Roger had had a nap, a bit of the old-shuteye, happily dreaming of the girls he’d enjoyed the previous year in Hong Kong. When he woke up, night had fallen. Looking down on the street, he could see people beginning to light fires in the braziers outside each club. It was early yet: there weren’t many man walking up and down the street, poking their heads through the curtains of each club before moving on, but there were a few. That was one of the great things about Hong Kong; you didn’t have to wait to the weekend to enjoy yourself.
Now that the sky was dark, Wan Chai looked much more civilised. The neon shone, the ladies pulled their skirts up higher, things looked the way they should. Roger zipped up his trousers, pulled on a t-shirt, and went out to take advantage of things. He didn’t bother with Makati or Laguna or the other spots he’d been to. No, he was going to make a beeline straight for the T10, see what out-of-the ordinary treats there were for him there.
As he approached the club, he felt a quiver down his spine. A sign his body was readying itself for new thrills. He reached up to push the curtain aside, flinching as his hand found it damp, but then regaining his composure he stepped through, wondering what would await him beyond that darkened threshold.
Inside was not much brighter than the street. There were four booths down the left hand wall, each illuminated by a flickering orange light. Candles, perhaps? There was a strange scent in the air, somewhere between perfume and a fishmonger’s; overly sweet, tinged with seawater, rotting fish, armpits of sailors long from the shore. Down the right hand wall was the bar, a black counter top with stools upholstered in red velvet against it, a rank of bottles lined up behind it. The bar was shorter than Roger had expected – after the booths and the bars, the back wall seemed too close to the entrance – but there was a door there, shut at the moment. Clearly the bar was sectioned into two; one for the public, and a private area. There was nobody behind the bar, nobody sitting at the bar either. And no music. Roger had expected there to be some music playing of some sort. An empty, silent, ill-lit room – this didn’t seem like a fun place for him to come and be distracted from his sorrows. Perhaps it was no surprise that the other clientele of Lockhart Road hadn’t ventured in.
Still, before he walked out, he felt he should sit down for a moment, see if anyone did arrive. He didn’t feel that he could leave just yet, there was something for him here, something that he couldn’t quite identify yet.
He sat down at the bar on the stool closest to the entrance, and drummed his fingers on the countertop. He wished he hadn’t; the countertop was tacky, as though nobody had bothered to clean spilt drinks off it for all eternity. The stool he was sitting on seemed to squelch when he moved around.
When he looked at the bottles behind the bar more closely, he saw that each one had a handwritten label, on dirty brown paper. He couldn’t make out many of them; one said ‘Gin’ and another ‘Vodka’, without any other attempts to demonstrate the provenance of the liquids inside.
A woman came into the room from the door at the rear, and said something in Cantonese. Roger assumed it was Cantonese, because they were both in Hong Kong, and he couldn’t understand a word of it. He looked at her. She was Asian, of indeterminate age, hair pulled back from her face into a complicated arrangement of topknots and ponytails. She was wearing a grey blouse, a black miniskirt that Roger assumed was meant to show off her legs. However, her legs were stocky and looked to be covered in dark markings of some sort.
She advanced on Roger as he looked at her legs, said the same thing again, more a clearing-of-her-throat than something approximating proper speech. Roger looked back up at her face, and using the traditional courtesy the British are famed for around the world, said “what?”
She raised her eyebrows with a look of weary disdain. “Have you come here looking for something?”. She recited the words without emphasis, no variation in tone or speed, like a young child reading from a Bible during a kindergarten nativity.
“Nothing in particular” said Roger.
“Then do you see anything you like?” She stepped forward again, now only two paces away from Roger. He looked around. He didn’t see anything he liked in this strange, fish-scented bar. Not the anonymous bottles of liquor, not the damp seats, certainly not a woman with dead eyes, staring back at him.
“I’ll be going, I think” said Roger.
“But you only just got here” she said, voice still bereft of any inflection. “Is there nothing here for you?”
The door at the rear opened, and two more women entered. Each of them was wearing a grey blouse like the first woman, and a miniskirt. Roger didn’t look at their legs; he was trying to focus on the first woman. Her face was just a mask, it betrayed no sense of humanity to him. She strode forward, put her hand on Roger’ thigh, before he could stand up. The pressure pushed him down closer into the bar stool, the squidgy, damp cushion pressing against him. It felt like the sort of chair you could catch something from.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t just like to stay for a drink?” she said; asked would have been too much, would have conveyed more significance than the script was giving her.
“I, er -, I should be going” Roger said. The two other women had approached, silently, one standing at either shoulder of the first.
“Where are you from?” said the woman on the left.
“London” Roger responded automatically.
“London, in England” said the woman on the right. The hand pushed harder on Roger’ thigh, pinning him to the stool.
“Are you here for a long time? Or for a good time?”. With every mention of the word “time”, the hand squeezed a little harder. The other two women stepped forward, crowding Roger. This wasn’t what he had been looking for.
“From London, eh?” came another voice, with a different accent, one Roger couldn’t quite make out, but this time sounding like there was some meaning in the words being spoken. Roger didn’t break the gaze of the women, wanting to turn his head but too fearful. “From London, in England”, the voice pronounced.
The women either side of him stepped away, walked to the end of the room and around the other side of the bar. The first woman looked down, breaking her gaze. Roger felt he was safe to turn and look.
There was a large, old Chinese man. Chinese? Japanese? They all looked the same to Rog, although he supposed he was probably Chinese. Wasn’t that what they all were out here? The man was wearing a suit that looked like it had been worn most recently by a man who had been fished out of the harbour. He had a scruffy wig that suggested something had died on his head recently, and only one of his eyes was pointing at Roger. He ambled over.
“How do you do?” he asked, offering his hand. Roger raised his to shake it, still feeling that other hand on his leg.
“Cui Shunzhang, professional conjuror, at your service. And part-time proprietor of this establishment.” He waved his arm around to encompass the whole of the T10, before shaking Roger’ hand. “And you are?”
“Roger” said Roger, wondering what he should reveal. The woman had moved, was standing behind him now, one hand still on his leg, the other wrapping around his shoulder.
“Nice to meet you, Roger. I see you’ve already met Francesca and Mary, and you certainly seem to be getting on well with Joanna.”. The grip on his thigh didn’t let up: was she trying to pull his leg off? “Now, what will you be having to drink?”
Roger swallowed, looked at the drinks behind the bar. Nothing appealed, none of these home-made spirits were right. He realised now that the bottle labelled “Vodka” had some black, syrupy concoction inside it. One of the women put two glasses down on the counter, filled them up to the brim with the “Vodka”, spilling some over.
“I, uh, I didn’t come here for a drink.”
“Really, Roger?”. Cui picked up one glass, drank half of it. “Well, there’s one other reason most men come to a bar like this – which one do you want? Mary? Franny? Joanna?”
Mary and Francesca stood to attention behind the bar, staring at him. Joanna squeezed. Roger gurgled, shook his head. He realised that he was holding his breath. He didn’t attempt to exhale, didn’t want to.
“Really? Well, there’s very few other reasons to come here, aren’t there?”
“Yes” said Roger.
“You already knew who I am, didn’t you?”. He paused. “Joanna, a moment, please.” The grip on Roger abated, she slipped silently away. Roger found he could breathe again.
“Or rather,” Cui said, drinking the rest of the glass and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, “you knew where to come looking for me.”
He set the glass down, looked at Roger again, face yellowing in the flickering lights. “What have you brought for me, Roger?”
“I don’t have anything on me” said Roger, quite truthfully.
“But you came all this way, Roger. You did bring something, didn’t you? Something for those who glide, not for those who skitter beneath the waves.”
Roger picked up the other glass, took a sniff. It smelt of seawater and diesel fumes. There was something wrong with Cui’s face, something about it that he couldn’t name, but that was clearly not right. He was sure he was in some sort of trouble.
“I did bring it with me, but I’m not sure whether to give it to you” he declared, replacing the glass on the counter. “After all, how can I be sure that you’re meant to have it?”
Cui scowled for a second, then smiled again, wiping the anger from his face, returning his expression to something bland.
“But of course, of course. I need to demonstrate my provenance, I suppose. It’s not as if your people in London could be sure what I look like, is it, Roger? So what shall we do, discuss history for a while? Do you know why you’ve been sent across, Roger?”
“You know your history, don’t you, Roger? A hundred and sixty years ago, you first acquired this asset on the coast of China. A lot of people would say that was to ensure the British Empire a market for Afghan heroin, but, well, I think you’ve been told a bit better than that.
“Because it’s not as if you carried on selling drugs to the Chinaman for very long, was it? If that had been the aim, you wouldn’t have stopped after a while, would you? No, it wasn’t about what we were buying, it was about what you found in the harbour.”
“In the harbour?”
“Of course, in the harbour. Come on Roger, this is all historical fact. I’m not here to teach you to suck eggs, am I? If they were going to send over a courier, they’d tell him why what he was bringing was so important, wouldn’t they?”
Roger looked past Cui, at the two women behind the bar. They stared back at him. He didn’t see Joanna there; she was somewhere in the seaweed scented gloom. Here he sat, in a stinking bar, talking to someone who was definitely unhinged. It wouldn’t do to reveal what he didn’t know. He needed to get away from this man and his ramblings.
“They, uh, they didn’t brief me in detail, Cui. They just gave me something to transport, that’s all.”
“So where is it Roger? Where is it?”
“It’s close. I was told you would verify yourself first.”
“Good. Let me fill you in on the background, Roger, since our masters in London haven’t seen fit.
“Heard of the Hakka? Boat people, pirates, living here before the Han were moved in. But they weren’t the first, were they? Oh no, there were people living on the island before them, up, away from the water, in the caves.
“The Hakka wiped them out, killed all of them. They burned everything they could find. A bit strange, you might think, for people who lived on the water to use fire? I mean, wiping out your predecessors, anyone can understand that, but it would have made more sense, been more in character for them to drown their victims, right? Life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Life gives you a suitably large body of water, you’d hold someone’s head under it. Wouldn’t you, Roger?”
“But they didn’t do that, did they? Because they were scared of what was in the water. And when the British first arrived, we recognised the signs. Not everything had been burnt all those years before. Some of it was buried in caves where the Hakka hadn’t gone, but we did, we found it. We’d been looking for it. That’s why we came, and that’s why we stayed – there was something in the harbour that needed to come out.”
“The British came in the nineteenth century” said Roger.
“Yes, the British turned up in the nineteenth century. You were paying attention, weren’t you? That was about a hundred and fifty years late though, Roger. The Portuguese were here first, but they turned around and sailed for what they called Macao pretty quick. You wonder why they were so keen to stay away? That’s because they were all Catholics, more scared of things they don’t believe in. Not that Macau is a long enough way away to hide now, is it?
“And it’s not as if the Chinese had concerns that way, was it? Although you’d have to look quite hard to get details on the Great Evacuation these days.”
“The Great Evacuation?”
“They didn’t tell you much, did they? Or maybe they felt it was strictly irrelevant. Go to a museum while you’re here, Roger. Ask them why the Qing Dynasty made everyone move away from the coast, back in the sixteen-hundreds. You see they knew, even back then, they knew there was something in the water.”. Cui stared at him, knowingly. “You know the way things are, underwater? Eh, Roger? Maybe the British sailors didn’t understand to begin with, maybe that’s the benefit of being born to scepticism. And then we had our lady by then, ready to persuade our friends in Beijing about what they wanted, twenty years ago. But anyway, you needn’t listen to me all night, Roger. We understand each other well enough. Isn’t it about time you handed me the item I’m waiting for?”
“I don’t have it on me” said Roger.
“Well then where is it? It must be close, you couldn’t – you wouldn’t go far without it, would you?”
“It’s close, just not here. I didn’t want … to be carrying it around with me.”
“Well, Roger, shall we go fetch it?”
Roger swallowed. If he was going to get away from this freak, he had to leave the bar on his own.
“Not we, me. I’ll go get it. You see, we weren’t sure whether to trust you.”
“Oh? How’s that, Roger? Are you going to tell me we’re being watched?”
“Of course we’re being watched” said Roger.
“Well, why don’t you just give your little sign to them, wherever they are, and they’ll know everything is fine. And then, Roger, we can go and fetch it.”
“Ah. Well that’s the thing, Cui. The sign is, the sign is that I walk out of here, on my own. I come in alone, I leave alone.”
“So if I stepped out with you now, there would be … countermeasures?”
“Well, er, in a manner of speaking, yes.”
Cui looked amazed, startled. “That’s hardly a gentleman’s agreement, is it? I thought more of Miles. … But of course, Roger. I’m very understanding. I understand a man like you doesn’t want me following him about everywhere. But here’s the thing, Roger. I’ve been waiting. Quite some time. Is the delivery going to be quite prompt?”
“Certainly. There’s a few things I need to do, but tonight, sure.”
“Well, that’s fine” said Cui. “I guess I’ll just let you go.”
Roger stood up and turned away.
“Oh, just one thing” said Cui, and punched him in the back of the head. Roger staggered forward, grabbing the bar to hold himself upright, lights flashing in his eyes. He felt a hand grasp his left wrist, pinning it to the bar, another hand clamped on his right. He looked up, groggily, to see Francesca and Mary, each gripping on of his hands across the bar. Cui moved up close behind him, began to whisper in his ear, put his hand around Roger’s jaw and squeezed.
“You didn’t think you would just walk straight out and come back, did you?”
“You weren’t thinking of sharing a drink with your old friend here, and never coming back to repay his hospitality, were you?”
The hands squeezed tighter on his wrists, on his jaw. His head rang with the impact of the blow. Cui’s knee was jammed in the small of his back, squashing him against the bar.
“No, of course you weren’t, were you Roger?” Cui rasped. “But just in case, I wanted you to have something to remember us by, something to bring you back.”
Roger began to shake, would have cried out if Cui had let him open his mouth. Cui’s fingers stank, of Turkish tobacco, of something rotting, masked by the smoke, something old.
“You don’t mind us making sure, do you, old bean? Eh? Roger?” He tried to struggle, but it was no good. With his hands caught, and his body pressed into the bar, his legs dangling uselessly above the floor, he was trapped. “Just a present from the T8, to make sure you come back” whispered Cui. “Joanna” he said.
The third woman rose from between the others, holding a flat dish, its contents shimmering. She lifted it up to Roger’s face.
“Another drink, Roger.” It stank, worse than the liquid in the glass, of engine fumes and stagnant water. “Just a taste, that’s all you want.”
He slammed his head backwards, trying a reverse headbutt into Cui’s face, but he misjudged, missed. Cui pitched him forward, landing him belly down on the bar, winding him. Rog was a big guy, he went to the gym, but this old Chinese codger had got him stuck fast, squeezing the breath out of him.
“Just a taste, now.” He pulled Roger’ jaw back, as Joanna proffered the dish to his lips. The taste was awful, worse than the smell, some odious, putrefying matter, numbing histongue yet not ceasing to punish his tastebuds. He coughed and spluttered, and Cui pulled him back from the bar, yanking his jaw, setting him down on his feet.
“Now off you go Roger, go and fetch what I’m waiting for. We’ll be here…
“We’ll always be here, Roger. That’s what you have to understand. Everyone else is just passing through.” Cui started laughing, as if it was the funniest thing he could have ever said. He tossed his head back, shaking with mirth, the wig flopping down over his forehead. And then he stopped, and his head snapped forward, and he stared at Roger again. “Go fetch it, Roger. I’m waiting.”
Roger ran out through the curtains and back into the street, the warmth of the night striking him immediately. He dashed into the road – tires screeched, a horn blared. A taxi driver waved his fist at him. Roger shook his head, ran for the iron barrier dividing the two lanes of the road. He didn’t look back to see if Cui was watching him from the doorway.
The taste! It wouldn’t go away, he couldn’t stop tasting it, brackish decay, something dead in water for a long time. He heaved himself over the barrier, waited for the traffic to go past, then staggered forward again to the other side of the road.
He ran on, stumbling, blinking tears from his eyes. He had to get away. He’d pick up his passport, get to the airport, fly somewhere else, somewhere without strange women and crazed men, somewhere safe.
But could he go back to the hotel? What if he was being followed? He turned, looked over his shoulder – nobody behind him. Well, a couple of bored looking women in high heels and short skirts, staring him down. What if they were following him? One of them sneered. He turned, carried on moving. Down the street, past the 7-Eleven, down to the corner. He went left, past another bar, a kebab shop, two Indians sitting on motorcycles parked at the curb. Over another road, turn a corner again, another bar, people milling outside. He pushed through them, struggled past fat old men in rugby shirts, cheering some act on a stage, shouted at the woman behind the bar for a drink, slammed a note down.
The music was awful, it sounded like 70s rock being played underwater, booming, distorted. The men continued to roar. Roger chugged back the beer, failing to make the taste go from his mouth. He looked around. The bar was full of fat old men, all wearing rugby shirts, all looking at the stage.
Each was bald, save a few clumps of white hair dotted around their heads, and wore a rugby shirt matching that of the others. Each man had a woman next to him, only measuring up to his hip height, uniformly wearing black, skin smoky dark against the bright shirts. All of the women were looking at Roger. Roger looked at the men, every one just like him, and every one of them ignoring him.
On the stage, the band played on, massacring Led Zeppelin. The singer, a filipina wearing a shiny grey feather boa that she twisted around her neck – he looked again. Not a feather boa – scales? One end of it had fins, the other, a gaping, piscine head. He turned, horrified, and pushed away from the bar, barging men out the way who made vague grunts of discontent but who then carried on watching the band. He burst back onto the street, slamming the door behind him, the bouncers staring at him. Roger staggered away again, looking up and down the street.
The taste wouldn’t go. He felt like he was drowning. In the hot air, he could feel his armpits soaking through his shirt. At least outside he couldn’t hear the music.
“We’ll always be here, Roger.”
Roger spun around. Cui wasn’t there. Nobody was there. He had to get away. He had to get back to the hotel, get his passport, and go as far as he possibly could.
He ran again, turning the corner, running in a circle until he found himself back on Lockhart Road, bathed in neon light again. He panted, body heaving with great sobs. Nobody paid him any regard, just carried on, calling for trade, or walking past him, staring into the front of the bars. Roger looked down the street. The entrance to the hotel was just a few feet away from him. He could see the T10 Club from where he stood, but shrouded as it was in darkness, he couldn’t tell if anybody was watching him. No matter. He’d get inside, they wouldn’t know which room was his, get his passport, leave by the fire exit. He had to get away.