Friday, 28 August 2015

LAST LINE Excerpt #1: Reunion In Kowloon

[LAST LINE, the sequel to DEAD DROP, will be released in October 2015. The following is an excerpt from the book's fourth chapter. This draft may differ from the final version and some minor changes have been made for clarity.]

The room's stone walls were cracked and turning yellow in patches. Installed on the right was a grimy wash basin. Considering the state of the rest of the room, the mirror above it was conspicuously spotless. Mounted above a refrigerator at the back was an antique Chinese sword in a brown leather sheath.

In the centre, overlooked by a fizzing lightbulb hanging by a loose wire from the ceiling, was a table around which four men had gathered for a game of mahjong.

Honora Blakely's eye was immediately drawn to the man sitting to her right, whose Caucasian face and enormous physique stood him apart from anyone else in the city. The sight of him after so long sent a shiver of excitement through her body. He noticed her at the same moment she noticed him. His left eye narrowed in a subconscious twitch of recognition and his lips pursed beneath the thicket-like beard.

Sitting to the man's left and facing the door was Qiang, the leader of the biggest Triad gang in Kowloon Walled City. He was a bony-faced Chinese man with cropped white hair and a trimmed beard. There was no shirt to cover the tattooed chest underneath his full length velvet dressing gown. Perched on his shoulder was a small monkey with bright orange fur. It showed no interest in the game and instead nibbled on a nut clasped between its hands.

Three guards observed from the sidelines. Honora took note of them. One by the door, one by the mirror and one by the fridge. Handguns were stuffed into the belts of their trousers.

Qiang looked up at Honora. He grinned deviously.

"Welcome," he said. "A guest of your standing is most unusual around here, Miss Blakely."

Honora smiled and approached the table.

"I am Qiang Guo Liu," he continued. He gestured to his monkey. "And this is Jiao Xiansheng. You are taking a big risk by coming to my city, away from the protection of British law."

"Your city?" Honora said. "A little presumptuous, I think."

"Hardly," Qiang said. "It is true that those who come here are attracted by the promise of the great anarchist city, an enclave free from the controlling hand of the British. Perhaps that is what the outlaws and refugees who built this place believed they were creating. Yet it is the way of things that from chaos must come order. I am the order in this small, chaotic universe, Miss Blakely, just as your countrymen are outside these walls. It just so happens that the dream I offer these people is more appealing than that of the British. However, being of a powerful family yourself, I suspect this is already known to you, so I ask again: why are you here?"

"What if I were to tell you that I happen to be inordinately fond of mahjong?" Honora said, running a finger along the top of one of the partially dismantled walls of tiles.

"I would believe you," Qiang said. He picked out a fresh nut from a bowl on the table and handed it to the monkey. "Westerners are often fascinated by this most elegant game, even if they have little true understanding of it. Unfortunately, as you can see, all the positions have been filled."

"Oh?" Honora said. "Are you sure there's no way I could buy in?"

She retracted her hand from her jacket pocket. With it came a thick packet of American dollars.

Qiang's smile widened and he nodded his approval. He looked around the table and issued an order to the man sitting to his left. The man protested and was shot through the back by the bodyguard standing behind him. The monkey shrieked at the noise and retreated behind its master's head. The man's dead body slumped onto the table. Qiang smiled. He gave the monkey a pat on the head, then picked him up and handed him to one of the guards.

"Take Jiao Xiansheng back to his room," he instructed. He gestured contemptuously towards the dead man. "And dispose of this."

The guards did as they were instructed. Qiang turned his attention back to Honora.

"It would seem a place has been vacated," he said. "What good fortune smiles upon you. My men will bring you the relevant chips. A drink as well. Perhaps you would like to try our local baijiu. Distilled in this very city."

Honora watched as the corpse was dragged out of the room. She made sure Qiang caught the look of disgust on her face as she sat down.

Qiang's remaining bodyguard counted the wad of notes that Honora handed him, then collected the appropriate number of chips from a wooden box. He placed them on the table in front of her, along with a glass of ferocious-smelling colourless liquour.

"A favourable exchange rate," Honora said.

"We aim to please," Qiang said with a gracious nod. "Unfortunately, this is the last hand. Nevertheless, we shall see how you perform." He tossed a tile into the centre of the table before picking a replacement from the wall surrounding it. "Of course, I remain unsatisfied that my first question has been sincerely answered. You have not, of course, travelled all this way simply to play mahjong. I wonder what the other reason could be?"

He looked over at the bearded man to his right.

"Perhaps you have some idea, Mr. Armstrong?"

Robert Armstrong shrugged. "Not the foggiest," he said.

He glanced sternly at Honora, then took a swig from his baijiu bottle. After examining the pool of discarded tiles in the centre of the table, he exclaimed a loud 'aha!' He picked up Qiang's tile and laid it face up on the table, followed by two numerical successors from his own hand.

"I believe that would be chow," he said. A broad grin lit up his face.

He threw away one of his remaining tiles and the game continued.

"Westerners are not common in Kowloon Walled City," Qiang continued as the fourth man in the game, a meek-looking businessman in a grey suit and glasses, collected a tile from the wall. "Yet now I have two in the same room. A strange coincidence, if I countenanced such things."

Honora glanced down at her tiles. She discarded one and collected a replacement from the wall, then raised her hands in surrender.

"I can't keep up this fiendish charade any longer," she said. "Shocking though it may be, I'm afraid my eye has indeed been caught by a bigger prize than triad gambling money."

Armstrong glared into her eyes across the table. A soft grumble emerged from the corner of his mouth.

"Where have you been?" he said.

"Fashionably late," she replied. "Did I pick a bad time?"

"Not at all," he said. "You must've had to go through hell to find me. Been about twenty years since I give you that note at..." He hesitated, solemnly observing the businessman taking his turn. "Since we last saw each other, anyway," he said curtly.

"Oh, I wouldn't go that far," Honora said. "Mr. Zakhari in Tangiers was a little surprised to find me on his doorstep in search of a man he hadn't seen in two decades, but was kind enough to relay me to the gracious Mr. Curtis in Saba, Kukanga. He in turn sent me to Lady Atashi in Siraz... who sends her love, by the way. She directed me to the Maharajah Singh in Rajasthan. Next came the humble Mr. Pariyar in Kathmandu, and finally the altogether more intransigent Mr. Sakamoto-san in Kyoto. After some considerable persuasion, he directed me here. You've certainly made some interesting friends over the years."

"It pays to travel," Armstrong said. "But I'm afraid once this game is over, I'll be on my way again. That's what this is all for. My ticket out. Oh, and Mr. Ling's life." He patted the businessman on the shoulder. "Mustn't forget that."

"I see," Honora said, tapping her finger on the tiles in front of her before taking her turn. "And what does Mr. Qiang have to say about all this?"

Qiang smiled as he took his turn.

"Mr. Qiang is happy to be of service," he said. "Of course, Mr. Qiang has already been of service to Mr. Ling, but as the favour was not returned in the agreed time, I generously allowed him the same opportunity to clear his debts as I do all in his situation. Defeat me at mahjong and he walks free. Lose, however, and the price is considerably higher. I notice, Miss Blakely, that you have been admiring the quality of your tiles."

"They're very beautiful," Honora said. "Though the ivory is a little coarse."

"That is because it is not ivory," Qiang said. His words were poisoned by a sinister chuckle. "The tiles are indeed made of bone... but not those of an elephant."

He stared across the table at Ling, who shrank into his suit.

"I'm afraid I don't find that very humerus," Honora said, drawing an exaggerated eye roll from Armstrong. "And if I win?"

"You may save one of the two men, in addition to yourself of course," Qiang said. "After all, you have replaced one of my men in the game. It would be unjust to deny me my prize. Unfortunately for you, your chances of success are not looking so promising at the moment."


"Westerners understand mahjong only as a game," Qiang said. "As in all things, you see only competition and conquest, the surface amusements. Your inability to comprehend the deeper philosophical truths render you quite ignorant to how to control the flow of the game."

"I suppose you're going to enlighten us?" Armstrong grumbled.

"Quite so," Qiang said. "Everything is important in mahjong. From the tiles you pursue to where you are seated around the table. This is related to Feng Shui. I face this direction because it is my Sheng Qi direction, bringing success."

"And let me guess," Honora said. "You seated Mr. Armstrong to your left in order to bring him bad luck?"

"That is so," Qiang said, collecting another tile from the wall. "If the birthday he gave us was correct, it will be his Jue Ming direction. The direction of catastrophe."

"Catastrophe indeed," Honora said. "Particularly having that mirror behind him at just the right height to reveal his tiles."

Armstrong shot a surprised glance over his shoulder.

"Oh, you lousy bast..." he began.

Qiang raised his hand to stop him.

"Your friend is observant, Mr. Armstrong," he said. "However, even without the additional assistance, it would have been simple to divine your tiles. You play quickly and without thought to the longer path, such as when you declared your chow earlier in this hand. I did not discard that tile by mistake, after all. As on every other occasion this evening, you limit your long-term options to acquire short-term success."

"Please tell me you've played mahjong before," Honora said.

"Of course I have," Armstrong replied, shuffling in his seat. "Ling gave me a crash course this morning."

Ling shook his head in despair.

"Unfortunately the game is already lost for you, Mr. Armstrong," Qiang said. "Mr. Ling has been more cautious in concealing the nature of his hand, but is allowing fear to restrict his ability to control the table. It has been a noble attempt, however. I look forward to making him a permanent addition to my game."

Ling whimpered. His hand trembled as he took his turn, declaring a pung as he drew a 3 Circle tile from the pile of discards.

"As you see," Qiang said. "Like Mr. Armstrong, my little provocation has led to him revealing himself sooner than he needed to."

Ling whimpered and began exorting Qiang in nervous Cantonese. Qiang waved away the man's pleading.

"And now he begs for his life," he said. "As have so many who sat at this table. They are defeated by themselves. I merely allow them to do so."

"Very interesting," Honora said. "And what would you say my chances are?"

"Unfortunately for you, the man previously seated in your position was one of my subordinates," Qiang said. "At least until he disobeyed me. I am quite aware of your tiles. Given your play so far, I do not anticipate that your situation has greatly improved since you joined us."

Honora slid another tile into the centre of the table before collecting from the wall.

"I am a little rusty," she said. "But your knowledge of the philosophy behind the game is fascinating." Armstrong grumbled contrarily and took another gulp from his bottle. "Please continue."

"Very well," Qiang said, a glimmer of satisfaction crossing his face as he played his turn. "Your desire to learn speaks well of you, Miss Blakely. I believe you studied for some years in your youth with the monks in the mountains of Wudang? This undoubtedly explains your greater education."

"You know," Honora said. "I think it just might."

"Can we get on with this?" Armstrong said, scowling as he flicked one of his tiles into the pile.

The game continued with Qiang providing an in-depth lecture on the significance of each tile and its roots in ancient Chinese culture and philosophy, interspersed with commentary on the failings of his opponents.

"But of course," he said as the game approached its conclusion, "Everything must come to an end. It has been enjoyable. Mr. Armstrong's play has somewhat improved since I explained his mistakes to him. Mr. Ling has shown admirable control and Miss Blakely can be proud of the kong and chow she is concealing, even if her chances of success would have improved had she shown greater foresight with her discards throughout the game."

"You know what they say about living and learning," Honora said, discarding the 5 Bamboo tile before collecting from the wall.

"Living may pose a particular challenge for certain amongst us going forward," Qiang said, taking his turn and watching Armstrong follow suit. "As is the case for all who find themselves here, some have come to escape their demons..." He looked across at Armstrong, "While others have come to find them again. I am afraid the object of your quest will be short-lived, Miss Blakely. I will have my men escort you out of the city once our business is concluded. Your nobility in certain defeat deserves to be rewarded. Unfortunately, as was the nature of our agreement, Mr. Ling and Mr. Armstrong must remain with me. If you try to rescue them, you may not find me as courteous as..."


The single, softly-uttered word stunned Qiang into silence. A horrified pallor settled over his face. His eyes scoured the table, seeking out the source of the unwelcome interruption.

Opposite him, Ling lowered his thirteen tiles. He had picked up Honora's 5 Bamboo to form four pungs and a pair, which now sat face up on the table for all to see.

Qiang's guards looked at each other fearfully.

"Mahjong," Ling repeated softly.

Qiang swore aggressively in Cantonese. He leapt to his feet, shoving away the table and sending tiles scattering across the floor.

"Looks a winning score," Armstrong said with considerable smugness permeating his voice.

"How is this possible?" Qiang bellowed. "You have cheated! It is the only answer! You are a cheat!"

"Your anger betrays you, Mr. Qiang," Honora said. She took note again of the position of the three guards, whose hands were inching towards the guns in their belts. "You forgot that if you were able to work out another player's tiles, someone else might have been doing the same."

She offered a reassuring smile to Ling, whose body was frozen in terror at Qiang's fury.

"I will kill you!" Qiang said, his eyes bulging as his fists slammed down on the table. "I will kill all of you! How dare you collaborate against me! Your skin will be flayed from your bones while you still breathe!"

"Not Mr. Ling," Honora said firmly. "You had a deal, after all."

Qiang glowered at her. He inhaled deeply through his flared nostrils, attempting to regain a modicum of composure.

"Of course," he said. "Not Mr. Ling. For now. He may go, but can be assured that further conversations will follow about the manner of his victory."

Qiang issued an order to one of his guards, who opened the door and dragged Ling towards it. Ling resisted, looking to Armstrong.

"Go," Armstrong said. "Leave the City with your family while you can. Qiang and I have some business to finish here."

Ling tearfully mouthed the words 'thank you' before being tugged out of the room.

"Quite right, Mr. Armstrong," Qiang said.

He clicked his fingers. One of the guards reached above the refrigerator and removed the antique sword from its mount. The two remaining guards positioned themselves behind Armstrong and Honora, preventing them from leaving their seats.

Qiang removed the sword from its sheath, revealing its long, curved blade.

"This is a piandao," he said. "A rare blade from the final years of the Ming dynasty. I am quite the talented swordsman, as you will now discover."

He moved the point of the blade back and forth between Armstrong and Honora like a child in a playground game. After six turns, the blade settled on Armstrong.

"I think in this case, it would not be the gentlemanly thing to allow the lady to go first," Qiang said. He took a step back, measuring out the death blow.

"Manners aren't usually your first concern," Armstrong said. His eyes fixed on the blade as it pressed against his neck.

Honora quietly wrapped her hand around the glass of baijiu in front of her. 

Qiang lifted the blade behind his head. The polished metal beamed in the light from the bulb dangling over the table.

"It is important to show respect to those about to die," he said. "So your enemies do not come seeking revenge in their next life. Unfortunately for you, Westerners do not believe in reincarnation."

With a flick of the wrist, Honora sent the contents of her glass splashing across the lightbulb and into Qiang's face. He shrieked as the sharp liquour stung his eyes.

The guards behind Honora and Armstrong quickly restrained them. As they did, the liquid that had struck the surface of the overheating lightbulb contracted the glass. Honora ducked as it shattered, dragging the guard behind her into the path of the piercing shards flying across the room.

The guard gasped as his neck was skewered by a glass spike. His grip around Honora's arms weakened. She pulled herself free, flipped over the table and launched an overhead kick at his head.

Armstrong caught the baijiu bottle as it was catapulted from the upended table amid a flurry of mahjong tiles. He smashed it into the face of the man behind him. 

Qiang had recovered and raised his sword for another attack. Armstrong hurled himself across the room. The two men collided and tumbled to the floor, along with the sword.

The guard by the door went for the gun at his belt. Honora grabbed it before it was out and squeezed the trigger. The man's trousers exploded in a bloody flash. With a faint squeak, his eyes rolled back and his body crumpled meekly.

She snatched up Qiang's sword. As she moved to help Armstrong, whose brawling attacks were struggling to break through Qiang's artful defences, the door at the back of the room swung open and five more gangsters poured in.

Two of them went for their guns. Honora swung the sword against the side of their weapons, disarming them. A punch swept towards her from the side. As she turned to evade it, her heel slipped in the pool of blood on the floor. The fist ploughed into her jaw. The forceful impact blinded her for an instant and suddenly her arms were locked behind her back.

Another punch rammed into her solar plexus, propelling the air from her body. As the man in front of her pulled back another punch, she launched a high kick into his chin and threw the man behind her over her shoulder in a flawlessly executed judo technique.

She had a split-second to glance towards Armstrong before being set upon again.

He was on the defensive, struggling to contain the speed and precision of Qiang's attacks. Qiang fired his outstretched fingers towards Armstrong's throat. Armstrong ducked his chin, catching the fingers before they could crush his windpipe. He grabbed Qiang's wrist and swung him around, sending him crashing into the side of the nearby refrigerator. 

A small blade slipped out of Qiang's sleeve into his free hand. He stabbed towards Armstrong's stomach. Armstrong pivoted to avoid it. The blade cut a deep gash through the side of his arm.

As Honora fended off another round of attacks, snatching up an upended chair and swinging it into the head of one of her assailants, she saw Qiang deliver a powerful roundhouse kick to Armstrong's head that sent him crashing to the floor.

Before she could do anything, a punch to the stomach sent her down as well. She landed heavily on a mess of glass splinters and mahjong tiles. A storm of hard boots began stomping into her head and body.

As she fought off as many of the bruising blows as she could, a glimpse of an exposed ankle offered a target. She kicked out towards it. There was a crunch and a scream. One of the men tumbled to the ground. She swung her foot through the back of the knee of the man to her left, taking him down. Another boot barrelled towards her head. She caught it and twisted sharply. There was another crack, another scream, followed by a third man on the floor beside her.

On the other side of the room, Qiang had retrieved his sword. He raised it above his head and ran screaming at Honora.

As his sword swung down towards her head, a chair came sliding across the floor from where Armstrong was lying. It clattered into Qiang's feet, upsetting his balance. The momentum of the diving sword took him with it. As he fell towards her, Honora snatched up a mahjong tile and flicked it into his gaping mouth. The impact of his landing forced him into a strong intake of breath. The tile went down with it, lodging in his throat. He gargled, struggling for air as he rolled helplessly on the floor. Before long, his face turned blue and all resistance ceased.

Honora punched out a recovering guard and went to help Armstrong. Gunshots tore into the walls around them as they ran for the door.

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