The Sea Devils
by Richard Messer
The taxi pulled up in front of the store as the sun peeked over the roofs across the street. The lepine femme in brown silk stepped out, her wavy black hair sweeping her back to the waist as she turned to pay the driver.
<Keep the change, > she smiled to the monkey behind the wheel.
He grinned in return. <Thank you, Mistress Wu Hsing.>
Jade watched the car drive away before passing down the narrow walkway between buildings and up a short flight of steps. Through the window in the door she looked into the small kitchen, and the figure seated at the table. With a sigh, the doe entered.
Wu Hsing Yun heard the door open but did not look up from the newspaper in hand. The older lepine studied the calligraphy through pince-nez glasses perched low on her nose. She wore a deep green dressing gown, and her own dark hair was neatly braided and coiled on her crown. Slowly taking the small pipe from her mouth the older doe spoke.
<And what did Xin Xue want from you this time, other than to share her bed? >
The young doe took a chair and poured herself a cup of tea. After Jade took a sip she set the cup down to look at her aunt.
<She wants me to go to Bangkok. >
Yun set the paper and pipe down to sip from her own cup. She had the same fur and hair as her niece though beginning to fade from age. With a sidelong glance Yun asked, <Why Bangkok? >
Taking a pastry from a plate Jade took a bite and slowly chewed before washing it down with more tea.
<She wants me to look into some collusion between the Thai government and the Japanese. >
<And not some tale about your mother’s and father’s whereabouts? >
Jade gave a curt nod.
<That was also included. >
Wu Hsing Yun didn’t say anything. She picked up her pipe, packed the mixture with a forefinger, and struck a match to it. Jade had quickly assembled a cigarette with the holder and accepted the light from her aunt. Both did not speak for some minutes, each deep in thought as they smoked. The younger lepine glanced down at the paper to read the headlines about some treasure found in a southern archipelago two days ago.
Finally Yun asked, <Will you be traveling alone, or will someone be going with you? >
Knocking ash into the ashtray, Jade blew smoke before answering. < Xin Xue said that I could have a companion to go with me. >
Yun spared her niece a look. <Anyone of your choosing, or will she be providing this companion? >
<She said that if I couldn’t find someone to go along she could offer a choice. >
At that moment another figure entered the room. A rat femme younger than Jade paused at the table to bow before seating herself. Ming Xue had been working at the apothecary for a handful of years now ever since Wu Hsing Yun had found the rodent in the gutter of a side street starving and half beaten to death. It was learned that Ming Xue had left Shanghai as a stowaway on a British freighter. Before the ship had docked at Casino Island, a crewfur had discovered the hungry femme scavenging for scraps from the galley. She was quickly given the traditional treatment of having her hair cut off, worked over with fists and feet, and then thrown overboard. Somehow the young rat woman had pulled herself out of the oily waters around the docks before collapsing in the street. Wu Hsing Yun was returning from visiting a friend when she came upon the shorn and battered creature.
Ming Xue (Larger file here - 6.3 MBytes)
Art by L. Frank - http://www.furaffinity.net/user/wom-bat/
Pharmacy assistant to Wu Hsing Yun
Ming Xue poured herself a cup of tea and had a pastry, all the while being quiet during her elder’s conversation. Eating and drinking quietly, she listened to what was being said without comment.
Presently Yun said, <You could take Ming Xue with you, > with a nod towards the third occupant of the table.
The young rat femme’s head shot up. Both lepines were staring at her. Jade frowned.
<And who will assist you with the shop? >
Blowing smoke the other replied, <I can always have Chan Chou Li help out on half-days. >
Jade rolled her eyes at this. Chan Chou Li, or 'Charlie' Chan in regards to the Chinese detective of pulp fiction, had been a real life police detective with the Casino Island constabulary before his retirement of three years ago after the death of his wife. He offered his help to anyone who needed a set of hands with their business, as long as he didn’t fall into recounting his days on the police force. And there were a few who could barely tolerate the Asian moon-bear’s reminiscences. But he was useful in keeping children entertained.
Yun caught the look. <Do not be so hard on that honored one’s state of life. He has been most helpful those times you were gone on other business. > Turning her head slightly from her niece’s attention the older lepine muttered under her breath - with a slight smile, <Yes, most helpful.>
But she had forgotten to take into account the large round rodent ears across from her. Ming Xue sat up a little straighter in her chair, her black eyes growing a little rounder at those barely audible words. She took a sip of her tea to cover the embarrassment that was coloring the inside of her ears. Jade caught the look and motion but kept quiet; she refilled her cup before taking another puff on her cigarette.
<Very well, > she began after another sip. <Ming Xue it is, then. > Jade turned to the rat femme. <We will be leaving for Bangkok, Siam, in about four days. We will have our cover story worked out by then, as well as the appropriate travel wear. If you have any personal business that needs to be attended to then do so before we leave. Is that understood? >
Ming Xue nodded her understanding. The thought of going back to Asia knotted her stomach for she was trying to escape a wretched life and a personal disaster in China. Yet, at the same time, visiting an exotic city like Bangkok eased that knot and gave the young rodent femme the desire to help out this family more in return for bed and board.
<Thank you so much, my ladies, for giving this unfortunate one a better chance of repaying your kindness. >
Wu Hsing Yun picked up the paper. <Very well, then,> she muttered around her pipe stem, <but first see to the store and that it is ready to open for business. >
Ming Xue stood and bowed to the owner of the apothecary.
<Yes, mistress. > She turned to the other doe then paused. An unnerving feeling came over her when she glanced at that green velvet patch over the other’s left eye. She was sure that there was something under that piece of cloth instead of an empty socket. Something that was staring back with an out worldliness that was only whispered at in forgotten places and dark corridors beyond understanding. With a quick bow Ming Xue hastily left the kitchen.
Wu Hsing Jade stared at the place the younger femme occupied, then blinked.
<She is still afraid of something after all this time,> she commented as she took a last drag from her cigarette. Pulling the end from the holder the doe stubbed it out in the ashtray.
Her aunt knocked the dottle into the ashtray as well, before folding the paper and setting it aside with the pipe.
<She’ll tell us when she feels ready,> said Yun, rising from her chair. <Now I must dress and begin the day. It is best for you to change out of your ‘play clothes’ and join me at the counter for we have much to discuss before the customers arrive.>
The older doe glided from the room. Jade watched her go before slipping the black cigarette holder into her purse. Rising from her own chair and taking a last sip of tea the young lepine stepped out as well to climb the stairs to the flat overhead.
Stepping into her room Jade began undressing as her mind went back to when her aunt brought a battered and disheveled Ming Xue to their store. The young thing was a mess from the beating she had taken, her hair shorn into ragged clumps, one eye swollen shut and both lips split and bleeding. It took a few weeks of care and Chinese herbalism to ease the pain of the body, but months to mend the poor creature’s mind. Jade had spent nights sitting by the rat femme’s bed, trying to comfort her when she awoke screaming in a mixture of Cantonese, Mandarin, and some other tongue the doe did not know or understood. At times the lepine would slide into bed to offer this unfortunate one a more physical anchor to ease the horrors that seemed to haunt her soul.
Hanging the dress in a wardrobe cabinet, Jade kicked off her high heels and donned a more somber dress of dark gray and slippers. She stepped up to the mirror on the wardrobe door to make sure everything was straight before tying her hair back with a ribbon. The doe paused, imagining again how Ming Xue had looked before her capture. In her mind’s eye she saw the young rodent with long dark hair like her own. Now the femme wore it cut in a chin length bob with straight bangs low over the eyes. It seemed to compliment the gray brown fur of her slender body, though why she went with this style was never answered.
Shaking her head Wu Hsing Jade closed the door and headed back downstairs. There came the tinkle of the doorbell as the first customer of the day entered. Setting her mind to the work ahead, and to come, Jade set a smile on her face as she stepped into the shop.