Bian’s Tale – Darkness Falls – third part
Here is the tenth episode of Bian’s Tale; the third part of Section 5 – ‘Darkness Falls’.
This is a short episode. This whole section ‘Darkness Falls’ needs a lot of polish. The scenes themselves are okay (I think), but as I re-read it, the section lacks one of the vital ingredients of tension – the feeling that time is running out. From the moment La Poste effectively identifies Bian in their article quoting Lieutenant Governor Hubert, there must be a ticking clock.
Even over Christmas, the blog is getting a lot of hits, but you’re mostly being very quiet, certainly in comparison to A Name Among The Stars, or for that matter, the first time I posted the first half dozen chapters of this book. Many thanks for those that have made comments.
Feedback folks. 🙂
Anyway, all that aside, here come the monsters…
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Part 5 –Darkness Falls
I sat in the library during the hot afternoon. As the sun dipped, I walked through the city. The western horizon turned into a lake of fire which painted the bases of the lowering clouds with blood.
By the time I returned to the house, I was ready for another confrontation with the Fontaudins. I could not back down; it was a matter of principle. I would not let them chase me from my parent’s house.
But the house was empty, silent but for the sounds of my heart beating and the air rushing into my lungs.
I changed into my Annamese peasant clothes, and hid some small coins in a little pouch. I didn’t take too many; Cholon, especially at night, wasn’t as safe as Saigon. Thinking of those dangers, I also took the kris knife from its hiding place. I couldn’t carry it openly and I’d never thought of fighting with a knife, but the kris looked threatening. Maybe that was all I’d need. After some thought, I fashioned a sling from some leather strips and hung the knife down my back, under my shirt. I searched through the house and found an old conical straw hat, the type every peasant had. It lay on my back, held with a string around my throat and it hid the knife.
Enough. I slipped back out into the boulevard.
Last time I’d gone out like this, I’d been so excited about meeting Lunh, I’d not really noticed how much I changed my identity when changed my clothes. Colonials didn’t see me. Annamese and Chinese didn’t care. There were people who looked at me: the soldiers and police. There were more of them than usual, groups on corners, watching all the Annamese and Chinese who passed them.
There was a feeling in the air I hadn’t noticed earlier, a restlessness, a charge, like before a storm.
The tram station was closed. Police stood outside. I walked past and continued toward Cholon. I could walk along the Arroyo Chinois. It wasn’t that far. I still had lots of time.
But a few minutes later, I saw more police on the road ahead. People were being stopped and questioned.
My street sense prickled. Danger.
I was carrying a knife. If that was discovered…
I turned into one of the alleys and doubled back.
It wasn’t late yet, I could go back to the high road, the one that went through the old Khymer tombs. It wouldn’t add that much to the journey.
But instead, I found myself in a large group of workers heading back down the arroyo to where it emptied into the Saigon river. I kept to the middle of the group, head down, looking around carefully.
Even more soldiers now. We passed the end of the alley where the Party of the People had taken me. There were police knocking on doors and questioning the people living there.
What had happened? Was it a coincidence, or were they looking for Lanh and Thiêu?
Had Lanh gone?
I couldn’t stop. I kept glancing back until I suddenly realised where the group I was hiding in was headed: the Khánh Hôi footbridge. No one walking in this direction was being questioned, but the soldiers were watching everyone.
It was too late for me to leave the group.
But Khánh Hôi. Where Bác Thảo ruled.
I felt sick as we walked over the bridge.
I told myself it was ridiculous. Even Manon and Rochelle would have difficulty recognising me, let alone a gang lord who’d never seen me. I was just another Annamese girl. It was a good disguise.
As soon as I was on the Khánh Hôi side, I made a right turn, back along the creek. If I followed this road and crossed one of the bridges further down, I would be in Cholon.
At least there were no soldiers on this side.
Neither were there any street lights. The dark mouths of every creekside alley in Khánh Hôi seemed to be reaching out toward me as I trotted by. I could feel the hot, stinking air flowing out of them, like the breath of dead things. Just its touch made me feel unclean.
It was a relief of a sort when I reached the end of Khánh Hôi. No more alleys. Fewer people. But the road became a dirt track I could barely see as the last glimmer of lights from the town died. There was no moon; the sky was black with muttering clouds. I stumbled as I hurried.
Beside the track, sampans covered the creek, stirring on the uneasy waters. The odd shout from the sampans or suspicious glares from people who loomed suddenly out of the night had my heart in my mouth the whole time.
Why hadn’t I gone back and taken the high road? I didn’t like the tombs, but this was worse.
A group of young men drinking on a sampan and lit by a single lamp watched me go by, like hungry dogs watching the butcher’s cart.
Just as I started to get really scared, I saw the lights of Cholon and heard the sound of voices from their night market carrying across the creek.
I hurried over the first bridge, which took me to the edge of the market. I bought bot chien, a little rice cake, from an old Chinese woman. It was cheap, and the sort of food I could afford with the coins I had.
“Aunty,” I said politely. “Where is Mat Hem, please?”
She squinted at me through the smoke from her cooking fire. She didn’t speak, but tipped her head to the northern end of the market, then turned away and spat.
I recognised the gesture. She wouldn’t speak, or show me exactly, because that would bind my fate with hers. I should not be going to Mat Hem, in her opinion. And if I did go there anyway, the fate that waited for me would find some tenuous thread of karma that linked back to whoever had sent me, or guided me, on the way. She wanted no part of it. She spat out the thread, as she saw it.
Superstitous foolishness, but a little cramp of fear clutched at my stomach.
I had to ask twice more before I finally stumbled into the entrance of an alley that ran up the hill, away from the creek. It was dark, apart from a big lantern hanging outside a building half way along. In comparison to the market, this narrow alley was quiet. But not silent. A sewer ran down the middle of it, sealed with iron gratings, and through that, I could hear the trickle of water and the rustle of cockroaches swarming below.
I’m crazy. This isn’t safe.
Heart in my mouth, I edged into the alley and let the darkness swallow me.
Was Riossi laughing at me? Or was there something worse, something evil going on? Was I offering myself up to my own kidnapping?
I froze at a noise ahead. A man, a European, well dressed, emerged into the light of the lantern.
There was a murmured exchange of Chinese and French voices and then the man walked toward the entrance of the alley, his heels scuffing.
I pushed myself against a wall, deep into the shadows.
What if he recognises me?
Stupid. It was so dark, he wouldn’t recognise his own family in this alley.
Still, I stayed where I was, trying not to breathe so loudly, and to not think about the rats and cockroaches.
Was Riossi trying to test how brave I was – or how insane?
As soon as the Frenchman left the alley, I walked quickly toward the lantern, moving to the middle of the alley, close to the scuttling sewer, away from the shadows.
Riossi’s note said the House of the Red Door in Mat Hem.
Closer to the lantern, I saw a moon gate sealed with a red-painted door. This had to be it, even though it looked strange. On either side of the gate stood carved columns, about my height and the thickness of my leg. The tops of the columns glistened, as if they’d been annointed with an oil. A floral fragrance wafted from them, fighting against the smell of the sewer.
I knocked timidly on the door, and after a minute it opened to let a large Chinese man out.
His head was completely shaved. He leaned on a chang gùn, a carved wooden staff, that was as tall as he was. His plain tunic was gathered by a belt, from which hung a set of large iron keys.
“What do you want, boy?” he said, speaking Cantonese.
“I need to see Phan,” I replied in Annamese, hoping he’d understand. My Cantonese was not good.
He stepped forward and peered at me. “Not a boy,” he grunted, still in Cantonese. I didn’t catch what he said next. Something about work. Was he asking if I wanted work, or saying Phan was busy working?
“Not want work,” I switched to Trade. “Want see Phan. She know, she wait, I come.”
He grunted again, but after looking down at me for a long minute, he stepped to one side, allowing me to pull the door open and go through. He closed it behind us and I could hear the scratch of the key as he locked it.
I stood at the entrance to a small courtyard. The middle was given over to a pink-blossomed frangipani tree standing on a little island in the middle of a round carp pool. Along the sides of the courtyard were raised wooden walkways. There were doors, evenly spaced in the walls, and lamps, hanging at the corners.
The man jerked his head to indicate a room to the side, and I went in.
It was a plain room without windows. In one corner, a woman with grey streaks in her hair sat on cushions beside a small table. She was painting in the courtly Chinese style—a young girl looking down at a frangipani blossom floating in a stream.
She looked up as I entered.
“Mam’selle Beauclerc?” she said in French, her eyes sharp and her pronunciation surprisingly good.
“Yes.” I shifted my weight uncomfortably under her gaze and indicated my clothes. “I thought it would be safer to dress like this.”
She tilted her head and looked at me thoughtfully.
“That depends on what you wish to be safe from.” She made a last stroke with her brush and placed it in a bowl of water. “I am Madame Phan and you are Monsieur Riossi’s friend, come to see my house.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know why I’m here. This is some kind of test, and…”
I wanted to talk. I wanted to explain why I was doing what I was doing. To ease my fears. To justify myself. To persuade someone else that my reasoning was sound.
All of those.
I couldn’t expect anyone’s blessing, but if I could have their understanding…
“It is test, after a fashion. Are you sure you want to go on? You could leave now,” she said.
“I have to go through with it.”
“Whatever it is.” She wiped her hands on a cloth and stood.
It was half way to a question, but I said nothing in response.
“Very well. Walk with me. Walk softly. Do not speak.”
She took the small lamp from the table and we went into the courtyard. I followed her around the walkways to a door on the opposite side, and we went through that.
Inside, there was a narrow staircase, bare and leading down into more darkness. The only light was from her lamp and she had the wick turned down as far as it would go.
A faint smell of incense floated through the still air, masking other scents. Something salty, sweaty, sour. Something smoky. And a distinctive whiff of flowers. Someone was smoking opium.
Was this an opium den? Why send me here?
Madame Phan walked down to the first landing. Our shadows leaped around the stairwell as she turned. The stairs continued down, but she chose instead the passage leading to the right. The corridor was completely empty, as was the next on the left. Everything—floors, ceiling, walls—was wooden. It was like being inside a box.
Half-way down that corridor, she stopped.
There was a sound of music, voices and laughter, very faint. It seemed to come from all around us.
There was nothing I could see but she reached up and moved a flap, uncovering a tiny hole in the wall. She put her eye to it briefly, then stood back. She put her finger to her lips and then waved me forward to look.
Riossi’s test is to spy on people?
The room I looked into was not brightly lit. There were soft seats and green plants everywhere. Some men, Europeans, played musical instruments in the corner of the room, others sat and took drinks being offered to them by women. Women who were half naked.
I jerked back from the peephole.
Madame Phan held her finger to her lips again.
She slid the peep flap back into place. She walked around the corridors back to the staircase, and down another level.
I looked at the stairs leading up and out. I should run now and pray the guard would let me out.
A brothel. I was in a brothel.
Riossi’s test was…what?
Is he here? Is that his idea of a ‘gift’?
I followed numbly, down to the next level, steeling myself. Nhung had lived in a place like this for five years. My cowardice shamed me.
There was no conversation or laughter seeping in from the rooms here. Instead, there were faint moans and cries from all around us.
There were three peepholes for each corridor in the square. Three rooms each side for three of the sides. On the first corridor, Madame Phan looked and rejected the first two. At the third, she motioned me to look.
The ony light in the room came from a candelabrum on a side table. It showed a European man slouching naked in a big chair. A Chinese girl knelt on the ground between his legs, head in his lap.
I jerked back again.
I knew that the physical love my parents shared was not the whole spectrum of what people did. I knew about brothels. I knew there were other things people did.
This was my test. Did that mean Riossi expected this from me? Would I have to do what I’d just seen for him to agree to search for Nhung?
Madame Phan gripped my wrist as pulled me onward.
Three more peepholes that level. Six on the next.
Girls on their knees, on their backs, on their stomachs. Arranged in whatever position the men wanted them. Doing whatever the men wanted them to.
And… inviting them. Encouraging them. Urging them.
Somehow their voices made it worse.
I was feeling sick when Madame Phan opened a door at the end of the last corridor and waved me inside.
Now? Is he here? Is it my turn?
For all the jangling of my nerves and pounding of my heart, the room was empty.
It was furnished as a bedroom, and in the middle there was a curtained, four-poster bed. I pulled the curtains aside hesitantly, still not absolutely sure that Riossi was not there.
On the bed was a box with my name in Riossi’s handwriting on the lid. There was no other written message. Another puzzle for me to work out. I opened it. Inside was a gold chain bracelet. I lifted it up into the light. Real gold, but not a bracelet; an ankle chain.
I ran the links gently through my fingers.
Its beauty did not hide its function. It was a fetter, a shackle.
What had he said? A little secret to keep me in your mind.
It was more than that; it was a reminder he would have a claim on my body. It was a sign of ownership.
But Nhung had no options. No choice to wear the chain, or not.
Swallowing hard, I put it on my ankle and let the pant leg fall back to hide it.
Madame Phan silently guided me back up the stairs to the door, where the guard let me out.
As I hurried down toward the faint light at the mouth of the alley, I heard the brothel’s door lock behind me.
And steps following me.
My heart raced and I looked back over my shoulder.
A shadow. A shape that loomed in front of the lantern. Big. As big as the Chinese guard in the brothel. If I screamed, would the guard come back out?
I couldn’t be sure, so still looking at the man behind, I sprinted away. Straight into the second man waiting in the darkness at the mouth of the alley.
He twisted me around, clamped an arm over my face to muffle my scream.
I bit him, hard. I kicked back and caught his shin.
He swore. “You’ll pay for that, bitch.”
Mandarin! Not Bác Thảo’s thugs from Khánh Hôi. Not the Party of the People either.
His arm shifted under my jaw, holding it closed.
I struck backwards with my elbow, hitting him in the ribs. Not hard enough.
The other one, the big man who’d chased me down the alley, punched me in the stomach.
I coughed and tried to double over, but the man holding me had trapped one of my legs. I couldn’t get air in my lungs, but I still struggled.
The big man reached out and gripped my shirt, jerked me forward and slapped me hard across the face. Once, twice. I saw stars.
My shirt was tough. It didn’t tear, but two knot buttons slipped their loops.
I gasped as he jerked more buttons loose.
“He only told us to catch her and take her back,” he grunted.
The other one laughed. “He didn’t say we couldn’t enjoy it, eh?”
His free hand pulled my shirt open, grabbed my breast and pinched.
I tried to twist away, tried to scream, but neither worked.
“We’ve got time.” I could sense him looking around. “Here?”
“Down near the creek,” the big man said. “We won’t be disturbed.”
He thrust his hand into my pants.
I still had one leg free. I kicked him in the groin.
He crouched and swore, but he’d been too quick to turn away and I hadn’t really hurt him.
“It seems you hardly need my help,” a familiar voice sounded from behind me.
Surprise made my captor’s grip loosen a fraction as he swivelled to see who it was. I twisted desperately, freeing my jaw.
“Qingzhao! Run! Get help.” I screamed.
She didn’t. She stood calmly at the entrance of the alley, leaning on the old chang gùn I’d seen her use for exercises.
“You!” the big man spat. He drew a long blade from a sheath hidden in his belt. “After we’re finished with you, we’ll let you crawl back to Song and tell him we have his little toy. He does what Zheng says or we send her to him a piece at a time.”
Qingzhao laughed. “Your stupidity continues to be unbelievable. You come here to Cholon, to our own territory and try to tell us what to do? When that fails, you sneak in at night and try to threaten us?”
“She will die slowly if Song doesn’t obey.” He pointed at me with the knife. “You know how painful we can make that.”
He hissed. His mouth seemed to go hazy, and for a moment I thought I saw his teeth had been filed down to points.
But my captor took that moment to jerk my head further back while he drew a blade of his own.
“Stupid.” Qingzhao shook her head, still speaking calmly. “You’re right here, not safe in some fortress up the river. And the only way out is through me.”
What was she doing? She couldn’t fight them.
She lifted her staff above her head, idly spinning it between her fingers, one-handed.
“You think we’re afraid of that?” the big man sneered.
The man holding me laughed. He moved again, forcing me behind him. I turned, carefully, shifting under the grip around my neck.
Qingzhao did not answer the big man. A look came over her face, an eagerness, almost like hunger. Her chang gùn spun faster, flickering in the light from the lantern. There was something strange about the blur it made. The noise. How big was it? How could she spin it like that?
Even the big man faltered as he edged closer. As much as he tried to hide it, the spinning chang gùn worried him.
The man who held me also seemed drawn by the flickering circle. I took a chance, shifted some more.
Qingzhao put up her other hand, and with a crack the chang gùn came to an abrupt stop against her palm.
It now had gleaming blades sprouting from the ends, each as long as my forearm.
“Huh?” The big man was still looking at the staff, opened mouthed, when Qingzhao sprang at him and slashed.
He yelled and leaped back.
They’d both moved faster than I could blink.
I twisted some more, reached behind me, underneath the crushed straw hat, and tore my kris knife from its hiding place.
“Hold still, you stinking bitch,” my captor yelled, pushing me down. He thought I was just trying to escape.
With the knife still wrapped in its leather binder, I stabbed him in the thigh as hard as I could.
He screamed and let go, but as I tried to get away, he punched me. His blow was like being kicked by a horse’s hoof. I collapsed. My head reeled and the whole alley around me was a black mist of confusing shadows.
The big man was shouting something, staggering, swaying, his arms windmilling. My captor limped away, tugging at the kris buried in his thigh. Light glittered on Qingzhao’s blades.
I tried to get to my feet. Couldn’t. Seeing double. No strength in my limbs.
There was a thud. A spray of something warm on my face. A body fell in front of me. It ended hideously at the neck, which was spurting blood. A second later, the head rolled out of the night. It was the big man, still looking shocked.
I vomited into the gutter and passed out.