The taxi’s air conditioning systems growls a rumbling counter-point to its purring engine. Hot air spews from slitted vents, washing over the old man’s face and hands. Sweat prickles on his skin. A single rivulet dribbles down his liver-spotted temple, over the creased flesh of his neck and beneath the collar of his pristinely laundered white shirt. Wilbur Fong’s cheeks are flushed from the heat. Subconsciously, he runs his tongue across dry lips. Tapping on the perspex screen separating him from the driver, asking for him to adjust the temperature, does not cross Mr. Fong’s mind. Instead, he thinks of deep brown eyes and sunshine smiles.
“I’ll drop you just up there,” the driver says, his words the sing-song lilt of Hong Kong Cantonese.
“You’ll have to walk the rest of the way,” the younger man continues, pulling his vehicle to the curb.
Wilbur Fong looks to the rear-view mirror. When he meets the driver’s gaze, he nods in understanding. Despite his years and the cool control he’s exhibited over the past decades, he feels his eyes narrow as sharp as the bitter tang in his throat.
“One more thing,” the driver says, breaking eye-contact to reach into the cab’s glove box.
“Take this. Use it when you’re done. Mrs Wu will have someone waiting on speed dial 1.”
Fong takes the cheap burner, slides into his breast pocket as he reaches for the handle. In silence, he swings open the door and steps out into the quiet, rural street. He does not watch the taxi pull away.
A cool breeze cuts through the night. Rain drops, freezing in comparison to the vehicle’s roasting interior, drive needle-like into Fong’s bare skin. He tucks his hands into his jacket pockets, balling knuckles into fists as he bows his head and walks into the deluge. Old aches and pains niggle his joints, pulled from slumber by the cold and wet. He ignores them, clearing his thoughts of the trifles of the body. His mind is consumed by the matter at hand.
Fong traces a path memorised from maps and conversations in a back room that stank of cheap cigarette smoke and expensive alcohol. Cracked paving slabs and orange street lamps recede beneath his feet. He treads tarmac, avoiding the mud-puddle verge and the tell-tale soil it will leave gripping to the soles of his cheap, brown shoes.
He moves with a younger man’s speed and a lighter man’s grace, navigating the unlit rural pathways until a shadow looms large amid the dark smear of night. Tree tops peek in silhouette above a stone wall that’s stood firm for centuries. A large gate, black cast iron, breaks the barrier with a mocking grin. Pin-prick lights, Cyclopean red eyes, glimmer sarcastically in the darkness.
Wilbur Fong walks hunched toward the property. He crouches in the darkness. Thick plumes of air trace clouds from his nostrils with each steady breath. Intelligent brown eyes scan the fortress, identify security camera brands and models. His agile brain calculates angles, distances and motion ranges. His ears scan the night, disregarding the wind’s growing whisper and the steady beat of falling rain.
Calculations complete, he doubles-back, cutting his trail in a wide half-circle. Necessity takes him across darkened fields. With every step, his inexpensive shoes sink deeper into frozen puddles. Mud and cow shit suck at his soles, his ankle. Trouser cuffs cling to his legs, draining the heat from his body. Fong’s fat mouth twists into a frown. The cold gnaws at his toes, biting with arthritic teeth. The old man focusses his mind, drives away the pain. It is the inconvenience that troubles him most.
He reaches the wall; heavy stone blocks mortared in place. He can see from the materials, construction and weathering it has stood for centuries, protecting those within. The old man runs a hand across its rough-hewn surface, feeling the pits and fissure within the material. A smile almost touches his flabby lips. It is devoured by his heavy heart before it can form.
Fong balances on one leg, unties his right shoe. He slips the article from his foot, places it in the deep pocket of his rain coat. He repeats the process with his left before wringing swampy water from his socks. These he also puts into his pocket, a couple inches of each end trailing onto his coat.
Gnarled fingers brush the stonework again. Nails scrape and dance over rough mortar and blocks. His right arm stretches high, finds purchase on millimetres of the hard surface. His left foot brushes the wall. Toes first strengthened on the decks and rigging of a Kow Loon junk find an equal hold. With a silent exhalation, Fong mirrors the process, left and right. With spider-like dexterity, he scales the wall. Despite his advanced years and the added bulk of easy living, the old man rests high on capstones.
Body tight against the coping, he takes a moment to survey the area. A broad, gravel-shrouded drive snakes through the property. Trees and shrubs stand sentinel in even lines. Their leaves and branches whisper in the darkness, air and wood in conversation with the tinkling of water. A flood-lit fountain stands before stone steps and pillars. Dimmed light reflects off marble, a seahorse rising proud from the basin. Fong allows himself to smile at the omen.
Fong descends, a spider in the shadows. A metre from the earth, he pushes off. Despite his silent landing, lightning pain bites his knees and hips. He sucks in breath, a harsh rasp swallowed by the wind. His brain races with chastisements for sloppiness, for bravado, for getting old.
He moves through the grounds, clinging to deep shadows surrounding tree trunks. Before each run, he stares hard into the night, peering into the black. His ears twitch for the hint of company, his nostrils flare, tasting for the scent of trained dogs. Satisfied neither prowl with him, he follows arboreal cover along the rear wall.
Every eight step, he moves closer to the Georgian red-brick. He ignores the tremble in his hands and the beat of wings in his chest. He scans windows and doors, his thief’s brain searching for signs of easy ingress. uPVC gleams slick in light spilling from dimmed fountain spots. Door and window frames secured tight against the filthy weather. His eyes turn upward, searching with foolish hope for an old sash missed in the renovations or the dark line of a forgotten bathroom window. Rain trickles through his silver hair, spatters across his olive skinned cheeks, but it is the creak of hinges that freezes him in place.
Fong presses himself against sturdy bricks, almost feels his flesh meld into baked clay. He steadies his breathing, each intake a subtle and inaudible rasp. Dead still, stone silent, he shifts his gaze to the opening doorway.
A young man exits. His dark hair is gelled back, the rakish style quickly succumbing to the downpour. He curses a stream of Mandarin-accented English. His eyes turn to the heavens above then to the covered porch way. He steps back between marbled columns, reaches past the Glock 17 strapped to his hip, pulls a cigarette from a silver case and slides it between his lips. A lighter’s flare illuminates his face before he bows his head and runs to the sanctuary of a nearby tree.
Fong watches the boy move, feels the displaced air against his face and puddle-splash strike his naked feet. He counts four lethal pressure-points within easy reach as the gunman passes, considers ending the man’s criminal reign with an easy strike. His fingers flex then retract. His argument is not with some young recruit.
Black oak doors give way to a wide foyer. Warm lighting beams down from crystal lamps, the glow a match for the ambient temperature. A vast staircase, red-and-gold threaded runner positioned perfectly in its centre, takes centre stage, muting the marble and bronze statues and object d’art filling the space. The air is neutral, unlived-in. A single chair sits to one side of the hallway, an iPhone discarded on its velvet cushion.
The device reminds Fong of the boy blackening his lungs outside. He runs through the maps and plans stretched out on that distant table, rolls cuffs of his trousers halfway up his shin, hoping the effort will minimize the spill of mud and water. He bounds up the fine staircase, ignoring finery and opulence until he reaches the door identified by a traitor now secreted away in Ha Noi city.
Fong twists on a pearl-inlaid knob of gold. The device does not budge, but he knows the spared second pays off more often than not. Changing tact, he drops to his knees, reaches into his inside pocket. He retrieves a slender leather case. His fingers leave whorls and loops on the cover as he slides out pry-and-tension bars. His hands move in quick, juddering snaps. He catches first one pin, then a second. His wrinkled brow furrows deeper as he loses the hold. A curse ripples across his mind, admonishing himself for the lack of practice over the last few years.
“I’d finished,” he whispers in his native Hakka dialect.
A lock clicks below and footsteps clatter across parquet flooring.
Fong’s instinct is to freeze, allow the threat to pass. He knows time is short, knows the job must be done by daybreak. Removing his tools from the lock, he rolls his wrists and flexes his fingers, aiming to improve his flexibility before reinserting the picks. The fourth pin lifts. The pry turns. A shadow falls across his work.
“Uh, What the fuck?”
Fong again buries the urge to freeze. He turns his head, a wide smile exposing teeth stained by red wine and nicotine. He offers a bow, short and sharp. When the kid doesn’t respond, he rises to his feet, rakes fingers through silver hair and slides picks into his coat pocket.
“Ah, good,” he says, forming the words in perfect Mandarin.
“Perhaps you can help me? I’m looking for someone.”
He ignores the shaking Glock pointed at his chest, pretends not to notice the fear-stretched widening of the boy’s eyes. He simply wraps the fingers already in his pocket around the saturated shoe.
“Freeze,” the kid barks, dropping into stance, gun braced in a double-handed grip like he’s a cop on some TV show.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Fong smiles, lets it grow from his chest into a condescending chuckle. He holds out a hand, waggles a finger at the boy.
“I told you, I’m looking for my granddaughter.”
Fong grins, pulls the shoe from his pocket, tosses over his right shoulder. When the kid jumps at the clatter of leather-on-tile, Wilbur Fong shifts his weight, adjusts his position.
“Listen,” the young Triad says.
“Listen to me, grandpa, you put your fucking hands on your head and drop to your knees.”
The Tong switches his pistol into his right hand, slips the left into his pocket. His fingers tremble around the black rubber case of his iPhone. His eyes flicker between Fong and the gadget.
“I have one of those,” Fong says, reaching into his pocket.
“Here, you’re not looking!”
The younger man pauses, phone-hand at waist height. His brow furrows. The Glock wavers in his grip. A bead of sweat glitters at the lad’s temple, tracing a glittering path to his jaw. He lets the gun hand slide.
Fong moves, left hand enveloping the boy’s right. A finger twist and the gun is his. A jab with his right sends the phone crashing into the Triad’s nose. Blood sprays and bone splinters. The gangster drops.
Fong spares a glance to the motionless body before retrieving his shoe. He slips it into his pocket, turns his gaze to the younger man’s lifeless body then to the door. He raises the pistol, knows the time for stealth is done. The 9mm lock pick does the job faster than he ever could.
Nicotine and alcohol still stain the back room’s air. Thick clouds of cigarette smoke curl from an ashtray resting on a large mahogany desk. A single lamp illuminates the broad space, enhancing the twist and curl of blue-grey fumes and the waltzing step of dust motes.
Fong takes the object from his pocket, turns it over in his hands. The nephrite dragon is perfectly formed, the stone majestic in its purity except for the right eyebrow. Even in the dim light he can make out the white, crystalline traces in the green stone.
“You have the Bak Mei Dragon.” Her Hakka is perfect.
Fong looks to the speaker. He can barely see her through the smoke and shadows but her silhouette was part of his life for thirty years. Through shadows and fog, he sees the salon curls of her dark hair, can pick out the high, slanting cheekbones and the narrowed stare.
“Here,” he says, tossing the artefact over, unsurprised as she snatches it effortlessly from the air.
He holds his tongue as the woman takes a second to examine the piece before handing it to another form, this one unknown to the old man.
The word sticks in his throat. The overt display of emotion, of weakness bring the sting of shame to his eye.
“Can I see her?”
The woman’s laugh is the tinkle of breaking glass. The dark shroud of her hair writhes as she tips back her head.
“Of course,” she says, leaning into lamplight, revealing eyes as sharp and clear as Fong’s own.
“The job is done. I’m not the kind of monster who would stop my own father spending time with my daughter?”