“A lifetime of women. A man’s strengths can be measure by his appetites. Indeed, a man’s strength flows from his appetites…”
Oh, no. They are my daughters… And also, they are my most personal guard.
I admire your judgment. Nobody’s as loyal as daddy’s little girl.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
The junk crossed the last mile of moon-lit water, sailing past the dark stone shape of the typhoon shelter. The only sounds during the journey from the island had been the slap of the waves on the wooden hull, the snap of the canvas sail. The three passengers stayed silent, each lost in their own thoughts. Nor were any verbal exchanges necessary. It felt like the little vessel knew its own way back from the jetty on Han’s island to the floating township in the waters off Aberdeen Harbour.
Now the junk eased its way between the slow, black, crowblack shapes of the fishing boats bobbing at anchor. The familiar homeward scents of cooking wafted down from the warm glow of the decks. Chinese Opera music played from tinny speakers, there was the staccato clack-clack of mahjong tiles. Somewhere a dog barked in its dreams. Aberdeen Harbour was home to generations of mainly Hakka Chinese fisherfolk, some of whom rarely set foot on dry land.
Ruby sat in the bow, looking up at the dark vessels they moved beneath. The night sky was clear, the stars scattered and bright, and a sickle moon turned the sea white. The prow of the junk cut its way through the water like a knife through silk.
Further off, the faint neon from the Aberdeen shoreline was visible, behind and to the right of the boat loomed the garishly lit form of the famed Jumbo restaurant.
Ruby looked back at the lean figure of her sister Jade, seated at the tiller of the small vessel. Her elder sibling was always so calm, so confident. Ruby had no idea if Jade had even thought of a plan beyond their docking safely in Aberdeen. The older girl always gave the impression that all things were proceeding according to a plan known to her alone.
The third inhabitant of the vessel, Topaz, sat against the wooden hull, legs folded in meditative position, eyes closed. Ruby had no idea what Topaz was thinking. She wondered if anyone ever did. Turning back to the black, floating hulks, each within the invisible water lines marking their berth, Ruby let her mind drift back to when everything she knew had changed.
From as far back she could remember, her father had held his martial arts tournament on his island. She did not have sufficient experience of other parents in other places to wonder if this kind of grandiose happening was unusual, or to know how few children grew up with fathers who had their own island homes. The tournaments, held every three years, were always a time of excited anticipation for Ruby and her sisters. The events were like a whirlwind shaking the bars of their gilded cage. Strangers from afar visited the island. There were banquets, Lion Dancers, martial arts exhibitions…
Sometimes the girls were even allowed to watch from the palace windows as the combatants dueled on the tournament grounds. After each event, there might be a couple of new faces in her father’s retinue. The hulking Bolo. The loyal Wong Lung. And Oharra, the sneering American, who had one day returned to the island with a scar bisecting the left side of his face, the cause of which none dared ask. Some tournaments yielded no new residents and life soon returned to normal on Han’s Island.
The last tournament had caused shock waves that unsettled even the ornate halls of Ruby and her sisters. The contestants included a Chinese, Lee. From a palace window, a hand maiden had watched as Lee killed Oharra. A guard had hinted to her that this was settlement of some personal grudge between the two men. Someone had been seen prowling the grounds at night, they said, and Ruby’s father had ordered his enforcer, Bolo, to crush the incompetent guards, as an example to the others. On what was meant to be the last day of that year’s tournament, an American fighter had managed to kill the massive Bolo, and then, from their secluded chambers, the daughters had heard the sounds of a pitched battle on the fields below.
As ever, Jade had acted as though receiving instructions only she could hear. She had organized the daughters of Han, split them into groups, and then sent them out through the palace to do their duty. If there was a viable threat, they were to find their father and protect him. If necessary, they should accompany him as he escaped from the island.
A tense, focused Jade had chosen the nervous Ruby and the preternaturally calm Topaz to follow her. The trio raced down the palace halls towards their father’s weapons room, turning a corner to find a hall way full of wild-eyed, dark clothed strangers. All these men turned hungry eyes on the three women, who were still clad in their usual discreet finery. The male intruders approached like wolves long denied meat. Not taking her eyes off the nearest of the strangers, Jade signaled to Ruby and Topaz.
Moving as one, the three women slid into action. Jade took two fast steps, and was suddenly in flight, catching a man’s neck between her shins, snapping it as she twisted through the air. The intruder’s body flipped forward to lie still, broken. Two other men accosted Ruby, who slid into remote control mode, watching her attackers move in what seemed to her like slow motion. Ruby executed a throat punch and, as the recipient knelt, drowning in his own blood, she connected with the temple of another, using the metallic tip of her slipper, feeling the sound of his skull cracking like ice on a lake thawing in Springtime.
Wary now, three other male intruders snatched up improvised weapons and advanced on Topaz. With a shrugging motion, she lifted the sleeves of her dress to reveal daggers attached to leather bands wrapped around her elbows. Topaz span forward, dancing her way through her attackers, leaving their blood floating in the air behind her, like ticker tape drifting from an ocean liner.
The three girls reached the far end of the hall alive, with everyone behind them now dead or dying. Jade’s eyes flicked left, right, then met those of her comrades. Both her sisters were uninjured.
Jade signaled for them to take positions on either side of the door as she slid into the weapons room. Silence. After a beat, Ruby asked “Jade…?” But Jade was already back in front of her, her expression tense, eyes reflecting dark things seen but left unsaid.
“We have to leave here,” Jade said, surprisingly calmly. “Now.”
Jade and Topaz exchanged glances. It was as though they shared a secret still kept from Ruby.
“I’ll explain later,” Jade said, as she pulled Ruby away. “There’s no time.”
As they raced down the corridor, all three heard the thunder of helicopters overhead.
“The jetty?” It was the first time Topaz had spoken since the girls left their chambers.
Jade nodded. “Yes, but we’ll need to drift away like ghosts. Someone will be watching…”
A British army sergeant lowered his binoculars.
“It’s just one of the island’s fishing junks. No-one aboard.” He turned to his superior officer. “Must have got cut loose during the fighting.”
Colonel Clark considered this for a moment. Might there yet be things of value in the vessel’s hold? Inwardly, he cursed the commanding officer who had decided to stage a helicopter assault on the island, rather than an amphibious beach landing. They had no vessels in the water with which to corral an errant junk.
“Later for that, then.” The sergeant put the binoculars back in their holster. “Let’s see what’s on the ground.” The Colonel turned to walk towards the palace. “Or under it.” There were reports of an underground lair, one that would hide the true nature of Han’s island.
As the sun began to lower, the junk bobbed out on the tide, drawn to the mouth of the natural harbor that allowed vessels a calm approach to the island.
Jade, Ruby and Topaz were all floating beside the junk, holding onto ropes that trailed into the water. Jade had led the way down through the jagged rocks to the vessel, one of several moored near the jetty.
While the others crouched, looking up to the tournament fields from their hiding places, Topaz used her elbow blade to cut the boat loose from its moorings. From their viewpoints, the girls saw a third helicopter land on the grass of the tournament arena. There was the crack of gunfire, and flashes of movement between the stone walls surrounding the fields. Men in blue uniforms were herding other men in white and black outfits.
“Let’s go.” Jade led the way, slipping into the water as they enacted the hurriedly shared plan she had communicated as the trio made their way down from the palace.
With most of their bodies hidden by the water, the three girls had floated out to sea, hanging on to the side of the vessel. Jade had insisted that they wait until the junk had drifted around the headland before they clambered aboard. The sun was now low in the sky. Jade and Ruby shivered in the cold, but Topaz seemed immune to it. Unbidden, she had taken first watch on the tiller of the junk, steering it North from the island, bound for the distant lights of Hong Kong.
They found that the boatmen had left two spare uniforms in a compartment below the stern. The outfits were black and tolerable clean, they smelled no more or less of salt and fish than the rest of the vessel. There was also a rough blanket, which Jade draped around Topaz’s shoulders.
“An hour if the wind holds.” Topaz had glanced up at the broad sail, and the few first stars of evening twinkling in a clear sky. “Perhaps a little less.”
“You know where we should go?” Ruby instinctively looked to Jade for a decision.
“No.” Jade sat back, trying to regard Ruby reassuringly. “I guess I have a little less than an hour to think of something.”
Topaz glanced back at the expanse of darkening sea and sky behind them.
“You think they’ll come after us?” she asked Jade.
“The British?” Jade shrugged. “First they have to find out we’re missing, then they have to decide if we’re important. They won’t spend too much time searching for a junk. Not after they find what’s down in the caverns.”
“Will Papa come for us?” This from Ruby.
Jade held Ruby’s gaze for a moment, then looked beyond her to where Topaz listened at the tiller.
“No.” She took a breath. “Papa’s dead, Ruby.”
Ruby’s eyes widened. How could something that changed the whole world be stated so plainly? Like all the daughters of Han, she had revered her father above all men. With his brow like Shakespeare and his smile like Saturn, he had been the sun source of life on his island. Whatever a Daughter knew, he had taught her. Whatever a Daughter owned, he had given her. Whatever Papa commanded, a Daughter would obey.
“You saw him?”
Jade nodded, then, before Ruby could ask her next question “Don’t ask me more.” Jade shook her head. “Don’t ever ask me more.”
Ruby took this in, and then the first tear of many traversed her cheek. “So we’re alone, then…”
Jade took her hand for a moment. “We’re not alone, Ruby. We have each other.” Ruby wept, Topaz just closed her eyes in some kind of silent prayer. “We’ll always have each other.”
When the first wave of grief had passed, Ruby felt her spirit settle into a dull, throbbing sadness, like the pain from something broken inside.
Jade spelled Topaz at the tiller and, knowing Ruby lacked even rudimentary knowledge of seamanship, steered the vessel for the rest of the journey from Han’s island to Aberdeen Harbour.
“This is what we have so far, sir.” An adjutant passed a clipboard to Clark. The British Army Colonel had taken over the palace’s banquet hall as his command centre. Things had calmed since his helicopter division had made its landing, but there was still a sense of activity in the halls and chambers of this vast pleasure dome. How had this man Han built such a palace beneath the noses of a British colonial government?
Colonel Clark gave the sheet of paper a cursory glance. “So what are we looking at?” He had instinctively taken for himself the room’s central throne, and his underlings stood beneath him like courtiers making obeisance to a king.
“We have the surviving black shirts and white shirts corralled. As far as we can tell, the white shirts worked here, and the others were being held prisoner.”
“Prisoners? That many? For what purpose?”
“To test the opium, apparently. Among other things.”
“What other things?”
“I talked to the FADE agent Braithwaite managed to place here. One ‘Mei Ling’. She says that this Han ran a pretty brutal school of martial arts. The graduation exercise was that you hunted and killed another human being.”
“The most dangerous game, eh?” Clark snorted. “Was there any vice this man wasn’t involved in?”
Taking this to be rhetorical, the adjutant continued. “Then there are the tournament competitors. Some of them were killed in the melee, some before. We found the remains of an American, an African-American, in the caverns.”
“An American?” Colonel Clark shook his head. “That’s all we need.”
“And there’s a fellow called Parsons, demanding to see the New Zealand consul.”
“Palace servants. Banquet performers. About two dozen, uh, comfort women.” Clark raised an eyebrow at this. “And then there are these other women, who seem to live here but not work here.”
“Really? This Han had his own private harem?”
“Apparently not. They say they’re his daughters…”
“His daughters?” Just when it seemed this island couldn’t possibly hold any more surprises. “How many of them are there?” asked Clark.
The adjutant looked down at his hastily written notes.
“Eight.” He looked up at the Captain. “And three of them are missing.”
Numb, her body still chilled from the seawater, Ruby sat back against the hull, eyes closed, her mind drifting with the current, back to the palace, and the only life she had ever known.
The Daughters had been woken each day by a caged songbird, one trained to herald the morning. On rising, they bathed together in one of the palace’s indoor pools, pale figures in the steam, the light channeled down from narrow openings high on the wall.
Dressed in their morning practice uniforms, the Daughters would file out onto the training platform. It was wooden, like the unmoving deck of a ship, shadowed by the ancient trees that ringed the palace. It offered a view of the green training areas and the tournament fields that led down, tier by tier, to the stone docks, and the sea beyond.
On the grass courts, the white-clad students trained under the watchful eyes of their instructors, all of whom wore yellow outfits to signify their rank. The students, all male, were housed in Spartan dormitories on the other side of the palace. Recruited from the desperate poor, these youngsters lived lives of sacrifice, denial and pain. They ate what they were given, slept when they were told and attempted what they were asked. They stretched their bodies until tears came, drove their hands into gravel until they became calloused and unfeeling.
Though these men rarely saw women, except on rare, wild excursions to Hong Kong, they knew better than to cast even a single glance towards the Daughters up on the platform, their soft silk robes floating in the morning breeze.
Han himself, when available, and one of his island’s senior students, when not, would lead the Daughters through their morning practice. It wasn’t until her early teens that Ruby saw a man who was not her father up close. Han’s left hand was a prosthetic. Ruby had previously believed all men had only a right hand, while all women had two. For this kind of martial arts play, Han would replace his missing limb with a wooden one. Its articulated fingers moved like those of a marionette beneath the strings of a skillful puppeteer.
The morning practice sessions always followed the same course. Chen Tai Chi Old Frame flowed into Hung Gar Tiger and Crane into Wing Chun’s Bridge Hands into the circular steps of Pakua. After the unison forms routine, the Daughters would pair up to practice empty hand techniques, taking turns to attack and defend. Each session finished with each Daughter practicing with the weapon of their choice. For Ruby, a pair of broad-bladed butterfly knives. For Jade, an elegant straight sword. For Topaz, the close range knives inside her sleeves, weapons that could be detached and thrown as needed.
When he supervised the morning sessions, Papa drifted among the girls, amending a hand position, correcting an angle of attack or deflection, always with a smile and a gentle word of encouragement. Ruby didn’t think she had ever heard her father raise his voice. All the Daughters looked to their father as a symbol of strength, his restrained power, literally, an iron fist in a velvet glove.
After the morning practice session, the daughters would bath again, some of them would be massaged by the palace woman servants assigned to those duties. Once changed into their usual daily ware, the sisters would proceed to the Hall of Rest and Study. There they would spend their hours in self-cultivation, reading, sewing, playing traditional Chinese stringed instruments.
Of their number, two would be selected for the cherished duty of accompanying their father on his various duties. His most personal guard, their grace and beauty was their weapon. No-one would see Oharra or Bolo as anything but thugs. No-one would consider the young women to left and right of Han a threat. Until it was too late.
If he was not otherwise engaged, Papa would visit with his girls. Sometimes he would read to them from some classic text, sometimes they to him. One Daughter might play the erh hu, the plaintive Chinese violin. Ruby had learned calligraphy from her father, watching his brush trace elegant lines across the paper, lines that seemed to stretch back through the years to days and empires long gone.
Some evenings, Han would order an ancient film projector brought to the banquet hall, and they would watch black and white movies together. His favorite was ‘Lost Horizon’, the tale of travellers from the west who find themselves in a hidden Himalayan kingdom. It had occurred to Ruby that her father saw their palace in the same way, a quiet retreat from the loud, modern world beyond.
Why would white men in helicopters and guns have felt they had a right to invade the island and destroy all that its master had built?
In the Kowloon offices of FADE (Far Asian Data Engineers), Mr. Braithwaite gently placed the ‘phone back in its cradle. He sat back and exhaled, slowly. All things considered, all had gone well. Operation Dragon had achieved its objective. Mr. Han was dead. His underworld empire destroyed. The guilty were dead or in chains, the innocent saved. All was right with the world, except…
Braithwaite looked at the man sitting patiently on the far side of his desk. This piece of furniture was easily large enough to function as an Olympic sized table tennis table, if one had a mind to play. Pixton regarded Braithwaite evenly. Both men looked like exactly what they were, two European colonials hanging on to the last edge of empire.
Braithwaite was slightly heavier, his hair thinner and he had a clipped military moustache. His English diction was such that he might as easily have been reading the weather report as discussing intelligence issues. Pixton was slender, apart from the slight pot belly, clean-shaven. His suits always fit slightly better than Braithwaite’s, even though they shared the same tailor.
The other real difference between the two men was that, while Braithwaite worked in the private sector, Pixton was a British civil servant. This meant that Braithwaite actually had to achieve results. FADE acted as gatherers of information, evidence upon which interested parties can act. In the case of Operation Dragon, that ‘interested party’ had been the British government.
“That was Colonel Clark. He’s still on the island, apparently.”
“So what did they find there?”
Braithwaite stood up, his knees creaking, then crossed the room to the drinks cabinet. “What didn’t they find…” He raised an eyebrow and a glass in Pixton. “Drink?”
“Whatever you’re having. And what about that freelancer you found? That Chinese chap?”
“Lee? Bloody well disappeared.”
“But he’s alive?”
“As far as we know.” Braithwaite expressed his displeasure by rattling ice cubes and spraying soda. “The American, Roper, says he saw him after all the big brawl had rather died down. Says he looked up at our choppers landing, and, when he looked down again, Lee had vanished.”
“Back to that Shaolin Temple place?”
Braithwaite shook his head as he set a whiskey and soda in front of Pixton. “Not as yet. We sent a man over there to ask questions. Turns out Lee had an elderly retainer at the temple. The old man said he hadn’t seen or heard from him.”
“What kind of monk has a manservant?”
“And hair.” Braithwaite shrugged as he resumed his seat. “More hair than me, anyway.” He took a ruminative sip of his drink. “Apparently Lee’s a lay monk.”
“And what’s that? A monk who gets laid?”
“Who knows? And who cares?” Braithwaite shook his head. Loose ends. Who needed them? “If he ever surfaces, we’ll want to debrief him, and probably your mob will want to give him some kind of medal.”
“Possibly.” Pixton, ever the government functionary, was non-committal.
“And if he doesn’t, good luck to him. Seems like he’s been through hell.” Braithwaite indicated the sheets in front of him. “Clark tells me it was a bloodbath over there. Han is dead, by the way, run through by a bloody spear. Most of his key personnel were killed, and then there are all these random Chinese, hard to tell which was which. Confusingly, it seems the good guys were wearing the black pyjamas…”
Pixton got to his feet, turned the sheet of paper around towards himself. “One dead American. The cousins won’t be happy.”
“Yes. Williams. African American. Apparently he and Roper were close. War buddies. Vietnam, you know. Roper insisted on flying his remains home, back to Kentucky.”
“They have African Americans in Kentucky?”
Braithwaite flipped the file shut. “They had one, at least.”
Pixton set his glass down on the desk. “Sounds like you pretty much have things squared away, Geoffrey. Well done.” He reached for his coat. “Fancy a quick one at the FCC?”
“Sounds like a plan.” Braithwaite stood, and turned off his desk lamp. “Oh, yes, well, there was one other thing. The women.”
“Right. Han had quite the harem, didn’t he?”
Braithwaite shook his head. “Would that it was so simple…” He ticked the categories off on his fingers. “He had female servants, concubines, prostitutes to entertain the competitors in his tournament of martial arts. And then there were these daughters…”
Braithwaite shoveled documents into his worn leather briefcase and snapped it shut.
“Apparently he set great store by them. Had one wing of the palace to house his girls, who were also his most personal guard.”
Pixton shrugged. “So what’s the problem? Just question all those Little Miss Hans, then lock then up at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.”
“That’s exactly what we planned to do. But somehow three of them went missing.” Braithwaite shut his desk drawer, locked it and pocketed the key. “Three of the daughters. ‘Jade’, ‘Ruby’ and ‘Topaz’, if you can believe those names. Colonel Clark checked everyone on the island and they’re not among the living nor the dead.”
Pixton considered this. “So they somehow got off the island. So what? What’s three more loose women in this city? You’ll have enough to do logging everything they found in Han’s fortress.”
“Quite so.” Braithwaite opened the door to let Pixton leave first. “But one does so hate to leave any loose ends.”
Ruby was stirred from her reverie by the cessation of movement, the bump of the junk’s hull against car tyres repurposed as a barrier between vessels and the stone of the harbor wall. Jade, back at the helm, had piloted the boat so that it lay adjacent to a rusted metal ladder that sprouted from the stone, stained green by the sea.
The three girls exchanged glances. Jade nodded to Topaz. From where she sat, cross-legged, Topaz got to her feet, effortlessly, as though lifted by an invisible wire. Like a cat, she leapt to the metal stairs and up towards the harborside.
Jade and Ruby waited for a moment, looking up until the figure of Topaz slid back into view above them. She gestured. All clear.
“After you.” In response to Jade’s order, Ruby climbed the metal ladder herself. Topaz reached down to pull her up over the edge.
Straightening, Ruby looked around. The docks were quiet in the darkness. A couple of staggering drunks. Neon glowing through the haze. A red taxi traversed an otherwise deserted road.
When Ruby turned back, Jade was already standing behind her on the harborfront.
“So where do we go now?” Ruby asked her.
“Somewhere safe.” Jade did her own survey of the area. “I have a place in mind. It’s on Kowloonside”
“Great. And how do we get there?”
“Taxi. Through the cross harbor tunnel.”
Ruby raised an eyebrow. “There’s a tunnel from here to the mainland?”
“Just opened this year. Luckily for us.”
“Because it’s quicker?”
“Because, if anyone is looking for us, it’s better if we’re seen by just one pair of eyes. One driver, one risk.” Jade turned to Topaz. “Sorry, sis. You better lose the elbow blades, just in case we get stopped.”
Topaz considered this, shrugged, then slipped the weapons off her arms and dropped them into the dark waters of the harbor. The blades slipped out of sight.
Ruby glanced down at the junk. “What do we do about the boat?
Jade hesitated, and then threw the vessel’s mooring line out into the darkness. “Just let it go, Ruby.”
“But it belonged to Papa…” she protested
“So did we,” said Topaz, quietly. “Now it’s time for us to drift away too.”
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