When Old Friends Meet
November 1925, Beijing, China
As the train slowly made its way into the railway station, the passengers at the platform began to crowd, resulting in a good deal of jostling, elbowing and pushing.
Many were pacing up and down, with others sitting on benches smoking or reading newspapers. Coolies were running about with big bundles of luggage on their backs, while children, intimidated by the hustle and bustle of the place, clung to their mothers. Almost everyone wore jackets or coats – the morning was miserably cold, which heightened their impatience to enter the warmth of the compartments as quickly as possible.
Among the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd was Jake Lone. There was a disapproving frown on his chiselled face. The maddening swarm of people didn’t appeal to the ex-hit-man at all, nor was he keen on some idiot with a lit cigarette burning a hole in his brand new overcoat. And he definitely wasn’t a great fan of trains.
Yet he had to be here this morning. His best friend and business partner, Tong Wing-mun, or Mun Gor as he was fond of calling him, was arriving from Shanghai. And his chauffeur had to be sick today of all days.
When the train stopped, he nipped over to the first-class compartment, shoving his way to the front of the mob. And there he waited. At six foot one, a stature doubtlessly inherited from his lanky English father, the 32-year-old well-muscled and good-looking Eurasian man clearly stood out from the rest.
A minute later, Wing-mun emerged from the door with his two burly bodyguards, one of them carrying his luggage – a wiry fellow, his thin face was marred on the right side where he had been slashed during a gang fight, leaving him with two permanent scars. He was shaven-headed with the eyes of a triumphant rat. His white pinstriped suit, fedora, and expensive jewelry added to the image of a big time gangster. For that’s exactly who he was – a crime czar who ruled the Shanghai underworld.
Jake waved at him. His buddy, senior to him by five years, acknowledged him with a big smile that showcased his large yellow teeth.
“Bloody hell, Jake,” Wing-mun said, as they gave each other a brotherly hug, “why don’t you get a woman?”
Jake was baffled. “I beg your pardon?” he asked.
“You need to get yourself a woman, you dead-stick!”
“But I’ve already got Ah Ying to take care of me,” Jake replied, referring to his housekeeper.
“Don’t talk rubbish, Jake. You know what I mean.”
“Err … actually I don’t. Please impart your knowledge to me, O great one.”
“You were still a bloody widower the last time I checked.”
Jake’s wife, Mei-suet, had died of heart disease some years ago. The aftermath of her death had been trying for the two men. Jake became a suicidal maniac, first attempting to jump off a cliff to end his misery. Fortunately, a tree broke his fall – someday this will make a great joke, he would say later. Then he tried killing himself with a gun. But on each occasion, Wing-mun had been there to save him. Jake’s death wish did not sit well with the crime lord, so he took it upon himself to watch over the broken-hearted man. He had only returned to his turf in Shanghai after he was certain Jake had successfully licked his depression. Thereafter they would meet in Beijing every month and booze it up at the nightclub. It seemed that Wing-mun was more than a friend; he was Jake’s savior. And today, as he descended from the train, Jake thought his partner was planning to be his matchmaker as well.
As soon as they stepped out of the station, Wing-mun saw the sun had just begun to shine over the mountains. And the air came fresh from the east. He thought it was a lovely morning and decided to take a stroll before getting into Jake’s car.
“But it’s freezing out here,” Jake said.
“You’re letting a little cold get to you?” the crime czar scoffed. “Come on, walk with me. I want to stretch my legs; I’ve been sitting in the train the whole bloody night.”
With the guards following them at a distance, the two friends made their way to a nearby park and walked along the gravel path. Wing-mun did not utter one single word in all that time. Neither did Jake. This was getting awkward. Someone had to make some kind of move. The gangster gave in at last.
“So, did Mr Anderson confirm the order?” he asked.
“Yeah, he signed the contract two days ago,” Jake replied. “Barring any unforeseen circumstances, our first consignment of green tea will be ready for shipment to his London warehouse on the last week of this month. Thereafter, the delivery will be on a bi-weekly basis, as per his instructions.”
“That’s good. Can the production cope?”
“No problem. We are working on Sundays now.”
“Excellent. With you at the helm, the company will have another profitable year.”
After that they became silent once more. Only the noisy twittering which the birds wanted to call sweet chirping could be heard.
When they approached the pond, Wing-mun stopped and asked, “Any regrets becoming a businessman?”
Jake smiled. “No, I am busy all day which is a good thing; it keeps my mind sharp and fresh.”
“Busy all day, huh? What about evenings?”
Wing-mun appeared horrified. Or was he feigning? – Jake couldn’t tell. “What? When did a notorious hit-man like you turn into a stodgy book lover?”
“A former hit-man,” Jake corrected him. “And we’re living in a brave new world. Things change. People change.”
The crime boss kept quiet and continued walking. Ten paces later, he stopped once more, lit a cigarette, and looked Jake in the eye. “You need to get your crown jewels up and kicking again, for God’s sake!”
“My crown jewels are fine, Mun Gor,” Jake insisted. There was a pause. “It’s just that I’m still very much in mourning.”
“Oh, stop taking me for a fool! It’s been three years!”
“Thirty-two months to be exact,” Jake corrected him again.
“Whatever,” the gangster shrugged. “Wear your best tonight. We’re going to paint the town red.”
“Sure thing, Mun Gor,” Jake said. On one hand he was relieved when Wing-mun changed the subject; he didn’t feel comfortable talking about his non-existent love life. On the other hand, he groaned because he was getting fed up of their usual rendezvous: The Paramount Nightclub. With its usual weird characters and perfume-choking harlots all cramped together with blaring music, this entertainment outlet was no different from a chaotic, smelly street market.
He was about to suggest another place more to his liking when Wing-mun uttered, “Let’s go to Eve’s Garden for a change.”
Praise the Lord – Jake’s prayers were answered. “You mean that classy social club at Upper Beijing Road?” he asked. “I heard it is exclusively for Caucasians.”
“And for rich Chinese scoundrels like us,” Wing-mun added. “I tell you, this is the ideal place to make new friends.”
“The opposite sex sort.”
Jake winced. “Let’s just watch an opera instead, Mun Gor.”
“Oh no, you don’t!” the gangster barked, his high-pitched tone making him sound like a female dog in heat. “You’re not weaseling out of this one. Hey look, Jake, I don’t want to see you sad any more. You’ve got to start rising above your sorrow. So the way I see it, now is the perfect time for you to go back to what you were before you met your wife.”
“You mean, a hit-man?”
“No, a bloody philanderer.”