City of Mists

by Sawyer Grey
 

Chapter 1
A NIGHT IN HONG KONG

 
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Prologue
Chapter 1 - A Night in Hong Kong
Chapter 2 - A Secret Mission
Chapter 3 - The Airship Zambesi
Chapter 4 - Attacked by Sky Pirates
Chapter 5 - Singapore
Chapter 6 - A Voyage by Aethership
Chapter 7 - Return to Mars
Chapter 8 - Secret Mission Revealed
 

IT WAS HOT FOR JUNE in Hong Kong, and humid enough to leave you drenched in sweat just from thinking about walking anywhere. I tossed and turned for a while, but it was too miserable to sleep even with all the windows open. I was having a really bad night, anyway. You know those nights, where memories rush in and pound at you like the surf at high tide, and there is no way to block them out because your brain just will not shut down. And you know that if you do not do something to make it stop, you are going to end up in one of those sleazy opium joints down by the docks, sucking on a pipe until you no longer care about anyone or anything but the smoke. At the end, the smoke is all that is left of you, then it blows away and you are gone.

I was not quite that far gone, yet, though. I dressed as quietly as I could in the dark and tiptoed out so I would not wake up Min on her pallet by the door. The poor kid had been wearing herself ragged studying English ten and twelve hours a day. I tried to get her to slow down, but she had it in her head that she was doing it to please me and she is even more stubborn than I am. Five minutes later I was in a rickshaw headed for the west side of Victoria City. The coolie took the scenic route along the strand, probably hoping for a breeze off the bay to make the trip a little less miserable. He was destined for disappointment; there was not a breath of air blowing that night. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and let myself doze to the drone of cicadas and crickets until the noise of the waterfront drowned them out.

Sampans and junks stretched off into the darkness, thousands of them rocking gently in the waves, oil lights and paper lanterns dancing like fireflies over the black water. The smell of cooking fish and rice drifted up the streets, and somewhere far ahead a group of fishermen was belting out a sailing ditty in sing-song Cantonese. The boats made a little community all their own, attached to the city but not of it, something I understood quite well. We both bobbed on the edge of an ocean with no place we could honestly call home. Not anymore.

A wave of homesickness crashed over me, squeezing my heart with icy fingers, and I looked up towards Victoria Peak, hoping to catch some glimpse of the light of my old home. I could not find it; it was still too early. Or too late, depending on your point of view. It was just as well, I suppose. Seeing it only hammered home how impossibly far off and completely unreachable it had become. I had angered too many powerful people there, and they had made certain I could never go back.

I realized that we had gone far enough and called out an address to the coolie pulling the rickshaw. He nodded and turned left down Belcher’s Street into the maze of dingy shanties, markets, and teahouses of Sai Wan, the Chinese quarter. We jolted down side streets and through narrow little alleys that I would never have dreamed trying to navigate on my own, but the bearer knew right where to go. He pulled up at a decrepit old warehouse building next to an abandoned marketplace choked with tall weeds and garbage. Two fairly new gas lamps burned on either side of a door that looked as though it had not been painted in decades. I fumbled in my pocket for a coin and handed it to the coolie, who bobbed his head with a gap-toothed grin and raced away into the gloom. I turned back to the building and knocked loudly on the door.

Gambling houses are illegal in Hong Kong. Probably because the East India Company has not figured out a way to make enough money from them to be worthwhile like the opium business and coolie trafficking. Payoffs to the Hong Kong Police lead to the sudden onset of blindness where they are concerned, but eventually some East India official with a puritanical bent catches wind of it and leans on the Captain Superintendant until he shuts it down. This place did not have a name, everyone just called it ‘Tang’s Place’ after the owner, but after surviving for six months it had developed a certain notoriety. One of the most popular bets carried on its books was how much longer it would go without being shut down, which indicated a perverse sense of humor on the part of the proprietor and a distinct lack of foresight on the part of the gamblers who would have no way to collect their winnings.

The lock rattled and the door creaked open. A cold-eyed Chinese man wearing a tailored dark grey suit looked me over from top to bottom and waved me in when he recognized me.

“Evening, Ming-kwai. Busy tonight?”

“Busy every night, Mister Branham. But we save room for you.”

He ushered me through the interior door, and left me blinking in the sudden brightness of hundreds of lights. An older Chinese man approached me with a beatific smile.

“Mister Branham, it’s good to see you,” he said, bowing. He did not have so much as a trace of accent to his English. “Would you like your usual table?”

I shook my head. “Thank you, but not tonight, Mister Tang. I think I’d rather wander about for a while.”

“Of course. If you change your mind, please let me know.”

I wandered over to the bar and ordered a double whiskey. I gulped that one and ordered another, which I carried to a spot at the end of the bar where the dim light would let me be inconspicuous. The place was packed with military officers, East India functionaries, and businessmen from all over the world. Half a dozen Chinese constables in the navy blue of the Police Force hovered around one table with some gentlemen I recognized from past visits to the Supreme Court House. Old Tang was obviously staying current with the bribe money. I decided the gentlemanly thing to do was to pitch in to his payoff fund by ordering another double whiskey.

A hand landed heavily on my shoulder. “Jack!”

“Hello, Eric.” Captain Eric Sutherland, Hong Kong Regiment, was the only real friend I had on the island. He was grinning like a lunatic. “Been into the gin, I see.”

“You’re a fine one to talk, Jack. The gleam in your eye and the wobble in your step tells me you’ve already had more than you ought.” He looked pointedly at my surroundings, then back at me. “What are you doing hiding in the dark back here?”

“Trying not to be noticed.”

Eric guffawed. “You really think anyone is going to notice you in this crowd? Look,” he pointed to where four Chinese in gaudy green and red uniforms had just walked in. Their leader was draped in enough gold braid to outfit the entire Grenadier Guards.

“Who is that?”

“General Fong Yu. Comes over from Canton once a month or so to bet on the horses, and hangs around here or at that place over on Hollywood Street afterwards. Word is that he has horrible luck and gambles away a fortune every time, but he doesn’t care because he’s in deep with the triads’ smuggling and extortion operations.”

“He’ll find lots of kindred souls here: police, bankers, company officials.”

“Undoubtedly. Come on, let’s go lose some money. Today was payday.”

I tried, but I could not work up any enthusiasm for the idea. “You go on, Eric. I’m just here to watch tonight.”

He shook his head. “Suit yourself, Jack. I’ll come back and spot you a drink when I break the bank.”

I lifted my glass to him in a mock toast, and he disappeared into the morass. I worked my way through a couple more drinks, watching the crowd but not really seeing them. My mind was far away, in a time when I was not an exile in an East India Company cesspit.

Someone tugged at my arm. I turned, thinking Eric had come back, and found myself facing Min, her thin, pretty face drawn up with worry.

“Min, what are you doing here? What’s the matter?”

“Policemen break in the door. Inspector Quincy. He say they looking for you, come to take you away,” she gasped out. “I run quick, find you, warn you.”

That did not make any sense. I had not done anything to get myself in trouble, and I did not owe anyone any money. “Min, are you sure they were looking for me?”

“That what Inspector Quincey say,” she insisted.

Quincey was a self-important ass of the type that tends to congregate in police forces where corruption is endemic. He was also an enforcer for the East India Company management. If the local directors wanted to put someone in the hospital, they sent Quincey. I was pretty sure he made people that East India considered undesirable disappear, too. Since he had all the conscience of a shark, I figured he and the company were made for each other. We had exchanged words a couple of times and he made sure that I knew that my continued existence was purely due to company sufferance. It sounded as though that sufferance had just come to an end.

“What else did he say?”

“He say you go away, I must go to work for him.”

I frowned. No wonder she was upset. I had rescued her from a group of slavers with the same sort of thing in mind a few months ago. “I’m not going anywhere, Min,” I said and patted her hand. “It will be all right.”

“You need place to hide? I find boat, take you to Kowloon. I have friends in Walled City. They hide you. No one find you there.”

“Conspiring to aid a man to flee the Police Force is a flogging offense, Miss Min,” a cold voice remarked over my shoulder.

Inspector Quincey strutted up, lanky and cadaverous in his navy blue uniform, flanked by two of the biggest Sikhs I had ever seen. Six more Indians of the Police spread out in a conspicuous show of force around us. Poor Min must have led them right to me. Quincey caught my look and a smirk crawled its way across his narrow lips.

“Captain Branham.”

“Mister Branham,” I corrected. “I’m retired, as you know quite well. What can I do for you, Inspector?”

“Captain Branham,” he repeated as though he had not heard, “I have been asked to escort you to a meeting with some gentlemen who wish to engage your services.”

“Ah, I see. I’m sorry to have to tell you that you’ve wasted your time, then. My services are not available. As I said, I’m retired.”

Quincey’s smirk became a feral grin. “I see I wasn’t clear, Captain. This is not a request. You will accompany me to this meeting. Now.”

I matched his grin. “And if I choose not to accompany you, Inspector?” It was pure bravado and he knew it, but I was not going to give him the satisfaction of meekly trotting along with him without even attempting to question his authority over me.

He was enjoying this. “Then Miss Min here will be arrested for unlicensed prostitution, flogged, and deported to the mainland, where General Fong Yu’s agents will be waiting for her. In a week, she’ll be just another whore slaving for the triads on her back in Shanghai. And I’ll drag you out of here in chains anyway.”

I took a step forward. So did the Sikhs accompanying the Inspector. I counted them, then counted them again just to be sure that all the whiskey did not have me seeing double. However I tried it, I kept coming up with very bad odds against me.

Quincey cast his voice low, just loud enough for me to hear over the noise around us, his eyes chips of green sea-ice behind his gold-rimmed pince-nez glasses. “One of those men you brought down for embezzlement in the Tharsis Company was my brother. They sentenced him to nine years hard labor. That means the Cavorite mines, and we both know he won’t be coming back. So give me an excuse, Branham, please!” he hissed.

“Is everything all right, Jack?” Eric appeared as if by magic at my shoulder, not sounding the slightest bit tipsy despite all of the gin.

“Fine, Eric. You really need to stay out of this.”

He examined the three Police before us coolly. “Are you sure? You do have some friends here. Not everyone in Victoria City is a corrupt little toady. A lot of people know what you did and will happily back you against the likes of this.”

“Leave it alone, Eric. Just take Min home for me, will you?”

“If you say so, Jack. Come along, Miss Min.” He gently took Min’s arm and led her away. She kept looking back over her shoulder, eyes wide with fear.

“And now, Captain, if you will please follow me.”

“Just a moment, Inspector.” Meeting his gaze was like staring into a serpent’s eyes. “If you ever make another threat against Min, I promise that I will break you. I will not stop until you are chained next to your brother.”

Thin, cruel lips curved into what would have been a smile on anyone else. “Captain, where you are going, your promises are meaningless.”