The Sea Devils
by Richard Messer
The rain had slowed to a soft shower as two figures emerged from a side entrance to the Hotel Oriental. The tall lepine waited for her smaller companion to ready an umbrella for them both.
Wu Hsing Jade was still feeling nervous after the brief incident in the hotel’s dining room. It was enough of a surprise to find that that Japanese macaque was a magic user of unknown abilities. What truly shook the doe was the unwavering gaze he held on the Eurasian rabbit femme. And to find that American bull terrier there, smiling at her as she and Ming Xue left, added more consternation to the situation. Who was he and what was his interest in her?
Jade and Ming Xue boarded the lift in the lobby and directed the operator to take them to the second floor. Though their room was actually on the third, Jade felt discretion was called for. After getting off the car, the femmes walked slowly down the corridor as the doors closed. Quickly they made their way down to the servants' stairway and headed up to the next level. Once they reached their room, rabbit and rat hastily changed to street clothing and grabbed their raincoats and hats.
Jade was ready to leave when Ming Xue seated herself at the writing table.
<Come, girl, we must leave!> the lepine hissed.
<I must make secure our room, mistress,> the other replied while making a mental count of the windows and doors. From her shoulder bag Ming Xue took out a small envelope. Out of this she withdrew a number of small slips of rice paper along with a small ink-bottle and a slender length of bamboo.
Ming Xue gave the end of the bamboo a twist and a cap came off to reveal a small brush. Dipping the brush into the ink, she made deft strokes on the slips of rice paper. Looking over the rat-woman’s shoulder, the older lepine made out the characters for 'BAR'. As the ink dried Ming Xue recapped the ink-bottle before going to the bathroom to clean the brush.
Once everything else was packed away into her bag, Ming Xue gathered up the paper slips and proceeded to the windows. Wu Hsing Jade watched as her companion made sure the windows were closed and latched. Then taking one of the printed slips, Ming Xue licked the back of it and molded the paper to the sash and frame. She did it to each window of the room until there were two slips left; one the rat femme set across the bathroom door after closing it.
At the room door she motioned her employer to step out. Jade did so as Ming Xue took the last slip and folded it in half. Licking the one half, she stuck it the lower edge of the door while holding the other half up with slender fingers. Then reaching into a jacket pocket the rodent femme fished out a coin. Giving it a lick she stuck it to the underside of the free end of the slip. Carefully the young femme slid out of the door in a crouch, left hand holding up the coin off of the floor while drawing the door closed with her right hand. At the last moment Ming Xue muttered a few words in a strange tongue before letting the coin drop as the door bolt clicked into place. From under the floor came a brief flash of light.
Wu Hsing Jade blinked in surprise as her companion rose to face her, a rare smile on her gray-brown face.
<Our room is sealed, mistress. And only I can let us in,> Ming Xue said calmly with a slight bow.
Jade gave a soft whistle and a smile in return, nodding in appreciation.
<Well done, girl. And from now on, whenever we’re alone like this, I give you leave to call me Jade - as I will call you Sue.>
The rat femme cocked her head. <‘Sue’?>
The Eurasian doe nodded again with a smile.
<We might as well be friends while keeping up this working relationship. No one else needs to know about this unless we want him or her to, okay?>
Ming Xue gave it a moment’s thought. She had lived and worked with this femme and her aunt for a few years now, and had been shown the greatest concern and care since her self-imposed exile from Shanghai.
<Okay. But why ‘Sue’?>
Turning away from their room, Jade answered while leading the way down the corridor.
<It’s more American sounding than calling you ‘Shoe’. Besides, it's what I would have been calling you since you started working for this ‘wealthy American’.>
<Oh,> was all that Ming Xue – ‘Sue’ – could say while following along.
They used the servants' stairway again to reach the lobby, nonchalantly skirting the open area to reach a side entrance. Standing close to the building the pair scanned the nearly deserted street for a taxi. Some figures under their own umbrellas or broad straw hats hurried through the rain. A couple of lorries made their slow ways through the rain-swollen thoroughfare until a lone vehicle, its toll flag sticking out, came crawling out of the curtain.
<Taxi!> hollered the young rodent, waving her free hand.
The driver caught the cry and signal. Deftly he maneuvered his way around to pull up before the entrance. He watched as a very tall lepine doe and her smaller rodent companion splashed across the broad sidewalk to dive into the passengers' seat.
The dark seal-pointed Siamese driver in drab Western clothing gave a bored look over his shoulder as he waited for his latest acquisition to give a destination.
Jade looked back. <Wu Hsing Tang’s apothecary, please.>
Dark eyes narrowed. 'The nightingale only sings at night . . .'
The lepine sat up at those Thai words, long brown ears brushing the roof of the vehicle. It was part of the sign/countersign that Madame Xin Xue had given her before departing. Jade paused for the space of three heartbeats before staring the driver in the eye.
'. . . When the sky is clear, and the moon is full and bright!’
A toothy white grin split that chocolate muzzle.
Yes, Missy Jade. Grandmother is waiting for you.
Straightening back up in his seat the taxi driver pulled the flag down on his meter before pulling out into the street to wend their way to the Chinese section of town.
* * * * * * *
The Chinatown of Bangkok kept its Asian façade despite other sections of the city trying to mimic Western architecture. Signboards barely readable in the rain held both Chinese and Thai titles as to the business underneath.
The taxi eased down the street from the rain and pedestrians for a couple of blocks before turning left down a side street. The car went another block before stopping. As the women got out the driver held up a hand as Wu Hsing Jade tried to pay the fare.
On Grandmother, was all he said as the Siamese pulled away.
The two femmes made their way down a narrow walkway until they reached a modest storefront over which hung the sign Wu Hsing Tang’s Apothecary. Feeling her stomach knot up into a ball the rabbit doe took a deep breath and opened the door.
It had been nearly thirteen years since she had been here last but the memories came flooding back like the streets outside. The aroma of the medicinal herbs was as familiar as her Aunt Yun’s store. However, it was the dark cramped setting that made the place feel like coming home.
<May I help you?>
The voice belonged to a young mouse femme as she stepped through a beaded curtain from a back room.
Older lepine and younger rodent bowed to each other.
<I’ve come to see my grandmother,> said Jade.
<Did I just hear the voice of a dutiful granddaughter?>
Through the curtain came a figure Wu Hsing Jade had not seen for half of her life, and the vision brought a tear to her right eye.
Barely reaching the visitor’s shoulders the unbowed presence of Wu Hsing Tang made a quiet entry once more into her granddaughter’s life. Hair of silvery white was elegantly piled on her crown. The fur on her face still held the dark brown color fully without a hint of fading. Nor were her features showing any sign of sinking in around the bones.
Dressed in an embroidered green jacket, dark gray trousers, and slippers, the matriarch of the Wu Hsing family calmly stepped up to her daughter’s daughter, hands clasped behind her back. She craned her neck to take in this visitor.
“Oh, my, but you have grown, child,” the elder femme said after switching to flawless English.
Then she surprised Jade by calmly wrapping her arms about the other in a gentle hug. This startled the younger lepine femme but briefly as she returned the hug. They separated to gaze into tear-filled eyes.
“You look so much like your mother. And damn-near as tall as your father!” The elder lepine turned her gaze to the other figure beside Jade. “And who is this young lady?”
Ming Xue gave a deep and reverent bow as she introduced herself to this congenial hostess.
“Ah, yes, Xin Xue said that you would be traveling with my granddaughter.” Wu Hsing Tang’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Are you willing and ready to render aid to her who has been entrusted with this most important task? Even at the cost of your life?”
Xin Xue looked nonplussed at this. She bowed again.
<Honored grandmother, I have survived encounters with street gangs and demons with my Tao master in Shanghai. I will face whatever comes our way.>
Grandmother Tang looked to Jade. “Does she not understand English?”
Wu Hsing Jade gave a weak smile. “Forgive me, grandmother, but we’ve been working at improving her skills in that language. Sue understands much, but there are some concepts she has not completely grasped.”
“Sue?” said the elder doe. Then she gave a sigh as she shook her head with humor. “Whatever you younger people want to stand between yourselves. But, come, I’m being a poor hostess. Ling-Ling, be so good as to take their hats and coats.”
The mouse femme bowed and did as she was told, when Wu Hsing Tang took the two through the curtain towards the family area.
It was as Jade remembered; the one large room that served as parlor and dining room. To one side was the doorway into the kitchen while opposite was the stairway that led up to the bedrooms overhead.
The older lepine femme bade the pair to be seated at the table while leaning into the kitchen to give a soft word to whoever was creating such wondrous smells. Presently a rat femme not as old as Tang came out with a tray holding cups, a teapot, and a plate of cookies. This was set on the table as the femme bowed out of the room.
“I take it that you two have already eaten?”
“Yes, Grandmother,” replied Jade as she accepted the cup of tea and passed the cookies onto Ming Xue. She made a quick glance around the room, trying to recall certain things that lurked on the edge of her memories. In the far corner, on a low shelf, stood the figures prominent in Chinese life and business. First was the female deer representing Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Next came the God of Healing, Zhong Kui, a stern-faced panda with a naked sword held over a shoulder and an open fan in the other hand. This was followed by the porcine figure of Cai Shen, the God of Wealth. But the one god that Wu Hsing Jade had forgotten was Hong Shen. He was the God of the Southern Seas who figured closely into the life of every Chinese sailor. And with Wu Hsing Tang a member of the upper echelon of the Sea Devils, this deity was not to be denied his due. Jade stared at the creature whose face was an odd mixture of human and whale, wondering how she could have forgotten this most important god of the wako, the Chinese pirates.
Ling-Ling returned to make for a tall cabinet behind the younger lepine doe. From within, the young mouse woman removed a wooden rack holding a small collection of pipes. This she set on the table by the cookies, along with a porcelain jar. She took up one of the pipes, a creation of red clay with a long curved stem of reed, and handed it to her mistress. Ling-Ling repeated the action with the two guests. Wu Hsing Jade looked on with mild surprise at her companion’s acceptance of the pipe. Ming Xue looked back.
<I never said I didn’t smoke, mistress. I just don’t smoke cigarettes.>
Grandmother Tang chuckled as she packed her bowl with the mixture from the jar. Then the jar was passed to her guests as the mouse femme brought around a lighted spill from which to light their pipes. About two minutes passed as the trio quietly puffed, sipped and chewed on the cookies.
Presently the elder doe spoke: “Much has happened to this country within the last year. You’ve seen and heard the results of it with your coming this morning, I suppose.”
Blowing a streamer of smoke into the air Jade answered, “Yes, at the customs office, with that official making a comment about us Chinese. For a moment I thought Ming Xue was going to reach across the counter and rip that fool’s throat out.”
At the mentioning of her name the rat femme sat up a little straighter and passed her gaze between hostess and employer.
“And there was an incident at the Hotel Oriental a half hour ago that pointed to the chumminess going on between Siamese and Japanese.”
Wu Hsing Tang’s eyes narrowed a bit. “And what was that?”
Feeling the insides of her ears growing warm from the flush, Jade stared at her pipe.
“A couple of Siamese government people arrived with some Japanese officers for a late lunch. They began ordering some of the Chinese staff around like slaves to serve them. Well, one of the waiters tripped and spilt some water onto a Japanese naval officer. The officer’s subordinate began beating the waiter.” Jade looked up into her grandmother’s eyes at last. She touched the patch over Sun Wukong’s Tear. “Then the Tear caused the young macaque to trip himself and crash his head into the table.”
The elder lepine nodded in silent appreciation. But this was cut short at her granddaughter’s next words. “But the Tear showed me that the older macaque is a magician of some power and he looked at me after this had happened, following me out of the room with his eyes!”
Wu Hsing Tang coughed a bit on her pipe, taking some time to clear her throat. After a moment she sat in silent contemplation, the pipe forgotten in her hands. But when she looked up there was hardness to her dark eyes.
“We must have a gathering of the leaders in the community to determine our next course of action."