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Katie MacArran
-by John Urie-

A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
(Mature situations)

Part One.
On Your Marks...

Chapter 60

Shang Li-Sung was absent from Iso for almost a month.  When he returned, he had plenty of news to relate.

Much of it was bad.

“I’m afraid the Blue Sky Trading Company is a dead end.  It is not owned directly by the Snakeheads; if they’re involved at all, they’re a silent partner...and it’s a huge company, the largest of it’s kind in Singapore.  What that means is, the identity of Ji’s contact within the company is almost certainly unknown to his superiors...or even his co-workers; no matter how much their suspicions are aroused, no one in Blue Sky is going to make an effort to ferret out a triad member in their midst. ” He paused, took a quick puff on his cigarette, and added dryly,  “Not if they want their skins to remain intact, anyway.  And even if they were so inclined, it would be an extremely difficult task at best.  The insider could be anyone who had contact with those invoices before they left Singapore, and that’s literally dozens of furres; it could have been a shipping clerk, a packing clerk, a warehouse worker, a delivery driver...or even someone from outside the company, a corrupt customs officer. ”

Katie responded to this with a harsh snort....her way of saying that this had BETTER not be all of it.

It wasn’t...and the next piece of info that Shang had to relate was good news.

VERY good news.

“While I was Singapore, I also learned that relations between the Snakeheads and the Green Gang  have finally reached the boiling point.” He stubbed out his cigarette and grinned, “And finding that out took me close upon three minutes; the news is all over Singapore.  The Greens and the Snakeheads are one step away from a full-scale war.”

What had triggered the crisis was the Cho Fat incident.

Cho, a black Chow Dog, was one of Shanghai’s most notorious moneylenders.  Though barred from actual membership in any triad (he was Korean on his mother’s side), Cho had been closely associated with the Green Gang for many years and was a boon companion of the Green leader, Du Yue-Sheng.  A year earlier, against Du’s advice, he had entered into a business deal with the Snakehead leader, Li Kan-Ng.  It was a standard underworld finance arrangement – Cho putting up two-thirds the money for the purchase of a Singapore construction company while Li supplied the rest -- and also the clout to make sure that the colonial authorities would be mind their own business.

And that none of the local thugs would attempt to muscle in.

“Cho made that deal because Singapore is one of the few places where the Snakeheads have more power than the Greens.” Shang was saying, “And wise decision it seemed.  The Seven Stars Construction Company turned out to be a fantastic money maker.” He smiled cynically, “Which, of course, is was what eventually led to the falling out between Li and Cho.  They began quarreling over the division of profits.  That was when Cho made his biggest, and last, mistake.  He threatened to sell his share of the company to Du Yue-Sheng unless Li gave him a bigger slice of the profits.  You can imagine how that went over; it would have tipped the balance of power in Singapore away from the Snakeheads and in favor of the Greens.” 

Shang paused here, shaking his head as though over a wayward son, “How Cho thought he could get away with it, I have no idea.  Perhaps he believed that his close association with Du would protect him.  And as things turned out, he was not that far wrong in his thinking...but within a week he was gone–vanished.  That might have been the end of it, except now the Snakeheads made an error of their own.  The next day, an oil barrel was found on the mud-flats in Shanghai harbor, containing the jumbled remains of Cho Fat.”  He snorted contemptuously.  “Up to a point, his killers had done everything correctly.  They had dismembered the body before placing it in the barrel, and made certain to slit Cho’s belly, so his torso would not float...and they had also made certain that the barrel was well weighted.”  Another snort, “But then they dumped the barrel in shallow water, and at HIGH tide.  According to what I heard, Li Kan-Ng was beside himself when he was found out...and both of his assassins died very badly for their blunder.”

Mnh-Mnh-Mnh-Mnh-Mnh-Mnh-Mnh-Mnh,” Katie nickered, a sardonic grin working it’s way across her face, “And I’ll bet that was nothing compared to Du’s reaction when HE heard about it, eh?”

“You would win that wager.” Shang replied, grinning back, and then turning serious again, “But what that means for us is this:  For the moment at least, the Iso mine is safe.  The Snakeheads will not dare to make a move against us now, not with the possibility of an all-out war with the Green Gang looming over their heads.”

He did not bother with a further explanation, and Katie didn’t need any.  What she did need to know was...

“But eventually the Snakeheads WILL move on us?” she said.

Shang closed his eyes, touched the bridge of his nose, then opened them.

“They must.  We...or let us be direct, Mistress...”

“Uh, Shang.” Katie interrupted. “You can drop the ‘Mistress’ and start referring to me as Your Grace again...and skip the kowtowing, 'kay?  As far as I’m concerned, you’ve done your penance.”

“As you wish, Your Grace,” the red panda replied, his face unreadable, “But what I was about to say is that according to the law of the Snakeheads, the killing one of their lodge brothers brings an automatic death sentence upon the transgressor.  It’s a law that has never been broken in the history of the gang, and that history goes back more than a century.”  He stopped, looked directly into her eyes, “And you have now fursonally dispatched not one, but TWO Snakehead gang members.  In no way can Li Kan-Ng can allow that to go unavenged...however much he might want to.”

Katie’s ears shot up and pointed at one another.

“Might...WANT to.  What the Hell are you talking about, Shang?”

“It has to do with something else I learned while I on my sojourn.  I believe I mentioned that Singapore is one of the few places where the Snakeheads have more power than the Greens, no?   Well, it would seem that Li Kan-Ng’s only son, Li Pu-Fong is currently ensconced there...and under very heavy guard.”

Katie’s look became almost contemptuous...almost.  (This WAS Shang, after all.)

“Isn’t that to be expected, in the current situation?”

“Yes...and no.” the red panda replied, “Li Pu was apparently was sent to Singapore well before the Cho Fat incident.” He paused, shrugged “Why, I do not know, but there could be any one of a hundred reasons; the younger Li is an upstart who never ceases to make trouble for his father.”

“Like a certain MacArran I used to know.” Katie answered, punctuating her words with a grim smirk.

But Shang immediately shook his head.

“No, Your Grace.  Li Pu-Fong is a very different kind of ne’er-do-well than was your brother.  He is no wastrel, in constant pursuit of a life of pleasure, but rather the rebellious sort of cub who constantly tries to show up his father.  Again and again, he has hatched criminal schemes of his own, without Li the Elder’s knowledge or approval...schemes meant to show that HE will make a better triad king than his father ever has, or ever will.” Now, Shang smirked himself, “Instead, as you have possibly surmised, every single one of these enterprises ended with Li Pu running to his sire to bail him out.  Though I do not know exactly what he did that caused him to be sent to Singapore, I must say that I’m not at all surprised.  Were the younger Li not his father’s only male offspring, he would have long ago been discarded.”

Katie’s ears moved in surprise. Even in the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for Chinese males of means to take several concubines as well as a wife.  Of course, Li Kan-Ng WAS a gangster, so it was not impossible that he had been rendered unable to sire any more children.  Hoodlums, after all, were not noted for treating captured enemies lightly.  Look at what had happened to Charlie Lucania.  Some years ago, he’d been taken prisoner by some rival mobsters and left with a permanently scarred face and a perpetually drooping left eye.  

And because that was ALL his enemies had done to him, he’d immediately been re-christened ‘Lucky’ Luciano.

As if reading her thoughts, Shang corrected them.

“No, Your Grace.  Li Kan-Ng is still quite capable of siring children...but has never produced a male since Li Pu was born.”  He frowned, reaching for another cigarette, “Some say a sorceress put a curse upon him.  Others claim that he was given a rare and exotic poison that renders him capable of fathering only girls.  Whatever the reason, he has only one son to carry on his name...and Li the Younger is all too aware of that fact.  It is a big reason why he continues to go his own way, in defiance of his sire.  He knows that no matter how many times he fails, he will still become Snakeheads’ leader when his father passes into the next life.”

“Mmmmm,” Katie mused, “I bet there are a few other Snakeheads who’ll only accept him as triad king only over a LOT dead bodies.”

“Most assuredly, Your Grace.” Shang bowed slightly in deference to her insight. “ If and when Li Pu ever assumes leadership over the Snakehead gang, I predict his tenure as their leader will be the shortest in the history of the lodge.”

Katie nickered in concurrence, then asked,“You think Li Pu could have been behind the botched killing of Cho Fat?” It sounded more than plausible, but Shang emphatically shook his head.

“No, Your Grace.  He was in Singapore at the time, as I said, and anyway -- Li Kan would never have entrusted such a delicate task to Li Pu....although, as things turned out, he might well have done so, that I will concede.”  He paused to light his cigarette, and when he resumed speaking, it was in words delivered both slowly and clearly.

“But what I DO think is this: the assault on the Iso mine may well have been yet another one of Li’s,” he waved his cigarette, searching for the right words, “errr... ‘independent operations.’  It is just the sort of reckless scheme for which he has long been noted...and also,” Here he looked directly into Katie’s eyes, “when Li Pu-Fong was a cub, his bodyguard was none other than the rhinoceros, Chu Lung-Kuo.  Later, when Li Pu came of age, Chu became part of his inner circle.  He’s been directly involved in at least one of the younger Li’s failed schemes that I know of, and likely more as well.”

Katie folded her arms, eyeing Shang with a mixture of respect, wariness, and equine curiosity.

“Just how do you know all this?” she asked. 

The red panda looked slightly pained as he responded.

“I believe I once explained that while he lived, Chu Lung-Kuo held a grudge against me.  It would have been exceptionally foolish of me NOT to have kept an eye on him.”

Plhlhhlhlhlhlhlhlh.” Katie snuffled in self disgust. “Of course, Shang.  Silly of me not to have remembered.” Her ears laid back for a second as she thought of the rhino again, his mouth against hers, his hooves tearing her...STOP! 

“But never mind,” she went on, quickly, “what’s our next course of action?”

“That depends,” the red panda took a drag on his freshly lit cigarette,  “For a start, we must hope that the festering conflict between the Snakeheads and the Greens DOES erupt into open warfare.  If that happens, our problem will have solved itself; the Snakeheads can only lose in such a confrontation.”

Katie’s left hoof found her right one, and there was the sound of knuckles cracking.

“But you don’t think that’s going to happen, do you?”

“I do not.” said Shang, suddenly looking as if he had WALKED all the way back to Papua, “Yes, the Greens would win that war...but it would be a most expensive triumph for them.  Much more expensive than Du Yue-Sheng can afford.”

Katie answered with a nod, and a quotation “In the immortal words of King Pyrrhus of Epira, ‘Another such victory, and I am undone.’

Shang frowned, but not deeply.

“I am not familiar with King Pyrrhus of Epira, but may I assume he was speaking of a victory so costly, it later led to his downfall?  Ah yes, I thought that might be so.  But there are several other factors which lead me to believe that no gang war between the Greens and Snakeheads is forthcoming.  For one thing, as I mentioned earlier, Cho Fat was only an associate of the Green Gang, not an actual lodge brother; thus Du Yue-Sheng is not bound by honor to avenge him.  Furthermore, Li was at least partially justified in his reaction.  Cho WAS demanding a bigger share of the profits from Seven Stars than he was entitled to.” He let out a short, sharp breath -- “If anyone had threatened Du, the way Cho did Li Kan-Ng...well there wouldn’t have been a killing, but there would certainly have been a reminder not to trifle with a him; a reminder Cho would have seen every time he looked in a mirror.  Had Li only gone that far, Du would have had no choice but to let the incident pass.”  His voice became silken murr, “‘I am truly sorry Cho, my old friend, but I am afraid you brought this upon yourself.’”

Katie MacArran half snorted, half sighed.

“Okay, so they won’t fight, but what WILL happen?”

“They will make the proverbial face-saving compromise.” Shang responded at once, “Without every actually admitting his role in the killing, Li will offer a suitable restitution to the Greens for the death of Cho Fat,.  Du will accept it, but with the admonition that the Greens are still not fully satisfied...after which he will quietly let the matter drop.”  To Katie’s surprise, he raised a finger and smiled, “That, however, is not going to happen for a very long time.  If I know Du, he’s almost certainly going to demand Cho Fat’s share in the Seven Stars Construction company as compensation for his friend’s death.” His smile broadened, “And that is the one thing Li Kan Ng will never agree to...never.  If he gives Du that, he gives him Singapore.  And Du knows it.  It is going to be a long, tense, and VERY drawn out series of negotiations...lasting months, perhaps even years.” He began to wag his finger, the better to emphasize his next point.  “Don’t forget, in the wake of the White Massacre, Du promised Li Kan Ng that the next time the Snakeheads crossed the Green Gang, it would also be the last time.  Having made such an oath to Li, Du Yue-Sheng can accept nothing less than a punitive settlement from him now, not without an intolerable loss of face.”

Katie pulled at her nose, and looked out the window, where the rain was descending in curtains.

“All right,” she said, regarding her security chief once again, “How do we best take advantage of this situation?”

Shang’s mouth seemed to move in two different directions at once, up one side and down the other, like one of those tragedy/comedy masks you sometimes saw on the walls of theater lobbies.

“Through the one course of action that, under any other circumstances, I would recommend we avoid at all costs; we send a message to the Snakeheads, telling them we know they’re coming and warning them we’re prepared to fight it out, right to the end..”

Katie goggled at Shang as though he had just sprouted a second head...then she shook hers, slowly.

“Shang, if you were anyone else, I’d have you on the next plane to Lae for even THINKING that.”  She folded her arms, “Okay, explain it to me.  Won’t that prompt the Snakeheads to hurry up their negotiations with the Greens, so they can take us down right NOW?”

“Yes, it will.” The red panda nodded in concession, but then raised that Zen finger of his.  “But word of our challenge will ALSO certainly reach the ears of Du Yue-Sheng.  And no one knows better than he that Snakeheads have not the resources to take on both the Iso mine and the Green Gang at the same time.  And so it will prompt him to raise his demands fro recompense to an all but unreasonable level and to extend the negotiations with for as long as possible...in the hope that, in the interim, Li-Kan will move against us prematurely.” He mouth stretched in that wicked Mona Lisa smile again, “In which case the price of victory over the Snakeheads will be one that Du CAN afford...and also, the longer the haggling goes on, the higher the price is kept, the more face it will cost Li Kan-Ng.”

Katie nodded, but she wasn’t quite done playing the Devil’s advocate, not just yet.

“But won’t that only provoke Li into taking an even more cruel revenge on us, once his account with the Greens is settled?”

“No,” the red panda replied, his voice as firm as mahogany, “In the eyes of the Snakeheads, there is no worse transgression we can commit than the one we already have committed.”  He paused to let her digest this, then continued, “Furthermore, although Li Kan-Ng is noted for his cool cleverness, he is also the sort who tends to throw caution to the winds whenever his wrath is aroused;  Cho Fat, for example.  Does his death not look like the result of an impulsive order?  And where is Li now, because of it?”

“I get you,” said Katie, nodding but with little enthusiasm, “Once the Snakeheads conclude their business with the Greens, it’s better to have them move on us quickly, rather than correctly.”

“Precisely,” Shang replied...and then folded his arms, regarding her with a stern expression she had never seen before.  It was as if their roles had suddenly been reversed, and he was now the master and she the neophyte.

“The question is, Your Grace, ARE you prepared to fight it out with Snakeheads, right to the bitter end?  Think carefully before you answer.  What nearly happened to you at the hooves of Chu Lung-Kuo will seem mild by comparison if we lose...and there is no guarantee of victory if we choose to stand and fight.”

Katie closed her one brown eye, regarding Shang with only the blue one now.

“Let me put it this way,” she said, and explained what she had in mind.  As he listened, Shang’s expression became that of marble sphinx...but she could see his chest expanding as he listened...

...and also his ears wilting.  Proud...but also sad.

“Do we have anyone here in camp with the skills we need?” she asked, “and who can also be counted on to remain discreet.”

“Not here in camp, Your Grace.” the red panda replied, nodding deferentially, “But, for a small price, I believe the Ayon would be willing to fulfill the task.  With your permission, I shall see if there are any of them, close about the mine.” 

“Very good, Shang.” said Katie

Shanghai, China – Two Weeks Later.

Everyone in the Pudong District knew that it was there, but wisely chose to pretend otherwise.  As far as they knew, there was nothing on the Street of the Yellow Flower but shops and low-rent dwellings.  The tough looking furs who passed through the neighborhood at irregular and frequent intervals were always invisible to each and every passerby, and the weathered alleyway between Chin Fong’s noodle shop and the Lee Brothers’ foundry had never existed...and even if it did, there was certainly no doorway set into the wall at it’s midpoint.

Unless, of course, you happened to have the tatoo of the eyes and fangs etched somewhere into your furson...as did Fo Ch’ian, a Chinese weasel, who was now making his way towards the alleyway entrance, trundling a wooden wheelbarrow before him.

Fo had only recently received his mark of the Snakehead and as such, he was still relegated to the duties of messenger and errand runner, a task he considered well beneath his abilities.  In recent days, he’d had additional reasons for cursing his foul joss...but always within the confines of his own head.  No sooner had he gotten his eyes and fangs, than he had learned of a possible war brewing with the Green Gang...and of another. possibly even more dangerous conflict waiting in the wings, not to mention the latest gossip out of Singapore.  He shuddered now at the thought, felt his blood, and his bowels turning to ice-water.  Though no triad in all of China could match the Snakeheads for sheer savagery, the Green Gang had more than three times their members, and more than FIVE times their monetary assets..  And there were other rumours, rumours of an operation out of Singapore that had gone disastrously wrong and ended up costing the life of one the gang’s most able enforcers. Chu Lung-Kuo.  Word was that it had been Li Pu-Fong’s doing, and that he had acted behind his father’s back...again!

“Gssss, curse my luck and all the gods!” Fo hissed, quietly to himself, “Why didn’t anyone tell me about him BEFORE my initiation?”  Up ahead on the left was small stand, attended by an old, marmalade cat-femme, selling the steamed pork buns known as Hum-Baw.  With another nasty hiss, Fo broke into a trot and changed course.

The move was executed almost perfectly.  The edge of the wheelbarrow caught the corner of the hum-baw stand, toppling it over and scattering the buns across the street like so many hockey pucks.  At once, a pair of homeless, non-anthro dogs came running out of an alleyway to gobble up the treats...while the proprietor fell to her knees, silently weeping, never once daring to look at  the cause of all her misery.

Fo didn’t look at her either, just smirked in satisfaction, feeling a LOT better about the state of things.

He turned the wheelbarrow up and into the forbidden alley.

Set into the wall near the far end, was a garage door, painted black, with a smaller, ‘walk-in’ door beside it.  At Fo’s approach, a hulking Asiatic bear stepped out of the shadows, with his arms crossed.  Then, seeing who it was, he nodded, turned, and rapped lightly on the garage door. It  rose swiftly, to allow the weasel entrance.

On the other side, there was nothing impressive, nothing but a dim, empty, wood-frame enclosure, with high ceiling, and a faint smell like decaying trees.  Nonetheless, Fo experience a chill feeling as he entered; were he not now a full-fledged Snakehead, he would be dead already for having crossed this threshold.

At the far end of the room, were two other doors, with another set into the right side of the wall.  Now this one opened, and a pangolin with a long scar on his muzzle stepped out.  He was Shi T’ung, someone to whom the weasel was beginning to take an intense dislike. Once the most affable of companions, Shi’s head had swollen to colossal proportions the day he’d been made leader of their triad cell.  (So what if he’d killed two Reds in a gun-battle and been wounded himself, so what?)

“You are late.” said the pangolin, by way of greeting.

Fo set down the wheelbarrow, and waved a paw over the top as if attempting to make it levitate.

“I had to come back to fetch this.” he said.  “There was a rather large package along with the letters.”

Shi just grunted, and was about to wave the weasel on when the smaller of the two entrances behind opened and Tuo Jin-Wa entered.

At once, both Shi and Fo stepped hurriedly aside, becoming as rigid as flagpoles.  Tuo, a red-furred wolf, who appeared to have been assembled from bridge cables, was Li Kan-Ng’s right-paw lupine, subordinate in authority only to the triad king himself. 

There were some Snakeheads who considered even that position beneath Tuo’s abilities.  He was not only exceedingly tough and smart, his ability to remain cool in even the most difficult of circumstances was almost legendary.  It was why he was known throughout the triad by the nickname of ‘Ice’ Tuo.

And also why many in the gang believed that HE, not that spoilt brat, Li Fu-Pong should be Li Kan Ng’s designated heir. 

No one had ever expressed that opinion aloud, but Tuo knew...knew and always kept silent about it.

Growling a perfunctory greeting to the pair, Tuo strode briskly in the direction of the first door, but then paused as he passed by the wheel-barrow.

“Why such a large amount of mail today?” he asked pointing

Rushing to answer him, Fo Chi’an nearly tripped over his own tongue.

“There was a parcel, a package along with the letters, Tuo, very big, too large to carry, so I went back and grabbed a wheelbarrow.” He pointed with a clawed finger. “ It’s there, at the bottom of the trough, but you can’t see it under all the...”

“Yes, yes,” said Tuo, waving a paw as if clearing the air of smoke, “But a package, you say?   Let me see it.”

Fo clasped his paws and seemed to shrink by one size, “Uh, it is addressed fursonally to Li Kan...”

“I’m not going to OPEN it!” the wolf snapped, beginning to sound irritated.

The weasel nodded, quickly and began to furtively dig through the barrow’s contents, scattering letters everywhere in the process.

“And I’m not in a hurry either. “the red wolf growled,”  Take your time.” ( Shi T’ung, meanwhile, appeared to be attempting to will himself invisible. )

Finally, the package was wrested from the bottom of the wheelbarrow.

It was about the size of a folded tarpaulin, wrapped tightly in oiled linen and sealed with a lattice work of jute twine.  Tuo Jin-Wa frowned, and looked closer.

And for a second, it looked as if Fo and Shi were about to be treated to the impossible spectacle of ‘Ice’ Tuo losing his composure.  The wolf’s head reeled back as if his nose had touched a hot stove and the hackles of his neck snapped upwards, while a sound like a hissing kettle escaped from between his teeth.

“Who gave you this?” he demanded, looking directly at Fo.  The weasel’s paws clasped tightly together again.

“One...One of the mail clerks at the Post Office.  A-A black rat with one ear missing.  I...I think his name is Ton...uh, Chong...yes, that’s it.  Wh-why do you...?”

But the big wolf had already shifted his attention to Shi T’ung.  “You!  Find that clerk and bring him here...now!”

“Yes, sir.” said the pangolin, who unlike his subordinate, knew better than to ask any questions.  In seconds, he was out the door.

Tuo watched him go, then turned and barked another order, this one directed at Fo Chi’an.  “Bring that.” he said, pointing at the parcel, then turned on his heel and strode briskly towards one of the doors in the far wall.  And when Fo saw which one it was, his eyes expanded to the side of rice bowls.  The door on the right..the one he had NEVER expected to enter! 

On the other side, was a long, dark corridor, under guard by another sentry, this one a bat...a good choice, considering that the hallway was about as well lit as the average salt mine.  As they entered, the bat inclined his head in deference to Tuo.  (Fo, he regarded as if the weasel had just emerged from the woodwork.)

“A possibly urgent matter has just come to my attention,” Tuo said to the guard without preamble, “Is Li-Kan in?”

“He is, “ said the bat, nodding his head down the corridor, and then didn’t say anything further.

Tuo nodded back and then turned down the hallway, beckoning Fo to follow him.

The instant their feet touched the floor, the hallway became a forest of banshees.  With every footfall they made, the boards screeched and groaned in protest at the intrusion.  Several times, Fo wanted to drop the wheelbarrow and cover his ears, but of course did no such thing.  Even so, he couldn’t help but be impressed.  Just imagine an assassin trying to pass through HERE undetected.

At the end of the hallway was another doorway, this one with a small, slit-window set into the wood.  Stopping before it, Tuo did not bother to knock, merely stood waiting, with his paws at his side.

A second later, there was a low, grating sound as the window slid back, a pair of green eyes with vertical pupils appeared, then the window closed and the door swung open.

It was like entering another world.  The chamber on the other side was as big as a cavern, and supported by eight columns of lacquered teakwood, each one inlaid with the finest jade, to create  the spiraling figure of a snake, winding it’s way to the top.  Between each of the pillars, was a finely crafted divan of T’ang vintage, with a small, lacquered table beside it.  On each of these were placed several sticks of smoldering incense sticks, in burners of gold, not brass. 

That a place of such opulence could exist here, right in the middle of in the poorest district in Shanghai, was mind-boggling.  Everything in this chamber was of the utmost quality.  Even the lanterns hanging from the ceiling were constructed of silk rather than paper.

Tuo, meanwhile, was nodding curtly to the ginger tabby cat who had admitted them.  The feline immediately nodded back, then exited through a side door without a single word.

The wolf then turned and beckon Fo to pick up the wheelbarrow once again.

As he bent down to grab it, the weasel spotted something, a pair of exquisitely shaped legs, jutting out from between two of the pillars.   There, sprawled on one of the couches, was long-legged cheetah-femme, no more than sixteen years of age, by the look of her.  She was clad in a silk cheongsam, so sheer that Fo could make out not only the outline, but the color of her nipples.  When he and Tuo passed her by, she let out a stream of giggles that sounded as if they were coming from a phonograph record being played at an erratic speed.

That was when Fo noticed the object laying at her feet, something that resembled a metallic section of bamboo cane with a brass mushroom sprouting from two inches from the end.  He felt his nose wrinkling in revulsion.  Once, many years ago, Fo’s family had once been well-to-do if not rich, his father the owner of a successful tailor shop...until he too had taken up the practice of, “biting clouds.”

“What is it, Tuo?” said a voice from the depths of the chamber, and Fo looked to see a huge, ivory chair with curling snakes for legs.  The chair was placed on a raised dais, like a throne, largely hidden by the shadows.  All that was visible of the occupant was a pair of large amber eyes, glowing hotly, as if illuminated by candles placed behind them.

Without waiting for an answer, their owner rose and came down the steps.

Li Kan-Ng was neither large nor small for a tiger, neither fat, nor thin, neither muscular, nor flabby.  What made him distinctive was a minor overbite and bulging nose that would have been more appropriate to a bull than a big cat..  An unknowing observer would have judged him as a nobody, a nonentity, and could not have been more mistaken.  Even the members of his own gang thought he looked more like an underpaid bookkeeper than a triad king.

That all changed the instant Li Kan-Ng he opened his mouth, the way he did right now.

Fo Chi’ang felt his bowels attempting to loosen once again.  Both of Li’s upper incisors were long gone, replaced by a pair of glittering gold daggers.

They had sculpted to resemble a viper’s fangs...right down to a pair of false venom-holes.

Only when these were visible, did Li Kan Ng reveal himself for the monster that he was.  And the fact that the triad king was wearing nothing but a thin silk robe, left open at the front, did nothing for Fo’s peace of mind.

This was not the first time he had seen the Snakehead leader’s fangs, but that was a superfluous fact; their initial encounter had occurred when he had been formally inducted into the triad.  On that occasion, he had been but one of many supplicants swearing loyalty to their triad king.

Today, he was utterly alone.

“It is a private matter.” said Tuo Jin-Wa, casting a quick glance at Fo, and then the cheetah femme.

“Leave.” said the triad king without looking at either of them.  Fo clasped his paws and bowed, more than happy to comply with the order.

“But wait outside,” added Tuo, waving a big paw over the wheelbarrow, “I will need you to fetch this away when we are done.”  He paused for a second, his eyes seeming to darken to the color of an abyss. “And you were never in here.  Is that understood?”

“Yes, understood...understood perfectly.” said Fo, quickly...then bowed again, and turned to hurry from the room.

When he passed the cheetah femme, he noted that she was still there, lounging on the divan with those vapid, silly eyes, apparently unaware of the order she’d just been given.  Fo almost stopped to warn her, then wisely decided it was every weasel for himself.

It was a more than justifiable action on his part.  In a trice, Li was there in front of the girl, his paws planted firmly on his hips.

“Didn’t I yiffing tell you to leave, eh?” he said.  His voice was harsh, coarse as burlap...and revealed yet another aspect of the tiger that was never mentioned in public: For all his wealth and elegant trappings, Li Kan-Ng was really little more than an elevated street thug; with a few  more brains and a lot more guts than almost any other of his fellows, to be sure.

But a street thug, nonetheless.

The girl looked up at him, her face pinched into a naughty pout.

“Whyyyy?” she asked, in what she probably thought was a sultry voice...and it was the last time she would be able to use that particular voice for quite some time.  With his expression still unchanged, Li seized her by the throat and hauled her to her feet.  The cheetah tried to scream, but managed only a liquid choking sound, while the insides of her ears turned the color of ripe plums.

“You should get your yiffing ass out of here,” Li told her, still in that calm, measured tone, “Because...” He slapped her across the muzzle, then again on every word that followed “I...SAID...so.”.

He dropped the girl and she fled the room, sobbing.  Ice Tuo observed these proceedings with his feelings of disgust kept carefully hidden away.

They were kept that way because the object of his revulsion was not the cheetah femme, but Li Kan-Ng.

And not because of his brutal treatment of her; had any one of Tuo’s females acted like that, he would have done more or less the same thing.

But why, in the name of all the gods, did Li Kan-Ng’s taste in femmes run to such silly, empty-headed imbeciles?  The younger Li’s mother had been of exactly the same stripe...and her intelligence, or lack of it, had come through with a vengeance in the Snakehead king’s only male offspring.

THAT insolent whelp, Tuo had long since decided, was not going to succeed his father as head of the Snakehead Triad.  Though the wolf had never expressed this thought to anyone other than himself, he knew that most, if not all of his fellow underlords were of exactly the same mind when it came to Li, the younger. 

Especially since he had crossed the uncrossable.  Li the Younger had been sent to Singapore in the first place after running afoul of the Shanghai Independent Merchants Benevolent and Protective Society.

“You INSECT!” Tuo silently raged, at a memory that never failed to provoke him, “How could even YOU be stupid enough to think the Society would just fade away with Silas Hardoon’s passing?  All Gods, if Du Yue-Sheng ever discovers the TRUE reason you were sent to Singapore....”

He bit off the rest of this unpalatable thought.  It was more than possible that Du already was already aware...

And that was only the least of the wolf’s concerns.  Who controlled the Society now that Hardoon was dead?  Was it Sir Victor?  He had acquired most of the genet cat’s real estate holdings after his death, he was certainly the most likely candidate.

But what would he do if he did?  Jew or no Jew, Sir Victor Sassoon was English to the core, served in the RFC in the Great War, knighted and a baronet; unlike Silas Hardoon, he could call upon the Shanghai Municipal Police for protection; he didn’t need The Ghosts.

So why hadn’t he disbanded them?  Or had he?

 Or had they ever even existed in the first place?

Li Kan-Ng, meanwhile, had (finally) pulled his robe closed.

“Well, what the yiff then?” he queried, lifting an eyebrow.

“Take a look, Li.”  Tuo, pointing a thick, squarish finger at the wheelbarrow.

The tiger nodded, strolled over and peered into it.

“Hrmmm,” he growled, raising his head, and looking at his second once again.  “From New Guinea?  I thought you pulled all our furs out of there.”

“I did,” the red lupine responded, coming over in two large strides, not bothering to add that the order had been delivered too late for many of them, “That’s not from one of ours.”  He reached down, pressing a finger against the linen wrapping.  “Look...see there.  Do you recognize that chop?”

Li squinted, peered closer, causing Tuo to wonder once again if there was any truth to the rumour that the tiger’s eyesight was beginning to fail.

But then, with an angry roar, Li’s head snapped back, as if yanked by an invisible wire.

“All yiffing gods!  Shang Li-Sung!”

“Yes,” said Tuo, coldly, “And that can mean only one thing, he knows it was the Snakeheads that tried to horsenap the one-blue-eye whore.”  (Not entirely true, it had been one particular snakehead, acting without the sanction of his father and his triad king.   But Tuo would not say this either.)  “and it also means Ji Su King is certainly dead as a well.  No communication from him for a month and now this.” He waved a paw at the bundle again.  “I think we can write him off, Li.”

Li appeared not have heard his last two sentences.  He turned and growled, revealed his sculpted fangs once again.

“I TOLD you Chu wasn’t killed by any ass-yiffing natives.”

Tuo Jin-Wa had to fight to keep his eyeballs from rolling.  They had been over this HOW many times already?

“Chu Lung-Kuo was found with his head cut off and SKINNED, Li.” he reminded the triad king, patiently, “Who else would have done that shit?”

Now, Li Kan Ng’s mouth pulled back to reveal ALL his teeth.

“What the yi...?  Don’t you ever yiffing listen to me, Tuo?  I never said the natives didn’t SKIN Chu...yes, they probably did that.  But that happened after he was killed with a sword.  And since when do those New Guinea bare asses use swords?”

Now, the wolf did roll his eyes.

“Since when would anyone but a bare-ass use a sword on someone THAT way, Li?  Look, we know the natives picked that camp clean before they left; they took everything...including all the weapons.  A hundred dollars Hong Kong says they grabbed Chu’s sword and tested it on him before they took off into the jungle.”

Li countered these words at once.

“What about the carabao who was found shot in both kneecaps?  You going to tell me a native did THAT?”  ( They did not know that his nose had been shot off first; ALL the bodies had been found with their heads taken. )

“No, I think Chu Lung Kuo did that.” Tuo responded at once, “That idiot’s hesitancy was what allowed the one-blue-eye whore to get away in the first place, if you recall.  And don’t tell me Chu isn’t...wasn’t capable of knee-capping someone for that kind of yiff-up.”

Li Kan-Ng said nothing to this, only growled again, but this time with weary resignation...a feeling that Tuo understood all too well.

One, possibly two Snakeheads had been murdered in New Guinea...and the code of the triad, not just theirs but all triads, demanded revenge against their killers. 

But not NOW!  Not with the Green Gang breathing down their necks....and the Society angry at them.  This couldn’t have happened at a worse possible time.  Damn that upstart, Li Pu!

Tuo growled himself, now, but only to conceal the fact that he was actually sighing.

Chu Lung-Kuo  The truth of the matter was, Tuo Jin-Wah would sooner buy dinner for whoever had killed THAT particular rhino than exact revenge upon them   In his view, Chu’s death had been the only positive thing to have come out of the New Guinea debacle; good riddance to a loose cannon!

Even so, he understood that the code was the code, and must be followed.  Kill a Snakehead, and your own life is forfeit...period.  Only twice had that code been violated...or maybe it hadn’t; no one could be certain, the bodies had never been found....and the perpetrators never identified.  (Although Tuo knew in his bowels who it was.)   Whatever had happened, Li Kan Ng had sworn on the grave of his ancestors that the code would never be broken again...a vow no self respecting Chinese could ever think of violating. 

Ice Tuo had no problem with that; what he DID have a problem with was the fact that Li Kan-Ng was demanding revenge against the wrong party.  And in the end, as triad king, he would have his way; the Snakehead Gang would exact its vengeance upon the Iso mine, while Chu’s real killers, the yiffing bare-asses, would remain untouched.

A knife appeared in Li Kan-Ng’s paw, seemingly snatched from thin air.

“Let’s see what the yiff Shang has sent us, eh?” Li almost sounded jolly as he popped the twine that embraced the package.  With Tuo’s help, he lifted the bundle out of the wheelbarrow and set it on the floor.  It was heavy, perhaps 100 lbs.  And when the two of them peeled back the linen wrapping, what was underneath appeared at first to be only more packaging.

“Wait, that’s leather,” said Li, stopping and scratching the back of his neck, “A roll of leather.  Now what the yiff?”

It was a rhetorical query of course, but Tuo chose to answer it anyway.

“Only one way to know.” he said, then grabbed the hide by the edge, and unfurled it along the floor.

At first, his mind would not accept what he was seeing.  “No...too small, it can’t be.” were his first thoughts, but then he heard (and felt) Li Kan-Ng’s thunderous roar of rage and dismay.

That was also when he saw the tattoos...including one very distinct piece of skin art.

He knew then...he knew that Li had been right and he had been wrong.  No, it hadn’t been the natives..  Not only had they not been Chu’s killers...they had also not been the ones who...

“What’s that there?” Li demanded, pointing at the rhino skin with a furious, shaky finger.  Tuo looked, and saw, laying atop the rhino hide, something resembling a tan willow-leaf, ringed with darker bands of earthen color..  By rights he should have recognized it immediately; so should his triad king, for that matter.  But it wasn’t until the wolf picked up the object that he saw it for what it was.

“Wha...?  It’s a yiffing snake-skin,” he said, holding it up for closer inspection.

“What’s that shit on the other side?” said Li, “Is that writing?  Read it to me.”

Tuo turned the death adder skin over.  Yes, there it was; a string of Chinese characters, crawling down what had once been the inside of the serpent. 

He cleared his throat and began to read aloud.

Fo Chi’an was leaning against the wall, wishing to hell that they would summon him back to pick up the package, so he could get the yiff out of here.  A part of him was very frightened, something was seriously wrong, though he didn’t know what.  But another part was also elated...summoned to call on the triad king himself...and by none other than Ice Tuo.  And the girl, he’d almost laughed himself sick when she’d run past him, blubbering to herself that Li would be sorry for this.

What, exactly, did this fluffy, little kitten think SHE was going to...?

This train of thought was instantly derailed by the sound of Li Kan-Ng’s infuriated roar, a sound that turned the weasel’s spine to jelly and threatened to do the same for his guts yet a third time in the space of an hour.

And then Li roared again, so loud that...no wait, this was no roar.  It was almost a ...a scream?

Then he heard his name being bellowed, and went rushing back into the room.

“Yes, Li.” he cried, hurrying through the door and dropping to his knees, “What may I....?

His words were immediately cut off as Li took two steps forward, drew his knife, and laid the weasel’s throat open to the spine.  Fo Chi’ang died staring dumbly at his own spurting blood....still wondering what it was that he’d done wrong.
Ice Tuo didn’t see it.  He was too busy re-reading the message imprinted on the back of the death adder skin:

“This is what I do to snakes.   The NEXT time you come against me, I will not just beat you, I will destroy you.

( signed )
The One-Blue-Eye Whore.”

                To Katie MacArran