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

For more magic, monsters and martial arts, check out my new novel Hammer of the Witches.

Realm of Beasts Chapter 6

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Gone

Stop. Breathe. Think.

Qi was a delicate, transient substance. The slightest of disturbances would dissipate it. If Fang Fang had left a pearl for him in this tunnel, the jiaolong’s passage would have destroyed it.

But there may be other tracks.

Sun Yao walked down the length of the storm drain again, this time scrutinizing every square inch of his surroundings. He peered at the walls, studying patterns of moss growth. He inspected the stalactites of sludge hanging from the ceilings. He studied the many leaking holes all around him. He surveyed the tons of dead beast-flesh sprawled across the sewer.

There was something… wrong about the jiaolong. Why hadn’t he detected it? Was it truly the noxious energy? Or had the beast been camouflaged?

The thought froze him in its tracks. Granted, the waste qi of the sewers was overwhelming, but he could still sense something as tiny and subtle as a qi pearl. How, then, had he missed the beast?

In the Academy he had learned of beasts which could render themselves undetectable. But a jiaolong usually wasn’t one of them. Not unless it was old and powerful, and if it were he wouldn’t have survived the encounter. But if someone had used a camouflage skill on it…

His prey were cultivators. They knew how to erase their tracks. They had snatched Fang Fang cleanly and quietly, and navigated the sewers with an ease that spoke of determined preparation. They were pros.

They couldn’t have missed her laying down pearls.

But they let her do it anyway.

Which meant they came here specifically to lure would-be pursuers into the jaws of the beast.

He swore. In hindsight it was blindingly obvious. He’d been too caught up in the chase to think about what the enemy would do to anyone trying to rescue her. He had to be more careful. Had to pay more attention.

And yet…

If they were so professional, why would they count on a beast to take out a rescue party? Beasts had neither the discipline nor intelligence of men. The jiaolong could just as easily turn on the cultivators while they were passing through its territory, or it could wander away from the ambush site before the rescuers arrived.

It didn’t make sense.

He shook his head. He had wasted enough time. He had to keep moving.

The jiaolong’s passage would have destroyed tracks in the storm drain. This time, he turned his flashlight to the side tunnels, looking for something, anything, that would lead him to her. There would always be a sign. It was an ironclad rule of investigations: the criminal always left something behind; it was up to the investigator to probe the scene, to discover that one thing that could make or break the case…

Like this side tunnel.

The walls of the tunnel were caked in rich, moist gunk. On the left-hand wall, there were five long streaks carved into the soft sludge.

Finger marks.

He ran to the body of the jiaolong and inspected the paws. They had four digits, not five, and the claws would have left uglier, broader tracks.

He smiled. Fang Fang must have caught on to what they were doing. Smart girl.

He sprinted down the tunnel. It led to a T-junction. And at elbow height, there was a tiny dark streak that led to the right.

He turned right.

More bends, more tunnels. Two openings down, he discovered another sign of her passage: a finger-sized line of sludge that followed the bend.

At the end of this new tunnel, there was a ladder.

He paused. There was one ambush early. Maybe there was another.

There was a door on the left-hand wall. Behind it, he sensed three qi sources. Humans sitting in a circle on the floor. Regular humans, not cultivators. Not the men he was looking for. He’d heard that homeless people lived in colonies in the sewers of the city; perhaps this was one such outpost.

Briefly he thought about questioning them. Then he discarded the thought. He had no time to waste, and people like this would be more likely to mind their own business than interfere with others’.

He swept his light back and forth, looking for tripwires, sensors, alarms, anything that the kidnappers might have left to inconvenience a rescuer. Satisfied he was safe, he clipped the flashlight to his pocket, put the sword away, and climbed the ladder.

The humans got up and rushed to the door.

Sun planted his boots against the handrail and slid down, spinning around just in time to see the door fly open. Light spilled from the room, silhouetting the men. He drew his flashlight in his left hand and lit up the newcomers.

“Do you have business with me?” Sun asked.

The three men hesitated, taken aback by his bold approach. They were dressed in dull overalls and sturdy cotton gloves. Sweet perfume and energetic dialogue floated out from the open door.

And they were hiding their right hands behind their backs.

“Who are you?” the man in the middle demanded.

“A passer-by,” Sun said, bringing his right palm up. “Please show me your hands.”

The other two fanned out, closing off the space behind them.

“Why are you here?” the leader asked. “No one’s supposed to be here.”

“I’m a Defender. Now show me your hands!” Sun boomed.

The leader advanced, bringing his left side forward. “You—”

“FREEZE!”

Sun shone his light into the leader’s eyes. The man winced, backing off.

The left-hand threat grabbed Sun’s left arm.

Sun cammed his light, capturing the man’s arm. Spiraled into him and slammed his right palm into his temple. Pulled him down into an elbow strike, bouncing his head off the wall.

Grabbing his shoulder, Sun flung him at the other two thugs and moved to flank them. The leader pushed the first man away and turned to face Sun. A knife gleamed in his right hand.

The leader reached for Sun with his left hand. Sun parried the arm and smashed his right knuckles into his bicep. The blow spun the leader into Sun. Sun hacked his left forearm into the man’s neck. As the man staggered away, Sun clotheslined him in the throat, slamming the back of his head against the wall.

The last one screamed a war cry and charged, his knife held low. Sun spun around into a back kick and struck his knee.

His leg collapsed. He dropped, hitting the ground head-first, and went still.

Taking long, deep breaths, Sun looked over the bodies. They weren’t moving any more. Kneeling down, he checked their vital signs. They were all out cold. The one he’d struck in the throat was barely breathing. The other two weren’t much better.

He patted himself down, finding a shallow slice across his triceps. The second man must have nicked him. He slapped on a bandage and sent qi coursing into the wound to disinfect it.

He patted down the bodies, looking for weapons and tools, and gathered up their knives in his interspatial storage. Then he drew a bundle of zip-ties, tied their hands and ankles together in a jumbled mess they couldn’t hope to free themselves from, and rolled them on their sides to prevent asphyxiation.

Sun entered the room. Shelves lined the walls, packed with cardboard boxes. A cheap tablet rested on a flimsy work table. At the far wall, there were two televisions. One played a cheap gongfu movie, the other showed the feed from a camera. A camera pointing at a heavy plastic sheet.

Peeling away the sheet, he discovered a series of tiny holes bored into the wall. He shook his head. The sheet prevented light from escaping the holes. Without pressing his face up against the wall, he couldn’t have seen them.

Whoever the attackers were, they weren’t amateurs.

He pored over every square inch of the room, probing for trapdoors, hidden doors, passages. But he found nothing.

Labels hung from the shelves: gold, electronics, jewels. And, at the far end, he saw the words ‘beast parts’. Producing a utility knife, he opened a box of beast parts. It was filled with dried beast horns, packaged in shrink wrap and drowned in packing peanuts.

Who were these people? Were they connected to the cultivators?

So many questions, so little time. Fang Fang was still out there.

Climbing up the ladder, he hoisted the manhole cover aside and hauled himself up. He found himself in the middle of an empty street. Night had fallen, and the streetlights lit the world in amber.

He pulled the gas mask off his face and took a deep breath.

Gagged.

Put it back on.

He looked around. The pavement was narrow and cracked. Derelict buildings lined the roads, obscene graffiti painted and re-painted over the peeling facades. Qi glowed all around him. People, and pets.

A pair of faces peered out from a nearby alley. He approached them.

“Hello! I’m a Defender. I’ve got a couple of—”

They ran off.

He sighed.

Tapping his utility band, he called Fu.

“Are you done yet?” Fu demanded.

“No. I slew a beast in the sewers. A xianglong. And I had to defend myself against three thugs.”

“What happened?”

Sun summarized his subterranean encounters as quickly as he could.

“I leave you out of sight and this happens…” Fu sighed. “Well, that’s one less beast to worry about. Where are you now?”

Sun illuminated the nearest street sign.

“Heping Avenue. I’m still looking for the victim.”

Wei, we’re not paying you to look for your girlfriend.”

“The criminals are skilled cultivators who anticipated my every move. This isn’t an ordinary kidnap. There’s something else going on here. I’m continuing my pursuit.”

“Negative! Stay put.”

“She’s still out there—”

“Stay put,” Fu repeated. “You’ve got a dead beast and three downed suspects in the sewers. Your must preserve the scene for the police.”

“But—”

“Do you have a visual on her? Any more clues?”

Sun reached for his spirit sense. Expanded it as far as he could. Probed every square inch he could sense.

Nothing.

“No,” he admitted.

“There you go. Preserve the scene.” Fu’s voice softened. “You have my sympathies, but the city takes priority over one woman. Once we can, we will look for her. But right now, you have your duty. Understood?”

“Yes.”

Sun swore and paced the street. If he could just find something, anything, he could leave the scene.

But there were no more pearls, and no one else wanted to speak to him.

Police sirens howled. Returning to the manhole, he arrived just in time for police cars to come screeching to a halt. He readied his badge as a powerful flashlight shone into his face.

“Police! Show me your ID!”

Sun raised his badge. “I’m a Defender!”

The light quickly lowered, revealing a fresh-faced cop. “Sorry, sir.”

“No worries. Are you my backup?”

“Yes sir.”

A grizzled sergeant muscled past the cop.

“You the one who beat down the bad guys down the hole?” the sergeant asked.

“Yes,” Sun said.

“Come with us. We need your statement at the station.”

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Previous chapters: 12345

For more martial arts, magic and monsters, check out my novel Hammer of the Witches.

Realm of Beasts Chapter 5

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Hot on Her Trail

He needed a full-body protective suit, complete with self-contained breathing apparatus. He made do with his suit, helmet, and a gas mask.

Drawing a crowbar from interspatial storage, he lifted the manhole cover and set it aside. Sucking in a deep breath, he inhaled only the heavy odor of stiff rubber.

He returned the crowbar to his storage and prepared to descend…

Wait.

The sirens were still screaming. The Defenders were still out there. And the last thing he needed was to be declared absent without official leave. Bringing his utility band to his face, he called Fu Da Hai.

“What the devil are you doing? Where are you?” Fu shouted.

“The missing person I told you about has been kidnapped.”

“Leave it to the police!”

“She’s a Barrier Technician, and she was kidnapped by two cultivators with the ability to erase their presence. That makes it our business.”

Fu pondered his words for a moment.

“How do you know she’s been kidnapped?”

“She’s left a trail for me to follow. Including a qi pearl that showed me what happened to her.”

Fu grunted. “Where is she?”

“The sewers.”

“The sewers? It’s a no-go zone. Beasts infiltrate the city through the sewers. We do not enter the sewers during the Ghost Month.”

“We can’t let the kidnappers get away.”

“You could run into high-level beasts down there. Nobody will save you.”

“I’m not asking for permission. I’m going in.”

“You…” Fu sighed. “I can’t spare any backup. You’ll be on your own.”

“I understand.”

“Keep me updated.”

Sun grabbed the ladder and gingerly climbed down. It was hot. Dark. Sweat built up under his mask. Water gushed nearby.

He drew his flashlight, holding it in his left hand and clicked it on. Now he saw that he was standing on a narrow concrete platform. Dirty brown fluid gushed through an outfall by his side. Up ahead, a tunnel lead to who knew where.

A warning flashed across the eyepiece of his gas mask. High concentration of methane. A shot could ignite the gas.

He drew his jian and ventured into the darkness. He held his flashlight high above his head, angling it down and ahead of him. With the gas mask in play, he couldn’t hear much and smelled nothing.

He fired up his spirit sense.

There was so much noxious energy here, his effective range was reduced to barely fifty meters. Even so, dozens, hundreds of tiny creatures scampered about at the edge of his detection field. Rats and cockroaches and maggots and worms.

And a glowing pearl.

He found the pearl at a T-junction. Touching it, the pearl unfolded into an arrow pointing left.

Deeper and deeper he went, following the pearls. No more compressed memories, only arrows pointing the way ahead. She couldn’t afford to get caught.

He checked every corner he encountered, sword at the ready. Every few minutes, he paused and peeked over his shoulder. All he saw was the occasional rat. He kept his ears pricked, but he only heard his own heavy breathing.

His throat grew dry, but his suit’s hydration bladder was empty and he didn’t dare open his water canteen. Stupid, he should have refilled the bladder when he had a chance. He licked his lips, kept his now-warm flashlight, and followed her trail.

The string of pearls led him from narrow claustrophobic tubes to maintenance catwalks to sludge-caked channels. With so much filth and waste qi in the air, the enemy’s energy trail would be smothered. What little of it they hadn’t cleaned up. All he had to go on was her pearls.

There was no backtracking, no circling around. Whoever the perpetrators were, they were either intimately familiar with the underground or had planned and prepared for this job for a long time. They weren’t average criminals. They must have wanted something from Fang Fang.

Whatever it was, he would make sure they wouldn’t—

In his spirit sense, he saw the sewer’s inhabitants scatter.

He gripped his sword tightly. Prey always knew when predators were nearby.

He found the next pearl. Small and dim, it turned into an arrow pointing down a tunnel. The sound of rushing water filtered through his mask.

Past the tunnel, he found a storm drain. Another pearl, tinier than the first, guided him to his left. The tunnel was massive, easily large enough to fit a train and then some. Filthy water spewed from a multitude of cracks in the walls and ceiling. Sewage overflowed the central channel. There was no way to stay dry.

Sighing, he cautiously stepped into the sewage. His boot touched something soft and slippery. The wastewater came up to his ankles. He winced and forced himself to keep going. At least his boots were waterproof.

Gingerly maneuvering around the leaks, he kept going forward, looking for a sign of her passage. Smaller tunnels branched off to his left and right, but there were no pearls pointing that way. The walls were uniformly dirty, with no sign of recent passage. He kept going, sweeping the waters ahead, consulting his spirit sense.

Nothing. No signs of life anywhere. It didn’t feel right. It felt as if…

At the edge of his flashlight’s throw, ripples spread through the water.

He squinted. Angled the light down the tunnel.

Something heavy sloshed through the wastewater. Something huge.

He checked his spirit sense. Nothing.

Nothing? Or was the creature simply indistinguishable from the foul qi of the sewers?

As he framed that thought, an enormous serpentine bulk slithered into view. Muck sluiced off and around it, revealing a mass of dull white scales. Its sinuous body coiled round and round, clinging to the walls and ceiling and floor. The creature had the girth of a stout oak tree. Thickly-muscled legs ran down the length of its body, ending in ham-sized paws digging into the eroded brick. The beast’s head curled down from the ceiling, staring at him with amber reptilian eyes. It opened its long, thin jaws, revealing long rows of stained yellow teeth, and loosed a deafening bellow.

It was a jiaolong.

And it pounced.

Sun stepped aside, barely dodging its enormous jaws, and slashed. His blade slid off the pale scales. The beast roared. Out the corner of his eye, a dark mass fell on him. He turned into it, weapon ready. A heavy paw slammed into his steel. His boot slipped. He swiftly compensated, dropping into low and wide stance.

The jiaolong raised its paw for another blow. Leaping away, he slashed. The jiaolong’s scales turned his jian aside.

The creature undulated. It was turning around, trying to cut him off and crush him. He jumped into clear space. And ran.

The giant snake bellowed again, chasing him.

The textbook response was gun, grenade, or mine. He had all three in storage, but there was still too much methane. All he could use was his jian.

It would have to do.

The jiaolong had twisted round and round the tunnel, sticking to the walls. If he evaded its jaws and tried to strike it from the rear, he would expose himself to its claws—or it could simply fall and crush him under its mass. It was large, but not so large it wouldn’t fit in the side tunnels.

He had to make a stand.

The jiaolong pounced again. Sun jumped aside. Sewage splashed all over his suit. Grimacing, he wiped his eyepiece and ran. The beast chased him, winding round and round the tunnel, its claws scraping against stone and sludge.

And the end of the storm drain loomed dead ahead.

He faced the creature. Raised his flashlight to his temple. Held his jian low. Sent a wave of qisurging through his body and into his sword.

He waited.

The creature stalked towards him, winding round and round and round, closing in for the kill. It took his time, its tongue darting in and out, its head swaying from side to side.

He waited.

The jiaolong slinked closer, making its final approach, judging the distance between them.

He lit up its eyes.

The beast hissed once more, rearing its head back.

Keeping the light exactly where it was, he stepped to his right.

The jiaolong lunged for the light.

Sun thrust.

The jian pierced the beast’s eye, penetrated bone, and sank deep into its brain.

The beast spasmed, its limbs flailing in every direction, its body twitching. It crashed into the sewage, spattering sludge all over Sun. Shuddering, he withdrew his sword and stabbed it in the other eye.

The creature went still. It was most definitely dead.

He gingerly stepped over the beast and checked his utility band. He had no reception here. He’d have to call it in once he was on the surface.

He headed back down the storm drain, retracing his footsteps. Calming down with deep, regular breaths, he turned to his spirit sense again, seeking out signs of life.

Nothing.

He trudged through the sewage, heading to the far end of the tunnel. He sensed the rats returning, saw mold growing on the walls, edged around the leaking walls as best as he could. But, at the far end of the storm drain, he didn’t sense a pearl.

Fang Fang was gone.

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Previous parts: 1234

If you enjoy martial arts, magic and monsters, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

Realm of Beasts Chapter 4

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Missing

Sun Yao called the Central District Barrier Station. After suffering through multiple transfers, he finally reached the duty manager, where he enjoyed the privilege of asking one question.

“Has Liu Fang Fang left the building?”

“Yes,” the manager said. “She completed her shift and left the building at six thirty-seven.”

Something must have happened to her. Either on the way home or inside her apartment. Sun contacted the front desk at the Defenders’ Guild.

“This is Defender Sun Yao. Do we have any incidents today related to a Liu Fang Fang?”

“How do you write her name?”

“‘Liu’ is ‘flow’ from ‘flowing water’, ‘Fang’ means ‘fragrance’.”

“One moment… No records.”

“Any beast activity in the Central District?”

“No. The barrier kept them out.”

Sun hung up. He had to investigate her apartment. But he had to assume the worst. If someone knew who she was, if that someone had left a trap behind…

Drawing his infinity pistol, he cracked the door open. No security bolt. No tripwire. No signs of life.

Slowly, slowly, he continued pushing the door, ready to ease off the moment he felt even the slightest hint of resistance.

No tripwire.

He stepped into the hallway past the door. The faint scent of sandalwood smoke tickled his nose. The final rays of the setting sun played through the windows. Slowly, methodically, he searched the apartment.

The closet next to the door was filled with nothing more nefarious than coats, shoes and bags. The modest kitchen opposite the closet was small but adequately equipped, but there was no sign that she was preparing a meal. The living room was spick and span, and the store room packed with all kinds of odds and ends.

In a corner of the living room, an altar to the Goddess of Mercy faced the door. A porcelain statuette of the goddess, seated on a lotus blossom with her right hand raised, took pride of place. In front of the goddess there was a bowl of incense, a cup of fresh water, and an oil lamp.

The bronze bowl was filled with ashes, the incense consumed long ago. The oil lamp was empty. He touched the cup of water and discovered it was at room temperature.

In the bathroom he found nothing more suspicious than hair products, makeup and toiletries. And at the balcony he found nothing.

With slight trepidation, he entered her bedroom. The last time he’d been in her room was five years ago, when they were still in high school and still studied at each other’s homes.

The bedroom was… neat. Clean. The bed was made and the dressing table spotless. An alarm clock and a lamp rested on a nightstand, while a potted plant sat on the other. Her closet was overflowing with clothes and bags.

No sign of her.

He thought about everything he had observed. The refrigerator was stocked. The closets were stuffed. The apartment was neat and tidy. The offerings to the Goddess of Mercy had yet to be changed. The windows were all closed, but the air didn’t feel stagnant.

She hadn’t planned for a long absence. Which meant she had to leave without advance warning, and without time to pack.

Or…

He sniffed the air.

A faint floral scent filled the air, sweet and subtle. It was the fragrance he had always associated with her. She’d lived here for so long her scent permeated the room.

But why hadn’t he sensed her qi?

His glasses vibrated against his skull. Incoming call.

“Sun Yao, you done with dinner?” Fu Hai Long asked.

“Haven’t even started. What’s wrong?”

“There’s a callout.”

Civil defense sirens wailed in the distance. A robotic voice warbled a prerecorded announcement, too muffled for him to make out.

“I can’t respond to this one.”

“Why not?” Fu demanded.

“I’m handling a potential missing persons case.”

“Leave it to the police,” Fu snapped. “We have reports of multiple beasts terrorizing the city. We need all hands on deck.”

“I don’t think it’s a missing person. It looks like a kidnap.”

“So? People are dying!”

“The missing person is a Barrier Technician. She’s a critical defense asset—”

“Is she the girl you’re meeting?”

“I’m busy investigating. I’ll call you back.”

“Wait!”

Sun hung up.

Sitting on the floor, he took a deep breath, tuned out the sirens, and called up his spirit sense. He expanded his senses as far as they would go, maximizing his reach, feeling for every scrap of qi in the apartment.

Nothing.

That was it. There was no qi here. That was wrong. This was Fang Fang’s home, and she was a cultivator. Her apartment would be filled with her energy. It wouldn’t be empty.

Unless someone else had cleared it out.

He strode to the balcony. From here he had a clear line of sight to the street. He closed his eyes. Stuffed his fingers into his ears. Tried to tune out the sirens howling in the distance. And focused on feeling the world.

There were people in the apartments above, below and around him. Pedestrians scurried for cover. Shutters slammed shut, cars screeched to a halt, guns shouted in the distance. He ignored them all, focusing on…

There.

At the edge of his perception, he detected a tiny pearl of glowing white qi. Almost imperceptible, but he was as familiar with that specific qi signature as his own.

He closed the balcony door, activated qinggong, and leapt down to the sidewalk. Sprinted down the empty streets, made a left turn, a right turn, and found the qi pearl. It was floating above a manhole.

Reaching out, he touched the pearl, absorbing it into his body, feeling it with his heart—

A huge man hauled her over her shoulder. She kicked and flailed but her hands and feet were cuffed.

“Stop it!” the man shouted.

She kept resisting, she kept fighting, she had to fight—

Electricity tore through her body. White-hot pain fried her nerves, locked her muscles, froze her joints.

And the pain stopped.

“Keep fighting and it’ll get worse.”

She slumped, defeated.

A second man lifted the manhole cover. Hot, stinking gas wafted from the opening. She wrinkled her nose.

She couldn’t fight them. Not like this. She wasn’t a fighter, and they’d stripped her of the bangles she needed to cast her barrier.

But she could leave a trace.

The first man was wearing some kind of harness. The second man strapped her in. She focused her energies, creating a tiny ball. Filled with subtle energy, it was undetectable to anyone who wasn’t looking for it. Certainly not these men, too distracted with the logistics of kidnapping her. She floated the ball into the air, filling it with her thoughts and memories.

Sun Yao, help me! I don’t know who these men are. They were waiting for me at home and took me by force. I don’t know what they want. I’ll leave a trail for you to follow. Please, help—

She fell.

Reality snapped back into focus. Sun’s mind cleared. He gritted his teeth. Clenched his fists. Sucked a breath.

“Hang on, Fang Fang. I’m coming.”

Cheah Git San Red.jpg

For more stories that combine mysteries, magic and monsters, check out my novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

Realm of Beasts Chapter 3

Sword.png

A Day in the Life

Six days. Eighty-three incidents. Twenty-two Defenders.

This city was insane. The second he received his issue gear and vehicle from the Defenders’ Guild, he hit the street running and never stopped. Day became night became day became night again. Sleep was the period of non-wakefulness between callouts.

At the border of the wildlands, this city was one of the most dangerous places for a Defender. Beast attacks were commonplace. Many Defenders were never assigned here. Those who did didn’t always survive their tour. It was almost unheard of for rookies to be deployed here.

But Sun had insisted. And he worked triply hard in the Academy to prove he was worthy.

After all, she was here.

And so, for his efforts, he had the honor of handling the eighty-fourth incident.

A xiangliu.

The massive serpent wound sinuously across the river’s surface, cutting swiftly through the water. Its nine heads fanned out in every direction, seeking prey. Oily streaks and shattered planks floated in its wake, the remains of boats too slow or too unfortunate to get out of its way.

Circulating qi through his body, he supercharged his limbs and pounded the pavement. Sirens howled all around him. Shutters slammed shut over windows and doors. Civilians ran in every direction. Some pounded uselessly on the barricades. Others curled up and pretended to be dead. Still more ran about like headless chickens, fleeing the beast.

“Defenders! Make way!” Sun shouted.

His infinity gun held high across his chest, he followed the beast’s trail. It was fast, but so was he. Utilizing the art of qinggong, he was as light as a feather, his limbs the match of a purebred stallion.

The gigantic beast was headed upriver, racing for the Bund. Great white domes loomed in the distance, protecting the city’s heart. There was no risk a single xiangliu would breach the barriers, but that was cold comfort to everyone caught outside.

Out the corner of his eye, Sun saw Fu sprinting up alongside him.

“Hey!” Sun yelled. “Will the police help us?”

“They won’t!” Fu replied. “They’re not trained for this! We have to slay the beast ourselves!”

“How? It’s huge!

The xiangliu reared its heads. Its enormous torso rose above the two- and three-story shophouses that lined the waterfront. Hissing, the serpent struck. Heads battered against shutters, smashed furniture, gobbled down unlucky humans.

“Shoot it until it dies!” Fu advised.

The xiangliu weaved back and forth across the green river, never staying still, its heads dancing in every direction. And right in front of the xiangliu were even more shophouses.

Shooting was easy. Not hitting a civilian was beyond him.

“I don’t have a clear shot!” he yelled.

As his words left his mouth, the xiangliu swerved around a river bend, leaving his line of sight.

“Keep up with me, rookie!” Fu ordered.

Qi emanated from the senior Defender. Subtle energies warped the world around him. He blurred.

Vanished.

And reappeared down the street.

“What the devil…?”

Fu blurred again. Now he saw Fu, a swiftly-moving shadow cutting through the air. Fu rematerialized at the bend.
Sun’s smartglasses transmitted Fu’s voice into his skull.

“Over here, Sun Yao!”

“I don’t have that technique!” Sun replied, still sprinting.

“If you don’t keep up, I’m claiming the bounty!”

Sun didn’t waste his breath replying. He just kept running.

Higher-level Defenders had access to a staggering array of skills. With proper cultivation, they could develop their powers however they liked, suiting their unique personalities and preferences. Sun, fresh from the Academy, only had foundational skills. He couldn’t hope to keep up with Fu. He didn’t even know what Fu had done.

Rounding the bend, he caught sight of the xiangliu again. A barrage of bolts slammed into its back. The creature howled, all nine heads searching for the source of the gunfire.

“Rookie, shoot the water around it! Force it out on land!” Fu ordered.

Taking careful aim, Sun set his weapon to full auto and triggered a long burst. Geysers erupted around the creature. It writhed in agony. Coiling up, it leapt out of the river, slamming heavily on the pavement.

Muzzle flashes winked from the roof of a shophouse. More bolts lashed the creature’s back. Squinting, Sun saw Fu perched on the roof of the building.

Four snake heads turned to glare at Fu. The other five twisted around to face Sun. Forked tongues darted in and out, tasting the air. No shot. A xianglu was armored all over—except its underside.

“Cover me!” Sun shouted.

He charged the beast. The nine-headed snake hissed. Fu blasted away at it, but the beast didn’t seem to care. Sun had the complete attention if the five heads eyeing him.

Sun dropped to a knee. Aimed up. Now, even if he missed, the bolt would soar harmlessly into the sky. He locked on the nearest head and pressed the trigger.

Star-bright bolts blew through its neck. The head splashed into the river. Screeching, four heads plunged down on him.

Sun rocketed off the ground, pushing off with all his qi-augmented might. The heads crashed into the pavement, smashing the weathered stone. Shrapnel struck Sun’s combat suit, bouncing off his chest plate. A head curved up, staring at him.

He shot its eyes.

The xiulong hissed, rearing up in pain—and exposing its soft belly.

Sun dropped to the prone. Planted his crosshair on the soft white flesh. And held down the trigger.

Red steam. Gray dust. The snake convulsed and screeched and went limp. As its heads came crashing down, Sun rolled to his feet and sprang away.

The heads slammed into the ground with a bone-shaking BOOM. Sun counted four… well, three and a half intact heads. Somewhere in the chaos, Fu had blown off the other heads.

The air parted next to him. Fu popped out into the real world.

“Good job, rookie.”

Sun wiped the sweat off his brow. “Thanks. What technique did you use to move around so fast?”

“Spatial manipulation, fifth degree.”

Fifth? Fu must have been a cultivator for a decade.

“Must be nice to have a specialization,” Sun said.

“You don’t have one? Oh, of course you don’t have one. This isn’t even your first week on the job.”

“Yeah. I only have the basic Three Dantian Empowerment.”

They inspected the corpse, prodding the cooling flesh and examining the wounds. No heart, no breath, most definitively dead. Sun stepped aside and worked his glasses.

“Dispatch, this is Defender Sun Yao. Our target has been eliminated. Requesting coroner team at…” he looked around. “Spark House.”

“Roger. Coroner team is on the way,” Dispatch replied.

“Ask if there are any more jobs!” Fu shouted.

“Do you have anything else for us?” Sun added.

“Negative. Board is clear.”

Sun heaved a sigh of relief. “Thanks.” He hung up and added, “Defender Fu, there’s nothing for us now.”

“Enjoy the calm while it lasts,” Fu said.

The sirens went silent. The shutters began to rise. Civilians crawled out of their hiding places. They whipped out their phones and glasses, taking snapshots of the body and whispering among themselves.

“Is anybody injured? Does anyone need medical attention?” Fu yelled.

No one responded. They were too busy taking photos and videos.

The police popped up out of the holes they had hidden in and circulated the area. As Sun moved to join them, Fu laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Let them do their jobs,” Fu said. “We’ll guard the body.”

“Guard the body? There’s plenty of wounded around here.”

“If the police need us, they’ll call us. Until then, conserve your qi. The day isn’t over yet.”

Cultivator he may be, but he didn’t have unlimited stores of qi. Sun retrieved a bottle of energy tonic from interspatial storage and gulped it down. Fresh blood and qi pumped through his body. His skin flushed, his face warmed, his dantian recharged.

“Why do we need to guard the body anyway?” Sun asked.

“Scavengers,” Fu said. “Leave a dead monster alone and they’ll pick the beast apart like vultures. They’ll take the skin, meat, bones and organs and sell them on the black market. Black doctors would buy them, grind them up, mix them with all kinds of rubbish, and sell them as ‘elixirs’.”

Sun sighed. A Defender’s bounty was calculated by the weight and quality of flesh, bone and organs harvested from slain beasts. Scavengers were thieves. And there was no telling what poisons went into black market elixirs.

“Every day we descend deeper into the Realm of Beasts,” Sun said.

“You’re religious?”

“I try to be.”

Fu shrugged. “So long as it keeps you sane.”

“Yes, this place is insane. I’ve never seen so many beasts in one place in my life.”

“It’s the seventh month. The gates of Hell are open, ghosts walk the land, and the beasts of the world follow them.”

“I thought it was a rumor.”

“It’s reality for us.”

“Why isn’t the City Barrier online?”

“If we kept it raised all the time, we’d starve. Planes, ships and trucks won’t be able to enter the city. It’s only ever raised during an emergency. For individual beasts like this, there’s the local Barriers.”

“Which sucks for the seventy percent of the population who can’t afford one.”

“On the bright side, we’ll always have a job.”

A dozen men in white hazmat suits approached the Defenders. Their leader waved.

“Defender Fu!” he called.

“Mr Shen. Took you look enough.”

Shen shrugged apologetically. “You know how busy it gets during the Ghost Month.”

The coroner team laid out series of gigantic plastic sheets on the pavement. Sun stepped out of their way. They must be planning to wrap up the corpse in plastic. But… how were they planning to move it?

“How do you handle massive corpses like that?” Sun asked.

“We’ve got a transporter just around the corner,” Shen replied.

Qi surged around Sun. The coroner team glowed. Six men grabbed a head each. Five more latched on to the body. Together, they hauled it across the pavement. Shen shouted instructions, guiding his men along.

“You want to take a break?” Fu asked.

“I can?” Sun asked.

“This job’s a marathon, not a sprint. You need downtime whenever you can take it. Besides, didn’t you promise to see your girlfriend?”

“She’s not my girlfriend.”

Fu laughed. “Go on, get going. If we need you, we’ll call you.”

The car was still where he’d parked it. Nobody messed with any vehicle that bore the red-and-blue stripes of the Defenders’ Guild. Nobody sane, anyway.

Inside the relative privacy of his vehicle, Sun called Liu. She picked up after the first ring.

“It’s me,” he said.

“‘It’s me’?” she echoed. “But I’m me. Who are you?”

“Very funny.”

She giggled. “You don’t call, you don’t write, you don’t visit…”

“I’m calling you now. Are you busy?”

“My shift ends in fifteen minutes. What’s up?”

“I’ve got some free time. Want to have dinner?”

“Sure! Where do you want to go?”

“I’m still trying to find my way around this city. Any recommendations?”

“We could have dinner at my place.”

“Great. Where is it?”

“Seventy-seven Hanzhou Street. Unit five-eighteen. Could you be there in an hour?”

“Sure. See you then.”

In the relative privacy of his car, he changed into the only set of civilian clothing he owned, a plain white shirt and gray slacks. He applied fresh bandages on his cuts—he’d picked up a dozen over the past six days—and washed up in a public toilet before heading to Liu’s home.

The apartment blocks of Hanzhou Street loomed over him. Fifteen, twenty, thirty stories tall, so tall he had to crane his neck just to see the top. He’d spent most of his life living in a cramped single-story home in Hongcun and a succession of tents and dorms after joining the Defenders; he still didn’t know how people could live so high in the air.

He made his way to her door. A little early, but he supposed she wouldn’t mind. He rang the doorbell.

Nothing happened.

He knocked on the door.

No response.

He called her. The phone rang and rang and rang. Then:

“The number you have dialed is currently not available. Please try again later.”

He activated his spirit sense. No one was in.

Odd. If she were running late, she would have called him. She wouldn’t flake out on him like that.

He tested the doorknob. It turned.

She wouldn’t leave the door unlocked.

Something was wrong.

Cheah Git San Red

Previous chapters: 12

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

Reminder: SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE Open Call on 14th February

In case you missed it, the #SteemPulp crew’s first open call, SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE, opens on 14th February. A Steemit-exclusive event, SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE aims to champion pulp-style stories and identify promising talent on Steemit.

The theme for SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE is love and chivalry. No genre restrictions, but we want pulp-style stories — fun, action-packed stories that place entertaining the reader first.

To participate, publish your story on 14th February in your local time zone and tag it with ‘swordsofstvalentine’. If you’re planning to write a serial, you must complete the story by the end of the month. There is no minimum word limit, but there is a hard limit of 15,000 words.

All authors who participate will receive compensation through Steemit payouts. Everyone who participates in this event will stand a chance to earn fair compensation for their time and energy invested in the story, and there is great incentive to publicise their stories far and wide. Authors of the best stories will be invited to submit their stories to the SteemPulp crew for inclusion in an anthology.

The selection criteria is two fold: fit to theme and aesthetic, followed by number of upvotes. Authors who pay for bot upvoting and resteeming services or use sock puppet accounts to upvote their own stories will be disqualified. There will not be a penalty for using the platform’s native post promotion service, and writers who are discovered by content curators will receive extra credit. Total payouts will not be considered as part of the selection critiera; an upvote from a whale carries the same weight as a minnow.

To summarise, here are the requirements for SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE:

Theme: Love and chivalry. Story must fit the pulp aesthetic.
Word count: No minimum. Hard limit of 15,000 words.
Event opening date: 14 February 2018. Publish your story, or the first part of a serialised story, on this date.
Event completion date: 28 February 2018. Serialised stories must be completed by then.
Selection criteria: Fit to theme and aesthetic, and number of upvotes.
Disqualification criteria: Use of paid upvoting and resteem bot services, and use of sock puppets. Use of Steemit’s native promotion service is allowed.
Extra credit: Discovery by content creators.
Compensation: Payouts on Steemit.

Selection and slush reading shall be performed by the SteemPulp Council — members of the SteemPulp crew who have pledged to participate in the event. Even now, @everhart@noughtshayde@t2tang@jimfear138@notjohndaker and @jd-alden are punching away at their keyboards, composing the finest fiction yet to be seen on Steemit.

I, Herald of the PulpRev and Warboss of Steemit, will also publish a story for this event. There will be fearless xiake wielding sword and gun, rampaging man-eating beasts, superpowered cultivators and martial valour. It shall be a tale where East and West collide and combine into a shining alloy of undiluted awesomeness.

SteemPulp is here to take Steemit by storm. Join us, and we will Make Fiction Great Again.

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Cover image credit: Saint Valentine on stained glass, royalty-free stock photo on Dreamstime.

To get a taste of the kind of stories we’re looking for, check out our PulpRev Sampler here.

Cheah on GeekGab!

Yesterday I had the great honour and pleasure to appear on GeekGab yesterday to discuss Steemit and the Pulp Revolution with Daddy Warpig and John McGlynn. Alas, Internet reception is spotty in my area: there was a lot of static and I got cut out halfway through the interview for a few minutes.

Regardless, here are the main takeaways from the interview, plus some thoughts I didn’t have time to articulate:

The Steemit Advantage

Steemit offers three main advantages. First, with the content committed to a decentralised blockchain instead of a centralised server, a Steemit blog is inherently resistant to external attacks and disasters. Second, no external party can alter the blockchain after commits are made, allowing users to bypass censorship laws and agencies. Lastly, Steemit helps users monetise content that they would otherwise post on social media for free.

To add on to the interview, I don’t think Steemit can replace a traditional blog anytime soon; it’s simply not user-friendly enough to search for older posts or similar posts by the same user. Further, it offers no defense against cyber-squatting. I still maintain a traditional website here, though my first blogging platform of choice is Steemit. Nonetheless, the incentives built into the Steemit platform incentivises everyone to write more, upvote more, comment more and keep improving their writing standard. It’s a virtuous cycle that rewards those who invest time and energy into mastering the craft and understanding the system.

Steemit is Self-Regulating

Posts can’t be deleted after being committed to the blockchain, and they can’t be edited after the payout period. This gives rise to concerns like copyright infringement and (not mentioned in the podcast) harmful content like child pornography and terrorist propaganda.

Fortunately, Steemit is self-regulating. Volunteers and bots like @steemcleaners and @cheetah work tirelessly to identify incidences of copyright infringement, spam and abuse, and flag violators into oblivion. With sufficient voting power, flagging makes posts so obscure they can’t be found. Likewise, users who find harmful content on Steemit are also able to flag such posts. To counter flag abuse, other accounts like @seraph will upvote posts to cancel out the effects of unfair flagging.

It doesn’t mean all is well in Steemit. Whale wars, flag abuse and disproportionate rewards remain points of contention even today. But it’s in everyone’s interest to see Steemit grow and prosper, and I’m confident that the Steemit community will develop organic solutions to these issues.

PulpRev is Here to Stay

Steemit offers writers the ability to monetise their stories twice. First by posting them on Steemit, and then by selling them again on Amazon and elsewhere. It’s an approach I’ve used for Invincible, and I plan on utilising it for future stories.

To be clear, you can’t predict how much money you’ll earn from a post on Steemit. You might get lucky and earn hundreds, even thousands, of Steem tokens. You might make less than a dollar. But the more you work, the luckier you become. Newbies like @jimfear138@t2tangand @notjohndaker have already enjoyed huge payoffs from their stories, and they are committed to pushing out even more content.

PulpRev is here to stay on Steemit. Everyone who uses the #steempulp tag is part of the Pulp Revolution, and is committed to regularly producing high-energy tales for your enjoyment. In #steempulp you’ll find something for everyone: fantasy, horror, science fiction, noir. We’ll set the gold standard for all fiction on Steemit.

And on 14 February, we will unleash our first coordinated fiction campaign: SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE.


Cheah Git San Calligraphy.jpg

To learn more about SWORDS OF SAINT VALENTINE, click here.

To read my latest Steemit serial, THE SHANGHAI SONGBIRD, click here.

And for more long-form fiction, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

The Shanghai Songbird Part 5

A volley of shots rang out. A fiery hammer slammed into Lee’s abdomen. He coughed, going straight down. His vision blurred, his chest burned, wet heat squirted out of the wound. He saw the Songbird turn and run. He raised the Nambu and fired.

Missed.

She pointed her weapon over her shoulder and squeezed off a couple of rounds. A bullet slapped the sidewalk next to Lee’s face. Flinching, Lee pointed at her and pressed the trigger.

Nothing.

No more ammo.

The woman tottered over to her car. Swearing, Lee released the empty gun and tried to get up. But his torso ignited in firestorm of pain and forced him down.

“Hey…”

Lee looked to his right. Wong was on his back, trying to plug a hole in his throat with his left hand. With his right, he held out his Colt.

“Take…” Wong whispered.

Lee reached out. Grabbed the weapon. Propped himself up.

Ouyang was rounding the bonnet of her car, going for the driver’s seat. In the dim glow of the streetlight he could just about see her face framed in the car window.

He aimed. Almost shouted a warning. Then he remembered that he wasn’t a cop anymore, and this was Shanghai.

He fired. Again and again and again, the muzzle flash stealing his sight and the sharp flat report robbing his hearing. He fired and fired and fired until the Colt went dry.

He squinted, trying see past the purple spots in his sight. The window glass had been shattered. No sign of the Songbird. Grunting, he pushed himself up, pushing past the pain in his torso, and shuffled to the car.

She lay spread-eagle on the road, a dark pool blooming from her head. She was beautiful, once, before glass shrapnel shredded her face. She was still breathing, barely, and in the darkness he couldn’t see her wound. If any. He kicked the pistol out of her hand. A wet gurgle escaped her mouth, overcome by a torrent of blood. She looked at him, parted her lips, exhaled, and died.

The last of Lee’s strength bled dry. The Colt slipped from his hand and bounced off the road. He dropped to his ass, dimly aware of his hands and feet rapidly going cold. Every breath filled him with pain. He held his hand to his wound, trying and failing to hold back the surge of blood.

In the distance, police whistles blew. The police was finally, finally, coming, certain now that they wouldn’t be wandering into the middle of a gangland gunfight. In his blurring vision, he thought he saw a squad of uniformed policemen running down the road.

Who were they? Japanese? Chinese? Or—

“Shanghai Municipal Police!” a cop yelled.

In English.

Lee smiled.

****
The next few hours passed in a blurry haze. He remembered the searing pain as the British policemen hauled him to safety, the ambulance ride at breakneck speeds, the muttering of nurses and doctors as they prepared him for surgery.

When Lee was capable of conscious thought, it was daylight. He squinted against the morning sun streaming in through the window. He was lying on a stiff mattress, covered in a plain white sheet. His abs ached, but not as much as when he’d been shot.

He hazarded a look around. He was in a twelve-man ward. A quarter of the beds were empty. The other bed was filled with hard men with harder eyes. Tattoos of dragons, gods and Buddhas covered their arms and necks and faces. Some of them chatted with each other amicably, while the others studiously ignored everyone else.

A nurse looked up from her desk. Smiling, she strode over to Lee.

“You’re awake,” she said.

Lee nodded. “Where am I?”

“Shanghai General Hospital.” She consulted her clipboard. “You were admitted about six hours ago, and underwent emergency surgery for a gunshot wound to the abdomen. You seem to be doing well. The doctor will give you a more detailed diagnosis when he makes his rounds.”

As the nurse examined him, Lee spotted a quintet of men strolling into the room. Four men protecting a fifth. The other patients straightened and called out greetings to the last man, or pointedly looked away and said nothing. The nurse glanced at him and continued working in silence, taking a couple of minutes longer than necessary.

Finally, the nurse retreated to her desk. The newcomers approached Lee’s bed.

“Mr Lee,” Tang said. “Not dead yet, I see.”

“Mr Tang,” Lee said. “I’d shake your hand, but I’ve been advised to remain lying on my back.”

Tang smiled mirthlessly. “I heard what happened last night. It wasn’t an ideal outcome, but the situation was resolved. Thank you for your hard work.”

“Don’t mention it. Have you seen Sergeant Wong?”

“I heard he’s three doors down. With the rest of his police friends.”

Shanghai was a dangerous place for police. Hospitals were supposed to be neutral ground, but there was too much blood spilt on too many streets for the police to rely on the honour of thieves.

“I appreciate you coming to visit me,” Lee said.

Tang shrugged. “I had business here.”

“Ah. So, what happens next?”

“Mr Lee, you did us a great service. You need not worry about your medical fees. And, we will double the fee Ms Ouyang promised you.”

“It is generous of you.”

“It is nothing. Incidentally, my group is always looking for good men…”

Lee laughed. Once. Then the pain in his belly forced him to stop.

Tang chuckled. “You’re not a policeman any more, Mr Lee. If the Japanese dogs learn what you did, you’ll need protection.”

“I’ll consider your offer.”

“I’m sure you will.”

The gangsters left as suddenly as they had come. Lee shifted around on his bed, making himself comfortable.

The Dragon Head was right. Someday there might be a reckoning with the Japanese. Someday the police or the triads might turn on him. Someday, he might find that there was no room in Shanghai for a mixed-blood man mixed up in crime and espionage.

But for now, he could rest.

The End


Cheah Git San Red.jpg

Previous parts: 1234

Thanks for reading The Shanghai Songbird. If you’d like more long form fiction, look out for my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

The Shanghai Songbird Part 4

“I’m still not giving you a gun,” Wong said.

Lee blew on his cold hands. “I didn’t ask for one.”

“I can hear the thought in your head.”

“Hey, we’re just seeing who shows up tonight. No need for shooting, right?”

Wong grunted sullenly.

Recruiting Wong had been simple enough. Lee simply waited outside his tiny apartment until Wong came home. A heated discussion followed indoors, but both men knew of Tang’s reputation. It was technically a matter for Special Branch, but by the time they were done arguing it was too late to contact Special Branch.

Besides, it was a surveillance job, plain and simple. They could do it just as well as the spycatchers.

They stayed in the dark inside Wong’s cramped car for the next two hours, unblinking and unmoving in the shadows, shifting only to duck under headlights of the occasional passing car.

At three minutes to four a dark saloon car circled around the block once, then parked opposite the club. Two men jumped out and headed to the door. The one in the lead rapped the door twice, then twice more. The door opened and both entered.

“They look Japanese to you?” Wong whispered.

“Can’t tell. It’s too dark,” Lee replied.

“We need to get the license plate number.”

“I’ll go. You keep an eye out.”

Lee scanned the shadow-shrouded streets and, satisfied there were no watchers, exited the car. Sauntering up to the Fiat, he slipped out his matchbook and struck a match, cupping the naked flame with his other hand.

And swore softly to himself.

Japanese diplomatic plates.

He read the numbers thrice, burning them into his brain. Extinguishing the match, he dropped the stub into a pocket and turned around.

Right into the muzzle of a gun.

“Hands up,” the gunman said in Japanese-accented Chinese.

Lee complied, leaning ever so slightly forward, taking a very small step towards the man.

“Who are you?” the Japanese asked.

Lee flicked his eyes from left to right. Behind the gunman was a deeper shadow near the car.

“Nobody, Lee said. “I just –”

BANG! BANG BANG BANG!

Glass shattered. The Japanese startled. Lee leapt in, circling his left arm to lock up the gun arm in his armpit, and blasted his right palm up into the man’s face. The blow almost bowled the man over. The Japanese jerked convulsively. The gun fired. Lee slammed another palm into the gunman’s face and simultaneously kneed him in the groin.

The Japanese fell over, slamming into the bonnet of a nearby car. Lee clenched his fist and hammered the man’s chest. The Japanese replied with a hard knife-hand block, just enough power to swipe his arm out of the way. The gunman flowed into a punch, just as Lee stomped hard on the man’s exposed foot. The punch, powered only by the shoulder, bounced off Lee’s forehead. The stomp crunched something. The Japanese screamed, sliding down the car. Lee grabbed the man’s skull and pounded it against the bonnet and bumper.

The Japanese went still. Lee stepped aside, stripped the gun and aimed it at the former threat. The Japanese remained still. Lee looked around and heard footsteps pounding up to him.

“Lee!” Wong shouted. “Are you okay?”

Lee looked over his shoulder and patted himself down.

“I’m good. What the hell happened?” Lee demanded.

“Bodyguards. Two of them. They were parked down the street behind us. When you went up to read the plate they came up to the car. One talked to me while the other went to you.”

“You shot your guy?”

He held up his smoking handgun, reloading with a fresh magazine. “Yeah. He won’t be a problem now. We need to go in and arrest the suspects before they can escape.”

“You get the front door. I’ll go around the back.”

Lee scurried down a nearby alley, which wrapped around to the rear of the club. Along the way he inspected the unfamiliar gun in his hand. It was a Japanese Nambu, a long, exposed snout of a barrel, a trigger, a handle and that was all he recognised. Lee remembered the weapon had an eight-round magazine, and since it fired earlier the safety was probably off. He wished for the Colt 1908 he’d trained on, but this was the gun he had.

Down the alley, he turned left, and in the pale moonlight saw four people scurry out the back of the club.

“Police! Stop!” Lee yelled.

“RUN!” a man shouted.

Two of them peeled away and raised gleaming objects in their hands. Lee ducked back just as a volley of shots rang out. The shooters were panicking, burning through their magazines as fast as they could fire. Lee flinched as clouds of brick dust peppered his face. When the shooting stopped he popped back out.

The two shooters were running down the alley, hurrying for cover. Lee pointed the Nambu at the nearer one’s centre of mass and pressed the trigger.

The muzzle blast stole his sight and flooded his ears. Wincing, Lee pointed at the other one but saw only a purple splotch. He fired anyway, and the brief sun illuminated two men stillon their feet. He blasted away, burning through half his magazine, before the men decided to drop.

“Run!” a woman shouted. “They’re coming! RUN!”

Two figures popped out of a nearby doorway, rushing for the mouth of the alley. One was smaller and slower, high heels clicking against the road. Lee sprinted in pursuit. As the leading figure turned a corner, the woman tripped, falling heavily to the road.

She cursed loudly in Japanese. A man replied in the same language. Lee readied his Nambu and turned the corner, coming face-to-face with the man.

“STOP! DON’T MOVE!” Lee yelled in Mandarin.

“Damn you!” the man cursed, in Shanghainese.

The figure leapt at Lee. Lee fired. The body slammed into him. The attacker screamed like a wildcat, flailing and clawing. Scrabbling with fingers and feet, Lee found the man’s shoulder and foot. Seizing it, he pulled the man down and swept out his leg, driving him into the sidewalk. Lee stomped the man in the head, and he went still.

Lee turned his attention to the woman. She was picking herself up, backing away from him.

“Ms. Ouyang?” Lee wheezed. He held his pistol low by his hip, unwilling to let her see his trembling arm. How many shots had he fired? Six? Seven? Was his gun empty?

“Mr. Lee,” she replied. She stood to her full height, bringing her handbag in front of her.

“Those men in the alleyway were Japanese.”

She stared at him in the eye. “Yes.”

Lee jerked his head at the man he’d thrown.

“That guy’s a collaborator?”

“He was my lover.”

Lee shrugged. Who knew what was in a woman’s heart? “Answer the question. Was he a collaborator?”

“Yes.”

“Your handler? Your local contact?”

She shrugged sullenly. “He was more than that…but yes. He was.”

“So, the rumours of you working with the Japanese are true.”

“Yes. What are you going to do about it?”

She clutched her handbag protectively.

“I’m just trying to learn the truth. You sent me to Tang to die, didn’t you? I mean, what kind of idiot in this city would just walk up to a triad and demand answers?”

“How did you survive?” She chuckled, shook his head. “How did he survive?”

“He gave me a way to find the truth. Too bad nobody told you about our history.”

She sighed, cursing. “I forgot. You had a reputation for fairness. Even towards the triads.” She shrugged and added, “What’s next? Are you’re going to hand me to Special Branch?”

Lee shrugged too. “Tell me, why did you collaborate with the Japanese?”

“I didn’t. I am Japanese.”

Lee blinked. “What?”

“I was born on the streets of Tsingtao. During the Great War, when the Japanese defeated the Germans, a Japanese soldier found me and brought me home to Tokyo. He raised me as his own daughter. The Genyosha recruited me at eighteen and sent me here, to Shanghai.”

“To make friends and influence people?”

“Yes.”

“You would betray your homeland? Betray your people?”

Her voice turned cold and flinty. “I am Japanese. And, there are more Japanese in Shanghai than any other foreign power. In a few more years, Shanghai might as well be Japanese too. I’m just speeding things along.”

“Lee!” Wong shouted, well behind him.

“I’m here!” Lee yelled back, keeping his gun on her.

Wong ran up, halting next to Lee.

“Caged the Songbird, eh, Lee?” Wong remarked.

“I guess I can’t persuade you to let me go,” Ouyang said. “I know your type too well.”

“If you come in quietly,” Wong said, “we can work out a deal.”

She sighed. “Well, boys, you caught me.”

“Put the bag down,” Wong said.

Crouching, she slowly placed the bag on the ground. Lee blinked hard, trying to peer through the spots dancing in his vision, but did her hand just reach inside…?

Lee extended his pistol. “Drop the bag!”

She dropped the bag.

Stood.

Fired.

Cheah Git San Red.jpg

Previous parts: 123

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

The Shanghai Songbird Part 3

Picking Tang out was easy. He was the only customer in the teahouse with a contingent of heavily-muscled goons. They strolled in with the self-assurance of tigers, and the other customers either greeted them or looked down into their cups.

Tang and three men entered the sole private room in the teahouse. The remaining four gangsters stood watch outside.
Lee took a final sip of tea. He’d been sitting here since the teahouse opened this morning. It had only been two days after the shooting, but if the gangsters had wanted him dead they’d have done something about him. That meant they weren’t opposed to talking.

Probably.

Slowly, he stood up and approached Tang’s room. Five steps later the four bodyguards barred his way.

“I wish to see your Dragon Head,” Lee said.

The gangster sneered, exposing a mouthful of rotted teeth. “He’s busy. Get lost.”

“I have business with him.”

“I don’t recognize you, and you’re disturbing us. Get out. Now.” The four gangsters crowded around Lee, placing hands on hips or hidden weapons.

“Tell him I’m—”

“I want to see him,” Tang interrupted.

The gangster looked into the room. “Boss? I—”

“I want to see him.” Tang’s tone was cold and flat.

The gangsters parted as quickly as they came. Tang, stroking his long thick beard, gestured at an empty chair on his left.

“Detective Lee,” Tang said. “It’s been too long. Come, sit. Would you like some tea?”

Lee obeyed. They must have been expecting him. The three other senior triad members around the table fixed burning gazes on him.

“Thank you for seeing me. I’m not a detective any more, and I won’t take up much of your time,” Lee said.

Tang poured Lee a glass of steaming amber tea. “You never came to me without good reason. Why are you here?”

Lee accepted the tea. “I want to apologize. What happened to your man, to Lin Da Hai, was an accident. I’m sorry for killing him.”

A sigh poured from Tang’s heart. “Ah, Lin Da Hai. He was always…brash. Overly eager.”

“I understand his funeral will be held soon.”

“Yes. Next Tuesday, in fact.”

“I have prepared baijin for him. It’s in my left pants pocket.”

Baijin was a cash contribution meant to help the family of the bereaved. Lee had filled his envelope with more than enough money to communicate his real intent.

“I will pass it to his family,” Tang said.

“You are truly a generous man,” Lee replied.

Lee slowly and carefully reached into his pants pocket, removing a white envelope, letting the triad men know he wasn’t pulling a weapon. He handed the envelope to Tang with two hands, who in turn handed it to another gangster. The blood money disappeared under a jacket.

“Mr. Tang, I have a question for you,” Lee said.

“Speak.”

“Was Mr. Lin working for you at the time of his death?”

Tang laughed, and the other gangsters joined in. Lee said nothing.

Finally, the Dragon Head said, “I heard the Shanghai Songbird hired you.”

“I was hired to find the truth.”

“Mr. Lee, this is Shanghai. Everybody lies.”

“Yes. And what you don’t know will kill you.”

Tang nodded slowly. He stared into space for a moment, as though in deep contemplation. Eventually, he said, “A man like you would have heard the rumors about Ms. Ouyang.”

“I heard she’s working for the Japanese.”

“That’s correct.”

“How do you know?”

Tang laughed.

“Never mind,” Lee said.

“My friend, let me ask you something. Why do the foreigners want to hold on to the Shanghai International Settlement?”

“Money. National prestige. Because the Chinese can’t take it back.”

“Exactly. But are they willing to go to war over it?”

“Only with the Chinese.”

A waitress arrived, setting plates of dim sum around the table. Tang deftly snatched up a small xiaolongbao with his chopsticks, brought it to his mouth and bit it in half. Tilting his head back, he gulped down the broth within the bun, and took his time masticating the rest of the bao.

Finally, Tang looked back at Lee and spoke.

“Everybody knows that China is the sick man of Asia, and recognizes Japan as an equal of the European powers. Everybody wants to bully China, but nobody dares to provoke the Japanese.”

Lee sipped his tea. He knew how the old man’s mind worked. He’d get to the point. Eventually.

“The Japanese dogs conquered Manchuria, and after the January 28 Incident, they forced our Army out of Shanghai. They want to be the lord of all China, and the Westerners don’t want to fight a war with an equal power. But some of them are wary of Japanese ambitions. Including Special Branch.”

Lee set his tea down. “Special Branch approached you for assistance?”

“Special Branch is busy chasing communist spies. Communists are an easy target; only the Russians complain when their spies are arrested. But Japanese? The British don’t want to make noise, not yet, and it’s becoming dangerous for Westerners to wander outside the International Settlement. But if a high-profile nightclub singer were shot by an obsessed fan…”

“Everybody knows Shanghai is the whore of the Orient. People expect the police to close both eyes when the triads are involved.”

“You said it. Not me.”

“I need proof that she’s working for the Japanese.”

“Mr Lee, we can resolve the matter ourselves.”

“Mr. Tang, when I quit the Municipal Police, I only gave up my badge.”

Both men exchanged a long moment of silence.

Finally, Tang said, “Go to the Night Orchard at four a.m. See who shows up.”

Finishing his tea, Lee bowed and stood. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. If you find yourself in a situation to handle this incident…we will be thankful.”

There it was, the payment the triads demanded for this information.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Lee said.


Cheah Git San Red.jpg

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