Realm of Beasts Chapter 7

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Oversight

“You can’t be serious,” Sun said.

“It’s official policy,” the bureaucrat said. “If a Defender uses force against a regular human, the Defender is suspended from active duty and placed on no-pay leave until the Oversight Committee clears him.”

“Ms Song, it’s the Ghost Month,” Fu insisted. “You know how busy it gets. I need every man available—”

“The guidelines are clear. Not even the gods can break the rules.”

The conference room grew cold and close and quiet. The three people seated around the table studied each other, waiting for a move.

Song was right, Sun knew. Nobody cared what happened to beasts. But if the Defenders were completely unaccountable to the people, the consequences would be unthinkable.

“For what it’s worth, I’m confident the investigation won’t take too long,” Song said. “Mr Sun has been completely cooperative and the circumstances are clear-cut. He will return to full duties soon.”

“How long will that be?” Sun asked.

“Four weeks,” Song said.

“Four weeks? We may not even have a city by then!” Fu said.

She shrugged haplessly. “It’s policy.”

Fu and Sun left the room in silence. They continued walking in silence until they stepped out the front door of the Defenders’ Guild. As the first rays of the morning sun warmed Sun’s skin, he strained his ears and listened for sirens.

All quiet. For now.

“What happens now?” Sun asked.

“You’ll get the bounty for the jiaolong,” Fu replied. “As for the criminals… you sent all of them into a coma. The public needs to be assured that you did the right thing.”

“I didn’t even use qi skills.”

“It doesn’t matter. Protocols must be observed.”

“I’m off the street, then?”

“Yes. And we can’t help you with your girlfriend. I’m sorry. But we’ve got nothing to work with.”

“She’s not my girlfriend.”

“Whatever. It’s the Ghost Month, and everybody—the police and us—busy. We get tens of missing people a week during the Ghost Month. Both the Defenders and the police will be too busy to investigate cases. And most of the missing will turn up in a beast’s belly sooner or later.”

“I can’t do anything, then?”

“Not as a Defender. Not until you are cleared for duty.” Fu paused. “However, the Defenders would not necessarily refuse to act if they receive an anonymous tip about the whereabouts of a girl who may have been kidnapped by rogue cultivators.”

Sun pursed his lips. “I suppose I’ll have to make the most of my present circumstances.”

“Indeed.”


From the Defenders’ Guild it was a short stroll to the police headquarters. Inside, Sun flashed his badge at the first policeman he saw, then asked for and received directions to the Secret Societies Wing. A few more questions pointed him to the office of Detective Luo Wang.

The detective himself was inside, frowning at a screen and mashing away at his keyboard. He looked up as Sun entered.
“Defender Sun,” Luo said. “Do you have anything to add?”

“No, but I have a few questions.”

Luo wrinkled his nose in disgust. The first time they’d met was in the interview room on the first floor, where Luo had endured the self-imposed trial of questioning Sun.

“Hey, I took a second shower earlier,” Sun said.

Not to mention an intense qi healing meditation session to flush out the surviving germs.

Luo snorted. “Are you here to ask about the men you put down?”

“Yes. Who were they?”

“That information is part of an ongoing investigation. I can’t help you.”

“Do you still remember I was running my own investigation? Those men are part of it now.”

Luo leaned back into his chair and crossed his arms. “Really.”

“You sound skeptical.”

“I don’t doubt your story, but I don’t see the connection.”

“Did you really think I randomly ran into three criminals in the sewer? What were they doing there anyway? It looked like they were guarding a storeroom of illegal goods.”

“If you hadn’t hospitalized them we might have answers.”

“They were armed.”

“Regardless, there is nothing on them that connects them to the alleged kidnapping.”

Actual kidnapping.”

“We only have your testimony that there were qi pearls.”

“Only because by the time your cultivators showed up, the pearls had dissipated.”

“Bad luck. And you still haven’t explained the connection between your criminals and mine.”

“If you told me who they were I might have answers for you.”

“Look at it from my perspective, Defender. All I have to go on is that you claim that the kidnapped woman—Ms Liu—left a trail for you to follow in the sewer, that this trail included a single finger-sized groove in the wall, that this groove pointed to a tunnel in which those three men were allegedly guarding. I can’t build a case on that.”

“Explain the camera and the guards, then.”

“Secret societies always keep an eye their contraband. We know they have hidden caches in the sewers. You simply stumbled upon one of them.”

“Why did they challenge me then? I wasn’t interested in their cache. I was climbing up the ladder when they decided to pick a fight with me. If they’d let me go, I wouldn’t have bothered them. I think someone ordered them to stop anybody who passed that way. And I need to know who that someone is.”

“You’re asking me to divulge information about an active investigation to someone outside the police.”

“I’m a Defender.”

“Currently suspended. And you asking for information about the men you fought with. The Oversight Committee isn’t going to look kindly on it.”

“I’m not interested in your investigation. I just need a couple of facts and I’ll be on my way.”

“If word gets out that I leaked confidential information to someone with a vested interest in my case—”

“Nobody here but us.”

“And the detectives who saw you coming in.”

Sun sighed. “Detective, what exactly is your issue with me?”

“What are you going to do with the information?”

“Under normal circumstances the police handles secret societies. Defenders step in only when cultivators are involved. Yes?”

“Yes,” Luo said guardedly. “And?”

“Suppose someone discovered that a secret society was complicit in kidnapping Barrier Technicians. If so, it would be a matter of national security. The Defenders would be obliged to help the police crush the secret society responsible for such an act. If the Defenders were allowed to unleash their full power, the secret society would be destroyed overnight. I’m sure that’s an outcome you can live with.”

Luo frowned mightily. “I can’t give you any information that affects my investigation into your case.”

“I don’t want it either. Just tell me: who did the criminals work for?”

Luo pondered the question for a moment.

“Du Yang.”

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Previous parts: 123456

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Realm of Beasts Chapter 2

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Defender and Barrier

“RUN!” the cop yelled.

Quick as a flash, the winged tiger bounced on the policeman, pinning him to the ground. The cop screamed, struggling under its enormous bulk. Sun raised his pistol. And the beast tore out his throat.

Sun fired.

A brilliant blue bolt slammed into the creature’s torso. Fire and smoke erupted from its fur.

Roaring in pain, the tiger spread its wings, covering its face and body. Sun ran the gun hard, dumping bolts as fast as he could fire. The power crystal siphoned his qi through his gloves, keeping the gun going.

But as the bolts crashed into the wings, they dissipated.

Turning to Sun, the winged tiger crouched.

Pounced.

And slammed into a crackling white wall.

Dropping to the ground, it shook his head, momentarily confused. It was so close, Sun saw the blood dripping from his teeth and paws, the meat caught between its canines.

Liu stood her ground, her feet planted solidly on the floor. Her arms were extended straight out, her bangles glowing white. The creature snarled, pawing at the barrier, but she stood firm and maintained the force field.

Guns howled. A barrage of bolts crashed into the beast’s flank. Distracted, it turned to face the new threat, and Sun retreated behind a nearby pillar. A team of armed police had arrived, firing from across the hall. But the bolts crashed uselessly against the beast’s wings.

The winged tiger poked its head out between its wings, turning to the cops. And its horn glowed.

“TAKE COVER!” Sun shouted.

A beam of blinding light blasted from the horn.

Liu screamed, throwing her will against the world.

The beam crashed against a fresh barrier. The barrier took everything the winged tiger could throw at it and scattered the infernal energy into harmless rays of multihued light.

The assault ceased. The cops were unscratched. But Liu swooned.

“Fang Fang!”

She caught herself before she fell.

“I’m okay,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”

The tiger chuffed. The policemen continued firing, but none of their shots penetrated its wings.

Stalemate.

But Sun was a cultivator.

Switching his smoking pistol to his left hand, he called upon his interspatial ring. Another wormhole opened. He reached in, found a firm handle, and drew.

Out came a jian. A straight sword with two keen edges and a needle tip. Holding it low, he circled around the beast.

“Cover me!” Sun shouted.

“Go!” Liu replied.

Summoning his qi from all three dantian, he supercharged his muscles. Filled his blade with qi.

Lunged.

Gravity fell away. The air parted before him. Wind pushed at his back. In a single bound, he flew to the beast’s flank. And cut.

Steel bit into hardened bone and sinewy muscle. A moment of resistance, and the wing snapped off.

Howling, the creature trashed about. Another barrier materialized, shielding Sun from its iron teeth and claws. Leaping aside, Sun extended his pistol, placed it against the beast’s exposed temple, and fired.

Its head erupted in pink steam. The winged tiger slumped to the ground, finally dead.

Scanning, Sun saw no more threats. He flicked the blood off his jian and returned to Liu.

She had propped herself against a pillar, her hands massaging her temples.

“Sun Yao…” she said.

“It’s over.”

She smiled. “Good job.”

“Couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. I…” She frowned, pointing at the skylight. “Where’s the barrier? It should be up by now.”

He looked. Through the broken glass he saw clear blue sky and bright sunlight. But there was no barrier. The civil defense sirens continued screaming. And, high in the sky, he saw black dots. Lots of them.

“We need to get to the operations center,” she said.

He nodded. Turning to the cops, he yelled, “Cover the skylight! We have more beasts incoming!”

As the policemen scrambled into position, he pointed at the nearest.

“You! Take us to the operations center!”

The three of them trooped down empty halls and deserted corridors. The civilians had evacuated by now. He sensed no qi around him beyond Liu and the policeman. But just in case, Sun kept his head on a swivel and his weapon at the ready.

The door to the operations center was wide open. The lock had been blasted open. And blood spilled out the open door.

Ta ma de,” Sun whispered. “Fang Fang, stay behind me.”

He sensed no qi. Only death. Taking a deep breath, he stepped in.

Lao tian nah!” the cop exclaimed. By Heaven!

Bodies. Bodies everywhere. Seated, lying down, slumped against the walls. A lake of blood covered the floor.

Sun inspected a corpse. Her throat had been cut, almost decapitating her. Another one had been blasted in the chest. A third had been slashed in half. He couldn’t tell if the wounds were made by man or beast. Or both.

Liu pointed at a door. “We need to check the barrier control room.”

“Right.” Looking at the cop, Sun said, “Watch this room. Preserve the crime scene.”

Liu and Sun stepped around the bodies, careful to avoid disturbing anything they saw. The door to the barrier control room was unlocked. As Sun grasped the doorknob the door fell off its hinges.

“Not a good sign,” Sun said.

The barrier control room stretched out before them. Rows of computers and consoles glowed by the sides of the room. Dead ahead was a transparent panel of safety glass. Behind that was the enormous crystal that powered the airport’s barrier.

The crystal was dull.

And the room was empty.

“Where did everyone go?” Liu asked. “This is an emergency. There must be a Barrier Technician manning the room at all times.”

“Maybe they’re dead,” Sun said.

Zao gao,” she said. This is terrible. “We need to get the barrier online before the beasts attack again.”

“Anything I can do?” Sun asked.

She strode to a console. And heaved a sigh of relief. “This console is unlocked. I can activate the barrier from here. Just watch the door and make sure the beasts don’t come in.”

“You can raise the airport barrier?”

Her hands flew across the keys.

“Yes. I can do this. Just… watch the door.”

Heavy footsteps reverberated outside. Voices floated into the room.

“Defenders! Over here!”

Sun opened his ring, stowed his weapons, and drew his badge. Stepping away from the door, he kept his hands low.
A pair of armed men burst into the room, long guns ready.

“Defenders!” the leader shouted. “Who are you?”

Sun raised his badge. “Defender Class One Sun Yao. She’s Barrier Technician Liu Fang Fang.”

The senior Defender squinted at the badge. Nodded.

“I heard a Defender slew the winged tiger in the lobby. Was that you?”

“Yes,” Sun Yao said.

“Not bad. Ms Liu, what are you doing?”

“Bringing the barrier back online,” she replied.

“You’re authorized to do that?”

“I’m the only Barrier Technician available,” she replied.

“I see.” Looking at Sun, he said, “You… Sun Yao. You were supposed to report for duty today, yes?”

“Yes. This whole mess started right after I stepped off the airship.”

“Hell of a first day at work, isn’t it?” Shaking his head, he said, “I’m Fu Hai Long. This is Yang Guo An. And that’s all the introductions you’re going to get. The city is in a state of emergency. Beasts are everywhere, and we need every Defender on duty.”

Sun nodded. “I’m ready. Fang Fang…”

“I understand,” she said.

“I’ll meet you when I can.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”


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You can find the previous chapter here.

For more stories that blend magic, swords, guns and martial arts, check out my latest novel Hammer of the Witches.

Realm of Beasts Chapter 1

Reunion, Interrupted

Crowds annoyed him. From the moment he received his first empowerment at the Academy, he could no longer tolerate crowds. Their qi was overwhelming. It was a flood of random energy that crackled and flowed and combined and crashed into him all at once from every direction.

And there was the small matter of not having time and space to react to an incoming threat.

Focus. Let the qi flow through you.

Breathing deeply and regularly, he allowed the qi to pass into and through him, fully and completely, leaving nothing behind.

He scanned the crowd in his peripheral vision. The terminal was packed. He saw a team of flight crew in smart blue uniforms pushing company-issue luggage; business people in sharp suits and pressed clothing lining up at ticket counters; tourists and travelers, marked by their huge backpacks and casual dress; a giggling, chatting, noisy mass of schoolchildren in crumpled uniforms, herded by a half-dozen worn-looking teachers.

And there was her.

She was a beacon of focused flame in a blizzard, her qi radiating from her like wings. Her aura was a gentle white blanket of soothing light, covered by a thin but hard shell, her energy warm and soothing and calming. Exactly as he remembered.

Breaking into a brilliant smile, she waved at him. He smiled back and approached her.

“Mr Sun, it’s been a long time,” she said.

“Only five years, Ms Liu,” he replied.

She sniffed. “Five years and eight months.”

“Three weeks.”

“Six days.”

“Twenty hours.”

She giggled, covering her mouth. “Did you count the minutes too?”

“I’m not as obsessive as you.”

They broke into laughter.

“You’ve grown,” she said, patting his biceps. “You’ve put on a lot more muscle since we last met.”

Her touch was soft and warm and gentle, and just a little longer than necessary.

“The job demands it,” he said, looking her over. “You’ve grown too.”

Raven hair ran down her shoulder, framing her almond-shaped face and high cheeks. Large, limpid eyes glittered in the light, as warm as chocolate and as deep as the sea. Exactly as he’d remembered her.

But in his memories he saw a tomboy. Today she wore a qipao the colour of snow. The one-piece dress clung to her curves and ended at her ankles. Long side slits allowed freedom of movement. A pair of smartglasses perched on her forehead, and she wore a jadeite bangle on each wrist.

And she was taller than he remembered her.

She crossed her arms over her not-insignificant bust. “Wei, what are you looking at?”

He gestured at her feet. “High heels? You?”

She pouted. “I can’t wear them?”

“You used to hate them.”

“People change.”

“Absolutely. You’ve finally developed a fashion sense.”

She humphed. “What do you mean?”

“You don’t look like a boy anymore.”

Tao yan!” Annoying!

“You don’t enjoy compliments?”

“You still enjoy teasing me?”

“Well, it’s fun, isn’t it?”

Zhen shi de!” Unbelievable!

Humphing again, she spun on her heel, presenting her back to him. Sun leaned over her shoulder and whispered into her ear.

“It’s good to see you again, Fang Fang.”

Smiling, she craned her neck and looked up at him.

“Same here, Sun Yao. Now that you finally graduated.”

He shrugged. “Empowerment takes far longer in my profession.”

“You made me wait. Any longer and I might have given up.”

“I’m here now. Do you still—”

A thunderous two-tone siren wailed from the loudspeakers, steadily growing in volume. A thousand rings and chimes and beeps issued from glasses and bands and pads.

“Code black,” the public broadcast system intoned. “Code black. Security personnel, please report to your assigned stations. Guests and passengers, please proceed to the civil defense shelter.”

Civilians paused in their tracks, listening to the announcement. The teachers gathered their children and led them deeper into the building, scolding and cajoling as they went. Nearby, a blue-uniformed cop stiffened, and rested his hand on his holster.

Sun touched the steel utility band on his left wrist and pressed a quick access button. A list of items and images popped into his head. The contents of his interspatial storage.

He selected an item. A flat black circle appeared, hovering above the band. It was a two-dimensional hole in space-time, so thin it seemed invisible from the side. He reached into the hole, wrapping his fingers around a solid plastic frame, and drew his infinity pistol.

Sun’s amplifier gloves warmed. Intricate designs woven into the black leather glowed in his mind’s eye, tracing the meridians and energy pathways of his hands. Circuitry in the palms of his gloves meshed with the weapon’s grip, feeding the infinity gun with his qi.

He needed a full combat loadout. His personal gear was nowhere near enough. But he had to do with what he had. Gripping his gun in both hands, he said, “Fang Fang…”

She was already in motion. Her jadeite bangles glowing brightly, she kicked off her heels and lowered her glasses into place.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Time to work.”

All around them, civilians dashed for cover. Airport staff directed them to the civil defense shelter with shouts and gestures. Armed and armored policemen raced into position, taking cover behind whatever they could find.

In the distance, monstrous roars filled the air.

The cop Sun had spotted earlier rushed over to them, weapon drawn.

“Sir, ma’am, you need to take cover.”

“We’re cultivators,” he said. “We can help.”

The cop visibly relaxed.

“Thank you. We’re facing—”

Glass shattered. Shards rained down from above.

A sleek, muscular beast crashed through the skylights. Flapping its huge crimson wings, it landed gently on the floor. Covered in blazing orange fur and black stripes, it boasted a set of wicked claws on every paw and a horn that tapered into a fine point. The creature curled its tail and bared its fangs. A deep growl issued from its powerful chest.

It was a winged tiger. Apex predator of the wildlands.

And it glared at Sun, bloodlust in its eyes.


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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.

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.”

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