The Triads used an old number system of ranking. Each rank came with its own antiquated name like Dragon or Straw Sandal. I didn’t remember what new recruits like Kai were called, but White Paper Fan sounded more familiar. It seemed ironic, now, that kids like Kai and me would play mafia when we were children, fighting over who would get to be the Dragonhead.
I couldn’t remember what the White Paper Fan was, but it meant something. The White Paper Fan was particularly high ranking, and it made sense. Li Au looked like he wasn’t supposed to be here, in the slum. He dressed finer than I had seen anyone. All black with a black jacket, which had a burgundy handkerchief tucked into the pocket. He was sitting at our kitchen table in one of our chairs, with the gun on the table, and a cigarette in his mouth.
“So you’re little Siu-Ling,” he said, sounding amused. “I promised I wouldn’t underestimate you after what you did with our shipment, but now I don’t have the opportunity to tease Kwok here for actually letting you get away.”
I glanced up at Kwok who was standing behind Li’s chair like a body guard. He had his gun on me.
“I don’t want to hear your bullshit,” I said. “Where’s my mother? I know she’s here.”
“The girl wants to see her mother,” Li said, turning to Kwok. Kwok turned and opened my mother’s bedroom door. In the dim light, I could see her sitting on her knees on the mattress, her hands tied behind her back.
“A-mah!” I said. “What have you done to her!”
“Nothing yet,” Li said, and nodded his head, signalling for Kwok to bring my mother out. Kwok pulled my mother to her feet by the binding at her wrists, pointing the gun at her now. She stumbled upward and went ahead in front of Kwok to the kitchen. The gun was at her back. Her face was dull eyed, and upset, but she didn’t seem hurt. My chest ached from just looking at her, and she wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“See,” Li began. “You’re going to have to stand there and listen to my buillshit. Because you owe it to me. Because of you, I lost a lot of money last week. I lost some good men. You didn’t just give this man trouble,” he said, nodding to Kwok. “You gave everyone above him trouble.” He stood up now, and I realized he was much taller than I had originally thought.
I gripped my gun tighter, but I could feel my hands shaking.
“And trouble,” he continued, ashing his cigarette over the table, “When it goes up the ladder, the Wo Shing Wo likes to make sure that everyone knows they’re affected. We want to remind them that we are a family, and that when one of us suffers, they too must suffer. That is why, when something like this happens, we give trouble to everyone down the ladder.” He brought the cigarette to his lips and inhaled, letting the smoke out of his nostrils like a dragon. “And we traveled all the way down to the bottom of the ladder. To the dregs in the teapot. The very lowest of the low,” he said, his voice acidic now. “And the incident led us back,” he flicked the butt of the cigarette to the floor, “to you.”
I watched the butt glow red and send up a steady trail of smoke. My whole body was trembling. I had never met anyone in my life who seemed to exude so much power, let alone anyone who was so willing to exercise it at any cost. I remembered Kai’s words. The Wo Shing Wo wasn’t anyone you wanted to mess with.
Li stepped closer to me, and instinctively, I took a step back. He chuckled and kept walking until he was only a few feet away from me. I stood my ground, but I was panicking. Li and Kwok had us trapped. Even if we somehow managed to get away, there was no way my mother and I could outrun both of them. As long as Kwok had his gun at my mother’s back, I was just as helpless, even if Li was unarmed.
Standing close to me now, Li spoke with his voice slow and soft. It was the most terrifying sound I had ever heard.
“I’m not an unreasonable man,” he said, as though he were telling me a secret.
He took another step closer, and I stepped back again, becoming increasingly aware that I was being cornered. I tried not to let my fear show, but I’m sure it came through. I had not met anyone who didn’t fear a gun, although I supposed a man who dealt arms and drugs for a living had seen more frightening things.
“I know it seems that way,” he continued. “I can be very intimidating. But even Kwok will tell you I’m a fair man. I only take what is mine, I give others what they deserve, I expect everyone to pay their dues. Everyone. Even me. How do you think our books are so impeccable?” He sounded proud. “But,” he said. “There are times when people can’t pay their dues. Those are times when I have no other choice but to get my hands dirty. I’m here today to ask you to give me what you owe.”
I shifted my gaze back and forth between him and Kwok. I couldn’t believe that at one point I had feared Kwok. Kwok was just a thug who liked expensive clothes and whoring around. This man was the real monster.
“We lost a little over six-hundred thousand dollars in that stunt you pulled on our shipment,” Li said. “Is there any chance you have six-hundred thousand dollars lying around here?” he asked, his voice sounding saccharine and filled with poison. HK$600,000 was a sum I couldn’t even fathom.
“No,” I said.
“Do you suppose,” he continued. “That in all your years of living and working in this dump, that you would be able to repay your debt to us in your lifetime?”
“No,” I repeated, my voice weak. It was hopeless.
“And do you think the Wo Shing Wo will be able to trust you to work for us to repay your debt, given your history of ornery and deceit?”
My eyes were welling up as I tried to hold my gaze steady. The gun felt heavy in my hand. I couldn’t help but steal a glance at my mother as my vision blurred for a second and went clear again. I felt a tear roll down my cheek as I whispered, “No,” for a third time.
“I didn’t think so,” Li said, and whipped his arm out to disarm me. I ducked, but he landed a swift kick onto my arm, and used the bottom of his palm to punch me in the chin. My head snapped back as his open hand made contact, and I heard the gun clatter to the floor. I fell with it, but before I could get a chance to get my bearings, Li kicked the gun to an opposite corner of the room. He swung his foot back again, and it landed in the same place his palm had. I bit my lip and felt a tooth chip.
My vision started to blur for real this time. I could feel my head getting light. My breathing slowed, and suddenly air didn’t seem so important anymore. I was about to pass out.
But Li squatted next to me and grabbed my head by the hair, forcing me to face him.
“Siu-Ling,” he said, snapping his fingers in front of my face. My head lolled but he pulled it up again. “Look at me, sweetheart.”
“A-mah,” I croaked. Everything was in pain. My head felt swollen and pulsing. “I’m so sorry,” I said. I had just wanted her to be free.
At last, she looked at me, and her expression was one of fear, yes, but also of sorrow and deepest regret.
“Remember what I said! If one of us suffers, everyone must suffer. And for what you did to me, you’re about to suffer as well.” He turned to Kwok. “How do you want it?” he asked.
Kwok spoke for the first time since I entered the room. “The knife,” he said.
Li stood up and out of his pocket, he pulled out a large switchblade, identical to the one my mother had found in our door. He switched it open and handed it to Kwok who had put his gun away. It glinted underneath the kitchen light as it changed hands.
“No,” I said, trying to get up.
“Watch closely now,” Li said.
“No, please!” I managed it this time, though dizzily, but it was too late. Kwok took the knife and sliced it across my mother’s throat. Blood sprayed out, all over her clothes, over the kitchen table, Kwok’s arms, and me. She made sounds as if she was choking, and I knew there was nothing I could do to save her.
I shrieked as Kwok dropped her onto the floor and ran at him.
I wasn’t saying words anymore. I had become an animal. I pushed him into the balcony where a window had been put in long ago, and felt his body tense as the back of his head hit the glass. The glass had cracked where his head made contact, and there was blood on the surface. He was fumbling for his gun, but I pushed him again, harder, and this time, before he hit the glass again, I heard a gunshot. Li was trying to shoot at me, but I couldn’t care less what happened to me now. Instead, the window shattered. Kwok tried to fight back but I screamed and clawed at his face until he was halfway out, getting off balance and bleeding from the glass shards. I gave him a final push and he fell through, his body tumbling eight stories and crumpling in the alley below.
I turned around again and saw Li aiming at me. I ducked, swiftly climbing over my mother and pushed the kitchen table toward him. I heard another shot and saw the table splinter from underneath, so I flipped it up on two legs and into his chest. I noticed the switchblade on the floor by my mother, and I frantically picked that up. I didn’t know how many shots Li still had left, but it probably didn’t matter. I worked my way around the room with him, trying to wrestle the gun out of his hand and swinging the knife left and right.
Li may have been an expert Triad, but he was much older than me, and as we bobbed and wove around the room, I began to sense he had a bit of a bum leg. He couldn’t move nearly as quickly.
He knocked me to the ground, and I landed in a pool of my mother’s blood, a pool that was ever growing as we fought around her. I lashed out with the blade, and I felt it slice through the thigh area of Li’s pants. I had cut him deep in the leg, perhaps the weaker one. But it didn’t matter which. I would take anything that would slow him down.
He cried out and grabbed the counter to steady himself, but I could see he was in a lot of pain and was getting weaker. Unfortunately, it looked as though he could see this too because he was heading for the door, his black slacks coated in blood on one side. The material shone like oil.
I got up and swung the knife again, this time, it cut his wrist, the one that was holding the gun. In pain, he let it go, and though I tried reaching for it, I was inches away from it before he kicked me. Rolling over, my arm swung out, trying to reach for the gun, but I pushed it toward the ledge instead. We both watched it as it slid over again. It was as though time were slowing down when we saw it fall. That alleyway was quickly becoming a gun pit.
He kicked me while I was still on the ground, so I curled up, clutching the knife, and as I was getting up again, he had already slipped out the door.
I was in pain, but I crawled over to the other side of the room to grab my gun, the only other gun that had not fallen into the alley, and I pulled myself upward, using the kitchen counter. I opened the door and aimed my sights at Li, but just as I did, he turned the corner, and I could hear his shoes slapping the steps, as he escaped down the stairwell. I let my arm drop. My heart was still beating fast, but suddenly, the gun felt heavy. I turned back to see my mother, lying on our floor in a pool of her blood, her eyes vacant, her mouth open.
I felt my whole body collapse, and I fell to my hands and knees, crawling over to her and repeating her name.
I knew full well, of course, that she was long gone, and that she couldn’t hear me. But that’s what being distraught does to you. You say their names over and over, and you keep apologizing, hoping that what you say will somehow make a difference, and contending with the fact that it won’t. It was too late. I was too late, and I would always be.