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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
If Hell hath no fury like a femme scorned, it cannot even come close to that of a femme protecting what’s rightfully hers. Katie MacArran blinked...once...twice. Her eyes stopped roving and met Shang’s. She felt her ears twisting backwards, her nose wrinkling and her teeth baring. Her mine? The Snakeheads were going to take the mine SHE had toiled so hard to make a success? All these months the Snakehead triad had sat back and let HER do all the work...and now these thieving yiffs thought they were just going to waltz in and take the Iso Valley Gold Mine for themselves?
They were going to seize HER MINE? She was going to lose Combs Mining Equipment thanks to the greed of some yiffing, snot-nosed CRIMINALS?
“Just how do you know these bastards, Shang?” Katie asked him, her voice now as flat and cold as an icy lake.
“I have...had dealings with them before,” he answered, regarding the rhino hide once more. If anything, his tone was even more scornful than hers.
He looked at her once again.
“Many years ago, I was a police inspector in Shanghai, China. Yes, I know. I told you that I was once a Shao-Lin monk...and so I was before my father, also a member of the Shanghai police-force, was murdered. When he died, I joined the force, with the idea of bringing his killer to justice.” He smiled, a jittery, sheepish grin that was most unlike him, “The arrogance of youth.”
“And your dad was killed by the Snakeheads?” Katie asked, guessing. She would not have been surprised to learn that the rhino whose skin was now laying at their feet had played a part in it.
But Shang Li-Sung only shook his head
“No,” he said, “by a genet cat associated with none of the triads, the owner of a small construction company, in fact. My father had arrived at his house to ask him a few questions in relation to the murder of his young son, a kit of about twelve. At the time, he did not suspect that the kit’s own father had killed him in a drunken rage; the murder had taken place near midnight just outside the Great World Amusement Park, a dangerous place for anyone at that hour. But sometime during the course of their interview the genet must have gotten the idea that he’d been found out. He excused himself for a moment, saying he needed a moment alone, and my father, naturally assuming he was acting out of grief, allowed him to go unescorted. A moment later, he reappeared at one of the front windows and shot both my father and his partner through the glass. Then he tried to turn the weapon on himself.” He shook his head, “but the gods must have decided not to let him off quite that easily; the gun jammed, and he fled. And somehow, he managed to get away.”
Shang stopped here, closing his eyes and inhaling deeply through his nostrils. Katie was amazed at his self-control; he was recalling the murder of his father as coolly as if he were giving a lesson in Chinese history.
“I swore to make my father’s killer pay for what he had done,” the red panda continued, “but I never had the chance. His partner had survived the attack, and he was equally determined to catch up with the murderer. And shortly before I completed my police training, he succeeded. The genet was brought in for interrogation and then killed while ‘trying to escape.’ I will spare you the details, except to say that he came to his end in a manner every bit as ugly as did Chu Lung-Kuo.”
He paused here, to allow Katie to make an inquiry. None came, and he moved on.
“With my father avenged, I could have resigned from the police academy and gone back to the monastery, but by that time I had discovered that I genuinely liked police-work...and that I was good at it. I was top of my class when I graduated, and rose rapidly in the force. In September of 1925, I became the youngest inspector in the history of the Shanghai police.” His expression took on an otherworldly aspect, eyes focusing not upon her but on some unknown place beyond the shed’s bamboo-and-corrugated walls. “The following year was a heady time for me, Your Grace. I made several important arrests, and was decorated twice. Meanwhile, Chiang Kai-Shek’s campaign against the warlords had been a smashing success, or so I thought at the time. In January of 1927, the city of Shanghai fell to the Nationalist army, with the help of a workers’ uprising organized by the Communists. When I heard about it, I wept with joy for the first time in my life. At last the city of my birth would be a CHINESE city.”
“But...?” Katie prompted, knowing full well that this kind of story almost never has a happy ending.
“But,” Shang responded, his voice turning bitter, “That was the beginning of the end for Chiang and the Communists. He had never completely trusted them, and now that they had served their purpose, he seized the opportunity to strike them a blow from which he was certain they would not recover.”
Katie’s ears began to work back and forth, and her head tilted to one side.
“Hold on a minute, Shang. Didn’t you once tell me that you’re a dedicated ANTI-Communist?”
“Yes, that’s true, I am.” said the red panda, nodding slowly, “But that in no way excuses what happened next.” His eyes took on that faraway look again. “I will never forget the day, April 12th, 1927. I was investigating the early morning robbery of a dealer in jade -- along with the murder of his wife who had been in his shop at the time the thieves struck. I strongly suspected the husband himself had been behind it. He had been seen in the company of a much younger leopardess several times in the previous weeks...and curiously, the thieves had known exactly where to find his hidden vault, even though his wife had died almost immediately upon their entry. It was four o’clock in the morning, almost the same time the robbery and murder had taken place the day before. I remember that the city seemed unusually still, as if it were waiting for something to happen. Then we heard it...the sound of bugle call coming from no location that I could determine, then a siren blast from somewhere out in the harbor.”
He stopped, closed his eyes for a second, then went on.
“Then we heard the gunshots...and the screams.”
What Shang had heard was the beginning of the Shanghai massacre, a bloodbath in which more than 300 members of the Chinese Communist Party were murdered in cold blood -- along with more than 5000 of the workers who had participated in the uprising that had allowed Chiang to take the city. Some of the victims were shot in their beds, while others were shackled together and taken away to be executed by firing squad.
“Appalled though I was by what was happening,” the red panda was saying, “I might have been willing to forget, if not forgive the Shanghai massacre. As you yourself pointed out a moment ago, I am thoroughly anti-Communist.” He took a short slow breath, and his mouth pulled into a brief grimace. “But then, to my even greater horror, I learned that Chiang’s army had carried out the slaughter in partnership with the Green Gang triad.”
Katie gasped and put her hooves to her muzzle. That would be like President Hoover teaming up with Al Capone to get rid of the Wobblies. And Katie had done enough business with the likes of Capone to know that his ilk never performed that kind of favor without expecting one in return...and with interest.
“And the Snakehead gang?” she said, “Did the Green Gang use them to carry out any of the executions?”
“Yes, they did.” Shang answered, tonelessly, “The deaths of the Communists’ top echelon, the leaders most likely to be well guarded, was entrusted entirely to the Snakehead triad. As you may have discerned, they have a reputation for being able to carry out even the most difficult and dangerous assassinations.” Now, his voice began to take on the dark, oily hues of a Goya ‘black painting.’ “But the Snakeheads took it further than that, Your Grace...much further. In the Shanghai massacre they saw a golden opportunity for the elimination of certain respectable furs whose enterprises they wished to acquire for themselves. More than two dozen honest business owners, furres who had never been associated with the Communists in their lives, died at the paws of the Snakeheads over the course those next two days, either set up as Communist sympathizers or killed by ‘mistake.’”
Katie shook her head slowly, the sound of the rain on the roof seemed to be bouncing back and forth inside her head. A moth flitted past her head; the beat of it’s wings sounded like those of seagull.
“My God,” she said, “how could they possibly think they could get away with it?”
Shang raised a finger before replying.
“You forget, Your Grace, the Shanghai massacre was carried out at the behest of no less a fursonage than Chiang Kai-Shek himself. Li Kan-Ng, the leader of the Snakeheads, was betting that Chiang would prefer to let the matter drop rather than allow the details of his partnership with the triads to become public knowledge.”
“And is that what happened?” asked Katie. Christmas, he was right -- the Snakeheads WERE as vicious at their name implied.
“No,” said Shang, smiling...but it was not a cheerful smile, “Not at first; instead of applauding his actions, the Kuomintang was aghast at what Chiang had done. A hearing was held and he was formally expelled not only from the government but from the Nationalist Party as well. He ended up going to Nanking, where he set up a rival government of his own. I later learned that Li Kan-Ng flew into a panic when he heard about it...something HE had never done before.”
“M-hm-hm-hm-hm. I’ll bet.” nickered Katie, unable to resist a smile, “There went his only protector. If you’ll pardon the terrible pun Shang, it sounds like Li rolled the dice and they came up snake-eyes.”
Shang’s face pinched horizontally and he sniggered rather than groaned. “Or as we say in China, Li was riding the tiger and finding it hard to get off. He is a tiger himself you see. He went to see Du Yue-Sheng, the Green Gang’s overlord, to seek his help...but Du would not even allow him access to the part of the city where he had his headquarters.”
“Whoa, no kidding.” said Katie. “Du must have been mad as hell at being presented with a fait accompli like that.”
“That, and he was jealous,” said Shang, “and unnerved. With the acquisition of those new businesses the Snakeheads had more than tripled their wealth. At one move they had acquired literally scores of profitable new establishments...not just in Shanghai, but all over east Asia. There were gambling clubs in Macao, Hanoi, and on Spontoon Island, there were trading companies in Hong-Kong, Rangoon, and Singapore, and also freight warehouses all over the Pacific, to name but a few. That, I am told, was what really had Du upset. Prior to the Shanghai Massacre, the Snakeheads had been a parochial gang of killers. Now, they were an empire.”
“Which meant that Du now had a serious rival for big cat of the Shanghai underworld,” said Katie. “Am I right?”
“You are,” said Shang, “or rather, you would be if events proceeded as Li had anticipated -- which they didn’t. At police headquarters, our orders had already come down; this time, the Snakeheads had gone too far. The killing of other triad members or Communists might be ignored, the extortion of honest business furs might be tolerated for a gratuity, but the wholesale slaughter of respectable citizens in order to acquire their property? That was going a thousand leagues beyond the pale. And so we were told, in no uncertain terms, that the killers who had murdered those innocents were to be rounded up and dealt with in the harshest manner possible. Then it would be their leaders’ turn.” He looked down at the rhino skin with that same expression of revulsion. “And this was how I came into collision with Chu Lung-Kuo. One particularly unfortunate victim of the Snakeheads’ purge had been Fan Tze-Tang, a red panda like myself, who died along with his wife and infant son. He had been the owner of a fair number of export warehouses in Shanghai and elsewhere, and also that gambling club on Spontoon Island I mentioned a moment ago.”
Shang stopped here, his features freezing into a stoic, wooden mask. When he spoke again, it was with the effort of someone hauling a heavy bucket from the bottom of a deep well.
“And he had also...been married to the femme that I loved.”
“Ohhhhh,” said Katie, the word coming out in a single, long breath, “That bastard Chu...murdered your lover?” She wisely did not ask if the rhino had done anything else first. But Shang just shook his head, sadly.
“Yes and no Your Grace. Chu did murder Fan Mei-Lin...but I loved her only at a distance. It was the only way that I could love her.”
Katie said nothing, just waited, knowing there had to be more.
“She was a scion of the Ni,” Shang was saying, “a prosperous family of moneylenders from Tientsin. She had come to Shanghai for her schooling, then settled there, in the house of one of her uncles. We had met when I was sent to investigate the disappearance of a Shanghai fireworks merchant who had borrowed a great deal of money from her uncle and then apparently died in a warehouse explosion. I caught up with him just as he was about to board a boat for Hong-Kong, carrying with him not only the funds he had borrowed from the Ni Lo-Shu, but also the proceeds of not one, but TWO, insurance policies.”
He looked towards the wall for a moment, as if there, outside, was the familiar bustle of Shanghai, rather than the emerald and granite wall of the Iso valley.
“I was enchanted with Mei-Lin from the moment I saw her...and she was infatuated with me as well,” He sighed, looking down at the floor with forlorn eyes...as though Fate might be seated there, looking back up at him. “but...she was the daughter of a wealthy merchant while I was a lowly police detective. I knew, we both knew that she must marry into her own class -- and so she did.” He pulled at his muzzle, trying not to smile bitterly and failing, “At least I had the comfort of knowing that Mei-Lin had married a good panda. Fan was much older than she, but he treated her as well as ever I could have wanted to; he was the kindest, most faithful husband any femme might desire...and in time, she did learn to love him.” Abruptly, his ears and his mouth pulled backwards, “But then the Snakeheads came...and there was no question of leaving Mei-Lin alive. Had Chu allowed her to live, the Ni might have lodged a claim on Fan’s business...but there was no need for him to...to...”
Shang’s next words caught in his throat and his voice almost cracked. Then his eyes screwed shut and he sucked short air between his teeth.
“Uh, Shang...” said Katie, gently, as much for her own benefit as his, “If you don’t mind, I really don’t need to hear that part.”
“Yes, of course.” said Shang, looking somewhat abashed, “Anyway, I asked for, and got permission to head the investigation into the murder of Fan and Mei-Lin, along with their infant son. My superintendent was only too happy to give it to me; he wanted their killers badly. It did not take me long to unmask the culprits. In a completely unprecedented move, Du Yue-Sheng had let it be known that there would be no retribution against any Green Gang member who talked to the police about the Snakeheads’ excesses. I caught up with Chu in a brothel near the German concession...and he luckily chose to fight it out rather than submit. I say luckily, because it gave me an excuse to extract a measure of justice right then and there. When you saw Chu, did you notice, by any chance, that he was missing most of his horn? Now you know how that happened.”
Katie was stunned, not so much by Shang’s words as by the vehemence with which he spoke them. This time he hadn’t bothered to consider what effect the mention of her own encounter with Chu Lung-Kuo might have on her; he was too full of wrath at what the rhino had done to his own long, lost love to care. Katie wasn’t angry at Shang for this...how could she be? She felt exactly the same way about the former owner of the hide, now laying at their feet. She wondered for a moment if the red panda had kept Chu’s horn as a trophy, then decided it wasn’t like him.
On the other hoof...chopping off a rhinoceros’s horn was almost like castrating him, and Shang had done a lot more than just ‘harvest’ Chu’s horn. After all this time, it had never grown back.
Yes, THAT was Shang Li-Sung.
“But what happened, Shang?” she prompted, “How did Chu end up a free rhino?
“What happened,” said the red panda, his mouth filling with bitters once again, “Was that Chiang turned out to have been right all along. It was discovered that the Communists in the Shanghai Kuomintang were plotting to take over the government, using the same method by which the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia. They would have already launched their coup, but for the debilitating blow of the Shanghai massacre. When the word got out, the killings started all over again and Chiang Kai-Shek was instantly elevated from pariah to hero; the savior of the Kuomintang. Ministers who had outdone one another in denouncing the Shanghai massacre were now lining up to shake his paw. Even his partnership with the Triads in carrying out the killings was forgotten...and that included the part played by the Snakeheads, and the excesses to which they had gone.”
“In other words, Chiang wanted it swept under the rug.” said Katie, her voice becoming almost as bitter as her security chief’s.
Shang turned and spat on the hide again.
“Not just swept under the rug...buried for all time. Orders were given for the swift release all members of the Snakehead gang in police custody. Furthermore, all the records of their arrests, and all the records of the prosecutors were to be destroyed at once. It was to be as if there had never been any innocents murdered in the coup. The ONLY victims of the Shanghai massacre had been the Communists and their supporters...and then only because they had preparing a putsch against the Kuomintang.”
“So what did you do?” asked Katie, already knowing at least part of it.
“The only thing I could do,” the red panda responded, his shoulder sagging as though re-living the defeat, “I resigned in protest from the Shanghai Police. I had no idea where I was going to go or what I was going to do, but my mind was made up and I would not be budged...not even when my superintendent practically begged me not to go with tears in his eyes. ‘Do not do this, Shang.’ he said, ‘Think of what your father would say.’”
The red panda straightened up and thrust chest outwards. “‘I have,’ I told him, ‘and that is why I must.’ I took ship for Taiwan that very evening and I haven’t seen Shanghai since.”
Katie’s head moved slowly up and down, in full empathy with the red panda’s feelings. Of course...could he have done any less? As a matter of fact, knowing what she knew, she wondered why hadn’t he done a whole lot more.
“I’m surprised you didn’t pay Chu a little visit in his cell first, and extract a FULL measure of justice.” she said.
“I might have,” Shang replied, “But my superintendent was no fool. He had placed all the Snakeheads under heavy guard, pending their release. He had anticipated a reaction not unlike the one you just suggested, you see. And not just from me; all the detectives who had brought in the Snakeheads were equally outraged by the decision to let them go. I later learned that at least two others besides myself also tendered their resignations, and still another was so shamed by the decision, he later committed suicide.”
“And what happened to the Snakeheads?” asked Katie, “Please don’t tell me they got away with it.”
“Oh no,” said Shang, his face becoming a tiny bit brighter, “Chiang knew he couldn’t just let them walk away unscathed. If he’d done that, it would have made Du Yue-Sheng his implacable enemy...or worse, perhaps even touched off a full scale gang-war between the Greens and the Snakeheads. Furthermore, Chiang wasn’t any happier with Li’s fait accompli than Du had been; that episode had cost him a LOT of face.”
His smile broadened by just a hint.
“So what Chiang did was simply to inform Du of the decision to quash the investigation before anyone else was told.”
“And Du wasn’t angry?” asked Katie, stunned.
“No,” said Shang, “Because Chiang further promised not to let anyone else know about it until Du gave him the word. In essence, he was presenting the Greens with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity...and they took it. After months of refusing to have anything to do with Li Kan-Ng, Du finally agreed to see him. When Li was ushered into his mansion on the Donghu Lu, Du was all magnanimity, so I’ve been told. ‘After thinking it over for a while,’ he said, ‘I have decided that it will be in my interest to aid you. I believe I can persuade Chiang Kai-Shek to call off the investigation into those murders...in exchange for handing over to the Green Gang half of all the new businesses you have acquired. If you will only agree to this, Li Kan-Ng, you have my word that the police will let the matter drop.’”
Even Katie couldn’t resist a horse-laugh at this one.
“Why that sly bastard!” she said, almost clapping her hooves, “And did Li fall for it?”
Shang Li-Sung became the picture of complacency.
“As they say in America, 'like a ton of bricks'. When the final tally was made, I’m told, it turned out that the Greens had actually taken much MORE than half of the Snakeheads’ ill-gotten gains.”
Katie laughed again, and shook her head.
“Christmas, I’d love to have been a fly on wall when Li found out he’d been played for a sucker.”
“Actually...you wouldn’t.” said Shang, still wearing that sphinx’s expression, “I later heard that Li destroyed half the Snakehead’s lodge when he was told, and beat his own bodyguard to death. Not only had he lost most of the new businesses he had acquired, but also an intolerable amount of face. When word began to spread that Du had hoodwinked him, he became the laughingstock of the Shanghai underworld. It took many months and many more murders before Li Kan-Ng was once again regarded as a force to be reckoned with by the other triads. As for Du Yue-Sheng, he wisely chose to hand over a slice of his newly acquired businesses to the Nationalist party. After that, Li couldn’t touch him...and there has been bad blood between their gangs ever since. Du still uses the Snakeheads for the dirty work that his gang cannot perform themselves, but he has made it most clear to Li that the next time his gang so grossly offends the Greens, it will an invitation to open war.”
Katie MacArran just nodded solemnly. It had been a revenge accomplished in true Chinese fashion. Instead of merely killing Li for the double-cross, Du had chosen to humiliate him almost beyond redemption...and fatten his coffers in the process. It something any of the New York mobsters would also have greatly appreciated.
“However, be aware of something, Your Grace.” the red panda told her, waving a cautionary finger, “The Snakeheads did not lose everything they had acquired, certainly not all they had acquired outside of Shanghai.” His face turned bitter again, “For example, Du allowed them to keep what they had taken from Fan Tze-Tang. But the point is, though they were not as powerful they might have been, had their fait accompli been entirely successful, the Snakehead triad is still now an international criminal empire. And ever since, they have continued to expand their domain.”
Katie gritted her teeth and made a sound that would have been more appropriate to bull than a horse.
“And now they’re looking to expand it into the Iso Valley?”
“Yes,” sad Shang flatly, “And now they have both the power and the resources to successfully accomplish that goal.”
“And you’re sure they’ll be back?” Katie asked, trying not to sound hopeful.
By way of response, Shang gestured at what was left of Chu Lung-Kuo. “It is an ironclad rule amongst the Snakeheads that anyone who kills one of their lodge brothers shall forfeit their own life in return...and you did great deal more than simply kill Chu.” He looked directly at her once again, “They will be back, Your Grace. Not right away, perhaps not for many months or even several years, but they will return to Papua once again.” His face, and his voice, became hard and flinty. “Or to wherever you choose to go, it does not matter. This is no longer a matter of expanding their holdings; now they have a fursonal score to settle with you...and they will not rest until it is done.”
Katie said nothing, just looked at the skin again, her ears laying back so far, she could feel the tendons straining.
“He wasn’t still alive when I did that, Shang...but he didn’t go quickly either.” She described the death of Chu Lung-Kuo in detail for the security chief, particularly relishing the look of surprise on the rhino’s face when he’d realized that the stick she had just struck him with was NO stick. Through all of it, the red panda just listened impassively, his features betraying neither gratification or horror.
“But tell me something, Shang.” she said, when she had finished, “Weren’t you afraid that the Snakeheads would come after you for what YOU did to Chu?”
“They threatened to, in fact.” the red panda responded, also looking down at the rhino’s remains, “but they were bluffing, and everyone knew it. The Shanghai police might have been ordered to drop the charges against the Snakeheads for their part in the Shanghai massacre...but that didn’t mean they had to look the other way for any of their subsequent crimes. And keep in mind what had happened to my father’s killer; the Shanghai police take the murder of one of their own every bit as seriously as does the Snakehead triad. If Chu, or any other Snakehead had come after me for what I did, whether I was still on the force or not, he could have counted his life in hours...and it would have been taken as tantamount to a declaration of war.” He pulled at his muzzle, with a pensive expression, “Just the same, I thought it wise to leave Shanghai. But before I left, I did pay a visit to Chu’s cell...unarmed, and kept separated from him, of course. By then, he knew that his release was imminent and he was all full of bluster; he even went so far as to taunt me by describing in detail what he had done to Fan Mei-Lin.”
“And what did you do?” Katie queried, beginning to shiver once more at the memory of someone ELSE the rhino had hurt.
Shang turned and looked at the hide again, his face so twisted with loathing, it looked like a demon’s mask from a Chinese opera.
“I told him, ‘You are going to regret saying that to me, Chu Lung-Kuo. One day, I promise you, I am going to piss on your grave.’”
He nodded...and now, for the first time, Katie noticed the irregular yellow stain on the surface of the skin.
She was about to respond to this when they heard it; the unmistakable, heavy drone of approaching aircraft engines...inaudible until this very moment because of the driving rain.
“What plane?” asked Shang, well aware of Katie’s ability to discern one engine song from another.
“Guinea Airways Junker.” said the pinto mare, “But what the Hell are they doing, flying...in this...mess...?”
Her words trailed off and then she was staring soundlessly into her security chief’s eyes...while he stared back, rendered equally mute.
Finally, Shang Li-Sung spoke just one word.
“Le.” he said.
“They got him.” said Katie.
The two of them bolted for the door.