just enough to reactivate my metaphysical senses without giving me a headache.
And then I saw.
A diffuse cloud of chaotic energies floated in the pavilion. The qi of life and death, desperation and despair, fear and agony, mingled together in a toxic brew. In my mind’s ear I heard the screaming once again, the echoes of the dead man infused into the concrete.
With eight people gathered here for such an intense event, it was little wonder that there was so much energy here. But they were all jumbled up, difficult to separate into individual strands.
Except for the ghost.
Johnny Lim stood over his body. Dressed as he was in his final moments in life, he looked down at his spectral hands, at his corporal remains, at the pool of drying blood. His jaw hung open in a silent scream, his eyes were wide, as if still unable to comprehend his fate.
His neck was gone.
His head floated in empty space. Red fluid rimmed the edges of the enormous wound. More blood covered his hands. Separated from his body, his consciousness reconstructed his appearance from his last memories, from what he thought he looked like even as he lay dying, from the energies that remained in the area. He appeared almost solid, but I sensed he was concentrating to hold himself together. I had the feeling that if I stared at him too hard, he might fall apart.
He was also our best witness.
“Opening channel,” I said. “Cover me.”
“Roger,” Jackie said.
“What does that mean?” Tang asked.
“It means everyone keeps quiet while Mark-gor does his thing,” Jackie said.
Closing my eyes, I breathed deep, setting into the centre of my being, grounding my body into the earth. From this state of stillness, I expanded my awareness, touching the remains of Johnny Lim.
His soul was in turmoil. Fear, anger, horror, sorrow, a swirling smog of negative emotions boiled from him. Having been violently separated from his body, his consciousness was violently disturbed. Left alone, he might go mad and haunt this place, or disperse completely without ever knowing peace.
I drew my forth my qi, linking it to the essence of water. Deep, pure, calm, cleansing. My bracelet and my mala cooled as the qi transformed into healing mist. Extending my hand, I sprinkled fine droplets of blue energy over him, like oil sprayed on troubled waters, willing the energies to settle his own.
A soft, frightened voice penetrated my consciousness.
Who are you?
I infused my response into my spell, letting it fill his own.
I am here to help. Do you remember your name?
He shook his head. No.
Do you remember what happened?
He twitched. His hands clenched. Torment crossed his face.
I increased the flow of qi by a smidgen.
Easy now. Relax. Let the energy heal you and take away your pain.
He closed his eyes. Opened his fingers. And heaved a sigh of relief.
I dipped my head. No problem. Would you like to share with me what happened?
Sound and colour smashed into my mind.
Now I was seeing through the victim’s own eyes, a memory of his final moments, colored by trauma. I looked out upon a blood-red world tinted in shadow. Four hazy forms stood before me, radiating hostility and anger. Next to me, my brothers tensed, readying for action.
The figure in front of me glowed a sudden white light. He reached under his shirt and pulled out his pendant. A monster leapt forth, fur and fangs and killer claws, too huge for such a tiny talisman, a predator from another plane come to feast. It seized my shoulders, ramming me to the ground, clawing my arms and legs, and as I tried to fight back, to reach my weapons at my waist, it lunged for my throat and snapped its jaws and ripped out my flesh and bone—
I paused. Breathed. Exhaled.
That was not me. That was him. He had died. I had come to speak for him.
Bracing myself, I dove into his memories again.
With a powerful swipe, the tiger batted my head aside. Suddenly I was seeing two images at once, the feed from my eyes, staring into the corner, and the view from where the rest of my body lay on the floor. Gunshots rang out. The hazy figures ducked for cover. Holding out his pendant, the summoner shouted, and the tiger jumped back into its vessel.
When the shooting stopped, the four men turned and ran. I wanted to get up, to chase them, to kill them, but I was stuck. I was stuck on the floor and I could not move and I could not breathe and I could not scream and—
Opening my eyes, I saw Johnny Lim standing at the edge of the pavilion, his face twisted in fury and agony. He burned for revenge, and so long as he burned, he could not move on.
Thank you, I sent.
Catch the one who killed me. Make him pay.
I cast the healing magic again, seeking to soothe what was left of his soul.
We’ll take care of the rest. As for you, I see you are still suffering. Do you need help to move on?
How? He wondered.
I unclasped my mala and grasped it in my left hand. Pressing my palms together, I dipped my head.
“Em a ho!” I began.
“Are you… praying?” Tang wondered.
“Quiet!” Jackie shushed.
Ignoring them, I continued the prayer.
“Ngotsar sangye nangwa taye dang / ye su jowo tukje chenpo dang / yon du sempa tuchentop nam la / sangye yangsem pakme khor gyi kor…”
It was the Dechen Monlam, the prayer for rebirth in the Pure Land of Sukhavati. Reciting it from memory, I emanated my qi in all directions, willing it to fill all space. I visualised the energies transforming into a superabundance of offerings: fruit, flowers, torma, water, butter lamps, incense, perfumes, music, all the wonders and pleasures of the universe.
As I chanted, brilliant scarlet light filled my mind’s eye, radiating from a figure seated in the lotus position. His skin was as red as the setting sun, his black hair tied into a topknot. Garbed in golden robes, he held a blue begging bowl on his lap, his soles turned upwards to the heavens.
Amitabha Buddha. The Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life, the creator of Sukhavati, he who vowed to bring all who call upon him to be reborn in his realm. There, all beings would be freed from all suffering, and receive instruction from the Buddhas until they themselves attain complete enlightenment.
To Amitabha’s left stood a blue-skinned figure blazing in crimson flames. Right leg bent, left leg extended, he held a vajra over his breast with his left hand, and his outstretched right hand made the refuge-giving mudra. Fangs bared, his three eyes glared at the world around. A crown of skulls, a cloak made from elephant hide, and a hip wrap of tiger skin completed his wrathful appearance.
Bodhisattva Vajrapani, wrathful protector of the Buddha, he who frightens the wicked and induces sentient beings to let go of their delusions and mental grasping.
To Amitabha’s right, also seated in the lotus position, was a figure of purest white with a thousand arms and eleven heads. His heads were stacked like a tower, three rows of three looking forward and the sides, then two smaller ones placed one atop the other. Upon his heads rested splendid crowns of purest gold, and gold bedecked his ears, his biceps, his wrists and his neck. He folded two hands over his heart, holding a blue cintamani. A right hand held aloft a crystal mala, while a left grasped a lotus flower. More arms fanned out from his sides, extending in all directions.
In Chinese he is called Guanyin, in Sanskrit he was named Avalokitesvara, I knew him as Chenrezig. The Lotus Lord, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, he who perceives the cries of the world and aids all who suffer.
“Jangchup top ne jisi du / trulpe drowa drenpar shok!” I concluded.
And Chenrezig shook his head.
Why? I sent.
The voice of Chenrezig filled my head, warm and gentle and soothing, yet also filled with sorrow.
His mind is too disturbed. He cannot see nor comprehend Amitabha, much less the Pure Land. He is still too attached to his suffering to cross over. You have comforted him and soothed his pains, but it is not enough for complete purification.
Vajrapani spoke, a fiery roar with a heart of compassion.
He still grasps too tightly to his sins. He still does not see how they have contributed to his sorrow and suffering. He does not know why he is destined for hell unless he turns back and returns to the path of Enlightenment. His mind is caught by his anguish and his pain, and sees little beyond it.
Then came a third voice, serene and loving, resonant and pervasive, the voice of Amitabha.
He cannot pass through the gate into the Pure Land until he is fully liberated from suffering.
What must I do? I asked.
Seek out a priest to pray for his soul and the souls of all whose lives he has touched, and to pray for the purification of this tainted land. Of course, you could do it yourself, but you are busy now.
I sighed. And nodded.
I’m not a priest. My cultivation abilities merely manifested in an unusual way, even for inhabitants of the jianghu.
“Thank you,” I said out loud.
I extended my hand, and sprinkled Johnny Lim one last time. He smiled, slightly, but his huge wound remained. With a flash of red light, Amitabha vanished. Vajrapani and Chenrizig followed him into the astral realms.
I focused my attention on Lim and sent, This is all I can do for you right now, but I will make sure the ritual is complete.
He pressed his palms together and bowed to me.
I bowed back, then turned to the others.
“It’s done,” I said.
“Were you praying for the dead?” Superintendent Tang wondered.
“Yes,” I replied. “Talked to him too. He showed me where the suspects went.”
Dredging up the memory he had shown me, I scanned in the direction the killer had fled. Soon, I picked up a faint white thread cutting through the park. It was a qi trail, left behind by the summoner and his spirit.
“Over there,” I said, pointing with my thumb.
A team of operators brought Murali back to the main entrance. The others formed a protective circle around me. I followed the qi trail on a parallel course, keeping my distance, preventing the operators from blundering into it. Behind me, I overheard Tang talking into his phone, calling up the technicians and coordinating the rest of the cordon.
The trail led us to the other side of the park and abruptly terminated at the sidewalk. I closed my eyes again and extended my awareness, reading the energies imprinted into the world, and the memories of the very recent past.
“I see a group of four men. The primary suspect is among them. Tall, lean, looks Chinese. Red shirt, blue jeans. He has a pendant around his neck. The pendant is glowing white.
“The four men are boarding a car. It’s too dark. I can’t make out the colour, model or licence plate. There is a fifth individual. Male. He’s in the driver’s seat.
“The primary suspect climbed into the front passenger seat. The others are in the rear. The driver is pulling out and heading off… that way.”
I pointed to my ten o’clock, where a side road led deeper into Wa Yuen.
“Do you see where they went?” Jackie asked.
“No. Traffic was too heavy. It muddied the trail.”
It would take a cultivator more powerful than me to pick up what was left of it. With their rare talents, such cultivators were too specialised and too highly-priced to walk a beat.
“I got them,” Tang said.
Opening my eyes, I saw Tang holding up his phone, unfurled to the size of a tablet. The screen showed the feed from one of the city’s countless surveillance cameras. I checked the angle, did a double take, and looked up.
I was standing under a streetlight. Just past the lightbulb housing, partially hidden in shadows, an unblinking camera dome looked back at me.
“Is this them?” Tang asked.
I turned my attention back to the screen. In colour night vision, four men sprinted towards a gray sedan. Among them was a tall man in a red shirt and blue jeans. The angle couldn’t quite catch the entirety of their faces. But as the car pulled out, the camera caught the rear half of the front licence plate and the front half of the rear plate.
“Yes,” I confirmed.
Tang’s fingers played across the screen.
“I’ve flagged them on the system. We’ve got their licence plates, their gait signatures, partials on their faces. Once we can confirm their identities, we’ll suspend their passports and bank accounts. When they reappear on the cameras, the system will send a city-wide alert. Good job.”
I exhaled sharply. No one, no one, escapes the law in Singyeung. And the system is always right.
Anyone who says otherwise risks his Sing Score.
“Do you still need us?” Jackie asked.
“Nope. I’ve alerted Special Investigations. They’ll send their own cultivators. In the meantime, I’m going to need your statements—”
The tablet buzzed. Tang blinked.
“Huh. We’ve got a hit.”
“So soon?” I asked.
“They’re on Tong Lup Street, about ten minutes from here. And… shit.”
“What?” Jackie demanded.
Tang flipped the tablet around.
“This is the real-time feed from the street camera.”
Mounted on a streetlight, the camera gazed down on the sidewalk. Cars lined the roads, their licence plates highlighted in blue boxes. The vehicle of interest was marked with a red box. At the bottom of the frame, a panicking mob rushed out an unseen door, fleeing down the streets. With every step, the system tracked and analysed their movements, matching them against its gait signature databases, and marked them with green and yellow crosses.
I had no idea what the symbols meant, but I could guess what was happening now.
“The crew launched another attack,” Jackie said.
“Ng Yong Noodle House,” Tang confirmed. “Suspected 108 front business.”
“We’ve got to go.”
“Woah, woah, woah. It’s police business now. You’re not going anywhere.”
“How long will it take for SIS to reach the scene?”
Tang shrugged. “Fifteen, thirty minutes?”
“We don’t have that long,” I said.
“Let SOC handle them.”
I spun around, facing the SOC operators.
“Do you have any cultivators among you?”
“No,” Station Inspector Low, their team leader, said.
I turned back to Tang. “They can’t handle the tiger spirit. We can. We have to come with you.”
Tang swore. Ran his fingers through his hair. Sighed.
“Fine. But you take orders from me, understand?”
“Got it,” Jackie said.
Tang turned to the operators. “Mount up. We’re making an immediate action rapid deployment.”
“Roger that,” Low said.
“As for you two…”
“Yeah?” I asked.
Tang glared at me.
“Don’t fuck up.”
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