Chapter 16: Down the Dark Alley
Wenchang's eyes flashed like lightning as he spat, "Sirs, you control the waters of the Han, but this is not Han River. It's Red River. They don't encroach on each other. What right do you have to make any demands? Giving you thirty is already generous on my part. I could always just keep it all to myself, no problem. I'm a Fine Horse villager. I don't want our resources carted off by outsiders."
"Since Brother Cai is so insistent, without honest intentions, there's nothing further to discuss."
"If Brother Chai is not willing to negotiate, I won't force you."
"I will return and report to the manager. Please wait for our reply."
Wenchang nodded. "Please tell the manager that my stipulation is twenty/eighty, you twenty, I eighty."
This was too much for Chai Hua. He yelled and charged. "Son of a bitch! You're really…"
He shot his hand out with a violent rush of air.
The other two men followed by drawing daggers from their sleeves, flanking to the right and left.
Wenchang responded with his left palm as Chai Hua's fist approached his face at lightning speed. He ducked left and Chai Hua's fist dropped, suddenly changing to a claw to grab Wenchang's shoulder, very fast.
With all those years of practice, Chai Hua was not just fast, he was incredibly fast. But Wenchang was faster. He dashed forward, letting the clawhand pass over his shoulder as he closed in, his iron fist bolting into Chai Hua's belly.
Chai Hua's clawhand ripped the cloth at Wenchang's right shoulder.
"Ah…" Chai Hua howled as he doubled over.
Wenchang's knee came up and slammed Chai Hua in the jaw, who grunted and fell backward.
Their exchanged happened in the blink of an eye. By the time the other two men closed in Chai Hua was already on the floor. Wenchang had went easy on him. If his knee had been a foot lower, even if his groin wasn't destroyed, his guts would have been burst open.
Almost at the same time Wenchang darted to the right.
When most people used a dagger they held it with the blade facing down, unless they were specifically dueling with short weapons. Holding a knife with the blade downward made it easy to put all your strength into it, whether ambushing, attacking from behind, or in close quarters. The downside was it wasn't very versatile and the striking distance was short. Even worse was that a barehanded opponent could more easily deal with it, and if your adversary had a knife himself it was even more dangerous. The closer you were the more dangerous it was. With knives not only was it dangerous for your opponent, it was dangerous for yourself as well because you had to get in close to use a knife, and once you were in close it was difficult to dodge.
The man on the right was indeed holding his knife with the blade down. He was trying to deceive Wenchang by covering his right hand with his left, guarding against an upper body attack, obscuring the tip of the blade as he pounced, waiting until he closed in to release his dagger.
But Wenchang was pretty smart, one step ahead of him, knowing he couldn't attack while holding his hand like that. The man closed in and Wenchang abruptly dodged, planting his left foot as he kicked with his right. The man stumbled forward, having been kicked in the spine, and crashed to the floor, but he was loathe to part with the knife in his hand to catch his fall, and so the blade sank into Chai Hua's left thigh, who was already on the floor, and they both collapsed in a heap.
Chai Hua was severely injured, finding it difficult to get to his feet. His top and bottom front teeth had been knocked out and he mumbled and groaned incoherently, then yelled, "Ah… Ow! Cai, you win. If you don't let me go, you…" He blacked out, thinking Wenchang had stabbed him.
Wenchang had felled two of them so he was feeling good. He faced the last man and put his hands out in a ready stance. "If you're smart you'll be a good boy and take them and leave. That little dagger of yours is only good for slitting your own throat. Go on! Beat it!"
Chai Hua struggled to sit up. "Let's go. We'll be seeing you."
"I'll be waiting. Anytime."
The last man helped his buddies hobble out of the room. Wenchang called out behind them, "The next time you send someone, remember to bid me farewell before you go back to your Han River. Otherwise? Hmph!" He picked the dagger off the floor and flung it outside. "And take your weapons. Bring a longer one next time."
The door slammed shut. Outside Chai Hua's voice could be heard, "Remember us Han River heroes. The blue mountains abide; the green waters flow unceasing. We'll meet again."
There was still time before the meeting after seeing Bald Flood Dragon's men off. He decided to take a stroll and scope out the surroundings. He changed clothes and opened the door and went out.
There was a moon gate on the right side of the front courtyard. Two girls were walking down the footpath some distance away, their eyes fixed on him. He glanced at them but continued on his way. Those two are pretty, he thought. But unruly, not like ordinary young ladies. They're really skilled. We inexplicably came to blows, yet I don't even know their names! Seems they must be the daughters of a prominent family of the martial fraternity. Best to leave petulant girls like that alone.
He skirted to the left of the establishment and down the alley. It was dim. He was about to get out on the main street when he ran into Yu Zong, known as Third Yu, who he knew from before.
"Hey, Little brother Cai, how's it going?" Third Yu said affectionately.
Third Yu was the only one who got on well with Wenchang. This unexpected meeting was the beginning of Wenchang's formal introduction to the underworld. It was really divine will.
"Big brother Yu, best not to ask. I need to find Sickly Wuchang's men and sound them out so that I will be ready when the time comes."
"Haha! You're planning to find them on the main street?"
"Nah, Sickly Wuchang's men won't be out on the main street. Follow me, we'll find them down the little alley."
Wenchang pointed down the alley and shook his head. "Find them down there? Shit, I'm not going down there."
Third Yu laughed and pulled him along. "I know you're an honest man, but relax. You're just looking to start a fight, not seek a living. The prostitutes won't bother you. They don't accept people who are rushing around blindly. If you want to get the drop on Sickly Wuchang then you first need to learn what kind of fellows his followers are. Come on! There's nothing to worry about."
That's right, Wenchang thought. It would be good to get a look at them so he could take precautions. He asked, "Brother Yu, do you know them?"
"If I didn't would I dare beat my chest and be so confident about it to you?"
"Alright. I'll go with you to expand my horizons."
They entered the dark little alley. It was so narrow only three people could walk side by side, and the buildings were so packed together the eaves seemed to link up so that it was dim even during the daytime. This was a daylight den of iniquity.
The decorated lanterns were not yet lit so there were few people out. After all, Fine Horse Village was really small. Aside from the traveling merchants taking up lodging in the evening, the locals didn't dare show themselves in public here in broad daylight, fearing their reputations. There were some who ventured out; these were the out of control scoundrels and ruffians. Generally speaking, those who came through here during the day were hardened gamblers, some even taking gambling as their profession. In reality, gambling was tied to prostitution. Those who won a little would show their respects to the whores.
The alley soon broke off to the left and they officially entered the inner circle of hell.
Third Yu pointed things out to Wenchang in a low voice as they walked, explaining the names of the owners of the buildings with unlocked doors, from which came the indistinct sounds of people talking, as well as who the bodyguards and other thugs were. They came to an entrance from which hung a red lantern. He climbed the steps and said softly, "This is the gambling house Spirit Fox Li Peijie manages. On the right is a den of beautiful ladies. In the back there's a hidden door. Spirit Fox runs that too. There are frequent quarrels. Pull your turban down some. Let's go!"
They walked singlefile as Third Yu pushed the wooden door open. He smiled and called out to the shadows, "Second brother, is Fourth Ge busy? My friend here would like to pay his respects."
There was no response from the shadows, but Third Yu was not waiting for a response. He pulled Wenchang by the lapel and hauled him inside and shut the door.
It was a small room lit by a single lamp. Hot, stuffy air seeped through the passageways on either side, and noisy voices could be heard from within as well.
Wenchang followed Third Yu through the right where he could just make out two rows of armchairs, where two dark figures were reclining, their feet propped up in another chair, their eyes shining, staring at Third Yu and Wenchang's every move like two leopards eyeing their prey. It was oppressive under the dim light.
This was the lounge, stocked with rows of chairs. A few drunks and broke gamblers reclined in the chairs, hemming and hawing while several big ungainly men walked back and forth handing out cloths and serving tea.
Third Yu whispered in his ear, "Pay attention to that bare-chested guy on the far right. He's Spirit Fox's nephew, Li Bensheng, called Walking Retribution. He killed a man in Xi'an prefecture and fled here to work his evil. He's strong as an ox and merciless. Anyone foolish enough to cause trouble here is done for."
Wenchang's vision was sharp. He could make out every detail even in this dim light. Walking Retribution was huge, about eight and a half spans tall, stripped to the waist with a chestful of curly hair. His arms were thick fence posts. One look and you could tell he was brave and strong. A small lad running into this huge mountain of man was already mentally defeated. He leaned against a wooden support column which seemed barely able to support his massive weight.
Third Yu led him through the hallway and across a tiny courtyard. "On the right is the brothel, on the left and in the back are the gambling facilities. The one on the left is for small bets. In back they use gold instead of copper cash. Little brother, are you headed to the left? Or the right? When young men are full of vigor they should guard against fighting.1 That's wrong. It ought to say to guard against visiting brothels. Any young man need only visit three times and he will be hooked and unable to tear himself away until he runs of out money. Then there's no telling what could happen. I hope you won't push open the door on the right. What do you say?"
"Are there a lot of thugs through the right?" Wenchang said.
"If there were wouldn't that spoil all the fun? There's more in back. People can get quite irascible when they've just lost all their money. People are needed nearby to keep an eye on things."
Wenchang stepped into the courtyard and headed toward the hubbub emanating from the rear compound.
He brushed open the curtain. Inside was brightly lit and loud among the din, people gathered in eight clumps.
The room had doors and windows on three sides and a passageway outside where several people were taking a breather. All the way in the back was a long counter where several men handled the cashing-in and converting of gold and silver and other precious items, guarded by three bare-chested men leaning before the counter, each wearing a sharp ox-ear sabre in a scabbard on his belt.
Two bare-chested men guarded each of the four doors. There were eight tables with bare-chested men standing guard scattered around them. The gambling equipment was quite simple, the tables just covered with a cloth. Dice jumped about in bowls, the crisp clanging mesmerizing in the gamblers' ears. A non-gambler wouldn't understand just how enchanting it could be.
There were too many people here so their arrival did not attract much attention. But the two men guarding the door noticed Third Yu. The man with the bushy brows and big eyes on the right bellowed, "Master Yu, returning to win back your money? You've got guts! Eh! This… This guy is…" He pointed at Wenchang, looking surprised.
Wenchang chuckled. "I'm just here to spend money. Don't get so worked up."
"You… You look very familiar," the man said.
Wenchang usually never wore any headcovering at the smithy, but he was wearing a teal turban today, so he looked a bit different. No wonder the man didn't completely recognize him.
Afraid the man would see through him, he went on over to the nearest table.
"Who is that man?" the man asked Third Yu.
"A very wealthy man. Brother, don't get all worked up." Third Yu turned to leave.
"You bring him here?" the man asked.
"No, he followed me," Third Yu said calmly.
Wenchang went to the nearest table and squeezed himself in to blend in with the crowd. Just then a man at the opposite table leapt onto the table and held up three dice to another man and roared, "You f*cking son of a bitch, these dice are rigged and no one's said a word!"
The guy's voice was so loud all eyes turned to him. Those close to the table looked outward as six or so bare-chested men pushed their way through the crowd in a hurry.
The crowd made way, except for Wenchang who stood firm, not moving. Soon he was just another one of the spectators.
This comes from a passage in Confucius' Analects: "Confucius said, 'There are three things which the superior man guards against. In youth, when the physical powers are not yet settled, he guards against lust. When he is strong and the physical powers are full of vigor, he guards against quarrelsomeness. When he is old, and the animal powers are decayed, he guards against covetousness.'” ↩