Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Shanghai Songbird Part 3

Picking Tang out was easy. He was the only customer in the teahouse with a contingent of heavily-muscled goons. They strolled in with the self-assurance of tigers, and the other customers either greeted them or looked down into their cups. Tang and three men entered the sole private room in the teahouse. The remaining four gangsters stood watch outside.
Lee took a final sip of tea. He’d been sitting here since the teahouse opened this morning. It had only been two days after the shooting, but if the gangsters had wanted him dead they’d have done something about him. That meant they weren’t opposed to talking.

Slowly, he stood up and approached Tang’s room. Five steps later the four bodyguards barred his way.
“I wish to see your Dragon Head,” Lee said.
The gangster sneered, exposing a mouthful of rotted teeth. “He’s busy. Get lost.”
“I have business with him.”
“I don’t recognize you, and you’re disturbing us. Get out. Now.” The four gangsters crowded around Lee, placing hands on hips or hidden weapons.
“Tell him I’m—”
“I want to see him,” Tang interrupted.
The gangster looked into the room. “Boss? I—”
“I want to see him.” Tang’s tone was cold and flat.
The gangsters parted as quickly as they came. Tang, stroking his long thick beard, gestured at an empty chair on his left.
“Detective Lee,” Tang said. “It’s been too long. Come, sit. Would you like some tea?”
Lee obeyed. They must have been expecting him. The three other senior triad members around the table fixed burning gazes on him.
“Thank you for seeing me. I’m not a detective any more, and I won’t take up much of your time,” Lee said.
Tang poured Lee a glass of steaming amber tea. “You never came to me without good reason. Why are you here?”
Lee accepted the tea. “I want to apologize. What happened to your man, to Lin Da Hai, was an accident. I’m sorry for killing him.”
A sigh poured from Tang’s heart. “Ah, Lin Da Hai. He was always…brash. Overly eager.”
“I understand his funeral will be held soon.”
“Yes. Next Tuesday, in fact.”
“I have prepared baijin for him. It’s in my left pants pocket.”
Baijin was a cash contribution meant to help the family of the bereaved. Lee had filled his envelope with more than enough money to communicate his real intent.
“I will pass it to his family,” Tang said.
“You are truly a generous man,” Lee replied.
Lee slowly and carefully reached into his pants pocket, removing a white envelope, letting the triad men know he wasn’t pulling a weapon. He handed the envelope to Tang with two hands, who in turn handed it to another gangster. The blood money disappeared under a jacket.
“Mr. Tang, I have a question for you,” Lee said.
“Was Mr. Lin working for you at the time of his death?”
Tang laughed, and the other gangsters joined in. Lee said nothing.
Finally, the Dragon Head said, “I heard the Shanghai Songbird hired you.”
“I was hired to find the truth.”
“Mr. Lee, this is Shanghai. Everybody lies.”
“Yes. And what you don’t know will kill you.”
Tang nodded slowly. He stared into space for a moment, as though in deep contemplation. Eventually, he said, “A man like you would have heard the rumors about Ms. Ouyang.”
“I heard she’s working for the Japanese.”
“That’s correct.”
“How do you know?”
Tang laughed.
“Never mind,” Lee said.
“My friend, let me ask you something. Why do the foreigners want to hold on to the Shanghai International Settlement?”
“Money. National prestige. Because the Chinese can’t take it back.”
“Exactly. But are they willing to go to war over it?”
“Only with the Chinese.”
A waitress arrived, setting plates of dim sum around the table. Tang deftly snatched up a small xiaolongbao with his chopsticks, brought it to his mouth and bit it in half. Tilting his head back, he gulped down the broth within the bun, and took his time masticating the rest of the bao.
Finally, Tang looked back at Lee and spoke.
“Everybody knows that China is the sick man of Asia, and recognizes Japan as an equal of the European powers. Everybody wants to bully China, but nobody dares to provoke the Japanese.”
Lee sipped his tea. He knew how the old man’s mind worked. He’d get to the point. Eventually.
“The Japanese dogs conquered Manchuria, and after the January 28 Incident, they forced our Army out of Shanghai. They want to be the lord of all China, and the Westerners don’t want to fight a war with an equal power. But some of them are wary of Japanese ambitions. Including Special Branch.”
Lee set his tea down. “Special Branch approached you for assistance?”
“Special Branch is busy chasing communist spies. Communists are an easy target; only the Russians complain when their spies are arrested. But Japanese? The British don’t want to make noise, not yet, and it’s becoming dangerous for Westerners to wander outside the International Settlement. But if a high-profile nightclub singer were shot by an obsessed fan…”
“Everybody knows Shanghai is the whore of the Orient. People expect the police to close both eyes when the triads are involved.”
“You said it. Not me.”
“I need proof that she’s working for the Japanese.”
“Mr Lee, we can resolve the matter ourselves.”
“Mr. Tang, when I quit the Municipal Police, I only gave up my badge.”
Both men exchanged a long moment of silence.
Finally, Tang said, “Go to the Night Orchard at four a.m. See who shows up.”
Finishing his tea, Lee bowed and stood. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. If you find yourself in a situation to handle this incident…we will be thankful.”
There it was, the payment the triads demanded for this information.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Lee said.

Cheah Git San Red.jpg
For more long form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

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